Hell:

What does the Bible say?



Note: Footnotes and superscript are not permitted easily within the body.

The reader is encouraged to access end notes as they are encountered. Please forgive the unconventional notation. It is not the author’s preference.


Part Two


Tyler Ramey

The Bible is clear about the fact of hell. In Part One we covered the biblical argument for hell and the rational argument in defense of its endless nature. Addressing scriptural details on the subject of a place of everlasting torment can be tedious theologically, but I think many of them can be ordered quite well with a careful reading.[1] In Part Two an expansion of the biblical argument is offered along with an examination of details requiring closer scrutiny. Biblical options are limited to two in my opinion. Does Scripture demand a fiery place, or do fiery images insist on something different? The subject of hell also generates philosophical objections, and for that reason alone this essay responds to some of them.


Hell, to be sure, is a literal place. Denying it, or interpreting Scripture to accommodate objections, reveals more in my opinion about the denier than the denial itself. Denials center often around hell’s everlasting nature, but satisfactory explanations of why hell is forever are available (see Part One). Hell’s descriptions raise questions related to biblical imagery, generating both philosophical and theological inquiry: When is hell experienced? How does everlasting torment align with a loving God? How do hell fire and darkness coexist? How can a physical—though imperishable—person burn forever?  Such questions contribute to the complicated nature of the subject, but they’re not without answers. Many concerns seem to settle themselves through biblical examination.


A real place

That hell is a real place is well attested. Jesus spoke of hell, often within parables where “fire” (Matt. 13:50; 25:41; Luke 3:17) and “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” (Matt. 8:12; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30) describe a place that is both spatial, i.e., present to the senses, and everlasting (Matt. 25:41). Jude mentions “eternal fire” (v. 7), and John writes of a “fiery lake” in Revelation 19:20 and 21:8. Other imagery describing hell denotes “darkness” (Matt. 22:13; 25:30; Jude 13). So, the New Testament provides plenty for establishing the fact of hell, but how are we to understand “literal?”[2] Among biblical positions on the subject, “literal” refers to a traditional view that hell is a fiery place of conscious everlasting torment. But this raises difficulties that I believe are solved more easily by an alternative. More on that below.


We know that hell is a real place based on Christ’s words alone, and its awfulness is described with terrific imagery. Throughout the New Testament there are descriptions of the finality of hell conveyed by everlasting fire and permanence. Jesus referenced a known area of historical significance outside Jerusalem, Gehenna, when he warned his listeners of hell (Matt. 5:22; 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 25:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). That the place called “Gehenna” (most often translated “hell”) was popular Jewish imagery of a future reality seems clear based on its frequency of use. Clearer still is the fact that Jesus incorporates the real imagery of the horrors attached to the geography of Gehenna when he speaks of the intensity and duration and suffering marked forever on that place by those who once sacrificed their own children to pagan fire gods, Molech specifically.[3]


It is my opinion that the fires of hell are either different from any fire known or they somehow burn resurrected imperishable human beings—even demons—forever in a “dark” place (Matt. 22:13; 25:30; Jude 13). Bear in mind that all humanity will be resurrected, albeit the wicked at a different time than the righteous (Rev. 2:11; 20:11-15). Fire and darkness are hard to reconcile as is an eternal fire that never consumes its fuel. Further, a literal fiery hell complicates many evangelistic efforts by introducing unnecessary philosophical challenges that render God a peculiar cosmic torturer.


God cannot torture

Since God is not evil but all good (omnibenevolence), by his nature he cannot cause eternal physical pain that a fiery hell requires. Indeed, the Moral Law Giver cannot violate his moral goodness. To be fair, one could argue that eternal mental anguish seems an evil as well, but the distress of regret is an effect of a free choice—made in this life—to be separated forever from God. It is different qualitatively than imagery suggesting a cosmic torturer burning caged inhabitants. Neither hell’s severity nor its duration are affected by rejecting literal fire. 


