Note: Due to the interest in the most recent series of posts, I am going to post an extended excerpt from chapter 7 of my book "Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me: Christians and the Spanking Controversy." Ordering information is referenced at the end of this excerpt. Links to the whole book for free are also given.
Chapter 7 -
Will a smacking save your child from going to Hell?
(Note: Throughout this article I use the British term "smacking" which is the equivalent of the American term "spanking")
The thought of eternal punishment is an extremely frightening idea. The idea that people will be eternally separated from God and will suffer in an ever burning hell fire has to be one of the scariest thoughts that the imagination can conjure up. One cannot think of a more frightening thing. It is safe to say that if one knew that one could guarantee one’s children a place in heaven, one would be willing to do almost anything. This especially is the case when one thinks that one’s actions could have some influence in saving their children from the fate of eternal punishment. This idea creates a huge sense of responsibility that has been placed upon the parent.
Among numerous Christian groups, a teaching has emerged that smacking your children is not only capable of saving them from an eternity in Hell, but smacking is the central means to see that this never takes place. Because of this teaching, numerous Christian teachers have whole-heartedly advocated for smacking children from the earliest of ages to save them from going to Hell.
Where did this responsibility have its origin? It is found in one Biblical verse that is the sole source for this concept. There is no doubt that on the basis, primarily, of this one verse, many thousands of Christian parents have lived lives of supreme pain and immense suffering over their wayward children and the thought that their children will be assigned a place in eternal torment. This is no doubt true, but how does this Biblical verse stand up to the scrutiny of an academic examination?
In this chapter we are going to look at this verse under the microscope. The microscope we will use will be a simple but thorough examination of the Bible to better understand this verse and what it means. We’ll also consider the comments of some learned scholars to help us understand what this verse means. Before we begin, let us first look at the Biblical verse in question. It is found in the book of Proverbs and it directly relates the idea of smacking children with their eternal destination. It reads as follows: “Do not withhold correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell.
Let me say from the beginning, that I believe this Scripture to be true if we interpret it correctly. This, however, is where the problem comes in and the problem really finds its origin primarily in one word in the verse. It is the use of the word “Hell.” (There is a second word that relates to this first word “Hell” that influences this interpretation in this verse and we shall deal with it shortly.)
It is the use of this word “Hell” in this verse that Christian smacking advocates have taken literally and they have created the doctrine that a smacking can save your child from going to Hell. It is this precise meaning that many influential conservative Christian groups, prominent Christian psychologists and Bible teachers assign to this verse. For example, one prominent Christian teaches refers to this idea by saying: “God has ordained issues of the greatest importance to hinge upon the discipline of the rod – even involving the child’s eternal salvation.” Another modern pastor says the following: “The parent who spanks the child keeps him from going to hell. … The parent has kept his child from hell by teaching him truths that can be learned only by discipline and the use of the rod.”
Modern Bible interpreters are not alone in their understanding of this verse. We find that many influential conservative Protestant theologians since the time of the Protestant Reformation have embraced this idea. An example of this idea is referred to in the following quote: “The gentle rod of the mother is a very soft and gentle thing: it will break neither bone nor skin; yet by the blessing of God with it, and upon wise application of it, it would break the bond that bindeth up corruption in the heart … Withhold not correction from the child, for it thou beatest him with the rod he shall not die, that shalt beat him with the rod and deliver his soul from hell.”
I believe that all of these individuals quoting this passage and interpreting it in the way that they are doing it are deeply sincere Christian people. It is not their sincerity or commitment to God, however, that needs questioning here. It is the interpretation of this verse.
Does this verse really mean that by smacking your children, you will save them from the eternity of an ever-burning hell fire? It seems a sensible approach to look at this matter of such importance carefully and truly examine what the Bible means.
To begin, let us look behind the English word “hell” in Proverbs 23:13-14 to the Hebrew original. The entire book of Proverbs was written in ancient Hebrew and it is this language that is translated into English in our modern Bibles. Now what is the word that is translated “hell” in this verse from Proverbs? It is the Hebrew word “sh’ol.” Now, this word is translated as “hell” 28 times in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). This, however, is not the most interesting thing about this word. This word, “sh’ol” is found 65 times in the Hebrew Bible. So we have 37 instances in the Hebrew Bible where this word “sh’ol” is translated by another word, not by the English word “hell.” This is significant. Could it be that this word “sh’ol” in Hebrew does not specifically refer exactly to the common concept of hell?
Now, one would think that when one is talking about the concept of “hell” in the Bible, we are dealing with a very clear and straightforward idea. Hell is a place of burning fire and it is where sinners go to burn there forever. There is no way to get out once you go there and you stay there forever. Now this is your standard definition of “hell.” With this in mind, now, let us look at the use of this word “sh’ol” in the Bible to see how this word relates to the standard definition of “hell.”
The use of “sh’ol” in the Bible
The first time we encounter the use of the word “sh’ol” is in the book of Genesis. The story in question concerns the response of the patriarch Jacob who was told that his son, Joseph, had been killed. Let us look at this text. The Bible says the following: “And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down to my son mourning into the grave. Thus his father wept for him.”
