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Introduction

The mere thought of spending a conscious eternity in hell strikes fear into even the most bold. So much so that many refuse to accept the reality of it. The question remains, what is hell? Is it real, is it figurative or is it some imaginary place dreamed up by religious leaders to keep people in line? Is it a place for the torment of the wicked of all generations to include the fallen angels or is it like the common cultural perception that portrays hapless souls tormented by devils and demons who rule over hell? To answer these questions, we need to turn to the Bible for the answers. What does The Bible say?

Definitions

In the Old and New Testament there are three words (two Greek and one Jewish) rendered in various translations as "hell".

The Jewish word Sheol is rendered as hell but really means "the place of the dead - the unseen world" and is derived from it's etymological roots meaning "to ask" or "to be hollow". The translators rendered it as hell without deciding whether it be a place or misery or happiness and over time it's taken on the context of being a place of torment. In many passages of the Old Testament, Sheol should be understood only as "the grave" and is rendered as such in many cases such as:

Gen 37:35 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 into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.

Gen 42:38 And he said, My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he is left alone: if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.

1 Sam 2:6 The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.

Job 14:13 O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!

In other passages sheol seems to involve a notion of punishment:

Eze 32:27 And they shall not lie with the mighty that are fallen of the uncircumcised, which are gone down to hell with their weapons of war: and they have laid their swords under their heads, but their iniquities shall be upon their bones, though they were the terror of the mighty in the land of the living.

Isa 33:14 The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?

Pro 30:16 The grave; and the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water; and the fire that saith not, It is enough.
Pro 30:17 The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.

It is also seen as a place of darkness (Job 10:21, Job 10:22; Psalm 143:3), of silence (Psalm 94:17; Psalm 115:17), of forgetfulness (Psalm 88:12; Ecc 9:5, Ecc 9:6, Ecc 9:10). It is without remembrance or praise of God (Psalm 6:5), or knowledge of what transpires on earth (Job 14:21)1

In the New Testament the word "hell" is used for two different words, "Hades" and "Gehenna". By looking at all the passages using these three words and a bit of history we can discover what hell is, who it is for, and what it is like.

First is the Greek word "Hades". To some degree the word "Hades" in the New Testament has the same scope of specificity as the Jewish word "Sheol". Like the word "Sheol", Hades infers a meaning of "the unseen world or all receiving world", it too has an all encompassing use denoting both a place of torment such as:

Luk 16:22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
Luk 16:23 And in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
Luk 16:24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

and a place of happiness:

Luk 16:25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

Luk 23:43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

and that there is a clear division between the two:

Luk 16:26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

The rabbis divided the state after death (Sheol in Jewish, Hades in Greek) into a place for the righteous and a place for the wicked.

Next is the Greek word Gehenna. Like many other things God provides us a physical and literal example with which we can begin to fathom a spiritual concept and along with most other concepts it begins in the Old Testament. The parallel is drawn between "hell" and a real place. Fausset's Bible Dictionary describes it thusly:

Gehenna is strictly "the valley of Hinnom" (Joshua 15:8; Neh. 11:30); "the valley of the children of Hinnom" (2 Kings 23:10); "the valley of the son of Hinnom" (2 Ch. 28:3); "the valley of dead bodies," or Tophet, where malefactors' dead bodies were cast, S. of the city (Jer 31:40). A deep narrow glen S. of Jerusalem, where, after Ahaz introduced the worship of the fire gods, the sun, Baal, Moloch, the Jews under Manasseh made their children to pass through the fire (2Ch_33:6), and offered them as burnt offerings (Jer 7:31; Jer 19:2-6). So the godly Josiah defiled the valley, making it a receptacle of carcass and criminals' corpses, in which worms were continually gendering.

A perpetual fire was kept to consume this putrefying matter; hence it became the image of that awful place where all that are unfit for the holy city are cast out a prey to the ever gnawing "worm" of conscience from within and the "unquenchable fire" of torments from without. Mark 9:42-50, "their worm dieth not" implies that not only the worm but they also on whom it preys die not; the language is figurative, but it represents corresponding realities never yet experienced, and therefore capable of being conveyed to us only by figures.

Of significance is the parallels between the description in Mark 9:42-50 and the description in the OT passages. Gehenna became the Jewish synonym for the place of torment in the future life and is further clarified in the New Testament. In the New Testament Gehenna occurs in many passages, here are but a few:

Mat 5:22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Matt 10:28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Luke 12:5 But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.

James 3:6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity; so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

In all of those mentioned (and several others) the use of the word Gehenna designates the place of eternal punishment of the wicked and generally it is used in connection with the final judgment.

We've so far looked at the three most common words that are rendered hell in Bible translations, however, there is actually one more word that would suggest a similar place. In 2 Peter 2:4 we find the Greek word Tartaroo rendered for hell - properly rendered "to send into Tartarus". According to 2 Peter 2:4 (and confirmed by parallel mentions in Jude 1:6 and Matt 25:41) Tartarus is apparently a selected section of hell reserved for the angels. The passages would suggest that this area of hell is reserved for those angels that sinned (most likely those found in Genesis 6:1-4) and for those who followed Satan in the great rebellion - Satan's fall from heaven. (Revelation 12:4)

Putting It All Together

So what does this all mean? Now that we've examined all the words that are sometimes render the concept of hell in our Scriptures we can begin to piece together the full picture. Sheol or Hades (and by extension Hell) is the all encompassing term for the realm of the dead or what happens after death.

