Jesus’ Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man: Proof of an Everburning Hell of Torment?

The Parable of Lazarus:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19‑31)

This parable mentions that the rich man found himself in Hell. This word was translated from Hades. This parable refers to some kind of torment in Hades. But—does it say that it is everlasting? No, it does not.

And whatever happens in Hades will eventually come to an end—because Hades is going to be “emptied out”! John records a vision in the Book of Revelation, which is described as happening after 1,000 years of Satan’s captivity:

The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:13‑15)

So whatever was happening in the parable to the rich man, it was not his ultimate destiny. Revelation 20 declares that his ultimate destiny is the “second death.” In Matthew 10:28, Jesus referred to this destruction of not just the body, but the soul itself. And He connected it there to the word Gehenna.

 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].

Over the centuries, commentators have looked at the parable of Lazarus in two quite different ways. In fact, under one set of assumptions this passage is declared not to be a parable—not a metaphor with a lesson—at all. This scenario suggests that Jesus’ story is a literal description of the Afterlife, and that the two men mentioned are two actual individuals.  In this approach, the primary emphasis is that the main purpose of the story is to emphasize the sufferings of torture in an ever-burning Hell, so that people will be warned to avoid it.

Others approach the story with the assumption that, like the previous story in the chapter (the parable of the unjust steward) and the three stories in the previous chapter of Luke (the 99 sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son), it is a parable. In fact, it is clearly stated that Jesus told this story not to his disciples, but to the Pharisees. Thus it is not unreasonable to assume that it is a metaphor, a fictional story told for another purpose entirely. According to this scenario, even the details of the features of Hades are taken to be figurative rather than literal. This is similar to a description of Sheol in the Old Testament. This passage in Isaiah prophetically describes the death of the King of Babylon:

The grave [Sheol] below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you—all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones—all those who were kings over the nations.

They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.” All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you. (Isaiah 14:9-11)

Did Isaiah really intend to paint a picture of the Afterlife in Sheol as one of a place where the “leaders of the world” actually sat on thrones, and would “rise to greet” the king of Babylon? Or is this an elaborate poetic metaphor, used to paint a picture of the ignominy of the end of the king of Babylon?

Here’s how one author clarifies the importance of understanding when a biblical passage is a parable rather than photographic reality:

Parables are not to be taken literally. They are to be understood “figuratively.” The real meaning is not in what they literally say, but in what the symbols and figurative language represent. That’s why they are called “parables.” This is axiomatic! Let us turn to some parables for proof of this point:

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:32)

“…this thy brother was dead…”

Comment: He wasn’t literally “dead.” He came home again “alive.” God did not resurrect him from the dead. The Resurrection is yet future. So the prodigal was NOT literally dead, but from the perspective of his father, he was as good as dead or he could have been considered Spiritually dead.

Parable of mote in brother’s eye (Lk. 6:39-42). “Now why are you observing the mote in your brother’s eye, yet the beam in your own eye you are not considering?”

Comment: A beam is a long piece of timber. How is it possible to have a long piece of timber in one’s eye? I know people who could fit it into their mouth, but eye, never. This parable is about morality, not body organs and building materials.

Is it not obvious that the literal, physical language in all parables must be interpreted as a higher, spiritual lesson? If the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is both literal and an historical fact, then it contradicts not only the laws of physics and logic, but also literally hundreds of plain verses of Scripture.

What if the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is just such a poetic metaphor? What if the description of the Rich Man seeing Lazarus “in Abraham’s bosom” was not meant to be taken as a literal scenario in the Afterlife, but as a metaphor for something more elaborate? Many Bible commentators have suggested that the characters of Lazarus and the rich man are intended to stand for “groups of people.” Jesus spoke this parable to the Pharisees, and the distinct possibility is that he was using the rich man’s blessings in life as representing the spiritual favor that the Jews had possessed through knowing God and having the scriptures.

By the same token, Lazarus would then represent those who were not part of the “chosen people,” outsiders who had been cut off from the blessings of God by ignorance. The implication would then be that if pious Jews such as the Pharisees didn’t fully appreciate their blessings, in the future they might find themselves cast out while the outsiders would find God’s favor.

Even if, in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, this parable was intended to depict a real scene somewhere in the Underworld, where the soul of the rich man is being tortured in the roaring flames of an ever-burning Hell, why would he ask only for a drop of water for his tongue? Immersed in flames, why wouldn’t he ask for a bucket of water to cool his body!?

It seems highly possible that the kind of torment he was in is being symbolized more in “mental” than physical terms. Picture someone in the Middle Ages, condemned to death by burning at the stake. He is in a dungeon of the Inquisition, but can see out a small window the stake upon which he is doomed to be burnt. Perhaps he can even see others put to death there, and, if close enough, might even feel the tremendous heat waves from the executions. Surely he would be in mental torment—the kind that leaves your mouth like cotton!

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26‑27  NIV)

Notice that this doesn’t say the fearful expectation would be of “eternal torture by fire.” Instead it is of a fire that will consume the wicked. Moses was amazed when he saw a bush that could burn without being consumed. Hebrews does not say the wicked will be like such a bush, burning but never “burning up.” It states clearly that the fire will consume them.


But wouldn’t someone in torment look forward to death with desire, rather than with fearful expectation? No—even in concentration camps in Germany during the Holocaust, where conditions were horrifying, most struggled to keep alive, and to avoid the ultimate executions.

Especially when death is expected to come by fire, the realization that it will take only a few minutes certainly doesn’t lessen the terror of the anticipation of the excruciating pain of flames.

Ultimately, even if those hearing the parable of Lazarus were intended to envision a real place where the rich man was in torment, there is nothing in the parable itself that is comparable to the common doctrine of an ever-burning Hell, where never-ending torture awaits anyone who is “unsaved” at death.

Whatever this parable is about, it is undeniable that it very specifically addresses certain groups of people. Jesus directed it at the Pharisees, religious leaders of the time. Both of the main characters are obviously Jews, living in a society in which the Old Testament scriptures were common knowledge. Abraham notes that the rich man’s brothers “have Moses and the Prophets.” Therefore, even if the intent of this story was to describe real details of the Afterlife, there is no way to apply what is in this scene to the fate of those who have never known God at all.

Finally, there is no information in the parable that allows us to draw any conclusions about why these two men had such different fates. If the purpose of the parable was to warn people of the torments of Hell, where is the advice on what one needed to do to avoid that? We are told nothing about the spiritual condition of the rich man, about any sins that he may have committed, about his attitude toward God. We are only told that he was wealthy, and had sumptuous banquets. And we are told nothing about the spiritual condition of Lazarus, about any good deeds he may have done, nor about his attitude toward God. We are only told that he was poor, hungry, and covered with sores. Surely Jesus did not intend listeners to come away from hearing the parable with the notion that it is evil to be rich and godly to be poor.

From careful consideration of the details of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the related scriptures quoted above, it is clear that this passage cannot be used to establish:

  • Anything at all about the fate of those who do not know about or understand the expectations of God.
  • That there is an ever-burning Hell.
  • That human souls are tortured forever in such a Hell.

If someone is attempting to prove that there is such a Hellish future for the billions of humans throughout history who have not had Jesus as Savior, the parable of Lazarus isn’t the place to look.

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Immortal Worms?

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell [Greek: gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43)

Strangely enough, one of the “proofs” offered by some authors that most of mankind is destined to be tortured forever in an everburning Hell is the biblical references to “worms that don’t die.”  Jesus mentions such worms in the passage above. Surely that must indicate eternal torture, if only by worms!

Yes, to many over the centuries, these undying worms have seemed to imply a conscious, tangible, but somehow disembodied “soul” being swarmed over and tormented by supernatural worms, a horrific mental picture. You might say it is somewhat akin to the kind of torture inflicted on enemies by some aboriginal tribes in centuries past–burying them alive up to their necks, and then setting swarms of insects such as fire-ants on them.

