Posts Tagged ‘Hell’

Changing the picture of hell: 23 August

August 23, 2017

Giovanni Rimini Harrowing Only

Here is Jesus pulling people out of hell. This was the dominant picture of hell for many years. ‘Look! Jesus rescues people from hell.’ A hopeful picture.

This picture is one of six which together make up the Scenes from the Life of Christ, by Giovanni di Rimini, usually seen in Rimini, but currently, until 8 October, in a special small exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The catalogue describes the painting as showing the standard highlights of the life of Jesus. At the time, 1300 – 1305, it was normal to show Jesus pulling people out of hell.

Jesus pulling people out of hell is usually called The Harrowing of Hell. Harrowing here has an old, Middle English, meaning of Despoiling. Jesus is making hell impotent, depleted, empty. This is an accepted and important part of what Jesus came to do.

Very soon, though, this picture changed dramatically. Dante’s Inferno, the most influential book on hell ever, was written about 1314. Over the door of Dante’s hell is written ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ The idea that Jesus can and does pull people out of hell was quashed. Fear replaced hope.

Dante was writing graphically about the hell described by the theologian Thomas Aquinas. The Church made this ‘no hope, more fear’ version of hell the dominant one. The Harrowing of Hell was no longer painted. Instead we see

Salisbury-St-Thomass-credit-to-www.visitwiltshire.co_.uk_Photo from

Here Jesus presides over people being thrown into a vividly tormenting hell. Jesus is far removed from these people, and seems not to care about them. Their awful fate is sealed as decided, or supervised, by Jesus.

These pictures, of the Doom, or Last Judgement, became common, replacing the Harrowing of Hell. Above is the best preserved English painting, in St Thomas’ Church, Salisbury, painted about 1475.

Florence Duomo Fresco 2Photo by Paolo Villa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Here is perhaps the most well-known Last Judgement painting, from the Duomo Cathedral in Florence. The artist Vasari began this in 1568 and it was completed by Federico Zuccari in 1579.

As in the English painting, the people in inescapable torment in hell are closest to the congregation. Seeing these agonised people, remote from Jesus, gives a very different message from seeing Jesus pulling people out of hell. ‘Look Jesus presides over people being tormented in hell forever.’

Hell changed in the early 1300s. The painting now in the National Gallery is perhaps the last still to show Jesus pulling people out of hell.

Why did the picture of hell change then? What is the true picture of hell? My book The Lie of Hell gives answers. Or search ‘hell’ for other posts on this blog.

The picture of hell has changed. It needs to change again – to the Hades and Gehenna about which Jesus spoke. Hades the tormenting remand prison before Final Judgement; Gehenna the unquenchable fire after Final Judgement where some unrepentant humans are destroyed, body and soul. This dual picture includes Jesus having, and, by implication, using, the keys of Hades, pulling people out of Hades. A stern warning and a serious, sure, splendid, hope.

Roger Harper



Rethinking Hell in London: 10 November

November 10, 2016

Rethinking Hell in London was a great conference with stimulating speakers, interested and perceptive attenders. Much fascinating talk about the subject at meal times, not usual at Christian conferences. We would have liked more people to share the truth-seeking. I left heartened and energised by gracious engagement with an important subject.

My message was that the traditional Hell is a distortion of the Biblical message of Hades and Gehenna. Part of the distortion is talking of one place instead of two, assuming that when Jesus used two names, He meant the same place.

This distinction was new to many there and challenged by one of the other speakers. Some said that the most useful part of my presentation was to chart the differences between Hades and Gehenna:

Hades                                   Gehenna

Torment                                Destruction

After death                            After Judgement

Has gates and keys                Is a fire, a lake of fire

Presence of Jesus                   Away from Jesus

Presence of holy angels          Same place as beast, devil, false prophet

No fear                                  Fear

Gospel preached                     ?

Jesus risen as first fruit           No resurrection from this second death

Ends at Final Judgement         ‘Eternal’

Part of the distortion is that on entering Hell, understood as after death, wicked people are supposedly told ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ Jesus, in contrast, says ‘Don’t be afraid… I have the keys of Death and Hades.’ This means that Jesus has the power and authority of entry and exit to Hades, where the wicked go when they die. Jesus can go in and out of Hades and take people in and out of Hades. I consider Jesus not only can, but does. Jesus can and does seek and save the lost even in Hades. This is why we are not to fear.

You can hear me explaining this at the first, 2014, Rethinking Hell Conference in Houston, here:

This year, as requested, I talked about responses to the message of Hades and Gehenna.

Complexity: An honest response might be: ‘One hell, that of endless torment, was bad enough. Now you are talking about two hells!’ We are so used to thinking that eternal life begins the moment we die. It takes time and effort to take in that there is life after death before Final Judgement and more, or no, life after Final Judgement.

Clarity and Confidence: ‘I have got really excited about the whole thing. Now you wouldn’t expect someone to get excited about hell, but you might understand someone getting excited about there being no hell…’ The words of David Munby to his congregation in Barnsley, Yorkshire. A Church Warden wrote: ‘Now there is more clarity and less mystery, more appreciation of Jesus as my Saviour and the Saviour of others, more connection with God as my loving Father.’

Comfort: One elderly woman in a Malaysian home group had tears in her eyes as she thought about the hope of Jesus using his keys for her good non-Christian parents. She is far from alone.

One man in my prison was much disturbed by being inside when his mother, not a Christian, was terminally ill and then died. He had had sessions of bereavement counselling but was still distressed. As his release approached, the issue became more acute. I talked with him of Jesus being able to take messages to people who have died, (because He has the keys of Hades and came to serve us.) The man wrote a letter to his mother with all he wanted to say. We placed it on the Communion table. I told him that this was not only a symbol. Jesus really was taking those words and delivering them to his mother. A few weeks later the prisoner considered that he had no further need of talking about this either to myself or the bereavement counsellor. He was simply less distressed than before and could face his upcoming release in a better frame of mind.

Talking to Jesus, asking Him to pass on a message, is much better than the common, unhealthy, practice of talking directly to the dead, either at the grave or when looking at the stars.

Repentance: When our emphasis is ‘Don’t be afraid. Jesus has the keys, even after death,’ this feels like ‘Don’t be afraid. Jesus has the keys to unlock a better future for you in this life as well.’ There is always a point in repentance. All will need to do it, and the sooner the better. It is never too late.

Disturbance: Many people, particularly in the UK, believe that ‘we all’ (except maybe the few really wicked people) go to heaven because we’ve led decent lives. The message of Hades and Gehenna can make these people uncomfortable, disturbed. When talking in churches it is best to begin with the more comforting message of Paradise and the New Universe. The words of Jesus, and of John the Baptist, however were deliberately disturbing to those who considered they were basically all right on their own.

Being ignored: David Hilborn, Principal of St John’s School of Mission and Editor of the Evangelical Alliance Report The Nature of Hell wrote of my book The Lie of Hell ‘it deserves serious attention and a serious response.’ Instead there has so far been virtually no response.

Why carry on with the message of Hades and Gehenna?

Because it is Jesus’ truth.

Because it can unite Christians. Traditionalists who hold to the idea of ongoing torment for the wicked after death can see that this happens in Hades. It is ‘for ages and ages’ but not eternal. Universalists who hold to the idea that most, maybe all, people will eventually reach ‘heaven’ can see that Jesus having and using the keys of Hades makes this likely, though not certain.

Because it might unite Protestants and Roman Catholics. Can Protestants accept Hades as Biblical, separate from and preceding Gehenna, the Hades to which Jesus has the keys and to which the Church has access, the gates availing nothing? Can Catholics accept Hades as the lost ancestor of Purgatory, the truer, more original, teaching of the Church founded on the revelation given to Peter? Protestants would have to learn what is the role of the Church beyond this life, instead of dismissing the idea of any such role for the Church. Catholics would have to learn the true nature of Hades, of which Purgatory is an artificial shadow, and from which release is not earned through penance or prayer, but given as free gift through the gracious forgiveness of Jesus and to which the Church bears witness.

Because it might improve society. Sociologists have shown a link between a general belief in an ‘or else’ after death and both lower crime rates and economic growth. See

With the message of Hades and Gehenna we help the Church, and the nations, to be transformed by the renewing of our understanding. We spearhead a unity that the Church has not known for hundreds of years. We annihilationists become redundant because there are no more conflicting schools of thought but one Church built on the foundation of Jesus’ teaching, Hades and Gehenna. We are agents of renewal in faith and hope and love for everyone.


A hell of a message? My paper at the Rethinking Hell Conference: 15 September

September 15, 2016

A hell of a message? Proclaiming ‘the other place’ after death, to people in the UK is the title of the Paper I will be presenting at the Rethinking Hell Conference in London, October 7 & 8, in one of the ‘Breakout’ sessions.

Breakout is a good heading for what I have to say.  Jesus enables people to break out of ‘hell.’ This understanding, drawn from the Bible, breaks out of usual, historic, Christian teaching.

The organisers asked me to cover more of the ‘So what?’ particularly in the UK context. I have explained in detail the Biblical basis for the ‘breakout’ view of ‘hell’ in my book The Lie of Hell ( and in my Paper in A Consuming Passion ( ) So what difference does the message of Hades and Gehenna make to people, to churches, to society? This year’s Paper gives my answers along with those of others who have grasped this understanding.

I will give an overview of how people in this country now see ‘hell’, and have seen it in the past, particularly in the 19th Century. Then look more closely at the Church of England understanding, somewhat muddled (not unusual) but surprisingly Biblical. Jesus taught of two places for the wicked after death, using two different names, Hades and Gehenna. Hades is the remand prison before Final Judgement. Gehenna is the destroying fire into which the devil will ultimately be thrown, along with any people who still want to be attached to the devil and his ways. Jesus has said he has the keys of Hades and this is to take away our fear. He can let people in and out of Hades. This means that there is hope and comfort for everyone, along with a warning that all of us will need, sooner or later, to admit our mistakes. Through this understanding there is a possibility of bridging some of the great Christian divides, including the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Some people may well think that I am making some outrageous claims. There should be lively debate.

Please join us if you can:

Afterwards I will post more of my claims and the response to them.

Roger Harper

Proof of Hades? The Experience of Eben Alexander: 8 July

July 8, 2015

‘Darkness, but a visible darkness – like being submerged in mud yet also being able to see through it… Consciousness, but consciousness without memory or identity – like a dream where you know what’s going on around you, but have no real idea of who, or what, you are… My consciousness wasn’t foggy or distorted when I was there. It was just … limited.’ (p29f)

This was the first part of Eben Alexander’s Near-Death Experience in November 2008 as related in his book Proof of Heaven (Simon and Schuster 2012). His Experience is significant in that his brain definitely had no functioning at all, nor any possibility of functioning. As a neuro-surgeon, he concludes that his brain could not possibly have been giving him the Experience in some kind of hallucination. The only explanation he can see is that his soul was truly experiencing life beyond this life.

Eben calls the place where he first found himself ‘Underworld’ or ‘The Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View.’ ‘… like being a mole or earthworm, buried deep in the ground yet somehow able to see the tangled matrices of roots…’ (p30)

The Old Testament’s answer to the question ‘Where do people go when they die?’ was ‘To Sheol – a place of darkness and semi-consciousness, a gloomy half life.’ ‘…for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.’ Ecclesiastes 9:10 ‘… the underworld was not a particularly important concept for the Israelite writers… Descriptive details are very sparse, but suggest a somnolent, gloomy existence without meaningful activity or social distinction…’ (Philip S Johnston Shades of Sheol – Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament, Apollos IVP 2002, p85) Sheol was synonymous with ‘The Pit’ or ‘The Grave;’ the dead were understood to be half-living down under the earth – very much like a mole or earthworm.

