What About Hell?
How do you define hell? There are lots of scriptures in the Old Testament that talk about hell,like Ps 86:13, 88:3, while Ecc 9:5-6 shows us that the dead are conscious of nothing. Where is there a scripture which says “if we won’t obey God then we will burn in hell”?
On the question of hell, I would start out by saying that I do not consider hell to be an essential doctrine for one’s salvation. I think that true believers can differ on the meaning of hell. However, I think that the Bible’s position is pretty clear that hell is a place of eternal conscious experience of the wrath of God.
The usage that groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists make of Ecclesiastes 9:5,6 to demonstrate that people are unconscious after they die, is not legitimate. It is pulled out of its context and used as a proof text. The entire book of Ecclesiastes deals with life as it is experienced “under the sun” (Eccl. 1:3, 1:9, 1:14, 2:17, 3:16, 8:9, 9:3, 9:6, 9:9 and many other verses in the book). It is not intended as a treatise on the spiritual aspects of man’s existence. Rather, it was written to show the futility of man’s existence apart from God. If we are to apply the verses in the absolute and literal way that the JWs and SDAs do, then we must also conclude from verse 6 that there is no resurrection, since it says, “forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.” Read the rest of the chapter (the rest of the whole book, in fact) and you will see that many things are stated that are not true from the viewpoint of a servant of God. The writer is describing life from a purely human, earthly viewpoint. The dead certainly know nothing of what is going on in this world and have no part in its activities; that does not mean that they do not exist consciously elsewhere.
The verses you cited from the Psalms don’t seem all that relevant to the discussion, since they don’t actually speak about the state of those in Sheol, they simply mention someone going there, or being “near” to going there. However, there are several OT verses that do indicate consciousness on the part of those in Sheol: Isaiah 14:9, 10 says “Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will answer and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!'” If those in Sheol are ‘greeting’ a new arrival and speaking to such a one, they must not be unconscious. Similarly, Ezekiel 32:21-27 speaks of the “mighty chiefs” speaking “out of the midst of Sheol.” It also says those in Sheol “bear shame.” How does one “speak” and “bear shame” if he is unconscious? Jonah, too, says “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried.” Many commentators believe that Jonah actually died in the belly of the fish, and that he was raised to life again by God. Whether that is the case or not, how does one cry from Sheol, if Sheol simply means non-existence?
The use of sleep as a metaphor for death also does not prove the cessation of consciousness when someone dies. Really, the parallel between sleep and death should be obvious, since the body of a dead person can look very much as if the person were asleep. The fact that the body is sleeping does not mean that the person is; rather Paul describes the body as “our earthly home,” as a “tent” in which we “groan” for “our heavenly dwelling.” He says that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:1-9).
Elsewhere, Paul writes to Philippian Christians, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 1:21-24). Notice the contrast that Paul is drawing: between living “in the flesh” and departing to “be with Christ.” Apparently one can depart the flesh – go “away from the body” – and still be conscious of his presence with Christ.
Likewise, when Stephen was being stoned to death, he did not expect to go into unconsciousness; rather he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). The Watchtower defines “spirit” as an impersonal life-force, but that is because they must do so in order to make verses like this fit their theology. The Bible never describes the human spirit in such a way.
Jesus was explicit about hell at Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Notice that the soul is described as being distinct from the body. The soul is not the whole person, and while humans can kill the body, they cannot harm the soul. Only God can do that. The nature of the “destruction” of the soul is seen to be eternal in the prophecy about the ‘sheep and goats’ in Matthew 25: 31-46. After describing the separation of the saved from the unsaved, verse 46 says “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The expression is exactly parallel. The punishment of the unsaved is of the same duration as the reward of the saved. Earlier in the same chapter (verse 30), Jesus spoke of the “worthless servant” being cast into “outer darkness,” which clearly seems to indicate the place of punishment of the wicked, and says, “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” There is no weeping and gnashing of teeth among persons who have been annihilated. One must be suffering consciously to weep and gnash the teeth.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) also indicates the idea of torment in hell (Hades, in this case). I know that the Watchtower teaches that this story is merely a parable, but there are a number of difficulties with that position. The account is not referred to as a parable in the text, as many other parables are. Also, this would be the only parable of Jesus in which a character is given a personal name. But the most difficult thing about the idea of the story being a parable is, if hell is just a pagan teaching that was later absorbed into the church as the JWs claim, why would Jesus use a pagan teaching to illustrate a spiritual truth? Wouldnât He just be setting people up to believe a falsehood?
I’ve gone on pretty long here, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more texts in the Bible that indicate that the soul does not become unconscious at death, and many others that talk about hell as a place where people are conscious and suffering. You might also want to consider all the texts mentioned at http://carm.org/hell.
But as I said at the beginning of this essay, I don’t think that understanding the exact nature of hell is essential to our salvation. I think that we can all agree that, whether hell means annihilation or eternal punishment, we don’t want to go there. And the answer for that is in the Person of Jesus Christ, who lived a perfect life and died on behalf of men for their sins. Here is the “Good News” as the Bible expresses it:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to youâunless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”. (1 Cor. 15:1-4)
We are saved by faith, not works, and Jesus Christ Himself must be the object of our faith. We must repent of our sins (repentance = Greek, metanoia, ‘a change of mind’) and place our absolute trust in Him. We must despair of any idea that we can be saved on our own, by our own works or accomplishments. I pray that everyone reading this will experience this great salvation.