Artists and authors depicting the torments of Hell have often included “worms that dieth not” as one of the agents of torture of human souls. Here is a brief excerpt from a modern version (1992), posted on the Web as part of the description of the author’s alleged vision of Hell, and a “song” that she claimed to have heard there, sung by a “fallen preacher.” The purpose of this posting was to encourage people to turn to Jesus as Savior and avoid this type of fate.

I saw a naked man covered in flaming worms that cannot Die! He turned to me and heaved a deep sigh as flames surrounded him and he sung this song in an emotionless voice! A voice that held NO emotion only the pain and torment he was in! Flaming WORMS that looked like Snakes! were crawling in and OUT of EVERY OPENING OF HIS BODY! His EYES, EARS, NOSE, FRONT, REAR, I repeat EVERY OPENING! without getting graphically gross here! The screams yet echo in my mind as I am writing this down! … Here are a few lyrics from the song: Flaming worms crawl in, flaming worms crawl out in the belly button and out the mouth! In the front and out the rear ! In the eyes and out the ears! We scream for mercy yet NO one cares or hears! Red hot pain in my blood rivers of feces, lava, vomit and blood it looks like a flood! Flames everywhere yet they cast NO light! All I have is every kind of pain, terror, torture and fright! I am a Citizen in HELL!

Was Jesus really referring to worms that were themselves supernaturally immortal, living eternally to torment the souls of the lost? Did His few brief words in Mark really indicate that this scenario and others similar to it, with varied tortures, are playing out by the billions daily as human souls suffer in Hell? Does the Bible provide verification that the “vision” described above from the Web was truly from God, and reflects a biblical view of the nature of Hell … or was this vision from another source?

What many theologians throughout the ages seem to have ignored is that Jesus was quoting from Isaiah, and the imagery was one of a trash heap, not a supernatural underworld. Speaking of a time after the beginning of the Millennium, Isaiah wrote:

“From one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathesome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:23‑24)

In the original description in Isaiah, these worms are connected to dead bodies, which people go “look at” somewhere in the physical world, not supernatural “souls” in some hidden underworld.

The Hebrew word translated “worm” in Isaiah doesn’t refer to earthworms, but to maggots, the larvae of insects such as houseflies. On a trash heap, maggots would breed perpetually. Was Isaiah indicating that God would miraculously preserve the dead bodies of the rebellious continually throughout eternity, along with preserving the individual maggots feeding on them– making them “immortal worms”? Or was he speaking in highly figurative language indicating that the rebellious would not be given a “decent burial,” and their bodies would be exposed for all to see—and to “loathe”—while they were consumed by maggots and their flesh and bones burned by the fires until they were no more?

A swarm of maggots will continue to breed and feed on decaying matter until there is nothing left. The individual maggots may live, propagate, and die, but to the human eye, “the maggots” feasting on a carcass don’t die off. The swarm continues until the job is finished.

Actually, whatever Isaiah had in mind, whether literal or figurative, whether temporary or miraculously age-lasting, one thing this passage does NOT speak of is “souls” being tormented by these maggots and this fire in an unseen spiritual world of the kind of Hell envisioned by most people.

The description is of dead bodies, physical fire, and living maggots, all above ground, being seen by living humans. There is NO mention of conscious torture here, NO mention of disembodied souls, NO mention of the Devil sitting on a Hellish throne watching in glee over such torture.

Some would suggest that, even if Isaiah was making a physical reference, Jesus used this imagery as a “metaphor” for an unseen Hell where supernatural worms torture souls. But if so, there are no other passages in the Bible that make this connection. All of the depictions of such “Hellish worms” in art and literature are not based on any biblical passage, but on the fanciful, often ghoulish imaginations of the authors and artists.

(For more on this maggot-ridden trash heap, which is referred to in the Bible as gehenna, see the NonDante blog entry Digging Deeper into Hell.)

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Digging Deeper Into Hell

Both Jewish and Christian Bible commentators are forced to admit that the Old Testament is vague about ideas regarding the Afterlife, including concepts of Heaven and Hell. This means that anyone wishing to come to a strictly biblical view of any details about Hell must turn to the New Testament. If the notion of a Hell of eternal torture—the kind of Hell described by Dante, and illustrated so graphically in excruciating detail by medieval artists—is to be established by scripture, rather than by mere human speculation or fanciful invention, it will have to be found in the New Testament.

So—just what does the New Testament have to say?

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Greek: Gehenna] (Matthew 10:28 NIV)

This does not speak of eternal torment, either of bodies or souls. It speaks of both being destroyed.

 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26-27 NIV)

Yes, a judgment of the unsaved (“the enemies of God”) is mentioned here. And it even includes a “raging fire.” But this verse says nothing about this fire being an instrument of eternal torment for these enemies. It says that it will “consume” them.

Anyone convinced that an ever-burning Hell of torture has been the destination of the souls of billions of humans from throughout history will need to find a way to explain away these two scriptures. For they do not line up with that notion!

The KJV translators chose to use the English word hell when translating three different Greek words, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna.


The KJV translates Hades as hell 10 times. However, at the time the New Testament was written, the Greek word Hades and the Hebrew word sheol referred to exactly the same concept. In 1 Corinthians 15:55, Paul writes:

 O death, where is thy sting? O grave [Hades], where is thy victory?

Here the KJV translators chose to translate Hades as grave, rather than hell.  Why? Because Paul was here quoting an Old Testament passage from Hosea 14. The Hebrew word sheol is in that passage, and was there translated as grave. The comparable word in Corinthians was Hades, clearly showing that the words were considered as synonyms by Paul, and both referred to the physical grave.

But only in this passage does the KJV render Hades as the grave. In all other passages in the New Testament, the KJV translators chose to translate the word as Hell. (This strange choice will be explored in a future blog entry on this NonDante blog.)


The second New Testament word translated as hell in the KJV is Tartarus. This word occurs in only one verse in the New Testament. That verse is not addressing a place of punishment for humans, but a place of confinement and punishment for “fallen angels”:

 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus], putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment… ( 2 Peter 2:4)

In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the place of confinement for the Titans, rebels against Zeus. It is described in myth as being deep within the earth. It seems that Tartarus in the New Testament is another name for “the Abyss” referred to in other scriptures. In Luke 8, a legion of demons begs Jesus not to send them to the “the deep” [NIV: the Abyss]. The Greek word is abussos, which implies a “bottomless pit.” In Revelation 9, John sees a vision in which an angel opens the Abyss with a key, and swarms of locusts come out, whose “king” is “the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon [destroyer].” In Revelation 20, another angel casts Satan into the Abyss, where he is confined for 1,000 years. None of these passages implies that either Tartarus or the Abyss is a place of confinement or punishment for humans.


The third New Testament word translated as hell in the KJV is Gehenna. It is used 11 times by Jesus, in the Gospels, and once in the Epistle of James. This  is the word that is accompanied by the concept of fire:

…Whoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell [Gehenna] fire. (Matthew 5:22)

If there is a clear Biblical basis for the doctrine of eternal, never‑ending torment of humans in the fires of Hell, we must expect to find it in these “Gehenna fire” passages.

Five of these 11 references occur in a description of only one discourse of Jesus.

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell [Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell [Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes be cast into hell [Gehenna] fire: where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43‑48)

The word Gehenna is translated as hell here in Mark three times. In the parallel passage in Matthew 5, describing the same discourse, it is translated that way two more times.

If someone comes to this discourse with an assumption that it is referring to eternal torture, it might be possible to “read into” it that meaning. But read it carefully. It does not describe what happens to the person once he is thrown into that “unquenchable fire.”

However… there is a passage in scripture that does tell us exactly that! For you see, in this passage in Mark, Jesus is not expounding some “new revelation.” He is directly quoting a phrase used by the prophet Isaiah. At the end of the book of Isaiah there is a description of the Millennium, after the Day of the Lord:

“From one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathesome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:23‑24)

This describes a scene in which passersby do not view a spectacle of torture, but dead bodies of those who came to an ignominious end because of rebellion against God. This is somewhat like the fate of Mussolini. Near the end of World War II, he was executed by his own people, and his dead body was put on display (along with those of his mistress and some of his henchmen). They were hung upside down in a public street. And this “public display” can still be seen to this day, through photos taken at the time and preserved for posterity.

