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Dr. Henry Waiters: Hell, part 1

Henry Waiters, ThD

“The wicked shall be turned into Hell, and all nations that forget God” (Psalms 9:17).
In the early church, the New Testament church, Christ’s church, the doctrine of hell seems to have been a basic requirement for all new converts. Paul refers to “eternal judgement” as an elementary principle of Christ (Hebrews 6: 1-2), in other words, foundational teaching introduced at the beginning of the Christian life. In our day, however, the words sin and hell are omitted by the majority of pastors and teachers.

Many refuse to use the word hell because they don’t believe it is a real place created by God. A popular contemporary idea of hell is that it is no more than a metaphor for the unhappiness we experience in this life. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says, “No need for brimstone or torture by fire — hell is other people.” For him, hell was the pain caused by the cruelty of out fellow human beings. People speak of devastating experiences as hellish. “I have been through hell,” they say. Hell is seen as the dark side of life, the sadness and suffering through which people pass. This is what some denominations and cults teach.

None of this is true. Hell is a real place. It is not a metaphor or a symbol, not a description of our inner desolation or our present suffering, no matter how agonizing. It is not a state of mind. It IS a place with spatial dimensions. Hell is a term which in common usage designates the place of future punishment for the wicked. Other meanings expressed by this term must be recognized to prevent mistakes and confusion. In some cases it refers to the grave, in others to the place of disembodied souls. The words of the original Scripture rendered “hell” in the English are: “Sheol,” “Gehenna,” “Hades” and “Lake of Fire.”

Gehenna is the most characteristic name for hell in the New Testament, a word with an interesting history. It referred to the valley of Hinnom, just outside of Jerusalem, where the Israelites had burned their children in sacrifice to the Ammonite god Molech (II Corinthians 28:3, 33:6; II Kings 33:10). It was a place of devilish behavior and heart-wrenching grief. By the first century, this valley of Hinnon had become a rubbish dump where garbage burned day and night. The people of Jesus’s day associated it with smoke, stench and worms — all that was hideous and foul. This is the horribly vivid term chosen by our Lord as an appropriate picture of the real hell, the abode of lost souls.

The distinction between Gehenna (eternal hell) and Hades (intermediate state) is of importance because not only is it necessary to the understanding of a large number of passages in the New Testament, but also it may prevent misconstruction and remove uncertainty as to Christ’s teaching with regard to the future state of the wicked.

It also has important bearing on the doctrine of “Christ’s descent into hell” (hades) and that of the “intermediate state.” The passages of the New Testament show plainly that the word “Gehenna” was a popular expression for “hell” of which Jesus and His Apostles made use, and the word falls many times from the lips of Christ in most awesome warning of the consequences of sin (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33). He describes it as a place where their worm never dies and their fire is never to be quenched. Gehenna is identical in meaning with the “lake of fire” (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15).

The “second death” (lake of fire or Gehenna) is not annihilation, as shown by Revelation 19:20 and 20:10. After 1,000 years in the lake of fire the Beast and False Prophet still exist there, undestroyed. This is represented by the unending punishment of the wicked. Gehenna is not to be confused with Hades or Sheol, which describes the intermediate state of the wicked previous to the judgement and the eternal state.

The word Sheol occurs 65 times. In the AV it is translated 31 times “grave,” 31 times “hell” and three times “pit.” The general idea is “the place of the dead,” and by this is meant not the grave but the place of those who have departed from this life. The term is thus used with reference to both the righteous and the wicked: of the righteous (Psalms 16:10, 30:2; Isaiah 38:10), of the wicked (Numbers 16:33, Job 24:19, Psalms 9:17).

We have no clue to the origin of the word, and must seek for its meaning in the passages in which it occurs. We conclude that Sheol can only mean the abode of the wicked, as distinguished from and opposed to the righteous.

To be continued.

Dr. Waiters can be reached at 704-636-3369.


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