Doctrine of Hell
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“The Doctrine of Hell”
Hell is not an easy doctrine of the Church to accept, nor is it a pleasant topic to dwell upon, frankly – as I’m sure most of you agree. It is apparent to me that most present day pulpit pastors concur. When is the last time you heard a sermon about it? C.S. Lewis said that “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture…and it has the support of reason.” The Bible’s teachings on the fate of the rebellious make me grateful that God has shown mercy on me, a poor sinner.
What surprises some who object to the Doctrine of Hell is that Jesus had a lot to say in support of the belief. Scholars have determined that He said more about hell than about heaven. Many other verses could be cited, but this excerpt from Matthew 25:31-43 (NIV) offers a representative example of Christ speaking about eternal hell; “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left … Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’”
The theological concept of hell, or eternal damnation is expressed differently within both Eastern and Western Christianity
The Eastern Orthodox church teaches that heaven and hell are being in God’s presence, which is being with God and seeing God, and that there is no such place as where God is not, nor is hell taught in the East as separation from God. Orthodox thinkers widely hold that immediately following a human being’s physical death, his or her surviving spiritual dimension experiences a foretaste of either heaven or hell. Hell and heaven is defined as being in God’s presence, experiencing punishment and paradise depending on the person’s spiritual state in that presence. For one who hates God, to be in the presence of God eternally would be the gravest suffering. In addition, heaven and hell are not understood as spatial destinations, but rather refer to the experience of God’s presence according to these two different modes.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church generally prefers to describe hell as a “place or state” of eternal punishment. They define hell as an existence involving self-exclusion from communion with God. Their theolgians believe that hell is where the the wicked are, in which they are deprived of the sight of God for all eternity, and are in dreadful torments.
What follows are the Protestant positions in overview form.
A man once said to me, “You think that if people do not believe in Christ we are lost and condemned. I’m sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine and moral people who follow other Faiths or don’t believe in the God of the Bible. I cannot believe they are going to hell at some point in time just because they don’t believe in what you believe. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving God.”
This man expressed what may be the main objection contemporary secular people have to the Christian message: they reject the idea of final judgment and hell. They believe in heaven – at least many of them. And only Hitler and the like go to hell – if there is such a place.
Some church people believe that God reconciles all to Himself in the end. In fact, the church has various understandings as to how God deals with the wicked in death.
You may wonder how Christians can think differently about this issue; that is, after reading and studying the Bible they can go away with different or opposite conclusions. In some ways, it’s because interpreting Scripture is so subjective. It’s sometimes difficult to know what reality is versus what is the result of pre-conceived notions.
The Bible presents in an historical context, prophecy, miracles, poetry, wise sayings, parables, and, to some extent, allegories, and metaphors. Some truths are framed in one or more of these literary forms. Our job as Christians is to isolate great truths from them. We’re told that one of the surest paths to correct biblical understanding is to follow the long-held principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. If some passage isn’t clear in itself, often the most helpful procedure is to turn to other similar passages that may cast light on the one being studied. It’s not fool-proof, but it goes a long way in minimizing error. Many of the contradictory conclusions reached in Bible study can be traced back to an interpreter not considering the Bible as a whole or within the context of its various natures.
Another reason for drawing different conclusions about an issue can be caused by a particular English Bible translation. A few of them use words or phrases that time and modern scholarship has proven incorrect or inadequate compared to the better ancient manuscripts written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Other factors are our approach to biblical understanding, our personal view of the authority of Scripture, and our vulnerability to social secular values.
In explaining the various doctrines of hell, we start by addressing the question that was put before me: “How can a loving God send people to hell.” My answer will involve looks at Satan, demons, and the event known as the judgment of the Great White Throne.
I believe all of us should know more than we do about this issue of wickedness and salvation – at least to the extent that we know how they impact on our lives. You see, we as Christians are told that we’re at war with all that is contrary to the kingdom of God.
Ephesians 6:11-12 (NIV) says: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand…For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
My first recollection of sadness and disaster was as a small boy of six or seven years of age. I was walking home from school, when a young child about three years of age fell in front of a coal truck and was struck down. I watched in horror as that panicked driver backed up the truck, causing one of the tires to roll over the little boy’s head and snuff out his life. It took three men to pull the screaming mother away from the little body.
Several years later I watched a teenager running on top of stationary train cars trip and reach out for balance. Unfortunately, he grabbed the overhead power line and 50,000 volts or more of electricity penetrated his body. He fell, and flames began to arise from his clothing. Helplessly, I watched him literally cook to blackness and death.
Forever in my mind, is the phone call my father made to me one evening when I was a young married man. He told me that little, Janice, the five-year-old daughter of my youngest sister had, moments before, suffocated while playing with a sheet of plastic material.
Personal tragedy is all around us. People confront failure and broken dreams. The problems of local crime or run-away children, divorce, bankruptcies, bigotry and illicit drug usage seem to go on and on. Stories of husbands beating wives and children; mothers killing unwanted babies and children; Incestuous, illicit and bestial sex acts seem all too commonplace. The greed and arrogance of misleading business people and government leaders seem to be increasing. Rudeness and selfishness are the rule in many quarters. The list goes on and on. It’s no wonder that moments of personal joy are such a treasured commodity.
We’re all aware of the senseless actions of war and the brutality of mass murderers and terrorists whose numbers seem to increase and intensify as the years go by. For example, no spectator can erase the sight of a hijacked commercial jet crashing into the World Trade Center back in 2001 – and then watching both buildings tumble down minutes later with a roar and a loss of almost 3,000 people.
The Bible tells us it will stop one day when the new heavens and the new earth bring peace and joy. The Bible tells us that all sin will disappear because the root cause, Satan and his cronies the demons will lose every bit of their remaining power at the time of the Great White Throne Judgment of Christ. In the meantime, we have to deal with it. The smart way is to follow the apostle Paul’s instructions and put on the armor of God – meaning that as a child of God, we cover ourselves with the commands of Christ by committing to a full surrender to His will as we walk our walk.
Modern Interpretations of Hell Within the Church
Theologians have developed different beliefs about how God deals with the rebellious – the unrepentant – the rejectors of God and His Son – and by so doing, the Holy Spirit too. There are five prominent ways we church people look at how God deals with unrepentant sinners when He ends this world as we know it:
Belief One – There is no such place called hell, so don’t bother even thinking about such a place.
Belief Two – There is a hell for the wicked and it’s a scary and literal place.
Belief Three – There is a hell for the wicked, but maybe it isn’t a place of fire and brimstone; rather it is psychological torment – an anguished frame of mind.
Belief Four – If there is a place called hell, the wicked will only be there for a short time before they cease to exist. They will be executed; annihilated.
Belief Five – There is a hell for the very wicked, but if you are not too bad and you wish to repent, you can have a second chance after you die.
Let’s look at each one of these prevailing beliefs or viewpoints more closely because they bring into question the very essence of God.
