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Part 3: Hell in the Gospels
7 years, 3 months ago Posted in: BLOG 2
Part 3: Hell in the Gospels

Part 3 of a 3 part series on Hell:

The Gospels: Hades and Gehenna

So far we have seen that the doctrine of Hell is invisible in the Old Testament (Part 1).  Likewise, this teaching – though elevated to such importance today by so many – makes no appearance in numerous books of the New Testament.  Books where it would have been extremely important to mention.  This is especially odd because, as we have mentioned, Hell supposedly represents one of the final two destinations of mankind.

We will explore the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke now (John’s Gospel does not mention Hades/Gehenna/Hell once).  But before we do, hopefully you are seeing that the afterlife does not consist of either heaven or hell, but resurrection to eternal life from the power of the grave or the wages of sin, which is eternal death.

Now, let’s explore the concept of Hell as it appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  There are two words rendered ‘Hell’ in English, derived from the Greek.  These are ‘Hades’ and ‘Gehenna’.  Let’s look at them both in turn.

Hades

The word Hades is originally from Greek mythology.  It was their netherworld – where people went where they were dead.  It was a dark subterranean realm on a distant island, where the dead were conducted to on a ferry by the god Charon.  Would Jesus really have used Greek mythology in any form, and thereby validate it, to describe life after death?  No, we understand that Hades is the Greek word that the original Aramaic Jesus actually spoke was translated to (for scriptures with Aramaic words/references see: Mark 5:41, Mark 7:34, Mark 14:36, Matt 5:22, Matt 6:24, Matt 27:46/Mark 15:34, John 20:16, Acts 26:14).

In the entire New Testament, this word Hades occurs eleven times.  In the gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) this word is attributed to Jesus on 3 occasions:

“And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths (Hades). If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day” (Matthew 11:23; similarly Luke 10:15).

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18)

“In hell (Hades), where he was in torment, [the rich man] 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’ ” (Luke 16:23-24)

Only a single passage describes hades as a place of torment, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31).  We must remember that this is a parable.  Specifically, the scripture is plain that Abraham is not in heaven, but in the ground awaiting the resurrection which occurs at the end of the age.  What scriptures can we point to that bears this out?

Acts 26:22-23: “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

John 3:13: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.”

There are a variety of other scriptures we could use in addition to these.  This parable was not meant to be a doctrinal outline of heaven and hell. Rather, we must understand that the soul of the parable is to reinforce Jesus’ oft-made point that in the end, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.    The heart of this particular parable is captured in Luke 16:14:  “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”  The Lord Jesus decided to graphically turn the tables on them and demonstrate that a certain unrecoverable state awaited them.  This story was directed specifically at the Pharisees in attendance that day.

If we are to take certain parts of this parable literally, we can get onto shaky ground.  The best way to understand the parable is to grasp the context and the true message for which it was intended.

In other places the Lord speaks of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” to symbolize what people who thought they were on the path to life finally realize they were not.  For instance, Jesus says, “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 13:28).  Look at what causes the weeping and gnashing: the final realization that they will be utterly destroyed when all along they were convinced of their righteousness.

One other important aspect of understanding is seeing that Hades is the equivalent of Sheol in the New Testament – the abode of the dead.  The key is found in Acts 2.  On the Day of Pentecost Peter quoted from Psalm 16:10 regarding the Messiah.  In Psalms 16 the word used is Sheol.  In Acts, the word used is Hades.   This proves a continuous, consistent understanding of the state of the dead, flowing from the Old to the New Testament.  Though Luke writes Hades, Peter was quoting from the Hebrew scripture where the word used is Sheol.

Gehenna

Though Gehenna occurs twelve times, the Savior actually used it only on four or five different occasions, the rest being only repetitions.

Gehenna was actually a physical location, which means “Valley of Hinnom” in Hebrew.

In Jewish history, the Valley of Hinnom has a terrible reputation.  In the days leading up to the Kings, it was used for idol worship and sacrifice.  King Josiah ended these practices during his reign.  After this they held the place in such abomination that they cast into it all kinds of filth, and the carcasses of beasts, and the unburied bodies of criminals who had been executed. Continual fires were necessary in order to consume these, lest the putrefaction should infect the air; and there were always worms feeding on the remaining relics. Hence it came, that any severe punishment, especially an infamous kind of death, was described by the word Gehenna, or hell.

The word Gehenna, or hell, then, in the New Testament is used as a symbol of anything that was foul and repulsive; but especially as a figure of dreadful and destructive judgments.

What is more, it was a place that everyone living in Jerusalem, and the towns round about, was aware of since it was the city dump.  When the Lord employed it as a symbol for utter destruction of those unworthy of life they would be quick to get the force of the illustration.  It was a place of no return, plagued by worms and constant fire, not unlike a modern day dump in a third world city.  Remember, much of Jesus’ teachings were parabolic, intended to drive home a key message that painted vivid pictures in the minds of His listeners – those with ears to hear.

Conclusion of Part 3: Hades is identical to Sheol – an unconscious state of the dead; the grave.

Stop for a moment and consider: the word Hades is attributed to Christ 3 times and Gehenna a maximum of 5.  In the English, some Bibles haven’t distinguished the usage, labeling both as ‘Hell’.  Gehenna was nothing more than a burning garbage heap outside the city.  In reference to Hades, only one scripture (Luke 16:19-31), describes hell as a place of torment.

It is very plain that neither in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, nor in the New, does the word hades convey the meaning which the present English word hell, in the Christian usage, always conveys to our minds.

Common visions of hell are more derived from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ than they are from the Bible; more from pagan concepts (Greek mythology and others) than from what the Bible actually teaches.

Let’s conclude with what the Bible does clearly teach: there is coming a day, at the return of Christ, in which all mankind will be resurrected to face judgment, and receive either eternal life in the physical Kingdom of God or eternal death.

While the doctrine of Hell is preached by many well-meaning and respected pastors, it is errant teaching.  Throughout the ages it has served as a great motivator – sometimes innocently, sometimes not – for many to come to the faith (to avoid vivid and tortuous punishment), but is simply not true.  The truth of the matter is that the doctrine of Hell derives more from the likes of Dante’s Inferno than it does from the Holy Scriptures.