Jesus talked of Sheol with its Old Testament understanding. When the New Testament was written, in Greek rather than Hebrew, the writers used the Greek name Hades as the translation of Sheol. (This is clearest in Acts 2 where Peter quotes Psalm 16.) Hades in the New Testament is the same place as Sheol in the Old Testament.

Jesus spoke of Sheol as a place to which people are brought down, a place of darkness and also a place of affliction. The deeply unpleasant nature of (semi-) existence in Hades / Sheol was one of Jesus’ additions to our understanding of it. Jesus also spoke of ‘the outer darkness where there is weeping wailing and gnashing of teeth’ implying that there may be different sections of Hades / Sheol with different degrees of darkness and affliction.

For Eben Alexander the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View was deeply unpleasant. He was immersed in sound, ‘a deep, rhythmic pounding, distant yet strong … like the sound of metal against metal, as if a giant subterranean blacksmith is pounding an anvil somewhere off in the distance: pounding it so hard that the sound vibrates through the earth, or the mud, or wherever it is that you are.’ (p29) ‘Grotesque animal faces bubbled out of the muck, groaned or screeched, and then were gone again. I heard an occasional dull roar. Sometimes these roars changed to dim, rhythmic chants, chants that were both terrifying and weirdly familiar – as if at some point I’d known and uttered them all myself.’ (p31)

‘How long did I reside in this world? I have no idea… When I was there, I felt like I (whatever “I” was) had always been there and would always continue to be.’ (p29f) Eben Alexander uses the word ‘aeons’ or ‘aeons and aeons’ (in a talk recorded for Youtube) to describe how long he was in the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View.

Revelation 14:9-11 describes people in Sheol / Hades in affliction ‘to ages of ages’ (to translate the Greek literally) or ‘to aeons of aeons.’

Although Eben felt like he would always be in the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View, he was rescued from it. First came ‘a feeling like I wasn’t really part of this subterranean world at all, but trapped in it.’ (p31) This made the experience worse, the rhythmic pounding more brutal, the faces more ugly and threatening, now with reptilian bodies he could feel rubbing against him. He could now smell a stench of death. ‘Whoever or whatever I was, I did not belong here. I needed to get out. But where would I go?’ (p32)

‘Even as I asked that question, something new emerged from the darkness above…’ (p32) ‘Turning slowly it radiated fine filaments of white-gold light, and as it did so the darkness around me began to splinter and break apart. Then I heard a new sound: a living sound, like the richest, most complex, most beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard… The light got closer and closer, spinning around and around… Then, at the very center of the light something else appeared… An opening. I was no longer looking at the slowly spinning light at all, but through it. The moment I understood this, I began to move up…’ (p38)

Eben was lifted up out of the darkness, with its brutal noise, into a place of light, colour, and beautiful, permeating, music. He calls this place ‘The Gateway.’ It sounds like Paradise as talked of by Jesus and Christians. The beautiful music, the same as made by the spinning light, came from innumerable immense beings which he calls the origin of the human understanding of angels. The spinning light which rescued him from the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View was, in our terms, an angel.

Jesus proclaimed to John in Revelation 1:18 that He has the keys of death and Hades. Nearly everyone understands these words to mean that Jesus has the authority and power of entry and exit to and from Hades. Jesus also has angels working for Him. When Jesus rescued Peter from prison in Jerusalem, He sent angels. Peter saw angels taking him out of prison, not Jesus, but he understood they were acting on behalf of Jesus, in answer to the fervent prayer being made for him. (Acts 12) Jesus can bring people out of Hades Himself; Jesus can also use angels to bring people out of Hades, as He did with Eben Alexander.

Eben describes fervent prayer for him. Firstly, his own prayer. Just before he became completely unresponsive ‘out of nowhere, I shouted three words. They were crystal clear and heard by all the doctors and nurses present… “God, help me!” ‘(p24) Secondly, the prayer of many Christians, family and friends, including his neighbour, Michael Sullivan, an Episcopal priest. They were asking Jesus to help Eben and Jesus did.

Later Eben returned to the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View and, through remembering the angel and the music, was able again to be lifted out. Then he returned to the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View without being able to be lifted out. This time, however, he was also aware of ‘countless beings … surrounding me, kneeling in arcs that spread into the distance.’ They were murmuring, a quiet version of the same glorious permeating sound of the angels in The Gateway / Paradise. ‘Looking back on it now, I realize what these half-seen, half-sensed hierarchies of beings, stretching out into the dark above and below, were doing. They were praying for me.’ (p103)

Revelation 14:9-11 not only describes people in affliction in Hades for ages and ages, but also ‘the holy angels’ present with the people in Hades.

Together with the angels praying in the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View Eben saw faces. ‘Two of the faces I remembered later were those of Michael Sullivan and his wife, Page. I recall seeing them in profile only, but I clearly identified them after my return when language came back. Michael had physically been in the ICU room leading prayers numerous times, but Page was never physically there (although she had said prayers for me too.)’ (p103) Six other faces, saying things, also appeared, faces of people he later identified as his wife, her sister, friends and his son.

In Matthew 16:18 talks about building His Church, ‘and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ Gates serve to restrict or prevent entry and exit to a place. Jesus is saying here that nothing will restrict or prevent His Church from entering and leaving Hades. As the angels join with Jesus in His mission to seek and to save the lost in Hades, so His people, those called out to belong to Him and His Father, also join with Jesus in that same mission. The Church’s role begins in this life and continues in the next. Even now, Christians, through prayer, can ‘enter’ Hades. The prayer of Christians is heard in Hades.

This ministry to the dead, prayer for the dead, is, doctrinally, most controversial. It has been much abused over the years and was a trigger for the Reformation. Yet, in the simple way Eben describes, we see confirmation of the simple extrapolation of the words of Jesus. The gates of Hades will not, do not, prevail against the Church. Hades cannot keep the Church out. Hades cannot keep the prayers of the Church out.

It is not only this aspect of the nature of Hades / Sheol that seems to be confirmed by Eben Alexander’s Experience, but every aspect. Eben knew nothing at all of the understanding of Hades / Sheol. (Very few people know of Hades / Sheol because people have instead been wrongly taught or have heard about ‘Hell.’ See The Lie of Hell for an explanation, Eben simply describes what he saw and felt. Even now he seems puzzled by what this Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View is. He coins his own name maybe because he is aware of no other name. His focus in the book and elsewhere is on other aspects of and conclusions from his Experience. He may well be surprised to learn that his Experience ties in so closely with the teaching of Jesus and the Bible about Hades / Sheol. He may also be pleased that the Bible shows clearly that Hades will one day be emptied and disposed of, together with all that is evil, all that works against life and the author of life.

Eben Alexander’s Experience could not possibly have been an experience in his human brain. He sees it as proof of heaven. It also looks remarkably like proof of Hades / Sheol.

Roger Harper



The US Church – The Good, The Bad, and the Divided: 1 November

November 1, 2014

The Church is America is stronger than it has ever been. At the time of the American Revolution and early in the 19th Century only about 15% of the population were church-going. 19th Century Canadians were much more church-going, peaking at nearly 90% of the population. In the 20th Century Canadians turned away from church dramatically, as did Europeans. Canadian church-going is now well under 20%. Through the 20th Century more Americans turned to the church. American church-going is now about 40% of the population. A huge number compared to the UK.

The US Church is a free-market Church. Churches, like everything else, have to compete in the marketplace. This raises the standard of communication and organisation. To attract members church leaders need to communicate clearly and engagingly. To retain members churches need to make people feel part of something good. We in the UK learn much from the US and have more to learn.

The large US Church contains all sorts and much that is excellent. Recently I came across Greg Boyd, Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota and founder of ReKnew, an organisation and website for developing a post-Christendom Christianity, Jesus-centred, non-violent, open-minded. Here’s part of their Manifesto:

It’s our conviction that the fearful, dogmatic rigidity that characterizes so much of contemporary Evangelicalism reflects an idolatrous relationship with beliefs, which in turn causes many to become hostile and unloving when debating doctrinal issues. We are convinced God is more concerned with the love with which we debate than the content of what we debate. (See more at:

‘Yes, yes, yes!’ I want to shout. Greg speaks and writes intelligently, engagingly, forthrightly. He and his church are definitely among the good.

Rachel Held Evans is a very popular US Christian blogger and book writer. She too communicates great truth intelligently and winsomely. Sometimes she harps on humourlessly about her main topics, but most weeks she has something well worth reading. She’s a good ‘un.

Other Yank good ‘uns more well known in the UK include Tony Campolo, Bill Johnson, Jim Wallis, Richard Foster, Philip Yancey, Mark Virkler, Bill Hybels and, (of course if you’re a regular reader) Edward Fudge. I have learnt and continue to learn great things from these good inspiring people. Please add to the list through the comments.

There is another side to the US Church. Greg Boyd set up ReKnew partly to counteract the strident Conservatives. Greg refers particularly to Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle. Mark has been a champion of muscular Protestantism – focusing on the call to repent above all else. He has been refreshingly gutsy, with a likeable cheekiness. He has attacked anyone who questions hell as eternal torment. He has argued that care for creation is irrelevant because the planet is going to be trashed when Jesus returns. He has insisted that women submit to their husbands. Mark came to the UK and was interviewed by Justin Brierley on Premier Radio and Christianity magazine. Mark was bombastic and aggressive to Justin, and then aggrieved when Justin broadcast the interview.

Mark Driscoll has run into mounting criticism, especially of his leadership style. On October 15 Mark resigned from Mars Hill Church, confessing ‘to past pride, anger and a domineering spirit.’ Yesterday Mars Hill Church announced it is disbanding. The 13 churches in its network will either run independently or will close. May this be a warning to those who promote hard attitudes and hard doctrine.

Gay marriage is causing a deep crisis in the US Church. Rachel Held Evans is all for it. Mark Driscoll is all against it. Many more people are lined up on either side. (I can’t see anything Greg Boyd has written about gay marriage, which would be interesting.) The conflict seems to be fierce. The conservatives are targeted and tarred as ‘hating’ gay people. The liberals are targeted and tarred as pseudo Christians. My guess is that there are a large number of Americans, as there are Brits, who are unsure about gay marriage, not happy with either extreme. The middle ground needs to gain confidence, and speak up. I hope can help.

I hope the US Church in general will continue to thrive, and will find a way of uniting, in spirit, around Jesus.

Inferno – Terrorist Writing: 2 September

September 2, 2014

Dante was a terrorist. He aimed to frighten people with a horrific vision of hell, his ‘Inferno.’ Dante took a little of the Bible, mixed it with Roman mythology (his Guide to and through Inferno is Virgil, the Roman writer), and with much speculation by Christians. The resulting depiction makes people far more afraid than they need to be. Take out the Roman mythology and the Christian speculation, look more carefully at the Bible, and you see a possible future beyond this life which is definitely to be avoided, but which does not terrify as does Dante’s Inferno.

Dan Brown is a modern day terrorist. He aims to frighten people with a horrific vision of the future of the human race, as depicted in his best-seller ‘Inferno.’ (‘Inferno’ was the obvious choice from the airport bookstall for me on the way to the Rethinking Hell Conference this July.) Brown envisages a future in which human population has grown exponentially, plunging people into a desperate struggle for scarce resources. Dan Brown has taken a little good science, and mixed it with scare-mongering speculation. The resulting depiction makes people far more afraid than they need to be. Take out the speculation, look more carefully at all the science, and you see a possible future about which we need to be careful, but which does not terrify as does Brown’s Inferno.