Viewpoint One: Universalism
Universalism believes everybody will have eternal life – meaning that ultimately humanity will be in infinite fellowship with God. Proponents say the traditional doctrine of hell, which says there is a divine eternal punishment, is inconsistent with the character of God. A God of love will not allow anyone to perish or be punished unendingly. Instead, God will somehow bring all people to Himself.
The doctrine of eternal punishment, they teach, is disproportionate to any crimes that could be committed by a human. People can only commit a finite amount of sin, yet the church doctrine of hell calls, for the most part, a non-ending punishment, and common sense seems to suggest that few (if any) people deserve such punishment. Their theology maintains that it is unreasonable for God to give such flawed and ignorant creatures as ourselves the awesome responsibility of determining through free choice our eternal destinies – or that God would arbitrarily discard some people for eternity.
Belief in universal salvation is at least as old as Christianity. History has shown that men and women don’t like the idea that deep down they are sinfully dirty in God’s sight. That is a horrible thought to them, and it should be abhorrent to people of intelligence.
In the past few decades, several denominations that have not been open to the doctrine of universalism seem to be moving closer to it. Sadly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or the ELCA is one example. Some of its ministers openly teach the salvation of all – although this is not an official teaching of the denomination.
Some churches leaders within the Anglican and Episcopal Churches also seem to be moving toward acceptance (or at least tolerance) of this belief in universal salvation, rather than the traditional doctrine of eternal hell.
Congregational churches such as the United Church of Christ and Reformed churches such as the Disciples of Christ are increasingly open to teachings of Universalism, without taking an official position on the issue. Actually, there are Universalists to be found in most moderate-to-progressive denominations today – each denying the existence of hell.
Universalists, of course, point to biblical passages that validate their view. All of the proponents of these five viewpoints have their proof texts. Here are five for Universalism:
• Old Testament teaching that men and women are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27-NIV).
• Old Testament teaching that “[God] is good; his love endures forever” (Psalm 106:1, 107:1-NIV).
• New Testament teaching that “as Adam all die, so in Christ all will be nade alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22-NIV).
• New Testament teaching that Jesus “died for sins once for all” and “went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago” (1 Peter 3:18–20-NIV), so that they may “live according to God in regard to the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6-NIV).
• New Testament teaching that “[Jesus Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2-NIV)
Many Christians believe this viewpoint is wishful thinking, believing it’s reading into Scripture what isn’t there. Or it’s reading Scripture out of context. If we believe that everybody is saved, there is no need to come to a point where we consciously have to say, “Lord, I am Yours, I give up my will for Your will.” Yet that is what God demands. A desire to walk with our Lord and Savior is characteristic of the Christian walk. This viewpoint or doctrine doesn’t require it.
Setting the Scene
Before we look at the next four viewpoints of how Christians view afterlife for the unredeemed, let’s set the scene.
Just for the record, I don’t believe that embracing one of these four viewpoints makes any of us a better Christian or a worse one. Neither do these four views relate to salvation.
With that said, let me bring to your attention the shadowy figures and the mystical place that play a part in human affairs. I am not about to go into a full blown exegesis on the Doctrine of Hell because I’m not truly capable. The theologians know far more that I do as a serious Bible student. So what I bring you is an overview. We begin with a quick look at:
Satan or the Devil
There is a strong tendency in some Christian circles, for people to stay away from discussing evil beings except in the most general of terms. They don’t ignore the issue, but they are uncomfortable in speaking or listening to specific information about the powers of darkness. They would rather dwell on the good news of the Bible. That’s understandable, but the inspired authors of the Bible wrote about Satan and demons, and about hell and punishment. Clearly, God wants us to know about them. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves to understand how evil works, how aggressive it is, and the ultimate penalty for giving in to it. Who exactly is Satan, what are demons and if there is a hell, where is it?
Before we go to the Bible, I’m sure you know that artists have shown a great deal of imagination in depicting Satan and his henchmen; fellow demons as flesh and blood. One popular rendition – probably inspired by Dante’s “Inferno” – shows him as a tall male, draped in a black red lined robe with black hair, goatee and diabolical looking eyes. He has a sneer on his face, with two horns coming out of his forehead, and holds an upright pitchfork in his hand. Lurking behind him are his gnome-like looking demons, ready and eager to do his mischief. In the background, are the fiery flames of his dominion. Pretty impressive painting, but this scene doesn’t come from the Bible; only from the imagination of the artist.
There is another myth about Satan I bring to your attention. Despite Flip Wilson’s line, “The devil made me do it,” the Bible teaches that Satan doesn’t make anyone do anything. We human beings are responsible for our own sins. The devil may tempt us, but we, all by ourselves choose to do things that dishonor God. We can’t blame our friends, enemies or circumstances either. No one makes us sin except ourselves. Remember, God is the ultimate good and the devil is the ultimate bad. How we live is essentially a reflection of our loyalty to God or Satan. There is no such thing as being a little pregnant. One is either pregnant or not. One is either for God or not.
Satan is a Hebrew word and traditionally he had been known in Christianity as a fallen angel. In mainline Judaism, however, he’s thought of as a servant of God; troublesome to people, but only for their ultimate good. Satan works by himself to “help” people by providing them an opportunity to make choices about good and evil.
One rabbi put it this way, “We are not born naturally good or bad, but with the freedom to chose, including the choice of being good or evil. Our purpose as Jews is to overcome our evil inclinations and work to do good consciously. We are created by God so that we can improve ourselves by struggle to His glory.”
For Christians, in the Greek New Testament, Satan is called the devil and traditionally he is known as a fallen angel. It is derived from their word, “diablo”, meaning adversary, accuser or slanderer. 1 Peter 5:8-9 (NIV) says: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him…” So, for traditionalists like me, Satan isn’t a hinderer, he is really bad news – an ugly enemy of our spiritual – and sometimes – of our emotional and physical well-being here on earth.
As you probably know, there are some in the church community who believe Satan or the devil isn’t an actual supernatural creature. They regard Satan or the devil as an allegory that speaks of any adversary or to human sin and temptation. Some of them believe that hell is a state of mind, and a few go as far as to say that heaven and hell are states of mind in this present life.
I’m skeptical of such understandings. If we read Scripture in the plain sense in which it is written – as most conservatives do – then we can’t draw the same conclusion. In opposition to such thinking are such passages as Zechariah 3:1 (NIV) that says: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.” And Matthew 4:1-11 (NIV) where in the beginning and the ending of this passage says: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil… Then the devil left him…” There are numerous Bible passages that strongly suggest heaven and hell, Satan or the devil, are more that present states of mind in our day.
I’m aware that Scripture does not give a categorical answer to the question of Satan’s origin. However, traditional theologians of historic Christianity believe that Satan’s fall from heaven is symbolically described in Isaiah 14:12-14 and Ezekiel 28:12-18. While these two passages are referring specifically to the kings of Babylon and Tyre, my teachers say that they also reference the spiritual power behind those kings, namely, Satan.
