Monday, November 16, 2020

Anonymous Asks (119)

“What is hell like?”

There are two different words used in the Greek New Testament to describe the destination of those who refuse to take the opportunity currently available to all to enter into a saving relationship with God on the basis of the sacrifice of his Son. These are had─ôs and gehenna. Older translations use the word “hell” for both, while some modern translations distinguish the two. Either way, the book of Revelation teaches that these are not precisely the same place: a time is coming when “death and Hades” will be thrown into the “lake of fire”, which seems to be the same place Jesus was speaking about in the gospels when he used the word gehenna.

So then, Hades is the temporary holding place of the dead until final judgment is rendered, while Hell, or the lake of fire, is their final destination. However, conditions for the unsaved in both places appear virtually identical. You do not want any part of either one.

The Most Complete Description

The most complete description of the fate of the unsaved dead is found in Luke 16, in the Lord’s story of the rich man and Lazarus. Seven things may be noted about the rich man’s post-life experience in this passage:
  1. He remains fully conscious and has not lost his ‘personality’ or ‘soul’. This is not some random spirit crying out in Hades for mercy. This is an integrated person with memories, history and a sense of connection to this present world. There can be no relief in supposing that, in an eternity of punishment, those who reject Christ will experience the comfort of oblivion.
  2. He still seems to be in some sort of relationship to time. Abraham does not say of the rich man’s five brothers, “the opportunity for them is lost forever”, but “let them hear [Moses and the Prophets]”, as if there remains a chance for the brothers. The rich man knows the clock is ticking on his family, but can do nothing about it. That in itself seems an exquisite sort of torment, and one entirely self-inflicted.
  3. He can see some things outside Hades. He sees Abraham “far off and Lazarus at his side”. The possibility of eternal joy is close enough to observe, but not to be attained; nothing about his situation is open to change, and there is a constant reminder that his situation might have been very different.
  4. He has no body but still feels the need to have his tongue cooled.* The rich man says he is “in anguish in this flame”. His request for water to cool his tongue cannot be literal; his real tongue is rotting in his expensive tomb. But just as over 80% of amputees experience phantom pain in limbs they no longer possess, so the rich man’s soul and spirit are tormented; he experiences pain as if he still possessed a physical body. The heat, like the water and the tongue, may also be emotional or spiritual rather than physical, but that does not make it any less terrible to experience.
  5. He knows his judgment is irreversible. He doesn’t say, “Father Abraham, let me out!” and Abraham doesn’t say, “Don’t worry son, you’ve only got 500 years left to serve”. There is nothing rehabilitative, curative or ‘purgative’ about the rich man’s torment. At some level he must recognize either the justice or the inevitability of his punishment and the fact that there is no revisiting his sentence. And his punishment is not undeserved. He “feasted sumptuously”, yet was able to heartlessly and repeatedly pass by a sore-covered beggar outside his gate, apparently without a second thought. Did he know the beggar’s name in life? Probably not. But he sure knew it in Hades. Did he recognize him when he saw him with Abraham? He certainly did. So in life he had looked on the poor beggar by his gate long enough to be aware who he was, but had not done anything to relieve his situation despite being more than able to do so.
  6. He cares about the fate of his brothers. We can sometimes find ourselves imagining that someone deserving of an eternity of torment must be a bitter, selfish, deeply hardened individual raging against God and glad to be away from him, and that perhaps this hatred of God somehow even armors such a person against the worst of hell’s torments. “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” said John Milton, putting words in Lucifer’s mouth. This is the sort of attitude we expect to encounter in hell. The rich man in our story shows no such bravado or brazen antipathy to God. He simply lived for himself and ran out of time, and found himself having to render an account for his life when he never expected to.
  7. He seems to be alone. There’s no suggestion that the rich man is aware of anyone other than himself in Hades with him, though he is aware of Abraham and Lazarus. If there are others with him that the rich man is aware of, we don’t hear about it.

*  The dead do not have bodies in hades, but do appear to have their bodies in gehenna, the “second death”.

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