What does the Bible say about Hell?
Five or six weeks ago I started feeling this nudge that maybe Hell was a topic we should investigate further at the Winds. At the time I recognized this as a prompting from the Spirit because I’m not personally all that keen on the doctrine of Hell, nor do I particularly enjoy thinking about how to introduce the topic of Hell to people that I love. However, once I began my study on the topic I was convicted and embarrassed by precisely how much there is in the Bible on Hell. Since I am deeply concerned with being a faithful student and teacher of the biblical text, I feel compelled to – perhaps for this one time only – spend a little time teaching on Hell and why it is an issue of some significance for us today.
A church like ours tends toward either indifference or oblivion when it comes to Hell. We don’t really think about it, and because we don’t really think about it we tend not to really care that much about it either. Yet, if we’re going to be faithful followers of Jesus and students of the Scriptures, we ought to know what the Bible actually says about our final judgment and the alternative to eternal life with Christ in new creation.
This is my real problem with Christians: They say they believe in Hell, but they never talk about it. You’ve got to really hate someone to believe in Hell and never tell them it’s there or how to avoid it. I think Christians hate me, because they’ve never warned me about Hell.
Penn Jillete, magician
There are four words in the Bible used to describe Hell— one Hebrew word (Sheol), three Greek words (Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus). At first, these four terms might seem contradictory, but – in reality – they are easily harmonized. Part of this harmonization process is the realization that Hell is a very complicated issue. We should be mindful of this whenever we are tempted to trivialize the ultimate fate of humanity or the judgment of God.
First, in the Old Testament the only word that’s used to describe Hell is the Hebrew word Sheol, which also means “the grave.” For example, in Deuteronomy 30.19, Sheol is used synonymously with death:
Brought low, you will speak from the ground; your speech will mumble out of the dust. Your voice will come ghostlike from the earth; out of the dust your speech will whisper.
From this passage, and many others, we come to understand that Sheol didn’t just mean “death” or “the grave” or even “Hell” exclusively, but a kind of deathlessness, emptiness, and misery.
Sheol is not just a place, it’s a state of being that you can enter now as well as once you’ve died if your relationship with God isn’t right if you’ve been unfaithful to the people around you.
Listen to what I’m saying. Our first understanding of Hell isn’t so much about torment and brimstone, but about misery and sadness. It’s about living like a specter, a ghost, without hope or substance, flitting here and there about the world. That’s what the afterlife will be like if you died and your relationship with God and others is out of whack. That’s life now before you die if your relationships are out of whack.
Think about it this way: If you die miserably, Sheol is the extrapolation of that misery for all eternity—sadness, heartache, emptiness, and isolation.
In our contemporary context, we use images like Sheol to describe misery in this life. Think about some of our more common colloquialisms:
…you look like death warmed over
…you smell like you’ve got one foot in the grave
…you are so dead when she finds out what you’ve done
word in Scripture used to define Hell. In the New Testament, Hades is the place where the wicked go after they’ve died but before they’re judged.
Jesus references Hades several times, most notably in Matthew 16:18:
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
Hades is the Greek version of Sheol, but only as it concerns the afterlife. Whereas Sheol is something you could experience now and after your death (i.e. both a state of being and a place of deathlessness), Hades is only a place in the afterlife (or perhaps more accurately, in the afterdeath).
The third, and arguably most important, word used to describe Hell is Gehenna. Jesus, by the way, teaches about Hell more than anybody else. In fact, most of our understanding of Hell comes almost exclusively from the teachings of Jesus, and Jesus’ preferred understanding of Hell is defined by his use of Gehenna.
The word had some significance, because Gehenna was the local garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. Gehenna was a stinky, filthy, reeking, rotting place known as the Valley of Ben-Hinnom.
The Valley of Ben-Hinnom had a very dark history. In 2 Kings 23, for example, we read that this was where child sacrifices were offered to the pagan god Molech. Other human sacrifices were offered there. This place was .
In our contemporary context, the best (and still woefully inadequate) comparison would be like saying Hell is Auschwitz, or – more locally – 8 Mile.
Jesus says that to be separated from God, to willfully choose to reject Him, to disavow yourself of the life God wants you to have, is to choose to live in the garbage, in Auschwitz, in Gehenna. What goes there is the garbage of our sin, and if we choose not to let go of our sin, we will perish with it.