I’m also aware that Scripture does not say when the fall from heaven occurred. What we do know is this: angels were created before the earth (Job 38:4-7-NIV). Satan fell before he tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 3:1-14-NIV). So his fall, therefore, must have occurred sometime after the angels were created and before he tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Whether Satan’s fall occurred a few minutes, hours, or ages before he tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden, Scripture does not specifically say.
I believe the Isaiah and Ezekiel passages I just mentioned teach us that Satan (nee Lucifer) fell from God’s favor before the earth was created because of his pride. These two prophets describe Satan as an exceedingly beautiful angel; perhaps the highest of all angels, but he was not content in his position.
Those who believe the Bible ought to be read in the same sense in which it is written, believe Satan entered the human world when he convinced Eve and then Adam to defy God’s orders; exercising their free will. As a consequence, the story goes, God banished them from paradise and the ravages of Original Sin affected the world negatively. Until God creates the new heavens and the new earth, our world will remain imperfect.
Since Creation, God has allowed this unholy group, for His own purposes, to roam the earth at will until the End Times. Satan’s present efforts are widespread – worldwide – and all his demons do his bidding. The Bible tells us that the unsaved are under Satan’s authority, and he rules them through the world systems, which he controls according to 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 1:13.
He is able to keep the unredeemed of the world in check because his essential message to them is that they can be like God; that they can be gods and masters of their own ship. This concept appeals to our fallen nature’s lust for power, for high respect, for self-focus and for total control of our destiny. Satan fosters the concept; that the world is to revolve around me, according to me, only me, not you. But, all of his fodder is unbiblical and directly generates more sin. 1 John 2:16 warns us: “For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life – is not of the Father, but is of the world.”
The biblical view of demons is that they are angels who followed Satan after his fall – Jude 6 tells us of sinning angels. Revelation 12:9 is the clearest Scripture on their identity. “The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
Revelation 12:4 seems to indicate that Satan took one-third of the angels of heaven with him when he sinned – although the number is conjecture on the part of some of our theologians.
Satan and his demons now look to destroy and deceive all those who follow and worship God says 1 Peter 5:8 and 2 Corinthians 11:14-15. Scripture says they both enter or possess men: Satan in Luke 22:3; and demons in Luke 11:14.
There is a growing interest and even acceptance in demonic and nonsensical activities; namely witchcraft, the occult, astrology, devil worship and sensual evil. People, who should know better, are superstitious way beyond the point of not walking under a ladder or letting a black cat cross their path. They are occupied with looking at horoscopes, having their tea leaves and palms read, studying tarot cards, dressing the way they perceive the devil would dress, and listening to gurus and mediums talk “gobble-gook” – all of which dishonors the teachings of the Bible.
As a result of accepting this mystical baloney, many people, including some immature believers, become tolerant of these men and women who ridicule God, finding them amusing or odd, and harmless. The media glamorizes them and gives a form of legitimacy to these purveyors of false hopes, confusion, and stupidity with their reporting and highlighting. But, they are harmful and deceitful, and it’s quite possible some of these mediums, spiritualists and mystics are demon possessed. The Bible warns us to avoid them and their wicked customs. Deuteronomy 18:9-12 teaches that the things these people do “…are an abomination to the Lord.”
The Bible says demons are invisible disembodied beings with superhuman intelligence. They’re enemies of our intellect and souls. We learn that demons roam the air. They look for opportunities to wreak havoc wherever they are allowed to operate by people. They can be in a churchgoer as well as in an atheist. They’re no respecters of persons or places. However, Scripture tells Christians not be afraid of them for God has made available to us the spiritual power to resist through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is our ultimate weapon here if we ever sense their presence
Judgment Day is a big event for both the righteous and unrighteous – and for Satan and his demons. For believers, we stand before the “Bema Seat of Christ” and receive our rewards. Revelation 3:5 (ESV) says: “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” Jesus in Revelation 22:12 (NASB) says: “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.” So, the Bema or judgment seat of Christ is a believer’s award seat and is a word borrowed from the Corinthian athletic games held at the time. No one was ever punished at the Bema for failure to achieve. Those who did achieve would come to the Bema and receive their ivy wreaths for a job well done, a race well run. In the same manner, every believer will appear before the Bema in order to sift and separate from his life that which was worthwhile and that which was worthless. Chapters 3-4 of 1 Corinthians deal in more detail with this type judgment that leads to rewards.
For unbelievers, they stand trial before Christ at the “Great White Throne” (Revelation 20:11-15) to learn their fate, despite the claims of the Universalists. Satan and his cronies with get their due too. At this time, the devil and his henchmen will all be thrown into the hell prepared for them by God.
There is another judgment I haven’t mentioned. It is the judgment of the sheep and the goats or a judgment of the nations found in Matthew 25:31-36. Futurists believe that the sheep and the goats are the unsaved as the literal millennium period begins. These people have not made any personal commitment to Christ as Savior and Lord. They believe this judgment takes place after the tribulation period but prior to the actual period of the millennium. Its purpose is to determine who will enter the millennial kingdom. So some Christians believe that the End Times will involve three judgments. Two of them – the sheep and goats judgment and the judging of the rewards for believers – occur before the Final Great White Throne occurring at the end of the millennium (Revelation 20:11-15). This is the judgment of unbelievers in which they are judged according to their works and sentenced to everlasting punishment in the lake of fire.
Other Christians believe that all three of these judgments speak of the same final judgment, not of three separate judgments. In other words, the Great White Throne judgment will be the time that believers and unbelievers alike are judged. Those whose names are found in the book of life will be judged for their deeds in order to determine the rewards they will receive or lose. Those whose names are not in the book of life will be judged according to their deeds to determine the degree of punishment they will receive in the lake of fire. Those who hold this view believe that Matthew 25:31-46 is another description of what takes place at the great white throne judgment when the sheep (believers) enter into eternal life, while the goats (unbelievers) are cast into “eternal punishment.”
Whichever view a Christian holds of the final judgment, it is important to never lose sight of the facts concerning the event or events. First, Jesus Christ will be the judge, all unbelievers will be judged by Christ, and they will be punished according to the works they have done. The Bible is very clear that unbelievers are storing up wrath against themselves (Romans 2:5) and that God will “give to each person according to what he has done” (Romans 2:6). Believers will also be judged by Christ, but since Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us and our names are written in the book of life, we will be rewarded, but not punished, according to our deeds. Romans 14:10-12 says that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and that each one of us will give an account to God.
Our critics have called all this predictive stuff about judgment and hell cruel and spiteful if such punishment is carried out. Bertrand Russell rejected all of this and he represents a lot of people. This famous philosopher of the twentieth century said, “Anyone who threatens someone with eternal punishment is inhumane.” But God doesn’t do this. We know Jesus warned people to say away from self-destructive acts that lead to such punishment. That is why He gave the apostle John the responsibility of writing the book of Revelation. This is why so many prophets have warned us in other parts of the Bible. This is why God has put an innate sense of His reality into everyone’s consciousness (Romans 1). God isn’t vindictive, He is holy and so His final judgement will be justifiable punishment for the unrepentant and a gracious gift of life everlasting to the righteous. Remember, salvation is a gift for all who ask for forgivenss of their sin.