Isaiah describes something that can be seen by “all mankind” … so this display is not in some “underworld.” These rebels against God were to be killed, and their “remains” physically left to be seen on the surface of the Earth.

Why did Jesus use the word Gehenna for this place?

Gehenna is a variation of a term that refers the “Valley of Ben Hinnom” near Jerusalem, believed by many to be the actual site of child sacrifice by the ancient Israelites when they turned from true worship of Yahweh. Jeremiah prophesied:

The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire‑ something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away. (Jer 7:30‑33)

You can still see this valley to this day. It’s quite pleasant now.

But in the time of Jesus, this valley was a “city dump,” where the garbage of Jerusalem was deposited. Refuse of all kinds was tossed there, including animal carcasses, making it a huge, stinking heap. As with many city dumps even today, such as the one below in Managua, Nicaragua, fires were always burning there.

Even the bodies of executed criminals were tossed there. If Joseph of Arimathea had not intervened and requested the body of Jesus to put in his own tomb, His body, along with those of the two thieves crucified with Him, may well have been tossed into Gehenna.

Some argue that this physical location was just a “symbol,” a metaphor of a supernatural “Gehenna fire” where souls are sent after death. If so, wouldn’t that leave room for proposing that eternal torment of souls is a feature of such an “ultimate” Gehenna?

But to establish this, you have to get past that Matthew 10:28 statement that you ought to “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].”

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].”

It is the premise of this NonDante blog that you cannot get past Matthew 28. And therefore you need to rethink the topic of Hell until you come up with a systematic view that harmonizes ALL that the Bible has to say about the topic.

This is not a minor doctrinal issue–it is at the core of our belief about the nature of God. Is He truly the God of love and justice, or is he a capricious Hitlerian figure who has condemned the vast majority of mankind who ever lived, most of whom never even heard of God, Jesus, or the Bible, to fry consciously forever in flames that will never be quenched?





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“Scaring the Hell out of” Children

In his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards attempted to literally “scare the Hell out of” his listeners, including the children in the audience. (See the earlier NonDante entry Fiery Blast from the Past.)  But the impact of his message on young minds and hearts may well have paled in comparison to the “educational” efforts of John Furniss (1809-1865), an Irish Catholic priest. Furniss was head of an orphanage, and he wrote material for church education programs used in England and Ireland. He is most notorious for a little booklet titled “The Sight of Hell.” Consider how this material is described by Furniss’ church superior in giving it his endorsement:

I have carefully read over this Little Volume for Children and have found nothing whatever in it contrary to the doctrines of Holy Faith; but, on the contrary, a great deal to charm, instruct, and edify our youthful classes, for whose benefit it has been written. –William Meagher, Vicar General, Dublin, December 14, 1855

See if you agree that the cheery phrase “to charm” applies to these excerpts below from Furniss’ work. These excruciating details were provided to “edify” children so that they would know exactly what fate would await them in Hell if they didn’t follow the Roman Church’s teachings.

 The First Dungeon—A Dress of Fire

Come into this room. You see it is very small. But see, in the midst of it there is a girl, perhaps about eighteen years old. What a terrible dress she has on—her dress is made of fire. On her head she wears a bonnet of fire. It is pressed down close all over her head; it burns her head; it burns into the skin; it scorches the bone of the skull and makes it smoke. The red hot fiery heat goes into the brain and melts it…

You do not, perhaps, like a headache. Think what a headache that girl must have. But see more. She is wrapped up in flames, for her frock is fire. If she were on earth she would bev burnt to a cinder in a moment. But she is in Hell, where fire burns everything, but burns nothing away.

There she stands burning and scorched; there she will stand for ever burning and scorched! She counts with her fingers the moments as they pass away slowly, for each moment seems to her like a hundred years. As she counts the moments she remembers that she will have to count them for ever and ever.

Charming, isn’t it? But this was only one of many examples Furniss vividly described for the benefit of his young students. Here’s anothr.

The Third Dungeon—The Red Hot Floor

Look into this room. What a dreadful place it is! The roof is red hot; the floor is like a thick sheet of red hot iron. See, on the middle of that red hot floor stands a girl. She looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare, she has neither shoes nor stockings on her feet; her bare feet stand on the red hot burning floor. The door of this room has never been opened before since she first set her foot on the red hot floor. Now she sees that the door is opening. She rushes forward. She has gone down on her knees on the red hot floor. Listen, she speaks! She says; “I have been standing with my feet on this red hot floor for years. Day and night my only standing place has been this red hot floor. Sleep never came on me for a moment, that I might forget this horrible burning floor. Look,” she says, “at my burnt and bleeding feet. Let me go off this burning floor for one moment, only for one single, short moment. Oh, that in the endless eternity of years, I might forget the pain only for one single, short moment.” The devil answers her question: “Do you ask,” he says, “for a moment, for one moment to forget your pain. No, not for one single moment during the never-ending eternity of years shall you ever leave this red hot floor!”

But of course these examples were both of young teenage girls. Perhaps Furniss wishes to imply they “deserved” their punishments, perhaps for seducing innocent young men to fornication, or some other heinous crime.

Surely, surely he didn’t include small children in his “charming” tales of Hell.

The Fifth Dungeon—The Red Hot Oven

You are going to see again the child about which you read in the Terrible Judgment, that it was condemned to Hell. See! It is a pitiful sight. The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out. See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in Hell—despair, desperate and horrible!…

This is a “little child” who stamps his “little feet.” No, Furniss excused no one from being the brunt of his charming stories.

This child committed very bad mortal sins, knowing well the harm of what it was doing, and knowing that Hell would be the punishment. God was very good to this child. Very likely God saw that this child would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished much more in Hell. So God, in His mercy, called it out of the world in its early childhood.

What an astounding assertion! Deliberately causing a little one to die in “early childhood,” and then confining him in the afterlife to a “red hot oven” where he will consciously burn forever, is evidence of the “mercy” of God!

One must really ponder what sort of “very bad mortal sins” a child of three or four … perhaps even two … could have premeditated and committed!

Here is another kind of oven–one used at the Dachau concentration camp to incinerate the bodies of Jews and other prisoners.

But even the Nazis, although they did cause great suffering and death,  did not choose to use ovens such as this one to torture their victims, even for a short time! People were not put into Hitler’s ovens alive. How astonishing that many believe that God is far more cruel than Hitler’s Henchmen were. For of course Furniss has not been alone in his teaching that the vast majority of mankind from throughout history, up to the present day, have been consigned to just such a fate. It is a common teaching throughout most Protestant and Catholic Churches.

Most preachers in the 21st century just aren’t inclined to be quite as blatant or as graphic in their descriptions as Furniss was. But if questioned closely, most will admit that they believe in Hellish torments just as hot and just as eternal as that described by Furniss. And that indeed it will be the permanent “home” of many young women who died at sixteen or eighteen, who will be in excruciating pain for “an endless eternity of years.”

The fact that the Bible does not teach this doesn’t change the fact that most churches do.

The reality is that the doctrine of an ever-burning Hell, where the unsaved—the vast majority of all mankind who ever lived, according to most Christian groups—are perpetually tortured with unimaginable suffering throughout eternity, is not just a fringe doctrine that can be swept under the rug, or put on a shelf, or otherwise hidden from sight and ignored. It is, in one way, the centerpiece of a debate to define the very nature of God.

This NonDante blog is aimed at clearly establishing—through a lively examination of history, popular mythology, theology, and the Bible—the problems inherent in this doctrine. It is a primary goal of this blog to bring the full horror of this doctrine into sharp focus. Only when Christians can examine this doctrine in the clear light of day, with sound reasoning, and consider BOTH sides of the debate, will they be able to form a truly informed opinion on what the Bible actually says on the subject.

