WTH 1 – Yes, Virginia, There Really is a Hell

Hell can be a difficult thing to get our minds around.  Perhaps the most difficult part of it is reconciling a God Who is love with a God Who created hell.  We will be spending the next couple of weeks considering this topic.  I do not promise that at the end we’ll have all the answers arranged in neat rows, but I do hope that as we work our way through it will help you to get a better handle on the matter and on Who God has revealed Himself to be.  That being said, the first step we’ll take in our little journey is to consider what hell really is.

The Scripture that we are going to look at is Mark 9:42-48.  Here, Christ gives a warning about what awaits us if we remain in sin.  Christ does not literally say “hell”.  Instead, He speaks in metaphor, making a comparison with something that His audience would have been familiar with:  Gehenna, also known as the valley of Hinnom.  Located just outside of Jerusalem, it functioned as a city dump where garbage and all manner of unclean things (such as dead animals) were thrown and all of this garbage was ultimately disposed of by burning.  Thus, the image that Christ paints of hell is a place where unclean things are disposed of.

Here’s a brief thought experiment to try:  envision a place filled with garbage, and not just empty cans and candy wrappers, we’re talking animal guts and other such refuse that rots and putrefies.  You can almost feel the filth rising off of everything and clinging to your skin.  That’s not all, everything is burning and the smoke carries the stink up into the air, up into your nose, and the soot that rests on your already dirty skin is itself infused with the stench and rot of the garbage.

That’s the kind of place that Christ uses to describe hell in terms that we can understand.

Here are some more passages where the Gehenna imagery is used of hell:

Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33

Luke 12:5

James 3:6

Christ also speaks of hell as a place where “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”  This is actually a quotation from Isaiah 66:24 where God describes the corpses of those who transgressed against Him.  In that particular passage, it is added that, “They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh”.  Think back to the thought experiment and, instead of merely imagining being in the place, consider being that which is constantly putrefying and being consumed by fire and worms.

Having these analogies in mind makes it easier to understand why Christ would use such strong language when making the case that it is better to enter into life maimed rather than to enter into hell.  Christ says that it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around your neck, to lose a hand, to lose a foot, or to lose an eye and enter into life rather than to go to hell.  Of course, Christ is not advocating self-mutilation as a means to avoid sin; such physical acts cannot prevent us from sinning (which has its origin in the heart).  However, He is making a point of how much better it is to enter the kingdom of heaven and have life than it is to choose hell.  Another way we may think about it is to recall the various stories that have been told about people and animals severing their own limbs in order to escape from certain death.

Using such graphic imagery and intense language, it is apparent that Christ isn’t talking about a metaphorical or figurative place but a reality that awaits us should we not enter into life.  Notice that hell is not itself a metaphor, the metaphors are used to describe hell.  Jesus’ statement is not “It would be better to lose a hand and enter into life because otherwise it would be like going to a place which is like…”   Instead, His statement flows as, “It would be better to lose a hand and enter into life than to enter into the place which is like…”  Christ sets up a dichotomy where there are two possible outcomes:  1) we enter into life and are with God forever.  Or 2) we enter into death and spend eternity in hell.  If God is real, if heaven is real, if sin is real, then hell must also be real; but more on that next week.  For now, let’s sum things up with the following:

  1. Jesus describes hell as a place where unclean things are disposed of.
  2. Jesus uses metaphor to describe the reality of hell, He does not speak of hell as a metaphor itself.

Practical questions:

  1. What or who have been the greatest influences on your idea of hell?
  2. What does that idea say about God’s character?
  3. How does Christ’s description of hell differ from your own idea of it?
  4. What does Christ’s description tell us about God’s character?
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