Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from a Jacobite and Orthodox Perspective

Malankara World Journal
Penta Centum Souvenir Edition
Volume 8 No. 500 October 14, 2018


Chapter - 8: Hell

What Is Hell?

Hell is primarily eternal separation from God. It is absolute emptiness and isolation beyond anything we can fathom. ...

The Hell of It. A Short Teaching on Hell by Msgr. Charles Pope

The heart of Hell is to lack God, to lack the one thing necessary. God is the sine qua non, the absolute requirement for every other joy or pleasure to make any sense or be operative. ...

The Strangest Part of the Creed: He Descended into Hell by Dr. Ray Pritchard

The death of Christ brought startling changes in the spirit world, most of which remain hidden to us. ...

How to Reconcile the Reality of Hell and the Grace of God by Bryan Chapell

Jesus' greatest expressions of mercy and grace were poured out on those who believed they had no hope of heaven due to their background, failings, and sin. Their despair of God's care in this life, and of his provision of spiritual security for the next life, made Christ's grace welcome and powerful. ...

The Early Church Fathers on Hell

Scriptural Basis of Hell

8. Chapter - 8: Hell

What Is Hell?

by Tim Staples

What is Hell? Is it really "eternal?"

By definition, according to CCC 1033, hell is “[the] state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” Some people cannot fathom how Hell could be a reality if God is truly an “all-loving” and “merciful God.” Yet, Hell could be said to be both the definitive expression of God’s justice and of the lofty calling and dignity of man. What do I mean by this?

Let’s look at the latter statement first.

In his infinite wisdom, God deigned to create man with the immeasurable dignity of a free, rational, spiritual, and therefore, immortal soul. He did not create us as robots that can only "choose" the good. Man has been gifted with the incredible gift of being free to either accept or reject God and God’s plan for him.

The ultimate reason for this is love. CCC 1861 says it well: "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself." Without freedom there is no real love as we understand it. The Catechism goes on:

[Mortal sin] results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.

God has given to man his entire lifetime on earth to make that irrevocable decision of which the Catechism speaks. Thus, the “time” for choosing is now in this life, but the choice we make will have eternal consequences. Indeed, not only is this the “time” for choosing, but this is the only “time” there will be “time” at all. “Time” will be no more after we die, at least, not as we understand it. There will be some sense of sequentiality, some sort of “time,” if you will, but very different from "time" as we understand it now. Our “eternity” is thus sealed at the time of our death! But think about this: our choices affect not only us, but others as well and quite possibly for all eternity! Consider these two texts: one from the Old Testament, and one from the New Testament:

If I say to the wicked, "You shall surely die," and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life (Ez. 3:18-19).

In I Tim. 4:16, St. Paul says to Timothy:

Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Ezekiel seems to indicate that if we choose not to evangelize someone God places in our life, it may well be that this will have been the last opportunity that person will ever have to choose God! This is daunting in one sense to be sure, but it also speaks of an incredibly lofty calling we all have as God's faithful on earth. Some people, Calvinists in particular, simply cannot believe God would give to man this kind of responsibility. Yet, according to Scripture, this is the dignity and calling of man.

Now, I should also note that it may well be, and I would think it would most often be the case, that if we choose not to evangelize someone, he will be given any number of other opportunities to come to God, but both Ezekiel and St. Paul remind us of another reason why we need to evangelize: we save our own souls as well. "Educating the ignorant," and "admonishing the sinner" are corporal works of mercy by which we will be judged on the Last Day.It is precisely because of this spiritual and free component in man that he has the ability to ascend the heights of a Mother Theresa or to descend to the depths of an Adolf Hitler. German shepherds have neither ability.

God considered this gift of freedom, and the ultimate fruit of that freedom--eternal life--as being worth all the evils that would eventually be brought about by the abuse of that freedom. As St. Paul said it, "... the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" in full at the end of time (Romans 8:18).

To chase a rabbit here for a moment: when considering the massive amount of evil that exists in the world we should also remember that God only even permits this inasmuch as he knows that he will bring ultimate good out of that evil. The crucifix is the ultimate example of this. The greatest evil ever perpetrated in the history of creation—the crucifix where we killed God—results in the greatest good… the redemption of the world by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Answering Objections and Questions

1. The Bible Does Not Teach "Hell" - At Least, Not as an Eternal Hell

The truth is: Most of what we know of Hell and its eternity comes from the very lips of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And he uses terms that are unequivocal. Pope St. John Paul II, in his book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” pg. 185, says it succinctly:

… the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s gospel [Christ] speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:46).

The CCC 1035 concurs:

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of Hell and its eternity.

Most importantly, Scripture itself could hardly be clearer:

In Revelation 20:10, St. John describes Hell ("the lake of fire," more specifically) in relation to the Devil and the False Prophet of the end times in terms difficult to misunderstand:

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Then, in Revelation 20:14-15, St. John again mentions this same "lake of fire" and explicitly and specifically declares that humans will go to the same place—and that means "for ever and ever."

