(February 2000 – Volume 6, Issue 2)
Dante’s classic poem, The Divine Comedy, which has done more to shape our modern view of hell than any other work opens with these words, “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” Like Dante, few of us pay much attention to the afterlife until some circumstance forces us into the dark woods of despair and confusion. And like Dante, armed with a little knowledge, mixed with tradition, experience and imagination, we will come up with a strange and distorted concept of eternity.
Ask almost anybody on the streets what they think about heaven or hell, and they will have an opinion; an opinion based upon some mixture of what they have read and/or been taught. A recent survey of those who claim to be evangelical Christians reveals that seventy-seven percent of them believe that human beings are basically good and that good people go to heaven regardless of their relationship to Christ.
In a study done in 1989 it was found that seventy percent of Americans believe in a heaven and think they have a good chance of getting there. Slightly over half believe there is a hell, but only six percent think they have a good or excellent chance of getting there. Perhaps liberal church historian Martin Marty was right when he exclaimed that “hell disappeared and no one noticed.” It has been suggested that at some point in the 1960s hell simply disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t. And of course, being Americans, if we don’t like something we just dismiss it. If something is unpopular we vote it out. Hell no longer concerns us. It is not popular, so in our minds it cannot be real.
Harvard Divinity School professor, Gordon Kaufman, sums up the thoughts of many when he says that hell has been in decline for four hundred years and is now so diminished that the process is irreversible: “I don’t think there can be a future for hell.”
But we cannot dismiss hell as if it were yesterday’s fashion in jeans. Hell’s existence is not dependent upon the whims of our society. What we want to believe about eternal life doesn’t change the reality of heaven or hell. God does not take polls. If we want to face the truth about hell we must turn to the one source that has the inside scoop on the subject, the Word of God. What we want to know is what God has to say about hell.
What Is Hell?
There are many opinions on this subject. Some think they are going through hell in this life. Edgar Allan Poe wrote:
Thank Heaven! The crisis
The danger, is past,
And the lingering illness
Is over at last —
And the fever called “Living”
I s conquered at last.
Other people think that hell is what you make of it. John Milton had Satan say in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Is hell a place? What is going on in hell? Is anyone there now? Who will be there in the future? Will inhabitants of hell stay there forever, or is there a chance for an “upgrade?” What is hell like? These are the questions that we will attempt to answer in the next three papers. The answers are not as easy and clear-cut as it might seem at first, but they are there. We need to start with an understanding of the words used to describe hell.
There are four words in Scripture that are sometimes translated “hell:”
Sheol is the word most often found in the Old Testament to describe life after death. “The essential concept of Sheol is the place of the dead, the grave. The Old Testament does not theorize on the state of life after death. It does not suggest that the godly and wicked dead live together until the judgment.”
The word Sheol appears sixty-five times in the Old Testament, but it is translated in various ways in our translations. The KJV translates it “hell” thirty-one times, “grave” thirty-one times, and “the pit” three times. The NIV has “grave” fifty-five times and “death” six times, while the NASB simply leaves Sheol untranslated.
What does Sheol mean? It always seems to simply mean the grave, or the place that an individual goes at death. In Psalm 89:48 no one can escape Sheol — all, from the best to the worst, go there. For the wicked, Sheol was inescapable (Psalm 9:17), but for the righteous there could be deliverance from Sheol (Psalm 49:15).
The bottom line is that Sheol represented death and the grave. It was unavoidable, all would die. But the righteous had the confidence that death would not be their end. Somehow the Lord would rescue them and deliver them from the grave. W. G. T. Shedd believed Sheol to have a dual meaning in Scripture: Both that of the grave and the place of future retribution for the wicked. The meaning depended upon the context.
On the other hand, the Old Testament barely pulls back the curtain on life in eternity. Little of what mankind, good or evil, faces beyond the grave is revealed. The theology of eternal life is not developed beyond an elementary understanding. “The preoccupation [of Old Testament believers] was not with life after death; it was with loving and obeying the Lord in this life. Their ideal was to walk with God all their days and then to die at a ripe old age with their children and grandchildren gathered around them.”
