To my last post concerning the “gates of hell,” a frequent visitor, Steven J, asked some interesting questions. While I was forming a reply to his comments, I realized that a lot of people might have similar questions so I thought I'd add a few more details and make it a post. As I began writing it, though, I realized the subject is a little more broad that I originally considered and wasn't sure I could keep it to a reasonable post length. It seemed that anything I wanted to omit seemed necessary to the whole post. I finally decided to scrap the whole thing and write an abbreviated version from scratch.
I say all that to say this: My views about hell probably reflect those held by the slight majority but opinions still abound. Consider this a disclaimer - the Bible gives us much detail about the lives of the characters it mentions and also give us instructions on how to conduct ourselves now. It gives surprisingly few details about hell and even fewer about heaven. The popular ideas of a “fire and brimstone” hell are not entirely wrong but they're not entirely right either. What I include here is correct to my best understanding of the Bible but I remain open to correction if I am convincingly persuaded by Scripture.
By the way, for the purpose of this post, we will stick primarily to the New Testament.
The English word “hell” invokes images of fire, brimstone, flames, and eternal torment. Many people are surprised, though, when I tell them the Bible does not use the word “hell” at all. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. There are different words that have all been rendered as “hell” in the English translations. For a few of those words, the fiery judgment is the correct understanding but not in every instance.
In the New Testament, the word most often translated as “hell” is the Greek word ᾅδης (hadēs). In general, Hades refers to the abode of the dead. It includes all the dead, regardless of their faith while on earth. However, within Hades, souls are segregated into two groups – believers and non-believers – to await the resurrection. Hades is the functional equivalent of the Old Testament, Hebrew word שׁאל (she'ôl). Sheol literally means “grave” or “pit.” Oh, and if you haven't noticed already, for the sakes of ease of typing and reading, I am referring to these here as Hades and Sheol.
In John 5:28-29, Jesus makes it clear that the “grave” (μνημεῖον (mnēmeion) is the Greek word in this passage) holds both the believing and unbelieving:
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. (KJV)
Those who die while believing are taken to a place of rest in Hades. This has also been called “the Bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22) or“Paradise' (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4). Those who died while outside of the faith are taken to a place of torment. It is also referred to as Gehenna (Matthew 5:22), Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4), or the abyss (Revelation 9:1).
Sometimes, this realm of the damned is also referred to as Hades (Luke 16:23) or Sheol which leads to a little confusion. Let me see if I can offer an analogy that could clear up the confusion. I live in Louisville, Kentucky (KY). Louisville is the city and it is in the state of KY. While I am in Louisville, I am simultaneously in KY. So, I could say, “I live in Louisville” and just as correctly say, “I live in KY.” Likewise, a damned soul in the place of torment (like Gehenna) can simultaneously said to be in Hades.
We see a good contrast between the place of rest and the place of torment in Luke 16:19-31 – the account of the rich man and Lazarus. The Bible says that when Lazarus died, he was carried by angels to the Bosom of Abraham. The rich man died and “was buried.” Then, in “hell” (Hades), he lifted his eyes and saw Abraham with Lazarus “in his bosom.” It is frightening to read as the rich man says he is being tormented in flames. Abraham reminds him that he received good things in life while Lazarus suffered evil things. Now the rich man is “tormented” while Lazarus is “comforted” (KJV). In the passage, Abraham also describes there is a gulf or chasm that divides the two areas. While Abraham and the rich man are obviously able to see each other and even converse, neither can cross to the other side.
When Jesus died, He descended to “Paradise” as is attested in His comment to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” When Jesus ascended, He took with Him all the saints who now dwell in the presence of the Father (Ephesians 4:8-10). Most people agree that Paradise no longer receives spirits. Now, when a believer dies, he is immediately present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Revelation tells us that there will be a final judgment of the lost. Revelation 20:13 says that “death and hell (Hades)” will give up the dead that are in them to stand before the white throne where their works are judged. At the end of the judgment, Hades, along with all those whose names are not in the Book of Life are cast into the Lake of Fire. This is the “second death” and is their final destiny for all eternity.
In many cases, a discussion of hell raises the criticism that God is cruel and unjust (the “argument of outrage”). Such a discussion will have to be for another post. Suffice it to say here and now that hell (the place of the damned) is a very real place and judgment awaits all who reject Jesus. However, salvation is available to all. Now is the time to decide.