Let’s talk about hell.
Specifically, let’s talk about what the Bible says about hell. Hell is one of those topics that has been so influenced by opinions, culture, and misinformation that it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s made up. Many of us probably grew up picturing hell much like the picture above. But is that really what hell will be like? Let’s go back to what the Bible says about hell.
Hell in the Old Testament
The Old Testament doesn’t give us many concrete details about hell. Rather it talks about death and a few vague references to what happens to the wicked after death.
The word the Old Testament uses for hell is sheol and is used 65 times. This is where the difficulty comes in. This word translates as the grave, death, destruction, the pit, and sometimes hell. At very least sheol is referring to death. At most sheol may refer to some sort of afterlife human existence for the wicked.
Ezekiel 32:17-32 offers us the longest description of the afterlife for the wicked in the Old Testament. Ezekiel offers a few glimpses, but nothing solid. The picture he paints is one of separation for the wicked and judgment for their deeds. There are hints that the wicked feel shame, but also that they are comforted.
Ezekiel isn’t the only example. Daniel 12:2 says the wicked will be resurrected and punished. Jude 1:7 compares “hell” to what Sodom and Gomorrah faced. The psalmist in Psalm 16:10 thanks God for not abandoning his soul to sheol. Numbers 16:33 states that those who go to sheol perish. And a variety of poetry mentions sheol in similar ways.
The Old Testament offers a few glimpses of hell, but nothing concrete. In some passages, hell seems to be portrayed as eternal and in others extinction. Many times sheol isn’t even referring to eternal consequences, but rather physical death for wickedness.
Hell in the New Testament
The New Testament speaks much more frequently about hell. But mostly in parables and illustrations. Surprisingly it is Jesus that spends by far the most time talking about hell in the New Testament. But still, there is no passage that says exactly what hell is, specifically who goes there, or what goes on there.
There are several words that the New Testament uses to describe hell. Jesus’ go to word is Gehenna, which is often translated as hell. But Gehenna was a real place that was just south of the city of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was a city dump in which trash was burned, day and night. However historically it had been the place where Israel went to practice idolatry. Not just the worship of other gods, but they also practiced human sacrifice, often of children. Some of Israel’s darkest moments happened in that valley. It was literally hell on earth. And it’s no coincidence that Jesus chooses this word to describe hell.
Why this is important is many of the passages in which Jesus talks about hell he is using imagery of Gehenna. Those listening would not have thought about hell below the surface. Rather the hell that was just outside the city. Hell to his audience isn’t a far off place that someday some people would go it. It was a literal place they could walk to. And that is a key distinction we need to keep in mind.
Another word that is used for hell is hades. Literally translated this word means the unseen place, referring to the invisible realm that the dead reside in. Jesus uses this term a few times, but this is mostly used in Revelation. What’s striking about this word is how it’s used. Hades is never used as a place where any person goes. Luke 10:15 gets the closest by saying Capernaum will go down to hades, but that’s probably referring to death and not hell. Jesus also uses it in a parable in Luke 16, with the rich man living in hades. You can read more about that here:
When the New Testament uses the word hades it is showing that it doesn’t have power over God. It’s not referring to hell and torment for the wicked, but rather that hades will not prevail and will be thrown into the lake of fire. In other words when you see hades, it’s often good news.
One last word I want to note that the New Testament uses only once is tartarus. Literally meaning to cast into hell. 2 Peter 2:4 is the only occurrence of this word and is used to refer to the fallen angels being cast into hell.
What The Bible Says About Hell
The Bible never gives us a textbook answer on what hell is. There isn’t a solid passage that says Hell is for__________. Heaven is for _________. These people go here, and those people go there. Anyone that gives absolutes about hell has to input a hefty dose of their own opinions. That’s not necessarily bad, but it should be taken with a grain of salt (including what I say in this article). Rather the Bible paints a picture. These are pictures shouldn’t be taken literally. Rather we should focus on what the illustration is pointing to.
With that in mind let’s look at some of the key themes the Bible points to about hell.
God’s Power > Hell’s Power
Revelation captures this idea the clearest. Four times Revelation mentions hades and alludes to it’s power, but also it’s impending doom. Hell has real power, but God’s power is much greater. Jesus alludes to this same principle. Most clearly in his defeat of death, now everyone has access to his power to overcome hell.
