In this episode, we explore what Biblical prophetic messaging reveals about the concept of hell. The world has created its own caricature of hell. It is prevalent in today’s culture. How does this stack up with the Biblical view? Scripture is diverse in its treatment of the concept of hell, using various words and ideas to describe the place we think of as hell. Where is the truth and what can we learn by exploring the prophetic descriptions in the Bible?
We’ll continue our study of the history of the future. So let’s just pray and we’ll get started.
Today we’re going to start a two-week session on the topic that I think you gotta do early in any sort of a lesson about prophecy or the future because, what is a future without hell? That is the topic we’re going to have for the next two weeks.
How our culture speaks of hell
You know, hell gets talked about quite a bit in our culture, but it’s usually not in the way we’re going to talk about it today. It tends to get used “a helluva lot,” you know. And why do we say that? “Helluva lot.” Why do people say that?
I think that probably comes from the Psalms where it says hell has an insatiable appetite, so people use it as the insatiable appetite, and it just kind of got carried along. People tend to kind of “use the hell out of” hell. Now why do we say that? You “beat the hell out of” whatever. And the Texas A&M fight song, whatever.
Getting rid of hell, I think, is something that in our culture has been generally conceived of as a good thing. You don’t like hell; you want to get rid of it.
I don’t hear this so much anymore, but when I was younger, if you really wanted to say something ugly to somebody, one of your choices was to tell them to go to hell. And, you know, this is about the worst destination you could wish on somebody.
The whole idea of cursing is—the worst curse is to damn someone to hell—and cursing is an interesting thing. It’s simultaneously trying to crush someone else while sitting in the place of God. Probably not a good idea as a general rule.
I would say that what this kind of conversation does is it tends to trivialize the whole idea of hell.
In our modern culture, we have a large group of people who are proudly on the “highway to hell.” They sing the song, and they do the anthem, and they raise their fingers in the devil’s horns, or whatever. Hell has actually become quite cool in many respects.
When we start talking about hell, one of the things we have to do is disengage from this cultural trivialization of hell, and to some extent, with our overfamiliarity with something we never talk about or think about.
In my experience in talking about the subject of hell, it seems to have two predominant reactions. There seems to be two predominant schools of the people who care. And for the most part, most people prefer just not to think about it.
The two camps who really care—there’s one camp that’s very, let’s call it traditionalists, and there’s a certain number of mythologies that go with the topic; and they tend to cling to them very vigorously. My extrapolation of the behavior, on the whole, is that they really like the idea of having somewhere for other people to go to that they don’t like.
And then there’s a group of people that just really don’t like hell, and they’re looking for a way to get rid of it. They actually like to talk about it some, but they want to talk it away.
The big point: Sin is really bad
We’re going to do neither today. What we’re going to do is honor our set up from last week where we basically said when we talk about prophecy, the typical scenario is that the people—let’s say the Pharisees, we looked at in specific—tended to really dig in to the details about what was going to happen and miss the whole point.
We looked at Jesus’ saying, you know, you really study the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, but they’re all talking about me, and you won’t come to me so you can have life. In other words, you’ve really dug into the details, but you missed the whole point.
In keeping with that general theme, we’re going to talk about some details about this topic, hell. But we’re not going to lock in on the details. What we’re going to do is make sure we get the big point.
The big point is real simple, I think. It’s that sin is a really bad idea because it just doesn’t pay. That’s the overall point. Sin has really bad consequences, and you want to avoid it. I think that’s the big point.
Let’s talk about hell. It’s probably going to take us about two weeks here to get this topic covered.
The word hell in scripture
First of all let’s talk about the word hell in the scripture, not from culture. And we’ve talked about it tends to be a trivial part of conversation, but from scripture.
So hell—it depends on which translation that you pick up as to what word they translate as hell. In general, if you have an older translation of the scripture, and you look at the Old Testament, in the Old Testament, hell is generally a translation of the word sheol, the Hebrew word sheol.
If you get a newer translation, they may or may not use hell for sheol. Even if you go in the older translation, the word sheol is sometimes translated hell, sometimes translated pit, sometimes translated death, sometimes translated grave, so there doesn’t seem to be a lot of consistency in using this word sheol. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Generally speaking, the Old Testament concept of hell is sheol; and in the LXX, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the LXX generally translates sheol as hades. We’ll talk about hades more next week.
If you go to the New Testament then, the word hell is generally one of three different words that are translated. The first one is gehenna. We’re going to talk about that at length today, gehenna.
The second one is tartarus, which actually only occurs in the scripture one time.
And the third is hades.
In the modern translations, I noticed that they’ve stopped translating hades hell, and they actually just say hades for the most part. But again, it depends on the translation that they stick with here.