This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 says it as well and includes all those who die in mortal sin:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

In Matthew 25:41 and 46, Jesus says just as heaven represents eternal life, Hell represents eternal punishment:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, in to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…
And they [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 13:41-42, 47-50:

The son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep aand gnash their teeth...

So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

2. Church "Dogma" Misuses Biblical Terms for "Hell"

The truth is, the word Hell, or I should say the “words” translated as “Hell” [Hebrew-sheol, Greek-Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna-which is a Greek word of Hebrew origin], have various meanings and usages in the different books of the Bible and extra-biblical sources, yet this does not justify a failure to use the term "Hell" as understood in Catholic dogmatic teaching, in certain contexts, for these terms. In fact, "Gehenna" is always used for the "Hell" of "Catholic dogma." in Scripture. Let me explain what I mean:

Sheol generally represents “the place of the dead” in the Old Testament. Both the righteous and the unrighteous go there. In ancient Hebrew thought, this “place of the dead” was divided into two sections: A place of suffering and a holding place for the righteous. We find this idea in the teaching of Jesus in Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus speaks of a wicked rich man and a righteous poor man named Lazarus who had been a poor beggar. The wicked man who had “everything in life” goes to the place of torment, Hades, which is the closest thing to a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew "sheol," while the poor man, Lazarus, goes to paradise. They are both in the same "place of the dead," but separated by a “great chasm” as verse 26 calls it. The place of the righteous is called “the bosom of Abraham,” while the place of torment is called “Hades.”

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom (verses 22-23).

“Hades,” though here used for Hell, can, again, be used as “the place of the dead” as is “Sheol” in Hebrew. We see this in texts like Acts 2:27, 31 and Rev. 20:13-14. But the point is, it is, at times, used for the place of eternal torment we call "Hell."

Gehenna is a different story. As I mentioned above, it is always used for eternal “Hell” as we see, for example, in Mark 9:43:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna: into the unquenchable fire.

Of the 12 times "gehenna" is used in the New Testament, 11 of the 12 come from our Lord and unequivocally refer to Hell (see Matt. 5:22; Matt. 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 33; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 12:5, etc.). James 3:6 is the only other place we find "gehenna" used and it clearly refers to "the fire of gehenna" in referring to the danger of an unruly tongue.

Perhaps more importantly, what we find in the New Testament are multiple terms and multiple ways in which the inspired text teaches about Hell. We find phrases like “the lake of fire” (you find this used in Revelation 19:20; 20:10), or “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42) used to represent Hell. So it's really not about misusing particular terms; the truth is, the biblical text is remarkably clear when it comes to the reality of an eternal Hell.

Perhaps the plainest text of all concerning Hell’s reality and eternity is found in Revelation 14:10-11. This text uses none of the above-mentioned terms; rather, it describes Hell in such stark terms that there is no way of parsing words and claiming a different usage for "hades" or "gehenna." This is not a matter of semantics:

If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image and whoever receives the mark of the beast.

These words speak for themselves!

"Tartarus" is yet another term used in Scripture for the "Hell." In II Peter 2:4, we find:

For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Gr.-tartarosas) and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment.

3. Are the "Flames" of Hell Literal?

It should be understood that both the joy of heaven and the pains of Hell are indescribable this side of eternity. And just as the Church warns against seeing heaven as a “worldly” sort of extension of life on this earth, so it is with Hell. The inspired authors cannot describe Hell adequately using human language; thus, the “flames of fire” are simply the most painful things we can imagine on this earth used to attempt to describe the indescribable to some degree.

So, are the “flames of fire” of Hell literal? No, they are not. In fact, it should be obvious that they are not literal right now because the souls in Hell do not presently have bodies. You can't "light up" a soul with a match.

If this is true, then, what is the nature of "the pains of Hell?"

CCC 1472 answers this question succinctly:

These two punishments [the Catechism is here speaking of both Purgatory and Hell] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.

Again, the Catechism emphasizes the fact that Hell is primarily eternal separation from God. As CCC 1033 says, “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” It is absolute emptiness and isolation beyond anything we can fathom. The "pains" that are quite real and quite literal "follow from the very nature of sin," or, they arise from the inside out, not from the outside in.

What is mortal sin but the rejection of the love of God and neighbor? It is ultimate selfishness. Ultimatelty, the damned will simply get what they wanted—themselves for all eternity!

It is said that a man will go insane if he is kept in isolation for too long because human beings are so ordered toward communion with God and others. Hell will be that isolation that would lead anyone to insanity, but the condemned will never be able to lose their faculties. They will be fully cognizant of the pain of their isolation.

Some may ask as a follow-up, "What about, for example, the private revelation of St. Faustina that speaks of 'the company of the devil' as being part of the pains of Hell? How does that square with this 'isolation' that we are talking about?"

