Hell is a topic not many of us know much about, but one that also puts plenty of people off following Jesus altogether. What do Christians believe about hell and how should it impact the way we live our lives?
A study on Matthew 25:31-46 for young adults from the Society of Salt and Light, in Christchurch.
A quick introduction to the week’s bible passages and theme, which aims to engage people in the big picture of God’s story, and the challenge of living faith in light of that.
New Zealand is currently ranked by the UN as the least corrupt nation in the world. We have access to lawyers, police, judges, courts and justice in a way that most people on the planet simply couldn’t imagine. You see , right now people all over the world are having limbs hacked off by warlords in Congo, instant executions in Syria, children are being sold for sex in Thailand, teenage girls are being stoned to death for being raped in Pakistan.
And the challenge God faces amongst all this is how should all of this be made right in the end? Should the perpetrators – most of whom get away scot-free in this life – require a final reckoning? Or is God in the business of forgiving and forgetting for everyone?
This problem of cosmic injustice isn’t just a Christian thing either – it’s one of the questions all religions wrestle with. Hinduism and Buddhism explain that cosmic justice is dealt with by karma. So, if you’re good you come back a demi-god, and if you’re bad you come back as a cabbage, or with Parkinson’s disease.
But us Christians claim to worship and serve a God who cares deeply for justice in the now. Our God wants the wrongs of this world to be made right – and not just at an earthly level, but at a cosmic level too.
And that’s where Hell comes in. It’s a very very very tricky subject. It’s often controversial, and it’s a concept that some people obsess over, or get anxious about, or ignore, or reject. These days Hell even puts some people off following Jesus altogether.
While final judgement is mentioned all over the place in the bible (see Angry God) the nature of the outcome of that judgement is mostly alluded to by Jesus – most often using the metaphor of Gehenna (translated Hell), which in Jesus’ day was the city dump. Most of the time when Jesus talked about Hell it was in parables, like our Matthew 25 passage, so the Bible gives us few direct facts and teachings on it.
So, what do we know about Hell, and what are the different Christian views on it? Why might a loving God possibly require such a seemingly nasty place? How do we talk to our friends about Hell? And perhaps most importantly, if Hell does exist, how do we avoid it?
For the Scholars
Discussion questions focusing on exploring the bible passage.
1. In this passage Jesus seems to put a lot of weight on what we do in this life and the eternal consequences of our decisions. Do you think the present we live in is trivial and unimportant or the arena that determines our eternal destiny? Why?
2. In our passage Jesus’ picture of the sheep and the goats represent two ways of living: one blessed and embraced by God and the other cursed, sent into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. The passage offers a clear distinction between these two groups that we are perhaps uncomfortable with. What are the criteria given in this passage for those who are “sheep” and those who are “goats”. Does this surprise you?
3. An important word when exploring the nature of Hell is found in our passage at verse 46 – the word ‘eternal’. In the Greek it’s used in terms of the concept of “eternal punishment”, and can mean punishment lasting for all of eternity (eg conscious eternal punishment), or punishment with eternal consequences (eg Annihilationism). Either way, the language is strong. But there is a lack of specific descriptions of what hell “looks like”, as that wasn’t the goal of Jesus’ story here. In the context of the wider story this verse is part of, what might be the point?
4. In his book ‘Love Wins’, Rob Bell says that “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” But in our passage we discover that Jesus sees how we live our lives now as being connected to our eternal life. Why do you think that Jesus links together the concept of eternal punishment and a lack of showing love and mercy for others?
5. Klyne Snodgrass, a biblical scholar with a crazy name, says that our passage is intended to “encourage alert, wise, and faithful living in anticipation of the second coming of Christ”. What would it look like for us to live in alert, wise and faithful anticipation of the second coming of Christ who according to the Nicene Creed will “come in glory to judge the living and the dead?”
6. Reading a passage like ours that so strongly connects the way we live our lives and the judgment we will face can make us feel anxious. But Hebrews 12 describes Jesus as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”, and the good news Christians believe is that through Jesus’ pioneering life, death and resurrection humans can now live lives oriented towards God and others with love and compassion. What would a conversation about hell with a “curious friend” look like if you focused on this good news of hope, rather than the threat of hell?
7. HARD QUESTION: Many Christians downplay any thought of final judgement and its consequences altogether, even in their own minds. Does all this Hell talk remind you at all of the urgency in sharing the gospel in a world where people only have one lifetime to hear it?
FOR THE DREAMERS
Discussion questions focusing on mulling over the theme.
1. What comes to mind when you think about the idea of hell? Have your beliefs or ideas of hell changed as you’ve gotten older? Do you even believe in a form of hell – why or why not? (watch Peter Carrell’s ‘What Happens Next?’ video for options: Universalism, Annihilationism, Eternal Separation from God)
2. Some Christians seem to enjoy a sort of power trip in proclaiming people as being hell-bound, while many others prefer to downplay the many passages in Scripture about God’s final judgement. (Watch the NT Wright video on ‘Hell & Bell’ with his reaction to Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins’). What might be the problem with either of these tendencies? Which way do you tend to lean towards and why?
3. Jesus introduced the concept of Hell in the New Testament, which comes from the word “Gehenna.” which in Jesus day was a valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem and was the city dump (watch the “Maldives’ ‘apocalyptic’ waste island” video for a modern day example of Gehenna). Why do you think Jesus used this image to paint a picture of where a life leads that isn’t committed to God?
4. James Beck, a presenter at our SHAME Salt and Light summit said he attempted to live his life more often representing heaven on earth than hell on earth. What do you think he meant by that? What does hell on earth look like?
5. In his book ‘Love Wins’, Rob Bell says that “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” But in our passage we discover that Jesus sees how we live our lives now as being connected to our eternal life. Why do you think that Jesus links together the concept of eternal punishment and a lack of showing love and mercy for others?
6. In our passage Jesus’ picture of the sheep and the goats represent two ways of living: one blessed and embraced by God and the other cursed, sent into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. The passage offers a clear distinction between these two groups that we are perhaps uncomfortable with. What are the criteria given in this passage for those who are “sheep” and those who are “goats”. Does this surprise you?
7. One of the problems we face in understanding Hell is that scripture gives us little information to answer all the questions or objections we might have. (Eg Is hell a metaphor or literal? Eternal or temporal? How hot is it? Where is it located? Why is it?) How could focusing too much on the little we do know about Hell impede us from sharing with the world the Good News and hope of Jesus that God wants us to focus on?
8. HARD QUESTION: Many Christians downplay any thought of final judgement and its consequences altogether, even in their own minds. Does all this Hell talk remind you at all of the urgency in sharing the gospel in a world where people only have one lifetime to hear it?
FOR THE REALISTS
Possibilities for on topic testimonials, sharing and story telling.
Hell on Earth: Ask someone from your church to talk for 5 minutes on an overseas experience where they witnessed an example of “hell on earth”. How did they respond to what they saw – both outwardly and inwardly? Remember to give them at least a few days warning so they can prepare well.
FOR THE ACTIVISTS
Activities and adventures beyond the couch.
Heaven on Earth: Hell on earth exists for many people, even here in Christchurch. And for some woman that hell comes in the form of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at home. Get your group to be active inbreakers of “Heaven on Earth” by organising a donation drive for stuff that the Women’s Refuge needs to help support these women. At the time of writing this study, they needed clothes, nappies, sheets, new women & children’s underwear, babies & children’s socks, children & family DVDs, toiletries, cushions and bedside lamps. Best to contact them to find out what they need currently, and then get to it.