There are those who believe in a place called hell and there are those who don’t believe hell. If anyone claims to be a Christ-follower, then we understand and believe from the Scriptures that hell is a very real place. The reality of hell is not here on earth, but it is a place as defined by Wayne Grudem “of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked.” His definition of hell is true. For the holy writ tells us that it is a place that is real and cannot be denied. It is a place of torment, gnashing of teeth, agony, pain, and it is everlasting fire that burns and is unquenchable.
Jesus Christ speaks of this place in Luke 16:19-31. Some interpret this story as a parable while others say that it is an actual story. I hold to the latter view for a few reasons. First, the story is never called a parable. Many other of Jesus’ stories are designated as parables, such as the sower and the seed (Luke 8:4); the prosperous farmer (Luke 12:16); the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6); and the wedding feast (Luke 14:7). Second, the story of the rich man and Lazarus uses the actual name of a person. This is different because He doesn’t use names in parables. In fact, after speaking a friend of mine recently about this story, he believes that perhaps this may have happened during Jesus’ earthly ministry. I tend to agree with him on this point. At any rate, such specificity would set it apart from ordinary parables, in which the characters are not named. Third, this particular story does not seem to fit the definition of a parable, which is a presentation of a spiritual truth using an earthly illustration. The story presents spiritual truth directly without any earthly metaphor. The setting for most of the story is the afterlife, as opposed to the parables, which unfold in earthly contexts.
Whether the story is a parable or a true incident (again, I believe it is a true incident), the teaching behind it remains the same. Jesus Christ plainly used this story to teach that aft death the unrighteous are eternally separated from God, that they remember their rejection of the Gospel, that they are in torment, and that their condition cannot be remedied.
In Luke 16:19-31, we find the rich man is looking up from a place called “hades.” Hades has a number of different definitions. It is a concept that is found in the Gentile notion of the “underworld.” In the Old Testament it is known as “sheol.” The New Testament has “hades” as meaning the grave, hell, lake of fire, Gehenna, etc. It is also known as barathrum, the netherworld, Pandemonium, perdition, the pit, or Tophet. Dr. Wayne Grudem, in his systematic theology, defines hell in the following manner: “Hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked.” And this is where the rich man in the story is: a place of conscious punishment after the final judgment. The Bible is clear, that “inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Jesus Christ even says in Matthew 25:41, 46:
Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels….46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
This text indicates the eternality of both life and punishment and indicates that both states will without end–they are eternal–they are forever.
But is hell real? Is it possible for us to know the reality of hell? Some think they have seen hell on earth. However, dear ones, from the way the Bible describes hell we have not seen anything like it. We may think we have, but it is truly a place that is unbearable. We can bear much of what we endure here on earth. We learn how to persevere in the midst of trials, tribulations, and persecutions. But there is no rest for those who are in hell. Hell is real. It is also known as the “lake of fire.” Revelation 20:11-15 says:
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and the death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. 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 into the lake of fire.
This second death is the lake of fire. However, the reason I say that in the story that we read in Luke 16:19-31, even though Jesus uses the word Hades, is speaking of the lake of fire is because of what the rich man says in verse 24:
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.”
It is obvious from his statement that he is first conscious of his punishment, and second, that he is burning in agony from a “flame.” And this is eternal. If hell is on earth, then it is not eternal, but Revelation 14:9-11 is very clear about the eternality of hell:
Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength int he cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone int he presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. “And the smoke of their torment god sup forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
It is a flame that is real, eternal, and it is also unquenchable. It lasts forever and those who reside there are there in conscious punishment because of their wickedness. Jesus Christ says in Mark 9:43, 44, 47, 48:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched….If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
Notice that there is torment there and it is a place of judgment as well. Hell, the lake of fire, has the purpose of eternal righteous judgment. I know people do not like to think of “judgment,” especially God’s judgment. However, we need to know about it. We need to know that hell is real, eternal, unquenchable, and its purpose is because of the wickedness of men and the holiness of Almighty God. Acts 17:30, 31 says:
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.
Second Peter 2:4-10 says:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous should tormented day after day by their lawless deeds, then he Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority.