The idea that God tortures contradicts what we know of his nature; thus, a fiery hell is easier to reject for this reason alone. Hell, though, is a place where torment—not torture—is to be experienced forever, and its duration is tied to the eternal nature of the offenses of hell’s inhabitants (see Part One). Whereas torment is self inflicted, torture is inflicted by an external agent. Since hell is chosen by rejecting God, this both helps liberate objectors from the error that God is a torturer and aligns with God’s attribute of love. God will not force a person to “choose freely” an eternity with him. This would not be love and would be an actual impossibility. Indeed, “forced freedom” and “forced love” are impossible states that cannot be accommodated in heaven, or anywhere for that matter.[4]  Hell, then, is an extension of God’s love, which is inseparable from his goodness and justice, where he grants to free creatures their desire. God neither wants hell for human beings nor fails to attempt persuading unbelievers to choose heaven through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. Here, then, is at least one example where God does not always get what he wants.[5]


Vivid imagery

Contrasting a traditional literal view, i.e., that hell is fiery, is a metaphorical view where fiery descriptions of all kinds serve to establish a literal reality of the horror of final judgment. Just as real cats and dogs don’t fall from the sky when it’s “raining cats and dogs,” so, too metaphorical language is used to communicate what hell is like, not how hell actually is. What truths, then, can we gather from the biblical record through such fiery descriptions? There are many, and one special passage lends much in my opinion to our understanding.


In Luke 16:19-31 the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” gives valuable detail. I hold the view that this story is not a parable—at least no typical one—for the reason that more detail is given in the story than any other. While not definitive, I think the fact that there are named individuals in the story, i.e., Abraham, Lazarus, along with specifics regarding the “rich man,” that Christ intends to communicate details about the afterlife, especially the intermediate state of the dead. Parables are typically more generalized and nonspecific, so the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” stands out among others. Also, detail within it aligns with other Scripture passages permitting a formulation of final judgment and the contrast between the respective final states of both the wicked and the righteous. Referring to the rich man, verse 23 says “In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.” Note: “Hell” in this verse is mistranslated. The Greek word here is hades, not gehenna. This is important because wherever Jesus speaks of the place of final judgment, the Greek word is gehenna.


Recall that there was a permanent chasm (v. 26), a gulf, between the rich man and Lazarus, who was near Abraham (Abraham’s Bosom). The place described as Abraham’s Bosom is the same “paradise” referred to by Jesus to the thief on the cross: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Abraham’s Bosom was a popular Jewish conception of the blissful existence enjoyed by the righteous dead. In the Old Testament, this idea presents as Sheol, most often rendered as the grave, but otherwise referencing the place of the “alive dead” (Num. 16:30; Isa. 14:9). Hence, upon the thief’s faith in Christ, Jesus seems to affirm this well known Jewish idea. Concepts of paradise and Hades were developed, not invented, during the intertestamental period, and what we read in the New Testament are reflections of these understandings as the authors codified their reality through inspired Scripture.


That there is a final separation between the wicked and righteous is a truth we can conclude from the story and other passages already noted. Interesting features to “The Rich Man and Lazarus” are that details about the state and location of those who die without Christ—and those who do not—are both answered satisfactorily and informed by other passages. Revelation 20:13-15 says:


. . . death and Hades gave up the dead . . . and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.


Considering Christ’s proclamation to the thief on the cross that they would be together “today in paradise,” (Luke 23:43) and noting that paradise and Abraham’s Bosom are one and same, we have support that the destination of pre-crucifixion believers (and unbelievers) was Hades. Most certainly that unbelievers reside in an intermediate state in Hades awaiting final judgment of hell is marked by the passage above where Hades forfeits its dead and both are cast into the lake of fire. The story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” points to an intermediate state of the dead, a disembodied state, whereupon consciousness and contrast of existence are apparent. The gulf between the two men marks what seems clear, that Hades comprised different areas (16:26). The rich man begs for a drop of water to cool his tongue (16:24), yet Lazarus enjoys the presence of Abraham, the very epitome of goodness, faith, and righteousness to the Jews. Lazarus and the thief enjoyed paradise, i.e., Abraham’s Bosom, within Hades.


