What Is Hell Like? Does It Even Exist?

I have always appreciated the teaching of N T Wright and here he speak on hell and some of the myths about it. What are your thoughts? Personally I think there are a lot of myths floating around about hell in popular culture, myths that have little foundation biblically, myths that owe more to Pagan, Gnostic and Spiritualist syncretism than authentic apostolic teaching. I also find it interesting that Westerners, in their romanticism of Eastern religions, often forget Buddhism has its own hell teachings.

20 Comments

  1. Really? I would never have called Wright a universalist.
    My understanding of universalism is that, if its right, in the end no one will be apart from God. Wright seemed to deny that explicitly in this interview. Is there some other way you’re interpreting universalism?

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  2. It’s an interesting clip. In many ways, I think it’s hard to form an informed opinion on what Wright is saying solely on this 195 second excerpt, though.
    I will note, though, that based on what I took away from this video, I’m not sure I find his understanding of hell less problematic than the understanding he was critiquing. I particularly found his depiction of those going to hell as people who reject (the Christian) God to “do their own thing.” After all, there are many of us who have decided to follow a different spiritual tradition, and that decision is almost always about more than rejecting Christianity/God or doing one’s own thing. In fact, those two things rarely have anything to do with it at all.

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  3. When I was about 13 we stayed with some friends who had a copy of Dante’s _Inferno_, with very graphic illustrations by Gustav Dore. I must admit that I found the pictures more interesting than the poetry, and for a while was quite interested in the geography of hell, and the various ranks of demons (the lowerarchy, as C.S. Lewis called it). But after a while my interest waned and I came to see that it was peripheral to the Christian faith.
    Many years later I took photos in the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore, which among other things had graphic illustrations of various hells, this time in 3D colour.
    But for the details of the geography of hell no one can beat Swedenborg. I read some of his descriptions and wondered how he knew all that stuff. It was a Baedecker guide to hell.
    But my favourite is this:
    Bishop Innocent was visiting his brother Stephen in the village of Lesnov, and after lunch one day a certain Deacon Nicholas asked why, if God was infinitely merciful, he would deprive anyone of his heavenly kingdom. Bishop Innocent asked in return why the deacon kept twisting his head from side to side. “Because the sun keeps hitting me right in the eye and just won’t leave me in peace”, the deacon replied. “There, you’ve just answered your own question,” the bishop laughed. “God doesn’t deprive of his heavenly kingdom sinners who don’t repent. They themselves simply can’t bear its light – any more than you can bear the light of the sun.”

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  4. Steve, yes, salvation is there for anyone who would accept it. The father rejects no one who approaches like a child. If the source of life is not embraced, should you blame the source for the consequences that flow from that action? I think not.

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  5. Yes, I do. However, it’s important to note that unlike Hindus and Buddhists, I view reincarnation as something to be desired rather than something to endure until one can achieve moksha or nirvana.

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  6. I suspected as such. I would ask though, what do you do with all the injustice in the world? What do you do with the fact that many people do not find justice in this life? What’s your response when a child abuser dies without repentance for his wrongs or restoration with those who he has wronged? Is there any consequence for our actions?

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  7. Matt – I actually think there are many views of universalism. I try to view time as eternal the way it is with God so I don’t see some sort of finite time table that exists for people to follow in order to be accepted into God’s presence. So it’s a hard conversation to have since we talk about time in such a linear way.
    I’d have to hear more of NT Wright’s details on his view as I haven’t read much of his opinions about eternity but what he said here is border-line universalist…cristocentric but universalist none the less.
    we talk about eternity as if our time was the only time and that when our time ends some sort of eternity begins…that’s just not consistent with any understanding we have of God’s experience with “time”.
    anyway, like I said, it’s beside the point. lol

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  8. oh, and for the record, I believe there can be perfect justice without an eternal literal place called hell where people physically go. I do believe in judgment and justice I just don’t believe that anyone will be forever separated from God because of their choices on earth…however, I agree with Wright that our choices now mean something…I suspect we’d disagree on what the “mean something” actually is.

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  9. Matt: My response to injustice in the world is to do what I can to lessen it whenever possible and to encourage others to do likewise.
    I believe that our actions have consequences in the sense of cause and effect. In my tradition, this is also known as wyrd. I’m also open to the possibility (but would not consider it a “hard belief” at this time) that this wyrd in some ways carries over between lives.
    Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can answer your second and third questions tonight. I feel answering them would require much more reflection on my part, and my head is head is already starting to swim.