Viewpoint Two: Eternal Punishment in a Place
This viewpoint says that after the Great White Throne Judgment, wicked people will be sent to where the fallen angels are going. Unredeemed people (alive and dead) will enter into a state of everlasting shame and torment, separated from God in a place called hell. Those of the righteous (alive and dead) go to the perfect world of God – the New Heavens and the New Earth. And then all nations will be judged.
The proponents of this second view say that the Bible is most explicit about the reality of a literal hell. Mark 9:43-48 is one example. They believe it is plain from the Bible that sin will be punished and refer to such passages as: Daniel 12:2 and John 5:28-29.
Daniel 12:2 (NIV) says: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” John 5:28-29 (NIV) says: “…a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
This position claims that all of this is further verified by Scripture in such other passages as as Matthew 25:31-46; John 3:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; Romans 14:10, and Revelation 20:15 (NIV). The Revelation verse says: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Universalists dismiss these passages as allegorical.
This second understanding of hell is called traditionalism because it is the church’s historical view. Down through the ages and up until this day, well-known theologians who hail from various countries, and represent major parts of the Protestant Church agree on the reality of a place of hell and its duration of forever. It is a strong argument that comes from traditionalist point of view.
Words Associated With Hell
Perhaps this is a good time, while looking at the traditional view of hell, to briefly explain shadowy biblical names such as Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades. They are each linked to hell in one way or another.
The Hebrew word Sheol is probably derived from a root “to make hollow,” and was seen as the common receptacle of the Hebrew dead and in the great many places the word appears in the Old Testament, it is referring to the grave. It is a place and is mentioned in Genesis 37:35; Numbers 16:30,33; Psalm 16:10, and other passages.
Sheol has many meanings in Scripture: the grave, the underworld, the state of the dead. It was supposed to be below the surface of the earth as suggested by Ezekiel 31:15,17 and Psalm 86:13.
Incidentally, where is hell? For that matter, where is heaven? We’re not directly told by the Bible. It suggests that hell is “down” or “beneath” in Psalm 55:15 Proverbs 15:24 and Isaiah 14:9. The Bible tells us that heaven is above in such verses as John 6:33 (NIV), where we read: “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
In the Old Testament the word for hell is “ge-hinnom,” meaning “Valley of Hinnom.” It was a place to the southwest of Jerusalem. This place was once “called ‘Topheth’ and derived from an Aramaic word meaning ‘fireplace.’ It was here that some pagan kings practiced human sacrifice by fire (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). This is probably why in the New Testament the word came to be associated with destruction by fire. The word “gehenna” is found in the New Testament 12 times and every instance is spoken of by Jesus. In the New Testament, “gehenna” is used of a condition and never of a place.
This word only occurs in the New Testament, and corresponds to the Old Testament “sheol.” Jesus uses the word in Matthew 11:23; 16:18 and Luke 10:15; 16:23. The other times it is uses is in Acts 2:27,31 and Revelations 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14.
The ancient teaching of the Church is that all who died before the time of the crucifixion, whether they were righteous or unrighteous, went to the same undifferentiated realm of the dead, where they wait for the resurrection and the judgment. This realm of the dead called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek is taught by many theologians as a “waiting room” for the resurrection of the past and the Judgment to come. They believe it was divided into two departments, paradise or “Abraham’s bosom” for the good, and “Gehenna/Hades” or Hell for the bad. In particular, in the account of Lazarus and the rich man of Luke 16:19-31, it was the place of the conscious dead who were wicked in life and the conscious dead who were true to God. Now, the realm is only for the unredeemd.
My teachers say that people who died “pre-Cross” went to Hades while waiting to be judged by God. In the post-Cross world, Luke 16:23-24 says that it exists as a place for the souls of the ungodly. Where it is or what it is, nobody knows because the Bible doesn’t tell us.
We learn from 2 Corinthians 5:8 that when God’s people are absent from the body they are present with Christ. But where they are is not the place of eternity. The present heaven is different from the heaven that existed before the Garden of Eden, and it is different from the heaven to come in eternity.
Warnings of Hell
Whatever hell is called or linked to, the apostle Matthew writes that the torment of hell is so great, that “…there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He depicts hell as a place of intense fire, likened to a great furnace when he writes “...and [angels] will cast them into the furnace of fire.” The apostle John writes in Revelation 20: “And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” The apostle Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (ESV): “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
Jesus, who spoke so often, and so fervently of God’s love – who Himself perfectly manifested the love of God – warned, in Matthew 25:41 (NASB) that the time will come when He will say to many people: “…Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; is God to blame?”
People blame God for their misfortune at times. Many accuse God for sending people to hell. They hate the Reformed view of how or what people are saved in which predestination is a big part of this view. But is God to blame for people going to hell? Of course not, say the reformists.
Whether we believe God elects as Presbyterians believe or we believe people are part of the process as Methodists, Pentecostals and Lutherans do, God does not cause anybody to go to hell; God does not want people to go lost. The Gospel of John reminds us of this when it says in John 3:17 (NIV): “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. How much plainer can the Bible get?
The Bible says that hell was created for the devil and his angels. It’s only as men and women willfully join the rebellion of Satan that they sentence themselves to hell. That isn’t God’s will. It was a place that He made to put fallen angels so that they wouldn’t corrupt the world and the universe anymore than they had already corrupted it. People choose to go there. It’s not necessary. If people will put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, He’ll gather them into His kingdom, just as He did for you and me.
By the way, this reminds me that if the wicked dead are currently in the realm of the dead called Hades then the hell of eternity is not yet set up. That happens after Christ returns and completes His judgments. When hell is established in whatever form, there is no Scripture that tells us Satan will be in charge of anything in eternity. He will be treated by God as a wicked angel; nothing more.
Viewpoint Two has strong biblical support when compared to Viewpoint One and universalism. Look at Bible history. In every age there has been only a small number of people who were approved of God. For example, in the days before the great Flood, Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” for many years, but won no converts except his own family. The Bible says that “few, that is eight souls were saved” (I Peter 3:20).
Every era was no different; few people heeded the call of the prophets. It didn’t even change with the arrival of Christ.
Though the Gospel was commanded by Christ to be preached to all nations, there was never a promise that all who heard the good news would believe it and turn to Him. To the contrary, Paul warned in his final letter (2 Timothy 3:12) that “all who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”
One more point about Viewpoint Two. It says that hell should be taken literally. They say that the same Greek word used in Romans 16:26, for example, of “the eternal God,” and the word “forever” used in Romans 11:36 is the same word used by Jesus in Matthew 25:41 (NIV) “…’Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…’”
John MacArthur and John Piper and other pastor-teachers from across denominational lines say that hell is real and is the eternal place of the unrighteous. MacArthur said: “I think the doctrine of hell is one of the greatest proofs that God wrote the Bible because men don’t write books that damn their souls to an eternal hell.”