All the translations translate gehenna as hell. And tartarus. These two get translated every time. Hades, sometimes it’s hades; sometimes it’s hell.
In the ESV, hell appears fourteen times in the New Testament. Twelve times it’s gehenna; one time, hades; one time, tartarus, and nine times they translate hades as hades. One time they translate hades as death. I’m not sure why they made that departure. One time they translate hades as hell. That’s ESV.
The New King James seems to be more consistent. They translate hades as hades. In the New Testament, they have hell show up thirteen times. It’s either gehenna or tartarus every time. In the Old Testament, they actually started using sheol.
This has begun to shift some in the modern translations. But you probably wouldn’t notice because this topic doesn’t get talked about all that much.
What we’re going to do next, then, is go to hell.
If someone tells you to go to hell, you can actually do that. You can actually get on an airplane and go there because Gehenna is still actually a place today.
Let’s go to gehenna and understand the word picture that shows up twelve times in the New Testament and is the most graphic, I would say, of the different pictures.
By the way, I’m going to tell you that I generally don’t think gehenna is actually talking about hell. The phrase that I think actually is talking about hell, for the most part, is “the lake of fire.” It doesn’t get translated hell very often, but I actually think this is hell. And we’ll talk about that in due time as well.
First let’s talk about gehenna.
Let me also warn you that hell is a topic that is kind of scary. But I’ll just kind of ease your mind some because the presentation I’m going to have is it’s probably worse than you think. So just don’t worry.
OK, so Joshua 15. We’re going to get introduced to this place.
Let me break down the etymology of this word. In the Old Testament what you have is Gai Ben-Hinnom. It’s translated Valley of the Sons of Hinnom. This is generally the way this is done in the Old Testament. By the time you get to the New Testament it’s been kind of shortened to gai hinno. So what we’re talking about is the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.
So let’s look at Joshua 15:8. We’ll start in 7. He’s talking about the land of Judah here.
Then the border went up toward Debir from the Valley of Achor, and it turned northward toward Gilgal, which is before the Ascent of Adummim, which is on the south side of the valley. The border continued on with the waters of En Shemesh and ended at En Rogel.
And the border went up by the Valley of the Son of Hinnom to the southern slope of the Jebusite city (which is Jerusalem).
This Valley of Hinnom is on the border of Jerusalem. And if you go there today, it’s still called that, the Hinnom Valley. So Jerusalem is bordered by two valleys. There’s actually a small valley that goes down the middle of it. It has two valleys.
Anybody know what the east valley is that has the Mount of Olives on one side? The Kidron Valley. You’ll hear about that quite a bit. You’ve got the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley, the eastern gate. Most of the pictures you get from people who have gone to Jerusalem will be up on the Mount of Olives looking at the city and the Dome of the Rock and all that across the Kidron Valley.
On the other side is the Hinnom Valley, the Valley of Hinnom. This is Gehenna.
Why is Gehenna hell? It has a history. This is going to be kind of like Wall Street. If I say to you “Wall Street,” what do you think of? New York City. Why? That’s where Wall Street is. There’s one in Midland. Has a really good restaurant on it.
If I say I’m going to work on Wall Street, what do you think is happening? I’m a stock guy, right? I’m a money guy.
The reality is, most of the people who work on Wall Street work in a building that doesn’t have a Wall Street address, right? They may work in Los Angeles. Because we call Wall Street the whole world of high finance. And it’s basically because J. P. Morgan’s office was on Wall Street. It still is today. 60 Wall. And J. P. Morgan is like the icon of finance. Great History Channel episode on him if you ever want to watch it.
This becomes the same type of thing. We’re going to find Gehenna—what’s in this valley becomes a byword to tell us. The geography becomes the activity. It’s going to be the same kind of thing.
Let’s look at Jeremiah 7. The background of Jeremiah is we are just on the cusp of the Babylonian captivity and exile for part of Jeremiah and Lamentations. In part of Jeremiah, the captivity’s taken place. So this is spanning the captivity. For a big part of it, Jeremiah is prophesying and telling people what’s wrong and why God’s going to do what he’s going to do. And, actually, urging them to repent and avoid it.
So in Jeremiah 7:31, let’s just start with the sentence right before that.
“They have set their abominations in the house which is called by My name, to pollute it.
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart.”
Thus says the Lord—This is right after the potter’s wheel, and God says go to the potter’s house, and he sees the potter potting, and he makes a mistake, and he just reforms it and starts over, and he says, “That’s what I’m going to do to Israel. I’m just going to reform it and start over.
In the next chapter, he says, Thus says the Lord: “Go and get a potter’s earthen flask, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the elders of the priests.
And go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the Potsherd Gate—
We’ve got a gate of the wall of Jerusalem looking right out on this valley.
