Revelation:To Hell with Hell

“Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades”

“Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire”

I began this year’s adventure in blogging through the Bible with the idea of “wrestling with God”. In a way, that has been the story of my spiritual journey my whole life. I’ve never been satisfied with a second-hand faith, with believing whatever others tell me without question, and never asking “why”. I want more out of my relationship with God; I want to “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly” day by day. That isn’t easy. There are always folks who want to tell you that if you step outside the boundary lines of what you’ve always been told, you are on a slippery slope to hell, with one foot on a banana peel. Maybe that’s where I am. All I can say with any surety is that “I know in whom I have believed, and am committed that he is able, to keep that which I’ve committed, unto him against that day.”

Revelation is an enigmatic book, one that I think lends itself to multiple interpretations and layers of meaning. One of my strongest memories of what I think of as my transition to adult faith (but which others think was the beginning of my slide into heresy) was a bible study I attended at the BSU during my senior year in college. For the first time, I heard that there might be different ways to understand and interpret Revelation. I was intrigued, but the friend who accompanied me was horrified. (See Wikipedia article here, which I think gives a pretty good idea of the diversity of opinion regarding it)  The best approach I’ve found to Revelation is to think of it like dream imagery: full of symbols that are meaningful, but not necessarily literal. I don’t see it as some kind of time-machine window into the future,  but as a symbolic rendering of truth: God will write the final chapter. No matter how bad things seem to be going in the battle between Team Love and Team Hate, in the end the good guys will win. The wrong will fail, the right prevail, and God himself will put right everything that once went wrong

When John had his visions on the isle of Patmos, Christians were under terrible persecution, probably under Domitian, who was heavily invested in making Rome great again by forcing a return to its traditions (pagan) values..The faith was also under siege from within, in the form of variations of Gnostic teaching including the Nicolatians mentioned in the warning to the churches in Ephesus and Pergamum. Jesus had not returned as soon as expected, and the eyewitnesses to his life, death, and resurrection were fast dying out. Had they been mistaken in their faith? What was going to happen to them?  John’s visions as recorded in the book of Revelation would have been a great source of comfort and reassurance to them, as well as an exhortation to not give up. John tries to put his vision of worship in heaven into words  (I like the musical interpretation of these chapters here) and follows that up with many chapters detailing how their oppressors are going to get what’s coming to them. Babylon, which would most likely be understood by John’s readers as code for Rome, would fall, and party time in heaven would commence. Evil would finally be defeated, once and forever, and all God’s people would live happily ever after. “See, the home of God is among mortals.He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away.”

What intrigues me most on this year’s read-through of Revelation is the idea that hell itself, along with death and assorted bad characters, will be thrown into the lake of fire. If hell is the “eternal conscious torment” popularized by Dante and Jonathan Edwards, how can hell be thrown into hell? Or is the “lake of fire” a metaphor, one that  “spells the end of sin and wrong?”  There have been quite a few very serious Biblical scholars over many centuries who have come to quite different conclusions about what hell is, who goes there, and how long they might be there. This includes some from very early in the first centuries of the church, before the split between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches. A few years ago, Rob Bell got into quite a bit of trouble for his book “Love Wins”, which I didn’t find too terribly different from C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce”. Richard Rohr, along with a number of others, seems to following the same line of thought.

Revelation assures us that it is Jesus who has the keys to death and hell, so it is Jesus who will make the final call. I think of the parables Jesus told of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, and I can’t help but hope that God’s love will indeed win, and that hell, now vacant, will finally be thrown into hell and destroyed. And that would be very good news indeed!