Before we move on, and as a sidebar, here is what I have been told the other two branches of Christianity believe about judgment and hell.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that immediately upon death each soul undergoes the “Particular” Judgment, and depending upon the state of the person’s soul, goes to heaven, purgatory, or hell. The “Last” Judgment will occur after the resurrection of the dead and the reuniting of a person’s soul with their own physical body. They teach that at the time of the last judgment Christ will come in His glory, and all the angels with Him, and in His presence the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare, and each person who has ever lived will be judged with perfect justice. Those already in heaven will remain with God; those Faithful who were sent to Purgatory, the stopping-off place, and were not cleanesed by the merits of the church will then be released into heaven. Those already condemned will go to hell. Following the last judgment, the bliss of heaven and the pains of hell will be perfected in that those present will also be capable of physical bliss and pain. After the last judgment the universe itself will be renewed with a new heaven and a new earth in the world to come and, at that time, the faithful will live forever with God.
The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that there are two judgments: the first, or “Particular” Judgment,” is that experienced by each individual at the time of his or her death, at which time God will decide where the soul is to spend the time until the Second Coming of Christ. This judgment is generally believed to occur on the fortieth day after death. The second, “General” or “Final” Judgment will occur after the Second Coming. As is true with Roman Catholicism, the fate of those outside the Church at the Last Judgment is left to the mercy of God and is not declared.
They believe faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation, but where Christianity teaches that becoming more Christ-like is the result of Christ’s influence in a believer’s life. Orthodoxy teaches that it is a part of the salvation process. As a result, they believe if that process is not performed appropriately, worshipers can lose their salvation. After death, the Faithful live in an intermediate state where this process can be completed. Those who have belief but did not accomplish sufficient progress are sent to a temporary “direful condition” and will go to hell unless the living devout pray and complete acts of mercy on their behalf – similar to Catholicism. After final judgment, the devout are sent to heaven and the others to hell. Heaven and hell are not locations, but reactions to being in the presence of God, as there is nowhere that He is not present. For Christ-followers, God’s presence is paradise, but for the unsaved, being with God is eternal torment.
Viewpoint Three: Eternal Mental Anguish in a Place
This view held by some within the church believes the words of Jesus about hell for unsaved sinners are to be viewed as primarily metaphorical. Most proponents do believe that hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment, but it is unlikely a place of fire and smoke – of walking on burning coal – but rather a place of mental anguish.
They say that Scripture uses strong imagery to convey the realities beyond the grave for the unredeemed. For instance, the references to hell found in Mark 9:43 where it is described as a place where the “fire never goes out,” Mark 9:48 where the “worm” that “does not die,” and Luke 13:28 where “there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So they conclude that hell as described in these ways can only be graphic hyperbole to make the point that alienation from God is awful. God is not a tormenter; such a God does not correspond to the gracious “Father” described by Jesus. Church theologian, Augustine, explained the pains of fire are symbols of the grief and loss of intimacy with God that the souls of the damned will experience.
Some Christian institutions and leaders go further and strongly suggest that suffering takes place only in the mind, not a particular place.
I’ve read that Fuller Theological Seminary says, “Only that the wicked shall be separated from God’s presence.” And I’ve read that Billy Graham has said: “I think that hell essentially is separation from God forever. That is the worst hell that I can think of. But I think people have a hard time believing God is going to allow people to burn in literal fire forever. I think the fire that is mentioned in the Bible is a burning thirst for God that can never be quenched.”
With all due respect, as a lay Bible student, I have difficulty with their views. If they believe eternal heaven is a place, as they apparently do, then why not hell too? Bible Logic 101 teaches us that if one place in the afterlife is described in similar terms to the alternative afterlife, then it’s reasonable to conclude that both are physical or both are metaphysical. I’m not alone in my opinion; there are Bible scholars who believe the same as I do.
Viewpoint Four: Eternal Death
The fourth view articulates the position of conditional mortality; that God eventually destroys the souls of the wicked immediately or sometime after death rather than punishing them endlessly. If people put their trust in God and enter into salvation, they attain immortal life. If they fail to do so, they simply die after a “slap on the hand,” and that is the end of them.
It points to 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 (NIV), for example, as a proof passage. Paul says: “and give relief to you who are troubled…This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.”
Job, the verse of Job 14:14 (NIV) asks: “If a man dies, will he live again?” To this question of Job three answers have been given. Two answers are false; one answer is true.
Atheism’s answer is that man will never live again. When man dies, according to this theory, his existence is ended for all eternity. Atheism denies the reality of God, the supernatural life of Jesus, and man’s hope for eternal life. It asserts that there is no future life for any man.
Paganism’s answer is that there is an immortal future life for all men. It declares that men naturally are immortal and cannot be destroyed. All men, according to its teachings, must continue to live in some form and in some place throughout eternity. It asserts that there is an eternal future life for all men.
Proponents of this view say that the Bible alone gives the correct answer. The Bible’s answer to Job’s question is that all men will live again, but only those who meet God’s requirements will be given immortality and eternal life. Men who fail to meet God’s requirements will be raised to judgment in the final resurrection and then will be destroyed. The Bible teaches that men naturally are mortal; future eternal life for man is conditional.
John Stott and J. I. Packer apparently believe in conditional mortality or annihilation. Packer says he does not believe that the essence of hell is grotesque bodily discomfort. That idea, he conceives, misses the deeper point of the lurid word pictures drawn by Dante’s Inferno, Jesus, and the New Testament writers. He writes: “The essence of hell is surely an inner misery of helpless remorse, with recognition that in assigning one to an eternity of self absorbed unwillingness to receive and respond to divine goodness the unwillingness that in life one was always cultivating God is being totally just and had done what is entirely right.”
Viewpoint Five: Second Chance in Death
According to this view, those who have not had a chance to hear the Gospel in this life will be presented with the Gospel after death. Some followers appear to believe that even those humans who do hear the gospel before their death, but do not accept it, will have another chance after death. In fact, there are theologians who believe that the purpose of hell is to turn people to God. God’s grace can prevail even in hell. God never gives up on us. They point to 1 Peter 3:19, which says: “through whom also he [Jesus] went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago…” I’m no theologian, but I believe that proof text is a stretch in their logic.
Listen, everyone wants a second chance if the first one didn’t go so well, including Catholicism. As I just mentioned, they teach there is a stopping off place (or condition) for those who have not died with an unforgiven mortal sin in their life. In death and before Christ returns, the faithful are given a second chance. I remind you that the Eastern Orthodox have a similar belief.
Other Related Issues
There are a number of additional, but related issues on this subject of hell. Issues such as where was Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – on Saturday? And, are there degrees of punishment in hell; are the unevangelized doomed to hell? Don’t all good people go to heaven? And, how does God deal with the death of the truly innocent like the mentally disabled and infants? Some of these questions are answered in the addendum to this section. The answers to the others are available on the website, gotquestions.org, a site I highly recommend for Bible students.
Answering the Main Objection
Many people ask, “How can a loving God send people to hell.” The question tells me it’s apparent they have an incomplete understanding of three biblical things: the nature of God, the nature of man, and the nature of sin. Those that ask such a question tend to see God as a kind, merciful Being and hardly anything else. They believe that all ordinary people can be good enough for God as they are, and that sin can’t be all that bad when ordinary people commit them.
