Rev. 20:11-14: Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And he dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

When discussing the doctrine of Hell, there are two misconceptions that often pops up. The first is that place is some “torture chamber” that God sends people away to, and the second, commopnly held by seventh day adventists, that the damned are utterly destroyed and annihilated.

I will take a look at each of these; (i) that God sends people to Hell, and (ii) that Hell is total annihilation.

1. God sends people away to hell.

The Bible uses a lot of different images to describe Hell. It’s interesting that it uses two images that in fact excludes one another: Jesus says that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But in Matt. 8:12 this happens in the “outher darkness,” while in Matt. 13:42 it happens in “the fiery furnace.”

Pope John Paul II described Heaven as the “Fullness of Communion with God.” And he said that “[r]ather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”[1]

We could also use an image from The Return of the King, the third volume of the The Lord of the Rings saga. Gandalf talks about what is likely to happen to Sauron if the One Ring is destroyed:

For he will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape.[2]

But there is one thing that people draw from this that I believe is wrong; that two be outside the “Fullness of Communion with God” is not in the presence of God. People often quote 2. Thess. 1:9. In the NIV, which is one of the most used translations, the verse says that the damned “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” Does the Greek text say anything about the damned being “shut out from the presence of the Lord”? No, a literal translation of this verse tells us that the damned will “be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (as it says in the NKJV, emphasis added.)

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Heaven and Hell is not different “places,” but the attitude we have towards God, Truth and Love, the state of one’s Heart. Christ in fact tells us that “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21, NKJV) I believe the same thing to be true about Hell. In the afterlife, everyone will be in the presence of God, because God in omnipresent, and that this will be a torment to unrepented sinners, and bliss for those pure of heart. It’s not God who torments us, but our evil and sin who hates the presence of God and Truth. The text quoted in the beginning of this article, it says that both the damned and the saved are placed in the presence of the Throne when the books are opened. I believe that these books are images of our hearts. God opens our hearts, and what is revealed there — love or hatred of God — tells us how our afterlife will be.

When we will “see” God in Heaven (1. John 3:2), we will “see” Him with our “inner eye,” in the same way we “see” those we love. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8, ESV)

2. Hell is total annihilation.

No place in the Bible does it say this, but there are in fact a philosophical difficulty with this. If God grants us free will, he also grants us the possibility to reject him for ever (which is in fact the definition of hell.) But if Hell is the total annihilation of the person damned, then one cannot freely deny God for eternity, but only for the finite time one is alive on earth.

Notes & references:

1. Pope John Paul II, “Heaven, Hell and Purgatory” (Three Wednesday Audiences) (August 11th 2007)

2. Tolkien, J.R.R., The Return of the King (Unwin Paperbacks, 3rd ed., 1979), p. 185