Is It Real or Imaginary?
In scripture, there are many references to a place where those who die go. It is variously referred to as sheol, gehenna, the grave, the pit, hades, and hell. To gain a better understanding, we need to look at the various uses in both the OT and the NT, and examine the Jewish understanding and interpretation that definitely colored the Greek translations.
From the earliest times in Jewish writing, it was understood that when a person died, their body was not just buried, but their soul went somewhere. Depending on the writer, and the primary vehicle of the writing (prose, poetry, prophecy, etc.), different words were used to communicate this idea. A generalized summary would be to say that all of the words bring forth the idea of "the place of the departed."
The primary word associated in the OT is 'ge-hinnom', which means Valley of Hinnom. By the time of Jesus, ge-hinnom, or Gehenna, was a well-established place southwest of Jerusalem. Into this valley all of the trash and cast-offs of the inhabitants of Jerusalem went, and there it was burned. While this was an actual place, every instance of usage in the NT was made by Jesus, and it spoke more of a condition than an actual place. What condition? One that spoke of being in, or going to a place of fire, smoke, and torment.
The OT usage for ge-hinnom (2 Chron. 28:3, 33:6; and Jer. 7:31, 32:25) indicates that this place, once called Topheth, was where many pagan kings practiced human sacrifice. Topheth itself comes from the Aramaic, and means fireplace. One of the most hideous of the pagan practices was that carried out in the worship of Molech, in which people (mainly children) were caused to be "passed through the fire." (Lev. 18:21)
Where the word sheol (Heb root: to make hollow) is used in the OT, it primarily refers to the "comon receptacle" of the dead, which was taken to mean the grave. It also, though, is mentioned as a place (Gen.37:35, Num. 16:30, and more), where the general understanding is not just the grave, but also the underworld & the state of the dead. In Ezek. 31:15, 17 and again in Psalm 86:13 it is specified as being below the surface of the earth. The general tenor of this is to mean more than just 6 feet down.
This word is used only 10 times, all in the NT, and corresponds to the OT word sheol. Hades (or haides) is believed to have derived from the Greek terminology describing Aides, the Greek god of the underworld. It is with this word hades that we begin to see some development from the Jewish understanding. In other places, hades is also referred to as a place of outer darkness.
Hell is the word most used by all translators to describe the various usages of Sheol, Gehenna and Hades throughout both the OT and the NT, and as such it is the most descriptive general word that can be used to convey all of the meanings. Because of this, hell will also be used throughout the rest of this study as the main descriptor of the subject at hand.
From the earliest times, Jewish thought held that when a person died, their body would go in the ground, and decay, but their soul, which was considered immortal, would go somewhere else. Over the centuries, the sages (learned rabbi's) began detailing a fairly complex structure to hell, and described it as being in two main parts, both of which were located inside the earth. These two compartments became known as hell (the lowest place), and paradise (the upper compartment). They considered that those who were righteous went to paradise, while the unrighteous went to hell. In paradise, the residents were treated to good things, and could hold to the hope of an eventual escape from that place to finally be in the presence of God in heaven, while those sentenced to hell could never escape.
Note if you will, the exact correspondence of this thought to Jesus' description given in Luke 16:20 of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. When they died, Lazarus went to "Abraham's Bosom" (a Jewish euphemism for paradise), while the rich man went to hell. Notice also, that the statement is made that there is a "great gulf" separating the two, and one cannot pass from one place to the next. This description is further strengthened when Jesus told the thief on the cross that "this day you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
Now, let's establish a few main points to consider. First, that those who die remain "conscious." In Numbers 16:30. we see "But if the Lord brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol...", and in vs. 33; "So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol;..." In Matthew 8:12, we see that "the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." The same is repeated again in Matthew 13:41 and 13:50.
It is certainly hard to imagine that those who are dead and unconscious could be involved in weeping and gnashing of teeth, so the definite indication is that there is consciousness following death.
While there are many today who say that hell is either non-existent, or is only an allegorical expression of separation from God, there are many more who claim that hell does not consist of torment, fire, or punishment, and even if it did it would not last forever.
Let's look further at what God says.
Isaiah gave a good description of the fate of transgressors in Isa 66:24 "And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh."
In Mark 9: 44, 46, and again in 48, Jesus describes the fate of sinners and says "where their worm dieth not and the fire is never quenched." Please note that He says "their worm," which would indicate that each person do delivered into hell has a personal worm, and it cannot be eliminated. Note also, that the fire is never put out. All of this would certainly lead a person to reasonable believe that hell is a place of somewhat extensive torment.
I've heard it argued that there couldn't be any fire, because fire consumes whatever it is burning, and if a person were burned, there wouldn't be anything left except ashes, and therefore there cannot be an eternal fire. Might be true if it were a person's body being delivered into hell, but Jesus makes it clear, as does the rest of the Word, it is the SOUL that is delivered, the soul is conscious, and apparently quite capable of feeling pain and torment. Souls are not consumed, they are eternal.
Another often voiced objection to torment and pain is that if a person has no body, then there is nothing to hurt. Consider this...the mind is the seat of a human beings emotions, and feelings. God has "hard-wired" the human brain to respond to stimuli, and it does this when the brain interprets something through the senses. As far as the body is concerned, the body itself does not "feel" pain, it only registers an event that is transmitted via nerves to the brain, which interprets it and causes a reaction. It is a well established medical fact that many people who have lost fingers, toes, legs, arms or other major parts will still, many years later, feel "phantom pain" in the missing extremity. Sometimes, they can even feel the part "moving," even though it is long gone. Imagine then, if you will, a conscious soul who perceives (via the senses) that they are being burned....and the brain interprets it as such, thus causing severe "pain" and torment within the consciousness.
How about the eternity part? On the one hand, there are those who claim that the word translated eternity is aionios, which means "age." As such, it only refers a finite period of time, as in "age of the gentiles," or "to the end of this age." While it is true that aionios means an age, it also means (1) without beginning and end, (2) never to cease, and (3) everlasting. In almost all instances in which reference is made to "aionios," it has been translated, in context, as meaning eternal, eternity, forever and ever, never to end.
Finally, we need to carefully consider the simple fact that Jesus spoke more about hell than
about heaven. He warned the people about hell, and about what would send them there. He cautioned
them in the strongest terms that this was a place that they did NOT want to go to. Why would He
spend so much time and effort warning about hell if it did not exist, or if it did not last forever,
or if people were just unconcious after they died? If hell were temporary, then they would
eventually get out. If they were unconcious, they wouldn't ever know they had been there.
Jesus was not one to either waste time or words, or talk about non-existent things, which can
only lead to one conclusion. Hell is real, it is hot, and it is forever.....and those who do
not believe on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will go there.