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Fiery Blast from the Past

Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) preached the most famous fire and brimstone sermon in history in Massachusetts in 1741: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It was Edward’s custom to read his sermons, instead of speaking extemporaneously. So the text of this famous sermon was afterwards published. It spread far and wide throughout Colonial America, and thus is still available to us today.  At one church where he delivered this message, an eyewitness reported an “audience so moved by the sermon that people moaned, shrieked, and cried out for salvation while the preacher was speaking.”

Historical records note that Edwards didn’t use an emotional style of delivery, instead merely reading in a monotone! So what did he read that had such an emotional impact on his audience? Here’s a sample.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity: there will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery: when you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which shall swallow up your thoughts and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.

Notice that in Edward’s famous sermon he referred to his listeners as “sinners.” But don’t assume he was speaking in an evangelistic campaign to the public, addressing the town drunk or local prostitutes. And don’t assume he was referring only to unsaved, mature adults in his audience, who were perhaps guilty of vile sins such as adultery.

This sermon was first given not to the public, but to his own congregation of Puritans, on a Sunday morning. And he was careful to make it clear that he was not limiting his warning to adults:

And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence.

Can you imagine what sort of thoughts a child of seven might have had, sitting in the congregation that day and listening to Edwards’ threats?

So was Edwards speaking the truth about God? Does He really constantly hold even little children metaphorically over Hell, ready to drop them into the pit at any moment if they should die before responding to this sort of fiery message?

Although absolutely nothing in the Bible indicates such a scenario, the vivid and powerful imagery that came from Edwards’ fertile imagination has convinced huge numbers of people to believe it anyway.

And the power of the rhetoric did not die out in Edwards’ own generation. Many 21st century websites include the text of his message—not as an historical oddity, or as a sample of colonial American literature. They offer it as a timely warning message to contemporary readers.

It is even published in the form of inexpensive little 32-page paperbacks that can be used as tools of evangelism by modern Christians. Order yours from Amazon today! At just $2.51 you could afford to order a dozen … and get free Super-Saver Shipping!

On the go a lot? You can even get a Kindle edition to read on your Amazon Kindle reader, so you can read in the dentist’s office while waiting for your appointment.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can get a free PDF version from one website to read on your Ipad or laptop.

And you can even get it on CD, to give as a gift to your unconverted friends so that they can listen to it in the car or while doing dishes. Or, of course, they could also let their “little children” listen to it as they drift off to sleep in their little beds. In fact, if your own little children aren’t saved yet, you can get an extra copy to play next to their crib.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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The Happy Face of Hell

Few Americans consider the topic of Hell seriously very often. No one wants to think about their loved ones … or themselves … ending up in such a place!  But that doesn’t imply they never think of Hell at all. Actually, references to Hell are everywhere in our society.  But most of the time it is not the horrifying Hell of speculative theology. It is the fundamentally harmless, humorous Hell of comic strips, cartoons, and Halloween.

This Hell is not the fiery underworld of everlasting, excruciating torture for the unbeliever that has been vividly described over the ages by “fire and brimstone” preachers. It is a cartoonic “theme park” inhabited by an often clown-like Devil and his legions of merry demons.

Newspaper cartoons often depict this humorous Hell. Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons sometimes featured a somewhat bland, boring, non-threatening, rotund Devil. One strip showed the Apostle Peter in the upper panel, greeting new “angels” (the souls of dead people) arriving at the Pearly Gates: “Welcome to Heaven. Here is your harp.” In the lower panel was Larson’s bland Devil at the “Gates of Hell,” with the alternate greeting: “Welcome to Hell. Here is your accordion.”

Cartoonist Scott Adams has featured in his Dilbert cartoon strip not “Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, ruler of Hell,” but “Phil, The Prince of Insufficient Light, Ruler of Heck.” Phil doesn’t have a trident like Lucifer—he carries a shovel-sized spoon.  And he doesn’t dispense horrific punishments of physical pain and suffering. He specializes in mild punishments for mild sins, such as condemning Dilbert to eat lunch with the company accountants for some minor infraction.

Even those who do believe in a much more horrific Hell have a hard time avoiding chuckling at such cartoons.

Back in 1957, Harvey Comics even introduced a comic book counterpart to Casper the Friendly Ghost—a devilish-like demon toddler named Hot Stuff.

Perhaps his creator found inspiration in Victorian representations of the sidekick of some “cherubs.”

Then there are the devilish logos that are often adopted by sports teams. Although they may project either a cheerfully impish, or fiendishly ominous, image, no one takes seriously the implication of the word “devil” in this context as being a biblical reference. This devil is no more “real” than Superman or Spiderman. He is just a mythical figure used to imply power.

And even the marketing world contributes to the cartoonic face of Hell and the Devil. If a product has some connection to fire or heat, the Devil is a logical choice for a spokesman.

The cartoonic face of Hell has had a stronger influence for a long time on the mind of the average person than does what the Bible has to say about Hell.

The humorous happy face of the pseudo-Devil, ruler of the pseudo-Hell of comic strips and Halloween is even attractive to many people who consider themselves Christians. When Halloween rolls around they may choose to dress themselves, their children, and even their pets up in devilish costumes.

You might think this is just a 20th or 21st Century phenomenon, a reflection of our increasingly secular society. But that would be incorrect. For instance, the Victorian Era both in the US and Europe was a hot-bed of hellish humor, most evident in greeting cards and postcards.

In modern times we tend to connect devilish figures with Halloween. But the devil or devil-like characters used to be much more common icons for other holidays as well–including, surprisingly, the Christmas season.

In Germanic countries in the 1800s, the standard mythical “St. Nicholas” character who allegedly brought gifts to good boys and girls at Christmas time had an unusual sidekick.

This is the Devil-like “Krampus.” He usually appears as a hairy, two-horned, human-like being, often with one human-like foot and one cloven hoof… and an amazingly long tongue that always hangs out. Instead of Santa himself giving lumps of coal to bad little children, he played “Good Cop/Bad Cop” with the Krampus. Some legends have it that Santa “summoned” the Krampus from Hell to do his annual job, which was to threaten … and even beat … small children with a bundle of sticks if they’d been naughty rather than nice for the year.

The American version of what “Santa” would do about “naughty children” has usually been limited to tucking a lump of coal instead of candy in their Christmas stocking. But that’s too mild for the Krampus. Krampus lore has it that, if a child’s reputation for naughtiness was bad enough, they might even be snatched by the Krampus, put into the basket on his back, and either taken to a nearby river and drowned, or perhaps even be taken back to Hell with him. (This whimsical little “tradition,” of course, from the culture that brought us the children-eating witch in Hansel and Gretel.) Note the “Satan” label on the bumper of this Krampus’ sled, and the “Zur Holle” traffic sign on the left … “To Hell.”

So every year, before pretty Christmas cards would begin arriving in your mailbox, in certain parts of Europe you could expect to get “Gruss vom Krampus”: Greetings from the Krampus cards. Not nearly so pretty.

Not happy with leaving this as a “legend,” in the cultures where the Krampus concept has thrived, men—frequently  young, drunk, and rowdy—have long dressed up in outlandish costumes of hairy animal skins and chains, wielding their switches, and roamed the streets of villages and towns on December 5—Krampus Day—terrifying and beating on small children and even adults—especially attractive young women.

The heyday of the Krampus-ian revelry seems to have been the mid-to-late 1800s (most of the pics in this blog entry are from close to the turn of the last century), but the tradition has never died out in some areas of northern Europe.

Over 1200 “Krampus” gather in Schladming, Styria from all over Austria wearing goat-hair costumes and carved masks, carrying bundles of sticks used as switches and swinging cowbells to warn of their approach. They are typically intoxicated males in their teens and early twenties. They roam the streets of this typically quiet town and hit people with their switches. It is not considered wise for young women to go out on this night, as they are popular targets.