Dante completely ignored keys Biblical truths such as Jesus proclaiming that He has the keys of death and Hades. (Rev. 1:19) Jesus says specifically that this truth helps us not fear. Taking out this truth distorts the picture to make it more terrifying. So, on the doorway to his Inferno, Dante has ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ Jesus has no access to Dante’s Inferno. For more on the true nature of Inferno, see The Lie of Hell Dante wrote great poetry with ingenious and memorable pictures, but his fundamental grasp of Christian truth was flawed.

Dan Brown completely ignores key scientific truths such as that when the living standards of the poor rise, they produce much fewer children. I have seen this in Uganda. It has been verified sociologically across our planet. Brown also ignores that our planet has the ability to produce significantly more food than it does at present. I have also seen this in Uganda: vast papyrus swamps, like the wild Fens of England, which could produce more than the hugely fertile drained Fens of England. This too is verified across our planet. If agriculture and agricultural output could not be significantly improved, the army of working agriculturalists would all find something else to do. Brown instead has his super intelligent heroes all believing that the best thing is to cull the human race by one third, now. Brown has written a great story with ingenious and memorable twists, but his fundamental grasp of scientific truth is flawed.

Dante was not acting alone. He wrote as the spokesperson of the Church and was strongly endorsed by the Church. His Inferno became the dominant understanding of hell for centuries (as Dan Brown rightly stresses.) There is still a lot of setting minds aright and reassuring hearts needed to undo the damage done by Dante.

I hope that Dan Brown is acting alone. I hope he is not endorsed by reputable scientists and scientific organisations. I hope that most of those who have read Brown’s ‘Inferno’ do not take its message seriously. Yes, we need to be aware of problems caused by increasing human population. Mostly we need to work harder to raise the living standards of the poor. We must not be callous to the needs of the poor, for in helping them we help ourselves, and especially our grandchildren.

Dan Brown’s understanding of the future of the human race is a modern version of the apocalyptic scaremongering which has dogged Christianity for years. Some people love to proclaim ‘We’re all doomed!’ All the religious doom nuts have been proved wrong. May the same be true for all the scientific doom nuts. (This includes the climate change doom nuts, but that’s an argument for another time.) It is a pity that a story-teller as talented as Dan Brown is one of them.

Roger Harper

Gehenna and Hades – Good News!: 26 July

July 26, 2014

‘Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot will be utterly destroyed, with no trace of them left. Good!’ So said one of the Americans I talked with during my visit to Colorado and Texas earlier this month. The speaker was the sharpest person I had met, judging by her comments on other matters. She was genuinely pleased that utterly wicked people will come to an unwelcome end – annihilation, not eternal torment. Her face and tone of voice showed that she deemed this good news. The place of annihilation, after the Final Judgement, according to Jesus, is Gehenna. Gehenna is good news!

‘So Hades is like Guantanamo?’ So said a young American man, from a strongly Christian family background, now choosing to walk away from all the conservatism of his culture. He grasped quickly that, before Final Judgement, there is a holding place for the wicked. The remand prison, according to Jesus, is Hades. Hades is a place to be avoided. Who would choose a month in Guantanamo if they didn’t have to?

‘I’ve never thought of it like that. It’s a real comfort.’ So said the first person who phoned Radio Nottingham after an interview with me about Jesus having the keys of Hades. (Recorded before I left for America and broadcast while I was there.) Jesus told us that he has the keys and that this message is to help us not to fear. (Rev. 1:17,18) What does having the keys mean? The right and power of entry and exit, part of the ‘all authority in heaven and earth’ which has now been given to Jesus. (Mth. 28:18) Jesus can go in and out of Hades and can take others in and out of Hades. Does Jesus use his keys? Why would he tell us, and tell us not to fear, if he doesn’t use them? Jesus continues to seek and save the lost, even after death, even in Hades. More good news!

Explaining about Jesus having the keys of Hades was the main reason I was in America. At the Rethinking Hell Conference I presented a paper outlining this good news. I had some grandiose hopes that people, even leading academics, at the conference would respond as the person who phoned into Radio Nottingham. My hopes were not realised. A good few people listened, questioned a little, and bought the book all about Hades and Gehenna: The Lie of Hell ( I continue to hope that the truth will be recognised and embraced widely. The conference was a step forward.

I have realised afresh how many academics have been taught and have taught that the nature of Hades is unclear, questionable. Jesus’ strongest teaching on Hades is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. (Luke 16:19-31) This teaching is discounted for two main reasons. This parable has parallels in other cultures of Jesus’ time and these parallels are deemed to undermine its status as an authentic teaching of Jesus. This parable has two interrelated points: ‘care for beggars now, so you will not be begging after death.’ It is said that Jesus’ parables have only one point. So the message of the parable, according to many leading academics, is only ‘care for beggars now,’ and any implications for life after death are mere poetic licence.

Despite the academics, there are good reasons to draw from the parable conclusions about the nature of Hades:

Jesus was speaking to uneducated people, who would not have known parallels in other cultures, nor the theory that his parables have only one point. They had heard him mention Hades at other times, as a real place beyond death. If giving details about Hades in a parable were mere poetic licence, these details would mislead uneducated people. Jesus did not mislead people. If Jesus gave a purely rhetorical warning, to people who would not have any way of knowing if he was being rhetorical or not, he was issuing an empty threat. Jesus did not issue empty threats. If Luke included this parable with no evidence that it came from Jesus, he too would have been misleading people and issuing empty threats.

On at least one other occasion Jesus taught, not in a parable, something of the same truth about Hades which comes across from the parable:
There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Luke 13:28

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 8:11, 12

Academics and Christian teachers need to look more carefully at all that Jesus said about Hades, including where the name is not used but the place can be easily identified. Hades is a place where those who ignore beggars in this life, are in the position of begging themselves. People in Hades can somehow see Abraham, and others, and know that they are separated from them. People in Hades are afflicted, in outer darkness, weeping and gnashing teeth. JESUS HAS THE KEYS OF HADES! Since his death and resurrection Jesus tells us not to fear. The wicked in Hades who recognise and apologise for their actions can be forgiven. Nothing is final until the Final, Good, Judgement.

