Read Matthew 25:30; 25:41; Revelation 20:10; 20:15
1. DESCRIPTIONS OF HELL
There have always been people with a very vivid imagination. Some of them are adept at picturing the macaber. Whatever is gruesome to behold is their field of specialization, and they portray it in great detail. They wiII draw pictures of hell as if they had just been there. Here, for example, in an old church hangs such a picture. It represents the morning of the resurrection. People are seen coming out of graves. The devils aTe catching the wicked by their heels. Caldrons are hanging over hot fires. In each caldron there are fifty or more people. Demons are poking the fires. Pitiable characters, hanging on hooks by their tongues, are being lashed most unmercifully.
In his famous Inferno, Dante, by means of the written word, also drew pictures. However, Dante was a real artist, a genius. That man had originality. For example, with rare skill he adapted the specific punishment of hell to the nature of the sin. Thus, those people who had spent their lives on earth constantly quarreling with each other and avenging themselves were now, in hell, forever tearing one another to pieces:
“They smote each other not alone with hands,
But with the head and with the breast and feet,
Tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.”
Also, according to Dante, Satan, being himself the arch-traitor, was forever consuming in his three mouths the lesser traitors Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.
The Middle Ages reveled in things of this kind. When we now turn to the Bible we find that it is far more sober and restrained in its representations. To be sure, it does indicate the nature of hell’s punishment, but its main purpose even then is to warn the sinner to flee fro m the wrath of God by finding in Christ a sure place of refuge.
It has been shown in the preceding Outline that hell means everlasting destruction. The remaining items in the Bible’s description of the abode of the wicked will now be summarized. In the summary which follows it must be constantly borne in mind, as shown earlier, that hell’s most dreadful torment is for those who, though they knew the way, rejected it. Not as if for anyone hell would be a rather pleasant place. Far from it. It remains for all who enter there a place of despair and gloom, but certainly not in the same degree for all.
The remaining descriptive items can be briefly summarized by means of four words which may be arranged in two parallel or in two chiastic pairs, as follows:
(a) AWAY-FROM – (d) DARKNESS
(b) TOGETHER-WITH – (c) FIRE
The wicked will suffer everlasting destruction “away from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (II Thessalonians 1:9). They will “go away into everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46). They will hear the terrible words, “Depart from me” (Matthew 7:23; 25:41; Luke 13: 27). Their dwelling-place will be “outside” the banquet-hall, the wedding feast, the shut door (Matthew 8:11, 12; 22:13; 25:10–13). Within is the bridegroom. Within are also those who accepted the invitation. Outside are the sons of the kingdom who, having spurned the gracious summons, are knocking at the door in vain (Luke 13:28). Outside are dogs ( Revelation 22:15). Wicked spirits are cast down…down…down…into the bottomless pit (Revelation 9:1, 2,11; cf. 11:7; 17:8; 20:1,3). Thus they sink away endlessly from the presence of God and of the Lamb.
Yet, the punishment of hell is by no means only a matter of separation. It is also the very opposite, namely, a togetherness, the most gruesome togetherness imaginable. The wicked will dwell forever with “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10, 15). There is no love in hell (Isaiah 14:9–11).
That hell is a place of fire or of the flame is the language of Scripture throughout (Isaiah 33:14; 66:24; Matthew 3:12; 5:22; 13:40, 42, 50; 18: 8, 9; 25:41; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 3:17; 16:19–31; Jude 7; Revelation 14:10; 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8). This fire is unquenchable. It devours forever and ever.
Lastly, hell is also the abode where darkness dwells. It is for some the place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30 ). It is the place where evil spirits are kept “in everlasting chains under darkness” (Jude 6). “The gloom of darkness” has been “reserved forever” for wandering stars who cast up the foam of their own shame (Jude 13).
The four items can also be arranged chiastically: away from God, the Light, means into the darkness. And together with the devil and his angels means together with them in the fire which has been prepared for them!
2. THIS DESCRIPTION GIVES RISE TO TWO QUESTIONS, CLOSElY RELATED:
a. IS GOO PRESENT IN HELL?
b. IS HELL’S FIRE REAL?
As to the first question, this may be expanded as follows: How is it possible for the wicked to be sent away from the presence of the Lord? Is not God omnipresent? (Psalm 139:7–12) The answer is this: although God is indeed present everywhere, that presence is not everywhere a presence of love. Hell is hell because God is there, God in all his wrath (Hebrews 12:29; Revelation 6:16). Heaven is heaven because God is there, God in all his love. It is from this presence of love that the wicked is banished forever.
As to the second question, this can be rephrased as follows. If hell be the place of fire, how can it also be the place of darkness? Or vice versa. Are not these two mutually exclusive?
My answer would be, Not necessarily. I happen to know someone who at one time by a certain form of radiation was seriously burned, though, when this took place that individual was in a dark room. And do we not also speak about burning thirst, burning fever, etc.? It is therefore entirely possible that in some literal (or if you prefer, semi-literal but nevertheless physical) sense hell is the place of the flame; that is, of burning, even though it is also the abode of darkness.
Those who deny this also point to the parable recorded in Luke 16:19–31. But granted that in his disembodied state the rich man was not being burned physically, does this in any way prove that when once the wicked receive their bodies they will not be tortured by a fire which in some sense is physical? It should be borne in mind that the rich man in the parable is pictured as if he had a body (for example, he asks that his tongue may be cooled). In that body he suffers torment “in this flame.” How this in any way proves that hell cannot be the place of the flame I fail to understand. The parable wouId rather seem to teach that terrible punishment, first as to the soul, but later also as to the body, awaits the wicked. And is not that the teaching of Scripture throughout?
But though the idea of a literal fire—that is, a fire which in some sense is physical—need not be excluded, it remains true that according to Scripture the literal sense does not exhaust the concept. Everlasting fire has been prepared “for the devil and his angels,” yet these are spirits. Also, Scripture often associates two other concepts with that of fire, namely, the divine wrath and consequently anguish for the wicked. See this for yourself by examining such passages as Genesis 18:20, cf. 19:24; Deuteronomy 32:22; Psalm 11:6; 18:8; 21:9; 97:3; 140:10; Jeremiah 4:4; Amos 1:4, 7, 10, etc.; Nahum 1:6; Malachi 3:2; and Revelation 14:10, 11.
It was on Calvary, particularly as a result of the three hours of darkness, that the fire of God’s wrath for the sins of his people caused Jesus to cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” By descending into this hell, he delivered us from the greatest evil and placed in our possession the greatest blessing.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A. Questions Answered in the Outline
1. In addition to what has been laid in the preceding Outline, what are the four keywords which summarize Scripture’s portrait of hell?
2. Away from what, from whom, into what? Together with whom?
3. Prove that Scripture teaches that hell is a place both of fire and of darkness.
4. God present in hell, and if so in what sense?
5. Is hell’s fire real? Explain.
B. Additional Questions
1. Is hell’s darkness to be taken literally?
2. Does the literal meaning, If correct, exhaust the concept darkness, when applied to hell? Prove your answer.
3. What does it mean that Jesus “descended into hell”? Is that expression found in the Bible? Is the idea in harmony with Scripture?
4. How does Calvary shed light on the nature of hell?
5. “Only the damned in hen know how deeply Jesus suffered when he died for us on the cross.” True or false?