Yes, God is loving and kind and merciful, but He is first and foremost a holy and righteous God. So holy is He that He cannot tolerate sin. He is a God whose anger burns against the wicked and disobedient, according to Isaiah 5:25; Hosea 8:5; Zechariah 10:3. The Bible tells us that He hates all manner of sin (Proverbs 6:16-19). And while He is merciful, there are limits to His mercy. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” says Isaiah 55:6-7.
God has a complete record of every sin of every sinner who has ever lived and it is on the basis of those records that they will be condemned. It is perfectly natural to want the record expunged. No one wants negative consequences from their thought and deed. But God doesn’t have a moving standard. He in unchanging, the Bible says. He created us for His enjoyment, but He won’t fellowship with people who resist Him leading their lives. He won’t bring us to eternal life unless we discard our present life for the new life in Christ.
God has never tempted us to sin against Him – never! It is the sins that sinners commit on their own that constitute the record that is established against them, by which condemnation falls from the throne of God. The Bible says that by nature God is a Savior; it is the truest expression of His heart. Didn’t Jesus weep over Jerusalem? Didn’t Jeremiah weep the tears of God? Doesn’t Scripture say God wants people to be saved? That He’s not willing for them to perish? Ezekiel 18:23 (NIV) quotes God as saying: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?...Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” How can we believe that God catapults billions of people into a lost eternity? We shouldn’t. We’re the culprits, but we like to blame others.
Where do people who say that God is only love get their information? Not from reading the Bible correctly. That concept comes from wishful thinking. The Bible tells us that the God of love is also a God of judgment who will put all things in order at the end, whether we agree with the way He does it or not. Even though some people have desired to remove the doctrine of hell from Christianity, people need to face up to the fact that the doctrines of heaven and hell both have the full weight of Scripture behind them, especially, of Jesus’ own words. It was He who spoke of the narrow and the broad way (Matthew 7:13-14); the wheat and the chaff, and the unquenchable fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 13:42); the place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:44); paradise and torment (Luke 16:19:ff); eternal punishment and eternal life (Matthew 25:46).
People need to know in a loving way; in a respectful way, from us that God’s holy, perfect, and infinite character has been offended by our sins. Those we witness to, when we sense the time is right, need to know that their sin is eternally before Him and they will be alienated – separated – from Him and denied perfect peace, if they don’t get right with God. It’s as simple and profound as that.
God has made it easy – in a sense – because He loves us so much – everyone – just as we are. He has provided the easiest way possible to gain fellowship now and eternally with Him. It comes in the form of a gift called Jesus Christ. There is no payment needed like an exam, or works, or standards of breeding, good looks, or brilliance. Only repentance. How difficult is that mentally or physically? Not difficult at all, unless our ego gets in the way. Oh how Satan works on our ego! It’s our Achilles heel, to borrow a phrase.
As sure as God made little green apples, obedience to the Bible message of repentance and redemption brings reward, and disobedience brings penalty. There is no getting around the Bible message if it is read in the plain sense in which it was written. That some think this is unfair has nothing to do with what God will do.
The idea of eternal hell weighs heavily on our heart, as we think of those we know and love apart from Christ. For me, Scripture is quite clear: hell is indeed everlasting. Yes, as we’ve seen, Scripture speaks of hell as “death” and “destruction” but defines these in terms of a place or a state where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Why must this go on forever? There are at least two reasons.
First, the revolt against God is more serious than the average Christian thinks it is. An insurrection against an infinitely worthy Creator is an infinitely horrendous offense. We know something of this intuitively. This is why, in our human sentences of justice, we sentence a man to one punishment for threatening to kill his co-worker and another man to a much more severe punishment for threatening to kill the nation’s president.
Second, and more important, is the nature of the punishment itself. The sinner in hell does not become morally neutral upon his sentence to hell. We should not imagine the damned displaying Gospel repentance and longing for the presence of Christ. They do (as in the story of the rich man and Lazarus) seek for an escape from punishment, but they are not new creations. They do not in hell love the Lord their God with heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Instead, in hell, resurrected people are now handed over to the full display of their nature apart from God’s grace. And this nature is seen to be satanic – of the devil – according to John 8:44. The condemnation continues forever and ever, because the sin does too. Hell is the final “handing over” (Romans 1) of the rebels to who they want to be – and it’s awful.
Attempts to navigate around the truth of hell as everlasting punishment show us something of our complicity in the Edenic sin: the substitution of human wisdom and human justice and, yes, human notions of love for the authority of God.
Yes, hell is horrifying. God deems it so. Our response to such horror should not be denial, but the fervent evangelism of people and the nations. Knowing the terror of it all, we should plead with people, as though Christ himself were pleading through us, “Be reconciled to God” says Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20.
As C.S. Lewis writes, “In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: ‘What are [they] asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary.” Many unrepentant people believe that Christ has wiped away everyone’s sin at the Cross and so all are saved. Is that biblically correct? No. God does not forgive the unrepentant. He leaves them alone. He leaves them to reap what they have sowed in this life. I am reminded here that C.S. Lewis also said: “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, ‘thy will be done’. All that are in Hell, choose it”
The Christian Gospel maintains that “the day of salvation” is now (2 Corinthians 6:2), during this lifetime’s temporary suspension of doom. After this, the grace of God is not extended, only His justice, and that with severity.
Jesus does indeed triumph over all things, making peace through the blood of His Cross (Colossians 1:20). But this peace doesn’t mean the redemption of each individual. Yes, every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord, even Satan himself according to Philippians 2:9-11. But, this does not mean, as Jesus Himself teaches, that every tongue cries out to Him for salvation. Instead there is a universal recognition that Jesus has triumphed over every rival to His throne. The redeemed will love this truth; the impenitent will lament it. Until then, we preach in love, we plead in love; we beg in love, we warn in love. Hell is awful, and unending, and completely avoidable
I end this look at the doctrine of hell with my answer to the man whom I spoke about at the beginning of this section. “My friend,” I said, “God does love you. He loves you so much that He sent Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for breaking His commandments – and everyone has; no exceptions. It’s a promise that God makes to you if you will only acknowledge His reality. It cost no money to make that commitment; it requires no sweat of the brow to trust Him as your Savior. The gift of becoming truly one of God’s children, my friend, is lovingly given to you by God. God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. He will stop them dead in the tracks on their path to self-destruction by His mercy if they ask for forgiveness of their personal sin. The God of the Bible can’t overlook sin; He wouldn’t and couldn’t be holy and just if He did. I hope you can accept these biblical truths. Repent and be glad.”
My response didn’t move him. Some people would say I failed. God says I didn’t. You see, it’s the Holy Spirit who does the convicting. My role and your role is to defend or explain the Faith the best way we know how – and that is done with the whole salvation truth presented in a respectful and kind manner because the unredeemed can’t know the plan of God as you and I know it.
