Is Hell Figurative?

Q – I have a couple questions for you. After having a discussion with a family member, I need some help. We had quite a discussion on Heaven and Hell. This person thinks that Hell is figurative (along with most of the Bible). How do I help her with determining which verses are figurative and which are literal?

Jim – The biggest problem with a figurative interpretation of Scripture (sometimes called the “Allegorical Method” of interpretation) is that there are simply no ground rules. Once you determine that the words on the page do not actually mean what they say, then they can mean anything at all. That’s why the allegorical approach is so attractive – people can sound spiritual without having to actually study the language, context or proper exegesis of the text itself.

The opposite approach to Scripture is what’s called the “Literal Method” or “Face Value Method” of interpretation. That’s the method I subscribe to. That method seeks to understand the words on the page in their most natural meaning, taking into account the context, vernacular, figures of speech, development of language, and proper exegetical methods. In other words, it means what it says.

Now that is not to say that we “literalists” do not recognize an allegory when we see one. The apostle Paul argued that Abraham in the tent with Hagar was an allegory for Mt. Sinai, producing children of bondage. But a “face value” reading of Scripture recognizes Paul’s use of allegory without concluding that it gives us the license to go about freely allegorizing the rest of Scripture according to our own whim or level of understanding. In other words, Paul’s inspired use of allegory is meant to convey a very literal truth; but it does not fling the door wide open to every allegory (supposedly) discovered by every individual reader of Paul’s epistles.

The Literal Method recognizes that there are symbols in the Bible – particularly in the apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation. But, those symbols must be interpreted in keeping with their appearance in other books and in line with the type of interpretation we find in the whole of Scripture. Likewise, literalists recognize an analogy when we see one. When Jesus said, “I am the door,” we know that He was not saying He was a literal piece of wood with a handle. We recognize common figures of speech, like analogies and allegories, to mean what the original author meant for them to mean. Jesus clearly meant that He was the means of entrance into Heaven. That’s not tough to follow.

So, I approach the whole of the Bible to be literal, recognizing that the authors used figures of speech in order to convey their message. But, here’s the essential point: The purpose of any solid exposition of Scripture is uncovering and comprehending the original author’s meaning. We are not told in the Bible anywhere that we are to read it and understand it through the filter of our own tradition, insight, cleverness or personal interpretation. We are to labor to understand the original author’s intent and then align ourselves, doctrinally and spiritually, with what they taught.

The apostle Paul declared,

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph 4:4-6)

But, you simply cannot achieve that sort of unity and “one-ness” when everyone is able to read the Bible in their own fashion and interpret it privately. That leads to confusion and is the primary reason we have so many denominations, sects and schisms within Christianity.

Now, as far as Hell is concerned, Jesus spoke more about Hell than He did about Heaven. And He spoke of it in a very literal way, as a place where the fire is never quenched and worm never dies (Mark 9:44-48). It always amazes me to think that the Lord of Glory – who could speak of Heaven with the sort of familiarity that only comes from “insider’s knowledge” – can tell us about a place of eternal torment and separation from God, and then foolish sinful people will conclude that He didn’t know what He was talking about. Yet, these same people who deny the existence of a literal Hell seem very convinced of a literal Heaven and the surety of their arrival there.

So, I would ask your family member: “Do you believe in a literal Jesus who literally died to pay for our literal sins?” If they say yes, ask, “Do you believe that He ascended into Heaven – a literal Heaven?” If they say yes, they’re stuck. Literal Jesus who went to literal Heaven spoke often of a literal Hell. That’s the basis of Paul’s argument when he wrote,

“Now this expression, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.” (Eph. 4:9-10)

Paul argued that Jesus both ascended into Heaven and descended into the depths. They are equally literal places that Jesus visited. If Hell is figurative then Jesus was purposefully confusing us by how He spoke of it. And Heaven is equally figurative, in that case. And so are sin, redemption, glory, and the whole rest of the gospel message. That’s why allegorical/figurative interpreting is such a slippery slope.

Q – I’m not very good with these discussions. I try to use my limited knowledge, but I usually get stumped. 🙂  I learn a lot that way, though!

Jim – Ha! I like your attitude!

Q – We also talked about our physical appearance in heaven. Will we have a physical being or be just a spirit?

Jim – There are two answers to that question. When we die, our spirit departs our body and we take up residence with the Lord.

“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:8)

However, at the resurrection we will be given perfect physical forms, just as Jesus had after His resurrection.

“For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:” (Rom. 6:5)

“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” (1 Cor 15:42-44)

“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

So, just as Christ was arose in His own body – the very body that bore the holes in his hands and side, as Thomas confirmed – we also will be raised to perfect bodies that are as comfortable in Heaven as they are eating fish by the seaside. In other words, “We shall be like him.”

Q – Another family member brought up seeing the nail-scarred hands of Jesus. I couldn’t for the life of me find a Biblical reference to that event. Is there one? Or is that just something we all assume we’ll see when we see Jesus?

Jim – That’s not Scripture, per se. The phrase was popularized by an old hymn, “The Nail Scarred Hand” written by B.B. McKinney in the early 1900’s. The hymn was likely based on the Biblical account of Thomas placing his hands in Jesus’ hands and side to confirm the presence of Jesus’ actual physical form, although the hymn never makes that direct reference.

What your family member is recounting is a popular tradition. The reasoning goes, “If Thomas saw it, then we’ll see.” And that may be true. But, there is nothing in Scripture on which to base that conclusion.

Q – Let me thank you in advance for your help. I also want to say that I love your updated website. It looks great!

Jim – Thanks very much! I’ll pass your compliments along to our webmasters, without whom I’d be completely lost in a digital quagmire.

Q – I love the Q & A section. I learn so much from reading it.

Jim – And soon, you’ll be part of it!

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.