Saturday, August 5, 2023

What does the Bible Actually Say About Hell? - August 6, 2023

 What does the Bible Actually Say About Hell?

Good morning!

We are taking a detour away from the Gospel of Luke again today and Question 28 of The New City Catechism is going to be our topic of discussion for this morning.

“What happens after death to those not united to Christ by faith?”

It is very important to have an accurate understanding about what the Bible actually says about the answer to this question and not one that is based on tradition or outside sources such as Looney Tunes where Sylvester the Cat gets sent to Hell to be tormented by the devil portrayed by the big red Bulldog.

Unfortunately images like these have informed much of Christian tradition rather than what the Bible has to say about the destiny of those who die apart from faith in Christ. So my goal here this morning is two-fold: one, that we will get a clearer understanding of what the Bible actually says and why it’s important, and two, to magnify the grace of God based on our understanding of hell.

We are definitely going to need the Father’s help if we are going to accomplish that. Let’s pray.

So I’m curious as we get started, what do you think of when you hear the word, “hell?”

I imagine that many of you think of a place of fire and brimstone, filled with demons, and the wicked in torment, but is this what the Bible really says about it?

To complicate matters, the translators use the word, “hell,” in place of three different Greek words in the New Testament which all mean very different things.

So let’s start at the beginning with the question, what was the Old Testament understanding of what happens after death to the wicked?

The Old Testament uses the word, “Sheol,” it appears 65 times in the Old Testament, the word, “Hell,” appears zero times in the Old Testament.

Sheol is described as deep, and dark, with bars, the slain go down to it, the root word means, to ask or demand, Proverbs 30:15 says that it is never satisfied. Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines it as the place of disembodied spirits. The inhabitants of Sheol are “the congregation of the dead” and it is the abode of the wicked dead.

The New Testament uses a Greek word that I’m sure you all have heard before for this same concept, the word, “Hades.”

In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus gave us this famous parable:

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”

Now, it’s clear that Jesus didn’t intend that parable to be a definitive teaching on the nature of Hades and Paradise but rather the presence of the Gospel in the Old Testament. However, Jesus used the word, “Hades,” not, “Hell,” to describe the place where the wicked rich man was in anguish.

The word, “Hell,” is neither a Greek nor a Hebrew word, it’s not even Aramaic. According to Eastman’s Bible Dictionary, it comes from a Saxon word, “helan,” which means, to cover; hence the covered or the invisible place.

But our translators use the word, “hell,” 14 times in the New Testament. The English Standard Version that we read out of every Sunday uses the word Hades when that is what the original language says but there are still two other words translated into the word, “hell,” that we need to look at.

There is a single occurrence of the word, “tarturas,” in 2 Peter 2:4 translated into the word, “hell,” when Peter is talking about the angels who rebelled with Satan and were imprisoned with chains in gloomy darkness until judgment. The translators used the word hell to avoid any more confusion by adding the single occurrence of this angelic prison idea to this already confusing sermon.

The other 13 times the word, “hell,” is used it used for the Greek word, “gehenna,” and in most of its uses it designates the place of the lost.

But it is not just a far off metaphysical place. Don’t forget that we are not the only ones to ever receive the message of the Scriptures, and when we read the words of Jesus we have to remember that He was in a real place and talking to real people, and those people had a certain understanding of some of the things that Jesus pointed out and used as object lessons. 

The word, “Gehenna,” means, the Valley of Hinnom, or, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, and is a literal place.

The Valley of Hinnom is a deep, narrow ravine separating Mount Zion from the so-called “Hill of Evil Counsel.” It took its name from “some ancient hero, the son of Hinnom.” It is first mentioned in Joshua 15:8. It had been the place where the idolatrous Jews burned their children alive to Moloch and Baal. A particular part of the valley was called Tophet, or the “fire-stove,” where the children were burned. After the Exile, in order to show their abhorrence of the locality, the Jews made this valley the receptacle of the garbage of the city, for the destruction of which a fire was, as is supposed, kept constantly burning there.

(I have walked through this valley and even in 1997 there were rotting donkey carcasses in that nasty place.)

The Jews associated with this valley these two ideas, (1) that of the sufferings of the victims that had there been sacrificed; and (2) that of filth and corruption. It became thus to the popular mind a symbol of the abode of the wicked hereafter. It came to signify hell as the place of the wicked. “It might be shown by infinite examples that the Jews expressed hell, or the place of the damned, by this word. The word Gehenna [the Greek contraction of Hinnom] was never used in the time of Christ in any other sense than to denote the place of future punishment.”

So when Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew five and is sitting on the Mount of Olives on the East side of Jerusalem, everybody there can see the Valley of Hinnom from that spot, it’s not even a quarter of a mile away, it’s even possible that they could see and maybe even smell the smoke from the burning garbage. So when He says in Matthew 5:29-30,

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into [Gehenna]. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into [Gehenna].

When Jesus says these words He could have very well have been pointing to Gehenna, pointing to that never ending column of smoke rising from that garbage dump. Either way, He was very clear on what was in store for the wicked.

So we have Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and the final picture, the lake of fire.

The Lake of fire is also often confused with Hell just as Hell is often associated with Satan’s headquarters.

Here is what Revelation 20 has to say about the lake of fire and its purpose.

10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, (they’d been thrown in there already) and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. 

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

The lake of fire is the final destination for Satan, the beast, the false prophet, not their headquarters. It is the final destination for Sheol and Hades.

It is also the final destination for all those who die and are not united to Christ by faith, the second death.

So, here we are, at the point of the sermon when we have to ask the question, “so what?”

Well, I’ll go back to the two goals for today: one, that we will get a clearer understanding of what the Bible actually says and why it’s important, and two, to magnify the grace of God based on our understanding of the final destination of those who are not united to Christ by faith.

What the Bible actually says is important. When we allow our thinking about Biblical principles to be informed only by traditions, or TV and movies, or books and articles outside of Scripture, instead of what the Bible actually says we are in danger of misunderstanding the Word of God and misapplying its truth. God’s Word is God’s words and we should measure all that we think and believe by it.

Nothing that I’ve said this morning is secret or hidden wisdom, you can read these commentaries, you can find most of this information with a Google search. But we can’t just settle for what we’ve been told, we have to know the Word of God ourselves.

Secondly, if you remember Will’s sermon from last week on the Roman Road, you’ll remember that:

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord, that God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, and there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because if you confess with your mouth  that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.

Saved from Sheol, saved from Hades, saved from Gehenna, saved from the lake of fire all of which we deserve to experience because of our sin. 

But we are not only saved FROM the second death but we are saved TO a wonderful and growing, eternal relationship with God our Heavenly Father who saves us from all that by His grace through faith in Jesus for His glory.

Ephesians 2 says, And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.