What is Hell?

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 26/Proper 28
SCRIPTURE: Luke 21: 5-19 and Malachi 4: 1-2a
Surely, the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace.
Malachi 4:1a (NIV)


This morning, I am going to do something that I’ve never done before. I’m going to preach on the topic of hell. That’s right. In over thirty years of preaching I have never done that. So why do it now? Just to clear something up, it had nothing to do with Tuesday’s presidential election. I picked out this topic a few weeks ago. It actually has to do with some research that I’ve been doing for an upcoming Bible study. Yes, we are going to study the topic of hell over the next four session. One of the things that I came across quite often in my research is that I’m not the only one who has never preached on hell. It might be part of our Christian beliefs but no one ever really talks about it. Very few ever preach about it. In fact, for the most part, we tend to ignore it. Me too.

What I also learned in my research is that I didn’t know very much about it myself. Like most of you, I had some idea about it being not so nice place where the unrighteous are sent after judgement but beyond that, I was pretty clueless.

What I discovered was that the Bible full of references to hell. And those references are really very revealing. I also came to realize that maybe we all need to know a little more about it so that we can at least talk intelligently about it from a faith standpoint.

That’s what today’s message is all about. I can’t begin to talk about everything that there is to say about hell in the half hour or so that I have this morning but I hope that it will whet your appetite to discover more and, if it does, than I’d encourage you to come to my Bible study and get the rest of the information. I expect that you’ll be as fascinated as I have been.

In a nut shell, I will say that there are four major views on hell in the Christian Church. They are called the literal view, the metaphorical view, the purgatorial view and the conditional view. Each week, in Bible study, we will be looking at one of these, talking about what it says and how it fits in with the idea of God as a loving God. Then we’ll look at the pros and cons of each. In the end, you can choose which version of hell you think is more accurate.


So what is hell? The very first thing that I need to say is that hell is Christianity’s dirty little secret. We just don’t like to talk about it. It makes us uncomfortable. I know it made my grandmother uncomfortable. Like all of my grandparents, she was born in the nineteenth century, 1890 to be exact. Growing up in the Victorian era, she had a very clear and well defined standard of right and wrong that included things you could and could not say. And one of the words that was not acceptable was hell. Proper people just didn’t say that word, especially good Anglicans like Grandma.

I recall how one day – I would have been about ten years old – I asked Grandma why it was such a bad word. After all, it was in the Bible and, if it’s in the Bible, it must be okay. She didn’t quite see it that way. My grandmother was the oldest of ten children and tough as nails. She was also just a tad under five feet tall. She wasn’t very big but she was mighty. She told me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t care if it was in the Bible. I was not to use that word in her presence and if I did it again, I might never speak again. Okay, point made. Mind you, she never did tell me what was wrong with the word hell. Come to think of it, I’m not sure she even knew herself. All she knew was that it was wrong. But that’s often how we treat our dirty little secrets.

But why is it such a dirty little secret? And why are we uncomfortable with it? I think it’s because we don’t like the idea and we don’t like what it might mean. We read the passages in the Bible about hell and we are left with images of eternal flames and furnaces belching out sulphur and brimstone. It’s a place of torment and fear, where people suffer for eternity while they weep and gnash their teeth.

People think about those images and then they look at passages like John 3:16 and 1 John 4:7-8 which speak about the love of God. The obvious question is this: How can a God of love condemn people he created to suffer for eternity in hellfire and damnation? If that is God than God makes Hitler and Stalin look like third rate minor despots. And why would I want to have anything to do with God who would do that? Those are very good and reasonable questions. Those tough questions are one of the big reasons that we don’t want to talk about hell.

I mentioned earlier that there are four different views of hell. What each of those views does is try to answer this question from a biblical standpoint. How do you reconcile hell with a God of love? I really don’t have the time this morning to go over all of them. But we will deal with each of them in some depth in the Bible studies. What I do promise to do is talk about it at a later date and let you know which view I think is the most accurate way to reconcile hell with a loving God.