And it is making a “comeback” in many other places … and being picked up even in the USA and adopted as a new “holiday” tradition. (No doubt particularly by rowdy young men wanting to harass pretty young women.) And with modern costume-ry, they have taken it up a notch.

Happy Krampus Day everyone! It’s one of the most wonderful times of the year. “What’s Krampus Day?” you might ask. Well, it’s a lot like Christmas. Just replace peace and joy with fear and loathing, wholesome presents with brutal floggings and jolly Mr. Claus with a gruesome horned incubus named Krampus and you’ve got the general idea.

Here’s how one American visitor to a Tyrolean town described her experience at a KrampusFest.

The Krampus festival is a traditional Austrian celebration in which the men of the town dress up as horrible demons and chase small children through the streets, beating them with whips.

No, no I’m not kidding.

It started with a “parade”, although I hate to call it that because I like parades. They’re usually pretty fun, you know – floats, beauty queens in convertibles, high school marching bands. This, on the other hand, was terrifying. The demons entered the town, waving torches and rattling their chains (yeah, some of the scary demons were chained to a giant wagon which was being driven by another scary demon). They were all screaming, growling and making all kinds of other demonic noises as they marched past, whipping anyone (me) who happened to be standing too close. This was not a joke or a friendly tap, people. I still have a bruise from the demon’s whip, which is a sentence I hoped I’d never have to say.

When the demons reached the center of the town, they gathered in what was essentially a satanic ritual in which they were “set free” by San Nicolo. Yeah, Santa. Santa Claus unleashed hordes of demons on this town, giving them permission to run free and whip innocent young children and Americans. It was unbelievable. At one point, I watched a large hairy demon chase after a small girl, dive through the air, tackling the girl to the ground where he ripped off her hat and started rubbing her face in the snow. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of this, as I was too busy dealing with my own evil demon attack.

As scary as the Krampus revelry obviously is for small, gullible children—and as much as it encourages them to avoid naughtiness… at least close to Christmas (or St. Nicholas Day, December 6, the gift-giving day in some countries)—the bottom line is that they will eventually grow out of their fear. Yes, just as children eventually grow out of belief in the saintly, god-like Santa Claus (who “sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake.”) So what is the ultimate result of a “tradition” about a devil-like character who ends up being just a cartoon? The little boys who were once so terrified by the Krampus … want to BE the Krampus themselves. And the fear of being naughty? Don’t be silly … the customs of society encourage them to aspire to as much ugly naughtiness as possible. It’s “fun,” don’t ya know!?

They’ve “tamed the Devil”—or turned him into a cartoonic Chewbacca-type character…with a chip on his shoulder. They think. And inserted him as a key player into the season that most people have thought is one of “peace on earth, good will to men.” AND … he’s been accepted there. Yep, it’s all in fun, don’t ya know?

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Heavenly Haloes?

The popular mental picture of an angel that most people have in modern American society almost invariably includes a circle of some sort floating above the head of that angel—whether the angel looks like a pretty lady, a “cherubic” baby, or even an angelic duck.

Usually the circle is a metallic golden ring, but in recent years, popular alternatives, especially for angel costumes, are circlets of tinsel or marabou feathers (connected by a thin wire to a headband to hold it on the head of the pseudo-angel.)

Did this concept of the floating halo being part of the “outfit” of an angel come from the Bible? If not, how and when did it become so pervasive in society?

The Nimbus

The Bible says nothing about floating circles over the heads of any being. And thus we have to look elsewhere for the origin of this symbolism. That search takes us back to ancient pre-Christian art, and a pictorial symbol known as the nimbus.

Nimbus: Latin, rainstorm, cloud; probably akin to Latin nebula cloud

1 a : a luminous vapor, cloud, or atmosphere about a god or goddess when on earth b : a cloud or atmosphere (as of romance) about a person or thing
2 : an indication (as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity, saint, or sovereign

The Greek god, Helios, The Roman god, Neptune 

Buddha, circa 200 AD

From a Catholic Encyclopedia (bolding added)

In the plastic arts (painting and sculpture) the symbolism of the nimbus was early in use among the pagans who determined its form. In the monuments of Hellenic and Roman art, the heads of the gods, heroes, and other distinguished persons are often found with a disc-shaped halo, a circle of light, or a rayed-fillet. They are, therefore, associated especially with gods and creatures of light such as the Phoenix. The disc of light is likewise used in the Pompeian wall paintings to typify gods and demigods only, but later, in profane art it was extended to cherubs or even simple personifications, and is simply a reminder that the figures so depicted are not human. In the miniatures of the oldest Virgil manuscript all the great personages wear a nimbus. The custom of the Egyptian and Syrian kings of having themselves represented with a rayed crown to indicate the status of demigods, spread throughout the East and the West. In Rome the halo was first used only for deceased emperors as a sign of celestial bliss, but afterwards living rulers also were given the rayed crown, and after the third century, although not first by Constantine, the simple rayed nimbus. Under Constantine the rayed crown appears only in exceptional cases on the coin, and was first adopted emblematically by Julian the Apostate. Henceforth the nimbus appears without rays, as the emperors now wished themselves considered worthy of great honour, but no longer as divine beings. In early Christian art, the rayed nimbus as well as the rayless disc were adopted in accordance with tradition. The sun and the Phoenix received, as in pagan art, a wreath or a rayed crown, also the simple halo. The latter was reserved not only for emperors but for men of genius and personifications of all kinds, although both in ecclesiastical and profane art, this emblem was usually omitted in ideal figures. In other cases the influence of ancient art tradition must not be denied.

…The nimbus of early Christian art manifests only in a few particular drawings, its relationship with that of late antiquity. In the first half of the fourth century, Christ received a nimbus only when portrayed seated upon a throne or in an exalted and princely character, but it had already been used since Constantine, in pictures of the emperors, and was emblematic, not so much of divine as of human dignity and greatness. In other scenes however, Christ at that time was represented without this emblem. The “exaltation” of Christ as indicated by the nimbus, refers to His dignity as a teacher and king rather than to His Godhead. Before long the nimbus became a fixed symbol of Christ and later (in the fourth century), of an angel or a lamb when used as the type of Christ. The number of personages who were given a halo increased rapidly, until towards the end of the sixth century the use of symbols in the Christian Church became as general as it had formerly been in pagan art.

Thus the nimbus was not really used by artists as a depiction of an actual glow that the artist believed would have necessarily have been visible “in person” to the human eye out in the real world. It was part of the history of iconography.

Iconography: …the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject
the imagery or symbolism of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art

In other words, you might say that iconography is the use of standardized symbolic elements of pictures to impart information. When looking at a painting, the nimbus around some heads would be a clue to you that the individual was someone significant. The particular significance would depend on the culture and the period of the painting.

The iconographic symbol of the nimbus eventually became interchangeable with the word halo.

Halo: Latin halos, from Greek halOs threshing floor, disk, halo

1 : a circle of light appearing to surround the sun or moon and resulting from refraction or reflection of light by ice particles in the atmosphere

2 : something resembling a halo: as a : nimbus b : a region of space surrounding a galaxy that is sparsely populated with luminous objects (as globular clusters) but is believed to contain a great deal of dark matter c : a differentiated zone surrounding a central zone or object

3 : the aura of glory, veneration, or sentiment surrounding an idealized person or thing

By the time the Italian artist Giotto painted this scene in 1305, the use of the nimbus or halo around the heads of personages in Christian art work had indeed greatly increased. Here there are haloes around the heads of Jesus, His mother, Mary, other women and men disciples, and the angels in the sky.

But these haloes are not hovering above the heads of all of these figures. In fact, they appear almost as if they are circular golden plates placed behind each head. How did the halo get from this to the hovering little golden tube common today?

The first step to this change may have been when some artists began to realize how incongruous paintings of the backs of people who had a nimbus looked! In this painting of the Last Supper, also by Giotto around the same time, the apostles who have their backs to the viewer almost look like their noses are pressed into big golden dinner plates, rather than that their heads are surrounded by a glow. (The figure in yellow without a halo is Judas.)

In addition, early medieval paintings had very little “perspective” in the scenes. A flat plate behind the head of someone didn’t look too out of place, as everything in the picture was basically flattened also. But by the 1400s, artists were perfecting techniques that made scenes much more three dimensional and lifelike. This left the traditional nimbus around heads giving an even stronger sense of a flat plate in the picture, an element decidedly even more out of place.

This painting by an unidentified artist represents an early attempt to solve this problem. The painter literally approached the nimbus as if it were a circular plate, and tipped it on its side, foreshortening it to give the illusion of depth, and moving it to a spot above the head of the figure.

A similar effect is shown in this painting by Della Francesca in 1460 AD.

Another solution, arrived at by Raphael in this 1500 AD painting was to leave the nimbus behind the head, but remove all but the rim of it, leaving a hollow circle through which the background of the scene could be seen, maintaining the illusion of depth in that way.

And by combining these two techniques, it is easy to see how some artists eventually ended up with the circle floating above the head.

Eventually, some painters began dispensing with the halo altogether. The closer one gets to modern times, and the more realistic the environment and figures in the painting, the more common this approach became.

But the “great artworks” of Western Civilization from the thousand-year era from the fifth century to the fifteenth century have been so influential that they have dominated throughout history many of the subconscious assumptions of the average man of what angels look like—at least until the rise of the “New Age Angel” fad that now permeates American society.

Although it appears that the majority of artists—although not cartoonists!—in the 20th and 21st centuries have abandoned the iconic device of the nimbus or halo when depicting angels and other religious personages, it still thrives in particular in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic settings.

It is a Greek Orthodox tradition for artists to continue to create icons …  pictorial representations of Christ, angels, and saints … for inspirational and worship use. The design and stylized features of such icons currently made by artists vary little from those of a thousand years ago, and continue to use the nimbus.

And a significant proportion of modern Roman Catholic art, such as this work by Arizona artist Enrique de la Vega, continues to include the nimbus, even though there is not the same level of rigid custom dictating this as there is in Orthodox art.

And of course Christmas Tree Topper and Precious Moments statues still have their haloes.

But there is no evidence from the Bible that real angels, supernatural messengers and servants of God, would have a halo if you saw them. The halo is strictly a humanly-invented idea that has made its way into the popular consciousness of mankind, based on pseudo-biblical art.

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On Wings of Angels

The English word “angel” is derived directly from the Greek word aggelos, which was used by the authors of the books of the New Testament of the Bible. Aggelos means “messenger,” and can be used either for a human messenger, or a supernatural messenger sent by God. The related Hebrew word, translated as angel in the Old Testament, is malak. It too means messenger, and can be used for human or supernatural messengers, depending on the context.

Every time a heavenly aggelos or a malak appears in the Bible and interacts with a human, that being is described as looking like a human male, and there is never any mention of wings. In fact, in a number of instances, the person with whom the being makes contact doesn’t realize that it was an angel until the angel “disappears”! The following passage would make no sense if angels all had wings …

Hebrews 13:2 Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

How many people would mistake a being with huge birdlike wings coming out of his back as just “a stranger”?! So just where did the notion come from that angels have wings?

Since such wings aren’t mentioned in the Bible, could it be because these beings are said to “fly”? If so, and unless they fly like Superman, wouldn’t that implies that they have wings.

There are only two instances in the King James Version of the Bible where a supernatural being who is identified as a malak or an aggelos is said to “fly.” In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel encounters the angel Gabriel:

Daniel 9:21 … while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man [identified in the New Testament as an “archangel”] I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice.

The words translated “swift flight” here do not imply “flying in the sky” like a bird at all. (There are other Hebrew words used throughout the OT to definitely describe that action.) They are from a root word meaning to be “wearied, fatigued, tired out.” In other places in the Old Testament that this root word is used, it is translated as “faint.” In other words, Gabriel’s arrival was like someone pulling into a driveway after a grueling trip.

It is not even clear if the English translators of the KJV intended this term to imply “flying in the sky.” The word “flight” has long been used to indicate hurried movement. In fact, we still might refer to a criminal charged with a crime as a “flight risk,” not indicating he might specifically try to go away on an airplane at all, but that he might just hurriedly leave the jurisdiction of the court.

The other instance of the term “flying” being connected with an angel in the King James Version is in a vision in the New Testament book of Revelation:

Revelation 8:13 And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!

But the word translated as angel here does not appear in a significant number of ancient manuscripts … instead, the Greek word that appears is aetos, and means eagle. And thus most modern Bible translations render the passage differently from the KJV:

NIV As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice… Amplified Then I [looked and I] saw a solitary eagle flying in midheaven, and as it flew I heard it crying with a loud voice …

NASB Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice … American Standard And I saw, and I heard an eagle, flying in mid heaven, saying with a great voice…

In symbolic visions, many unusual things occur, including animals—and birds—being able to speak! So it would not be surprising at all for this vision to have included an eagle with a loud voice.

This is the sum total of Bible passages that give evidence of angels having wings. There are other supernatural beings, such as cherubs and seraphs (Hebrew: cherubim and seraphim), which are specifically said to have wings. But these are never referred to in the Bible by the terms malak or aggelos. (You can read more details about these other beings, in an article on “Biblical Angelology” on my Answers About Angels website.)

But of course, these facts from the Bible have never stopped the enthusiasm of artists and writers who wanted to depict angelic messengers as having wings. They long ago absorbed the mythology of winged angels, and evidently never bothered to line up their preconceived notions with the scriptures themselves.

Or … perhaps they just didn’t care. For there is no question that the imagery of winged angels is very exciting and impressive, and makes for beautiful paintings and word pictures! A favorite theme for many is the “guardian angel” with broad wings watching over small children, shown here in sentimental artwork.

The “angel” in most of these appears as a feminine rather than a masculine being, perhaps to emphasize “motherly care.” And the wings may even subliminally evoke the idea of a mother bird protecting her young under her wings.

In the past two hundred years or so most angel art (and crafts, including “Christmas tree topper” angels) have almost exclusively portrayed angels as having pure white wings, perhaps in imitation of white doves. But earlier artists, particularly in the Middle Ages, were much more creative in their depictions.

Here is a potpourri of archangel wings from the period:

But in conclusion, the Bible has almost nothing to say about the appearance of angelic messengers. It most certainly never describes them as being winged beings–either with plain old white wings, or these gaudy multi-color ones.

And thus all the artwork and written descriptions regarding them for the past two millennia are based entirely on the imagination and speculation of humans. It’s one more sample of Popcorn Theology.

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Angels in the Limelight

Fifty years ago, the average American gave lip service to belief in angels once a year—at Christmas time. A large proportion of families, both church-goers and non-church-goers alike, had at least two angels on hand for the season. One went at the top of the Christmas tree.

This angel most often looked like a beautiful young lady in a ball gown, frequently made of white silk or chiffon or lace, and had delicate white wings, typically either of lace or feathers.

The other typical household angel came with the resident Nativity Set of figurines, and often perched on top of the stable which held the Baby Jesus and His family—or was affixed to the gable on the front of it, to give the illusion that the angel was hovering.

Although this angel’s garb was usually simpler, in line with the humble clothes of the Holy Family, and its wings might be a variety of colors, it was indeed still a female wearing a dress.

So this was the introduction to angel lore that most young children, for many generations, had absorbed. Angels were flying women who were connected in some vague way with the Christmas celebration.

As they became familiar with the words of Christmas carols, and perhaps had a Bible story book with the story of the birth of Jesus in it, they learned that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to some shepherds. Given the angel at the top of the tree and the angel on the front of the stable, most children likely envisioned a pretty lady with wings in a gown hovering over the shepherds near Bethlehem, telling them about the Baby Jesus. A choir of other pretty ladies would be hovering behind her in the sky, singing ethereally and melodiously in their lovely soprano voices.

Children who were regularly taken to Sunday School might have had this image slightly adjusted, for some Bible stories about angels make it very clear that the angels in those stories were said to have looked like men. If these young people eventually were exposed to the religious art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they would expand that perspective just a bit more. So that eventually, hearing the term “angel” might bring to mind either male or female winged figures.

But of course the Christmas Angels would still be those pretty ladies in the pretty gowns.

The Rest of the Year

But even though the average American might eventually have a broader concept of what an angel was, they still seldom thought of them at other times of the year. The exception to this might be in a family that was particularly pious regarding their religious faith. Some denominations, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, give more attention to angels, particularly the notion of “guardian angels” for people. In particularly dedicated Roman Catholic homes there would be religious artwork depicting angels, and the children would be taught from their earliest years to pray to their own guardian angel.  (  )

But in homes from different religious backgrounds, or no religious persuasion at all, angels would have been primarily segregated to the Christmas season, brought out then to decorate the home, and afterwards tucked into tissue paper, boxed up, and placed on closet shelves until the next year.

Angels out of the Closet


But something happened starting in the 1970s. Perhaps it was a deliberate marketing scheme. Perhaps it was a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm for the supernatural, related to the advent of the kind of “New Age” spirituality that is unconnected to the Bible and to traditional religious history. Whatever the cause, angel artwork, figurines, posters, greeting cards, statuary, and much more started showing up in unexpected places and throughout the whole year. And by the 1990s, angels were no longer just bit players for annual Christmas displays—they became Big Business.

The traditional Christmas tree topper angels are still around, as are the Nativity Set angels. But they are now more of a nostalgia item than a vital part of the Angel Business. In many cases, the traditional figures have even been replaced at Christmas by more … ahem … contemporary versions of the same thing. Some tree topper angels no longer look like those lovely ladies.

And sometimes it’s not a lovely winged lady hovering over a Nativity scene. For instance, there’s this … “Cativity Set” with two winged, behaloed felinangels overlooking a furry version of the Holy Family:

From The Big Book of Angels  (2002)

Why are angels—and mystery—so well accepted and popular now? Only a decade ago, there were a grand total of six books in print on the topic of angels; today, they number in the hundreds. Why the sudden fascination? Three possible explanations have been suggested: First, that human history goes in cycles, as does the necessary intervention of angels. Some have suggested that angels are in fact, busier now in human affairs than they have been at other times. Even in an era when membership in some organized religions is declining, angels meet our need to encounter the divine in a direct, personal way.

A second theory is that in the last few decades, we humans have been overcome by science and technology until we feel there is no mystery left, and yet we know instinctively that this is untrue. The converse of this has also been suggested: that science is revealing so many mysteries that we need to remind ourselves there is a loving presence in the midst of it all. Have you seen the star show at the Rose Center’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City? There is no way to digest what we now know about the heavens without being absolutely floored by the enormity and majesty of it all. The same goes for what we’re discovering about human biology. The mystery is overwhelming. We need help!

Finally, it is true that we live in a world in which we’re bombarded by CNN, watching terrorists rip into buildings, seeing children starving by the tens of thousands, hearing of viruses that cannot be cured. The evil in our world is beyond our control, and we desperately need to know there is a benevolent presence beyond us that is more than a match for the presence of evil and hopelessness we see on our television screens. We need to know that, despite everything, we are loved. And that is what the angels tell us.

But these modern “angels,” for all the love they are said to spread, have most often been ripped from the context of not only the nativity story, but from any connection at all to the God of the Bible. A large proportion of them have become the equivalent of an army of Fairy Godmother-type beings, who can dispense wisdom in how to deal with all of life’s little problems, and can intervene for everyone regardless of religious persuasion (some surveys have found that more people believe in the existence of angels than in the existence of God) to keep them from harm and bring them a happy, prosperous life. They demand no obedience to any particular creed, or standard of behavior or morals. In fact, they demand nothing but belief in their existence. In exchange, they promise peace, comfort, sunshine, and an unconditional love that allows people to live life any way they please … if they only “believe in angels.”

Well, actually, “they” don’t promise any of this—for the reality is that “they” are imaginary beings. The promises come from the Public Relations efforts of the purveyors of Angelmania. It is even quite obvious that some writers who would have written books on Horoscopes, or channeled messages and advice for people from “Ancient Ascended Masters,” in decades past have switched to touting the blessings of looking to the “Angels Among Us” for guidance.

Does this mean that angels don’t exist? No, the Bible is very clear that God does have supernatural assistants and messengers called, in English, “angels.” Does it mean that angels don’t at times defend and rescue humans in times of trouble? No, for the Bible is also very clear that one of the primary missions of God’s angels is to do those very jobs.

But what is also very clear is that the “angels” of popular culture bear almost no resemblance to the nature of the angels of the Bible. They are purely an invention of the human imagination.

Angel Lore is another area of Bible-related topics that has been extensively affected for almost 2000 years by what I called in an earlier blog entry, “Popcorn Theology.” The common perception of the man or woman or child or teen on the street of what happens to a human after death, what heaven and hell are like, what angels and demons and the Devil are like—has been basically “sold” to them by mass merchandisers, not by their own careful reading of the Bible. Yes, even those who have spent most of their life attending some church every week may be surprised to find what a big bill of goods they’ve been sold in these topic areas!

In the next few NonDante blog entries, I’ll be inviting readers to explore some of the history and psychology of this angelic sales campaign. The kind of subliminal ads that sell cars by posing them next to sexy babes, and attempt to convince consumers that the hundreds of toothpastes on the market (with the exact same ingredients) really are each unique—and that you’ll have more sex-appeal by using Brand X rather than Brand Y—can’t hold a candle to the techniques that have been used to sell Popcorn Theology for the past 2000 years.

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Popcorn Theology

If you were born before 1960, it was likely a weekly ritual for you—the Saturday matinee at the local movie theater. Probably a double feature, maybe of a B-western movie with Lash Larue, and a Big Bug sci-fi flick like The Deadly (giant praying) Mantis. And in between, lots of cartoons. And with it all, LOTS and LOTS of popcorn drenched in butter.

You probably didn’t realize it at the time, but as a young child you may well have absorbed, along with the butter soaking on that popcorn,  more of what you eventually came to believe and has stuck with you all these years about “theology” –than you did in Sunday school the next morning. Wonder where most Americans first got the idea that the biblical Devil, if you could see him, would be red all over and have a pointy tail and horns? And that angels, if you could see them, would have a halo and wings? Look no farther than the popcorn-theology of the steady diet of Hollywood cartoons that most young children are exposed to. Walt Disney likely had one of the most influential, with the 1938 release of Donald’s Better Self.  It has “educated” several generations of young folks in the ins-and-outs of the tactics of the Devil and angels. It was released on VHS in 1986, and the latest generation can still be indoctrinated with its theology via the copy on Youtube.

The imagery of this film is still so memorable that Hallmark honored it with a Christmas ornament in 2009.

In the cartoon short, Donald is tempted and badgered throughout the day by a “Devil duck” (his “badder self”?) to do what he knows he shouldn’t … such as skip school to go fishing, or smoke. And by an “angel duck” (his “better self”) to resist the temptation.

But surely most people didn’t get “stuck” in this infantile view of the supernatural? Surely they eventually studied the Bible and found out that there is no “physical” detailed description of the Devil at all. And that any time an angel is described interacting with a human, there are no wings or halos in sight. (See: Answers about Angels)  No, for modern society is replete with images of red devils and haloed angels. Everyone learned their ducky lesson well!  You can even get a vinyl red devil to sit on your OWN shoulder to whisper in your ear, or both a devil and angel even more up-close and personal.

So if that’s where we first got our view of what the Devil and angels look like, where did we first get our ideas of Jesus?

Consider this:  If I ask you to “envision” the face of Jesus … is this what you see?