Roger Harper

Rethinking Hell in Houston: 12 May

May 12, 2014

Flying home from Israel on January 3rd, no other foreign journeys enhanced my diary ahead. Most years I have reason to travel outside the UK, but not this year. On January 4th I received an email inviting me to submit a paper for the Rethinking Hell Conference in Houston, Texas, July 11 & 12. ( My paper has since been accepted and scheduled. Houston, prepare for landing!

Rethinking Hell is a project set up just over a year ago by a group of seriously-minded Christians in Australia and the US to champion the view that hell is The Fire That Consumes – the title of the key book by Edward Fudge. ( The wicked who end up in hell are not tormented for ever and ever, they are utterly annihilated for ever and ever. Jesus told us to ‘fear him who has power to destroy body and soul in Gehenna.’ (Mth. 10:28) Gehenna is one of Jesus’ two words which have both been translated by the one word ‘hell.’ The wicked who refuse to repent will cease to exist, like chaff thrown into a furnace. This view is called conditionalism or annihilationism.

Annihilationism is a long- well-established Christian view which is not widely known. This alternative understanding of hell has been largely ignored by teachers of doctrine despite it being more Biblical and more palatable. Most people think that either there is a hell of everlasting torment or there is no hell at all.

How do you make people aware of a Bible truth which has been widely ignored, sometimes, it seems, deliberately?

You might write a detailed and scholarly book expounding relevant texts from the whole Bible, demonstrating the flawed thinking of those who claim that either eternal torment or no ultimate ‘or else’ for the wicked is what the Bible teaches. The Fire That Consumes is such a book – hardly ever answered, often ignored.

You might write a detailed and scholarly book detailing and quoting every Christian teacher who has argued for annihilationism, in every century from the first to the twentieth. The Conditionalist Faith of our Fathers, 1966, by L. E. Froom is such a book. But Froom was a Seventh Day Adventist and therefore ignored. No matter that his work, with extensive persuasive quotations, covers the Old and New Testaments and Christian teachers from every Church tradition. No matter that his argument changes for the better the way Christians see God and minister to others. Froom has not been rebutted, simply ignored. Neither Cambridge University Library nor the British Library even hold copies.

You might take note that previous books have had scary titles and been aimed at scholars. You might think The Lie of Hell a less scary, even reassuring, title and that ordinary Christian readers would want to find out more. ( My experience so far is that even The Lie of Hell is too scary a title and a subject for most people. More reassurance is needed that this book, and the Biblical truth it conveys, is indeed both ‘fresh’ and ‘comforting.’

Today you might set up an annihilationist website and then hold a conference to bring together people to consider the future, mostly how to promote the Biblical truth of the fate of the wicked. Good for Rethinking Hell for doing just this!

My contribution will be to point out a flaw within most annihilationism. Jesus used two words, both usually translated as ‘hell’ – Gehenna and Hades. Edward Fudge demonstrates conclusively that Gehenna is The Fire That Consumes. What is Hades? Another word for the same place, the same fire? A different place? If the two are different what is their relationship? Is ‘hell’ actually not one place but two? Has combining Gehenna and Hades into ‘hell’ been a huge, longstanding, mistake? I argue that it has.

Traditionalists, who see hell as eternal torment, universalists, who see hell as ultimately irrelevant, and annihilationists all hardly ever consider Jesus’s words ‘`Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.’ (Rev. 1:17,18) At the Rethinking Hell Conference I will be highlighting this verse, together with other ‘Hades’ verses from Revelation, and drawing out significant truths. If you are unable to be in Houston, you can read the same, more detailed, ‘fresh and provocative insights on the debate about hell…’ (David Hilborn) in The Lie of Hell

Roger Harper

Surprised by Hope and Hell – Tom Wright: 22 March

March 22, 2014

‘I’m finding your book comforting,’ said an 86 year old woman a few months ago. The book is about hell so this is a bit surprising. The Lie of Hell ( demonstrates that Jesus and the Bible do not teach hell as we know it. God is kinder than we have been led to believe. That is comforting.

A key part of the true, comforting, picture is that there is not one life after death but two. Immediately after death we, our souls, are in either Paradise or Hades. We are there until the Resurrection and Final Judgement. After Jesus’ Judgement we are either living in the New Earth and Heaven, body and soul, or destroyed in Gehenna, body and soul. No human lives in torment for ever. No human fate is final until the Final Judgement, even beyond this life. Comforting, surprising, truth.

The surprising truth of Paradise and the Resurrection has been demonstrated clearly by Tom (NT) Wright in Surprised by Hope (SPCK 2007). In The Lie of Hell I reviewed many good books, but not this one, partly because Wright only refers to hell a little, and partly because I forgot. Here is now my extended review:

‘Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.’ Memorable succinct words of Tom Wright. By heaven, we mean the peaceful, joyful, life of human souls immediately after death. The more proper Biblical name for this place is Paradise. Jesus only used this name once, to the thief beside him on the cross (Luke 23:43), and because Jesus is the Cornerstone, we take His words as a cornerstone concept and line up our understanding by it. The soul-life of Paradise, to which Jesus leads us, is great, so that Paul was much attracted to dying to live there (Philippians 1:23) But there is more, far more, to look forward to.

‘Resurrection is life after life after death.’ Tom Wright quotes another writer for another memorable statement. Resurrection is to Paradise as life in the world is to life in the womb. In Paradise we, our souls, are cocooned in God’s immense love. In the Resurrection we, souls and bodies, run and leap and taste and feel in new dimensions. We see colours that we have not yet seen – and much more. Resurrection life is unrestricted life. All the restrictions and consequences of evil have been removed.