As Christians, we can’t just dismiss the notion of hell because we don’t like it or it makes us uncomfortable. As a people of the Bible, our understanding of hell must conform with the biblical witness. So what does the Bible say about hell?


The first thing it says it that hell is a real place. The Bible is pretty clear about that. Malachi 4:1a says, “Surely, the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace.” The day is coming. Be sure of it. Hell is real. That will come as a surprise to some people who have been taught that hell is a metaphor, that it is merely symbolic of the result of sin. But that’s not what the Bible says. There’s not even a hint of that anywhere in Scripture.

Some people will also say that hell is what we have made of the earth and of life. Hell is the sin that we live with in this life and that it will come to an end when Jesus returns. In other words, this is hell. We are living in hell right now. While there may be some truth that humans have made tons of mistakes but as bad as we have sometimes messed things up, this is not hell. That might be a cute teaching point, in fact a metaphor, but again it is not what the Bible says.

So what does the Bible say? Certainly Jesus believed hell ss a real place. In Matthew 13:41-42 (NIV) he says, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:49-50 says pretty much the same things. Those thoughts are echoed lots of other places in the New Testament as well. Clearly, Jesus believed in hell.

Still, people have trouble with the concept of hell. That’s why we are so hesitant to talk about it. But isn’t it weird that we not the least bit reticent talk about the other place that we call heaven. People don’t want to believe there is a hell and they don’t want to talk about it. But they’re quite willing to believe there is a heaven and they’re most willing to talk about that. Isn’t it true?

Think about heaven. Think about the pearly gates and the streets paved with gold. Consider the river of life and the tree of life that feeds the people all year and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Those are beautiful images, healing images. We want to believe in them. We want to believe in heaven. Does anyone think that heaven isn’t a real place? Does anyone think that heaven is a metaphor? I’m sure some people do, but not me. The same book that teaches about heaven also tells us that hell is real. And if I’m going to believe in one of them, then to be consistent I have to believe in the other.

Jesus was not the first to teach that hell was real. He was simply repeating what the Old Testament says. The concept of hell begins in the Old Testament, in the Jewish writings. There it is called sheol. The word sheol appears dozens of times in the Old Testament. Psalm 88:3 (NIV) says, “For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near to the grave.” The word “grave” is a translation of sheol. Job 17:13a,15a (NIV) says, “If the only home I have is the grave… where then is my hope?” Again, sheol means “grave.” Sheol can be found in Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, Isaiah and Ezekiel. It is where the dead go. It is the place of the dead. In the Old Testament, everyone goes there. Everyone, even the righteous. Psalm 16:10-11 says, “… because you have not abandoned me to the grave [sheol] nor will you let your holy one see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” So even the righteous go to sheol.

But we know from the Bible that, in the end, the righteous and the unrighteous will be separated. That there will be the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13, and the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. The two will be divided at the end of time, the unrighteous will be sent to hell while the righteous will enter the kingdom of God. How do we explain that? Actually, it’s explained quite easily. Sheol, the hell of the Old Testament is not a permanent hell. It is only temporary.

There’s a surprise. In fact, it surprised me too. But it makes a lot of sense. That’s because we also believe that the final judgement on all people will not happen until the resurrection of the dead at the end of time after the second coming. Until that time, God has to do something with the souls of the departed. That’s why they all go to sheol which becomes a sort of holding tank until the end. There’s a lot of speculation about sheol and how it is constructed. Maybe there are two sections, one for the righteous and the other for the unrighteous but we don’t know because the Bible doesn’t tell us. All we know is that all people will go there to await the final resurrection.


This idea is not only in the Old Testament. It is also in the New Testament. There are two words in the New Testament that are translated as hell. The first one is hades which is the better known of the two. Hades is much like sheol. It is sometimes translated as “grave”, sometimes “hell” and sometimes just left as hades. Like sheol, it refers to a temporary hell, an intermediate place where the souls of the dead go between death and the resurrection. This is seen in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You may recall that Lazarus was a poor beggar. Both men died and met in hades. We read what happened in Luke 16:23-24 (NIV) which says, “In hell [hades], where [the rich man] was tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by this side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” In these verses both the rich man and Lazarus have died and are in hell or hades. But the rich man is in agony while Lazarus is with Abraham which means that he is comfortable and cared for. But they are both there even though they are existing in very different conditions.

But again, this is a temporary place. It is the same place to which Jesus went between his death and resurrection. We read about that in 1 Peter 3:18-19 (NIV) where it says, “[Jesus] was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” This place was hades, the temporary hell. It is temporary because the resurrection and final judgement have not yet happened. They will come after the second coming.

What happens after that? When do we find out about the permanent hell? After all, if there is a temporary hell, it only stands to reason that there is a permanent one and this one is known by another word and that word is Gehenna.

Unlike sheol and hades, Gehenna gets its name from an actual place on earth. It is a valley just outside of Jerusalem. In fact, it is where King Solomon built an alter to the false God Molech and celebrated religious rituals there. From then on, it because known as a place of lost souls. When you think about lost souls, of course, you have to think about hell. That’s how the permanent hell got the name of Gehenna, because it is a place of lost souls.

Gehenna appears twelve times in the New Testament and it is always translated as hell. Jesus used it in Matthew 5:30 (NIV) when he said, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Hell here is Gehenna, the permanent hell.

Some of the most vivid references to this permanent hell, not surprisingly, are in Revelation. Before we look at those, I want to remind you that Jesus is coming again. Right now, he is with the Father in heaven but he will return one day to complete the work that he began during his earthly ministry. That event is pictured in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (NIV) which says, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” This tell us that Jesus will come again and when he does, the very first thing he will do is resurrect the righteous.

But then what happens? We learn about that in Revelation. Revelation 20:11-12 talks about the righteous who are standing before the throne of God. So they have already been resurrected at this point as we learned in 1 Thessalonians. But what about the unrighteous? That resurrection happens in Revelation 20:13-15 (NIV) which says, “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.”

This second death, this lake of fire is the permanent hell. It is the place where the unrighteous are sent after they are judged at the resurrection. When they go there, they go there permanently, forever. There is no turning back. There is not second chance. That’s it. That’s all.


But this also is where our struggle begins. How can a God of love condemn people to hell? That’s a good question that we need to be prepared to answer. But to answer that question we need to ask a few more. We need to ask questions like: What is hell really like? Is the fire and brimstone versions of hell that we read about in the Bible talking about what it is like or are they metaphors for what hell is like? And will anyone actually be there?

One of the problems with talking about hell is that no one has ever gone to hell and returned to tell us what it is like. That’s true of us. It also true of the people who wrote the Bible. So were they providing an actual description of hell or where they only describing the worst place they could think of with the understanding that they worst place they could think of might not be anywhere near as bad as hell? We don’t know. The literalists say that hell is just as it is described in the Bible. The trouble with that is that the Bible describes hell as both a place of fire and a place of darkness. But when you have fire, isn’t there usually some light associated with it. How can you have lightless fire? I don’t know?

Another question is this: Are people really going to suffer for eternity? Isn’t that a bit harsh? It does after all, seem more that a little severe. After all, people who reject Christ only do it for the seventy or so years of life. Why then, should they suffer forever. Some people believe that people do suffer forever and the only reason we think that is unfair is because we don’t really understand God’s sense of justice. But then there are the people who say that the lake of fire, the second death, is just that. It is an end. Those who are thrown into the lake of fire do not suffer forever. They simply cease to exist. They are annihilated, their souls and resurrected bodies consumed. Any suffering they may experience is only for the shortest of time and then they are no more.

The final question is the hardest of all: Will anyone actually be there? I think that Bible is pretty clear about that. And I think the answer is yes. As difficult as it is for us to consider this, I believe that the Bible says very clearly that some people will be cast into hell where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus said that wheat will be separated from the weeds and that the sheep will be separated from the goats. Revelation 20 tells us that some will stand before throne of God while others will be cast into the lake of fire.

