Understanding Hell

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A man awakened in the hospital after an operation. It was dark in the room, all the curtains and blinds were drawn. “Nurse! Nurse!” shouted the man, “why is it so dark in here? I want to see outside.” “Now, now, Sir, be patient,” she replied. I drew the curtains because there’s a terrible fire in the building next door and I didn’t want you to think the operation was a failure.”

Walter Hooper, who was C. S. Lewis’s personal secretary, laughed when he read the following grave inscription: Here lies an atheist, All dressed up with no place to go. Lewis, however, did not completely share in his laughter. He responded soberly, “I’m sure he wishes now that were true.” Hell is a sobering reality for those who don’t believe.

Some people don’t believe in hell. They argue against such a place and claim they will simply “take their chances.” Is that really a good gamble? Even if you’re not religious, those kinds of odds are worth reevaluating. Let’s say a non-believer insists there is no hell but concedes there is a 10% chance he may be wrong. He still isn’t worried about the odds but let’s now ask him to board a jet that has a 1 in 10 chance (10%) of crashing. Will he buy a ticket to sit on that plane? Not likely because it isn’t a “safe bet.” Yet, he’s hedging the same odds when he concedes there is a small chance a place called hell does indeed exist. Gambling with your soul is far more serious than taking a daring airline flight. Freedom of religion is the God-given right for each individual to choose to go to hell the human ways or to go to heaven God’s way. The concept of Hell appears in Jewish writings during the Babylonian Exile. The Hebrew people have always felt that there was an evil force in the world and a place for the wicked to be punished. However, until they were exposed to the Babylonians that did not have the language to express their understanding and belief.

There are four (4) words in the original Scriptures that we get the term “Hell” from in our English. “Tartaroo” is used only once in scripture (2 Peter 2:4) and means to incarcerate. Clearly those who are in Tartaroo are confined and not free to do as they choose. Sheol is a term borrowed from the Greeks and was “the place of the dead”. We are not talking about the grave, but the place of those who have departed from this life. The psalmist prays: “Do not drag me away with the wicked and with those who work iniquity” (28:3). Hades is the NT term most used and rendered “hell.” The distinction thus recognized between “hades” and “Sheol” is that Hades is a place of misery. Gehenna was a true Jewish term that became Hell. The valley of Hinnom. A place where the Jewish apostasy, the rites of Molech, were celebrated (1 Kings 11:7). It was converted by King Josiah into a place of abomination, where dead bodies were thrown and burned (2 Kings 23:13-14). Hence the place served as a symbol, and the name was appropriated to designate the abode of lost spirits.
The word occurs in the NT, and in every case it is properly translated “hell,” denoting the eternal state of the lost after resurrection.

Jesus tells a story (Luke 16:19) that brings all of these concepts together.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, `Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ “But Abraham replied, `Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ “He answered, `Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

Our Scripture text today from Revelation gives us the most vivid picture of Hell to be found in scripture. It is called a prison. The condemned will be thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the devil, beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

A rabbi dreamed he had been given the opportunity to see both heaven and hell. He was directed to a closed door and informed that hell existed beyond the doorway. As he entered the room he was surprised to see a banquet hall that was set for a feast. Everything was exquisitely prepared but all of the diners moaned and wailed in agony. In the center of the table was a mouthwatering dish of food and each person had a very long spoon set beside them. The spoon was long enough for one to dish out the food, but too long to reach one’s mouth. Consequently, they were unable to eat and were shrieking with pains of hunger. The horror was more than the rabbi could bear so he asked to leave. When he opened the door to heaven he was petrified to see the same scene. Everything was the same except laughter replaced the pitiful cries. The difference in the two places was that those in heaven did not cry over their inability to feed themselves, but celebrated the privilege of feeding each other with the same long spoons. The law of the harvest promises joy to those who joyfully serve others.

C. S. Lewis said, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” A man who lives in Maine told of his little hometown by the name of Flagstaff. He said several years ago the town was flooded as part of a large lake for which a corps of engineers built a sizeable dam. He said the most painful part of this experience, besides the relocation, was watching his hometown die. He said improvements and repairs ceased. Why paint a house that will soon be covered with water? Why repair a building when the whole village will soon be wiped out? Rubbish collected in the streets and week after week the process of deterioration set in.

Then he closed by making this very telling observation. “When there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.” I think he’s right, because without hope, without a sense of something beyond our immediate problems, we become overwhelmed. Without hope, without the feeling of something that will outlast this current dilemma, we despair.

Jesus said, (Matt 7:13) “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.
But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

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