Answer: the “isolation” we are talking about here does not mean necessarily that there will be no other persons present. Think of it this way. Have you ever seen a person who is “all alone” in the middle of a party with people all around? For example, a person who is angry or having a “pity party” and wants nothing to do with anyone? In fact, the presence of people having fun can be an occasion for increased rage for someone like that!

That is an imperfect glimpse of Hell.

4. Is Hell a "Place" or a "State of Being?"

Hell is primarily a state of being, but inasmuch as the souls there will have bodies after the resurrection of the dead, they will have location as well. So, in that sense, we can say Hell is a "place." In fact, we could say the same of heaven. But both heaven and hell are not "places" in the sense that the people there could "leave" and "return." Inasmuch as these are states of being, "heaven" and "hell" are present wherever the saints and damned are.

5. How could it be possible that the just in heaven will be able to rejoice for all eternity in God, when they know that loved ones, for example, are in Hell for all eternity?

In other words, it has been asked of me, how could the angels and saints rejoice in heaven, for example, in Rev. 21, knowing the damned are suffering terribly as we see in Rev. 20? Or even more, we see in Rev. 14:11, the damned, “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb.”


Perhaps an analogy would work best in explaining this: Imagine you are in a court room and a man whom you know is guilty of murder is standing before the Judge and jurors where his fate is about to be determined. The foreman of the jury stands up and says, “Your honor, we find Tom Smith (insert your own name here) "not guilty” of all charges.

Your immediate reaction would most likely be to say, “That’s unjust!” At least, it should be. This would be an injustice because this man was, in fact, guilty! You should feel outraged at an injustice like this. Yet, on the flip side, if that same juror were to say, “We find Tom Smith guilty,” there would be a sense in which you could rejoice in this that is just. We should not rejoice in the suffering that awaits this man. We should not allow ourselves to fall into a sense of vengeance for vengeance’s sake, but we can, and indeed we should, rejoice in the good that is justice. You could say in a joyful way, “Justice was served today! And that is a good thing!”

On Judgment Day, all will know that every person will have been judged rightly and we will be able to see this with “God’s eyes,” so to speak. The blessed will be able to rejoice in God’s justice and mercy. In fact, only heaven will reveal in full the reality that that Justice and Mercy are actually absolutely one in our infinitely just and infinitely merciful God!

Source: Catholic Answers

The Hell of It. A Short Teaching on Hell

by Msgr. Charles Pope

I have written here before on the reality of Hell, as revealed in Scripture. And though many dismiss Hell as either non-existent or a very remote possibility, no Biblical figure spoke more of Hell than Jesus, who also taught that "many" go there. It is a sober and straight-forward teaching of Scripture that there is a Hell and that many mysteriously choose to live apart from God and the values of God's Kingdom.

Yet, while fully asserting all this, I do wonder why the teaching on Hell is so unambiguously "hellish" and why the focus of the Lord's teaching is almost entirely on physical torments. There is very little subtlety in what the Lord teaches. Hell is described as a fiery furnace (e.g. Matt 13:42), an outer darkness (e.g. Mt 8:12), where there is wailing and grinding of teeth (e.g. Mt 13:42), where the worm dies not, and the fire is never quenched (e.g. Mark 9:48; Matt 25:41, inter al).

Let me be clear, the Lord is the Master teacher, and for reasons of his own he seems to have decided that speaking of Hell in more subtle terms was unnecessary. Yet we live in times when even many believers, consider the teaching on Hell as set forth in the scriptures to be cartoonishly excessive and hardly worthy of a God who is Love.

Thus many of us, pastors and teachers, who seek to reestablish the teaching on hell as both reasonable and necessary (in light of human freedom and our capacity to choose for or against God and his Kingdom values), also look for other ways to teach on Hell. We use these methods out of no disrespect for Scripture and our Master teacher Jesus. But these are "dainty" times and even many believers are easily offended and lack the spiritual strength and courage necessary to hear Jesus' undiluted words and accept their straight-forward admonition. Both believers and unbelievers, just get stuck on the images and miss the teaching.

To my mind, no modern metaphor for Hell is better than the "Golf story" told by the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. It is remarkable for its subtle yet clear teaching that the heart of Hell is ultimately to be lacking in the "one thing necessary." It is from his book, Three to Get Married. Sheen repeats the following joke in his Book:

There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said: "What a course! Give me the ball." The Devil answered: "Sorry….we have no golf balls. That's the hell of it!" (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57).

Wow! Ouch! That IS the hell of it! To have all that, and lack the one thing necessary! Nothing else really works, or matters much, without the one thing necessary. In the joke, everything is in place and wonderfully set forth on the golf course, except the one thing necessary, the ball! The golf course becomes a golf curse.

