Hell: A Reality Worse than the Imagery

love-wins-setThe topic of hell has received an unusual amount of attention in Western theological discussion over the past decade.  Of course, the most popular strand of this discussion centered around Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins”, with denser strands weaving through the academic realms of publication and discussion.

Much of the conversation is built around distaste for the concept of never-ending punishment, particularly as it is wrapped in imagery of fire and burning.  This leads to several valid questions:

  • What depiction of hell is truly biblical, and what has been developed through the art and literature of the ages?
  • How literally or metaphorically are we to take what Scripture does tell of the final judgment?
  • What do biblical words like “Gehenna” really mean?

These are just a sampling of the sub-topics that factor into the larger discussion of “What do you make of the concept of hell?”  Certainly, this discussion matters; to some, it appears to matter immensely.

I am not among that number.

Part of that is due to the following quote from Timothy Keller:keller3

“To say that Scripture’s image of hellfire isn’t wholly literal is no comfort whatsoever—the reality will be far worse than the image.”

We can hardly be blamed for our flesh-fettered views. Nerves and neurons, skin and sensation, these are the means by which we experience our world. And in that light, it is easy to see why heaven’s depiction is golden and lavish, while hell’s is dark and despairing.

But what if our senses misguide us?

sensesWhat if the imagery–as vivid as imagery and language can formulate–fails to capture the intensity?

What if the most intense scenes of suffering that a human imagination can generate are pitifully poor metaphors for communicating the reality of a creature cut off from its Creator?

It seems easy to convince people that heaven will actually surpass an experience revolving around golden streets and massive mansions.  We recognize that the extravagant physical depictions fail to express even a sliver of the spiritual reality. We acknowledge that the core of that experience will center upon the overwhelming and unmissable presence of God and upon the river of life-to-the-full that will flood-flow from Him to His companions.

Humanity’s heaven imagery is pale and poor to communicate the intensity of the reality.

Yet seldom is an equivalent argument applied to hell.  And if the case is made, then it’s made only halfway.  It is one step to recognize the limitations of imagery and vocabulary.  One can say that without saying much.

But it is a big-as-a-beast statement to suggest that the imagery of hell, the metaphors that make us squirm, even buck against the entire concept, are actually too weak to communicate the magnitude of the reality.

If heaven is actually better than jewel-encrusted architecture, then the counter-statement stands too.

Hell is worse than burning.

C.s.lewis3C.S. Lewis used to speak of “the unsmiling concentration upon Self, which is the mark of hell.”  Unchecked and freely reigning within a life, self-centeredness consumes in ways sparks never will.  It scars the soul and warps one’s world.  And it appears that anyone who desires this path can have it. So powerfully are we created that our choices in the present life ripple through eternity.

But we’d be wise to make our choices, aware that the imagery is not nearly so fierce as the reality.

Hell is worse than burning.

YOUR TURN: How do you handle the Bible’s imagery of the afterlife, in light of the thought that the imagery is actually light-weight when compared to the reality?

Become part of the conversation. Your voice makes this post better.

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