There are three different greek words that can be translated into “hell” depending on what translation you use. This is an unfortunate flaw because these three word’s do not all speak of the same place. These words are, hades, Gehenna, and tartarus.
Hades is a general term that signifies the “realm of the dead”. It can include a place of torment, but it can also include a place of paradise. It is the place where souls await the judgement. Luke 16:19-31 paints a good and clear picture of hades.
The word "tartarus” is also translated into hell. This word is only used one time in the Bible. In 2 Peter 2:4 it says, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment”. This place is in reference to where the angels are sent when they sin and await their judgement.
The third word translated into hell is the word Gehenna. This word aligns more closely with some of the pictures that we have in our head of hell. This is the word that we will focus on as we study about the eternal destination of the wicked.
When Jesus spoke of eternal Gehenna/hell, he used an actual place in Palestine as an illustration. In the Old Testament it was called the Valley of Hinnom. It was a place just outside the southern walls of Jerusalem.
It had a disturbing history. It was associated with some Judah’s most immoral moments. In 2 Chronicles 28:3 we learn that king Ahaz worshipped idols and sacrificed his own children in the Valley of Hinnom. It seems that this practice became semi-established in that region since a few generations later, Manasseh engages in the same practice in the same place (2 Chr 33:6). Because of the abominable acts, when Josiah became king he “polluted” the valley. Over time it would become Jerusalem’s place of trash and refuse.
When Jesus preached of this place he used physical Gehenna to give a picture of what eternal Gehenna will be like. For instance, when he said in Mark 9:43, “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” His audience could look at the Gehenna in front of them as a comparison. As they saw the trash heaps being burned they could grasp the point that the hell that Jesus spoke of was one where the fire would never burn out. It is eternal. The misery of entering into the eternal hell will never end.
Hell will be experienced in a state of consciousness. In Mark 13:42 Jesus says, the wicked will be thrown “into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. The weeping and gnashing show that this will be experienced consciously. Daniel 12:2 says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”. The suffering of hell will be experienced by awake individuals.
Sometimes people turn hell into a metaphor for what life is like without God. Many preachers have taught that hell is something we experience on this earth. While the Lord may use Gehenna in a metaphorical way, he is always speaking of a literal destination that is experienced after judgement day. Will there be literal fire there or is it a figure for something else? Does it make any difference? If the Lord uses that awful image to express what hell will involve, do you want to ever find out what it will really be like?
AC/DC has a song with a line that says “Party time. All my friends are gonna be there too. I’m on a highway to hell”. I believe that there are many people who have this same opinion about hell. They think that it’s going to be filled with all the fun people so it is going to be a good time. The reality is it is going to be filled with all of the evil people too. Revelation 21:8 says “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death”. A study of those individual words is not a group of people you want to party with. These terms represent the most perverted extent that they can be drawn to. It’s not just that someone who participates in fornication will be there, it is speaking to the most perverted sexual perversion you can think of (See Gen 19). The “not-so-bad” will be in the same dwelling place as the most perverted people that have ever walked the earth.
Paul said that he preached Christ, “warning every man” (Col 1:28). While it is not fun to think about hell, it is too serious of a destination to be silent about. Jesus said that the wrath of God abides on those who do not obey him (John 3:36).
Hell is too serious to base your salvation on a feeling, or the assurance of your pastor. Jesus said we will be judged according to His word (John 12:48). Every one of us needs to be sure that we have done what His word teaches in order to receive salvation.
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