Now I said that this word “sh’ol” appears in this verse in the book of Genesis? It is the italicised word mentioned just near the end of the verse. It is the word “grave.” From this verse, we see that the patriarch Jacob believed that he, himself, would “go down to my son mourning into the grave.” (Hebrew: sh’ol) Based upon what Jacob said, he clearly believed that his son Joseph was now in “the grave.” (Hebrew: sh’ol) This is a fact that is not disputed. Now, I think that any objective person examining this text would agree that Jacob and Joseph are not presently burning in “hell” on the basis of this verse? The text does not indicate this. However, it must be understood that the word here translated “grave” and the word translated “hell” in Proverbs 23:13-14 are exactly the same word in the original Hebrew language. Now how is it that the word “grave” and the word “hell” are translated by the same word from the Hebrew language? Before we answer this question let us look at some more examples of the use of this word “sh’ol.”
One of the most interesting texts concerning the use of this word “sh’ol” concerns that surrounding an incident in the life of Jonah the prophet. Most people are fairly familiar with the story of Jonah. A fish swallowed him. Now while in the belly of the fish, Jonah said the following: “Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and He heard me; out of the belly of hell (Hebrew: sh’ol) cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” This is the exact same word that Jacob spoke of as “the grave.” Here Jonah calls it “hell.” He clearly is referring to the belly of the fish as a type of “hell” because this location is nowhere near the traditional description of hell because Jonah returned from it after leaving the belly of the fish. He did not spend eternity there, so this usage does not refer to an eternal state.
This word “sh’ol” is also translated by another word in English. It is the word “pit.” We find this taking place in only three verses. Two times this takes place in the following quotation: “But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit (Hebrew: sh’ol); then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD. And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit (Hebrew: sh’ol), and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.” Now, clearly the verse shows that the people lost their lives, but this idea doesn’t really seem to relate to the traditional teaching of “hell.” The text doesn’t mention anything about them remaining there for eternity. It just says that the people went down “alive into the pit.” The point with this whole discussion is that the Biblical meaning of the word “sh’ol” is not universally an ever-burning hell fire.
To make the matter even more confusing, we not only find the word “sh’ol” translated as “hell,” “pit,” and “grave,” but it is also translated by two of these words in one single verse! The following quote is one of the most interesting of this group of verses that actually features this word “sh’ol” several times. It comes from the book of Job. Let us look at it here: “If I wait, the grave (Hebrew: sh’ol) is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness. I have said to corruption, Thou art my father: to the worm, Thou art my mother, and my sister. And where is now my hope? As for my hope, who shall see it? They shall go down to the bars of the pit (Hebrew: sh’ol), when our rest together is in the dust.” In this verse, we find the same word in Hebrew (sh’ol) translated by two different English words. They are “grave” and “pit.” If you look at the context of this verse, Job is clearly speaking about the day he will die and will go and meet his family who had already died. They would one day be in the same place “when our rest together is in the dust.” Clearly, this verse in no way points to a traditional conception of hell at all. This is the reason why the translators of the King James Version did not place the word “hell” for the word “sh’ol” in this verse. Clearly, Job identified “sh’ol” with the resting place of the dead. Additionally, in one Bible version, the word translated as “corruption” in the above verses is also translated by the word “pit” as well. Now this just adds to the confusion.
The point in this whole discussion is that this word translated as “hell” clearly does not always mean an ever-burning hell fire. This is what the great Christian theologian and scholar H.A. Ironside pointed out in his commentary on the book of Proverbs. Commenting on this specific verse in question, he said: “Sheol is not exactly hell. It is the world of the spirits.” Another prominent Christian commentator on the book of Proverbs refers to this passage and specifically avoids that use of the word hell in this verse. Note the following: “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from Sheol.” Dr. Randall Heskett, Professor of Old Testament at the Toronto School of Theology in his excellent article titled: Proverbs 23:13-14 also specifically avoids translating this word “sh’ol” as “hell.” This is where the problem comes in saying that in Proverbs 23:13-14 the word “sh’ol” means an ever burning hell fire. There is no clear justification for this interpretation outside of looking at the King James Version translation and simply just saying that is what it means. The Biblical information regarding this word simply won’t support this thesis.
 This would include administering a smacking.
 Proverbs 23:13-14 quoted from the King James Version
 Larry Christenson, The Christian Family, pg. 112
 Rev. Jack Hyles, How to Rear Children, pgs.95-96
 Numerous quotes are given in this regard in Philip Greven’s book, “Spare the Child:…” and in Alice Miller’s book, “For Your Own Good.”
 John Eliot, The Harmony of the Gospel, Quoted in A. Miller’s “For Your Own Good,” Intro. pg. xx
 WEHCC, pg. 1220, under section “sh’ohl”
 ibid., Please refer to appendix 1: “The Biblical uses of the word “sh’ol” and the variances in English translation found in the King James Version.”
 Genesis 37:35
 Jonah 2:1-2
 Numbers 16:30-33
 Job 17:13-16 King James Version
 Job 17:16
 The Jerusalem Bible, Koren Edition, pg. 838
 H.A. Ironside, Notes of the Book of Proverbs, pg.323, Loizeaux Brothers, Bible Truth Depot: 1907.
 Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, Proverbs, pg. 51, Inter-Varsity Press, 1964.
 Heskett, Interpretation Journal, April 2001, Pgs 183.
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