Hell, Let’s Face It…!
Former New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy had a dream in which he was in heaven and had assembled before him a baseball team of old time greats—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, et al. He was ecstatic! Then the phone rang and it was Satan calling to challenge the heavenly baseball team to a ball game.
McCarthy was surprised at the challenge. “You haven’t got a chance. I’ve got all the good players.”
“Yes” Satan answered. “But I’ve got all the umpires.”
Hell as a joke
In our twentieth century uneasiness with the issue of hell, it is not surprising that there are so many jokes on the subject. People often respond to the subject of their eternal destination with tongue-in-cheek retorts such as, “I don’t mind going to hell because all of my friends will be there!”
Perhaps the reluctance to commit, which tempts us to turn love and beautiful sex into smut, sleaze and dirty jokes, also tempts us to diminish the frightening seriousness of subjects like God, heaven and hell. We try to parcel such awesome concepts into packages we can deal with, whether it be wrapped in humor or labeled, “we can’t know the contents and therefore we shouldn’t worry.”
However, if there is anything good in this world there must be the possibility of the “ungood.” If God exists as a personal being who cares for his creation, then it stands to reason that much of what we see in the world today is influenced by that which is ungood, uncaring, and seeking to destroy rather than create. If the preservation and continuation of the best of God’s creation exists, then to balance the universe there must exist a destruction of that which is evil and a lasting condemnation of that which is ungood and ungodly—THAT’S NO JOKE!
Hell as a superstition
There are those who take hell seriously, yet don’t view it is a matter of God or unGod. Rather, they construct legends and fables to serve the purposes of society. Much of our modern-day images of hell are fraught with artistic expressions out of Greek mythology. Satan is often depicted with a pitchfork, horns and a tail, not unlike the Greek god Pan. And hell is most commonly viewed through the eyes of Gustave Dore, via his famous etchings that illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Some of the extra-biblical Jewish writings about hell were intended to teach a lesson to those who were curious about the subject. A good example is the following description found in Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews:
Hell has seven divisions, one beneath the other.…It requires 300 years to traverse the height, or the width, of the depth of each division, and it would take 6,300 years to go over a tract of land equal in extent to the seven divisions.
Each of the seven divisions in turn has seven subdivisions and in each compartment there are seven rivers of fire and seven of hail…and they flow one from the other, and are supervised by 90,000 Angels of Destruction. There are, besides, in every compartment 7,000 caves, in every cave there are 7,000 crevices, and in every crevice 7,000 scorpions. Every scorpion has 300 rings, and in every ring 7,000 pouches of venom, from which flow seven rivers of deadly poison. If a man handles it, he immediately bursts, every limb is torn from his body, his bowels are cleft asunder, and he falls upon his face.”1
Other rabbinic stories or legends on the subject can be nothing more than morality fables like the one called “The Eternally Dirty Pastry”:
A rich miser once bought a piece of pastry, and as he was walking along, it fell and was covered with dirt. Just then a poor beggar came by and asked for charity, and the miser handed him the pastry.
That night the miser dreamed that he was sitting in a large, crowded cafe whose waiters were running back and forth, bringing all the customers the most delicious cakes and tortes. He alone was not being served. He waited until his patience ran out and finally complained. Along came a waiter and served him a piece of dirty pastry.
“How dare you bring me a piece of dirty pastry?” the rich miser furiously asked the waiter. “Did I ask you for charity? I’m a rich man and there’s nothing the matter with my money!”
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, sir,” said the waiter. “You can’t buy anything with money here. You’ve just arrived in Eternity, and all you can order here is what you yourself have sent ahead from the World of Time. The one thing you sent was this piece of pastry, and that’s all that you can be served with.”2
We listen to such stories and find them interesting and entertaining. Perhaps they even inspire us to consider our own behavior, yet they can take us far away from the reality of the place called—Hell, Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, the Pit. By dabbling in myths, superstitions and morality tales, we are in danger of anesthetizing ourselves from the horror that is before us.