In my last parish I lived in a rectory with a long hall. I used to putt a golf ball up and down the hall. I had an executive putt-putt set with obstacles, and golf goals with automatic returns, etc. But in the end, all I really needed was a ball to have fun. I didn't even need a club, I could use a long umbrella if I had to, or even just kick the ball. My cat would also love to chase the ball up the hall and pounce. But all the other gizmos and gadgets I had meant nothing without the ball, they were useless. Without the ball even the cat wouldn't show up.

The heart of Heaven is to be with God. Scripture says, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

The heart of Hell is to lack God, to lack the one thing necessary. God is the sine qua non, the absolute requirement for every other joy or pleasure to make any sense or be operative. The heart of Hell is to have rejected God permanently, and to discover that the absolute and final rejection of Him is to experience the withdrawal of every other pleasure. Only in God will my soul be at rest! (Ps 62:5)

In fact, like the golf course in Hell, those pleasures look at the denizens of Hell and mock them, make the suffering more intense. Because, though the pleasures are near at hand, they may as well be ten thousand miles away. They are useless and their nearness only intensifies the pain and the frustration. This is possibly worse than any hell-fire and may well explain the wailing and grinding of teeth by the hell-bound described in Scripture.

In life, don't miss the one thing necessary, which is not a thing at all, but is God himself. The Father, in the prodigal son parable came out and begged his second son to enter the feast and celebrate with him. The Heavenly Father does the same now….What is your answer?

Source: Archdiocese of Washington

The Strangest Part of the Creed: He Descended into Hell

by Dr. Ray Pritchard

Scripture: I Peter 3:18-19

What happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection? We know his body was buried, but what about his spirit? Where was he and what was he doing between his death at 3:00 p.m. on Friday and his resurrection sometime before sunrise on Sunday morning? Christians have wondered about these things for 2,000 years. The questions are partly biblical, partly theological, and partly personal. Since death is a mystery to all of us, we naturally want to know what happened to Jesus while he was in the tomb. The short answer is, we don't know for sure. As we will see in this sermon, the Bible offers some hints that help us, it gives us some clues that point us in certain directions, but it's impossible to be dogmatic. Or perhaps I should say, it's possible to be dogmatic in several different directions.

So we begin with the answer offered by the Apostles' Creed: Jesus "descended into hell." The very moment we say those words, a host of questions arise: In what sense did Jesus "descend" into hell? When did this happen? And what "hell" did he descend into? Then there are other, larger questions: What does the phrase mean? Why is it in the Creed? Is it biblical? Do we believe it? If we don't believe, why do we say it? On that last point, we can observe that not every version of the Apostles' Creed includes this phrase. Even among the churches that say the Creed every Sunday, you will find some churches that include the phrase and others that don't. Mark Todd told me that he never knew about theological controversy until he learned about the Apostles' Creed as a child. Growing up in the home of a Presbyterian pastor, he heard the Creed every Sunday, and it always included "he descended into hell." But at one point his church had an associate pastor who didn't believe in this particular phrase. So whenever that associate pastor led the worship service, he would say, "Let's stand and recite the Creed. Today we will not descend into hell."

So the phrase itself provokes controversy. Here are two other facts to consider.

1) The Bible nowhere explicitly says that Jesus descended into hell. That is, the phrase itself isn't biblical. That doesn't mean it's not true or that we shouldn't say it, but it does mean we can't find a verse that says, "Jesus descended into hell."

2) The earliest versions of the Apostles' Creed did not include this phrase. If you go back to AD 150-200, you can find early versions of the Creed, but they omit this phrase. It doesn't appear for approximately 250-300 years. Then it became a standard part of the Creed. And it appears in most standard versions today. But the debate over its meaning and biblical foundation continues. Scholars have argued about this phrase for 2,000 years—and they continue to argue about it today.

So where does that leave us? Later in the sermon, I'm going to explain why I believe the phrase is both biblical and spiritually helpful. For the moment, let's notice how the Creed uses a certain verb form to describe Jesus Christ. Most of the phrases are in the passive voice:

"He was conceived …
was born …
was crucified …
was buried."

These verbs describe things that happened to Christ or things that were done to him by others. But when the Creed comes to this phrase, it switches to the active voice:

"He descended into hell."

Whatever else that means, the Creed tells us that Jesus did this of his own initiative. He who was the highest of the high, left heaven, came to earth, and in his death and burial, descended to the lowest depths of the universe. By using the active voice, the writers of the Creed make a strong statement about what Jesus did. Whatever the phrase "He descended into hell" means, it didn't happen by accident, but by our Lord's divine design. Wherever he went and whatever he did there, he went there and he did it on purpose.

In order to give us a biblical focus, let's look briefly at three relevant passages of Scripture.

1) Psalm 139:7-8

"Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there."

The phrase "in the depths" translates the Hebrew word sheol, which the King James Version translates with the word "hell," e.g. "If I make my bed in hell, you are there." The early verses of Psalm 139 assure us of God's omnipresence—wherever we go, he is already there, and there is no part of the universe—no matter how low or how dark or how distant it may be—where he is not already and always present.

