One of the favorite methods of atheists and skeptics is making the Bible look ridiculous. There are now a number of blaspheme Web sites in which people are invited to curse God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and show their freedom and independence. What is most depressing about these sites is the level of ignorance that is displayed on them. It is one thing to curse at something you understand and have fairly and logically considered. It is another thing to violate something and/or someone you do not understand and in fact have never really investigated.

The subject of hell comes up frequently in these blaspheme web sites, and the level of misunderstanding displayed is incredible. In the May/June 2006 issue of this journal we had an article titled "What Is Hell?" It was a discussion of an e-mail we received from a reader. His opening shot was, "I didn't ask to be born, and I won't spend my life worshipping an evil, abusive God who rejoices in bringing pain to everything he touches." (Note: this article can be read on our Web site We pointed out in that article that worship is for our benefit, not God's, and that the writer's concept of what God is and what God does were traditional and not biblical. Our mail and what we see on the Web indicates that this subject needs a lot more attention.

HELL IS NOT A VIDEO GAME. I suspect that the famous book Dante's Inferno has affected most of our thinking in what we visualize hell to be. If you view hell as a physical place with people receiving punishment of a physical nature that is commensurate with the things they did in their life, the picture is pretty bizarre. Our culture saturates us with cartoons, jokes, and articles that portray people suffering in hell in ways that reflect physical conditions. There are even notions in the atheist Web sites about hell being desirable because there are no religious people there, and pleasure is the goal of everyone who is present. There have also been suggestions about a revolt in hell that allows people to take over the place and replace God and Satan with more benevolent rulers. These are sad, childish conceptualizations of what hell is and of what our nature will be after we die.

THE AFTERLIFE. It seems that mainstream denominations and atheists alike have not gotten the message that after we die we no longer exist as physical beings. Many denominations have taken the symbolic pictures of the Book of Revelation and forced physical understandings on them as a portrayal of heaven. From the very beginning God told man his body would return to dust. "For dust you are and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:19, NIV). In Matthew 22:30 Jesus said that we will be "like the angels in heaven." In 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 Paul discusses this concept and points out that the body we have now is perishable but we will be changed to something that is imperishable (verse 42). We are told that our bodies will be "sown (buried) a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body" (verse 44). The Greek word for natural is psuchikos, meaning animal. Man is created in God's image in a spiritual way, but we have a temporary dwelling in an animal body. When we die, the animal body returns to the elements from which it was made, and whatever existence we have beyond that is completely different. Pain-based nerves and brain tissue will not exist in this new body, and neither will death. These are things that happen to physical, animal beings, not to spiritual beings. Those who use apocalyptic literature like Revelation to paint life after death as a return to a world with physical pain and problems do violence to the rest of the Bible. Jesus made it clear, "My kingdom is not of this world ... my Kingdom is from another place" (John 18:36, NIV).

SO WHAT KIND OF PAIN IS THERE IN HELL? Since our bodies, brains, and nerve endings are back in the dust of the earth, how can we experience the pain of hell? Jesus made it clear that there is pain, but the language also makes it clear that He is not talking about the kind of pain we experience in this life. When Jesus talks about the pain of hell He uses contrasting images. In Matthew 8:12 those in hell are described as being "thrown into the outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." In passages like Revelation 21:8 the term brimstone is used which is from the Greek theion referring to divine fire. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 the rich man is described as being "in agony in this fire" (verse 24). Both of these terms--darkness and fire--have multiple meanings in the original language. Matthew 3:11 talks about being baptized with fire from heaven, and Acts 2:3 describes the Holy Spirit in those terms. Romans 12:20 uses fire in a totally symbolic way as does Hebrews 1:7. First John 1:6 talks about walking in darkness. Many biblical passages identify darkness as the descriptive term of what ignorance, lostness, confusion, and evil are about.

The pain of hell is real, but it is not a video game nor is it something like what we experience in life. Perhaps the closest we come to it is when we have our heart broken by a lost love. This is a good parallel because God is love. Being separated from God is to be separated from love. The pain of that process is hard to describe, and it is real. God is light, and being separated from light forever is a horrible thought, no matter what you understand that light to be. God is good, and to be separated from good for all of eternity means to be separated from all that brings us smiles and joy in life. What is most likely to bring us tears in this life is not a headache or a backache, but the loss of a love, no matter what brings about that loss.

WHAT ABOUT THE JOYS OF HEAVEN? A likely response to this discussion of hell is to ask if all the time-dependent good things we have in life will be absent in heaven. What about sexual pleasure, laughter, warmth, satisfied hunger, and the like? Obviously these sensual things which are based on the physical will no longer be a part of our existence. However, they will be replaced by something so much better and so complete that we will scarcely remember our previous sensual experiences.

Years ago a writer compared heaven to being born. When we were inside our mothers, we had a utopian world. It was always at 98.6°, we had a constant supply of food, nothing ever brought us pain, and we were protected from every negative influence of the natural world. (Ideally, at least.) When we were forced into the world outside our mother's body, we did not want to go. We screamed and cried at the fearful prospect of this new condition. Gradually we began to find this new existence was far better than our previous existence. We had new pleasures, new sensations, new freedom, and the wonderful light that we had never seen. We moved from a world of darkness and muted sounds to a world of incredible beauty, color, and wonderful rich sounds. None of us could ever imagine wanting to go back into the womb again, because our existence is so much better, and we have such greater freedom now.

Moving into our next existence is very similar. We cannot envision what it will be like any more than we can describe light to an unborn baby. It will offer greater freedom, greater beauty, and greater pleasure. The main beauty is that it will be free of all the negatives--no more pain, no more death, no more evil, no more temptation, no more politics, and no more sin. There will be nothing but complete unity with God and all that belongs to God--love, peace, joy. Atheists will not be there, but they did not want to be there anyway. They will just get what they always wanted--a place totally free of God and all those who believe in Him.

--John N. Clayton

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