It’s Hell Week! And no, there’s no burpies or hazing involved. Unless you consider discussions of ancient Greek a form of hazing. But don’t worry, I’ll make it easy. The only thing going down here are old ideas about hell that we are well rid of.
Our first Hell Week installment showed that nowhere in the bible does it actually say that hell or punishment or torment is eternal. It’s for an “age” – an undefined, but limited period of time. Today we’re going start by looking at just what the nature of this “punishment” is anyways – including examining more closely the issue of fire and the lake of fire. So, let’s go back to where we left off yesterday: aionian kolasin. This is the phrase Jesus used in Matthew 25:46 when speaking of judgment: “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment (aionian kolasin), but the righteous into eternal life (aionian zoen).” *
Punishment vs Chastisement
Yesterday, I quoted the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus who said of both the Pharisees and the Essenes that they taught adialeiptos timoria for the wicked in the after life. Adialeiptos indicates everlasting or unceasing – as opposed to aionian which as we discussed yesterday denotes a limited period of time. Should we then understand that Jesus is saying that the wicked will be sent away until they have suffered enough to pay off their debt for their wickedness? A sort of tit-for-tat, sin for suffering exchange between God and sinners? Not at all. It is significant that both the Pharisees and Essenes speak of timoria while Jesus uses the word kolasin. According to Aristotle (Rhetoric 1.10.17): “kolasis is corrective, timoria alone is the satisfaction of the inflictor.” We see these words used just this way in other Greek texts of the day – timoria indicates vengeful punishment. Kolasis always indicates correction or chastisement. They are similar in that they both deal in some way with a form of punishment, but clearly not interchangeable. Timoria is for the benefit of the one who inflicts it – generally in repayment for some wrong done. Kolasis is ultimately for the benefit of the one being chastised. So, when Jesus says that the wicked with be sent to aionian kolasis, he is saying that they will be sent for correction, not simply for punishment and suffering. God’s purposes are always redemptive.
The Lake of . . . Divine Consecration?
Believe it or not, this idea of redemptive correction is echoed in one of the most frightful and memorable images of the bible – the infamous lake of fire from Revelation. Yes, really – that lake of fire and brimstone. Now, this is where we need to remember that scripture was given to a particular people in a particular context and it would have a particular meaning to them. If the bible is unchanging, then it can not have been intended to communicate one thing to the people to whom it was originally given and something entirely different today. If our modern common sense reading of scripture is in conflict with how the ancients would have understood the same verses, then our modern understanding is wrong, no matter how obvious, universally held or apparent it is. In order to understand the lake of fire, we need to drop our “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” ideas about the lake of fire and look at it from the perspective of those to whom it was given.
In the King James versions of the bible, it says that the fire was made of “brimstone”. Most modern translations use “sulphur”. The original Greek word is theio or theion. Look at those words. Does something look familiar about them? Looks a lot like theo – Greek for divine or God – doesn’t it? That’s because sulphur was used in the ancient world to purify and consecrate something to the divine. The incense used in pagan temples was made of theio – sulpher. In the Illiad, a goblet is purified and consecrated using fire and theio. The verb theioo comes directly from theio/theion and according to Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (to site one source) it means “to hallow, to make divine, or to dedicate to a god.” Do you see what’s going on here? God’s purposes are ALWAYS redemptive.
To any Greek, or to any trained in the Greek language, a “lake of fire and brimstone” would mean a “lake of divine purification.” The idea of judgment need not be excluded . . . Divine purification and divine consecration are the plain meaning in ancient Greek.
The Book of Revelation says that being thrown into the lake of fire is “the second death”. What is the first death? It could be the death of our physical bodies. Or it could be the death of Adam and Eve – original sin. But Jesus also tells us in John 12:24: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” 1 Peter 2:24 instructs us to “die to sins and live for righteousness”. The idea of death as a prelude to redemption is well grounded in scriptures.
God, Fire and Salvation
Consider also 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
And also Hebrews 12:29:
For our God is a consuming fire.
Nor is the idea of God’s purifying fire at work limited to the afterlife or the time of judgment. In Lamentations 1:13 it says:
“From on high he sent fire, sent it down into my bones.”
Jeremiah (20:9) says:
“His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones.”
Purification through the fire of God’s touch has been a theme found in the writings of many saints. It is one of the central metaphors found in the writing of John of the Cross, for example:
“The fire, though applied, would have no power over them if they had no imperfections for which they must suffer, for these are the matter on which that fire seizes; when that matter is consumed there is nothing more to burn. So is it here, when all imperfections are removed, the suffering of the soul ceases, and in its place comes joy.” (Dark Night of the Soul, Chapter 10.6)
There are reasons that hell and fire are so closely associated and not simply because being burned by fire is horribly painful. Fire is closely associated with God and purification.
Even all that torment which the bible speaks of (list here), is more than simple suffering. The Greek word is basanos or some form thereof. Basanos was actually a stone used to test metals for the presence of impurities. To test if a piece of gold had been cut with some other metal, for example. It became associated with torture because of the idea that torture could be used to get someone to reveal a truth that they would otherwise conceal. It is a test or examination of the person (much like the test by fire from 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, above?).
That’s Still a Lot of Suffering!
I’ve been spending a lot of time these last couple of days getting into technical details of the language of scripture because as someone who holds a high view of scripture, I could not begin to accept a doctrine which was in conflict with scripture. All of the arguments about how unfair it was for people to suffer eternally for finite sins or that there was a conflict between a God of love and God throwing people into a lake of fire might be compelling, but simply couldn’t overturn scripture itself. What was amazing to me was how once you really dug into the language involved, it became possible to say, “you’re right – eternal punishment for finite sins makes no sense. And a God of love throwing people into a lake of fire is really screwed up. But fortunately, that’s not actually what scripture says.”
Some people may assume that I started with what I wanted to see and then worked backwards from there to “discover” that which confirmed my own desires. In fact, I started with scripture and ended up pleasantly surprised to discover that God is far better and far more powerful than I had imagined. It turns out that love really does win. God doesn’t lose anything or anyone. Yes, all this talk of torment and testing and purification aren’t the most pleasant ideas in the world. But if you read through the things I have written about my own spiritual journey, it’s hardly unimaginable. Or unsurvivable. As I said in an earlier post:
One of the church’s failures is that too often it is taught that suffering and feelings of being unworthy are themselves what we need. Which they aren’t. What we need is a really good reason to tolerate them on the way to a better state and way of being. Scripture itself says that Jesus was willing to suffer the pain and humiliation of the cross “for the joy set before him”. Not because it was good for him or for us or holy to suffer but because there was something better on the other side of all that suffering.
Tomorrow: what exactly is this hell place we keep talking about anyways?
* This essay contains a (really) in-depth discussion of this verse and “aionian zoen” as it concerns eternal life.