Hell Still Exists, Despite Popular Opinion

“No doctrine stands alone.  There is no way to modify belief in hell without modifying the Gospel itself, for hell is an essential part of the framework of the Gospel and of the preaching of Jesus.  Hell cannot be remodeled without reconstructing the Gospel message.

“Here is a sobering thought:  Hell may disappear from the modern mind, but it will not disappear in reality.  God is not impressed by our surveys.”

That’s what Dr. Albert Mohler wrote in his blogpost from Monday, August 18th, entitled, “Remodeling Hell: Americans Redefine the Doctrine.” Yesterday, he followed this up by featuring the topic on The Albert Mohler Program.

As he was introducing the topic, he told a story about a conversation he overheard in a bookstore recently between a customer and a cashier. The customer was purchasing a book by Jonathan Edwards and the cashier registered his recognition of the author by saying, “That’s the guy who preached that sermon on hell.” Then both of them simply, “laughed it off,” to quote Dr. Mohler, who found this a rather striking and telling experience. It is indicative of what recent surveys are telling us about the rate at which Americans in general, and Christians in particular, are losing faith in, or a concept of, the biblical doctrine of hell. Back at his blog, you can link to the Pew Forum’s findings and compare them to another recent Gallup poll.

Here’s an excerpt of Dr. Mohler’s remarks from the program which highlight how hell is “part of the superstructure of Christian truth.” Indeed, hell is part of the bad news of which sinners must be convinced before the good news of redemption by God’s grace through faith in Christ will do them any good.

“We all deserve hell. Adam’s sin–the Fall–explains why we are all sinners, and every sin is an infinite insult against the infinite holiness of God. We are all deserving of hell. Now you see, that is where the modern mentality misleads us. The average person does not believe that he deserves hell. And that’s the problem. If we start from the assumption that we don’t deserve hell, and that our neighbors don’t deserve hell, and that God would be wrong to send us to hell, then we have a fundamental misunderstanding about ourselves, a fundamental misunderstanding about God, and inevitably we will fundamentally misunderstand the gospel. But here is the reality:  it is God’s grace to be told you are going to hell. It’s God’s grace; it’s God’s love and mercy that you would be warned of hell and furthermore it is ultimately God’s grace and his mercy demonstrated in the cross of Christ where God made provision for us in his own Son, to provide the just penalty for our sin, so that all who come to Christ by faith, would receive, yes, the gift of everlasting life, will be adoped as sons and daughters of God himself, and, will avoid hell.”

With this in mind, I thought it would be beneficial to review some of the biblical revelation of hell. Let’s start with the biblical vocabulary. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol (e.g., Psalm 139:8 ) indicates the grave or the place where all of the dead, righteous or wicked, go. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, the resulting Septuagint translation rendered Sheol with the Greek word Hades, the pagan Greek parallel that made an essentially similar reference to the place where the dead go.

The prophet Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 7:30-34 that Judah would one day be judged in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which formed the basis for the New Testament concept of Gehenna as a place of judgment. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia informs us that “As the concept of the afterlife developed in the intertestamental period, the Valley of Hinnom came to represent the eschatological place of judgment (1 En. 27:1f; 54:1-6; 90:25-27; etc.) or hell itself (2 Esd. 7:36; 2 Bar 85:13)” (p. 423). 

The Lord Jesus himself is the source of New Testament revelation about the place the unrepentant dead will suffer the consequences of their sin. Jesus alludes to the Valley of Hinnom in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 while teaching on anger. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother [2] will be liable to judgment; whoever insults [3] his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell [4] of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22–emphasis mine).

Then again, he refers to it while encouraging his disciples to endure persecution in Matthew 10:28 (cf. Luke 12:5). “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [6]” (emphasis mine). Matthew 18 and Mark 9 contain parallel passages in which Christ urges us in very graphic terms to resist temptation. “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell [3] of fire (Matthew 18:9, emphasis mine). Likewise, James tells us that the tongue is “set on fire by hell” in his epistle as well (James 3:6, emphasis mine). In each of these passages, hell translates the Greek word Gehenna, an allusion to the Valley of HInnom where in New Testament times they were continually burning their trash.

Hades makes a few appearances in the New Testament as well (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14). Finally, the Greek word Tartarus shows up in Peter’s second letter describing the deep, dark place where God confined the angels who fell. This term is likewise borrowed from a pagan Greek concept of the underworld, demonstrating how God reveals spiritual truth in terms to which we can relate.

Which raises the question: Is hell a literal place?

Well, of course it is, but literal in which sense? Shall we conceive of hell in the wooden literal sense with which I was raised? Is there a geographical place below the surface of the earth where the souls of the wicked departed are suffering as we speak? This sense actually may contribute in some way to the modern embarrassment about the doctrine of hell. Many excessive things are said and done in the name of a wooden literal sense of hell.

One example I can share from my own youth. Years ago on TBN, someone called the studio from overseas and told Paul and Jan Crouch that his local newspaper reported that some scientists had drilled several miles into the earth’s crust to discover that the drill bit began to spin wildly, indicating that the drill had hit a hollow spot. Then it was said that some of them could hear something intriguing, so the team sent down a microphone to see what they could learn. What they claimed to hear were agonizing and terrifying screams. The scientists feared that they had opened up hell! I happened to subscribe to TBN’s newsletter in which they printed the story from the overseas newspaper. One Sunday morning, my associate pastor was planning to preach on hell, and he wished aloud before the service that he had a copy of that sensational story. I told him that I did, so he asked me if I would mind running home to get it so he could share it with the congregation. Naturally, I was thrilled by the opportunity! It was not until a couple of years later that I would learn on the radio that the newspaper from which the story came was actually a tabloid (you can read more about this popular urban legend at Snopes). Now, not all wooden literalists will be this gullible–this is admittedly an extreme example, but where there are extreme examples, there are also less extreme examples. The wooden literal interpretation of hell is a liability, and may have contributed to the modern embarrassment about hell.