Jesus and Hades

I share the opinion that Jesus’ time between death and resurrection was spent in Hades “collecting,” if you will, the souls of the righteous who died pre-crucifixion.[6] Ephesians 4:8 quotes Psalm 68:18: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (emphasis mine).[7] Paul continues (v. 9), “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower earthly regions?”1 It is disputed whether or not Jesus descended to Hades, but both the NIV and KJV lend to this interpretation in Greek. “Lower earthly regions” (NIV) and “lower parts of the earth” (KJV) do not make sense if what is meant is simply that Jesus descended to earth only because he “ascended.”[8] 


Where are the dead today?

The intermediate state of the dead remains. Hades seems to have been opened wide to receive the wicked, yet paradise has somehow been liberated from Hades if we accept the interpretation that Jesus descended and “led captivity captive.” King David even seems to allude to this idea that Sheol (paradise, Abraham’s Bosom) was a place from which he expected liberation (Ps. 16:10). The state of the dead is intermediate because hell (a fiery lake, a lake of burning sulfur, a bottomless pit) is only realized at the final judgment when the wicked are raised after Christ’s Millennial Reign and judged at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:15). The permanence and finality of the imagery aligns perfectly with Jesus’ teaching wherever “hell” has been translated from gehenna. Thus, the everlasting nature of the fiery imagery in the Gospels and in Revelation point to one place and one reality. Recall, here, that Hades gives up its dead at this time and is “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14), noting a clear distinction between Hades and hell. But what of the righteous dead?


The dead in Christ today enjoy the Lord’s presence somehow in a blissful existence. We know this by Jesus’ proclamation to the thief on the cross. The dead in Christ when absent from the body, like the thief, are present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:6-7), in paradise, Abraham’s Bosom—but not yet heaven, as Jesus has been preparing a place for all who are his (John 14:3). They will be raised one day to imperishable bodies (I Cor. 15:50-52; I Thess. 4:15-16) and “will be with the Lord forever” (I Thess. 4:17).


Conclusion

Hell, then, is a future reality of the wicked dead. It is also a future reality that will include Satan, the antichrist, and false prophet (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). Hades, though, is the present destination of those who die today without Christ. It is a place of horrible regret and illusory hope, evidenced by the rich man’s pleas across the great chasm. The rich man awaits the finality of hell where unparalleled misery and unfathomable torment—chosen freely in this life—shall in the end be granted.



End Notes


[1] It is not the objective of this essay to expound on every theological option or delve deeply into related concepts. Annihilationism, soul sleep, purgatory, universalism, and conditional immortality are rejected by this writer as biblical options, but they are related to a comprehensive study. Further, imperative to this paper is a high view of Scripture. Inerrancy is assumed.


[2] Philosophical objections, e.g., hell’s eternality, etc., are driven by emotion, not a fair interpretation of Scripture.


[3] I imagine the unforgettable nature today of, say, a house where a grisly crime was committed. Memories of such places are not forgotten. Further, even destroying such structures does not eliminate the memory. The imagery Jesus used was both past and present. Geographically, Gehenna was a known place of evil significance, but it was also known as a place of refuse to his hearers. Some suggest it was a place of literal smoldering fire and various ceremonial defilements, a place no one, especially a Jew, would want to go.


[4] In logic “forced freedom” or “forced love” are examples of category mistakes. They are actual impossibilities akin to asking “What does blue taste like?”


[5] I am well acquainted with the theological system opposed to this statement.


[6] It is a mistake to include First Peter 3:19 referencing “spirits” to whom Christ “preached” after his crucifixion in formulation of post-crucifixion/pre-resurrection actions. These would include angels of Second Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 who sinned specially and are now bound in Tartarus with “everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” Tartarus is a place that is different from hell and Hades. Christ’s proclamation to spirits bound in Tartarus is a different post-crucifixion, event, occurring likely at his ascension.


[7] The King James renders it “he led captivity captive.”


[8] King James: “lower parts of the earth.”