It is important to recognize that Gehenna is the exact opposite of the Garden of Eden. Remember, God’s original intent for His creation was a world of beauty and goodness, with harmony between the created order and the creator. Over time, we have taken that beautiful and good creation and destroyed it through violence and selfishness.
God made Eden, we have made Gehenna.
God wants to restore Eden in the New Creation that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15 (and Isaiah talks about in Isaiah 65 and 66), but if we refuse to cooperate with God in His project of New Creation, we will find ourselves in the eternal refuse of Gehenna.
He is bringing heaven to earth. We are resisting heaven-on-earth and so we will spend eternity in Hell unless we repent.
Jesus sets up these polar opposites to let us understand the things we do now, the choices we make now, the actions we take now, are always taking us one step closer to new life and new creation or to Hell, the stinking, festering, garbage dump of eternity.
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.
The last image we get of Hell comes from the Book of Peter and it’s the “place of torment,” known as Tartarus in Greco-Roman mythology. In 2 Peter 2:4, Peter says:
For God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into Hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.
There are people who sometimes make the mistake of thinking that Hell is just separation from God. In their minds, this isn’t really such a bad thing; after all, we all experience a little separation in the here and now, so what’s a little separation for eternity?
The difference, of course, is that the separation we experience now is limited in degree and duration. We don’t now experience full separation from God – for, even if we are separated from Him, others are not and we get a kind of spill-over benefit from their intimacy with God. And we still have now the potential for reconciliation – meaning, it doesn’t have to last for eternity since we could choose to embrace God and allow that separation to evaporate.
But ultimate, eschatological separation from God would be much worse than what we now experience because we would have no protection whatsoever –no spillover effect – and this final separation would have no possibility of ceasing.
Given all of this, there are three things I want you to remember:
1. The clear emphasis of the Scriptures is not on Hell or death. It’s on new life and that life more abundantly. When you read the Bible cover to cover, when you study the Scriptures, you realize the emphasis of the Bible is on how to live well and how to enjoy living in the presence of God.
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Even though we’re touching on Hell, please don’t anybody get excited about it. The Bible spends far more time on, and is far more specific about, what good life looks like rather than bad life. It’s far more explicit about what heaven, the new heaven, and the new earth are like than about what Hell is like. So our emphasis should be on living and living well.
2. But that doesn’t mean we can completely ignore what the Bible says about death and judgment. Death and judgment are a pretty significant theme, not the main theme, not the dominant theme, but a significant theme in the Scriptures and we need to take them seriously.
Let me give you one Scripture from John 5:25-29 that will bring this home. These are pretty harsh words from Jesus himself and they ought to disturb us just a little bit. Jesus says:
Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And He has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.
Some translations say, “Those who have done what is good will rise to everlasting life and those who have done what is evil will rise to everlasting torment.”
One of the things about Hell we often forget is that Hell is physical. Just as people who love and embrace Jesus Christ, who choose to be with him, are given new bodies at the resurrection, so too are those who hate Jesus and reject God are given new bodies at the resurrection. However, those who choose the side of life, who choose to embrace God biblically, are said to inherit life – the blessings of the , peace with God, harmony in this world and in the next; whereas those who reject life, reject God, are in store for all kinds of bad things, to which this text synonymously refers as judgment, condemnation, torment, and punishment.
3. Because Scripture teaches on both life and judgment, we must find ways to avoid “death” in the here and now. We have to find a way to embrace the life of Jesus now, so that when we are in fact appraised for all of the things we’ve done in this life, and we are evaluated on our allegiance, we will have taken whatever steps necessary to avoid what the Book of Revelation calls “second death.”
We need to be very, very careful about the way we live now so we don’t embrace or encourage any kind of spiritual death. Have you ever heard anybody use the colloquialism “I just feel dead spiritually” or “I feel dead inside” or “I feel like I’m dying?” Those words speak to the reality of Sheol, they speak to the reality of Hell on earth and they intimate the reality of Hell to come. We’ve got to do whatever we can to avoid being spiritual dead. We’ve got to avoid the death of our eternal selves.
Spiritual death has four key qualities in the Bible.
I. To be spiritually dead is to stop trying. You know somebody’s marriage is doomed when one of them just checks out and stops trying to control their tongue, to control their behavior, to control their sexuality. Their marriage is over. To be spiritually dead is to stop trying.