2) Colossians 2:15

"And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross."

The phrase "powers and authorities" refers to the spiritual forces of wickedness, not to human rulers. By his bloody death on the cross, Christ triumphed over Satan and his demons in all their various ranks and titles. The cross was a decisive victory for the Son of God. He won the battle so convincingly that the outcome of the war can no longer be in doubt. To "disarm" someone means to take his weapons away. If a man has a gun pointed at you, he's not disarmed until you take the gun away from him. As long as he has the gun (and sufficient ammunition), you're in big trouble. When Jesus died on the cross, he took the guns and the ammo out of the hands of the demons. And he publicly humiliated them. Picture the Roman legions returning from a successful war. As they enter the city, vast throngs of women and children line the streets. On and on they march, a seemingly endless parade. Then come the victorious generals, each one accompanied by singers, dancers, and musicians. Finally at the end of the procession you spot a long line of weary, dirty, emaciated men. Their hands are tied, they shuffle one after another. They are the defeated soldiers, now brought back to be displayed as proof of Rome's invincible power.

When Jesus died, something stupendous happened in the spiritual realm. Although it was invisible to the naked eye, it was seen by all the angels and the Old Testament saints. They watched as Jesus, like some conquering Old West hero, entered the infernal regions and disarmed the "bad guys" one by one. Then he marched them in full view of his Heavenly Father so that every created being would know that he had won the victory.

3) I Peter 3:18-19

"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison."

One of my Greek professors at Dallas Seminary called this passage (I Peter 3:18-22) the most difficult in the New Testament. It is hard to translate and difficult to understand. Perhaps I should say it this way: It's not difficult to translate the words per se, but it is extraordinarily difficult to understand what they mean. What exactly was Peter trying to say? One evangelical commentator noted that there are nine Greek words in verse 19—and scholars disagree about the meaning of all of them! After studying the passage again this week, I came away impressed and overwhelmed by the bewildering variety of interpretations. It's fair to say that no one is certain about what Peter means—even though some people think they know for certain. The rest of us aren't so sure. Verse 18 is clear as it stands. It's a simple statement of substitutionary atonement: Christ died on our behalf to bring us to God. If Peter had stopped right there, we wouldn't have any problems. But he continued in verse 19 by talking about Jesus being dead in the flesh and made alive by the Spirit. The NIV capitalizes the word "Spirit" so we will know Peter means the Holy Spirit. But many commentators (I lean in this direction) prefer to use a lower-case "s" and to translate it as "spirit," meaning Christ's human spirit. Then Peter says Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison. After canvassing the various options, I think he means that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirit beings—demons who rebelled against God. Underline or circle the phrase "I think" because I'm expressing an opinion, not a certainty. And I'm not even going to go into the part about Noah, the ark and baptism. That can wait for another sermon.

Totally Dead

But there's one more thing we need to do before we can begin to draw some conclusions. Here are three Bible words that will help us think about the phrase "he descended into hell." First, there is the Hebrew word sheol. A very common word in the Old Testament, it refers to the shadowy realm of the dead. Sheol is where dead people go when they die. Sometimes it is translated as "grave." Second, there is the Greek word hades, which to us means "hell" but in the New Testament, it is the equivalent of the Hebrew sheol. Third, there is the Greek word gehenna, which always refers to the place we call "hell," the place of fire and brimstone. It is the place of eternal torment. The word gehenna comes from the enormous trash dump in the Hinnom Valley outside Jerusalem. Smoke and fire ascended from the dump day and night. It became a symbol for hell—the place of eternal suffering.

How does this apply to the Apostles' Creed? When we hear that Jesus "descended into hell," we automatically think of the word gehenna—the place of fire and smoke and suffering. But that's almost certainly not what the writers of the Creed meant. They were not trying to say that Jesus entered the burning flames of hell. When the Creed uses the word "hell," the real meaning is closer to sheol or hades. The Creed is telling us that when Jesus died, he fully entered the realm of the dead. He was truly and utterly and completely dead from a human point of view. You may recall that scene from the movie Princess Bride where the handsome hero has apparently died. But then he is taken to Mad Max, a local magician who assures his friends that the hero is not really dead. He's only "mostly dead." That was good news for the hero because there is a huge difference between "mostly dead" and "totally dead." But when Jesus died, he was totally dead. What happens to us when we enter the realm of death happened to him when he died. He was not spared the pains of death in any way. That's the main point the Creed is making.

With all of that as background, let's consider what this strange phrase can't mean, what it might mean, and what it must mean.

I. What it can't mean

No matter what else we say about the phrase, "He descended into hell," there are three things it cannot mean.

First, it can't mean that Jesus offered salvation to those who were already dead. Nothing in the Bible supports such a notion. There is no such thing as post-mortem salvation. Now is the day of salvation—II Corinthians 6:1-2. Today is the day when we must trust Christ as Savior. "Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). The only chance we have to accept Christ comes when we are alive. Once we die, we must stand before God in judgment. Once a person goes to hell, he stays there forever. There is no mission work in hell.

Second, this phrase cannot mean that Jesus burned in the flames of hell. The very idea is revolting and without biblical foundation. Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins when he died on the cross, not after his body was buried.

Third, whatever else this phrase might mean, it can't mean that Jesus did anything between his death and resurrection that added to his work on the cross. When Jesus said, "It is finished" (John 19:30), he meant the work of salvation had been completely accomplished. The price for sin had been paid in full. Nothing else could ever be added to the value of what he did on the cross.

II. What it might mean

In the Middle Ages various writers developed an elaborate doctrine called "the harrowing of hell." Many people believed that between his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ went to the regions of darkness and proclaimed his victory over the devil and the demons. This belief spawned some very creative painting by medieval and Renaissance artists. I found a reproduction on the Internet of one painting that shows a victorious Christ standing over the mouth of an enormous serpent. He is rescuing various Old Testament saints from the "mouth of the serpent." The value of this doctrine is that it answers the question, "What happened to the Old Testament saints when they died?" While we know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), it seems that Old Testament believers did not always have that same assurance. Some suggest that Christ liberated the righteous souls who were in the "paradise" part of Hades and thus "led captivity captive" (see Ephesians 4:8-10, KJV). The Scofield Reference Bible made this view popular a generation ago. The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 seems to lend support for that view. Richard Phillips adds this comment: "This whole scene takes place in hell, that is, in Hades. On one side of hell, as it were, is paradise, where Abraham and Lazarus are. On the other side, beyond a great chasm, hell is really hell, and that is where the once greedy rich man now is. This also seems to agree with what Jesus said to the thief on the nearby cross who believed in Him: ‘Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise"' (Luke 23:43). Presumably, then, Jesus went to hell, proclaiming his victory to those given over for damnation, while actually staying in the paradise precincts."

If you ask me if this is true, I will have to say that I don't know. I think it's a plausible inference from various Bible passages, but we can't be certain. But there is another way to look at all of this. Perhaps our problem stems from having a myopic view of the death of Christ. We tend to focus on ourselves and what the cross means to us. But there are many passages that suggest that the cross of Christ changed everything in the universe—it had a cosmic impact that touched everything from the highest heights to the lowest depths. As Colossians 2:15 makes clear, the cross of Christ changed everything for Satan and his demons. Do not miss the larger point: The death of Christ brought startling changes in the spirit world, most of which remain hidden to us. I think the Bible gives us hints and glimmers of the truth, just enough to let us know that something monumental happened "behind the scenes" as a result of Christ's death.

The death of Christ brought startling changes in the spirit world, most of which remain hidden to us.

III. What it must mean

A. Christ fully experienced death

This is the primary meaning of "he descended into hell." In his death he entered into the human experience of dying as much as any person who has ever lived. He knows what death is all about because he has been there, he entered the "House of Death" and he came out holding the keys in his hand (Revelation 1:18). A few days ago I found this wonderful statement by Dr. W. A. Criswell from a sermon he preached on Revelation 1:18:

When they nailed his feet to the tree, and when they nailed his hands to the wood, and when he entered into the dark gloom of the grave, there did he trample down forever the kingdom of death. And when he arose triumphant from it, he carried death as a captive chained to his chariot wheels.

I like that picture—death chained to the chariot wheels of Jesus. Our Lord could not have conquered death unless he fully entered into every dark part of the kingdom of death. Only then could he emerge victorious with the "keys" in his hand.

B. Christ fully defeated the devil

Here are five ways the devil was defeated by the cross of Christ:

1. His head was crushed—Genesis 3:15
2. His works were destroyed—I John 3:8
3. His power was broken—Hebrews 2:15
4. His demons were disarmed—Colossians 2:15
5. His doom was guaranteed—John 16:11

All this happened at the cross when God struck the mighty blow that left Satan defeated, disarmed and disgraced. That's why we like to say, "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming!" I love the story of Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher of the late 1800s, who awoke one night because he felt his bed shaking. Thinking it was caused by a thunderstorm, he looked outside but saw no clouds in the sky. "I woke up and looked, and there was Satan standing at the foot of my bed. Satan himself was shaking my bed. I looked at him and said, ‘Oh, it's only you,' and rolled over and went back to sleep."

What should this truth mean to us?

1) We need not fear death.

Death is like a dark room that frightens us because we don't know what's in there. The Creed tells us that Jesus has gone into every dark room before us. The light may not be on, but Jesus is there saying, "Come on in, I am here and it is safe." An old hymn by Richard Baxter reminds us that

Christ leads us through no darker room
Than he went through before.
He that unto God's kingdom comes,
Must enter by this door.

We all die sooner or later, but Christ has transformed death for the believer. He has taken the sting out of death so that while we die, we do not cease living. We stop living on this earth and immediately begin to live in the presence of our Lord in heaven.

