Comments on the preaching of Heaven and Hell
I am not aware of any passage of Scripture that puts heaven and hell together as I have done in the heading to this article. Scripture quite often speaks of heaven and earth. It is the heavens above and the earth beneath (Exodus 20:4). Earth is always in the singular but heaven is often in the plural. The earth is finite (measurable), but the heavens are infinite (immeasurable); hence the plural. The Koran (the Moslem holy book) speaks of seven heavens, but the Bible never. In one place we have the third heaven spoken of (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). It is said to be paradise. Clearly the apostle Paul is speaking of a place other than the atmosphere or the stellar heavens. God and his angels do not dwell in those spheres. There is obviously another sphere in which they dwell. Stephen beheld the heavens opened (Acts 7:55/56) and saw Jesus. He was not looking at a place that can be seen by looking through telescopes or by sending spaceships up into the sky.
However, as to hell there are three Greek words used for it in the New Testament: Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus. The first corresponds to Sheol in the Old Testament and is the place to which departed spirits go (1 Samuel 28:15; Isaiah 14; Luke 16:19-31). The second is literally the valley of Hinnom, being the place outside Jerusalem where the rubbish was disposed of and where a fire was kept burning. Tartarus is really the deepest pit of gloom where God keeps the fallen angels awaiting judgment (2 Peter 2:4; see also Jude 6). Some people like the Jehovah’s witnesses simply think of Hades/Sheol as being the earth as the common grave of mankind and quote such passages as Ezekiel 32:27 and Amos 9:2 to support their view. Similarly they think of Gehenna as no more than the place outside Jerusalem where the rubbish was burnt. However, Hades is clearly more than just the grave as is clear from such passages as Luke 16:19-31 referred to above. Similarly, there is a spiritual Gehenna as well as the physical one. It is called by the Lord the furnace of fire (Matthew 13:42 and 50) and in Revelation the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). It will be noted that, particularly in Matthew, what is burned is that which has no value in the sight of God.
The concern of the present writer is to consider what place hell should have in our thinking and preaching. On the one hand simply trying to scare people into believing what we think they should, has no real value; on the other hand watering down the idea of hell is likely to make people think that it is not such a bad place after all ! The truth is we should use the term hell appropriately. We should not always be on about it as the Koran (the Moslem holy book - see note 1), nor eschew it altogether. The preachings in the Acts of the apostles do not mention it, nor most of the New Testament books. In Luke 16 Christ speaks of the rich man who lifted up his eyes in Hades being in suffering. He spoke of “this flame”. Although the place was Hades and not Gehenna it was not a pleasant place. He wanted Lazarus to go and warn his brothers to be sure not to come there, though Abraham tells him that his brothers had Moses and the prophets which was adequate warning. God is faithful and will not give his creatures inadequate warning as to what awaits those who live an ungodly life. It should be noted that the case the Lord details in Luke 16 was given to those who were mocking (sneering) at him (verse 14); it was not given to little children or those asking for mercy (e.g. Matthew 20:30/31). Consider Isaiah 40:10/11 particularly the last clause. We don’t want to emulate the notorious Father Furniss, the hell fire preacher (see note 2). Although the word hell is not used in Hebrews, we do get serious warnings such as: “How shall we escape if we have been negligent of so great salvation” (chapter 2:3); “whose end [is] to be burned” (chapter 6:8) and “For where we sin wilfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains any sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and heat of fire about to devour the adversaries” (chapter 10:26/27). Consider also Romans 2.
Further, it is not good to pronounce on where people who die have gone. We may have no reason to believe that a person who dies was a Christian. However, this does not justify us in asserting that he or she went to hell whether we are thinking of Hades or Gehenna. Peter simply said as to Judas that he went to his own place (Acts 1:25). Christ has the keys of death and of Hades (Revelation 1:18) and we can safely leave the destination of persons in his hands. If Peter did not pronounce as to Judas where he went, even though Christ had said he was a devil (John 6:70) and it were good for him if he had not been born (Matthew 26:24), we can be sure it is not right for us to make pronouncements regarding persons whose destination after death is much less certain.
In Scripture the terms heaven and hell (Hades) are sometimes used other than in a literal sense. For instance we have Capernaum (a place) “raised up to heaven” and “brought down even to hades” (Matthew 11:23); that is, brought down from the highest place to the lowest.
Further, I believe that it is a mistake to assume that everyone, whether a righteous or a wicked person, is just placed into one of two places and no distinctions are made. Scripture speaks in one place of the lowest Sheol (the Hades of the Old Testament) (Psalm 86:13). On the other hand we find in Luke 16 that Lazarus was in the bosom of Abraham (the nearest place to Abraham). Not all godly Israelites could be in that place, though they would be in restful conditions.
Finally, one would say that much is often made of the places to which persons are destined to go after death. However what Scripture makes more of are those they are with. Christians when they die go to be with Christ (nothing is said about heaven) (Philippians 1:23). Those who have a destiny elsewhere, ultimately go to a place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Do we want to find ourselves in that company ?
This piece overlaps that on my web site “Bible Exposition” titled “After Death, Appendix I” though the object is somewhat different.
Note 1: My copy of the Koran (The English Penguin Books edition) has 435 pages of text. The first 165 pages has on a quick reading approximately 60 references to Hell and Fire (the latter meaning Hell-Fire. This is without counting expressions such as “Eternal torment”.This compares with about 50 in the whole of the New Testament totting up such expressions as Furnace, Fire, Hell (Gehenna), Tartarus, Flame, Lake of Fire and Second Death. Some of these passages may refer to judgments here on earth or are not to be interpreted literally. The Old Testament contains many references to fire but most of these do not relate to future judgments but to punishments on earth or to other burnings. My Bible contains 1510 pages of small print of which 366 are in The New Testament. (J. N. D translation)
Note 2: Father Furniss was, I am led to understand, a Catholic writer of children’s books back in the Victorian era. His graphic descriptions of hell play into the hands of infidels, so that it is not surprising that I was able to get the following extracts from his works from an Atheist web site. The second piece I heard of many years ago, but the first was new to me.
“His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears ... Sometimes he opens his mouth, and breath of blazing fire rolls out. But listen! There is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling. Is it really a kettle boiling? No. Then what is it? Hear what it is. The blood is boiling in the scalding veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones. Ask him why he is thus tormented. His answer is that when he was alive, his blood boiled to do very wicked things.”
“Here is another gem:
A little child is in this red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out! See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire ! It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell—despair, desperate and horrible.”
It seems Father Furniss had a very appropriate name !
A passage in a similar vein appears on page 66 of the Koran as follows:-
“Those that deny Our revelations We will burn in fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge. God is mighty and wise.”
Probably the strongest passage regarding judgment in the Christian Bible is Revelation 14:9-12.