What the “Hell”?
For a long time, I thought of hell primarily in terms of physical pain, where the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” indicated extreme bodily discomfort. Hell is an overcrowded waiting room with no A/C and people with B.O., right?!? Then I wondered, how much has my personal occupation with physical comfort as an American informed my theological view of “the worst possible situation”?
Is hell more than suffering physically, but also suffering socially? A common feature of honor-shame worldviews (such as the biblical cultures) is that shame is worse than physical pain or death. Have Western theologians downplayed (or altogether missed) the horrific social alienation and disgrace people will experience for eternity? One might say the Christian doctrine of hell should be more shame-ful. Here is some biblical data suggesting hell involves shame.
God’s Judgment of Shame
Shame is often a consequence of unbelief in this life. Judgment and shame are synonymous. The Psalms especially reflect a theology of shame for God’s enemies(Psa 35:4; 35:26; 40:14; 70:2; 71:13; 83:16-17; 129:5). Some examples:
- All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment (Psa 6:10).
- All worshipers of images are put to shame (Psa 97:7).
- For God scatters the bones of him who encamps against you; you put them to shame, for God has rejected them (Psa 53:5).
- His enemies I will clothe with shame, but on him his crown will shine (Psa 132:18).
These verses speak primarily of this world, but not at the exclusion of the afterlife. For more statements of God shaming his/Israel’s enemies, see Isa 23:9; Isa 42:17; Nah 3:5; Hab 2:16; Jer 17:13. Shame is even a consequence of unbelief and unfaithfulness for God’s people. Israel’s exile (605-586 BC) was experienced as an event of national disgrace.(cf. Lam 5:1; Dan 9:8; Neh 2:17; and Psa 89:38-45).
The Shame of Hell
God’s judgment obviously involves elements of shaming. This pattern sets a precedent for God’s future, eternal judgments, as we see in these six verses.
- Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Dan 12:2)
- All the makers of idols will be put to shame and disgraced; they will go off into disgrace together.
But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you will never be put to shame or disgraced, to ages everlasting. (Is 45:16-17)
- Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek your name, O Lord. Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace, that they may know that you alone, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth. (Ps 83:16–18)
- They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. (Jer 20:11b)
- And I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten. (Jer 23:40)
- “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isa 66:24). (This final verse in Isaiah pictures hell as shame more than pain. The word “abhorrence,” also translated “horror,” “disgust,” and “loathesome,” is the same word used in Daniel 12:2. The post-mortem desecration of their physical bodies, unburied and eaten by maggots, multiples their shame. This group is contrasted to those whose “descendants and name remain” [Isa 66:22]—symbols of honor in collectivistic contexts.)
What is Hell?
To put these ideas into colloquial honor-shame terms, I’d say, “Hell involves unbelievers being stripped of all worldly honors and banished to everlasting disgrace.” I suspect this “everlasting disgrace” involves two aspects:
- A profoundly painful social isolation, a complete disunion from God and from community.
- The removal of all status symbols humans constructed to mask spiritual shame, so that people stand entirely exposed forever.
Isolated and exposed, forever. That sounds like hell.
Read more in this series, “Honoring Theology“: