Is Hell a Real Place/Condition?
There is a movement afoot in Christendom, referred to as Christian Universalism, which claims there is no hell— place of eternal torment—contending that it would be out of character for a loving God to condemn anyone to such a place or condition.
But what saith the Scripture?
No discussion of this topic can be made without beginning with the most famous of all scriptural passages on it; the story of the rich man and the poor beggar, Lazarus.
The Rich man and Lazarus
In the sixteenth chapter of Luke the Lord tells his disciples, and a group of Phariseeswho are present in the audience, the story of a certain rich man’s treatment of a beggar named Lazarus.
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
Controversy abounds in Christendom over the meaning of this story. Explanations run the gamut from a fundamentalist interpretation, viz., it’s literally true, and is meant to describe a literal hell and heaven, where the lost and the saved end up; to a universalist interpretation, which would say it is purely allegorical, not meant to be taken literally at all—a loving God would not send anyone to eternal torment—but rather meant to illustrate how we are to behave in this world toward those of a less fortunate position than our own, to love our neighbor as ourselves, etc.1
I believe the passage speaks to us from both a literal and a figurative perspective.
Since we don’t want to be guilty of formulating a “private interpretation”(2 Peter 1:20) of any part of scripture in our quest to discover its true meaning, to avoid this pitfall, let’s employ the Coverdale dictum of breaking it down into the “who, what, when, where and why:”
“It shall greatly help thee to understand Scripture, if thou mark, not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth after.”2
First, who is delivering this message, and to whom? The messenger is the Lord himself, as recorded by Luke, and he is speaking to his disciples, who represent the “new” Israel, “a nation 3 bringing forth the fruits thereof,” inheritors of the prophesied kindgom; and the Pharisees, who are representative of the Israel of “old,” from whom the kingdom will be taken. (Ref. the “parable of the householder,” Matt. 21:33-43)
Second, we must consider the context, or the what, when and where (“what goeth before, and what followeth after”) Obviously, this is delivered during the Lord’s three year ministry in Palestine, within the context of the prophesied kingdom4 promised to Israel and those Gentile “nations” that bless her, according to Genesis 12:3. Indeed, the Lord said he “came not but for the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:23) , who are referred to in Matthew 1:21 as “his people.”
.There is little disagreement among theologians and theologies over the context of this passage. It is the why (or “to what intent”) that the explanations start going all over the page.
Let us address this now.
As I said earlier, I believe there is both a literal and a figurative application of this passage.
The literal application. It is clear to me that the passage is an intentional and unequivocal presentation of hell as a real place/condition of unimaginable torment. Other statements by the Lord in the gospels support this position. For example, in Mark’s gospel:
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:
44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:
48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
This passage, too, is comprised of both literal and metaphorical language. From the description, the Lord is warning his audience that hell 5 is, indeed, a real place/condition. The figurative “worm” represents the human soul, viz, the seat of emotions, thoughts and feelings; the figurative “fire” representing human desire. We can definitely see a connection in this with what the rich man in hell asked Abraham to do for him; to merely provide him with just the most basic of human desires, a drop of water upon his parched tongue. But in hell this not possible, and unlike in this life, where this desire can be quenched in the last resort by death, in hell it is eternal. 6
Within the context of the gospels, which is new covenant Israel and the kingdom, the way of escape from this for the Jews is to repent and be baptized, and then “endure unto the end”(Matt. 3; 24:23; Mark 1; 13:13); for Gentiles it is to bless the seed, Israel. This is described in the famous “sheep and goats” judgment of Matthew 25:31-46. Those who do not bless (aid) Israel in their tribulation, as it says in verses 41 and 46, go into everlasting fire/punishment.
Finally, as in all the parables, there is a universal, spiritual principle taught in this parable that holds true throughout the scriptures:
“Faith come by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom 10:17)
When the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham responds:
“They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them….. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
They had the written word in their possession. If they don’t believe this, they aren’t going to be persuaded by anything else, not even the greatest of all the miracles, the resurrection.
The Lord commended only two people for their faith during his three year ministry, a Gentile woman and a Roman Centurion (Matt. 15:28; 8:10), neither of whom had witnessed any of his miracles, but had only heard about them. To those who required a sign (i.e., Israel-ref. 1 Cor. 1:22) to believe, he called them “a wicked and adulterous generation.”(Matt. 16:4)
Okay, all that was back then. But what about now?
Actually, everything described in the four gospels, concerning the institution of the prophesied kingdom, is in the future. As for the requirements of being “saved” and averting “hell” in the gospels, they do not now apply. First, there is no Israel to bless,7 and repenting, getting baptized and keeping the law (I.e., “enduring unto the end”), won’t save anyone, for
“…by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20)
While it is clear from the witness of numerous passages that keeping the law was a requirement of the kingdom gospel, it is just as plain that it isn’t a part of what is referred to as “the gospel of Christ.”(Romans 1:16) The only requirement under the gospel of Christ, that gospel Paul preached among the Gentiles, 8 is simple belief in the fact that;
“Christ died for our sins…was buried….and he rose again the third day…for our justification.” (! Cor. 15:3,4; Rom. 4:25)
This, however, did not do away with hell, as those of the universalist persuasion insist on claiming. This is made evident in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians:
2 Thess 1:7-9
“And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power”
The good news is, no one, not even the worst sinner on the planet, must end up in hell….not even one….because God would have “all men to be saved….” and provided a way for all men to be saved by making his Son, Jesus Christ, “to be sin for us, “who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
Christ paid our sin debt, and therefore God is able to offer us the free gift of salvation and eternal life. While loving our neighbor and having a forgiving spirit are principles that still stand and certainly should be aspired to, possessing forgiveness of our sins isn’t contingent upon us adhering to them. If it was, we’d all be doomed. All we must do is receive this gift. How do we receive it? By simply believing:
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved…..believing that he died for your sins, and was raised again for your justification” ((Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:3,4; Acts 16:31))
Feel free to redistribute this article as you see fit. All Scripture references are taken from the King James Bible.
universalists also make the claim that a loving God would not make those in heaven watch their unbelieving friends and relatives suffer torment in hell. This error comes from equating “paradise”, where Abraham and Lazarus were, with heaven. Paradise, a transliteration from the Greek, Paradisos, within this context, is not speaking of a celestial realm. This is a place of rest for the old testament saints awaiting the kingdom to come. ↩
The word “nation” here is translated from the Greek ethnos, which in many other passages is rendered “Gentiles.” This is not always the case, as Israel is also referred to as a “nation.” (ref. John 11:48; 18:35; Acts 10:22; 26:4; Gal. 1:14; 1 Peter 2:9) The context dictates how it is rendered, and in this context, it must be making reference to the nation Israel. ↩
The word kingdom appears 90 times in the four gospel accounts. ↩
from the Greek, geena, meaning a “place of everlasting punishment.” ↩
Other witnesses in the gospels to the reality of hell are: Matt. 5:22,29,30; 10:28;11:23; 16:18; 18:9; 23:15.33; Luke 10:15; 12:5; 16:23 ↩
For a discussion on why I believe this please read my articles “What Price Israel?” and “Christian Zionism” ↩
Gal. 2:2 ↩