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Hell



Resources on the Christian doctrine of Hell

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According to The Harris Poll (Dec. 2005) six in ten Americans believe in hell and the devil [1]

RC Sproul on the topic of Hell

There is no biblical concept more grim or terror-invoking than the idea of hell. It is so unpopular with us that few would give credence to it at all except that it comes to us from the teaching of Christ Himself.

Almost all the biblical teaching about hell comes from the lips of Jesus. It is this doctrine, perhaps more than any other, that strains even the Christian’s loyalty to the teaching of Christ. Modern Christians have pushed the limits of minimizing hell in an effort to sidestep or soften Jesus’ own teaching. The Bible describes hell as a place of outer darkness, a lake of fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of eternal separation from the blessings of God, a prison, a place of torment where the worm doesn’t turn or die. These graphic images of eternal punishment provoke the question, should we take these descriptions literally or are they merely symbols?

I suspect they are symbols, but I find no relief in that. We must not think of them as being merely symbols. It is probable that the sinner in hell would prefer a literal lake of fire as his eternal abode to the reality of hell represented in the lake of fire image. If these images are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests. The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain. That Jesus used the most awful symbols imaginable to describe hell is no comfort to those who see them simply as symbols.

A breath of relief is usually heard when someone declares, “Hell is a symbol for separation from God.” To be separated from God for eternity is no great threat to the impenitent person. The ungodly want nothing more than to be separated from God. Their problem in hell will not be separation from God, it will be the presence of God that will torment them. In hell, God will be present in the fullness of His divine wrath. He will be there to exercise His just punishment of the damned. They will know Him as an all-consuming fire.

No matter how we analyze the concept of hell it often sounds to us as a place of cruel and unusual punishment. If, however, we can take any comfort in the concept of hell, we can take it in the full assurance that there will be no cruelty there. It is impossible for God to be cruel. Cruelty involves inflicting a punishment that is more severe or harsh than the crime. Cruelty in this sense is unjust. God is incapable of inflicting an unjust punishment. The Judge of all the earth will surely do what is right. No innocent person will ever suffer at His hand.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of hell is its eternality. People can endure the greatest agony if they know it will ultimately stop. In hell there is no such hope. The Bible clearly teaches that the punishment is eternal. The same word is used for both eternal life and eternal death. Punishment implies pain. Mere annihilation, which some have lobbied for, involves no pain. Jonathan Edwards, in preaching on Revelation 6:15-16 said, “Wicked men will hereafter earnestly wish to be turned to nothing and forever cease to be that they may escape the wrath of God.” (John H. Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell [Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 1991], 75.)

Hell, then, is an eternity before the righteous, ever-burning wrath of God, a suffering torment from which there is no escape and no relief. Understanding this is crucial to our drive to appreciate the work of Christ and to preach His gospel.
- Source: R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faithoffsite, quoted from the introduction to the topic

Holman Bible Dictionary entry on Hell

HELL -- The abode of the dead especially as a place of eternal punishment for unbelievers. Hell is an Anglo-Saxon word used to translate one Hebrew word and three Greek words in the King James Version of the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word that "hell" translated was Sheol. (Compare NASB). The word Sheol occurs sixty-five times in the Hebrew Bible. The King James Version translates thirty-one of the occurrences as "hell"; another thirty-one occurrences as "grave"; and three occurrences as "pit" (Num. 16:30,33; Job 17:16). The Revised Standard Version never uses "hell" to translate Sheol. It does use "grave" one time as a translation of Sheol (Song of Sol. 8:6). Sixty-four times it simply transliterates the word as Sheol. NASB always uses Sheol, while NIV intentionally avoids Sheol, using grave.

Sheol is a Hebrew word that has taken on the properties of a proper name. The Old Testament uses the word to refer to a place in the depths of the earth. The expressions "go down" or "brought down" are used twenty times in connection with Sheol. The "depths of Sheol" are mentioned six times (Deut. 32:22; Ps. 86:13; Prov. 9:18; 15:24; Isa. 7:11; 14:15). Four times Sheol is described as the fartherest point from heaven (Job 11:8; Ps. 139:8; Isa. 7:11; Amos 9:2). Often Sheol is parallel with the "pit" (Job 17:13-14; 33:18; Ps. 30:3; 88:3-4; Prov. 1:12; Isa. 14:15; 38:18; Ezek. 31:14-17). Nine times it is parallel with death (2 Sam. 22:6; Ps. 18:4-5; 49:14; 89:48; 116:3; Prov. 5:5; Isa. 28:15,18; Hos. 13:14; Hab. 2:5). Sheol is described in terms of overwhelming floods, water, or waves (Jonah 2:2-6). Sometimes, Sheol is pictured as a hunter setting snares for its victim, binding them with cords, snatching them from the land of the living (2 Sam 22:6; Job 24:19; Ps. 116:3); Sheol is a prison with bars, a place of no return (Job 7:9; 10:21; 16:22; 21:13; Ps. 49:14; Isa. 38:10). People could go to Sheol alive (Num. 16:30,33; Ps. 55:15; Prov. 1:12). With rare exceptions, such as Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12), all people were believed to go to Sheol when they die (Job 3:11-19; Ps. 89:48).

The three Greek words often translated "hell" are hades, gehenna, and tartaroo. Hades was the name of the Greek god of the underworld and the name of the underworld itself. The Septuagint--the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament--used hades to translate the Hebrew word Sheol. Whereas in the Old Testament, the distinction in the fates of the righteous and the wicked was not always clear, in the New Testament hades refers to a place of torment opposed to heaven as the place of Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27,31). In Matt. 16:18 hades is not simply a place of the dead but represents the power of the underworld. Jesus said the gates of hades would not prevail against His church.

Gehenna is the Greek form of two Hebrew words ge hinnom meaning "valley of Hinnom." The term originally referred to a ravine on the south side of Jerusalem where pagan deities were worshiped (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:32; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6). It became a garbage dump and a place of abomination where fire burned continuously (2 Kings 23:10; compare Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:43,45,47; Jas. 3:6). Gehenna became synonymous with "a place of burning."

One time the Greek word tartaroo "cast into hell" appears in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:4). The word appears in classical Greek to refer to a subterranean region, doleful and dark, regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead. It was thought of as a place of punishment. In the sole use of the word in the New Testament it refers to the place of punishment for rebellious angels.

Punishment for sin is taught in the Old Testament, but it is mainly punishment in this life. The New Testament teaches the idea of punishment for sin before and after death. The expressions "the lake of fire" and "second death" indicate the awfulness of the fate of the impenitent. Some insist that the fire spoken of must be literal fire, so to interpret the language as figurative means to do away with the reality of future punishment. One can, however, maintain this position only if they see no reality expressed by a figure of speech. Jesus spoke of a place of punishment as "outer darkness" (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Can a place have both literal fire and literal darkness? What reason does one have for taking one expression as literal and not taking taking the other as literal? Literal fire would destroy a body cast into it.

Language about hell seeks to describe for humans the most awful punishment human language can describe to warn unbelievers before it is too late. Earthly experience would lead us to believe that the nature of punishment will fit the nature of the sin. Certainly, no one wants to suffer the punishment of hell, and through God's grace the way for all is open to avoid hell and know the blessings of eternal life through Christ.
- Source: Ralph L. Smith, Hell, Entry in the Holman Bible Dictionaryoffsite

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[1] The Religious and Other Beliefs of Americans 2005, The Harris Poll #90, December 14, 2005

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This post was last updated: Feb. 26, 2010