But who will go where? Revelation 20:15 (NIV) says, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” The book of life contains the names of all those who put there faith and trust in Jesus however they may do that. We don’t know who they are. That’s up to God and it is not for us to judge. The only person you can be sure of is yourself so make sure that you know where you are going after the resurrection.

And so we are left with these question. How do we reconcile hell with a God of love? Is hell really all fire and brimstone or is that description just a metaphor for something else that we can’t really describe? Will people suffer for eternity or will they simply cease to exist? And finally, will anyone actually be there? These are the question that we will be dealing with during our Bible studies so if you want to learn more about hell, try to come. I do my studies on the first and third Monday’s of every month. Larry does his on the second and fourth and if there is a fifth Monday, unless otherwise specified, we take it off. So please consider coming. It should be quite interesting.


Heavenly Father, our hearts speak in grateful praise for all that you are and all that you have done. Your mercies are many and your blessing bountiful. We give thanks for your touch in all of life’s situations.

We thank you for those who continue to do good in the midst of a very individualistic and selfish world. We thank you for the simple kindnesses that are experienced each day. For friendly smiles and warm hugs. For common courtesy and respectful relationships. For those who hold doors open when our arms are full of parcels and assist us in getting on our coats. For those who give directions to the lost. For those who stop to help someone in need or offer support in difficult times. For all of these people and for many more, we give thanks.

We thank you for all of those who work so diligently around our Churches to make them good places to be. We thank you for those who are doing so much to make this week’s turkey supper in a success. We would just ask your assistance in providing good weather and patient nerves on the big day.

In the midst of our thanks, we lift up in prayer our American cousins who are going through so much turmoil after a difficult election. We pray for cooler heads and calmer hearts. We pray, O God, that your peace may reign the hearts of individuals and in the heart of the nation.

We remember and pray for the members of the Canadian Forces wherever they may be. Keep them safe as they do their jobs to the best of their ability. We also pray for the innocent civilians who are suffering because powerful people want more power.

We pray, also, for those who are sick this day. We lift up in prayer Helen Upcott, Millicent Wormald, Jacqui Sequin, Soham Lane, Don Raymont and Sharon Chalmers. Keep all those who are ill in your special care. Heal us and sanctify us from all our unrighteousness.

God of Grace and Glory, hear our prayers, remind us of our blessings and lift us up above our weariness. Shine you light upon us so that we may shine your love to others. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


November 14, 2010 / Pentecost 25


Isaiah 65: 17-25; Isaiah 12; Luke 21: 5-19; 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13


Praise our God, all you people of God!

God is our comfort and peace!

God is our Saviour!

Let us rejoice in God’s salvation!


We give thanks to you, O God, as we call upon your name. May all the nations of the world know of your greatness. We come to you with our songs of praise, grateful for what you have done. The news of your majesty is in our hearts and upon our lips. We come to you with shouts of praise. Your glory shines as you live amongst us. We welcome you as you have welcomed us. Amen.


We proclaim your greatness in public but sometimes we are fearful in our hearts. Worry weighs us down. We are buried by the burden of our anxiety. You have told us to trust and you have given us good reason to rely upon your word. But our faith is sometimes weak and our nerve is frayed. Lift us out of our fearful dark places and set our spirits high upon the steeple of your making.


“Fear not,” says God, “for I am with you always.” When we trust in God we will not be disappointed. When we confess our sins and repent of the evil that we do we are cleansed by the power of the Cross. Thanks be to God for this great and generous gift.


You call us, O God of Creation, to look toward a new heaven and a new earth. With these gifts, we not only look, we also act and trust that what we give will be used for the higher purpose of your Holy Realm. Amen.


We have come as individuals from our own places and duties. We go as one people: one in the Spirit, one in faith, one in the hope that Jesus offers. May God’s peace be upon us always.

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