A Conversation about the Afterlife, Part 5 – Aaron

The recent book by Rob Bell, Love Wins, has reopened the controversial topic about the ultimate spiritual destiny of mankind – will every person, no matter what, be reconciled ultimately back to God through his bountiful love in Christ’s sacrificial death and live eternally in His presence, or will Judgment Day separate some men and women to eternal separation from God, that is to Hell, while others, through the reconciling work of Christ on the Cross, spend eternity with God?

The month of May will be devoted to exploring this question.  We thought that there is no better place to discuss this heated topic then at your local seminary.  We have asked D. Scott Reichard, a local proponent of “ultimate reconciliation,” and Dr. Aaron Bird, an adjunct Professor at Urbana Seminary and specialist on the doctrine of Hell – who will be teaching a summer course at Urbana Seminary called “Evil, Hell & Universalism” – to discuss the matter for us on our blog.


By Aaron Bird

Hell is eternal ruin.

Scripture reveals a strange reality called “Hell.”  Every single New Testament author – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and the author of Hebrews – describes about the sense of “gehenna” and, Jesus himself, utilizes the referent “gehenna” ten times and it’s sense many other times, totaling about thirteen percent of his recorded speech.

The biblical authors believed in Hell.  Jesus believed in Hell.  Annihilationists, Evangelical Universalists, Eternal Conscious Punishment folks, the Metaphorical camp, and Issuantists all believe in this dark doctrine too.

The biblical authors also believe this reality is eternal.  The main verses include Matthew 18:8; 25:41, 46; Mark 9:48; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Jude 7, 12-13; and Revelation 14:11, 20:10.  The word “aion” itself can mean “without beginning or without end,” as well as “an age.”  There is a quantitative and qualitative aspect to the word’s meaning, then.  The quantitative aspect is problematic for anyone who grants an everlasting quantitative aspect to Heaven but not Hell.  Quantitative meanings for eternal Hell and eternal Heaven, like in John 5:24 or Revelation 7:15 should mean the same thing for both, especially when we find the adjectival qualifier “aionios” in front of both heaven and hell in the very same context and in the very same verse as we do in Matthew 25:41, 46.  Anything less is fudging on the data.

There is also a qualitative aspect to it.  When placed in the immediate contexts of the aforementioned verses, the age refers to the age to come.   There emphasis in Scripture is not on an age that comes to an end; rather, the age to come refers to the kind of unending-life-age.  Hell’s eternity, then, refers predominately to the manner of life one will endure.

Moreover, eternity must be understood in the thicker context of divine actions.  Boethius asserted “Eternity is God’s mode of existence,” that is, God is life/eternity itself.  As such, there is a particular kind of life in Jesus Christ in the age to come.  The biblical authors point in using olam (cf. Psalm 61:8), then, and its counterpart ainions, is not to give philosophical definition to duration and time, but rather to disclose the consuming life force of the divine context and the quality of life one either enjoys or endures.

“Smoke,” “day and night,” and “forever and ever,” are interpreted in the same manner.  For example, “day and night” in Revelation 14:11, Gregory Beale claims, has the idea of a “kind of time—the time of ceaseless activity.”  This becomes even more compelling in light of Revelation 20:10, where the evil Trinity undergoes ceaseless spiritual plight, not just in the way their spiritual plight will always be remembered but in the way their spiritual plight will never stop.  This figurative way for understanding the unending nature of what is happening can also be found scattered throughout the New Testament in general (viz., Mark 5:5; Luke 18:7;; Acts 9:24; 1 Thess 2:9; 3:10; 2 Thess. 3:8; 1 Tim 5:5; and, 2 Tim 1:3).  Again, “smoke” is figurative for a ceaseless activity (cf. Rev 14:11), while “forever and ever,” means the same thing (ceaseless activity) in each of the thirteen occurrences we find in Revelation. (viz., 1:6, 18; 4:9, 10; 5:13; 7:12; 10:6; 11:15; 14:11; 15:7; 19:3; 20:10; 22:5).

This does not mean hell exists in the same way for everyone.  The biblical authors disclose gradations  of one’s existence in and as hell, based on, and according to, one’s life (cf. Ps 62:12; Prov 24:12; Ezek 7:27; Hos 4:9; Zech 1:6; Matt 10:15; 11:24; 16:27; 19:28f; 25:31-46; Luke 10:12; 12:47-48; John 5:28f;  Rom 2:6-9; 14:12; 2 Cor 5:10; Gal 6:7-8; rev 20:12-13).  Because we understand hell’s eternity in light of God’s eternity, however, it does mean every hell-inhabitant shares the similar meaning of his or her existence, namely a quality of life outside of Christ (e.g., Luke 15:24, 32; Eph. 2:1, 12; Col. 2:13; cf. Rev. 21:8 with 22:15; 21:27; 22:14-15, 19).

The kind of life outside of Christ is one of ruin.  There’s a intratextual thread of this idea in the canon, but let’s utilize one text in particular; perhaps the apostle Paul’s most important text about hell, namely, 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, reads, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed . . ..”  The word “destruction,” here, means “ruin.”  Indeed, Leon Morris claims it means “the loss of all that is worthwhile, utter ruin.”

Ruin is a state one finds oneself in, a state outside of everything God is and does in Jesus Christ.

When we are unfastened from the Christ, there is ruin, which literally means a loss of essence and intended function.  Outside of Christ there is a loss of intended function, a strange and improper form of being; it is a ruined existence.  God wants us to become certain kinds of people, to be caught up in all that God is and does in Jesus, which is the necessary and sufficient condition for human well-being. Similarly, Guthrie states:

The Bible uses the earthly, human categories of time and space not primarily to describe literally where we will be and how we will exist ‘after time,’ but to describe symbolically who we will be.  It is not primarily interested in the ‘furniture of heaven’ or the ‘temperature of hell,’ but in people and whether they will be together with or separated from God.

This is why “gehenna” was such an apt metaphor in Jesus’ day.  That which finds its way to a garbage dump has lost its intended function; the never ending burning refuse exists in a state of ruin.  What was once proper has lost its intended function.  In other words, there’s “no more use,” “a loss of function,” and a people “who did not fulfill their purpose.”   Our purpose is to “be caught up in the Christ.”  They are still formally there, but there is a loss of function, intended purpose, and essence of the original nature.  Something remains, but the something is a subhuman and improper form of existence at best.

In this respect, I do not conflate the imagery of hell with the doctrine itself.  The nature and purpose of hell itself is not blazing fire, pitch-black darkness, teeth gnashing, disgusting worms, and parched mouths; nor as Dante would describe it in his fictional eschatological narrative.  We must practice genre identification, for there are different genres in which we find hell-discourse like the parable of Luke 16, John’s apocalyptic literature, Paul’s didactic teaching, and the gospel-writers’ narrative descriptions.  These accounts are vehicles God accommodates to us in order to inform us of this eschatological reality in different ways.  Each author intentionally utilizes a genre for the purpose of disclosing a particular kind of eschatological reality, not to tickle us into pondering an abstract ethereal underworld, but to jolt us into knowing one can exist outside the famous Christ.  One might initially believe the contrasting images of fire and darkness, for example, or the contrasting pictures of banishment and destruction, for example, leads to contradictory or different hells, but this interpretive stance leaves out generic identification.

These images, pictures, and words in the various genres are all different ways of viewing Hell as eternal ruin.  As we return to our natural dust may God’s grace, mercy, justice, love, wrath, goodness, intensity, and quality of life draw us to His redemption when He wakes us up.  Because He will wake us up.