Summary: Hell is definitely taught in the Bible. The purpose of this message is to inform of the Bible’s teachings about hell
The Who, What and Why of Hell
The summer I started seminary in Dallas, TX, I called a Jewish friend from Tulane who lived in North Dallas. She invited me over to her house. When I got there, she asked if I would like a tour of the house. I said, ‘Sure!” She showed me the living room, the kitchen where I met her mom, the dining room and then we walked down a long hallway where she showed me her bedroom. When she turned on the lights, I saw a wall that was covered with 4” x 6” pictures. As I drew closer, I saw one guy was in a large number of them. I asked who he was and she told me he was her best friend in high school who was killed by a drunk driver. I told how sorry I was and as I continued to look, I said, you sure have a lot of pictures of him. And that’s when she said, In the Jewish faith, when someone dies, we believe they drift off to nothingness. The only way to remember they were alive is through our memories and that’s why I have so many pictures of him up on the wall.”
What she was sharing was the Jewish belief about death and Sheol, which is a Hebrew word meaning a grave or pit. Sheol is found 65 times in the Old Testament. Jews believed this was where the dead went after death separated from the living. It was believed to be located beneath the earth. The dead were thought to lead a conscious shadowy existence there. They were not in torment, but had neither hope nor satisfaction. People went sorrowfully to Sheol, therefore, it was viewed as a gloomy place. Both the good and the evil went there. It appears to have been thought to have many levels because the belly of Sheol is referred to. People, on occasion, were thought to be able to leave Sheol. Some Christians think Sheol, rather than hell, is what is referred in Apostle's Creed which states Christ, after his crucifixion, descended into hell. Jews believe that all deserving the eternal reward of heaven will rise up at once and enter heaven when the Messiah comes; therefore, Sheol is an intermediary resting place.
A Pew Forum on Religion survey found that while 87% of Americans believe in God and 74% believe n heaven, only 59% of believe in hell. Hell is one of those subjects that makes people uncomfortable. When hell is discussed by Christians, it’s usually tied to either condemning someone for their sins or used to scare people to living differently. We hear stories of hell being a place of fire, demons, and endless torment. Even preachers don’t like to preach about it. At one pastor’s Conference, preachers were asked who had preached about hell and not one raised their hand. Throughout history many authors have written about it -- Dante's Inferno, for example. Even Hollywood has made it the subject of many movies. Whatever the context, whatever the belief, hell is definitely taught in the Bible. The purpose of this message is not to judge or to frighten you but to inform you of the Bible’s teachings about hell.
There are two Greek words in the New Testament translated as hell. The first is Hades which occurs 10 times in the New Testament and literally means the place of departed souls. “Hades” was where the dead are separated from the living named after Hades, a pagan god who presided over the realm of the dead. The saying “Go to hell” referrs to Hades because pagans thought it to be an accessible passageway to the underworld. Hades is said to be a mighty city with 7 gates. In Biblical times, gates were not only defensive structures but signs of power of that city. The fact that it had 7 gates, 7 being a perfect number, also speaks to the power of Hades. When Jesus said, “…I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18b), he was standing at the base of a mountain near Caesarea Philippi where there was a cave with flowing water out of it. A pagan temple was built in front of this cave because it was believed to be the entrance to Hades. Acts 2:27, 31 teach us that both the righteous and the wicked go to Hades.
In our Scripture today, Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus is a poor man who suffers during his life. The rich man has lived a comfortable and self-centered life. Both die. The rich man goes to Hades and Lazarus goes to heaven. In Hades, the rich man lifts up his eyes to heaven and sees Lazarus. He cries out to Abraham and asks for mercy because he is in agony in the flames. Abraham says no. Then he asks if someone from the dead could go warn his brothers to avoid this terrible place. Again, the answer is no. Some say that this is a parable. However, if it is, it is unique because no other parable actually names a person. And parables are meant to teach a single lesson, so what could the lesson be other than to live as God commands and avoid Hades. Everything points that this isn’t a parable but is a real story about a real place.