To a large degree then, death was a mystery to the people of the Old Testament. Many no doubt could echo Robert Ingersoll’s (a famous nineteenth century agnostic) lament at his brother’s graveside, “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry.”
However, we do not see this type of anguish among the godly of the Old Testament. When David lost his baby he calmly declared that he would go to his little one. In modern times Vance Havner reflected this same confidence to those expressing sorrow over the loss of his wife, as he said, “But I haven’t lost her. I know where she is.” Yet there was at least some understanding that life extended beyond the grave and judgment awaited. Daniel 12:1-2 reads, At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people — everyone whose name is found written in the book — will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
By the time Jesus walked on the earth the Pharisees had developed multiple schools of thought about eternity for the wicked. Most believed that there would be everlasting punishment for the sinner, but the school of Hillel taught that the ungodly would only last a year in this punishment before they would be annihilated. The Jews also came to believe that Sheol was divided into two sections, one in which the wicked were punished for their sins and the other, often called “paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom,” in which the righteous experienced great joy.
The New Testament counterpart to Sheol is Hades. As a matter of fact the Septuagint translates Sheol as Hades in sixty-one out of sixty-five cases. In the New Testament, Hades is found only ten times and in just four books — Matthew, Luke, Acts, and Revelation. Hades is similar to Sheol, but New Testament teachings open the curtain a little bit more on life there.
We find, for instance, that, while Hades has a direct link to death, it is distinguished from death four times (Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 10:13; 20:14). While it is a place of the dead, it is something more. It would appear that the difference is that death refers to the physical body, while Hades is in reference to the soul.
Secondly, Hades, whatever itis, is not a final destiny, as it too will be cast into the lake of fire at the end of time (Revelation 20:13,14). “It is an intermediate state, and the souls of all who enter it at death will be forced to leave it in preparation for the Day of Judgment.”
Thirdly, the activities in Hades or Sheol are given wide exposure in one unique passage, Luke 16:19-31. Here, for one brief moment, the gates of Hades are opened to reveal our most complete picture of life beyond the grave. In this passage we find two men who have died, a righteous man and an ungodly man. Jesus uses, and seemingly validates, the commonly held view of the day, showing Sheol or Hades as more than a gravesite. It is the spiritual home of the physically dead. Hades, many believe, is depicted as having two compartments, one for the punishment of the wicked, and the other, called here “Abraham’s bosom,” a place of pleasure and rest for the godly. Jesus would refer to this latter section as paradise (Luke 23:43).
Theologians have hotly debated this subject. Charles Hodge and W. G. T. Shedd, two of the greatest theologians at the turn of the century, wrangled over this issue at length. Shedd staked out the position that paradise and heaven are the same thing and that the Old Testament believers went immediately into the presence of the Lord. Hodge, on the other hand, defended the idea that before the resurrection of Christ all those who died went to one of two compartments in Hades. Following the resurrection, Christ removed the paradise compartment to heaven, and the New Testament believer immediately joined the Old Testament saint in the presence of the Lord.
Either way, the story of Lazarus and Dives (Latin for “rich man”) discloses some startling facts:
- At death the soul does not sleep or cease to exist, but is conscious.
- Following death and prior to the final judgment, the unsaved will be involved in punishment, and the saved will begin the joys of eternal life.
- The unbeliever is aware of life in paradise, is concerned about those still on earth, and lives in constant remorse and regret.
- Eternal destinies are set at the time of death. There is no escape from Hades.
It would be best to start this description with some background. About 750 years before the time of Christ, King Ahaz of Judah practiced human sacrifices, even burning his own son to death in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, a place just south-west of Jerusalem (II Chronicles 28:1-4).
A number of years later Ahaz’s grandson, King Manasseh duplicated this heinous act, reinstituting human sacrifices, again in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (II Chronicles 33:6). Manasseh’s son, King Josiah, sought to undo the sins of his fathers. He began an aggressive program to clean up the nation of Judah and return her to the Lord (see II Kings 23:10). “In his crusade, Josiah singled out the Valley of Ben Hinnom for particular attention. From being a place of idol worship, he turned it into a public rubbish dump in which all the offal and filth of Jerusalem were poured. Later the bodies of animals and even the corpses of criminals were flung there and left to rot or be consumed by the fire that was kept constantly burning to dispose of the stinking mass of garbage. As one writer comments, it was a place where ‘the fires never stopped burning and the worms never stopped eating.’”
