The Biblical Doctrine of Hell

The Biblical Doctrine of Hell

C. S. Lewis once listened to a young preacher conclude his sermon with the words that Christ rejecters would suffer “grave eschatological ramifications”. He asked him afterwards if he meant people would go to Hell. “Precisely” the preacher replied, “Then say so”, said Lewis. Yet we understand the reluctance of that speaker and today it might be more difficult than ever to present this topic seriously.

The word ‘Hell’ is heard frequently in contemporary language, but with different meanings. It can be flippant: ‘it was a hell of a game’ or serious as a surgeon saying, ‘it’s a hell of an operation’. Sadly the constant use of Hell as an expletive effectively weakens the reality and impact of its truth. The Bible, in a number of ways, reveals Hell as dreadful torment.

Descriptions of Hell

  1. A Rubbish Dump – wasted, worthless and thrown out (Luke 14:35)
  2. A Prison – total confinement and absolute limitation (2 Peter 2:4)
  3. A Pit – with no escape, total despair (Psalm 55:23)
  4. Darkness – no light causing disorientation and fear (Matthew 22:13, Jude 13)
  5. Fire – clearly this does not produce light, but pictures punishment and pain (Malachi 4:1, Matthew 5:22)
  6. A Worm – gnawing pain which is unbearable (Isaiah 66:24, Mark 9:48)

It all adds up to one dreadful eternal experience that needs to be avoided at all costs. We easily identify with those who hate the idea of going there or of anyone going to such an awful place. Therefore it is hard to reflect seriously on Hell and not be deeply moved. To spend eternity in indescribable agony is utterly overwhelming – it breaks our hearts and moves us to tears. Therefore to focus on this subject is difficult. Somebody said of D. L. Moody “that he had the right to preach about Hell because he so clearly did so from a weeping heart.” That can be the only way to teach the Biblical concept of Hell. Unfortunately many object to the notion of Hell.

Objections to Hell
1. The Emotional Objection
God created us with the ability to feel things deeply. However, emotion should never blind us to reality. We should be very disturbed at the terrible concept of our family members, neighbours and colleagues ending up in Hell but not so disturbed that we deny the existence of Hell. Instead we need to undertake the responsibility of sharing the Gospel as the only means of escaping Hell’s dreadfulness.

2. The Social Objection
Here the idea is that society has moved on and changed, with Hell and retribution viewed as a by-gone social construct to control people. We no longer talk of punishment but of genetic make-up, hormonal balance and corrective treatment even for hardened criminals. Therefore to speak of the Biblical doctrine of Hell seems crass to our modern way of thinking. So in the face of changing social ideas Christians easily end up on the defensive feeling locked into ideas lagging behind present social thinking. The temptation is to water down this doctrine and keep it as a hidden truth – unspoken. Yet stigma should not keep us from proclaiming God’s truth.

3. The Psychological Objection
This says that it is a bad thing to talk about Hell as it could frighten people and fear is said to be a bad motive for coming to Christ. However, fear is a God implanted survival mechanism in the face of danger. Fear enables us to recognise danger and do something to avoid it. Obviously fear can be taken too far and become a phobia, but we must not forget its power to bless. As someone has said, “A true fear of Hell has sent many a soul to Heaven.”

4. The Moral Objection
This focuses on whether it is fair that seventy years on earth should be followed by an eternity in Hell. The punishment seems disproportionate and therefore Hell cannot be real. However, the real issue is the awfulness of sin and how to gauge that awfulness. The only measure is God’s standard of holiness. Today sin is taken lightly, but it is filthy degradation to God and must be dealt with in a just way. It can be dealt with through Christ’s work of atonement or in Hell as the final place of justice. Ultimately, in moral terms, this is the righting of wrongs – the complete and final justice from God who always does what is right.

5. The Philosophical Objection
This argues that if God sends people to Hell then He has failed. Evil has triumphed and God has not conquered it. Yet God has triumphed and will triumph because there will not be unbridled or unharnessed evil in Hell. No one will be free to indulge their sins.

