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:

  1. A profoundly painful social isolation, a complete disunion from God and from community.
  2. 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.


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12 Comments on “What the “Hell”?

  1. I also wonder along with scholars and others like CS Lewis (The Great Divorce) if this eternal shame is also characterized by a ‘shrunkenness’ or ‘smallness’ in terms of our humanity – that there are consequences to the choices against the honorable position of being human in light of Psalm 8, for example.

    • Steve, good point. I haven’t read The Great Divorce, but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that idea from CS Lewis. His essay/sermon “The Weight of Glory” deals with honor-shame issues in salvation and judgment with his characteristic insight.

  2. Steve Galegor – I had immediately the same reflection as you about Lewis. His point in ‘The Great Divorce’ is that every person will be on his own, isolated from social contact. So, there is no one around who could honor you. You are just left with yourself, maybe even still claiming (like Lewis’s description of the pain of Napoleon) that you are a great person and having all the rights of the world to be so. But, unfortunately, there is no one to agree with you.
    Thank you for connecting biblical teaching about hell to shame. Thing is though that we usually are also ‘ashamed’ to point to hell as God’s punishment (esp. in mission situation), but this teaching is a help to overcome that (unjust) shame.

  3. You’re helping me to understand better how our social dimension is a necessary part of what makes us “whole” humans – in this life and in preparation for the next. The comments about Lewis and hell and the afterlife are helpful, too. I’ve read some describe his view of hell as a form of merciful annihilationism: if we persist in unbelief, then we “shrink” (as Steve said) so much from the intent He designed us for that we cease to be “human.”

    I am working on a team that is translating Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles, and just went through a scene in “The Last Battle” that brings some of these elements to life:

    What followed was rather horrible. Tirian felt quite certain (and so did the others) that the Cat was trying to say something: but nothing came out of his mouth except the ordinary, ugly cat-noises you might hear from any angry or frightened old Tom in a backyard in England. And the longer he caterwauled the less like a Talking Beast he looked. Uneasy whimperings and little sharp squeals broke out from among the other Animals.

    “Look, look!” said the voice of the Bear. “It can’t talk. It has forgotten how to talk! It has gone back to being a dumb beast. Look at its face.”

    Everyone saw that it was true. And then the greatest terror of all fell upon those Narnians. For every one of them had been taught—when only a chick or a puppy or a cub—how Aslan at the beginning of the world had turned the beasts of Narnia into Talking Beasts and warned them that if they weren’t good they might one day be turned back again and be like the poor witless animals one meets in other countries.

    So, perhaps the theology at work is “use it or lose it”, and developing our own and others’ social honor is one of the tasks we are given. (What difference, after all, is there in being a “Talking Beast” or a “poor witless animal” if it is not a socially-based one for a spiritual connection with one another and our Maker?)

    If we fail, like the Narnians were taught, we risk “losing our soul”?

    These are embryonic thoughts, so any of you who can lend insights are welcome to do so!

  4. More wonderful comments about CS Lewis, thanks Kees and Lynn. “The Great Divorce” just went to the top of my reading list!

    I’ve heard people casually assume that judgment is not a feature of honor-shame cultures. I think this is because Westerners have a hard time thinking of judgment without rules and laws, so this is an example where culture fences off our theological imagination. The narratives of CS Lewis seem to give us a picture of how judgment functions when honor/glory is the telos of history.

    Are there any other writings by CS Lewis related to judgement and hell? Here is a quote from “The Weight of Glory”–“In the end that Face which is the delight or terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised.”


    • Other writings by Lewis on the topic? Yes – especially Chapter 8 (titled “Hell”) in “The Problem of Pain”. Available online at: http://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-problemofpain/lewiscs-problemofpain-00-h.html

      There is much here; I think he addresses most every objection to the existence of Hell, what we can determine about its nature, and who ends up there and why, and what it is NOT. Here is one quote, which includes the context of his famous line “the doors of hell are locked on the inside”:

      “…hell was not made for men. It is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is “the darkness outside”, the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity. [This fits with the view expressed above in “The Last Battle” (and prior to that, in “The Magician’s Nephew” that misuse of the gift of being made a Talking Beast causes one to cease to be a Talking Beast – yet not cease to be.]

      “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man “wishes” to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”

  5. Thanks for the post! Could you eventually do a follow-up one about the ways in which we “mask spiritual shame” and what spiritual shame usually entails?

    • Thanks Jessica. Yes, I’m planning a series in the fall that will define shame. Funny thing, I’ve been blogging about “honor and shame” for 3 years already, and have yet to define those 2 words.
      And to clarify, “spiritual shame” refers to our state of dishonor and disgrace in the eyes of God. We typically only think of shame as embarrassment before people, but there is an objective and theological aspect to it as well. Anyhow, more coming at some point.

  6. I’m glad to see this site, as it fits neatly with a solid reworking of theology in light of what we know about the original cultures.

    However, this particular article does not actually fit with how shame actually works in a shame/honor culture. This article is not about hell as the shame known to an honor/shame culture, but rather about hell as an individualistic experience of _guilt_.

    The difference between shame and guilt is that shame is what other people feel toward the wicked (whether they feel wicked or not), while guilt is what the wicked _should_ feel. To be “put to shame” does not mean to be forced or convinced to feel anything including guilty; it means to have everyone point at you and believe you’re shameful, and to be unable to defend your name.

    So honor/shame simply cannot mean that hell is about the guilty person’s emotions rather than physical pain. On the contrary; the verses about shame mean the wicked person’s emotions are NOT relevant, but rather everyone else’s opinion of that person’s subjective experience is that it’s wrong.

    On the other hand, I don’t want to leave with everyone thinking I simply think subjective experience means nothing on Judgment Day. Obviously it does; otherwise the wicked would not be resurrected to judgment (as Christ clearly teaches they will be). I admit, specifically, that there may be little or no pain (per se) in the eternal judgment, and the subjective experience of the wicked may be entirely one of guilt and/or the feelings that should accompany being shamed instead.

    (And just for clarity – although I’m a conditionalist / annihilationist, I’ve carefully chosen terms that do not bring that matter up for debate, since I want to be helpful for this specific discussion rather than sidetracking.)

  7. A compelling explanation of the final judgement, by Jonathon Edwards (“The Final Judgement,” sermon)

    “So one part of the punishment of the ungodly will be the open shame and disgrace which they shall suffer. Although many of them have proudly lifted up their heads in this world, have had a very high thought of themselves, and have obtained outward honor among men; yet God will put them to open shame, by showing all their wickedness and moral filthiness before the whole assembly of angels and men, by manifesting his abhorrence of them, in placing them upon his left hand, among devils and foul spirits, and by turning them away into the most loathsome, as well as most dreadful, pit of hell, to dwell there forever.”


  8. Just found another verse on this, Obadiah 10. God speaking to Esau/Edom:

    “Because of the violence against your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame; you will be destroyed forever.”

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