Shadows of Sheol

About ten years ago, I suffered a crisis of faith. My life was simple compared to the lives of others around the world and throughout history. As a child, I grew up in a loving family and never went hungry. As an adult, I married a kind man who was willing to support me and our children both monetarily and spiritually. The very facility of my world caused my crisis of faith, I’m sorry to say, because to me life was a struggle.

I struggled mentally, I struggled for time, I struggled with health. Yet, I knew I didn’t deserve the luxury of unhappiness. So many people had suffered–were at that moment suffering–more than I could imagine. And because of their suffering, many people would reject God. At some point, I began wondering how a loving God could punish all nonbelievers with eternal torment, after those nonbelievers had lived difficult lives on earth. Why not simply put them out of their misery? Eternal torture is an appalling and incomprehensible idea, even to the basest human being. The most tortuous methods of capital punishment eventually end in death–thank God, a way out of misery, no matter what crime was committed!

These conflicting emotions I felt for God endured for a long time–years, perhaps. I don’t actually remember. I do remember accusing myself of being a heretic and blasphemer, while simultaneously acknowledging that I had no choice but to believe in God and to accept that he was just and righteous. My belief in God and the sacrifice of his son Jesus was rooted so deeply in my soul that I knew I could never pull it out. It was a done deal–I was a Christian, no matter the outcome.

Then one evening, while sitting in my parents’ kitchen, I began ranting about the injustice of eternal torment. I was angry, and at some point, the pressure was bound to cause an explosion. Much to my surprise, my husband unemotionally answered my rant by telling me that the doctrine of eternal torment wasn’t in the Bible. My dad, always the skeptic, claimed that the Bible said so little about hell that it was difficult to come to any hard and fast dogmas about it. At first, I didn’t believe them. Multiple pastors and teachers had taught me eternal torment from the time I was a small child. I wanted to believe my family members, though, because they gave me hope. In fact, the burden that had rested on my shoulders for so long lifted just at the prospect of hope.

In the years since that night, I’ve studied the scriptures without filtering them through the preconceived notion of eternal torment. I’ve read the Bible multiple times sans dogmatic glasses, and examined the specific passages Christians use to corroborate their stance on hell. I have to conclude that my husband is correct. God forgive me if I’m wrong, but the eternal torment doctrine doesn’t appear to exist in scripture. The wages of sin is death, the Bible says, NOT eternal life in hell.

Why am I bringing this up now? I’ve read one too many articles on Rob Bell and the controversy surrounding his book. I haven’t read his book and most likely won’t. I wouldn’t consider myself a universalist by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t know that Rob Bell is, either. What I appreciate about Rob Bell is his willingness to question something that is clearly dogma, and not necessarily scripture. 



  1. Have you read CS Lewis' The Great Divorce? I've always identified strongly with his imagined hell–as a self-imposed separation from God. Sin is separation from God, death is the ultimate succumbing to our physical, not spiritual selves. Or at least that's my likely half-blasphemous interpretation 🙂

  2. Actually, that's kind of funny. My husband and I were just talking about C.S. Lewis' interpretation of hell last night–he describes it further w/ the dwarfs in Narnia heaven. It's definitely a fascinating idea.

  3. When I grew up Catholic, I was told in Catholic schools that non-Catholics were damned. Martin Luther and Satan were best buddies. I spent years trying to convince my best friend, Jennifer (a Baptist) that she HAD to become a Catholic or she was doomed. Fortunately, she never took me seriously! Ironically, my children grew up being told by their friends and summer Bible school camp staffs that Catholics were not 'saved' and therefore going to hell! Saint Augustine wrote that in the end, it will all be God loving God. Or something like that. Thanks for sharing your torment! You are a very interesting person and I truly hope we meet one day in the desert. Keep writing and sharing.

  4. Funny, I suffer from the reverse: I naturally disbelieve in eternal torment…but I wish I did!

    I really, really love Dante's Inferno, and how seriously it takes the problem of sin. Eternal hell is a beautiful, horrific expression of separation from the Holy. [I'm leaving out the part about how much more I love Dante's Paradiso, and lament how few people have ever read the Comedy in its totality. This changes ones view on torment considerably.]

    Trouble is, my natural self doesn't "buy" the illustration of hell that you describe.

    All this to say that I have not meditated or studied this subject in any serious detail, and I appreciate you bringing it up, because now I am going to.

    It doesn't matter what my natural belief is, nor what my natural inclination is. What matters is what is true.

    Thanks for enhancing my prayer life and study with your intriguing assertion! If I discover anything interesting (doubtful – the lessons I learn from Christ are applied with a dull instrument!) I'll let you know.

  5. Brenna, I'd love to meet you, too. Maybe we'll meet at a feis one day. As far as Catholic vs Lutheran/Protestant, I can see it from both perspectives. The Catholic church may be the original church, but they were clearly doing wrong things, and Luther was right to call them on selling indulgences, for example. Oh, well. I suspect that all Christians are part of the eternal church of God. It's a good thing God is in control and not man!