Or shall we conceive of it in the literary sense, allowing the allusions to the fires of the Valley of Hinnom and the Greek references to the deep dark abyss of Tartarus and Hades, the place where the dead go, to be symbols of God’s final, eternal conscious judgment of unbelievers? Would the literary sense undermine the truth of a “literal” hell?

Not in the least. R. C. Sproul, in Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (pages 215-218),  suspects that these New Testament references to Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus are symbols (the literary sense), but assures us that this fact gives us no relief from the torment threatened by the symbols. “The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain. that Jesus used the most awful symbols imaginable to describe hell is no comfort to those who see them simply as symbols.” Sproul gives a good definition of hell: “Hell, then, is an eternity before the righteous, ever-burning wrath of God, a suffering torment from which there is no escape and no relief. Understanding this is crucial to our drive to appreciate the work of Christ and to preach His gospel.”

Please don’t forget this.


9 responses

  1. John

    I have always wondered about verse 3?

    Verse 3?

    Yes, verse 3.

    Ok, which verse three are you talking about Michael?

    Oh, yes, verse 3 of Hebrews 6.

    By way of that I point to verse 2.

    Care to make some comment on verse three?
    Heb 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
    Heb 6:2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
    Heb 6:3 And this we will do if God permits.

    I heard it said that everyone believes in hell. Some only after they are in there! grrrrrrr grrrrrrr grrrrrrrr grrrrrrr grrrrrr grrrrrr grrrrrr!

    I, from time to time, like to go to the gym and strip down wrapped up in a towel and turn the temperature up to over 200 degrees in the wet sauna, get in and see how long I can last before passing out. Immediately at that point I get out and start thinking about hell reminding myself that there are no exits when one is in there! 🙂 or rather :(?

  2. Speaking of two hundred degrees, you ought to read the Snopes article about the hellish urban legend I helped promote! Suffice it to say, you may have been on to something.

  3. John,
    Well, Hell then is the agenda for all who are unredeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God. While Sproul undoubtedly gives an accurate picture, I am convinced the real agony of Hell is being separated from God with the clear revelation that it is forever, with our minds continually repeating the refrain that it is our just reward. Perhaps we see that separation a bit when the agony of the Cross is superceded by the knowledge of our Savior as He cried out on the Cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”

  4. Christian,

    Funny you should mention the concept of separation from God in hell. Allow me to share with you Sproul’s words regarding that topic from the same chapter of Essential Truths of the Christian Faith:

    “A breath of relief is usually heard when someone declares, “Hell is a symbol for separation from God.” To be separated from God for eternity is no great threat to the impenitent person. The ungodly want nothing more than to be separated from God. Their problem in hell will not be separation from God, it will be the presence of God that will torment them. In hell, God will be present in the fullness of His divine wrath. He will be there to exercise His just punishment of the damned. They will know Him as an all-consuming fire.”

    Keeping in mind that the Old Testament word, Sheol, indicates, not only the grave, but also “the place where all the dead, righteous or wicked, go,” the Holy Spirit reveals through the text I cited that “if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” How do you get away from omnipresence, anyway? Even in hell? There is a sense in which it is separation, but I would agree with those who emphasize the punitive torment at the hands of God. If the torment isn’t coming from actual flames, the demons certainly aren’t inflicting it, for they’ll be receiving worse than the rest of them. This leaves only the infinite presence of, as Edwards’ “sermon on hell” put it, “an angry God.”

  5. Cap’n,
    What you say is so bothersome to me it makes me tremble. To think that the thing of horror in hell is the un-mediated wrath of God is so terrible I weep to think of it. For Edwards, that was what was so terrifying; not that we could escape God, but we encounter him as a consuming fire. God is so kind to mediate his wrath on my behalf.

    Gage Browning
    Post Tenebras Lux

  6. Amen, Gage. Apparently, statistically speaking, you’re part of a dying breed. God’s “consuming fire” is a great passage to consider regarding the personal nature of the unrepentant’s eternal, conscious punishment. Another one is Romans 2:8-9, which highlights that part of what the sinner receives is wrath (anger) and fury. Those are personal characteristics, which add terror to the torment.

  7. Captain,
    Hey, I got your facebook message and appreciate the interest. Seminary is keeping quite busy. When it comes to school I am very hard on myself and have not had time to spend on the internet. I did finish summer Greek with an A(barely) and am now in full swing with the fall semester. The seminary here is outstanding and I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone considering seminary. It is hot here but I am not telling you anything. Not sure if I am going to keep blogging or not, as of now I can’t seem to find time but I will keep you updated as time permits.

    In Christ

  8. Captain,
    Just looking around your site and read the article. I’m alittle confused, I thought this was a calvinist site. Dr Moeller said pretty clearly that “all who come to Christ in faith would receive the gift of everlasting life” that is precisely right and in keeping with the teaching of the entire new testament. I thought calvinist taught that God created “robots” that had to turn to God whether they wanted to or not, in other words if you are one of the elect you will be dragged to heaven kicking and screaming.
    What’s up?

    In Christ,

    1. Greg, you can’t be serious.

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