Hell, Literally

imageHell is portrayed clearly in the scripture as the punitive, eternal punishment of the unredeemed. It is not described geographically as the subterranean caverns of flame and horror somewhere beneath our feet. Instead, it is understood as a state of being as the wicked stand separated from God into eternity. The inspired authors of the references to Hell were less concerned with painting horrific visions of the nature of Hell and more motivated to spell out the seriousness of the coming judgment. The literal view of Hell has fallen from favor with modern Christians who often attribute it to the fevered dreams of the early fathers, saying that it is unseemly for the educated Church to further such a doctrine.

Three words are used for Hell in the Old and New testaments. In the Hebrew of the OT, the reader encounters the word sheol (שׁאול). The term appears 65 times with a variety of translations being made in the modern Bible (KJV): 31 times it is translated as ‘grave’, 31 times it is ‘hell’, and as ‘pit’ three times. It is important to note in the case of translations, this usage is not universal. The NIV does not apply the specific label Hell in the OT, unlike the KJV. Sheol is the destination of the dead and in many cases it carries the connotation of nothing more than the place of interment (cf: Ps 49:14, Num 16:33). The instances where sheol is translated more directly as hell do not present a consistent theological position. Some see a clear teaching of a place of judgment while others do not see the ultimate state as one of punishment. In order to decide contextually which translation is appropriate, the reader must evaluate the whole of OT scripture and theology. An understanding of final states emerges which can direct the exploration as the instances of sheol appear. There is a belief in life after death. For the righteous it will be blessed and for the wicked it will be punitive. Details on the nature of the punishment, destruction, etc. are obscure and the reader is cautioned against reading interpretations into the text that do not exist.

The Greek of the NT uses three different words for Hell. Hades appears 9 times, Gehenna is used 8 times, and Tartaros is used once. Hades is the Hellenistic translation of sheol while Gehenna is the more literal word for Hell. In the New Testament, the scriptures add considerably to the Christian doctrine of life after death and the doctrine’s concept of everlasting punishment. Jesus contributes significantly to the understanding of the punitive nature of Hell and the eternal length of one’s stay. The theological ideas are not always expressly stated but when read as a whole, the statements regarding Hell (Mt 5:22, Mt 5:29, Mt 18:9, Mk 9:43, Lk 12:5, etc.) carry the implication that the punishment of Hell will have a duration and that duration will be endless. Various word pictures portray an eternity of fire (cf Mt 13:18-23) and crushing sadness (Mt 22:13). The idea of degrees of punishment is also found in the words of the Lord. The severity of one’s punishment is dependent on their understanding of will of God.

Taken literally, the scriptures teach a doctrine of everlasting punishment though the details of that punishment are few. Like many theological concepts, it is not without challengers, especially in the modern Church where tolerance has become more important and the idea of everlasting punishment in flame and horror an embarrassment that the Evangelical church would prefer not to deal with. One point of difference has to do with duration and whether or not there is a chronological limit to the punishment. The Greek word aionios is often challenged but in every case, the word refers to eternity. (Many people challenge its use with regard to punishment but the same word, when associated with heaven or blessing, is found to mean eternity. Poor hermeneutics.) Another popular challenge to the notion of eternal punishment comes in the form of harmonizing this punishment with the love and grace of God. Many who would like to soften the doctrine say that the concept of unending horror is anathema  to God’s love, that He would not wish this retributive eternity on His creation. This theological desire does not align with the exegetical evidence presented in the Scriptures.

Conclusion

If the Scriptures are faithfully interpreted with sound exegetic principles as a guide, the literal picture of eternal blessing for the redeemed and eternal punishment for the wicked is clear. A portrait of an eternal duration for this punishment is also recorded; there is no promise of end to the horror. The nature of Hell is less clear and many through the centuries have been guilty of fabricating more and more horrific visions of the eternal fire that are not directly recorded in Scripture. If the picture of Hell is derived strictly from the words of the Bible, it can be said to be partly mental, partly physical, and partly emotional. Hell may be an unpopular doctrine but the Scriptures clearly support the concept.

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