Examining Hell

October 18th, 2012

A poll taken in 2009 showed that 59% of Americans believe in hell, while 74% believe in heaven. The idea of conscious torment and punishment in the afterlife, especially of a never-ending nature, doesn't sit well with most people. But if a literal hell is a present or future reality for anyone, we can't afford to not explore the topic. This post isn't intended to be a comprehensive treatment of hell, but rather a look into some of the more fascinating and controversial ideas and theories about it.

There seems to be two concepts in the Bible of punishment/destruction for the unredeemed. One is Sheol/Hades which is portrayed to be the current holding place for the unredeemed dead. (Before Christ's resurrection, the righteous dead went to a separate part of Sheol known as Paradise, or Abraham's Bosom. Many Christians now believe such a place is no longer necessary and that spirits and souls of the dead in Christ go immediately to heaven to be with God.) The other is Gehenna, which is the ultimate destination of the wicked after the final judgment, and a place of either total destruction and end of consciousness (according to annihilationists) or eternal punishment (according to traditionalists.) Technically, the final hell may not even be open for business yet. But the current "hell", Sheol, is no picnic. It's likely a place of spiritual darkness cut off from God and the righteous.

Hell (Sheol/Hades) may actually be in an earthly dimension that's somehow connected to ours. That's my favorite theory anyway. It could explain why Saul and the witch of Endor were able to contact Samuel, who was in the righteous part of Sheol. (Remember, this was before Christ's resurrection.) It could also explain many hauntings today, including the stories of encountered spirits who seem to be miserable, confused, and under some sort of judgment already. Apparently it's sometimes possible to contact the dead in Sheol, although the Bible explicitly forbids such activity. Scripture refers to Sheol/Hades as being under the earth, and many religions and mythologies have a region of the dead known as an underworld, netherworld, or something similar.

Apparently, there are different levels of hell (Sheol/Hades). 2 Peter 2:4 talks about fallen angels that have been cast into the "lowest level of the underworld". (Tartarus is the name of this region. It's believed to be a pit or abyss at the bottom of, or underneath Sheol.) There's speculation concerning which evil angels are there and whether they are able to interact with anyone in our dimension or in other parts of Sheol under certain circumstances.

Universalism is a nice idea, but it doesn't really make sense. Universalism is the theological view that all people will eventually be saved. The main problem I have with it is that it seems to disregard the reality and importance of human free will. Real freedom of choice means that some people are going to choose darkness over light. The reality is that some will be lost, because if everyone is forced to go to heaven, it can't really be heaven. As hard as it is to imagine, there are people who don't want to be with God for all eternity. We should never write anyone off, but it's apparent that not everyone will accept salvation. God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, but he doesn't force it on anyone. If there's a heaven, there must be a hell.

If a person dies without redemption, there doesn't appear to be another chance for repentance and faith in Christ. That's why it's crucial to share the Gospel with everyone we can right now. Of course, it's important to understand that we don't have all the pieces of the puzzle. We don't know, for example, exactly how God's mercy and justice unfold for those who haven't had the opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But based on scripture, we can assume that it's infinitely more advantageous for people to hear and be able to respond to the Gospel now. There should always be a sense of urgency for Christians to share the Good News of Jesus, because it impacts people's eternity as well as their present life.

Heaven and hell are fascinating topics, but as we explore them, we must be willing to speculate some, because the Bible hasn't made everything about the afterlife completely clear. We don't even know on what level time exists in the spiritual realm. Perhaps it doesn't exist at all, or maybe there's some kind of time dilation that happens between here and the spiritual dimension. People sometimes use the Bible to create rigid doctrines of the afterlife without considering how it might be affected by our understanding of time. Some, for example, believe that Hebrews 9:27 [People are destined to die once and then face judgment (CEB)] precludes the notion that some ghosts are the unredeemed dead. But if you allow for space-time variables and a broader understanding of the meaning of judgment (both temporal and eternal) a belief in ghosts can be consistent with scripture. But if ghosts are the unredeemed dead, their final destination seems inevitable.

Question: Do you believe hell exists? Why or why not?

Supernatural October Series: For the rest of the month, I’ll be blogging about topics like ghosts, demons, exorcism, spiritual warfare, death, hell, witchcraft, Satanism, the occult, psychics, vampires, and Halloween. If you have any ideas or experiences you’d like to share, send a message to feedback@ministrymatters.com.

Read additional posts from this series.

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