When I was a young boy an occasional treat would be to spend the night at my cousins’ home. They had some funky interior novelties—secret passageways, legless chairs hanging from chains, mirrored ceilings— that made the visit a fun exploration of alien territory. One room that I avoided was the Hell room. (I am not making any of this up). One bathroom was painted entirely red. Red walls, flooring, tiles, bath, toilet, towels, everything. And on the wall was a Styrofoam cut-out of a cartoonish red devil complete with pitch fork. When the bath was drawn the bellowing steam would fill the room, and my nightmares. No wonder my cousins hated bath time. It was Hell for them.
Why Raise Hell?
Many dismiss Hell as a mythological dimension used to scare children into compliance, but not taken seriously as an adult. Devilish décor was all the rage in some avant garde niches in the 80s, much the way the paranormal TV genre is trending among teen viewers today. This desensitizing of a bewildering Scriptural reality has an unfortunate mind-numbing effect. We anesthetize the horrors of Hell by relegating the teachings of the Bible to the realm of academic debate. That is not my intention here.
I have been preaching about Hell as I was dragged there by the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. I am fully aware of the need to let the distasteful truths marinade our discussion.
Why even raise the topic at all? Because teaching about Hell is important because it encourages believers to evangelize and maintain an eternal perspective; and unbelievers can be warned.
But for this post I want to simply present a some fascinating facts we can glean from the appellations used in the Old and New Testaments for the place we generically refer to as Hell.
The State Hell is in
First, it is essential that you are disabused 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 on earth.
Pope John Paul II said in an audience talk (July 28, 1999) 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.”
Incidentally, the more credibly infallible Pope 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).
Of course, in related news we can’t ignore the ex-evangelical Rob Bell’s characteristically slippery definition,
[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 story in Luke 16 uses unequivocally spatial language. The nameless rich man dies and recognizes he is trapped a “place” (Luke 16:28) that is physically removed from the realm of comfort where Abraham and Lazarus reside, and is informed that “there is a great chasm between here and there.”
It is also intriguing to notice the terminology used in Scripture designates various realms within the afterlife, which we simplistically call Hell. There are hints at degrees of punishment in Hell, as well as distinct sectors.
Death by Degrees
Think about these clues about degrees of punishment.
- Judas is said to be in “his own place” (Acts 1:25), which has been interpreted by some as referring to a reserved spot in Hell.
- Pharisees’ converts were said to be “twice the son of Hell” as their mentors (Matt 23:15).
- And in Matt 11: 23-24 Jesus thundered “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Note that the degree of punishment is not based on how much sin you did or what kind of sin you committed, but the appraisal is based on how much truth had been revealed to you.
- Heb 10: 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?
Degrees of punishment in the afterlife are strongly implied in the teachings of Scripture. (For an in-depth discussion of the degrees of reward and forfeiture of reward for believers, see a little book my Mom recommends, called “The Preacher’s Payday” 😉
The Sign on Hell’s Gates
The Bible labels the realm of the afterlife broadly as Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek, usually referring generically to death, but most commonly to the place unbelievers are sent. Then within Sheol/Hades there is a place called Gehenna, and another place called the Abyss, or Tartarus.
And there is a third place in the afterlife dimension, called the Lake of Fire, that is unoccupied at present, but after Judgment Day the people in Gehenna and the demons in Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4) and Satan will be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:1-15).
Satan doesn’t live in or govern any part of Hell; he lives on earth, according to Job 1:7 (probably North Korea, if you ask me).
Demons don’t hang out in Hell comparing pitchforks and sending Screwtape e-mails from the netherworld. They reside on earth. They don’t particularly want to go to Hell. Remember the deviled ham in Luke 8?
Jesus then asked him, “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. (Luke 8:30-31).
In Daniel 10 the demons are named for the region they are in authority over, e.g. the “Prince of Persia [Iraq]” and “Prince of Greece” (which may explain a lot about history, ancient and recent).
But there are some demons who are no longer permitted on earth.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus in the Greek] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; (2 Pet 2:4)
See Jude 6 and Genesis 6 for hints as to who they might be.
How to Avoid Hell
The most compelling lesson we are faced with about Hell is that it is avoidable in this life thanks to Jesus Christ, the sinless Lamb who bore the wrath of God so that we who trust in His substitutionary atonement—we who deserve an eternity of Hell—can have an eternity of Heaven. It will take an eternity to praise our Savior for offering Himself for us while we were yet sinners.
Hell should move us, change us, stir us, and yes, scare us. But thanks be to God that it does not need to be our final destination.