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NT Survey Assignment Hell in the NT

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Andrew Hodge                                                                                                      23rd October 2007

New Testament Survey NTES 111


The Concept of Hell in the New Testament


The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia  G.W.Bromiley General Editor, Fully Revised 1988, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company  Grand Rapids, Michigan (ISBE)



I. Hell as a Physical place

The abode of the dead in the New Testament is built on the concepts established in the Old Testament, but altered by the pivotal event of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

The Hebrews, in common with other Near Eastern peoples, pictured the dead as inhabitants of a realm totally detached from earthly existence.1  The common expression used (eg in Genesis) is “go to thy fathers” (Abram in 15:15) or “gathered unto his people” (Isaac in 35:29; Jacob in 49:33) indicating a process of reuniting with ancestors.  This concept in Hebrew culture may hark back to the Abrahamic Covenant where the whole Land was promised to Abraham’s family and descendants “for ever” (Genesis 12:7, 13:15) thus ensuring an unbroken occupation in life and in death, as it were.  The Mosaic Law established specified plots of the Land for families in perpetuity ie maintenance of a continuous line of inheritance, each family being able to trace its occupation of its possession back through many generations.  The Law also carried provision for Land to revert to its rightful original owners if circumstances had temporarily forced them off it.  This concept establishes an unbroken link between those who were dead, those who were currently alive and those who were to be born which was more than just genetic descendance.

1ISBE  I, 900

As the Scriptural revelation of hell unfolds, those who die descend to a subterranean region (Jonah 2:6; Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their houses Numbers 16:30-33) which is described as a house (Job 30:23, where Job also expects to be ‘living’) or a walled city with gates (Isaiah 38:10; Job 38:17 - a description given by God; Matthew 16:18 - a description given by Jesus). 

It is also described as “the land of darkness and the shadow of death…without any order, and where the light is as darkness” (Job 10:21-22; Psalm 143:3); as silent (Psalm 94:17; 115:17), dim and shadowy (Psalm 23:4; Lamentations 3:6).  “As such, many viewed it as a welcome contrast to their earthly burdens and a release from torment.” 2 Job (30:21) and Jonah (4:3) both apparently thought so, and it was also considered to be a place of quiet rest (Jeremiah 51:39, 57; Job 3:17).  Jesus gives this impression regarding Lazarus (John 11:11).

2ISBE  I, 900

The commonest Hebrew word translated into the English “hell” is sheol  from a Hebrew root meaning ‘ask’ or ‘inquire’ suggesting the practices of necromancy (eg Isaiah 8:19).3  Sheol is frequently personified as having gaping jaws and an insatiable throat (Isaiah 5:14; Proverbs 1:12; Habakkuk 2:5).4  Other Hebrew words are used to indicate different aspects of hell and are rendered accordingly in the English eg “earth” (in Moses’ song Exodus 15:12; by David in Psalm 71:20); “nether world” (Ezekiel 31:14); “place of destruction” or “perdition” (Job 26:6; Psalm 88:11; Proverbs 15:11); “pit” (Psalm 28:1; 88:4, 6; Isaiah 14:15; Ezekiel 32:18); “[the realm of] death” (Job 28:22, 30:23, 38:17; Psalm 6:5, 9:13; Proverbs 7:27); and “pit” or “grave” (Job 33:18; Psalm 30:9; Isaiah 38:17, 51:14; Jonah 2:6 - translated “corruption”).5

3ISBE  I, 900



It is clear from these examples that in general OT concepts regarding the physical nature of hell are largely based on the suppositions of men (who could not be there) rather than the revelation of God (who created the place).  It is interesting that the process of Divine inspiration and progressive revelation has allowed this thinking to be presented.  However there are some important fundamentals:

  1. Death is not annihilation
  2. The dead are living a different existence
  3. Their place of living is not clear but is likened to a house or walled city within the bowels of the earth
  4. It was timeless and was for eternity
  5. One place fitted all

There was confusion over whether the place had any light or was completely dark, whether there was order or chaos, whether there was torment or rest, whether it was possible to interact with God there (eg Psalm 6:5, 88:4-12; Ecclesiastes 9:5) or whether any distinction between people carried over (Isaiah 14:9; Ezekiel 32:18-32).  In common with other important scriptural doctrines, the NT opens the understanding by building on the OT fundamentals.

The Saviour had more to say about hell than He had about heaven - He has every right for He has “the keys of hell and of death” (Revelation 1:18) and part of His ministry was to warn the unrepentant of the wrath of God and judgment to come eg Matthew 3:7, 5:22, 10:15, 11:22, 24, 12:36; Mark 6:11; Luke 3:7, 10:14.

Jesus recounting of the history of the deaths of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man at whose gate the dogs licked the beggar’s sores illustrates the situation as it was when Jesus ministered on earth (Luke 16:9-31).  Much of the OT confusion is cleared up:

Hell (Hebrew sheol, Greek hades) has light and the dead can see.

On the side of Abraham there was comfort, order and peace, and across the great gulf fixed there was confusion and chaos, including the torments of heat, flame and extreme thirst.

There was no possibility of initiating interaction with God although the rich man assumed that Abraham would have some influence.

One size did not fit all in that there were two completely separate and self-contained “zones” in hades - the one containing OT ‘saints’ and the other OT ‘sinners’, with no distinction based on earthly power, status or influence.  These zones were not so separate from each other that communication by speaking across the gulf was impossible, although we might assume that the saints would have appreciated some relief from the groaning coming from the sinners’ side!  Jesus described these different destinations in Matthew 7:13-14, 11:20-24, and multiple NT scriptures give the saint the assurance of heaven for eternity.  If they were bothered to read them, the NT scriptures also assure the unrepentant sinner hell for eternity.

