“Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” – 2 Corinthians 5:11
The Bible has a lot to say about Hell. Even after Bible school and 20 years of study, I still was pretty unschooled on the matter. There’s more to learn about this place than I’d ever thought.
Our English word ‘hell’ (in the AV Bible) is translated from four different words, actually. In the Old Testament, Hell is always the Hebrew word ‘Sheol.’ In the New Testament, it is mostly, ‘Hades,’ secondly, ‘Gehenna,’ and once, ‘Tartaros.’
‘Sheol’ (Old Testament word for Hell) is also translated as ‘the grave’ or ‘the pit,’ and rightfully so; it carries the connotation of all three. It could be rightly defined as ‘the place where dead people go.’ Depending on the context, it may just refer to the physical grave (Gen 37:35), or it may refer to the place where wicked souls dwell after death (Psalm 9:17). It is similar to the way the word ‘death’ is used in the New Testament. Sometimes death refers to physical death (John 11:53, Phil 2:27), sometimes spiritual death (John 8:51, 2 Cor 1:10, James 5:20, 1 Jn 3:14). It must be determined by the context.
‘Hades’ is the New Testament’s (Greek) answer to the Old Testament’s (Hebrew) ‘Sheol.’ In fact, the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament that was used in the days of the Apostles) translated ‘Sheol’ as ‘Hades.’ They mean the same thing. In the New Testament, however, ‘Hades’ always refers to the abode of the wicked dead (except, perhaps, in Acts 2:27).
We get our first glimpse of what hell is like in the Old Testament: It’s the place where God’s anger burns as a fire (Deut 32:22); a place of sorrow (Psalm 18:5); a place of pain (Psalm 116:3); the place which awaits those who disobey the law of God (Proverbs 5:5, 7:27, 9:18).
The New Testament expands up this, showing that it is the domain of Satan (Matthew 16:18), and a place of torments and fire (Luke 16:23-24).
This is all bad enough, yet, this is only the beginning of the Bible’s description of this fearful place.
To help us further understand this awful place, Jesus uses another word: ‘Gehenna.’
Gehenna means ‘The Valley of Hinnom’ (Valley of Lamentation). The Valley of Hinnom was a horrific place in Israel where the people went to perform idolatrous worship to the Ammonite god, Molech (2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:21). This ‘god’ demanded the sacrifice of children, which were burnt in the fire. One could imagine how this was indeed a place of lamentation: children crying and screaming in agony as they were roasted to death in the fire; parents lamenting the loss of their children. It was said by Plutarch that similar sacrifices in his time were accompanied by loud instruments and drums, as to drown out the screams of those being sacrificed.
In the Old Testament, this place is more specifically called Tophet.
For Tophet was established of old, yes, for the king it is prepared. He has made it deep and large; its pyre is fire with much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it – Isaiah 30:33
God said that Tophet was ‘established of old.’ It was not a recent invention of the Catholic Church in the middle ages, nor was it even originated with the worship of Molech. This place, Tophet, ‘the place of fire,’ was established long before, prepared for the devil and his angels.
‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ -Jesus (Matthew 25:41)
Tophet was well known to the readers. The word ‘Gehenna’ would conjure up images of that evil place. They knew about the pagan sacrifices that happened there. They could easily imagine the horror of those victims that were roasted alive in the flames. They could hear the screams, they could see the agony, the tears.
This picture showed the same fate, but worse, of those who reject the mercy of God. The children that were sacrificed perished in a few moments, but the enemies of God will endure this torture forever.
“If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire.” – Jesus (Matthew 18:8)
It was truly a place to be feared, to be avoided at all costs. It’s better to be lame, maimed, and blind in life rather than go to this place. It’d be better to have a millstone hung around your neck and be drowned in the sea than to go to this place. It’d be better to suffer tortures in life and agony in death than to end up in this place. And, indeed, many saints have suffered such things (Hebrews 11:35-40); but any earthly suffering pales in comparison to the place where ‘the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ No torture or death by man can compare to the fearfulness of Gehenna.
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).” – Jesus (Matthew 10:28)
It is described as a place of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 13:50). There will be weeping and wailing for pain, for regret, for sorrow. Yet there will also be the gnashing of teeth in anger: a misguided anger towards God and towards others; then a founded anger at one’s self; then again to tears.
Yet, there’s more.
All of that is bad enough, but it gets worse. The time will come, at the end of days, when the dead will all be raised. Hell will give up its dead. Every inhabitant of hell will be reunited with his or her body and stand before God. Here, every deed will be made known, every word, every thought. A guilty sentence will be passed, and each one not found in the Book of Life will be cast with their immortal bodies into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Revelation 20:11-15). Forever they will hold company with the Beast, the false prophet, and with Satan himself. There will be no escape.
Hell is severe. But is it real? Jesus sure thought it was. And He warned us to do whatever it takes to avoid it.
Hell is a terrible place. Yet it’s hardly enough punishment for those who refuse to change their minds about the way they live and who reject the gift of God (see this blog post). God has bent over backwards to provide a way for mankind to escape such a fate as Hell. He took on flesh and allowed Himself to be tortured by His own creation. He was nailed to a cross as the sacrifice for our sin. Please, PLEASE, don’t continue in your own pride and sin. Turn to Him today. His mercy remains yet for a little while. Today is here. Don’t wait for tomorrow.
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