Now let me just give you a little more geography background here. This valley also happens to be the downwind valley. In all these ancient cities, there was always a place that was downwind and downhill. What went downwind and downhill in an ancient city, do you think? The sewage and the garbage and anything dead.
They would actually take water at the top of the street and actually flood the street and all the refuse and all the horse dung and everything else would go out into this valley. If something died, they’d put it in the valley. A lot of times they’d set it on fire to try to keep the rot and the stench down. There’d be worms out there and stuff. You kind of get the picture?
This is not where you’d want to put your house in the ’burbs. This is this valley.
And go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the Potsherd Gate; and proclaim there the words that I will tell you,
and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Behold, I will bring such a catastrophe on this place, that whoever hears of it, his ears will tingle.
“Because they have forsaken Me and made this an alien place, because they have burned incense in it to other gods whom neither they, their fathers, nor the kings of Judah have known, and have filled this place with the blood of the innocents
(they have also built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or speak, nor did it come into My mind),
therefore behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “that this place shall no more be called Tophet or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.
Child sacrifices in Gehenna
Let me give you a little more historical background here so you can get this full picture.
We’ve actually been to Israel and seen an excavation of a pagan altar, Tophet.
Tophet means drums. What they did is they would take an idol, a bronze idol to Moloch, which is part of this Baal thing, part of the overall deal. It was bronze. It had the head of a calf and a crown on it.
They would build this fire into this idol, and then they would beat drums to create a real loud sound, and then go take their children and throw them into this idol or place them on the arms of the idol and sacrifice living children to this foreign God. That’s what happened in the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.
It’s called the Valley of Tophet, the drums, because that’s where the drum beating would come from.
Are you start to get this place, this picture in your mind? Refuse, bodies burning, smoldering fire, worms, and then this wickedness of sacrificing your own children to the satanic expression.
Gehenna is the place where wickedness, death, destruction, corruption—it’s the very picture of it.
It gets worse.
Bodies of war victims in Gehenna
Verse 8. I will make this city desolate and a hissing; everyone who passes by it will be astonished and hiss because of all its plagues.
And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his friend in the siege and in the desperation with which their enemies and those who seek their lives shall drive them to despair.”’
What’s about to happen is Nebuchadnezzar’s going to come in. Jeremiah tells them, look, you made a treaty with Nebuchadnezzar. Honor it. If you do, everything will be fine.
The people said, “Eh, we’re going with Egypt. Egypt will save us from Nebuchadnezzar.”
Jeremiah says, “No he won’t. I told you, don’t ever rely on Egypt. That’s part of our deal.”
The people say, “We’re not going to listen to you, Jeremiah.”
So, Nebuchadnezzar comes in and sieges the city, and it becomes so severe that actually people are eating dead people. That’s what happened. Then when they finally broke through, half a million people got killed. Which is what we read about next.
Verse 10. “Then you shall break the flask in the sight of the men who go with you,
Remember, he had this earthen pot with him at this potsherd gate. And he’s going to break it.
‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Even so I will break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot be made whole again; and they shall bury them in Tophet till there is no place to bury.
They’re just going to stack them up.
Thus I will do to this place,” says the Lord, “and to its inhabitants, and make this city like Tophet.
You want to burn your kids in the idol? Fine. You’re going to get burned.
And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah shall be defiled like the place of Tophet, because of all the houses on whose roofs they have burned incense to all the host of heaven, and poured out drink offerings to other gods.”’”
Then Jeremiah came from Tophet, where the Lord had sent him to prophesy; and he stood in the court of the Lord’s house and said to all the people,
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will bring on this city and on all her towns all the doom that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their necks that they might not hear My words.’”
As a matter of interest, let’s read a little further.
Now Pashhur the son of Immer, the priest who was also chief governor in the house of the Lord, heard that Jeremiah prophesied these things.
Then Pashhur struck Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the high gate of Benjamin, which was by the house of the Lord.
That was his reward for telling this to people. “We don’t like your message so we’re going to put you in stocks.”
This is gehenna. This is the Valley of Hinnom. This is what any Jew is going to have in his mind if you say Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, he’s going to have Jeremiah 19 in his mind. He’s going to have—we could read—well, let’s do. Let’s just read II Chronicles 28:3. This is all in the run up to Jeremiah. Chronicles is written to explain why the Babylonian captivity happened. And it was because of unfaithfulness.
Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem; and he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his father David had done.
For he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel—
Now this is a king of Judah. You don’t want to be like Israel.
—and made molded images for the Baals.
He burned incense in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and burned his children in the fire, according to the abominations of the nations—
Then Manasseh goes on and does the same thing.
You have this pattern, this history of falling into Canaanite worship and the worst kind of expression of it of sacrificing your own sons and daughters, your precious children that God’s given you, and you’re sacrificing them to this idol.