Hell is a Choice
Jesus paints a very interesting picture of hell in many of his parables. It’s not a prison full of convicted sinners thrown against their will. Rather it’s a place where people who willingly reject God reside. Jesus makes clear that EVERYONE is invited into the party, into heaven. But some people will choose to reject the invitation.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what the invitation looks like or when the invitation expires. But if you read the stories Jesus said the invitees have several opportunities to respond. In other words, God is very gracious and patient wanting everyone to come in. Jesus makes it clear that all people have the choice to enter into heaven. We often think of hell as a place with a lock on it. And I think that’s accurate. But the lock is on the inside.
A great book that builds on this idea is The Skeletons in God’s Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler.
Hell is a Place of Self-Torment
Most people think that hell is the place that God tortures those for not following him. A better picture is that hell is a place of self-torment. They aren’t there to be tortured for their sins. They are there because they refused healing for their ailment, and now they live in self-torment.
The best parable to illustrate this is The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. If you haven’t read this story you should. It’s fascinating. In this story Jesus paints a picture of two men that lived drastically different lives. First a rich man, who remains unnamed, is living a life of luxury. He has everything the world has to offer. And then there’s Lazarus. A lame (as in couldn’t walk) beggar with sores covering his body. He had nothing, but interestingly enough he gets a name in Jesus’ story.
One day they both die. Lazarus goes to Abraham’s side, aka Heaven. And the rich man goes to Hades, aka hell. This is where it gets interesting…
While in “torment”, an important distinction here, not torture, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that Lazarus could dip his finger in the water and cool his tongue. In other words the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him. He hasn’t changed one bit. He still thinks he’s better than Lazarus.
This is the picture of hell. It’s a place of self-torment. The rich man refuses help to rid him of his selfishness. He’s not being oppressed by torture from some cosmic being. Rather he’s being tortured by his own refusal to deal with his sin. It seems even in his place of torment there’s room for repentance. But the offer is refused. Hell is a place that is locked up. But the lock is on the inside. God’s not keeping people in hell; they choose to stay there. They would rather reign in hell than be a servant in God’s kingdom.
Hell Is Outside, Not Underneath
I think this is an important distinction. Death in the Bible is often portrayed as below, but hell is portrayed as outside. Again the Bible never gives anything concrete, but this is what the majority of passages point to.
This imagery is brought on strongest by the New Testament’s, and Jesus’, word of choice for hell: Gehenna. A literal place where people went to practice idolatry. To worship things other than God.
Hell is outside the city because that’s where they wanted to be. There is still an illustration of separation. But it’s outside, not underneath. Jesus makes it clear that people willingly choose to leave the city. Not people that are forcibly locked in an underground chamber. Hell is not a place people are forced to; it’s a place people choose. It’s a place where they can reign in their own kingdom apart from God’s. They are so close to the life God intended for them. It’s just instead the wide open gate. But they refuse to enter and live on the outside, in Gehenna. The trash dump. Worship their own god, themselves.
Many of these themes are brought about by what Jesus said. I wrote an article on it called: What Jesus said about Hell (and what it means)
Hell is God’s Last Act of Love and Mercy
Most people would agree that God’s most primary attribute is love. And that all his other attributes (grace, holiness, justice, mercy, righteousness, etc…) flow from it. Love cannot be forced; it has to be a choice. It has to be accepted by both parties. If that’s true then we need to look at hell through the lens of God’s final act of love.
When someone rejects God’s offer what would be the most loving thing for God to do? Let them go. Let them live a life apart from him. That’s the primary picture Scripture gives of hell: eternity apart from God. Those who reject God will get what they want. Life without him. That’s what they wanted. So that’s what God gives them. Even if that’s not in their best interest.
This is the 30,000 foot overview; for a better understanding of this concept check out: A Better Understanding of Hell
I think Tim Keller sums this concept up nicely… Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever… In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.
The Bible gives us a picture of hell that’s much different than what is commonly held in churches across the country. We should let the Word direct our view of hell and not what culture tells us.
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To dive a deeper check out these great books on hell: