Don: All the great faiths seek to explain the afterlife. The prevailing notion is, and has long been, that this mortal life is not the end of the story; that something happens after death, and that what we do in this life affects what happens then.
In the Parable of the Wedding Feast, which we discussed not long ago, the guest who refused to wear the wedding garment was thrown into “outer darkness.”
Jesus spoke three times about the outer darkness. First, he mentioned it in the context of the Roman Centurion who had absolute faith in Him, in contrast with his fellow Israelites who did not:
“I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:10-12)
Second, the wedding feast guest who did not wear the wedding garment:
Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 22:13)
And third, in the Parable of the Talents, the servant who hoarded the talent (coin; a metaphor for God’s grace) his master gave him was thrown into outer darkness:
For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. Throw out the worthless slave [i.e., the servant who hoarded the talent] into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:29-30)
If there is outer darkness, logically there would seem to exist inner darkness as well. The implication of outer darkness is that it is so far away that light cannot reach it. The “black darkness” mentioned in the following passages, relating to the eventual destination of the fallen angels, also sound like outer darkness:
These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. (2 Peter 2:17)
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; (2 Peter 2:4)
The Book of Revelation is replete with the contrast between light with darkness. So too was the story of Creation:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 1:1-5)
The light and dark discussed here are not the presence and absence of photons from the sun and moon (which were not created until the fourth day). They are the presence and the absence of—the unity with and the separation from—God. John wrote of it:
This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10)
… the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.
Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining. The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:6-11)
And the concept is contained also in the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.… There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. (John 1:1-5;9)
The Gospel goes on to link the concepts of judgment and light/darkness:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:16-21)
Jesus Himself said:
“I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” (John 8:12)
And when He died, the light died with Him:
When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. (Mark 15:33)
Could it be then that consignment to outer darkness simply means eternal separation from God, condemned to exist in a place where there is no God and therefore no enlightenment, as opposed to the fiery, burning Hell of Dante’s Inferno and the Book of Revelation?…
Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” (Revelation 14:9-12)
We accept that the Book of Revelation is heavily weighted in symbolism. It is full of beasts and fire and fury and apocalyptic language, yet we tend to take passages such as this literally. The genius of the Book is that regardless of one’s time and place of origin, one can find one’s place within it. We of the Seventh Day Adventist Church have a very elaborate interpretation of the Book and find ourselves there, as do all others who study it and have studied it through the ages. Martin Luther and others took heart by finding themselves represented there and seeing that, in the end, good triumphs over evil.
An eternal flame suggests to me a metaphor that once judgment has been passed, evil will be gone for ever. There will be no ashes from which the Phoenix can arise. It is a flame that quenches evil.
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
This contrasts with the broad and all-encompassing invitation to the Wedding Feast but is in concord with the Book of Revelation:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;… (Revelation 7:9)
How can we reconcile the apparent contradiction? Jesus said He was the way:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)
and that He was the door:
I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:9-10)
…he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. (John 10:1)
The key is that in the story of the shepherd, it is not that people find the door—it is that the door finds people. The way is so narrow that we cannot find it; it must find us. But it is also narrow in the sense that it admits us individually, in single file, one by one. The invitation to the Wedding Feast is broad, but at the door to the banquet hall, each individual receives a custom-fitted wedding garment. The lone guest lacking a garment must have come like the thief, over the wall or through the window. Had he gone through the door, he could not have avoided wearing the garment.
The narrow way is not intended to exclude; it is intended to prepare each and every individual so that s/he is fit to enter the banqueting hall—the kingdom of heaven. Grace is to fit you just right: That is how the judgment works. This is how I reconcile the seeming contradiction between the narrowness of the gate and the vast multitude who get through it.
Anonymous: It makes sense that the fire of hell is not literal. The Biblical notion of eternity sometimes seemed to me not to mean it. There seems to be hell that is eternal and hell whose fire can be extinguished. I have come to the conclusion that the fire is not literal. Eternal separation from God is worse than eternal exposure to fire. Separated, we cease to exist. The Bible can be read literally or symbolically, but to me the symbolic interpretation makes more sense.
Robin: If there were eternal suffering in a fiery hell, it would make God a torturer. How could a God of love and mercy tolerate such torture?
Don: It would be worse: It would require a continual, active miracle to keep the damned alive in order to be continually burned. What is puzzling is that we accept the Book of Revelation as symbolic in all but the aspect of hell. Consistency alone would suggest that a fiery hell too, is symbolic, metaphorical. It is a holy fire which suppresses evil forever. Some young Baptist clergy have come under fire (!) recently for suggesting a similar interpretation. It seems most people prefer the literal interpretation.
Anonymous: Such people are represented in the Prodigal Son’s older brother, who could not accept that instead of being punished for his waywardness, his younger brother would actually be rewarded in the end. But how could people saved by the grace of God possibly be at peace if they knew that friends, family, and others were not saved? God’s mercy would not allow it. It is impossible to conceive of any benefit or joy to God from people who are not saved, whether they are in outer darkness or screaming in pain.
Robin: People assume the pain of hell is eternal because the joy of heaven is eternal. When we punish children, do we not punish them for ever?
Anonymous: The Bible says that evil necessarily exists on Earth. In this life, we need the contrast in order to understand good. But in the next life, it will not be necessary.
Mikiko: The “lake of fire” ((Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8)) is a symbol rather than a literal lake. The symbol of destruction is the same as Gehenna—Jerusalem’s garbage dump—but this is not hell. The Bible says that the lake of fire “means the second death.” (Revelation 20:14; 21:8) The first kind of death mentioned in the Bible resulted from Adam’s sin. This death can be reversed by resurrection and will eventually be eliminated by God (1 Corinthians 15:21, 22, 26.)
Kevin: I was brought up to believe in the literal interpretation. I personally take comfort in the symbolic interpretation. 😉
Anonymous: Perhaps there is a purpose behind a symbol so frightening as to be taken literally. Perhaps it helps to drive people to repentance, to bring them back to God.
Don: It has always scared people, especially children and the wealthy, and has been made more vivid and real through pictures and stories depicting it. The symbolic interpretation, and therefore the judgment, seems, on its face, less frightening—more watered-down—than the literal interpretation.
Anonymous: Maybe judgment is executed here during life on Earth, in the form of the hardships—the misery and sickness and remorse—we face in life.
Mikiko: There is no hell of torment. After Armageddon, the unrighteous simply die and that’s that. The righteous go on to live forever.
David: In (non-religious) Daosim there is no judgment. There is the Way, and one is on it whether one likes it or not. You may or may not reach enlightenment by the end of it. The whole question of a burning hell is made moot if everyone is saved—as Jesus said they are. We’ve talked about the kingdom of heaven on Earth, so why not a hell on Earth as well?
Don: …as Anonymous suggests…
David: Yes. And we consign ourselves to one or the other. Perhaps the way into heaven on Earth is narrow while the way into hell on earth is broad. But at the end of the day—at death—the outer darkness is for evil and evil alone. None of us can claim to be perfectly good, but neither can we claim to be perfectly evil. Some people try, but give themselves away when they smile at a puppy. There can be no ultimate hell for people who have some good in them—and everyone has some!
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