I do not believe that the Bible actually teaches that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. By that I mean, hell is not a place where people who sin and disbelieve are sent to be punished and tortured. I don't believe that God would torture anyone. I certainly don't believe that hell is a place where one is conscious of eternality. While I do thin that hell is judgment I don't think it's a place where people are conscous eternally of being punnished.
My thesis is this: (1) The Bible uses the conept of hell as a symbol of judgment and spiritual death.
(2) It is clearly talking about something, some negative consequence from "hell," but that is not a place of literal fire and brimstone, rather, the "place" of torment is a symbol of spirutal death that comes from being judged.
(3) Judgment comes from rejecting God and closing the heart to truth, it is not something God ordained to befall the rebellious, but an automatic separation that we initiate and we have the power to change while we live, by responding to God's love. The more we turn our backs on God and pout the deeper we get into sepeartion and God cannot do anything about it if we are determined to separate ourselves.
(4) When I say "God can't do anything about it," yes could have made the original set up different, but only by sacrificing other things, such as free will, which very imporant.
thus I am saying God is limited to logical necessity. He cannot make two contradictory states of affiars that truly contradict logically. Thus to have the valuable aspects of free will and moral descion making there must be consequences which we initiate through our rebellion and which God cannot change given the facts.
specifically I believe that those who reject God and die in seperation from God cease to exist. That is fair and humane since that's what they expect anyway. The atheist chooses to cease to exist but in disbelieving he expects this anyway. One must agree it is certainly more compassionate than eteranl conscious torment.
The talk we find of flames and darkness is symbolic. It is symoblic of the dread of being judged and condemend, and symbolic of spiritual death. I believe the Bible teaches this and we can examine the passages and see for ourselves.
First, there is no such set up in the OT. There is situation such that good go to heaven to paradise to be rewarded and the bad go to hell to be tormented. This concept was unknown to the Hebrews. It is common knowledge that the Hebrews believed that everyone went to "the pit" or Sheol, which is translated "the grave." This is the idea of the realm of the dead. Everyone went there, not as punishment but that's just the way it was. There were exceptions such as prophets who were taken up to heaven to be with God, but basically no one expected the reward from heaven or the punishment of hell. All that came in this life. The concept of hell came from the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks, imposed upon the Hebrew world in the intertestamental period, though the conquest of the Selucids who succeeded Alexander the Great. But the Hebrews found a corrosponding symbol for "tortarus" the Greek Hell, in the valley of Gehenna where they burned trash outside Jerusalem. We know this was a symbol and symbolic use since it was a literal phsyical place in history.
Secondly, I believe that hell is unjust and counter productive. Unjust because eternal torment as punishment for finite sin is just not fair. No amount of pias sanctimony can make it fair. God would not be unfair. Moreover, counterproductive because no one learns anything form hell. I see atheists all the time expressing the attitude "I'm going to hell anyway so what does it matter?" It's not a good idea and the more I think aobut it the more like the solution of a small child it seems. It is not taught in the bible so let's get to it and look at the scholarship and see.
Some scholars understand Paul to teach that the wicked disappear. I find this in accord with views I had already come to before I found this article, and before I saw that in Paul:
from a book review
The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. - book reviews
Commonweal, May 5, 1995 by Carl L. Bankston, III
Although the Christian message was, from the beginning, concerned primarily with eternal life, the theme of eternal punishment emerged from apocalyptic Judaism in the pages of the New Testament. Bernstein's reading of the New Testament, however, indicates a diversity of understandings of this punishment among the authors of the Scriptures. Saint Paul, emphasizing the positive teachings of the faith, did not express a clear vision of hell and seems to have implied that the wicked would eventually simply disappear. The authors of the synoptic Gospels, by contrast, describe pains of eternal damnation that balance the joys of eternal salvation.
My view is grounded in St. Paul. The main overview of Biblical teaching is one of diversity. There is no standarized set of explicit assumptions about the nature of heaven and hell. The ancinet Hebrews did not have that view.
Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002). Pp. 288. Paper, US$22.00. ISBN 0-8308-2687-4.
This volume builds upon Johnston’s 1988 Belfast MTh thesis and his 1993 Cambridge PhD dissertation, but constitutes a substantial reworking and expansion of that material. The result is a comprehensive study that is accessible to non-specialists without sacrificing extensive interaction with scholarly literature on the subject. The material itself is organized under four main categories: Death, The Underworld, The Dead and The Afterlife.
Johnston demonstrates the Hebrew lack of biphercated afterlife:
Finally, Johnston address the question of an Afterlife, a late development in Israelite religious thought. Although Elijah and Elisha bring dead children back to life, Enoch “walked with God” and Elijah ascended in a flaming chariot, none of these were considered normal nor hoped for by others. The only clear references to bodily resurrection occur in Isa 26:19 and Daniel 12:2; extra-biblical references to resurrection (e.g., 2 Macc 7; 14; 1 Enoch 51:1; 61:5; 62:15, 4Q521:12, etc.) date from the 2nd century BCE on, which is consistent with the date of the two biblical texts. Despite afterlife beliefs in the surrounding nations, however, Johnston finds little evidence of direct influence and instead claims that Israel’s eventual belief in an afterlife is rooted in its experience of YHWH’s faithfulness and ongoing presence in their history, eventually understood as extending beyond death itself.
This view is actually pretty standard among scholars.
BNET reprint Comonweal, Ibid
I found Bernstein's close reading of the Hebrew Bible and of the Book of Enoch, the major piece of evidence outside the writings of Josephus of a late antique Jewish belief in punishment after death, more original than his review of Greco-Roman ideas. Much of the latter seems to rest on scholarly interpretations that have long been common currency. This may be a matter of familiarity, however, and Bernstein does bring together a great deal of material in a highly readable style, so that almost anyone will find some new ideas and information in the collection of pre-Christian beliefs assembled here.
that says that punishment in after life was an idea the Jews had in late antiquity.
We can see from the use of the termenology for "Hell" that the modern concepts with which fundamentalists are embeaued and atheists are outragged are just no there. The only word used for "hell" in the OT is Sheol, which does not mean hell and does not corrospond to genhena, it means "gave." It's death or the place of the dead, not necessarily a place of torment.
from the same commweal review of Bertstien's article:
The most common term for the Underworld itself is Sheol but even it appears infrequently. The term never appears in third person narrative nor legal material, but only in first person contexts: i.e., an individual encounters Sheol directly and personally. Clear synonyms include bôr, bĕʾēr, and šaḥat (all meaning “pit”) and ʾăbaddôn (“destruction”); Johnston also considers a number of texts in which either earth\ground or water may also be synonyms for Sheol but concludes, “Water, like earth, is associated with the underworld, but is not confused with it.” (p. 124). Descriptions of Sheol are sparse, but it is a place where existence simply continued, without any vital experience for the dead. The term itself may have derived from the god Šu-wa-la, mentioned in texts from Emar, who is either a minor underworld deity or another name for Ereshkigal, the Queen of the underworld, but any divine associations had been lost by the Israelite period. Ibid
We can see that Sheol means the grave by the use made of Crosswalk software in its Heberw lexicon.Crosswalk takes its Hebrew from Strongs and Vines. Both are inadequate, but cross walk smooths them out and waters them down even more with interprative definitions. Thus we can see what I'm talking about in the use they make of words, but they also add their own effects.
Crosswalk defition of Sheol
Sh@'owl TWOT - 2303c
Phonetic Spelling Parts of Speech
sheh-ole' Noun Feminine
1. sheol, underworld, grave, hell, pit
1. the underworld
2. Sheol - the OT designation for the abode of the dead
1. place of no return
2. without praise of God
3. wicked sent there for punishment
4. righteous not abandoned to it
5. of the place of exile (fig)
6. of extreme degradation in sin
It does say the grave and abode of the dead but when everything else it says reflects that it adds, wicked sent there for punishment. But it can't produce one verse to say that. There are no verses in the OT that say wicked are sent to sheol for punishment.
On page 2 we explore the use of the term in the verses.