Yesterday Dan Brown’s newest book, Inferno, was published. Brown is the author of The Da Vinci Code. I didn’t read that book but I did see the movie. It was entertaining, but not instructive in a theological sense. According to this article from the BBC, Inferno borrows its title and theme from Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is another book I’ve heard of but never read.
I did read the BBC article, where the Stephen Tompkins gives us ten bits of information about hell. Some of them are well-known and others less so. I liked how he described the sources of this information about hell, such as being derived from representations of hell by Dante, Milton and Bosch.
The last of the ten points was the one that really caught my attention, i.e. that “Hell isn’t all that biblical.” Tompkins wrote:
“Very few of these ideas are from the Bible. The Bible does refer to Hell and its fires, but more of the details in Dante are drawn from Greek and Roman myths, and the vast majority are the creation of medieval Western imagination. Eastern Christian artists never shared their interest, and even in the West it was a late development - the doctrine of perpetual torment was propounded by the Lateran Council of 1215, just a century before Dante wrote. In modern times Christians have become increasingly skeptical about Hell. There are 622 verses in the Bible (in the New International Version) which mention Heaven, and 15 that mention Hell.”
On the one hand I can easily agree with Tompkins. Dante’s hell, or what I know of it from reading this article, isn’t all that biblical.
But on the other hand, something is either biblical, or it isn’t, and I don’t think the criteria of counting how many times a thing may be mentioned is a reliable way to decide if it is or isn’t. Another false argument against the existence of hell is the disparity between the number of times it is mentioned in the New Testament in comparison to the number of mentions in the Old Testament.
Hell certainly is a biblical concept, and one that Jesus taught about, both directly and indirectly. One example is in the Parable of the Goats and Sheep (Matthew 25:31-46), where to those on His left hand He says:
“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
And to those on His right hand He says:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
The closing verse of the passage makes clear that there are just two options for any particular person’s eternal destination, as He says:
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Jesus doesn’t say ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ in this passage but it is pretty clear that He is talking about both hell and its counterpart, heaven.
Tompkins insinuates that hell is a concept more suited to the Old Testament, because in the New Testament, where Jesus is essentially the ‘hero’, there are just 15 mentions of hell compared to 622 mentions of heaven. This is a variation of the theology of Marcion. Briefly, Marcion taught that different gods reigned in the different testaments, a ‘bad’ god of the Old Testament, who was superseded by a ‘good’ god in the New Testament. Marcion’s teaching is one of the oldest heresies of the church. Heresy is a strong word but I believe that it is rightly applied to Marcionism.
So, if you have read this far (and I am glad that you have) we can summarize that hell is indeed a biblical concept, as relevant today, when we have the New Testament, as it was to followers of God who only had the Old Testament to rely on.
Of course to accept that premise you have to accept that God reveals Himself authoritatively in the Bible. If you have doubts about God’s disclosure of Himself or His intentions in creation, as both are revealed in the Bible, then no attempt by me or anyone else to teach about hell or any other topic from a biblical vantage point will be persuasive.
Which brings me to Tompkin’s last point: that Christians are increasingly skeptical about hell. As in my earlier discussion of hell itself, the idea of skepticism about a biblical teaching, by Christians, who are largely presumed to believe biblical teachings, is a generally a consequence of the authority the Bible carries within a particular faith tradition and by individual believers.
Some Christian groups are strongly anchored in the Bible, while others are less so. Similarly the degree of which individuals within any tradition accept, or reject, the teaching of the Bible can vary greatly. A pastor who is anchored in the Bible, who believes that one redemptive story threads through it, and who tries to diligently preach all parts of it over the course time, will be the greatest factor in shaping the degree to which those in the congregation accept and, even better, understand, the teaching of the Bible and God’s claim on their life.
So I started with a somewhat ridiculous rhetorical question and have ended up at a place dear to my heart.
If you have read this far I believe that God either is making, or has made, a claim on your life.
Romans 10:9 says:
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.”
Those words are God’s sure and certain promise. If you know this promise I praise God for what He has done in you and I look forward to seeing what He will be doing next.
And if you don’t know this promise then I invite you to seek the good news that God has for you. If you need some guidance or a companion for the journey please feel free to contact me, for I would count it a pleasure to see any reader know the Good News of eternal life in Christ.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.