Lou: Someone has raised a question about hell. “Where did the idea of hell come from? It seems to be so prevalent throughout Christianity.”
Graham: One of the first Christian documents that describes hell is the Revelation of St. Peter which is in the New Christian Apocrypha. It’s a very detailed description that precedes Dante’s Inferno by many centuries. If your prevailing sin was lying, you might be hung by your tongue over a hot flame. If some other organ of the body was your instrument in sin, you might be similarly tortured, it’s very detailed.
The real origin of the belief in hell, however, is Satan’s lie in the Garden of Eden: You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4, NIV, ESV). You see, if human beings are all immortal but not all are going to be saved, then some are going to be immortally lost. That would mean they have to go somewhere else. Everyone either goes to heaven or to some other place, such as a place of sulfurous flames. In that scenario God would have no choice, since the soul is immortal anyway. I believe that a combination of the immortality of the soul, and Satan’s caricature of a vengeful God, has produced the doctrine of hell. And there is no teaching that has turned more people against God than the doctrine of eternal torment in hell.
Lou: “Could the word `wrath’ have been translated differently in the Bible? Could there have been a better word than ‘wrath’ used?”
Graham: That’s an interesting question. It brings up the limitations of human language. The Greek word for wrath is orge, which did mean wrath, even fury. In revealing Himself to us, God is limited to our human language with all the hazards that pertain to that. So we have to study the Bible in its entire context to fully understand. But that raises the question, “Why would God use the word ‘wrath’ at all, if He does not wish to be understood as angry?” It would seem that He has been willing to leave the impression that He is angry with us.
I would explain that in terms of a father’s conversation with his little girl. He has tried everything under the sun to persuade her not to help herself to cookies at three in the afternoon, and none of it has worked. So he finally puts this little youngster in front of him. And she is looking completely cute and innocent, even in the midst of iniquity. And he says, “Look, if you do that one more time, Daddy’s going to be very, very cross with you.” She’s too young to know what “cross” means. She can’t look it up in the dictionary. But she knows what “cross” means by the look on his face and the tone of his voice. It makes the father feel like a bully. Here’s this little, tiny child with pigtails, and he’s saying, “Daddy will be very, very cross with you.”
A little later, when he thinks he has impressed her adequately; he finds her tiptoeing around the corner, reaching up, and taking another cookie. And it’s so cute, he wishes he had his camera ready. But then he realizes this is the time for some stern discipline. So he puts this helpless little girl in front of him. She puts her hands behind her and assumes that cute little posture that little girls can. And the big brute says, “Daddy told you that if you did that one more time, he’d be very, very cross.” For that to work you have to look cross and sound cross. You’ve got to go through with this thing for her sake.
When it comes to the Bible, I think it’s a matter of communication. God is dealing with children. The whole human race has acted like immature children. So He has to say, “Do that one more time and I will be furious with you! And how I wish I didn’t have to say that.” So our own human experience helps us to understand the Scriptures. Parents and teachers are in the best position to read the Bible sympathetically, it seems to me.
Lou: You remind me of a friend of mine who asked his little girl as he took off his belt; “You know what’s going to happen now?” And she chuckled and said, “Your trousers are going to fall down.” He couldn’t keep a straight face, so he had to leave the room for a bit because he was trying make the message stick.
Another question. “Why don’t Bible translators use “reverence” instead of “fear.” It seems like that would help some.”
Graham: Well, that would involve interpretation, and this enters into the whole philosophy of translation. Should a version render the original literally? None of them does all the time. Such a version would be quite unreadable. So the question is, how much shall we interpret? And there’s always a certain amount of hesitation about that. When a man like Dr. Taylor (author of The Living Bible) does a sincere job of paraphrase, he gets into trouble for doing it. People feel he has interpreted too much. There is always a tension between precisely representing the original and making it clear in the English. So the Revised Standard Version, which is very conservative, simply reads “fear” and leaves it up to the reader to determine from the context whether it’s terror or reverence. That’s why I like using more than one version.