This final judgment is the culmination of many precursors in which God rewards righteousness and punishes unrighteousness, and this has been happening since the dawn of history. While He brought blessing and deliverance from danger to those who were faith to Him, He also from time to time brought judgment on those who persisted in disobedience and unbelief: His judgments include the flood, the dispersion of the people from the tower of Babel, the judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah, and continuing judgments throughout history, both on individuals and on nations who persist in sin (cf. Romans 1:18-32; Isaiah 12-23). He has even brought judgment on angelic beings who sinned against Him (cf. 2 Peter 2:4). If anything, this should make us realize the immensity of the evil that is found in sin and rebellion against God, and the magnitude of the holiness and the justice of God that calls forth this kind of punishment.
And this reality of hell should also stir our spirits. If we are never met with deep sorrow when we contemplate this doctrine on hell, then there is a serious deficiency in our spiritual and emotional sensibilities. Paul the apostle is moved by the doctrine of hell when he writes in Romans 9:1-5:
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and promises, whose are the fathers and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
The reason it is so hard for us to think about hell, as Grudem says, is because “God has put in our hearts a portion of His own love for people created in His image, even His love for sinners who rebel against Him. As long as we are in this life, and as long as we see and think about others who need to hear the gospel and trust in Christ for salvation, it should cause us great distress and agony of spirit to think about eternal punishment. Yet we must also realize that whatever God in His wisdom has ordained and taught in Scripture is right. Therefore we must be careful that we do not hate this doctrine or rebel against it, but rather we should seek, insofar as we are able, to come to the point where we acknowledge that eternal punishment is good and right, because in God there is no unrighteousness at all…We must believe that eternal punishment is true and just, yet we should also long that even those people who most severely persecute the church should come to faith in Christ and thus escape eternal condemnation.”
Charles Finney, that great evangelist of old says, “When sinners are careless and stupid, and sinking into hell unconcerned, it is time the church should bestir themselves. It is as much the duty of the church to awake, as it is for the firemen to awake when a fire breaks out in the night in a great city.” This is why sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ is of utmost and urgent importance. Even though hell is real, we can also know that Heaven is for certain for those who believe in Jesus Christ unto salvation.
Notice that while the rich man looks up to where Lazarus is, he comes to the certainty that Lazarus, this poor man while on earth, with sores all over his body, who was at the gate of the rich man just wanting to eat whatever crumbs fell of the rich man’s table, while dogs were licking his sores, there he is in Abraham’s bosom. He is at peace. He is comfortable. He is not hungry any longer. He is not in pain from all the sores. And it seems pretty rich for the rich man who never helped poor Lazarus while on earth asks for him to be able to dip his finger in water to cool off his tongue because of his own pain and agony (Luke 16:24). Again, Dr. Wayne Grudem defines Heaven this way: “Heaven is a place where God most fully makes known His presence to bless those whom He has saved.” It is a place not a state of mind. It is not merely bliss or paradise, but it is where God’s presence is “most fully known to those whom He has saved.” Lazarus is saved and is in the presence of God while the rich man is lost and is burning in the lake of fire.
And what of this Heaven? If hell was created as a place of eternal punishment for the wicked, then what of Heaven? It is a pain free place that is prepared for those whom Jesus Christ will gather unto Himself. John 14:1-4 says:
Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.
It is place that He has made for Himself and for those who have believed His Gospel–the Good News of Jesus Christ–that He died according to the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised again according to the Scriptures (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4). It is not a state of mind but it is a real place as described in Revelation 21:15-17:
The one who spoke with me had a gold measuring rod to measure the city, and its gates and its wall. The city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards, according to human measurements, which are also angelic measurements.
This heaven that has been prepared for those who have believed Jesus Christ is an astounding 1,500 square. It is a cube that is forty times bigger than England and is ten times as big as France or Germany and far larger than India. If Heaven was situated in the United States it would go from the Appalachian Mountains to the California border, and it would stretch from Canada to Mexico. Given the dimensions of a 1,500 mile cube, if the city consisted of different levels (we don’t know this), and if each story were a generous twelve feet high, the city could have over 600,000 stories!
Even though hell is real, heaven is for certain for those who believe in Jesus Christ! What about your neighbor? Have they believed? What about you? Have you believed? What about your father? Your mother? Your sister? Your brother? Your nieces and nephews? Have they believed? What about the person who served you lunch today at the restaurant? Do they believe? Heaven is for certain for all who believe.
* This article is adapted from Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 1140-1153.