Here’s the audio for “What Happens in the End?”
Eternity has been on my heart and mind this week. My grandmother passed away on Sunday, January 31. She would have been 90 years old this April. On Wednesday, I boarded a plane for Colorado Springs and officiated her memorial service Thursday morning. When you’re spending all week preparing a sermon for “What happens in the end?”, it’s all of the sudden very real… not simply a biblical and theological topic. The wisest man in world King Solomon once said that God has set eternity in the heart of man… and when you go to a memorial service, eternity is right there in front of you. I hope you all know this… but every one of us is going to die some day. The question “What happens in the end?” is incredibly important for every person. Many of you asked me questions about what happens in the end… questions with subjects like the rapture, the resurrection, what happens to Israel, who is the Anti-Christ, etc. But here’s the question that caught my attention the most:
“Why is Hell rarely mentioned in Church? I’ve now been going to church for many, many years and have grown accustomed to not hearing about Hell very often, but every once in awhile I want to stand up and ask “why?” So I guess this is my chance.”
#1 Four Views on Hell
Literal. Those that hold to the literal view of hell see the biblical language of fire and the burning lake of fire as real, and they take it literally. According to the literalists, the descriptions of hell in the gospels from the mouth of Jesus and the descriptions of hell from John in the book of Revelation indicate a literal lake of fire. And in this view, and this is a key part of this view, the literal view sees hell as a real place of eternal, conscious punishment for the unrepentant who have rejected Jesus Christ and the gospel.
Metaphorical. Those that hold to a metaphorical view still see hell as a real place of frightful judgment and suffering, but they are not bound to take the language and imagery of fire and a burning lake literally… the flames of the fire are metaphorical, symbolizing the severity of God’s judgment. They will point out that when hell is mentioned, at times we have contrasting images… eternal fire and the blackest darkness. And those terms taken literally, are mutually exclusive… you can’t have fire (which produces some light), and the blackest darkness simultaneously. But according to those that hold to a metaphorical view, hell is still a real place of profound misery where the unrepentant rebels are banished from the presence of God. And as with the literal view, the metaphorical view sees hell as a place of eternal, conscious punishment and suffering. This is key to remember on these first two views.
Purgatorial. While purgatory is technically not a view of hell, the Roman Catholic tradition teaches that purgatory is a state, place, or condition in the next world between heaven and hell, a state of purifying suffering for those who have died and are still in need of purification. Purgatory continues until the last judgment, after which there will only be heaven and hell. Nowhere in the Scriptures (apart from apocryphal texts that Protestant churches don’t recognize as authoritative) do we see any reference to purgatory as a place where further purification happens after death prior to heaven and hell.
Annihilation (Conditional Immortality). According to this view, the unrepentant, rebellious wicked will not endure an eternity hell. The unrepentant will experience ultimate destruction… they will cease to exist forever. Annihilationist believe that there will be a hell, but their argument is more over the nature of hell. The unrepentant will simply be extinguished. “Immortality” is conditional. Annihilationists believe that a hell that includes eternal, conscious punishment is not ultimately compatible with a God of love, grace, and mercy.
For further study on the Four Views on Hell, I highly recommend Four Views on Hell from Zondervan’s “Counterpoint” series
Also see “Hell” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
#2 Bible Passages on Hell
Here are some of the passages in the Bible that talk about the reality and nature of hell.
1. Deuteronomy 32:22. In this OT passage, the anger of God’s judgment is compared to a fire that burns even to the depths of Sheol… which in this passage specifically indicates the opposite of heaven, which from a Hebrew perspective was pictured above.
2. Isaiah 66:24. This is another OT passage that speaks of the destiny of the wicked and unrepentant. This verse is quoted by Jesus in the NT as He speaks of hell (we’ll see a couple in a moment)… “for their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched.” It doesn’t seem like a pleasant place or prospect.
As we get into the NT, we find that Jesus talks about the reality and nature of Hell more than any other person. We also find that the Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day believed in hell as a place of everlasting, conscious punishment, and Jesus does nothing to “correct” and tell them that they were wrong in seeing hell that way.
3. Matthew 13:41-42. The unrighteous, those that commit “lawlessness” will be consigned to the furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The “furnace” is figurative for the fires of hell.
4. Matthew 25:41-46. In another passage where Jesus is speaking about hell, He once again talks about the “eternal fires which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” And then He talks about the unrighteous that rejected Him and will go to “eternal punishment.”
5. Mark 9:43. Jesus speaks of hell as the “unquenchable (inextinguishable) fire.”
6. Luke 16:28. Jesus, sharing the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, speaks about hell as a “place of torment” which indicates severe pain.
7. Revelation 14:9-11. In John’s Revelation of the end, He is given a picture of the fate of those who followed the Anti-Christ… “tormented with fire and brimstone” (burning sulfur), and the “smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (i.e., as forever and ever means… without end).
8. Revelation 20:10. In this passage, the devil, the Anti-Christ, and the false prophet are destined for the lake of fire and brimstone where they are tormented day and night forever and ever.
9. Revelation 20:15. Now in this passage, after the Great White Throne (Final) Judgment, the unrighteous and unrepentant (those whose names were not written in the book of life) are consigned to the same place, the lake of fire, that the devil, Anti-Christ, and false prophet were in Revelation 20:10.
Key Biblical Words
Sheol is an OT word that is used for the dwelling place of the dead. In some cases, Sheol is used for nothing more than a grave or the place where a dead body is placed. But Sheol is also used of the intermediate state and place of punishment for the unrepentant.
Hades is used in the NT as an intermediate place where the unrepentant dead go as they await the Final Judgment in Revelation 20.
Gehenna. The Greek term γέεννα comes from a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘Valley of Hinnom,’ which was a valley running along the south side of Jerusalem. It was used as a burial place for criminals and for burning garbage. In the time of Jesus, Gehenna was a picture of hell. Gehenna is different from Hades in that Hades is the place where the unrepentant go in the intermediate period between death and resurrection, whereas Gehenna is their place of eternal punishment after the last judgment.
Eternal. Another word that we need to evaluate in the Bible passages pertaining to hell is the word “eternal.” If you look up the Greek word for eternal in a Greek dictionary, you’ll see that the word very clearly means one of three things… without beginning, without beginning or end, or without end. The first two (without beginning and without beginning or end) are used specifically in reference to God and His eternal plan… the last meaning “without end” is used of humanity in terms of eternal life or eternal punishment.
Fire. The last word that we need to look at is “fire.” This word has a wide range of uses, and one of the most important is that fire is a commonly used as a figure of divine judgment. At times it is used literally of His judgment and at times it is used figuratively of His judgment.
Evaluation of the Four Views of Hell in Light of Bible Passages
Literal & Metaphorical. I believe that we need to start with the nature of the word “eternal.” Back to Matthew 25:46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Eternal punishment is just as real and eternal as eternal life. In short, every objection that we would bring against an eternity in hell, we would also have to bring against an eternity in heaven. Only the literal and metaphorical views of hell contain the idea of an eternal, conscious (i.e., not soul sleep) punishment and suffering.
Purgatorial. I’m not going to deal with the purgatorial view… because it’s simply not in the Bible. And it’s not only based upon apocryphal texts that are not a part of our Protestant Bibles, but it’s also based upon a much different theological system in the Roman Catholic tradition that has works contributing to salvation. For a good article on why Protestants don’t include the apocrypha in our Bibles, see http://bible.org/article/how-many-books-are-bible
Annihilationist. Let me give a biblical critique of the annihilationist view. The annihilationist viewpoint once again sees hell as “lights out” where the unrepentant cease to exist. While ceasing to exist would be eternal and forever, the annihilationist viewpoint doesn’t seem to deal with the reality of the presentation that hell is that it is as eternal as heaven. Here are two key objections that annihilationists have with the literal and metaphorical view in regards to an eternal, conscious punishment (and I’ll respond to each objection).
1. Eternal, conscious punishment does not seem compatible with a God of endless love, mercy, and grace. My response to this objection would simply be this… it is Jesus, God Himself, this God of endless love, mercy, and grace, who is actually the One who talks about the eternal nature of hell more than anyone else in the NT. And once again, the Jews of Jesus’ day believed in hell as a place of eternal, conscious punishment… and Jesus did nothing to correct their viewpoint… because I believe He taught that hell is a place of eternal, conscious punishment.
2. Immortality of the soul is much more of a Greek through than a biblical one (i.e., that the Bible never teaches immortality of the soul). Here are a couple of responses to this. First, Adam was created as fully human and that includes being created with a soul. If he had not sinned, he would have lived forever… his soul would have lived forever… his soul was immortal. Second, the Bible, especially in the NT talks all of the time about eternal life, which implies immortality of the soul. Annihilationists will say that this immortality for eternal life in heaven is given as a special gift from God to the righteous and that the unrepentant are not given immortality and are therefore ultimately destroyed in the end, ceasing to exist… but this is much more of an argument from silence than a definite biblical teaching. Once again, if we are going to take eternal life in heaven seriously, then we have to take eternal punishment in hell seriously as well.
For more information on the annihilationist viewpoint, see http://www.bible-researcher.com/hell5.html
For an accessible “rebuttal” of the annihilationist viewpoint, see http://www.gotquestions.org/annihilationism.html
Therefore, I believe that the literal and metaphorical views best fit what the Bible has to say about hell. I’m not prepared to say that the annihilationist viewpoint is out of bounds and unorthodox, but it is much more of a minority view. It does seem to be gaining ground because of an increasing distaste for talking about God’s wrath and punishment. And I believe when we throw out God’s wrath, we change the character and nature of the God who is presented in the Scriptures.
#3 The Antidote to Hell
Jesus Christ & Eternal Life in Heaven. Jesus Christ, God Himself, is the only One who can rescue us from an eternity in hell apart from God. He is the only One who has and can pay the penalty for our sin against an Infinite God. He is the only One who has and can absorb and exhaust the wrath that is due us. He is the only way to eternal life in heaven. He is the only rescue from the reality of hell.
Romans 6:23. Paul tells us that the wages of our sin is death… and the trajectory of that death is an eternity in hell. But the free gift of God is eternal life in and through Christ Jesus our Lord… because as we believe that Jesus Christ, God Himself died on the cross to pay for the penalty of our sins… and as we surrender our lives to Him… trusting Him for salvation that we cannot earn ourselves, then we can receive that free gift of eternal life… that begins to day and extends into eternity. I don’t mean to be trite here, but this is a no brainer. And I’m not talking about hell today to scare any of you to Jesus. But Jesus and the other biblical authors give us a very serious warning… and more than anything, Jesus invites us to come to Him to experience that abundant and eternal life. So today, I’m pleading with you… take Jesus up on His offer. He is offering you an abundant and overflowing life with Him, starting today and into eternity. Give your life to Him today. And if you’re already a follower of Christ, this message on hell today should give us great compassion concern for the people in our lives who don’t know Jesus. It should give us a great desire to share and His good news and offer of life eternal with Him… because the antidote to an eternity in hell apart from Him is an eternity in heaven with Him.
For further study on the reality, nature, and doctrine of hell: