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Is There a Hell?
November 12, 1978

St. Paul's United Methodist Church


s there a hell? There's something in us that cries out, “No, I hope not.” Although, Francis Sanford says if there's not a hell, there should be because he knows a couple of people who ought to go there! Is there a hell? Ask someone who lives with an alcoholic if there's a hell. Ask the Jews who experienced the Holocaust if there's a hell. Ask that little girl whose arms were cut off if there's a hell. Certainly there are many characteristics of hell in this life. 

Let's look today, as we looked at heaven a few weeks ago, at the question—Is there a hell after life? What about the next world? What about the next life? The New Testament lesson which practically closes the Bible, from the book of Revelation, pictures a scene of a great white throne, white for purity, with the judge of the whole earth sitting upon the throne. Before the throne comes the dead. Books are open, books that recount one’s deeds and one’s words on this earth. Each is judged according to what he or she has done. Then the book of The Living is opened and those whose names are not written in the book of The Living, are cast into the lake of fire. 

Let's look at the lake of fire and its development through the Bible. This will be very sketchy as I'm going to do this very rapidly. You may miss a lot, but if you want to discuss it further, we can do it any time. We’ve looked at this topic in some classes. In the Old Testament, they believed, especially in the earlier pages of the Old Testament in ancient times, that when people died, they went to some kind of an underworld, under this earth. You remember the three storied universe with the earth in the middle, the firmament or sky above, and the underworld underneath. Existence in the underworld is where people are like shadows, a shadowy substance, and they do not remember. And this is what death is— called sheol in the Old Testament. Sometimes in the English versions, sheol is translated as hell. But there's no concept of a fire. It's another kind of existence, shadowy with a lot of silence and no remembering. At first they believed that the dead were separate from God. But, as the belief grew in the omnipresence of God, gradually grew the idea that God was there. Psalm 139:7-8, “If I ascend to heaven, God is there. And if I descend to sheol ( the King James Version said to hell), God is there.” 

And as the idea persisted that God is also in this kind of an existence, then came the idea of a resurrection out of this existence, a resurrection from the dead into union with Christ. Especially in the New Testament is this idea developed. The dead will be raised out of sheol into a relationship and fellowship with Christ.

In the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament, through the influence of Persian religion primarily, came the idea of torment and fire which not only purifies but destroys. This idea especially grew because of the Maccabean revolt against the Romans. Because of the cruelty and oppression of the Roman government upon that little, tiny nation of Judah came the idea that surely God would vindicate them, and surely, God would judge the enemies and punish them. So by the time of the New Testament, by the time of Jesus, there was a commonly held belief that after this life, there is a place of punishment and fire.

 In the New Testament period, they referred to a place called Gehenna which is a valley outside of Jerusalem. Gehenna is translated as hell most of the times in the New Testament. When Jesus used the word Gehenna,  it is translated as hell. For example, in Matthew 5:30, Jesus said, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell”. The word there is Gehenna which is a symbolic word. Certainly Jesus didn't mean for us to literally cut off a hand. Likewise, Jesus did not literally mean that the body would be cast into Gehenna. Gehenna was a place outside of Jerusalem in the southwest, called the Valley of Hinnom. On this site, many hundreds of years before a pagan religion sacrificed to Molech by burning children. When the Israelites took over the land of Canaan, that site became an abomination. It was outlawed, forbidden they should even go there. It was a a place of horror. 

In the time of Jesus, Gehenna became the dump where refuse, garbage was burned, and the fire was constantly burning. In fact, it had developed a worm and evolved to the place where a worm was not destroyed by the fire, hence those references where the worms don't ever die (Mark 9:44). So Jesus is referring to an actual place outside of Jerusalem called Gehenna, which is a place of fire, but he's using the term symbolically, not literally. For those people today who have a very literal picture of heaven and a very literal picture of hell, hell would be an actual garbage dump. 