  6. xdpaul, my natural self doesn't accept the version of eternal torment, either. Yes, I understand what you're saying about the seriousness of sin. I really do. But should punishment go on and on w/o end? As you said, ultimately, it doesn't matter what I believe or you believe. I suspect that the afterlife is going to surprise us all. I go forward in this life by the grace of God–and that's why I use that as my profile description.

  7. Maybe we have different translations. In the NIV, Matthew and Mark mention being thrown into hell several times, even referencing "the fire of hell."

    Regardless, my stance is based on God's loving words–whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved. What a blessing to not have to earn eternal life!

  8. Jill, yes, the Bible does speak of the fire of hell, but what it doesn't say is that unbelievers will suffer eternal torment. I can't deny the existence of hell, even if you parse out the several words that are translated into one–it's the eternal torment that I can't find in scripture.

    I also agree w/ you that "whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved". I find that to be a great relief for my soul–it was my image of God and his character that suffered from the teaching of eternal torment.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  9. It is taught in some Christian circles that, "Man was created Eternal; it's up to each individual to decide where he wants to spend his Eternity: in Heaven with God, or in Hell, in Eternal Separation from God."

    Can anyone demonstrate the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Human Soul using the Scriptures? And here I am not referring to the Immortality of the Redeemed, but rather the Immortality of the UN-Redeemed.

    At the heart of the question is whether or not the Unbeliever's Soul will exist forever, and can we demonstrate this Biblically?

    I seriously question the above supposition, that "Man was created eternal". Adam and Eve were created to be Eternal, but through their rebellion against God, Sin and Death entered the world. We all, through sin, live under this Curse of Death, and do NOT, therefore, posess Immortality of the Soul inherently (outside of Christ).

    St. Paul says this in Romans 6:23 (NIV): "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord".

    Here, Immortality (Eternal Life) is the remedy for the Curse of Death, and is pictured as being a gift from God, through belief in Christ. Again, Immortality of the Human Soul is NOT pictured as something that the individual possesses inherently, but rather as being a gift from God.

    St. John the Revelator says in Revelation 20:14 (NIV), "Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

    Since the first death was the death of our earthly bodies, this second death spoken of here would logically represent the Death of our Soul.

    In fact, St. Matthew, in Matthew 10:28 (NIV), tells us, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

    St. Matthew takes the time to warn us to fear God who can destroy our Souls in Hell. This is what we are told to fear.

  10. Thank you, Joel. I wonder why many of us are so certain the human soul is eternal regardless of whether we accept the atoning sacrifice of Christ. You gave the dissertation I didn't want to give!

  11. I didnt address this earlier because my soul is very weary of this. Very weary of those proponents of torment who claim to be honouring the idea of a Just God but more seem to be honouring their own desire to see punishment come to those whom they dislike.

    About three years ago God started convicting me very clearly. The conviction was that i was to no longer mention damnation…not even jokingly. (i have an ex-Christian friend who is forever mocking my 'adherance to bronze age mythologies' and i joke back that 'im not the one going to hell.').

    The upshot of that conviction and years of research into the Bible was that God has given us, the church, several things to do. Take up our cross daily, love as Christ loved, go into ALL the world and preach the Gospel of Grace. Nowhere in the New Testament are we deputized as a posse of fright, to scare others into a fear-based atonement.

    Whenever I would raise the question of punishment, God is very clear that
    –our ways are not God's ways.
    –without the concept of eternity that God has, we cannot fully understand how God will deal with those who are not redeemed by claiming Christ.
    –it is NOT our job to 'be in on it'.

    I ponder the options of eternity from time to time. But I cannot know…nor does God want me to know…the end truth. And fighting about it changes nothing. As loudly as Rob Bell's opponents embrace hell for others, they cannot build a fire. As many books as Bell publishes, he cannot redeem a soul. God is God amd its best if we just love, show love and follow.

  12. Katherine, I mostly agree w/ what you're saying. I agree w/ it, but on a personal level, I had to seek an understanding of the afterlife. I don't know that what I discovered is the ultimate truth, BUT I do know that if eternal torment is not taught in scripture, then it is a horrible, horrible doctrine to be teaching from the pulpit.

    The afterlife is pertinent because Christ talks about it. He wants us to know that the wages of sin is death. He wants us to know that through his blood, we have eternal life.

    We are to show love to others, but we aren't to shut off our brains. Seeking truth is very important to me. So although I agree w/ what you're saying, I can't go w/ it completely. And I also want to add that I didn't bring any scripture references to the table for a reason. It's true–I love debate. More than that, though, I want others to seek out the truth for themselves.

  13. I am not saying that we need to shut off our brains. Not at all.

    Im just trying to say, but not saying well, that for me with my background i am personally convicted to not parse God's judgement.

    That means to me that i stay out of the is there a hell argument.

    The one thing i am emphatic about is that i believe the revivalist tradition of preaching damnation to convict souls of their need for redemption is a misuse of the Gospel.

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