February 10, 2014

Downtown Abyss: The Location of Hell

by Clint Archer
This post is an excerpt from a book I'm writing for Sterling Publishers, scheduled for release in October 2014. working title: "A Visitor's Guide to Hell"

I don’t mean to be disparaging of anyone else’s favorite literature, but some tabloid magazines seem to go out of their way to invite ridicule. The best way to prove this is simply quote it.Satan's face - tabloid

PRUDHOE BAY, AK –  Something is emerging from Hell!

That is the horrifying warning of more than 60 eyewitnesses who have seen the monstrous shape roaring out of a mile-deep Alaskan oil well amid stinking clouds of sulfur.

“If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not believe it,” said John Merritt, a foreman with BP, which operates the oil field.

“The giant demon head of Satan has already escaped and his body has been slowly coming out for weeks.

“White-hot flames are billowing out of the well, the skies have been darkened by strange clouds and the area is full of an evil stench so oppressive and overpowering that most people can only stand to remain there for a few minutes.”

The oil field, about 400 miles north of Fairbanks, has been ordered shut down by the government and the area has been cordoned off. Only military and clergymen who have been called in by the oil company to aid in the crisis are admitted to the area, and Alaskan officials have slapped a tight lid of secrecy over the story.

Many are looking to politicians for a response; Alaska’s reserves have been a source of this year’s presidential debates over energy independence.

Alaskan Governor and Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin immediately downplayed the incident, stating, “This is nothing to worry about! It’s just the Devil playing tricks on us! He wants to see our country run out of oil, just like the terrorists. We gotta stand up for ourselves and keep on drilling!”

Delaware Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden was far more concerned. “I have consistently voted against exploration in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, and this is the perfect example why. We don’t yet know the long-term environmental effects, let alone Biblical ones.”

As for the hole? “No one is allowed within 50 feet of the oil well,” said foreman Merritt. “We’re just waiting to see what happens next.”

http://weeklyworldnews.com/headlines/3060/oil-drill-opens-hole-into-hell/ (accessed 7 Jan 2014).

This far-fetched urban legend has been pin-balled around inboxes of the gullible since the 1990s. It first emerged as a story about “The Well to Hell” in which a deep borehole well was drilled in Russia. The crew apparently then lowered a super-heat-resistant microphone into the pit and recorded sounds of the damned souls screaming. Yup. Thankfully the farce has petered out somewhat and has been debunked.

So, do we dismiss every aspect of the report? Um, yes.

And yet, Russian boreholes not withstanding, the episode exhibits the concept many people insist on, that Hell is not merely a state of mind, but a real place. So is it?

The State Hell is in

The three most important aspects of real estate and the afterlife: location, location, location. It is essential that we disabuse ourselves of the misconception that the nature of Hell is unknowable because it is a merely “spiritual reality” or a “state of mind” of self-inflicted emotional pain experienced subjectively.

For example, Pope John Paul II, in a live audience address given on July 28, 1999 opined that,

Rather than a place, Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”

He didn’t supply any biblical backing to that view, which one of the unique job perks of the papacy: the prerogative of infallible proclamation. I.e. “It is so because I said so.”

Incidentally, previous infallible popes, and even a recent successor, Benedict XVI clarified that,

Jesus came to tell us that he wants us all in Heaven, and that Hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love.” (25 March 2007)

On the other end of the Catholic-Protestant divide, the ex-evangelical Rob Bell declared in characteristically slippery language:

[Hell is] a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep without our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way,” (Love Wins, p. 95).

So, according to Bell (I think), Hell is the stuff that bugs you, and messes up this world, but not a place dead people go.

But the Bible describes Hell only in terms of it being a place. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), Jesus employs unequivocally spatial language of “from here” and “to there” and “between us.”

And yet, that location is not geographic in the sense that it is in our realm (or what Stephen Hawking would call “our dimension”). So, no, Google Maps wouldn’t be of any help, nor would Russian drilling crews. So, where exactly is Hell?

Going Down

In a word, Hell is…down. The Bible consistently refers to the location of this realm in terms of a universal “descent motif.” That’s book club argot for “down.” They don’t call it the Underworld for nothing.

Pit of fireHere are some examples from the Bible…

Job 17:16 Will it go down to the bars of Sheol? Shall we descend together into the dust?

Romans 10:7 Who will descend into the abyss? (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Isaiah 14:11, 15 Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers.  …But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.


Luke 10:15  And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.

This identification of Hell as being “down” is meant to be an unmistakable contrast with the other spiritual realm, Heaven, which is always said to be…you guessed it: “up.”

2 Cor 12:2  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven… caught up into paradise…

What is interesting is that the description of Hell is consummately spatial, and even involves terminology used to designate various areas or regions within Hell. There are hints at levels of punishment in Hell, as well as distinct sectors, or as I think of them, suburbs of Hell.

