What is Hell?
As you can see from the listing of passages shared in my post Hell Revealed (What does the Bible Say?), that the Bible has a lot to say about the afterlife and simply using the word “Hell” may not be accurate. When most people talk about Hell they are speaking of the place where the wicked will suffer in the afterlife; basically Hell is a place of suffering while Heaven is a place of blessedness. Furthermore, when most people speak about Heaven and Hell they speak of them as if one is up and one is down and that they will both be so forever and ever. From the survey of passages you can see that this is not completely the case. The danger of leaving our understanding here in these generalities is that these are the sorts of generalities that often lead people not to take the afterlife seriously and result in petty caricatures of both Heaven and Hell. Let’s be careful then, to make some distinctions.
The final state of the wicked is not technically Hell. The Bible says that the final state of the unredeemed is the lake of fire. In contrast, the final state of the redeemed is the New Heavens and New Earth, crowned by its capital city the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21ff). One may object that this is simply a question of semantics, and while it may be so in matters of discussion we should be aware that the Bible is careful to make the distinction. The Bible says in Revelation 20 that the devil, the beast, the false prophet (20:10), the dead small and great not found written in the book of life, the dead in Hades, as well as Death and Hades itself were thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15). Revelation 20:10 indicates that the lake of fire will exist forever and ever as the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be tormented there day and night. So two things emerge here in our understanding of Hell. 1) The final state is certainly Hell-ish but it is not Hell, it is the lake of fire. 2) Hell seems to be something else which Revelation 20:14 speaks of as Hades. Hades is probably what most people understand to be Hell.
So what we have done so far is begin with the end. So now lets begin with the beginning and ask the question, “What’s a Hades?” and “Is Hades Hell?” Hades is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word Sheol. In the Old Testament Sheol can be the equivalent of simply saying, “I am going to die” or “He is in the grave.” In both cases one may choose the word Sheol. In this sense Sheol simply speaks of the act of dying. However, this is not to say that Sheol is not also understood as a place. Many Old Testament passages (provided in the survey) speak of Sheol as a place in which the conscious dead reside. What is most interesting here is that in the Old Testament, both the righteous and the unrighteous spend the afterlife in Sheol (Gen. 37:35, Psalm 16:10). Yet there is a prevailing hope in the Old Testament that the righteous will be rescued from Sheol (Psalm 16:10, 49:15, Job 33:18, 28-30).
It is not until Jesus that we get a clearer picture of the afterlife for both the righteous and the wicked. This is a very important distinction to make. While the Old Testament presents us with some teaching concerning the afterlife we should affirm that it is: 1) unclear, 2) limited, and 3) not final. As with most important doctrines, the Bible reveals them progressively. For example, Eve understood the redeemer to be her son. I would contend that she misunderstood him to be Cain. Notice that she praises the birth of Cain (Gen. 4:1) but says nothing about the birth of Abel (4:2). After Cain’s failure we see that little by little the Old Testament writers develop the idea of the redeeming son. For the most part the idea of atonement is taught through the image of a lamb (Exo. 12), but it is not until Isaiah 53 that we understand that the son will do the work of the lamb. It is safe to say that John the Baptist, in declaring Jesus to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)” had a much clearer picture of the redeeming son than did Eve. In the same sense we can say that the Old Testament writers had some ideas about the afterlife, but they are not nearly as clear as the teaching of Jesus, or any of the New Testament writers for that matter. Therefore, we should be careful not to use Old Testament passages on Hell as a clear, final authority. If we do, we will probably end up in error. Rather, we should interpret them and clarify them in light of New Testament teaching.
So it is Jesus, in speaking of Hades, that helps us to clarify our understanding of Sheol. Interestingly, Jesus adds another image to the idea of Sheol or Hades, Gehenna. Gehenna was known as a section of the Valley of Hinnom and was immediately associated with evil. Through the centuries it was place of idolatry and infant sacrifice. In the times of Jesus it had become a refuse dump in which burned not only garbage but also the dead bodies of criminals. The darkness and evil of Gehenna was well understood, and the people of the region were well acquainted with the putrid odors of its seemingly never ending fires. Thus, Gehenna provided a great object lesson from which Jesus could further teach on the experience of the wicked in the afterlife. Thankfully, Jesus makes a distinction that not all people experience an afterlife like Gehenna. All go to the grave (as was the OT understanding) but not all will suffer and burn as Gehenna. Rather, the redeemed who follow the teachings of Jesus will experience blessedness, or what Jesus calls on the cross, paradise. Even in the story of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus is careful to distinguish between the experience of both characters in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). Paul affirms this to be true by saying that he has confidence that to be absent from the body means that he will be at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8); a much clearer and more hopeful understanding of the afterlife than Jacob’s; wouldn’t you agree?
What we can safely conclude then is: 1) That the experience of those who follow Jesus is not the same as the experience of those who do not in the afterlife. 2) Everyone goes somewhere. The Bible does not teach that anyone simply ceases to exist in the afterlife. 3) Although we generally understand Hell to be a place of suffering for the wicked, we should be careful to make distinctions. Why? Because the general understanding of Hell as an eternal place of fire in that will eternally exist in the center of the earth leads to fairytale understandings and caricatures of Hell rather than an orthodox Biblical understanding of the final state of the wicked. To demonstrate my point, simply consult Jon Meacham’s article on Rob Bell in this week’s TIME magazine. The top of the central page of the article contains many of these caricatures. 4) We should not deduce any doctrine, Hell or otherwise, from one or two passages, but glean from the entire counsel of Scripture. If we do not, we fail to acknowledge the simple hermeneutic of progressive revelation. When Jacob says something about the afterlife in Genesis, allow John in Revelation to speak to it before you draw your conclusions. 5) The wicked will be in a place, in the afterlife, that burns, is evil and awful. 6) God has provided a way of redemption in Christ Jesus that will absolve a person of guilt and result in their escape from torment in the afterlife. There is a place of blessedness and paradise in which those who follow Jesus enjoy His presence. To that I wish to add, you can be saved today by repenting of your sin and believing upon Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Pray to Him and receive His gift of eternal life.
I hope that helps. More to come!