What Is Hell Like?
Dr. Jim Denison
This week I found out about a Y2K problem which has nothing to do with computers. How many times have you been to a cemetery and seen headstones already in place for the spouse of the deceased, with the birth year followed by 19–? Assuming the person lives another four months, what’s to be done? Some monument companies are trying to create epoxies to fill in the numbers, but without much luck so far. Others have no idea what they’ll do. One person said, Just fill in 1999 + 1, or 2 or 3, or whatever. It’s a Y2K problem etched in stone.
I don’t know when you and I will die, but I do know that we will, unless Jesus comes back first. When that happens, where do we go? So far in our Yearning 2 Know series we’ve studied death and heaven. Now we’ll look at the other place. This is probably one of the few sermons you’ve heard in a long time on hell.
I have prayed that it is the closest you’ll get to being there.
A hellish parable
First, let’s walk through Jesus’ parable together. We have two characters: a rich man and a very poor beggar. At opposite ends of the spectrum, here and in eternity. Here’s how the story goes.
We meet the rich man first. A very rich man. And religious as well.He is “dressed in purple and fine linen.” This means that his outer robe was dyed purple, while his inner robe was made of Egyptian woven linen. Jesus is literally describing the costliest clothing of his day; a $2,000 suit, we’d say.
He “lives in luxury every day.” The Greek says that he lives “lampros,” brilliantly, magnificently. Clearly he is one of the leading social figures of his time, well known and popular.
And he is obviously an observant Jew, calling out to “Father Abraham” (v. 24) as did the pious Jews of his day. No lawbreaking is mentioned here. Obviously he is a typically religious man. Rich and religious.
Our other character is “a beggar named Lazarus.”His name, ironically, means “God helps.” He is the only named character in all of Jesus’ parables. Society knew the rich man’s name, but we don’t. No one knew the beggar’s name, but we do. So does God.
He is “laid” at the gate (v. 20)—the Greek says he’s “thrown there.” He’s “covered with sores.” Luke uses a medical term here, perhaps for bedsores, because of his crippled condition. As a result, Lazarus is starving. “Longing to eat” means “longing without satisfaction.” People in Jesus’ day didn’t have paper or cloth napkins; they would wipe their hands on bread, then throw it out. He longs to eat these scraps, but is refused. Instead, the dogs eat them. Then they lick his sores. What a horrible life! But a realistic portrayal of many in Jesus’ day.
Now comes the first surprise in our story: Lazarus goes to heaven. No burial is mentioned. Likely his body is thrown outside the city on the trash heap known as Gehenna, where refuse was constantly burning. But not his soul: he is at “Abraham’s side,” a Jewish idiom for heaven. Carried there by the angels, in one of the greatest funeral processions of all time.
Then comes the second, even greater surprise: the rich man goes to hell. In Jesus’ day riches were a sure sign of God’s blessing. But Jesus had just said, “You cannot serve both God and Money” (16:13). And the Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at him (v. 14).
Now the rich man is buried, undoubtedly with much ceremony and speech-making. A vivid contrast to Lazarus’ body lying on the trash heap. Then comes the great irony: Lazarus’ body is on literal Gehenna, but the rich man’s soul is in eternal Gehenna, hell, a place of great “torment” (v. 23). Forever.
From Jesus’ sobering story we discover several crucial facts: our souls do not die with our bodies; our souls are conscious after death; the righteous are taken to a place of happiness immediately at death, while the wicked are consigned at once to punishment; wealth does not keep us from death or hell; there is a place of suffering beyond the grave—a hell; there is never any escape or end to hell; God gives us sufficient warning to prepare for death; and God will give us nothing further to warn us.
Now, from Jesus’ story, let’s ask some questions.
What is hell like?
First, what is hell?
It is a real place, mentioned 23 times in the New Testament, 15 times by Jesus himself. Jesus calls it a place of “torment” (v. 23). Hell is real, despite its unpopularity today. 62% of all Americans, including 52% of “born-again Christians, say that Satan does not exist. Only 4% of all Americans are worried about going to hell. But our ignorance and deceit do not change the fact that hell is real.
God’s word often describes hell as “fire” (v. 24). Jesus said, “The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50). Jude 7 calls hell “the punishment of eternal fire.” Revelation 14:10 says, “He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.” And Revelation 20:15 calls hell “the lake of fire.”
Hell is called “darkness”: “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13; cf. Jude 6).
Using language from the literally trash heap Gehenna, Jesus said, “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:49; cf. Isaiah 66:24).
Most of all, hell is separation from God (v. 26). Remember Jesus’ warning: “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers'” (Matthew 7:23).