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Written on March 22nd, 2007 by Shawn Anthony

This is the first installment of a series of posts collectively titled: “The Literal Tenor of the Metaphorical Hell: A Literary Critique of Scriptural Language concerning Hell, The Human Soul and a Defense of Metaphorical Conditionalism.”

Modern Gehenna

The four views of Hell are categorized as Literal, Metaphorical, Purgatorial, and Conditional. The Purgatorial view is based, for the most part, upon ecclesiastic and emotional presuppositions rather than authentic exegetical research. The Literal and Metaphorical views should not even exist as two separate views; they exist as such as a result of the improper interpretation of metaphor. Once this literary issue is resolved the two views are remarkably compatible regarding not only the tenor behind the metaphorical language, but also in the foundational belief re: eternity spent in this realm. The conditional view properly interprets metaphorical language and is characterized by a solid exegetical argument for eternal annihilation over eternal suffering.

A Literary Critique of Scriptural Language Concerning Hell and the Human Soul.

The Christian concept of life after death presents one with two options: 1.) Life eternal in the presence of Deity; 2.) Life eternal apart from the presence of Deity. How one arrives at either destination is inherently fixed to moral, ethical, and/or spiritual decisions espoused and/or acted upon during life and living itself. It is, consequently, the responsibility of each personality to obediently adhere to the revealed social, religious, and political teachings/ethics of God (which is possible thanks to the atoning work of Christ). An eternity in the presence of God awaits, should one accept/accomplish this in his or her lifetime. Should one reject/fail, there looms an eternity characterized by an array of ancient metaphors, such as: death, fire, destruction, worms, gnashing of teeth, darkness, and weeping.

Most Christians believe in the existence of a place called hell. Jesus of Nazareth regularly taught about such a realm, see: Matt. 7.13-14, 13.42, 10.28; Mark 16:16; Luke 12:4-5, 16:19-23. There is no small argument, however, concerning the specific details of this realm. Questions re: how one actually arrives at this most unfortunate of destinations; what happens to one when he or she immediately arrives there; or, finally, what is the final consequence for inhabitants of this realm? Questions such as these abound. Metaphysical and/or supernatural inquires are, by default, surrounded by just enough mystery to prevent its inquirers from becoming more than human. Perhaps, after all is said and done, William V. Crockett will prove to be the preeminent verbal representative of modern Christianity’s most popular position, when it comes to the afterlife, by pronouncing the dead as the only ones who “know for sure.” Such a pronouncement, however, would prove to be unfortunate in light of the scriptural data freely available. The dead should not be and indeed are not the ones who “can only know for sure.”

A Christian believer, if equipped with a proper understanding of the literary definition and mechanical constructs of metaphor, a holistic representation and interpretation of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, and an ability to separate historical fact from cultural fiction, would not only discover the ability to discern for themselves weather or not such a hell exists, but also be able to discern the immediate specifics of such a realm/state. God did not leave us totally in the dark re: such matters.

A Metaphorical Hell?

Of the four most prevalent views concerning the place or state of Hell, only three seem at all worthy of consideration. The two views relevant to the thesis of this study are the Literal and Metaphorical. The literal and metaphorical views are commonly considered as existing as two separate and very segregated categories.

John F. Walvoord, a literalist, rebuts the metaphorical view via an attempt at preserving the literal words within the text: “[The metaphorical view] assumes that scriptural revelation concerning hell cannot be interpreted literally. The concept of eternal hellfire is too abhorrent and, for many, too contrary to a revelation of a God of love and grace. If, as a matter of fact, hell is not described accurately in Scripture, does this not raise the question whether it is possible that the Holy Spirit was influenced in inspiring the Scriptures by the views of its human authors?” (Crockett 45).

William V. Crockett, who adheres to a metaphorical view of hell, clearly illustrates the literary differences between representatives of both views: “Trying to decide whether language in Scripture is literal or symbolic has always proven difficult. In spite of this, there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament pictures of hell are metaphors and not literal descriptions. The New Testament descriptions of heaven and hell are symbolic pictures, not itemized accounts of eschatological furniture” (Ibid. 45).

The reason(s) for the existence of two separate categories or views of hell rests completely upon a misunderstanding of the literary definition and mechanical/technical operation of metaphor. The literalist seems unable to give credence to a hell that is not composed of tangible fire, flames, smoke, and darkness. In fact, Walvoord, when challenged by technical literary devices, seems more interested in finding a consequent fault in inspiration itself. In the literalist’s mind, hell must exist exactly as the language (metaphor) of scripture dictates. Hell ceases to exist, and the entire revelation of God found in Scripture is at risk, if a metaphorical variant is espoused or even hinted. Meanwhile, the espouser of the metaphorical view, while interpreting scriptural language as metaphorical or figurative, understands hell as the most severe antithesis to heaven. “Heaven and hell are real; one a place of immeasurable happiness, the other of profound misery” (Ibid. 45).

The two segregated categories, therefore, advance the same belief in the reality of a hell while differing in terms of specifics, characteristics, and method of final judgment and disposition. For the literalist, hell is a tangible location; for the metaphoricist, hell is a state of being which was described by the authors of the New Testament in the best language they could muster and the only language they could realize. This feat – relating personal revelations of Deity to cultural contemporaries – required the use of metaphors, obviously. This usage, however, and as the metaphorical tenor dictates, does not diminish the reality of the tenor’s subject – hell. Hell is real and exists, thus the metaphorical language in the first place. A metaphor does not exist without a tangible, although it may be described in a narrow metaphysical and/or supernatural language illustrated via accessible cultural imagery (metaphorical vehicle) which points toward the subject (tenor). This literary construct cannot be emphasized enough. Hell is real.

Watch for the second part of this series, titled: Mechanics of Metaphor: Hell is a Shabby Hotel of Vicious Circles

Work Cited in Part One: Crockett, William V. Four Views on Hell. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992.

4 Responses to “The Literal Tenor of the Metaphorical Hell”

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