So what is the meaning of the imagery? All references to the next life, whether heaven or hell, are in images and symbols, because the next life is beyond our comprehension, it’s beyond our experience. So the biblical people use symbolic language. Let's push behind this symbolic language of fire, or paradise in contrast. What is the essential meaning of Jesus’ teaching? Heaven and hell are not places, but are relationships. Our relationship with God and with each other persists through death and extends into the next life. Likewise, hell is a relationship, a relationship of horror, torment and destruction, a relationship with each other and a relationship with God that also persists into the next life, that persists through death. In the passage that we read out of Revelation, even death is thrown into the lake of fire, even death does not have power and dominion over us. So this relationship extends beyond death. 

The meaning is that God does not overrule us. God does not overrule our free choices. There are those who believe in universal salvation where everyone eventually will be in heaven with God, everyone will be saved. I think that's pushing it too far for that belief is saying that God will overrule us. But, God does not overrule our freewill. God does not overrule our choices. God does not intervene and make us good when we want to be bad. God does not intervene and make the situation constructive when we want it to be destructive. God lets us have our way. Just look at the world. It’s true—God lets us have our way. And in letting us have our way, we determine our relationship with God, which you may call either heaven or hell. Judgment means that God lets us reap what we sow. God lets us harvest what we plant. God allows the consequences of our actions and our attitudes to happen. 

Can you imagine the scene which we read out of Revelation, where the book is open, and everyone's life is in that book? Can you imagine that every word we say, every deed we do, is embedded forever in the universe’s consciousness? Imagine that it will be recalled, it’s not lost. Every every word we speak is not lost, but is somewhere embedded in the consciousness of the universe. The book is open. One suffers the consequences of one's choices and acts, and that may be heaven, or that may be hell. 

But that's not the end of the story. We are judged by what we do. That happens every day, and that will happen in eternity where we are judged by what we do, how we live, how we act, how we think and what we say. That's true. But that's not the whole story because the Judge is Jesus. The Bible identifies the judge with Jesus. In the Apostles Creed we say we believe that Jesus shall come to judge the quick and the dead, the living and the dead. Jesus is the judge and that puts an entirely different meaning on the whole transaction. For the tender, loving, comforting Jesus, the one who loved little children, the one who healed the sick, the one who raised the dead, the one who had compassion and love for us, the one who went to the cross is the judge. And he will grant mercy. The judge can grant clemency, the judge can grant pardon because the judge has the power. The judge has paid the price, the costly price of granting forgiveness, of granting a break in the judgment process, of granting a relationship with God of love, joy and peace. The judge paid the price. 

Have you ever hurt a real close friend or your spouse? Have you ever hurt them and said something you wish you could take back, or you've done something that was a real strain on the relationship? When that happens, if that person is a real close friend, you just don't say, “Oh, forgive me.” And that person in turn just doesn't say, “Oh, you're forgiven. It's okay. It's all right.” Not when the relationship is deep. For when you've hurt someone in a relationship, it doesn't go away. But because of the love in the relationship, because of the agony, because of the suffering that may be involved, that friend and you may reconcile that hurt and make it into something new and different. But it was costly. When you've hurt anyone you love deeply, for them to forgive you, for you to ask in real earnestness to be forgiven, and for them to in turn forgive you is costly. It costs agony and hurt. 

Jesus bore agony and hurt. It cost Jesus his life, his blood. Our sin is so deep that it cost Jesus his life to grant us pardon and mercy. For us to face who and what we are, to face the future of hell for us, to face it honestly and squarely and to ask, “O God, forgive me. O God, grant me a relationship with you. O God, heal me,” because our sin is deep within us and not superficial, it evokes a response in Christ which cost him his life. 

The good news of the gospel is that hell is not the last word because Jesus is the judge. Hell is the judgment brought on by ourselves, characterized by an image of fire—a tormenting, destructive, horrible image. Judgment is brought on us by ourselves both in this life and the life to come because God does not overrule. But Jesus the judge can grant pardon when we ask and when we are repentant. 

© 1978 Douglas I. Norris