It has been many decades since I “believed” that the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus of the land of Israel in the first century AD, would have looked like that picture. But to this day, if someone would ask me to envision Jesus, that exact picture is the first thing that pops, uninvited, into my mind! I immediately push it aside, because I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he wouldn’t have looked a thing like that. But that picture has a powerful grip on a tiny corner of my subconscious mind! And I’ll bet it has the same grip on the minds of  many if not most readers of this blog.

When I’m thinking more logically, I know that THIS picture is likely a lot closer to what Jesus may have looked like.

This is a face “reconstructed” by forensic anthropologists to show what an “average” young Jewish male of the first century would have looked like. Using skulls from that time period, and the modern techniques that can often assist in identifying skeletons related to crimes, these experts have given us a more realistic glimpse into the past. Below is part of the description of the method they used. See the whole story on the Popular Mechanics website.

Reconstructing Jesus

Matthew’s description of the events in Gethsemane offers an obvious clue to the face of Jesus. It is clear that his features were typical of Galilean Semites of his era. And so the first step for Neave and his research team was to acquire skulls from near Jerusalem, the region where Jesus lived and preached. Semite skulls of this type had previously been found by Israeli archeology experts, who shared them with Neave.

With three well-preserved specimens from the time of Jesus in hand, Neave used computerized tomography to create X-ray “slices” of the skulls, thus revealing minute details about each one’s structure. Special computer programs then evaluated reams of information about known measurements of the thickness of soft tissue at key areas on human faces. This made it possible to re-create the muscles and skin overlying a representative Semite skull.

The entire process was accomplished using software that verified the results with anthropological data. From this data, the researchers built a digital 3D reconstruction of the face. Next, they created a cast of the skull. Layers of clay matching the thickness of facial tissues specified by the computer program were then applied, along with simulated skin. The nose, lips and eyelids were then modeled to follow the shape determined by the underlying muscles.

A Matter Of Style

Two key factors could not be determined from the skull–Jesus’s hair and coloration. To fill in these parts of the picture, Neave’s team turned to drawings found at various archeological sites, dated to the first century. Drawn before the Bible was compiled, they held crucial clues that enabled the researchers to determine that Jesus had dark rather than light-colored eyes. They also pointed out that in keeping with Jewish tradition, he was bearded as well.

It was the Bible, however, that resolved the question of the length of Jesus’s hair. While most religious artists have put long hair on Christ, most biblical scholars believe that it was probably short with tight curls. This assumption, however, contradicted what many believe to be the most authentic depiction: the face seen in the image on the famous–some say infamous–Shroud of Turin. The shroud is believed by many to be the cloth in which Jesus’s body was wrapped after his death. Although there is a difference of opinion as to whether the shroud is genuine, it clearly depicts a figure with long hair. Those who criticize the shroud’s legitimacy point to 1 Corinthians, one of the many New Testament books the apostle Paul is credited with writing. In one chapter he mentions having seen Jesus—then later describes long hair on a man as disgraceful. Would Paul have written “If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” if Jesus Christ had had long hair? For Neave and his team this settled the issue. Jesus, as drawings from the first century depict, would have had short hair, appropriate to men of the time.

An Accurate Portrait

For those accustomed to traditional Sunday school portraits of Jesus, the sculpture of the dark and swarthy Middle Eastern man that emerges from Neave’s laboratory is a reminder of the roots of their faith. “The fact that he probably looked a great deal more like a darker-skinned Semite than westerners are used to seeing him pictured is a reminder of his universality,” says Charles D. Hackett, director of Episcopal studies at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “And [it is] a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.”

So if Jesus looked more like this swarthy fellow than like the pale, long-haired chap with the sensitive face in this portrait …

Where did so many millions of us get the idea that he DID?  The answer is in the history of that portrait. It was painted in 1924 by a commercial artist named Warner Sallman. Part of the story is described in a Christian History magazine article:

One day Sallman urgently needed to get a cover done for the February, 1924 issue of the religious magazine Covenant Companion. He wanted to do a face of Christ, but wasn’t satisfied with his ideas. Hovering in the back of his mind was a statement by E. O. Sellers, the night director of Moody Bible Institute, “…make Him a real man. Make Him rugged, not effeminate. Make Him strong and masculine, not weak, so people will see in his face He slept under the stars, drove the money changers out of the temple, and faced Calvary in triumph.” No small task! Little wonder Sallman was unable to find precisely the right idea at first.

With his deadline looming, he saw a vision early one morning of the face he must draw. He went up to his studio and made a sketch. Years later he converted that sketch to a painting–the best-known representation of Christ done in the twentieth century.

Here are more details on the Sallman Saga from a Christianity Today story.

The charcoal sketch called “The Son of Man,” which appeared on the cover of the Covenant Companion in 1924, attracted enough admirers over the years that Sallman painted an oil version in 1940. The image was titled “The Head of Christ.” For many people, this image of Jesus, composed like a photographic portrait, looked like the serene “best friend” they wanted in their Savior.

The Baptist Bookstore picked up various sizes of the lithographic image and placed it in bookstores across the South. A growing variety of products using Sallman’s painting appeared—religious instructional materials, prints, gift items, and eventually clocks, lamps, buttons, mottoes or Scripture texts, Bibles, and puzzles. Impressed by the avid public response, Sallman’s publishers urged him to produce several images from the life of Jesus using the same likeness. An enterprising commercial illustrator, Sallman studied many visual precedents used in devotional settings and produced by other religious publishers and based most of his very successful images on them, such as “Christ in Gethsemane,” “Christ at Heart’s Door,” “The Lord is My Shepherd,” and “Christ Our Pilot,” produced from 1942 to 1950.

The World War II context was equally important for the dissemination and popular reception of Sallman’s chief image, “The Head of Christ.” The Salvation Army and the YMCA, both members of the USO, handed out pocket-sized versions of the picture to American soldiers leaving for Europe and Asia. Millions of copies found their way around the world and became a fondly remembered part of the war experience for many veterans.

After the war, groups in Oklahoma and Indiana conducted broad campaigns to distribute the picture across private and public spheres. A Lutheran organizer of the effort in Indiana said that there ought to be “card-carrying Christians” to counter the effect of “card-carrying Communists.” Copies of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” were placed in public libraries, schools, police departments, community centers, and even in courtrooms. One photograph from 1962 shows Vice President Lyndon Johnson posing reverently beside a copy of the picture sent to him in Washington. Today, the portrait of Jesus is still found in both Protestant and Catholic churches, enjoys fond use among Mormons, Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans, and hangs in Christian homes in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

One humorous side-note to this story—note the quote by E.O. Sellers: “Make Him strong and masculine, not weak, so people will see in his face He slept under the stars, drove the money changers out of the temple, and faced Calvary in triumph.”  Evidently our image of what a Macho Man would look like has changed drastically since the 1920s/30s.  This became obvious to me when, in about 1962, I first saw Gone With the Wind, which premiered in 1939. The choice of Leslie Howard to play Ashley Wilkes utterly bewildered me. I couldn’t help but be astonished that the fiery young Scarlett O’Hara would have preferred a pale-faced man with delicate, genteel features who looked like Leslie Howard over a darkly dashing man who looked like Clark Gable.  I just cannot imagine Howard’s Ashley character “sleeping under the stars” and beating up on anybody!

The bottom line is that the “common” but very unbiblical perspective on what Jesus looked like has been almost totally crafted, not by anything in the Bible, but on deliberate, heavy merchandising of the Warner Sallman picture … and the thousands of other rip-off Jesus pics painted by copycats. It has been estimated that over a billion dollars’ worth of Sallman-Jesus “products” have been sold since he created the icon!

This is relevant to this blog’s consideration of the topic of Hell because it is my contention that an almost  identical historical process has been followed to arrive at the current, common view of Hell, both in the secular world and within church circles. It’s just been a much longer process.

We’ve been sold a non-biblical Hellish story.

Follow the history of that story in future installments of this blog.

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