2) The work of salvation is absolutely complete.

Because Christ died for us and took our punishment, we cannot go to hell. Let me say that in a stronger way. It is utterly impossible for a true child of God to go to hell. It cannot happen, it will not happen. Our Lord descended into hell so that we might never go there. He took the curse for us so that the curse could never fall on us. "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).

3) The devil is now a toothless tiger.

Though he has great power and roams the earth like a roaring lion, and though he makes great pretensions and may at times fill us with dread, his power has been broken once and for all. Hear the words of Martin Luther: "Through Christ hell has been torn to pieces and the devil's kingdom and power utterly destroyed … so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us." All the enemies of Christ have been defeated. They remain on the battlefield, but the end has already been written. We know how the story ends. Jesus wins—and we win with him. The devil cannot defeat us because we are united with the Ultimate Champion—the Lord Jesus Christ.

So we will let Martin Luther have the final word on this subject:

And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.

What is that "one little word" that brings the devil down? It is the name Jesus. He fought the fight, he stood his ground, on the cross he utterly defeated Satan, and he proved it by rising from the dead.

There is great hope for all those who struggle against sin. On Easter Sunday morning the word came down from heaven to the devil and all his demons: Turn out the lights, the party's over. Do you feel defeated? Stand and fight. Do you feel discouraged? Stand and fight. Have you been tempted to give in? Stand and fight. Are you wavering between right and wrong? Stand and fight. Remember this. The Captain of our Salvation has already won the battle. Satan can harass you but he cannot destroy you. Lo! His doom is sure; one little word shall fell him. Amen.

© Keep Believing Ministries

How to Reconcile the Reality of Hell and the Grace of God

by Bryan Chapell

Threatened unto Salvation?

If it is impossible to express healthy love for someone who threatens, "Love me or I will do you harm," then what's the reason for hell? Doesn't God threaten us with hell so that we will turn to him for our salvation from it? These are great, though hard, questions we must answer.

Why You Can't Scare People into Heaven

Jesus taught that whoever is forgiven much, loves much; and whoever is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47). Love of God - his greatest and foundational commandment - requires that we understand he has forgiven us much. Our love necessitates treasuring his grace, not simply avoiding his wrath. So it remains true that threatening to harm people if they don't love you cannot generate biblical love. Such threats can generate a parody of the obedience God requires, but they cannot generate the love he requires.

This means we can't scare people into heaven. Our union with Christ is not simply a self-serving choice to walk streets of gold rather than be cast into a lake of fire. There is a love of heaven and a fear of hell that are straight from Satan if they are only about self-serving interests. In order for us to experience the joys heaven intends for the relationship Christ has secured for us, we must love him. The love that pleases God and satisfies us is not and cannot entirely be a product of trying to keep an ogre in the sky off our backs.

Justice and Mercy Required

In order for hell to motivate biblical obedience and love, it must represent more than the pique of a frowning deity who has been crossed. To motivate genuine holiness, hell must first be perceived as the just destiny of those who have broken the righteous standards of God. Those standards must also be seen as rooted in the holiness of God, and their transgression as deserving an eternal penalty. When all this is understood, then themercy of God that saves us from the just penalty of hell, more than hell itself, is what generates love for him. Knowledge that we are forgiven much causes us to love much - heaven's basic requirement (Matt. 22:37–38).

Rescue from Life Desired

But here's the problem: this very mature understanding of the righteousness, justice, and mercy of God is not where most people begin their Christian walk. Most people turn to Christ because they have despaired of this life, not because they are dodging a hellish afterlife. If escaping God's judgment is all that motivates, then most are unlikely to love him as he requires.

Most persons' initial love for Christ stems from his rescue from the present "hell" of their earthly existence: loneliness, emptiness, guilt, shame, depression, slavery to addiction, relational trauma, and so on. That is why Jesus was being true to the human experience as well as his spiritual task when he said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). He understood that the pains of this life could be as compelling as the threats of the next.

Making Sense of Eternal Punishment

I cannot deny that there are some who seek Christ's mercy because they believe that they have committed sins worthy of an eternal hell. This is undeniable in a world of mass murder, child abuse, genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape, jihad, and systematic torture. We should praise God when souls awaken to the evil of such crimes and see them for the hell-deserving sins they are.

A Common Misunderstanding

But such an awakening is not where most people are intellectually or spiritually when they first turn to the Savior. Early in their Christian experience most people have no concept of what they have done that would deserve eternity in hell. Even if they echo thoughts they have heard from a pulpit, or feel deep and profound guilt, few could identify why they would deserve an eternal hell of suffering for their sin.

Theologians frequently defend the doctrine of hell with the rationale that people are deserving of the infinite and eternal torments of hell because sin is against an infinitely holy and eternal God. That may make sense to a theologian, but it will not ring true or fair to almost anyone else.