The puzzle of Tom Wright’s book is why, when he teaches that there is not one heaven, but two, Paradise and Resurrection, he fails to see that there is also not one hell, but two, Hades and Gehenna. The main thrust of Surprised by Hope is not to explain the fate of the wicked, without Jesus, but to explain the life of the forgiven, with Jesus. As a minor element, Wright comes to ‘Purgatory, paradise, hell’ for the wicked in Chapter 11. The chapter title is revealing. Wright begins by looking at medieval views of Purgatory, not by looking at the words of Jesus, nor even the Bible. It is always better to begin with Jesus and his teaching.

Wright states early that the concept of Purgatory developed when the truth of the resurrection and the waiting for resurrection had ‘dropped out altogether.’ (p177) His first criticism of Purgatory is, then, that it ignores that ‘the resurrection is still in the future. This resurrection is the official view of all mainstream orthodox theologians, Catholic and Protestant, East and West, except for those who think that after death we pass into an eternity in which all moments are present…’ Tom Wright recognises that the truth of resurrection as life after life after death is not widely held. ‘I am repeatedly frustrated by how hard it is to get this point through the thick wall of traditional thought and language that most Christians put up…’ (p180) Yet Wright does not apply to thinking about hell the all-changing nature of the resurrection. Life before and life after the resurrection are very different, for both the forgiven and the unrepentant.

Wright’s focus at the beginning of this chapter is still on the state of Christians beyond death. He then writes that he is often asked ‘What about hell?’ ‘Part of the difficulty of this topic… is that the word ‘hell’ itself conjures up an image gained more from medieval imagery than from the earliest Christian writings.’ (p187) Wright goes on to explain Gehenna, Jesus’ word for the destroying eternal fire, as the burning rubbish dump of Jerusalem, therefore a picture of this life, not beyond this life. This is a strange way of understanding body and soul being destroyed in Gehenna (Matthew 10:28) and the fire prepared for the devil and his angels, into which the Son of Man will cast the ‘goats.’ (Matthew 25:41) Both these sayings of Jesus indicate clearly that Gehenna is for beyond this life, even for after life after death.

Having focused on ‘Gehenna’ Wright points out that much of what Jesus said about the wicked beyond this life was in two parables. He refers to the Rich Man and Lazarus, without mentioning that here Jesus talks not of Gehenna but of Hades. He writes that because these are parables, we cannot gain from them understanding of beyond this life. But surely Jesus can and did teach about both this life and the next, teaching us to be generous in this life so as to store up treasure in the next?

Wright states that neither in the words of Jesus, nor in the rest of the New Testament, do we have anything like enough to build an understanding of the fate of the wicked beyond death. Wright says that Jesus was mostly ‘content to reinforce the normal Jewish picture.’ (p189) Wright does not explain in detail what that picture was. Wright does not justify his assessment by detailing the words of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament. If he did, and he also included the teaching of the Old Testament, he would find that there is indeed enough to build an understanding of the fate of the wicked beyond death. (See The Lie of Hell)

Wright then writes at more length about the failings of universalism. With great force and eloquence Wright argues that the judgement of God, and the possibility at least that not all humans will enjoy the resurrected life of the new heaven and new earth, is necessary and beneficial. ‘The merest mention of final judgment has been squeezed out of Christian consciousness in several denominations, including my own, by the cavalier omission of verses from public biblical reading.’ (p190) ‘Judgment – the sovereign declaration that this is good and to upheld and vindicated, and that is evil and is to be condemned – is the only alternative to chaos. There are some things, quite a lot of them in fact, which one must not “tolerate”, lest one merely collude with wickedness…. where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace.’ (p191) ‘I wish it were otherwise but one cannot for ever whistle “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own.’ (p193)

Wright acknowledges that the description of this judgement as destruction, by ‘conditionalists’ or ‘annihilationists’ has strong points. This position, he considers, suffers from the weakness of ‘’belittling those scriptural passages which appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who have rejected the worship of the one true God and the way of humanness which follows from it.’ (p194) Wright does not address the view that there could be both a continuing interim state (called Hades) after death and ultimate destruction (called Gehenna) after Final Judgement, after life after death. So Wright has to find some way of combining both ongoing affliction and destruction in the one place and period.

Wright suggests (his word) that there is a process in which people, through worshipping and being transformed into the image of idols (money, sex, power…) lose their humanity. ‘Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite, in themselves or others, the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.’ (p195)

Wright draws no further conclusions. He implies that the ex-humans continue to exist beyond death. It is not clear whether the process of dehumanisation continues beyond this life, whether there is a possibility of turning back to the one true God and thereby to true humanity, beyond this life. It is not clear whether ex-humans are ultimately destroyed. Wright’s main thrust seems to be to enable us today to talk of hell, as it has been traditionally understood, in more acceptable modern terms.

The other stronger, more coherent, more Biblical, approach is to distinguish between Hades, pre-resurrection, and Gehenna, post-resurrection. Hades is the continuing state for the wicked, those on the road to becoming ex-human. Jesus has the keys of Hades, a message which Jesus says is a powerful antidote to fear, a comforting message (Rev. 1:18) The life after death of the wicked in Hades, of those who refuse repentance and forgiveness, is terrible and miserable, but with Jesus there is a continual way out. Gehenna is the destroying fire for those who have been ultimately judged to be fully ex-human, the rubbish, the chaff from which all goodness has been extracted, by their own continuing choice to refuse forgiveness. For more on this approach see The Lie of Hell (

As we grasp the true Biblical picture of life after life after death, of two ‘heavens’ and two ‘hells’ for everyone, we may well be surprised, and we will also be comforted.