People say, “I have such a hard time praying and reading the Bible and understanding it.” Who said it was going to be easy? What spam filter are you using that you didn’t get the memo saying you’re going to fight through some stuff? The Bible is not a coloring book. It’s going to be hard to understand at some point, but if you want to be spiritually alive, you’re going to keep trying even though you don’t feel like it, even though it’s hard. If you want to stay married, you’re going to keep trying even though it’s hard.
II. To be spiritually dead is stop feeling. We don’t have as much control over our feelings, so they are like a litmus test. When we ask ourselves, “Am I spiritually vibrant?”, we can usually tell by our feelings. Am I in love with my wife still? You can usually tell by your feelings. If you even have to ask yourself that question, it might be a little moment of concern for you.
III. To be spiritually dead is to stop thinking. If you’re not wrestling and engaging with your faith, you’re dying spiritually. My dad used to tell me when I was a kid, “Son, everyday God is asking us to make a decision.” I never understood what that meant. I thought I already made the decision. I prayed the prayer, I signed up for Team Jesus and I’m good. I thought there was only one decision I had to make. My dad in his wisdom understood that, yes, that’s the big decision you have to make, but every day. In fact, God is asking you every moment to make other decisions:
To choose him,
To choose life and not choose death,
To choose Eden and not choose Gehenna,
To choose to live in a blessed existence now,
To welcome the now,
instead of being stuck in Sheol or some kind of Hell on earth, some miserable existence, some dying marriage, some thoughtless work.
To be spiritually dead is to turn your mind off and believe that whatever you don’t know doesn’t really matter. Whether you’ve been following Jesus ten minutes or ten thousand years there is more.
IV. To be spiritually dead is to stop repenting. We are so rightfully afraid of sin. We should understand sin is bad because it is a violation against God’s holiness. But because we recognize sin is bad, we often lie about whether or not we sin. We justify it by saying, “That wasn’t really a sin though.” “I told my wife I hate her, but that’s really not that bad; God understands.” No, that’s a sin. “I cheat on my income tax; that’s not really a sin.” Yes, it is. I get why you did it, but it’s still a sin.
We have to find recognize there’s a lot of sin in our lives and that it’s all really bad. We need to repent of all of it and turn away from the way we would otherwise live apart from the Spirit of God and turn toward the way Christ wants us to live.
What have you done that you have not repented of? What have you thought that you have not repented of? There’s something about coming to terms with your own sin that’s liberating, that’s life-giving. As you get rid of that garbage, as you confess it to the Spirit, he breathes new life into you and you become spiritually more alive.
The bottom line is that what you do right now really matters, because:
God gives us the opportunity to choose life,
Jesus wants us to choose life,
We’re asked to make a decision about life,
We need a posture of repentance in order to experience abundant life.
The alternative to life is not just one death, but:
A second death,
A punishing death,
An empty death,
An extrapolated death,
A burning death.
We’ve got to understand the way we live now has either eternal consequence or eternal significance.
Everything you do matters.
What we need to do in the face of these huge and weighty issues is take some very simple advice from Jesus. In Mark 1:15 Jesus begins to preach the Kingdom of God with two very simple words—repent and believe.
Repent — Jesus says change the way you live. Turn away from the death life and turn towards the God life. Turn away from Gehenna and turn toward Eden. Turn away from death and judgment and turn toward more abundant life. Change the way you live from living for yourself to living for the King of the Universe.
Believe — you’ve heard the expression that someone’s actions belie their intent. That’s really what belief is. The way you live gives evidence to what you think way down in your heart. So, if you’re really proud of one of your children, they’re going to know it, because there will be evidence to support what you believe about your son or your daughter.
If you’re proud of them, you’re going to:
Have pictures of them,
Spend time with them,
Your actions will belie your beliefs.
When we talk about what it means to believe in Jesus, we talk about the fact that our lives give evidence. People look at you and recognize you are living not for yourself, but you are living with the very sincere belief that there is a clear choice in every moment between the way of life and the way of death, between the way of living for God and the way of living for yourself.
I hate to boil a very large and complicated issue down to something very, very simple, but I’m going to take my nods and tips from King Jesus here. We can get lost for at least another four hours of teaching on Hell. But, the real issue is not figuring out what the furniture or the temperature is going to be in Hell. The real issue is figuring out what to do with the life God has made available to us. Life—made available through repentance and belief.