“Additional Frequently Asked Questions”
(Thanks in part to “gotquestions.org”)
Question – Number #1
Question: “Are the unreached doomed to hell?
Answer: The question is an agonizing one for Christians and a point of attack for non-Christians.
Like many other Bible students I believe that through the grace and mercy of God some way unknown to us was and is provided for them. That is conjecture, of course; there is insufficient material in Scripture to provide you and me with clear direction. We really don’t know how God reaches and judges such people then and now.
One of the staggering scriptural truths is that we don’t earn our way into God’s favor. Works have a place in the Christian walk but only as a demonstration of having received God’s forgiveness.
Do you remember the passage where Paul was debating some Greek philosophers? He said in Acts 17:26-27 (NIV): “From one man he (that’s God) made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”
Paul is pointing out that there’s a sovereign plan in creation, where each person is assigned a place of birth. God knows where we will be born and raised. And He puts us in a position where we can seek Him. We are clearly told in Scripture that wherever we live, in whatever culture – God is within reach of every one of us.
I believe that Paul says that for those who never heard of Christ they can’t be condemned unless they reject God. Romans 1:18 (NIV) says: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Notice that God’s wrath is revealed not against innocence or ignorance but against ungodliness and wickedness. Romans 1:19-21 defines these last two words I just mentioned.
In other words, regardless of a person’s circumstances, all people can respond to the understanding that they have and sincerely seek God will, in some way, be given an opportunity to respond to Him. If for no other reason than God’s general revelation about Himself.
Question – Number #2
Question: “Don’t all good people go to heaven?”
Answer: Of course, what arises here is the definition of good. If the definition is by godly standards; that is, goodness is being righteous before God, then the answer is yes. But if the definition relates to human standards, the answer is no. The reality is that people don’t know exactly what good is. Our internal moral gauges aren’t much help because as time passes, our definition of right and wrong tend to change.
I think this question can be best answered by the incident at the Cross. Once Jesus was nailed there between two criminals, Luke 23 records an exchange that took place between them.
One of them hurled insults at Him. He said: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Luke says that the other criminal rebuked him. He said, “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserver. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
This second criminal readily admitted that his life was so horrible that he was actually getting what he deserved. Then the convicted man asked Jesus to have mercy on him in spite of his worthless life. He said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into your kingdom.”
If Jesus, like most people, believed that good people go to heaven and bad people don’t, what would we expect Jesus to say to a man who had lived a life worthy of death? What if he had raped and murdered; what if he was grossly vulgar and insulting and sneering of everyone – a person who flaunted the law and the civilities to which we hold dear?
None of such things matter to Christ. He told this hanging criminal: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.” The man was saved for eternity to spend it with God forever!
Undoubtedly, Jesus was operating off some other premise unknown to this fallen world of ours. It’s no wonder many refused to take His teachings seriously. Particularly when He promised people precisely what they didn’t deserve. God and bad don’t enter into the equation. Being righteous before God is what counts. That means, scripturally, that people have acknowledged God as their personal Lord and Savior through repentance of their rebelliousness against Him. It is only through Christ that we can escape His divine wrath against things not holy. Romans 3 tells all that no one is righteous on their own, no not one.
Question – Number #3
Question: “Do little ones and the retarded go to heaven upon death?”
Answer: The “when” of life’s beginnings is embroiled in an emotional and often harsh debate that has intensified since the 1973 Supreme Court case of Roe vs. Wade.
Perhaps billions of unborn, stillborn and just born lives have died throughout history. Millions continue to die today. One report, written in a book called “Empty Arms” says that up to 25 percent of all human conceptions do not complete the twentieth week of pregnancy. Seventy-five percent of fatal deaths occur in the first twelve weeks. Neo natal death (that is, death in the womb), Para natal death (that is, death at the time of birth) occur in massive numbers. Even today, with medical advancement – we have a larger population in the world than we’ve ever had and we have a lower mortality rate than we’ve ever had – we still have a massive amount of deaths!
The question “Where are they now?” then is of monumental significance: they’re either populating a place waiting to be sent to eternal punishment or they’re populating heaven. This is a question that needs to be answered. A parent has the right to know! “Where is my dead baby? Where is my dead child? The death of one single baby in a family – the loss of one in the womb, the loss of a child at birth – is significant.
What about the mentally disadvantaged? People who come into the world with no understanding of who they are, yet are no less the creation of God. What God’s purposes are in those individual cases only God knows. Keep in mind, that it’s improbable for God’s specific purpose in the creation of man, that impaired humans should be made. After all, when God made the first human, He said it was “very good.” But, I think such imperfection is the inevitability of the curse of sin which falls under His permissive will, and I think in the case of a mentally retarded individual, God alone is the judge. I believe personally, that if a child is born mentally disabled or grows up handicapped in like manner and then dies, God is not going to punish him or her for a decision that neither could make.
I’m aware there isn’t agreement in the Christian community on these issues. Are children who are not mentally mature and, as such, have not consciously rejected God, with Christ or are they awaiting eternal damnation?
Without going into the details, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and parts of the Protestant Church believe all individuals must be baptized before death if they are to be in the presence of Christ. Catholics believe unofficially that if they are infants they go into a state of limbo, until they are prayed into heaven by the merits of the church and their faithful loved ones.
For the Calvinists of the Protestant Church – followers of Reformed theology developed originally by John Calvin of the 1500s – the question of where babies and the mentally incapacitated go after death is a non-issue. Reformed theology teaches that God has predetermined who will spend eternity with Him under their doctrine of “Election.”
For others in the Protestant Church, it is a major issue. Primarily because they don’t accept the doctrine that God has chosen who will be with Him in eternity. They believe that people must make a decision for Christ if they are to be with Him forever. Obviously, aborted babies, small children, and the mentally impaired can’t. So the question arises as to what the Bible says about this. If it was crystal clear there wouldn’t be differences of opinion.
My teachers tell me there are biblical examples why we can have reasonable assurance that such lives are taken into heaven immediately upon their death. I refer you to 2 Samuel 12.
Here we learn that King David’s newborn son fell terminally ill. After seven days, the child died. The passage records that David said: “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is clear that David believed that he would one day go to be with his son. Through divine inspiration, David documented that his own eternal destination was going to be “in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Therefore, we can conclude that “the house of the Lord” was where his infant son was. Absolutely nothing in this context gives any hint that the dead infant son’s soul was lost.
God often shows a special mercy to those who because of age are incapable of either faith or willful unbelief. Jeremiah 19:4 calls little children “innocents” and Luke 18:15 calls them “infants.” This doesn’t mean that they are free from the inherited guilt and moral corruption of Adam’s sin, but rather they are not culpable in the same sense as those whose sins are premeditated and deliberate.
Jesus said in Matthew 18:3-5: “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. That sounds to me that special blessings are given to little ones or those incapable of thinking on such things.
