Defining what Christians mean by ‘hell’

  • Question from GT, United Kingdom: “What is Hell?”

    Hell is the alternative destination for human beings after death. Biblical descriptions are varied. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word used for Hell is ‘Sheol’, literally the Grave or the Pit. There isn’t much description to it and is seems that everybody ends up there awaiting final judgement.

    In the New Testament, Jesus refers to ‘Gehenna’, thought to be a permanently smouldering rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, also to ‘Hell fire’ and a place of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew chapter 8, verse 12) where ‘the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ (Mark chapter 9, verse 48, quoting Isaiah chapter 66 verse 24).

    In the book of Revelation the final destination of the devil, the Beast, the false prophets and unrepentant sinners is a Lake of Fire, described as ‘the second death’ (Revelation chapters 20 & 21). Contrast this to Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross of a feast with him in paradise (Luke chapter 23, verse 43), or his description of a place ‘prepared for you’ (John chapter ,14 verse 2) or Revelation’s New Jerusalem – a city of gold – and you can see that the threat of Hell is always juxtaposed with the promise of Heaven.

    Modern writers describe Hell as separation from God, either as total alone-ness or as a continuing existence not unlike our world (see for example The Great Divorce by CS Lewis). The medieval imagery of demons roasting sinners on griddles has fallen out of favour in all but the most fundamentalist Christian circles. Hell is not the abode of Satan, but the self-willed prison of any and every rebel against God, including Satan.

    The problem is that, according to Christian belief, everything in this universe depends on God for its existence. The person who rejects God therefore pushes away from the very thing that causes them to exist in the first place. Oblivion/non-existence beckons, causing Frederick Buechner to describe the situation like this: “Maybe Hell is the limit. In their flight from love, God stops them just this side of extinguishing themselves utterly. Thus the bottomless pit is not really bottomless. Hell is the bottom beyond which God in his terrible mercy will not let them go.” (Wishful Thinking, p43)

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