How Should We Interpret the New Testament’s Graphic Descriptions of Hell?

Andy Naselli —  September 1, 2010 — 8 Comments

I attempt to answer that question in the latest 9Marks eJournal: Hell: Remembering the Awful Reality [PDF | HTML].

“Hellfire and Brimstone: Interpreting the New Testament’s Descriptions of Hell.” 9Marks eJournal 7:4 (September–October 2010): 16–19. [PDF | HTML]

Introduction:

The New Testament graphically and horrifically describes hell. And that raises a thorny question: How should we interpret those dreadful images? May we simply label them “metaphors” to soften their bite?

Outline:

  1. How does the New Testament describe hell? [five ways]
  2. How do people interpret the New Testament’s horrific descriptions of hell? [three ways]
  3. How should we interpret the New Testament’s horrific descriptions of hell? [two of the three ways are plausible]

Conclusion:

We may disagree about some finer nuances of our literal and metaphorical interpretations of hell’s darkness, fire, and suffering, but we should agree that, at the very least, the New Testament teaches that hell is eternally miserable, terrifying, and painful. It’s certainly no better than being cast into literal “outer darkness” or being tormented with literal “fire and sulfur.”

More.

8 responses to How Should We Interpret the New Testament’s Graphic Descriptions of Hell?

  1. Joel Huffstutler October 13, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Andy, thanks for your article on hell on 9marks. I do have one comment. You repeat a superficial objection to the literal and material nature of hell that fire and darkness cannot exist together (e.g., Ladd, NTT, 258). Sulfur flame is difficult enough for the human eye to detect that companies make detection equipment for it (e.g., Detector Electronics Corporation based in MN). Thus, the presupposition that fire always produces light is inappropriate.

  2. Thanks, Joel. I’m aware of that, so I word the article correspondingly. I don’t say that fire and darkness are always necessarily contradictory. I write, “Some of the images (for example, fire and darkness) seem contradictory when taken literally”—especially in light of how Jesus’ hearers would have understood the imagery. I don’t rule out the possibility, only that it seems contradictory.

  3. Joel Huffstutler October 13, 2010 at 11:00 am

    My point is that there is no contradiction when the material elements mentioned in the Bible are recognized for what they are. Such an argument is a straw man argument against the literal view.

    Appealing to “how Jesus’ hearers would have understood the imagery” is also faulty because the NT data includes much more than the Gospels.

    The “foreign to our experience” argument is faulty due to Jude 7 alone and consequently Genesis 19. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is the closest thing to “hell on earth” (I speak carefully), and Jude says that those cities were an example of those who will undergo the punishment of “eternal fire.”

    Your article is on the interpretation of hell-fire and brimstone, and I believe your presentation gives undue weight to the metaphorical view.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Joel. I respect what you’re saying, and that view may be right. But I’m not convinced it’s that clear.

    But more importantly, I think we can agree on the article’s main point:

    We may disagree about some finer nuances of our literal and metaphorical interpretations of hell’s darkness, fire, and suffering, but we should agree that, at the very least, the New Testament teaches that hell is eternally miserable, terrifying, and painful. It’s certainly no better than being cast into literal “outer darkness” or being tormented with literal “fire and sulfur.”

  5. Joel Huffstutler October 13, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    The main point of your article, then, is that we should teach that hell is “eternally miserable, terrifying and painful.” True, but the Bible is more explicit than that. It teaches that all men in their bodies will be raised from the dead (John 5:28-29) and that after final judgment the wicked will be cast into the lake which burns with fire and brimstone forever (21:8).

    I believe that the differences between the two major interpretations are too significant to be glossed over. Reducing Biblical teaching blunts the edge of the doctrine which is meant to cause men to dread. Obviously it would be more horrific to be separated from God for eternity than to just suffer the physical pain, but both are a part of the biblical doctrine.

    Disagreement with someone on the finer nuances of the literal view is one thing, but the metaphorical view is doctrinal error and needs to be opposed not justified.

  6. Andy, your article is obviously the result of a strong mind and thoughtful scholarship. Fine as your work is, however, I believe you have built a house with no foundation. That is, you studied the NT with the presupposition of hell as conceived in the traditional heaven-or-hell afterlife scenario.

    I submit to you that the more place to start is the OT where a proper foundation can be laid for all the terms used in the NT. I draw particular attention to Sheol (MT) and Hades (LXX) as synonymous terms referring to the place of the dead for every human being according to Hebrew worldview. That is, the Hebrew cosmology saw Sheol (Hades) as an underworld. Gehenna, the valley for trash outside Jerusalem, was spatially and therefore metaphorically different. I know that I am not educating you, but I am appealing that you reconstruct your view rooting it in the Scriptures as Jesus and the apostles had them.

    I lay out this worldview in The Biblical Case for Everone Going to Heaven which is at http://wp.me/PNthc-i6

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Hell Fire and Darkness « Now to the King Eternal - October 13, 2010

    [...] Whatever examples of seemingly contradictory images might be suggested, fire and darkness are not necessarily contradictory. They can be complementary. That is, they can exist together. This is particularly the case with the material element found in the lake of fire (brimstone or sulfur). Sulfur burns with a blue flame that makes it difficult for the human eye to see at all. This is evidenced by the fact that companies actually make detection equipment for it (e.g., Det-Tronics in Minneapolis, MN). See this link:  globalspec.com.  See my interaction with Naselli on his blog here. [...]

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