6. The Theological Objection
This states that God is love and as Christ died for all then all will be saved. This is the false doctrine of universalism. Certainly God is love and gives everyone the offer of salvation but when it is rejected then people face eternal torment. God’s love is tied up with his holy character which requires justice to be done.

So attempts are made to suppress Hell’s reality and do away with eternal punishment. However, God’s Word speaks unmistakably of Hell, a place of inescapable torment. ‘If we take the testimony of Scripture seriously, and if we base our doctrines on its teaching – as we should – we are compelled to believe in the eternal punishment of the lost. To be sure, we shrink from this teaching with all that is within us, and do not dare try to visualize how this eternal punishment might be experienced by someone we know. But the Bible teaches it and therefore we must accept it.’ (Hoekema). The Bible uses a number of words that translate into English as Hell.

Words for Hell
1. The Old Testament, written in Hebrew uses the word ‘Sheol’. This has slight variations of meaning depending upon the context in which it is used and is translated as ‘Hell’ (31 times), ‘grave’ (31 times), ‘the pit’ (3 times).

2. The New Testament, written in Greek uses three words which are translated as Hell
i. Tartaros: found in 2 Peter 2:4: “God spared not the angels that sinned but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness…” This is not Hell as commonly thought namely the place of Christ rejecters, but is a confinement for angels until the day of judgement.
ii. Hades: used ten times: Matthew (11:23, 16:18); Luke (10:15, 16:23); Acts (2:27, 31); Revelation (1:18, 6:8, 20:13, 14)

There is existence after death and in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) that existence is divided into two parts. The righteous dead go to a place of blessing, called ‘Abraham’s bosom’, while the unrighteous go to Hades, a place of torment. The two places were divided by an uncrossable gulf. In Hades the rich man was fully conscious but in torment and was agitated about his brothers coming to such a place. This story precludes ‘soul sleep’, namely the unconscious existence of the dead.

Yet Hades is not the final abode of unbelievers as it says in Revelation 20:13-15: “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and hell (hades) delivered up the dead which were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell (hades) were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” Hades is a dreadful place of torment, but is the ‘waiting place’ before the final judgement for Christ rejecters and is not the place commonly thought of as Hell.
iii. Gehenna: appears twelve times: Matthew (5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33); Mark (9:43, 45, 47); Luke (12:5); James (3:6)
‘Gehenna’ derives from a valley near Jerusalem known as ‘Ge-hinnon’ or ‘the valley of Hinnon’. Dreadful things took place there in Old Testament times, including child sacrifices to the idol, Molech (Jeremiah 7:31). Such practices ceased but the area was used to deposit rubbish, dead animals and bodies of criminals. To deal with this the ‘Gehenna of fire’ burned continually.

Jesus took this well-known, but dreadful piece of land, with rottenness (worms & maggots) and burning and used it to focus upon an unknown place – the final abode of sinners. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus emphasized that it is better to lose the most precious things in life and avoid Hell, than to retain such things but ‘be cast into hell fire; where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:48)

Gehenna is the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). There both ‘death’ (where the material part of man has gone) and ‘hades’ (where the immaterial part of man has gone) will give up the dead in them. At the final judgement punishment will be meted out and Christ rejecters cast into the lake of fire (Gehenna).

Those in Hades will be thrown into Gehenna will not to be annihilated, but eternally tormented. There is no such thing as annihilation (the ceasing to exist after death) because it is not taught in Scripture.

Our Responsibility in the Light of Hell
Hell was never meant for people but for the Devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). The Saviour, Himself, spoke most about Hell but came, in love, to deliver mankind from such an awful punishment through His death on the cross. Therefore Christians should take up the cause of the Gospel with renewed energy for it is the only message that delivers from the dreadful consequences of sin.

We must not hide from the truth of Hell but let it feed our love for people and seek to deliver them from such a dreadful destiny by proclaiming the message of salvation.

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