If even Hitler, Genghis Kahn, or Idi Amin were to scream in agony for ten thousand years in a lake of fire, most persons (especially believers, who are made in God's image and weigh what is just according to the standards and heart he grants) would be ready to end these monsters' pain. And arguing that such an unending hell of physical torment awaits the Jewish, Hindu, or nominal Christian grandmother whose greatest earthly crime appears to be a sharp tongue, seems outside any standard of justice that we associate with Christ's nature.

Christ's Intention

So, how do we explain why Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in the Bible? At least a partial answer lies in understanding that Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who were relying on their self-righteousness to gain them heaven. They needed to know that total, conscious, eternal separation from the blessings of God (that's a pretty good summary of the Bible's teaching on hell, taking into account all its discussions and metaphors, such as the eternal lake of fire, maggots, torturers, darkness, gnashing of teeth, and whippings) was the future of all who did not seek God through his Son.

Jesus' greatest expressions of mercy and grace were poured out on those who believed they had no hope of heaven due to their background, failings, and sin. Their despair of God's care in this life, and of his provision of spiritual security for the next life, made Christ's grace welcome and powerful. His love for the unlovely, the outcast, and the despicable is what drew hearts to him. He usually spoke of hell only with the intention of making the proud understand how desperate they were apart from him. The self-righteous, no less than the obvious sinners, needed to long for his grace in order for heaven to be their eternal destiny.

About The Author:

Bryan Chapell is the host of a daily half-hour radio Bible teaching program, Unlimited Grace, and the founder and chairman of Unlimited Grace Media ( Bryan previously served as the president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and is the author of a number of books, including Holiness by Grace.

Source: Adapted from Unlimited Grace: The Heart Chemistry That Frees from Sin and Fuels the Christian Life by Bryan Chapell. The following article was taken from; used with permission.

The Early Church Fathers on Hell
The Early Church Fathers taught that any one who dies in a state of mortal sin will suffer for all eternity in hell.

Ignatius of Antioch

Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil reaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire, and so will anyone who listens to him (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1-2 [A.D. 110]).

Second Clement

If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment (Second Clement 5:5 [A.D. 150]).

Justin Martyr

No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments (First Apology 12 [A.D. 151]).

[Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons (ibid. 52).

The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3 [A.D. 155]).


We [Christians] are persuaded that when we are removed from this present life we shall live another life, better than the present one. . . . Then we shall abide near God and with God, changeless and free from suffering in the soul . . . or if we fall with the rest [of mankind], a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere incidental work, that we should perish and be annihilated (Plea for the Christians 31 [A.D. 177]).

Theophilus of Antioch

Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Bible] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God.... [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortally by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things. . . , For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire (To Autolycus 1:14 [A.D. 181]).


The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . It is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, "Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire," they will be damned forever (Against Heresies 4:28:2 [A.D. 189]).


Standing before [Christ's] judgment, all of them, men, angels, and demons, crying out in one voice, shall say: "Just is your judgment!" And the righteousness of that cry will be apparent in the recompense made to each. To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them (Against the Greeks 3 [A.D. 212]).

Minucius Felix

I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment. . . . Nor is there measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them (Octavius 34:12-5:3 [A.D. 226]).

Cyprian of Carthage

An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life (To Demetrian 24 [A.D. 252]).

Cyril of Jerusalem

We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike; For if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past (Catechetical Lectures 18:19 [A.D. 350]).

Source: Stay Catholic

Scriptural Basis of Hell
Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17 - John the Baptist said the Lord will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. This unquenchable fire is the state of eternal separation from God, which the Church has called "hell" for 2,000 years. Some Protestant communities no longer acknowledge the reality of hell.

Matt. 25:41 - Jesus says, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

Matt. 25:46 - Jesus says, "they will go away into eternal punishment" which is in reference to this eternal fire.

Mark 9:47-48 - Jesus refers to hell as where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. It lasts forever.

2 Thess. 1:6-9 - the angels will come with flaming fire and the disobedient will suffer punishment of eternal destruction. It is important to note that "destruction" does not mean "annihilation," as some Protestant denominations teach. It means eternal exclusion from the presence of God.

Jude 6-7 - the rebelling angels, and Sodom and Gomorrah, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

Rev. 14:11 - the worshipers of the beast suffer and the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever.

Rev. 20:10 - they're tormented in the lake of fire and brimstone day and night forever and ever.

Isaiah 33:14 - "Who of us can dwell in the everlasting fire?" This is a reference to hell which is forever.

Isaiah 66:24 - their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched. We cannot fathom the pain of this eternal separation from God.

Jer. 15:14 - in my anger a fire is kindled which shall burn forever. Hell is the proper compliment to the eternal bliss of heaven.

Judith 16:17 - in the day of judgment the Lord will take vengeance on the wicked and they shall weep in pain forever. Hell is a place that sinners have prepared for themselves by rejecting God, who desires all people to be saved in His Son Jesus Christ. God sends no one to hell.


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