Heaven and Hell

"Hell Fire"
The third word translated "hell" is gehenna, a term always associated with fire and with one exception only found in the Gospels. The relevant passages in Matthew's record of the Gospel are as follows: 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33. It is worth observing that there are thus only about half a dozen different references to "hell fire" in the Bible. Of course, even if there were only one, it would still need to be given careful consideration to determine its meaning.

For the purpose of our enquiry we shall take just one passage: the explanation given in this instance applies equally to all the others. We have selected the words from Mark 9 (parallel to Matthew 18:8,9) because this is undoubtedly the most explicit and comprehensive example of the Lord's teaching about Gehenna:

"And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (verses 43,44, see also 45-49).

From a superficial reading one might feel a certain repugnance about eternal fires and never-dying worms. Happily neither of these ideas is involved in a true understanding of the passage.

The word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom, which was in fact a geographical location. It means the Valley of Hinnom, sometimes referred to as Tophet. It was a valley on the edge of the (then) city of Jerusalem and from the earliest times it was a place of ill repute - associated with idolatrous worship and abhorred by the Jews because of horrific practices associated with false worship: see, for example, Jeremiah 7:31-33. In the days of Josiah the valley was cleansed and its evil practices forbidden (2 Kings 23:10). Its infamy, however, lived on and it became a place for Jews to burn the refuse of the city; later they used it to dispose of the carcases of animals and unburied criminals after execution. For this purpose and to avoid the stench of putrefaction, fires were kept burning there continually and it became synonymous with death and condemnation.

The reference to fires that are never quenched now begins to be seen more clearly: they are used to express the nature of divine judgement. The judgements of God are certain and inexorable. This indeed is what is suggested by, "Their worm dieth not" - nothing can prevent or interfere with the declared judgement of God upon those who turn their backs on Him.

Before leaving the subject of "hell", a brief word is appropriate about one instance of the word tartarus in the New Testament:

"God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell (tartarus)" (2 Peter 2:4).

In Greek mythology the word referred to a subterranean cavern, a nether-world into which the wicked were cast

The use of this word can in no way confuse the clear teaching of Scripture as already stated. Its use arises out of the peculiar circumstances connected with the event to which Peter refers. There is some uncertainty as to the precise reference to "the angels that sinned": some have seen in these words a references to Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who, when they spoke against Moses and rebelled against God, suffered a unique punishment when 'the ground clave asunder . . . the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up . . . They went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished" (Numbers 16:31-33),

This event would certainly provide an adequate explanation for the use of the word tartarus by Peter on this one occasion.

The Destiny of the Wicked
So far as the wicked are concerned, we have already established that they cannot possibly exist after death, suffering eternal torment and misery. The following passages are a selection from many:

"The wicked shall perish . . . they shall consume away" (Psalm 37:20).
"He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light. Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish" (Psalm 49:19,20).
"The wicked shall be cut off from the earth, and the transgressors shall be rooted out of it" (Proverbs 2:22).
"They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise: therefore hast thou visited and destroyed them, and made all their memory to perish" (Isaiah 26:14).
"They shall be punished with everlasting destruction" (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

The final punishment of the wicked is therefore annihilation, perpetual death, cut off from the land of the living for ever. This is fitting and appropriate in the light of our understanding of Bible teaching concerning life and death, "for the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).

The Reward of the Righteous
But what of the reward of the righteous? We have seen that their eternal inheritance is the earth - an earth perfected and purged of all evil. We have, however, also learned that all men by nature are subject to death and that in death they have no conscious being. If Scriptural teaching is to be consistent, then there is only one possible way for the righteous to receive their reward: they must be made to live again by resurrection from the dead. The last Old Testament passage quoted in connection with the destiny of the wicked (Isaiah 26:1 4) spoke of their death as eternal: "They shall not rise." In the same chapter, however, the prophet contrasts the fate of these with the reward of the righteous:

"Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead" (v. 19).

How is this to be achieved? The salvation that God offers necessitated Jesus' resurrection from the dead; and this has made it possible for all faithful men to be raised from the dead as he was. So Jesus could say, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25); and on another occasion, "For the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his (the Son of man's, i.e. Jesus') voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation" (John 5:28,29).

In his first Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul deals at length with the resurrection of the dead, showing that it is at the very heart of the Christian hope. His challenge to some who doubted this doctrine was:

"Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain . . . Ye are yet in your sins . . . they also which are fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (15:12-18).

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