Upon the death of a righteous person prior to Christ their physical body is put into the grave and their spirit descended to "Abraham's Bosom". As a note, the term sheol has a certain duality to it in it's connotation; in a physical sense it's the hole in which the body is placed upon death; in a spiritual sense it's the "holding area" for the spirit until a future time.

Prior to Christ a soul had one of two destinations upon death, the righteous would descend to Abraham's Bosom or Paradise and the soul of the wicked would descend to the "fiery" side of Hades (cf. Luke 16:24) for lack of a better term. The Bible gives no clear technical term for that side of Hades (or Hell) the passages in Luke further make no mention of the name. Between these two side of Hades (or Hell) is a great gulf which may be the abyss that Satan is bound in during the millennial reign of Christ (cf. Luke 16:26; Revelation 20:1-2).

With the resurrection of Christ we see a different destination for the righteous in Christ. At His resurrection those who died prior to it were escorted out of Abraham's Bosom into the presence of the Father (cf. Ephesians 4:8). Secondly we know from 2 Corinthians 5:8 that post Christ's resurrection the spirit of a believer now will immediately go to the presence of the Lord. Basically, at this point and for the last 2000 years Abraham's Bosom has been empty. The concept here deals with the afterlife of the Old Testament saints. Prior to Christ, a righteous person's sins were only atoned for or covered by the blood sacrifice dictated by the Law. Having their sin atoned for still left them unworthy to stand in the presence of the Lord. However, with the resurrection of Christ and His work on the cross, all who believe and are faithful are now redeemed and their sins have been washed away by His blood. With Christ's sacrifice, the righteous are now worthy. Thus the concept of Christ defeating death. The death that is defeated is that of those who repent and turn to Him and for those 'righteous ones' that went before Him - who remained faithful to God in anticipation of the Messiah. If you will, it seems that Christ went to Abraham's bosom, declared himself as the messiah, they all believed and were escorted to heaven. ("Ascended on high... and gave gifts to men." - Eph. 4:8)

Unfortunately the souls of the wicked remain in the "firey" side of Hades (or Hell), in a state of conscious torment (Luke 16:24) and they will remain there until the final judgment at which time they will be resurrected, judged, found guilty and cast into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:15).

Now this "Lake of Fire" is apparently a completely different state altogether for in the end death and hell (Hades) will be cast into the lake of fire along with the wicked at the final judgment, Satan, the antichrist, the false prophet and the fallen angels as well (Rev. 20:14). With the onset of this event there will be no more death among the people of God for His plan will be complete and all who remain will move into eternity so there is no longer a need for Sheol/Hades/Hell.

The Bible continually describes this Lake of Fire as a place of conscious living eternity in torment. At first glance a punishment this severe seems too severe to be true of a loving God. I have had many people ask the question, "How can a loving God send people to hell?". The answer lies in the truth that God is exceedingly Holy. When we consider our own justice system on earth we can begin to understand why the punishment for defying God's law could be so severe. Take the matter of murder. While it should make no difference in a murder as to who the victim is, the severity of the punishment always reflects the status or stature of the deceased. If someone was to murder a child in the womb, our law currently recognizes this as the legal right to abortion. The Bible says that God knit us together in our mother's womb, and that we were created in His image. The punishment for this unborn murder, is nothing under our current laws. In another case, if we were to murder a homeless person, we would be send to jail for murder, however, the term of the punishment, or the severity of it would be quite different than if we had murdered the Queen of England, or the President of the United States. In all cases the crime is the same. The severity of the punishment is scaled in accordance to the scale of the person the crime was against. Think now of the creator of the heavens and the earth. Think now of our stature versus the God that holds the universe in the span of his hand (Isaiah 40:12). Our sin, no matter how menial is against the almighty God. Our crime is therefore scaled accordingly.

Our study of hell also reveals the truth of why it exists. It can be seen from the scriptures that God did not in fact create the Lake of Fire for us. Rather God created the Lake of Fire to deal with Satan, the false prophet, the antichrist and the demons. Revelation 19:20 documents that the first inhabitants of the Lake of Fire will be the Antichrist (the beast) and the False Prophet. Satan then joins them in verse 12 of chapter 20. Revelation 20:13-15 documents that only then do the unsaved of the world go to the Lake of fire - following Satan there. So the reason people go to hell is that they follow their master there. If you are not born again, redeemed and saved through Christ, you are a child of the devil (cf. 1 John 3:8-10); and therefore follow your master to his final destination - The Lake of Fire.

It is very important to realize here that Scripture does not portray Hell or the Lake of Fire as a place ruled by Satan and his minions tormenting the lost souls. Satan and his minions are also to share in the eternal torment of the Lake of Fire. Also, much like Gehenna, scripture gives no credence to the idea that Satan lords over the "fiery" side of hades either as he is termed the 'ruler of this world' (2 Corinthians 4:4) as the 'prince of power of the air' (Eph 2:2) and is 'roaming about like a lion' looking for souls to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Satan has no dominion over hell, only God does.

Conclusion

My hope is that this study into the Word of God reinforces our understanding of the outcome of a life lived without the Lord. I hope and pray that this further presses the reader with the desire and necessity of sharing the Gospel with all they meet. There are but two destinations upon death: a wonderful eternity in the presence of the Lord, or a conscious eternity of torment within the lake of fire. Every individual has the ability to choose in which direction they will travel and the Lord desires that all will turn to Him in repentance and faith (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).

Go therefore and preach the gospel unto every creature (Mark 16:15). Go and serve your King.

- J.R. Hall

Footnotes:
1. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

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