One final thought. In 1907 R. A. Webb wrote this: “If a dead infant was sent to hell on no other account than that of original sin, there would be a good reason to the divine mind for the judgment because sin is a reality, but the child’s mind would be a perfect blank as to the reason of its suffering. Under such circumstances, it would know suffering, but it would have no understanding of the reason for its suffering. It could not tell itself why it was so awfully smitten and, consequently, the whole meaning and significance of its sufferings, being to it a conscious enigma, the very essence of the penalty would be absent, and justice would be disappointed, cheated of its validation.” The same could be written about the mentally handicapped.
So, when these dear special ones die, rejoice! Count not your human loss; count their eternal gain, untouched in a sense by the wicked world, only to enter into eternal glory and grace.
Question – Number #4
Question: “How is eternity in hell a fair punishment for sin?”
Answer: This is an issue that bothers many people who have an incomplete understanding of three things: the nature of God, the nature of man, and the nature of sin.
As fallen, sinful human beings, the nature of God is a difficult concept for us to grasp. We tend to see God as a kind, merciful Being whose love for us overrides and overshadows all His other attributes. Of course God is loving, kind, and merciful, but He is first and foremost a holy and righteous God. So holy is He that He cannot tolerate sin. He is a God whose anger burns against the wicked and disobedient (Isaiah 5:25; Hosea 8:5; Zechariah 10:3). He is not only a loving God—He is love itself! But the Bible also tells us that He hates all manner of sin (Proverbs 6:16-19). And while He is merciful, there are limits to His mercy. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).
Humanity is corrupted by sin, and that sin is always directly against God. When David sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba and having Uriah murdered, he responded with an interesting prayer: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” (Psalm 51:4). Since David had sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, how could he claim to have only sinned against God? David understood that all sin is ultimately against God. God is an eternal and infinite Being (Psalm 90:2). As a result, all sin requires an eternal punishment. God’s holy, perfect, and infinite character has been offended by our sin. Although to our finite minds our sin is limited in time, to God—who is outside of time—the sin He hates goes on and on. Our sin is eternally before Him and must be eternally punished in order to satisfy His holy justice.
No one understands this better than someone in hell. I say that because of the story about the rich man and Lazarus. Both died, and the rich man went to hell while Lazarus went to paradise (Luke 16). Of course, the rich man was aware that his sins were only committed during his lifetime. But, interestingly, he never says, “How did I end up here?” That question is never asked in hell. He does not say, “Did I really deserve this? Don’t you think this is a little extreme? A little over the top?” He only asks that someone go to his brothers who are still alive and warn them against his fate.
Like the rich man, every sinner in hell has a full realization that he deserves to be there. Each sinner has a fully informed, acutely aware, and sensitive conscience which, in hell, becomes his own tormenter. This is the experience of torture in hell – a person fully aware of his or her sin with a relentlessly accusing conscience, without relief for even one moment. The guilt of sin will produce shame and everlasting self-hatred. The rich man knew that eternal punishment for a lifetime of sins is justified and deserved. That is why he never protested or questioned being in hell.
The realities of eternal damnation, eternal hell, and eternal punishment are frightening and disturbing. But it is good that we might, indeed, be terrified. While this may sound grim, there is good news. God loves us (John 3:16) and wants us to be saved from hell (2 Peter 3:9). But because God is also just and righteous, He cannot allow our sin to go unpunished. Someone has to pay for it. In His great mercy and love, God provided His own payment for our sin. He sent His Son Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross for us. Jesus’ death was an infinite death because He is the infinite God/man, paying our infinite sin debt, so that we would not have to pay it in hell for eternity (2 Corinthians 5:21). If we confess our sin and place our faith in Christ, asking for God’s forgiveness based on Christ’s sacrifice, we are saved, forgiven, cleansed, and promised an eternal home in heaven. God loved us so much that He provided the means for our salvation, but if we reject His gift of eternal life, we will face the eternal consequences of that decision.
It is interesting that a much higher percentage of people believe in the existence of heaven than believe in the existence of hell. According to the Bible, though, hell is just as real as heaven. The Bible clearly and explicitly teaches that hell is a real place to which the wicked/unbelieving are sent after death. We have all sinned against God (Romans 3:23). The just punishment for that sin is death (Romans 6:23). Since all of our sin is ultimately against God (Psalm 51:4), and since God is an infinite and eternal Being, the punishment for sin, death, must also be infinite and eternal. Hell is this infinite and eternal death which we have earned because of our sin.
The punishment of the wicked dead in hell is described throughout Scripture as “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2), a place where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44-49), a place of “torment” and “fire” (Luke 16:23-24), “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), a place where “the smoke of torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:10-11), and a “lake of burning sulfur” where the wicked are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).
The punishment of the wicked in hell is as never ending as the bliss of the righteous in heaven. Jesus Himself indicates that punishment in hell is just as everlasting as life in heaven (Matthew 25:46). The wicked are forever subject to the fury and the wrath of God. Those in hell will acknowledge the perfect justice of God (Psalm 76:10). Those who are in hell will know that their punishment is just and that they alone are to blame (Deuteronomy 32:3-5). Yes, hell is real. Yes, hell is a place of torment and punishment that lasts forever and ever, with no end. Praise God that, through Jesus, we can escape this eternal fate (John 3:16, 18, 36).
Question – Number #5
Question: “What are the gates of hell?”
Answer: The phrase the “gates of hell” is translated in some versions as the “gates of hades.”
The gates of hell or gates of hades is found only once in the entire scriptures, in Matthew 16:18. In this passage, Jesus is referring to the building of His church: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
In fact, this is the first instance of the word “church” in the New Testament. The church spoken of by Jesus is derived from the Greek word which means the “called out” or assembly. In other words, the church that Jesus is referencing as His church means the assembly of people who have been called out of the world by the Gospel of Christ.
Bible scholars debate the actual meaning of the phrase “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” One of the better theologian interpretations to the meaning of this phrase is that in ancient times the cities were surrounded by walls with gates, and in battles the gates of these cities would usually be the first place their enemies assaulted. This was because the protection of the city was determined by the strength or power of its gates.
As such, the “gates of hell” or “gates of hades” means the power of hades. The name “Hades” was originally the name of the pagan god who presided over the realm of the dead and was oftentimes referred to as the “house of Hades.” It designated the place to which everyone who departs this life descends, regardless of their moral character. In the New Testament, Hades is the realm of the dead, and in this verse hades or hell is represented as a mighty city with its gates representing its power.
Jesus refers here to His impending death. Though He would be crucified and buried, He would rise from the dead and build His church. As such, Jesus is emphasizing the fact that the powers of death could not hold Him in. Not only would the church be established in spite of the powers of Hades or hell, but the church would thrive in spite of these powers. The church will never fail, though generation after generation succumbs to the power of physical death, yet other generations will arise to perpetuate the church. And it will continue until it has filled its mission on earth as Jesus has commanded:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
It is clear that Jesus was declaring that death has no power to hold God’s people captive. Its gates are not strong enough to overpower and keep imprisoned the church of God. The Lord has conquered death (Romans 8:2; Acts 2:24). And because “death no longer is master over Him” (Romans 6:9), it is no longer master over those who belong to Him.