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  10. It was interesting and succinct – the vid. Hell is no biggie issue to me because i simply see it as literal separation from God via ones choices… When evil individuals die the time has come for it to be a permanent status.
    I dispute those who state Hell is not meant for anyone irrespective of what they done on earth… Gimme a break o pls… i personally hope i can actually see hitler and countless other genocidal maniacs fry with no mercy ever.
    There has to be something permanently punishing for evil. NB The blood on the ground demands it and so do i!
    For others who reject the great I AM/Jesus without destroying others lives – well let God be the judge of ye… But i will say this – i tire of insipid wafty new agey blather o we are all Gods children.. yeah right… well then how is it there is a pecking order of humanity exacted in realville.
    The subjugation of human beings under the evil lie and myth of scientific racism. Wake up to yerselves and cop on you slabbering vague wafty types dribbling o there is no hell all is love Enuf said

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  11. Jarred, you know, I have actually said elsewhere that the Pagan understanding of Wyrd is closer to the Christian understanding of YHWH that the Pagan understanding of gods. There are differences of course, we understand that, that which even the gods have to answer to is personal, not impersonal. But nevertheless there are similarities that deserve exploration.

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  12. Makeesha, for the record I take the teachings of hell in the scriptures as highly authoritative but highly poetic. If we take seriously the Jewish literary genre in which these discriptions appear, that of apocalypse, we should confuse them neither with timeless myth nor rigid literalism. Just as ‘the big apple’ is a metaphorical discription of something very concrete, ‘the lake of fire’ is the same. It describes life without the source of life. Having read N T Wright extemsively I’d say he’d say much the same.

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  13. Mary, separation from God, and thus resurrection, via ones choices is how I would see it too. And I think at this point we should distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. For example, I can forgive a person, but unless they seek reconciliation the relationship remains unhealed. The father may forgive everyone, but unless the prodical son turns home he’s still not home. I hear a lot of hurt there. I can understand why you don’t want real evil fluffed over. But you might want to consider that the response of others here may also be due to hurt, hurt by churches and a desire not to repeat it.

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  14. Mary, I believe it was Gandhi who once said that an eye for an eye leads to a world full of blind people. I tend to agree with him. Also I will note that more bloodshed does not erase the bloodshed, and I fail to see how it really answers justice.
    To me, justice is not about rewarding the innocent or punishing the evil-doer, but about maintaining the right order of things, restoring it when injustice has disturbed it, and healing that which has been broken or destroyed. Again, I fail to see how punishing the evil-doer contributes to that process. I can see where it may be beneficial to isolate the unrepentant evil-doer, but this is about protecting future victims rather than punishing the evil-doer. I also see no reason to make this permanent, but to always leave open the possibility of later repentance and restoration. Perhaps some people — Hitler for instance — would never truly repent and therefore would forever remain isolated. But to close that possibility completely and permanently is something I personally cannot fathom. To my mind, that would require someone to give up hope completely.
    You might find my approach to be too New-Agey. I’m okay with that. To be honest, for me to adopt any alternative would require me to do the unthinkable: place a limit on compassion, which I believe should always be limitless. If I were to do that, I honestly believe that I would be lessened as a result.

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  15. Matt, when I was listening to Wright describe the shrinking of humans deprived of God’s presence (by their own rejection), I immediately thought of Tolkien’s character, Gollum.
    …there is much to learn about despair and selfishness as well as hope and compassion in Gollum’s sad tale, and the transformation from hobbit to creature was long and tortured.
    …and Gandalf’s words to Frodo about death and judgment are worth pondering as well.

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  16. In response to Jarred and Mary. I remember being at an anabaptist peace workshop some years ago where the leaders made an important distinction between retributive justice and restorative justice. Justice will reign, one way or another, but what God truly seeks and calls us to seek is the restoration of just relationships. But actions have consequences and if we refuse the path of peace suffering will follow, sooner or later. So I think its important to acknowledge that both forms of justice are in operation, but restorative justice is always to be preferred. It is not for us to judge, we’re to leave that for God (or wyrd if you will).

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  17. Makeesha I don’t think Wright is a universalist from what I have read from and about him.
    There will be judgment and justice and there will be seperation from God, but there also will be hope.
    I have just read his latest book “Surprised by hope” which is brilliant and thoughtfully provoking.
    Mary I want to point out to you that God never judges before he reaches out. You may see this throughout scripture, you see this through the life of Jesus.
    My question would be:
    Is there a point of no return for repentance, and can someone point out some scripture on that?

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