The Cross of Christ, His Resurrection and Ascension opened a new understanding of the destination of the dead because those who accepted God’s free offer of pardon for sin were guaranteed to follow Christ where He had already gone, for in Him they had obtained victory over sin and death (Romans 5:21, 6:3-6, 9, 23, 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:54, 57; 2 Timothy 1:10). 

Although this offer is extended to all of humanity, not all accept, resulting in God’s righteous judgment on both groups - accepters and rejecters - and therefore two destinations after death.

Those who accept God’s hard-won and supremely gracious gift of satisfaction of sin in Christ are righteously judged by Christ at the Bema Seat in heaven where their deeds done on earth are assessed as it were by fire; and those who refuse God’s gift are righteously judged, also by Christ, at the Great White Throne at the end of the millennium.

II. Hell as a Spiritual place


As with the physical aspects of hell, the experience of hell by the dead in the New Testament is built on the concepts established in the Old Testament, but altered by the pivotal event of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

Death in the OT is described as an alien or alternative form of existence (eg when Ittai pledges allegiance to David as he flees from Absalom, that he swore to be “in what place my lord the king shall be , whether in death or life” - 2 Samuel 15:21; and Jeremiah in 21:8, when he is commanded to warn the Israelites of the coming destruction of God mediated by the Babylonians “And unto this people shalt thou say, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I set before you the way of life, and the way of death”).

The OT after-death state has also been described as non-existence (eg Job 7:21; Psalm 39:13)6 but this would not be consistent with the plenary exegesis of scripture.  Both of these references in context could apply to the state of the physical body at death rather than the soul’s destiny.

6ISBE  I, 899

OT death involves separation (eg Ruth 1:17 where Ruth pledges total commitment to Naomi - “Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”), but note also from above that the earliest concepts of death in Genesis resulted in a confident reuniting with one’s forebears (eg the death of the patriarchs). 

The state of being dead was thought to be marked by bitterness (Agag’s opinion when facing death in 1 Samuel 15:32); by terror (David’s opinion when enduring the oppression of his enemies in Psalm 55:4); and pain (Peter’s opinion of Christ’s sufferings in Acts 2:24); and was therefore to be feared (Hebrews 2:15).  Although all of these scriptures are Holy Spirit inspired for our edification, they still represent individuals’ evaluations of “what death must be like” which by definition they cannot have yet experienced.

The OT individual who touched a dead body was also separated from his family and society until made ritually clean again, after which fellowship was restored (eg Leviticus 9:6ff, 19:11, 16, 18).  For this reason OT burial took place as soon as possible after death (eg Lazarus John 11:17-39; Ananias and Sapphira Acts 5:6-10).  It is obvious from these examples that OT practices regarding burial extended into NT custom in the early Church.  God may have introduced the OT rule of ritual uncleanness (somebody had to do the burying) for sanitary purposes so that there was an avoidance of unnecessary disease contamination of the living by the dead.

The Hebrews were specifically prohibited from seeking oracles from the dead (eg by King Saul - 1 Samuel 28:9 - who broke his own rule; by the example of the evil King of Judah, Manasseh, who incurred the wrath of God by dealing with “familiar spirits and wizards” - 2 Kings 21:6; and from Isaiah’s testimony to Israel that they should seek God among the living, not among the dead - Isaiah 8:19).  It therefore appears that under certain conditions, often but not always requiring a ‘medium’, the physically dead would and/or could communicate with the living eg 1 Samuel 28:11-20 where Saul bullies the witch of Endor into providing her services.  This is the only occasion recorded in scripture where the event is described in detail - the deceased Samuel talking to Saul,  predicting Saul’s downfall and demise because of his sinful rebellion against God (1 Chronicles 10:13-14) - but necromancy was a well-known practice among the idolaters of the Promised Land prior to the Eisodus (Deuteronomy 18:9-12), and is soundly condemned by God (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 27) and by a Godly King of Judah (Josiah in 2 Kings 23:24) as a practice for the Hebrews.

It is therefore clear from the OT that the dead consciously exist and may possess special knowledge that humans would like to have, but that God has placed substantial barriers between us and them so that this knowledge is not abused.

Necromancy of this sort should not be confused with divination, magic or sorcery, some aspects of which are accepted as valid in scripture where its use is consistent with “the biblical doctrine of God that sees Him as sovereign in the affairs of men and of nature.” 7 ISBE contains an extensive treatment of the forms of divination in I, 972-4. 

It should be noted at this point that Gilley, in his book “This Little Church Stayed Home” states in Chapters 12 and 13 that “the market driven church….has opened the door…to mysticism and postmodernism….by hollowing out the core of biblical substance and replacing it with superficial theological fluff.” 8  The result is an alienation of truly spiritually hungry people who turn to alternatives, one of which is mysticism (another being postmodernity and the ‘emerging’ so-called church).  Mysticism is ancient, premodern, practised by the earliest of idolaters and based on the principle that the individual is paramount, determining for himself how he will access the ‘god within’.  This plays directly into Satan’s hands and he or his demons will mediate the process; Scripture is distorted or rejected so that hell becomes either ‘non-existent’ or ‘a great place to spend eternity with my mates’, far from the Biblical view of righteous eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners.

7ISBE  I, 972

8 Gilley, Gary E.  This Little Church Stayed Home  Evangelical Press, Darlington, England  2006 pp 112-3

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