It is from this valley that we get the Greek word Gehenna, a term that “appears abruptly in the apocalyptic literature of Judaism of the second century BC.” In the New Testament the word is used almost exclusively by Jesus, to depict hell. When Jesus used the word Gehenna it immediately conjured up feelings of shame and disgust in the Jewish people.
Of the twelve uses of Gehenna in the New Testament, eleven of them are by Jesus (James 3:6 being the only exception). In the KJV, NIV and NASB Gehenna is always translated as “hell.” It is in conjunction with this word that we are given the most vivid teaching concerning eternal punishment. With the exception of Luke 16, Hades tells us almost nothing about the future of the damned. But Jesus’ use of Gehenna is very clear. In Mark 9:43-48, for example, Jesus uses Gehenna to describe a place of lasting punishment in unquenchable fire for those who reject Him. We will look more closely at the nature of this punishment in our future papers.
One other word is often translated “hell” in the New Testament. It is the Greek word Tartarus, found only in II Peter 2:4, that describes a place of confinement for certain wicked angels. Jude 6 defines this as a place of eternal bondage and darkness.
Are fallen angels in Hades today along with the souls of unsaved people? Not likely. Although all would not agree, Tartarus would appear to be a different place than Gehenna.
Why Do People Go to Hell?
We need to address this question from a couple of different directions — people go to hell because of:
The Nature of God
In Matthew 10:14-15 Jesus makes it clear that the rejection of the gospel is more serious than the sexual immorality, which characterized Sodom and Gomorrah. Social morality will not lessen the impact of God’s judgment. Why? Because the ultimate sin, the sin that deserves hell, is not murder or rape or immorality, but rejection of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:3; 10:26-31). Satan is more than willing to divert the church’s attention to morality and away from the salvation of souls.
Why is this such an awful crime? Why is it that men will be eternally rejected, cast from God’s loving presence and forever doomed simply because they have refused to receive God’s offer of salvation? This just does not seem fair or right.
In answer, we are reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ thoughts. Edwards wrote, spoke and contemplated hell as much as any theologian who ever lived. His summary is that we can only cry foul because we do not understand the infinite sinfulness of sin, the infinity of the heinousness of wickedness, and the incredible holiness of God.
God is majestic in holiness, awesome in glory (Exodus 15:11). There can be no comparison with the holiness of God. There is no one holy like the Lord (I Samuel 2:2), who is utterly without fault or defect. The Bible says of Him, Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; You cannot tolerate wrong (Habakkuk 1:13). And this holy God demands holiness from every one of us. His command to us today is: Be holy, because I am holy (I Peter 1:16).
But why eternal hell? Why not some softer or shorter retribution? Edwards, based on passages such as Romans 9:22-24, and Isaiah 66:22-24 suggests that “the purpose hell serves is to gladden heaven. Suffering sinners serve the purpose of contributing to the bliss of redeemed sinners by glorifying the justice of God…. That God ordained, by permissive decree, reprobates for misery for the greater happiness of the elect.” Edwards may have spoken too strongly, but the above passages imply that our joy in heaven will be greatly enhanced by the backdrop of hell.
The Nature of Mankind
What does the Bible say about the nature of mankind? It says:
- All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
- The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure (Jeremiah 17:9).
- For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Mark 7:21-22).
- In our natural state we are the helpless, ungodly enemies of God (Romans 5:6-10).
- The heart of many a person is well illustrated by John Milton’s Satan, who proclaims, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” The problem is that few people see themselves as evil. “Hell is full of people who think they are good; heaven is full of people who know they are bad.”
Ultimately hell is a choice. As J. I. Packer states, “Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s actions in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications, nothing more, and equally nothing less.”
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it”
— C. S. Lewis.