I haven’t read Billy Graham’s latest book — advertised as the last one we can expect from the aged evangelist. By all reports, such as this one from the Religion News Service, it puts a lot of emphasis on hell as a literal, fiery place of everlasting torture for those who don’t put their trust in Christ.
That sounds a lot like Graham in his early years, when I used to watch his televised crusades with my great-grandmother, but he mellowed as he matured, and was more likely to leave eternal matters to God.
Has Graham changed gears in his final years, or does the book bear heavy influence from his famously conservative son Franklin, as some have alleged? I don’t know, but I can’t help but think it’s a shame that the long-respected evangelist’s swan song should include heavy ruminations on an eternal lake of fire.
This is one of the downsides of biblical literalism: a belief that you have to defend everything that’s mentioned in the Bible as literal truth, with little or no allowance for metaphor.
But you can believe the core truths of the Bible without holding to a belief that the same Christ who loved us enough to die in our behalf is also determined to roast all who reject him over an eternal flame.
The Old Testament has no concept of a burning hell: the land of the dead, known as Sheol, was thought of as a place in the underworld where everyone went, both kings and servants, good and bad. The concept of hell as a place of punishment emerged in developing Judaism of the post exilic period, and the scribes and Pharisees liked to use it as a threat against those who were less righteous than they. The common word for hell in the New Testament, Gehenna, is from the Hebrew expression “Valley of Hinnom” — a deep ravine outside of Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and burned, a smelly place where both worms and flames were common.
It’s a metaphor. So are all the varied biblical descriptions of heaven. No one can claim to know exactly what eternity will be like.
Jesus talked about hell, but usually in conversation with the Pharisees, talking back to them in their own language. Everlasting fire is not the only metaphor for hell in the Bible. It’s also spoken of as a place of darkness and separation from God.
It seems reasonable to believe that those who reject the hope of eternal life should experience death instead, but it’s hard to imagine that a God known for mercy and steadfast love would be so vengeful as to subject non-followers to an eternity of unspeakable torture.
The gospel is far more attractive, I think, when we focus on the positive aspects of following Christ, rather than imaginary tortures of rejecting him. May our legacy be one of grace, not vengeance.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.