Friday, April 4, 2014

The Bible's teaching on Hell (Sheol, Hades) & the Lake of Fire

Revelation 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

Introduction: Hell and the Lake of Fire
Today's subject is emotionally and theologically difficult, however it is nonetheless true.  To think of multiplied millions or even billions of unbelieving souls dying in their sins and going to Hell to be in reserved judgment for the Eternal Lake of Fire is very hard to think about, let alone write. Nonetheless whenever you survey the scriptures, the Bible is very plain on this subject.  As theologian Michael Horton notes: "The only decisive question is whether scripture teaches it"...."The critical point to be made from Scripture with regard to eternal punishment is not to its degree or duration, but its horrifying reality as God's personal judgment that is final and forever."1 

My aim today it to see what scripture teaches on Hell and the Lake of Fire, how both are discussed and some applications for understanding why this teaching is so crucial to Biblical Christianity. 

Describing both "Hell" and "The Lake of Fire"
When one studies the Biblical teaching on hell and eternal punishment, the following descriptions are discovered about the two main places where unbelievers go now (Hell, Sheol or Hades) as well as the final eternal destination of unbelievers called in Revelation 20:14 "The Lake of Fire".

1. The holding place called Sheol, Hades or Hell, where unbelievers go now in reserve for final judgment: 

a. It is a place of unquenchable fire Mk 9:13; Ps 106:17-18

b. It is a place that has gates or influence Mt 16:18; Ps 9:13; Is 38:10

c. It is a place where unbelievers are conscious of their suffering. Luke 16:19-31

2. The final destination of unbelievers following the Great White Throne Judgment - The Lake of Fire 

a. It is a place of everlasting fire Mt 18:18

b. It is a place of outer darkness Mt 25:47; Jude 11

c. It is a place were unbelievers are conscious 2 Thessalonians 2:8; Revelation 19:20; 20:14-16; 21:8

3. Evidently there are some similar characteristics shared by both, with the Lake of Fire being far worse
a. Both are places of wailing & gnashing of teeth Mt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Lk 13:28; Lk 16:19-31

b. Both are places of  burning and stench Mt 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33, Mk 9:43; Lk 12:5; Luke 16:19-31

How "Hell" and the "Lake of Fire" are developed throughout God's revelation in the Bible
These are most of the references we find in the New Testament regarding the current destination of unbelievers.  In the Old Testament the word translated "hell" or "grave" is the Hebrew "Sheol" which points primarily to the realm of the dead.  In the New Testament the Greek word "hades" is used and we see a more nuanced understanding - lending itself to the progressive nature of God's revelation of topics in the Bible.  The word "hades", in addition to referring to the realm of the unbelieving dead, also carries with it the idea of being a "holding place" until judgment day. 

1. Sheol, Hades, "Hell" - The Holding Cell until judgment day
In most of the places of the Old Testament and New Testament, we come to understand that unbelievers go to a place that the scripture commonly translates as "Hell".  However there is another place that though often lumped in with the current holding place until judgment, is actually a worse place. 

Think of the difference between a county jail and a state penitentury.  The county or local jail is often used to hold offenders until the final details of their sentence is handed down by the judge.  Once the legal system has sentenced the offender, they are taken to a high security facility that will house them for years, decades or life to serve out their sentence.    County jail is no doubt a horrible place, however the "State Pen" is even worse. Both Jesus and scripture reveal a far worse reality - the Lake of Fire.

2. The Lake of Fire - Worse than hell
The first mention of the Lake of Fire in the Bible is found in Daniel 7:9-11 where we read: “I kept looking until thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, Its wheels were a burning fire. 10“A river of fire was flowing and coming out from before Him;  Thousands upon thousands were attending Him, and myriads upon myriads were standing before Him;  The court sat, and the books were opened. 11“Then I kept looking because of the sound of the boastful words which the horn was speaking; I kept looking until the beast was slain, and its body was destroyed and given to the burning fire."

In Matthew 25:41 we get a hint of this far worse place, wherein Jesus speak of the final judgment having unbelievers going into a place of unquenchable fire.  In Matthew 25 we see Jesus presiding over the final judgment, separating the "Sheep and the Goats".  It is here that we really get the sense of the awful truth of an even worse place.

In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John describes the Lake of Fire as a separate reality.  In the opening verse we quoted today at the beginning of this blog, "death and hades" are cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14).

The Book of Revelation describes this Lake of fire in the following ways:

1. Revelation 19:20 And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.

2. Revelation 20:10 And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

3. Revelation 20:14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

4. Revelation 20:15 And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

5.Revelation 21:8 But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

Why there are times the Bible makes Hell and the Lake of Fire sound the same
As we saw earlier in this post, Jesus will sometimes use the same descriptions in his references to both the current holding place and final place of judgment for unbelievers.  One of those images is that of a stinking place where the fire burns and the worm dies not.  This intense imagery utilized a well-known trash dump outside the city limits of First century Jerusalem known as "Gehenna".  It was a constantly burning place where people would dump trash, dead bodies and sanitation waste.  Worms and maggots would crawl through the flame scorched, smoke intoxicating trash heaps, lending further to the real-life imagery.  In fact this place had been around for centuries and had been also the site of human sacrifices in the Old Testament times.  Jesus of course alludes to this in passages such as Mark 9:44.  Quite frankly these references by Jesus could be used to describe the current holding place and the future final place of the condemned, being that the former will be cast into the latter.  (Revelation 20:14)

Points of Application: This worst of all places reveals ever more the urgency and greatness of the Gospel
Whenever we look at the most well-known passage of John 3:16, we should see even more how marvelous of a passage it is.  Not only is the promise of "not perishing" referring to faith in Jesus Christ as providing immunity from the wrath of God suffered in the current holding place of Hell, but also from the worse place of judgment - the Lake of Fire. 

We should as Christians have a greater burden to see our loved ones, neighbors and co-workers won to saving faith in Christ.  As Christians, we should also be humbled and ever more thankful to the fact that God in His love and mercy decided to extend saving grace to us, to send His Son and to Sovereignly have His Spirit convict sinners such as us to freely believe on Jesus Christ.    May we go and tell others about Jesus Christ, so that they may believe and escape the wrath of God that is already on them, and that is coming. (John 3:36; 1 Thessalonians 1:10)

1. Michael Horton. The Christian Faith - A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Zondervan. 2011. Page 984.

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