Hell as a half-reality
The Bible does say some things about hell that might well sound like legends or fables, yet are true. While they seem half real to us, they are entirely real.
In the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, we get a glimpse of the horror and the irreversibility of hell. Here, the rich man tormented by the flames of hell pleads for some relief, yet he is told by Abraham that the chasm between heaven and hell cannot be traversed.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'” (Luke 16:19-26)
Hell remains a half-reality in the minds of most people, just as heaven is a half-reality. The prophet Isaiah said of heaven, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” We can’t imagine heaven, so it is hard to believe that it is real. And in the same way, we really can’t find anything on earth which is analogous to hell, and so we tend to dismiss it as unreal.
Another reason why it is difficult for us to recognize the reality of hell is the harsh way it is spoken of in the Scriptures. If we believe in God at all, we think of his attributes of mercy, compassion, love, and goodness. We are confused at talk of fire and brimstone, warnings of judgment and destruction, pronouncements of the loss of our very souls. We like to think that hell is not God’s idea, but an invention of manipulative people who are only bluffing in an attempt to force us to believe or behave in certain ways. We need to more thoroughly explore the nature of God in order to understand the realities of hell.
Just as many people misunderstand the meaning and import of hell, so the word “holy” (kadosh) is misunderstood. Contrary to modern thought “holy” does not have to do with being somehow repressed or disdainful of life’s pleasures. The root concept of “holy” is that of other, apart from, differing from that which is considered to be ordinary.
Think in terms of “sacred” and “secular.” That which is sacred is set apart for service to God, of God and for God. Whereas that which is secular (while not particularly evil, nor to be despised) is for regular, ordinary use. It is the nature of God himself, in the truest sense of the word, to be wholly other.3
“Holy hell,” therefore, is a reverse apartness, a reverse otherness. As human beings, we operate within the confines of our time, place and practice. Hence the other, the infinite—or that which is holy—is God.
If we become God’s own people, trusting our lives to his promises, we will eventually go to the place which he has prepared for us (heaven). Then, that which is “other” will no longer be God and his kingdom, of which we will be a part. But rather, what is “other” will be those who entrusted their lives to anything besides God.
If there is a God of justice, there has to be a hell.
One of the leading Nazis, after being captured, and before his own well-deserved execution, said that he would go to his grave gladly, knowing that he had a big part in ridding Europe of the “Jewish plague.” Would it be just if this executioner were politely excused from life by a death which held no retribution whatever for his crimes?
Yet, what about those whose sin is not of a criminal nature, but rather the more ordinary “missing the mark” concept of sin expressed in the Hebrew Bible? How do we grapple with it? Are all to suffer equally?
The rabbis believed in degrees of punishment, as described in the following talmudic account:
They [unrepentant sinners] are cast into Gehenna to a depth commensurate with their sinfulness. They say: “Lord of the world, Thou hast done well; Paradise for the pious, Gehenna for the wicked” (‘Erubin 19a).4
One Bible teacher, while admitting to the horrible reality of “the other destination,” said that his comfort was in the Scripture passage which says, “Shall not the Judge of the whole universe do good?”
This teacher felt that hell would indeed be a place of regret, but the main regret would be in remembering a life that could have been spent serving God, loving the Creator, and because it had not, was destined to be forever “other” from God.
He went on to say that perhaps the lowest place in heaven wasn’t that far away from the highest place in hell. That same Bible teacher admitted that his view might possibly be an unscriptural device he adopted to enable him to accept the idea of hell.
The Scripture does, however, imply that there are degrees of suffering in hell. Yeshua contrasts the fate of those unrepentant cities where he performed miracles (Capernaum and Bethsaida), with Tyre and Sidon, which did not have the benefit of his teachings and miracles. He concludes that it will be more bearable for them on the day of judgment. Of Capernaum he says, “If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.”
If there is a God of goodness and love, there has to be a hell.
Theologian Dr. David Wells, in commenting on the nature of God observed that, “If God is as good as the Bible says, if his character is as pure, if his life is as infinite, then sin is infinitely unpardonable and not merely momentarily mischievous. To be commensurate with the offense, God’s response must be correspondingly infinite.”5
When we think in terms of just and unjust, good and ungood, love and unlove, God and unGod, we see that everything is defined not only by what it is, but also by what it isn’t. God is God not only because of what he loves and accepts, but also because of what he will not countenance. And just as in love there is the attendant desire to build, to enhance, to preserve, so in unlove there is the desire to diminish, deny and destroy. It is human unlove which causes people to be destroyers of themselves and others, but it is God’s unlove of evil which will finally and forever destroy the destroyers.
There is something within the human heart and soul that demands and yet affirms that love must be forever. True love takes an eternity in order to be fulfilled. The unclouded human spirit intuitively knows it. But if love must be forever (particularly God’s love, since he can’t stop loving), the destruction of unGod and unlove, must also be forever to maintain God’s love in balance.
The Bottom Line
Hell, like death, is one of those unpleasant facts that we need to learn to face in order to keep our lives and joys in perspective. No one goes to hell because they decided they wanted to go there, but because they decided to be their own god of their own life on earth.
When we declare that what we like and want is invariably right and what we dislike and don’t want is invariably wrong, we place ourselves in enmity with God, who is the embodiment of what is right and is the sole judge of what is wrong. We associate ourselves with a pantheon of other gods which we call friends and we mutually affirm and confirm our self-deification. Perhaps we even pretend to worship God, but it is a god who will not demand that we be anything other than what we choose to be.
Our whole society cries out and says, “You can do what you want. Take what you want. Give only if you need to in order to be happy. And call it right!!” And God says, “Yes, have what you want. Your way instead of my way, your own company and your own desires instead of my presence. Have yourself, forever. For I will not have you.”
No one goes to hell because they choose to go there. They don’t even go because they are criminals. Many are moral after their own fashion. But rather, people go to hell because they choose to ignore God’s rightness and live apart from him in their own personal sense of self-righteousness.
Hell is to be contemplated, and avoided. We should fear hell because it has claimed too much of what we have loved and threatens to claim our very souls. And when we go, we shall be alone, ever alone, never so much alone until the realization of our apartness from God becomes the consuming yet never ending tormentor of our souls.
But whereas, hell is the destruction that never dies, heaven is God’s presence which never leaves. Hell is empty but for you, your memories, and your disappointment in dreams that promised to deliver what only God can give. Heaven is filled with regenerated people that you would want to know. If you are lonely for people that you’ve never met and homesick for a place that you’ve never been, it’s not hell that you’re looking for.
A Messianic Midrashic Postscript
Some people had a lawsuit at court and they were afraid of the judgment. The judge said to them, “Speak and fear not the judgment, be daring in your heart!” Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, will speak to the angels when Israel will stand in judgment before Him and they will be afraid of the judgment. And the ministering angels will say: Fear not. Do you not know Him? He is one of your city.…He is one of your relatives.…He is your brother, and, most of all, He is your father.…” (Midrash Hallel, Bet haMidrash 5:107)6
The same question will be asked of us and how we answer will determine whether or not we need to fear.
Do you know him? His name is Yeshua.
He is one of your city.
He is one of your relatives.
He is your brother.
And, most of all, He is your father.
He stands ready to be the advocate on the day of judgment for all who know him.
- Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1937), Vol. I, pp. 15, 16.
- Pinhas Sadeh, Jewish Folktales (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 169.
- This is not only reflected in the the theology of Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, but also in the writings of the great Jewish sage, Martin Buber, in his work, I and Thou.
- The Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1905), Vol. V, p. 583.
- David F. Wells, “Everlasting Punishment,” Christianity Today, March 20, 1987, pp. 41, 42.
- Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), pp. 218, 219.
Chief Partnership Officer
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.