1. Sheol/Hades

It may surprise you to learn that the Bible uses specific terminology to refer to the various locations in the afterlife. For example, what most people refer to as “Heaven” the Bible actually sub-divides into Paradise (also called the third Heaven), and the New Heavens and New Earth. Likewise, what most people call “Hell or Sheol: the Bible slices into Gehenna and Tarterus. It helps to know Greek.

Hades in Greek, usually refers generically to death, but in the Bible it designates the place where condemned souls are sent. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the equivalent term is Sheol, also meaning the grave, or death in general, but sometimes specifically as the holding place of the condemned.

Within Sheol/Hades there is a place called Gehenna, and another place called the Abyss, or Tartarus.

2. Gehenna

Gehenna (presenting in the NT as a direct Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word) is where the unrighteous go immediately when they die, like the rich man in Luke 16.

3. The Abyss/ Tartarus

Tatarus is a Greek word that is more specific than Hades, and refers to an Abyss where some demons have been locked away, and where Satan will in the future be bound for a thousand years.

2 Peter 2:4  For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [i.e. Tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;

Luke 8:30  Jesus then asked him [a demon possessed man], “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.Hell sign

4. The Lake of Fire

And there is another place in the afterlife dimension, called the Lake of Fire, which is unoccupied at present, but after Judgment Day the condemned souls in Gehenna and the demons who had been in Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4), the demons who had been on earth, and Satan himself will all be cast into the Lake of Fire as the final judgment. This is the part that lasts forever.

Revelation 20:1-154  Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Although there is a fascination with the afterlife in our culture, we should always remember that the Bible is deadly serious about eternity. Hell is the cauldron of God’s righteous, holy wrath against our sin. But God’s amazing grace and immeasurable love has made a way to escape: believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Jesus paid the infinite price of bearing God’s wrath so that whosoever believes in him should have eternal life and not perish. May God use the terrors of Hell and his wrath to drive you toward the splendors of Heaven and his mercy.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Lyndon Unger

    Good stuff Clint! Excellent resource on a topic oft mocked these days!

    • Thanks Lyndon. Please buy the book. In fact, buy 2 copies in case you want to read it twice!

  • Kent

    Fascinating reading,Clint. I placed a link to this on today’s post on my blog. Hope it sends a few more souls your way. Keep up the good work. Is your book available on Kindle yet?

    • Thanks for your interest and support. The book on Hell is still in the publishing assembly line, and is slated to be released in October 2014. My books on Short-Term Missions (“Holding the Rope”) and family (“The Home Team”) will be available on Kindle and in hard-copy by July. Lord willing. For now, “The Preacher’s Payday” is only available in hard copy.

      • Kent

        I will be looking for it with eager anticipation! I subscribed to clintarcher.com and hope that I will receive an official notice from you when it is published. I will then go straight to amazon and place my order.

        • Cool. Watch that space for promo discounts too!

  • “May God use the terrors of Hell and his wrath to drive you toward the splendors of Heaven and his mercy.” I definitely believe in hell and will not be going there thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for MY sins. My son and daughter-in-law teach their five children (ages 1-14) about hell for the very reason you quote in your last sentence. Thanks for this blog!

    • I agree with wise, age-appropriate explanations of Hell. If it’s true, it can’t be bad to know about it.

  • T Howard

    Do you think that the references to the “descent motif” then are more ancient cosmological descriptions than reality? In other words, the ancients did view hell as somewhere inside the earth. Whereas, you believe hell to be in another dimension altogether.

    • It’s hard to tell. I think Heaven is “up” and Hell is “down” but I doubt Hubble will ever see it, and I doubt drillers would ever uncover a chamber. But I could be wrong.

      • Philip

        This post seems to offer two different answers to the question of the location of Hell.

        On the one hand, Hell is a place or physical location that is physically “down” from our current location, and so that suggests that it’s possible that it’s located somewhere in the interior of the planet. Certainly, it seems that the OT writers thought of Hell as a physical place beneath the surface of the Earth.

        On the other hand, Hell is not in “realm” or our “dimension”, and so, we can’t see it, find it or observe it in our lifetimes in the physical “realm” in which we exist while we’re alive. We can’t find it with a telescope or by drilling holes in the ground.

        Maybe I’m missing something here, but this is rather confusing. Is Hell a place that we could potentially find while alive in our particular physical realm or not? The OT writers seem to say that Hell is a physical place in the interior of the planet, but you seem to be disagreeing with this.

        One other question. Is Hell described as a place of fire and torture in the OT? I’m hardly a biblical scholar, and so I don’t know the answer to this question. Could you help me out here?