46 When all the citizens in the Tower of Shechem heard this, they went into the inner chamber of the temple of El-Berith. 47 This was reported to Abimelech, that all the citizens of the Tower of Shechem had assembled there. 48 So Abimelech and all the men who were with him went up to Mount Zalmon. He took an ax and cut a branch from the trees. He picked up the branch, put it on his shoulder, and said to the men who were with him, “Hurry and do what you have seen me do!” 49 Each of the men cut branches and followed Abimelech. They put the branches against the inner chamber and set it on fire. About a thousand men and women died, all who were in the Tower of Shechem.
We don’t need to talk about the details of what Abimelech did to the people who fled to the Tower of Shechem. But since we have already seen that Abimelech was acting within his rights (even if he may have done so unwisely), we can take a moment to talk about what this foreshadows: The fire of hell.
Let’s point out first of all that hell is a real place, a “somewhere,” and although we cannot place our fingers on a map to say where, we can say that hell is not on earth, and hell is not in heaven. It is elsewhere, “outside” of heaven, Revelation 22:15). The rich man in hell called it “this place of torment” (Luke 16:28), and Judas went “where he belongs” (Acts 1:25).
The simple definition of damnation is separation from God, but it would be better to remember that it is a separation from God’s grace and love, since the punishment there is divine, not the work of the devil. The devil has a dungeon there and is punished eternally along with the rest of his evil angels. It is “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), and they “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).
Permit me to share a paragraph from writer Ursula K. LeGuin. She is describing the land of death, which she calls the dry land, from the point of view of two travelers, one of them called Arren. “All those whom they saw—not many, for the dead are many, but the land is large—stood still, or moved slowly and with no purpose… They were not loathsome as Arren feared they would be, not frightening in the way he had thought they would be. Quiet were their faces…and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope…. He saw the mother and child who had died together, and they were in the dark land together; but the child did not run, nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it or ever look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the streets” (“The Farthest Shore,” p. 173). Ms. LeGuin’s vision of the land of the dead is agonizingly sad in its own way, but falls short of what the Bible says. Jesus’ description of hell is of a place not only of punishment but also of torment.
Our Lutheran teachers describe hell according to different groups of passages. Remember that our only source of information about this and any of the other teachings of the Bible is the Bible itself.
First, hell is a mala privativa, a “loss of good.” Idolaters, those who live in homosexual sins, the greedy, the gossips, the arrogant and many others “deserve death” (eternal death), Romans 1:32. “Whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).
In the same way, hell is a poena damni, a “punishment of loss.” “The wicked will not stand…in the assembly of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5). “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence” (Psalm 5:5). “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22).
Second, hell is a mala positiva, “an actual evil.” “They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42). “Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness” (Matthew 25:30). Hell is also described as “everlasting ruin” (Psalm 52:5).
In the same way, hell is a poena sensa, a punishment that will be felt. “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 2:9). “The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name” (Revelation 14:11).
There are some Christians who think that the punishment of hell will end after some period of time, so that the damned will have a rest from their torment. A common argument is that the phrase “for ever and ever” does not always mean eternity. “I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:7); here the duration is certainly a long time, but not an eternity. This is because the Hebrew ‘olam means “unbounded time,” and must always be translated according to context. Sometimes it means eternity, and sometimes it means a very long time in history. But when Jesus talks about “eternal punishment” it is in contrast with “eternal life,” (Matthew 25:46), so they have the same duration. And Jude calls the suffering of hell “eternal fire” (Jude 7). This is why our Augsburg Confession makes the Bible’s teaching clear: “(Our churches) condemn the Anabaptists, who think that there will be an end to the punishments of condemned men and devils” (XVII,4).
So the Bible uses terms like fire, tribulation, anguish, torment, darkness, to have no peace, to be thrust out, and to have these things without end (Isaiah 66:24). Some have asked: Will the fire of hell be a real fire, a supernatural fire, or a figurative fire like a permanent uneasiness and terror? I suppose we can reserve our human judgment on what the fire of hell will be. What we must do is pray that we will not discover the answer by experience. People who try to say that they don’t have to suffer hell because they’re already experience some horrible pain on earth have a complete misunderstanding of what hell is. Just because a driver on the tollway pays for his lunch at the drive thru doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have to pay the toll at the end of the road.
Finally, we need to remember that the Bible describes hell for us as a warning, so that we will understand the punishment for sin and have the desire to escape it through Christ, who said: “Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
The escape from hell is not something we do ourselves. We don’t wriggle out of it by our own craftiness; we don’t talk our way out of it like a child escaping punishment from an indulgent parent. No, the punishment of hell fell onto Jesus, who suffered in our place (Isaiah 53). He had to be lifted up on the cross, “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15). Jesus has us firmly in his grasp, and has rescued us from every part of the eternal sufferings of hell. Through Jesus, we have everything else to look forward to – joy, peace, reunion, praise, healing, prosperity, contentment and everlasting love.
Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.