Roger Harper

‘Hell: A Final Word’, by Edward Fudge, Reviewed: 13 May

May 13, 2013

Edward Fudge is a world-leading expert on hell. He set himself a considerable challenge – to condense his 420 page scholarly book The Fire that Consumes into a 186 page popular book Hell, A Final Word (Leafwood 2012). The new book, as its title suggests, is a summary of Fudge’s lifetime’s thinking about eternal punishment. He also responds to some criticisms of The Fire that Consumes and includes how he came to investigate and write about this unpopular subject. The personal story was partly to coincide with the movie of his life, Hell and Mr. Fudge, also produced in 2012. Edward Fudge is to be admired for taking on the whole challenge. He has, in many ways, succeeded.

‘This is my goal in writing Hell: A Final Word – to put the same biblical data and historical facts into the hands of serious Bible students and readers in general that the scholars have had for at least thirty years.’[1] The biblical data and historical facts prove that the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal torment is wrong. Hell is, instead, a place of utter destruction, annihilation, for the bodies and souls of the wicked. This is the truth which Fudge has been explaining and championing for many years. In this book he summarises the teaching with confidence and conviction.

 ‘I went to the Old Testament asking if it had anything to say about the end of the wicked. To my great surprise, it answered with principles, prototypes, and prophecies.’[2] ‘Evildoers… are totally burned up – nothing is left, neither root at one end nor branch at the other. Nothing but ashes remains to remind that the wicked ever existed.’[3] ‘Jesus’ teaching on final punishment, as on other subjects, was rooted in Old Testament revelation, which it sometimes advanced but never contradicted.’[4] ‘In fact, those three words – die, perish, and be destroyed – are the very words that the New Testament writers use most often to describe the final end of the wicked. Isn’t it interesting that most modern believers think they are sure that those who go to hell will not die, will never perish, and certainly will never be destroyed.’[5]

 Fudge recognises that believers think according to the teaching they have received . He details how the Church came to teach an unbiblical doctrine, through the influence of Greek philosophy. The majority of the book is an expert, convincing, accessible explanation of teaching throughout the Bible about the ultimate annihilation of the unrepentant wicked.

 Fudge dismantles what he sees as the Four Pillars of Eternal Torment:

  1. The Old Testament says nothing about hell
  2. There was one ‘Jewish view’ in the time of Jesus [ie torment]
  3. New Testament writers follow Jesus. [in teaching torment]
  4. The Immortality of the soul

 Fudge mostly succeeds in conveying his teaching pithily and memorably. His structure and style is also a bit rambling. The Four Pillars form the framework of the book, although not highlighted in the contents. Personal accounts and response to critics come up along the way. The chapter ‘Refreshing Our Memories’ is an excellent summary but it comes before he has addressed the final pillar.

 A more major flaw is that Fudge does not properly address what Jesus and the New Testament writers taught about Hades, as well as about Gehenna. Jesus used both words, which have been translated by the one word ‘hell.’ The whole traditional concept of hell’ is therefore a combination of what Jesus said about Hades and what Jesus said about Gehenna. Combining these two terms, assuming that they are two different names for the one same place, is not only a pillar, but the foundation of eternal torment.

 Fudge focuses on Gehenna. ‘When the New Testament refers to “hell” as the place of final punishment it translates the Greek word gehenna.[6] ‘Jesus uses the word “hell” (gehenna) eleven times and is the only person in the Bible who uses it at all to speak of final punishment.’[7] Fudge should also have included references to Hades as references to ‘hell’, for all who argue for eternal torment include them.

 Fudge does mention hell in terms of  Hades ‘In fact when Jesus talks about hell, he pictures it as a place of weeping, or a place of defiant anger…’[8] Fudge argues that gnashing of teeth denotes extreme anger. ‘Weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth’ in the Gospels are features, however, not of Gehenna, but of Hades.

 Fudge writes about the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus: ‘In fact, the “hell” in this story in the King James Version, the “hell” that has caught so many eyes and captured so many imaginations through the centuries, is not the hell of final punishment at all. It is simply hades, sheol, gravedom, the unseen realm of the dead. If the parable proved anything about post-mortem circumstances, it would still say nothing about final punishment in hell or gehenna.[9] He explains what Hades is not, without saying what it is. He ignores that in this very parable Jesus opens a window into the ‘unseen world of the dead’ from which we can learn more than from the Old Testament.

 Late in the book Fudge writes: ‘Based on Old Testament comments about Sheol, the wisest way to understand Hades is simply as a symbol for the invisible realm of the dead. To say more than that becomes very troublesome when one recalls that Jesus is pictured as in Hades (or Sheol) between his death and his resurrection. (Acts. 2:27,31)’[10] Fudge relies too much on the Old Testament and seems to dismiss New Testament teaching on Hades as ‘troublesome.’ It would be better to look more carefully and coherently at what Jesus and the New Testament writers teach about Hades. Fudge rightly sees that Hades and Gehenna are distinct. He needs to go further and investigate Hades as he has investigated Gehenna.

 I hope, therefore, that Hell: A Final Word will not be Edward Fudge’s final word on the subject. I hope that, as part of Fudge’s further investigations, he will look more at Revelation 14:9-11. This is a passage which some take as another pillar of eternal torment.[11] Fudge, surprisingly, does not address these verses, in which we read ‘the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever.’ The whole description in Rev. 14:9-11, however, is a description not of Gehenna, but of Hades. This is torment ‘in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb’, something very different from the fate of the wicked after the Final Judgement. It would be good also to read Fudge expounding Rev. 1:18, Jesus saying ‘I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’

 Edward Fudge’s detailed attention to the Bible, his ability to summarise and convey its main points, his determination to argue, publish and speak the truth as revealed in Scripture, place him at the forefront of the scholarly saints of our age. Hell: A Final Word is an excellent summary of his teaching so far. Many people would profit from reading it, not put off by its somewhat frightening title. I hope also for more Fudge to come.

 Roger Harper

[1] p19, 20

[2] p79

[3] p78

[4] p96

[5] p135

[6] p21

[7] p36

[8] p23

[9] p115

[10] p142

[11] eg Gregory Beale in Hell Under Fire (Zondervan 2004)