The History of Hell

For the last three weeks, I’ve been preaching about ideas. More specifically, about the endless deluge of ideas with which we are constantly presented in this day and age. Some of these ideas are good and beneficial to our lives and our faith, but some of them are not so much. For three Sundays now, we’ve been examining how to tell the difference between the two. So we took a look at some general principles and the idea that all we need to get to heaven is some key bit of knowledge, as John outlined in 1 John 4:1-6. Then we examined the idea of tolerance, discovering that we are never to judge non-believers who can’t know or understand what God expects or desires while simultaneously challenging those who claim to know Jesus to abandon sin and grow in grace. And last week, we dug into an idea which I believe is at the root of a vast array of society’s problems: that people have no value and are thus disposable. Each of these things was inspired by headlines that I found recently in the news. But with two weeks left in the series “Will It Blend?” we’re finally getting to the reason why I wanted to speak about ideas in the first place.

Back before Christmas, while I was planning my sermon calendar for the first part of 2011, I stumbled across an article that said that 20% of Christians believe in reincarnation. It was a striking discovery, and I still remember reading the statement three or four times to make sure I was reading it right. I mean, while I can certainly appreciate the appeal of reincarnation – the idea that you get a second, third, fourth, or thousandth chance to live right is pretty cool! – I had never realized that one in five Christians had tried to incorporate the notion into their faith. But as the months have passed since I decided to discuss the idea, I’ve been compelled to recognize that the problem is even more profound than I had originally thought.

I have become convinced that there is a critical amount of misunderstanding about the nature of life – and the afterlife – in the Church.

This conclusion has reinforced for me over the last few weeks as I’ve monitored the reaction to Rob Bell’s upcoming book, and it was driven home earlier this week when I read a post by Keith Drury which told of a survey he conducted in one of his classes at Indiana Wesleyan University – a resoundingly evangelical school. In one of his freshman classes, Drury asked students if there was a literal hell where people go and are punished. A resounding majority agreed that hell is real. But, as Drury writes, “less than 10% could name three living people who they thought might actually go to hell.” Of course, the students could name a few dead people that were probably in hell (e.g., Adolph Hitler), but they couldn’t think of anyone that they knew who was currently bound for hell. And then, Drury asked how many of the students had ever heard a sermon developing the idea of hell, and exactly two people raised their hands.

Clearly, we need to do a better job explaining hell.

So this week and next, we’re going to be looking at a number of the ideas that this world is teaching us about hell, heaven, and how significant our decisions and actions in this life are in the eternal scheme of things. It is my sincere hope that we’ll be able to smack down some of the misconceptions, explore the Biblical truth, and uncover some of the ramifications of it all.

One of the first things that I discovered in preparing for these next two messages, though, was that there is a significant jump in Biblical teachings about hell between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the afterlife is presented primarily in two words. The first, Sheol, is portrayed as a sort of waiting room where souls wait unconsciously for the resurrection at the end of time. The second, Ben Hinnom, is reference to the valley outside of Jerusalem where human sacrifices were once done to pagan gods and, later, everything unclean was dumped to be burned in a fire that just burned all the time. In the New Testament, however, Jesus warns as early as Matthew 5:22 that those who don’t control their temper “will be in danger of the fire of hell.” And in Luke 16, when telling the story of Lazarus, Jesus refers to hell as a place of everlasting torment and apparently assumes that everyone else understands what he’s talking about.

Finding an explanation for this dramatic jump in doctrines has proven rather difficult, and the fact that Jewish teachings on heaven and hell are splintered at best makes it even more so. But I have discovered that, while the majority of Jews thought of Gehinnom as something of a forge where impurities were removed in preparation for the soul’s ultimate ascent to the Garden of Eden, there was also a common understanding that unequivocally evil people would end up staying there, forever destroyed. So the concept of hell was certainly familiar to Jesus’ Jewish listeners. They knew of the concept, and they assumed it was true.

Nevertheless, Jesus and the Christians after Him did reveal three revolutionary ideas about hell which actually build upon one another. The first is that it’s not a temporary thing. Once you’re there, you’re there. The second is that, since we’re all sinners, we are all bound for hell. There is no middle ground. And the third is that there is one – and only one – way to avoid hell: faith in Jesus Christ.

We’re going to be talking about these things in more depth tomorrow. But I wanted to share the basic concepts that I’ve uncovered in my research this week because there are a lot of ideas which continue to bounce around Twitter, Google News, and the blogosphere. And we in the Church must do a better job addressing them.

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