I see two striking examples of people in Hell that give us an answer. Let’s look at the longest one first, found in Luke 16. Jesus told this story to the Pharisees:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’
And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’
And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:19-31, ESV)
I don’t know how much time had passed from the time of the rich man’s death to this conversation, but it’s apparent that the flames around him are not destroying his power of speech and reasoning. He is perfectly aware of what’s happening, and can recognize others around him and hold a sustained conversation with them. There are no indications that any part of him is being destroyed by the flames.
Another illuminating passage mentioning Hell (Hades) is found in Revelation 20:11-15:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.
And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
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.
According to this passage, Hell (Hades) was emptied of people and they all stood at the Great White Throne of God for judgment. If all the people had been destroyed, surely Hell would have been empty. How long had they been in Hell? The events in Revelation 20 are sequential; verses 7-15, which includes the judgment passage above, occur one thousand years after verses 1-6. Surely one thousand years is enough time to burn up anyone completely. But at the end of a thousand years, there were still people able to stand trial.
Therefore, I have no trouble believing that some people have been in Hell now for thousands of years already and are still conscious. If you do a word search of Hell, you’ll find many mentions, but overwhelmingly they indicate a downward location or a deep place, but little is said of what goes on in there. These two passages give us the most revealing information.
Lessons from these two main passages
Why did Jesus tell us about the rich man and Lazarus? What can we learn from it? Earlier in that chapter he was telling his disciples about being faithful with what they have received from God so that God would bless them; they “cannot serve God and mammon,” and be faithful to God, for instance. The Pharisees heard this teaching and, loving money, mocked him. That’s when Jesus told the story of the rich man to them. The lesson is given by Abraham: “in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.”
Dear reader, how much of a role does the desire for riches play in your life? Can you be trusted to use what you have wisely, or will it be squandered foolishly? Also, Abraham pointedly tells the rich man that if his brothers are not listening to the voice of God in the OT, they won’t be convinced if someone rose from the dead. How is your spiritual hearing? Do you read and respond to the Word?
What can we learn from the passage of judgment in Revelation 20 above? It occurs one thousand years after the beginning portion of the chapter. The fate of those in the beginning is such that they escape one thousand years in Hell. Their main virtue is that they were martyrs: they lived and died for the Lord in faith. Not all will reign with Christ; only those who are faithful to the end. What daily evidences do you show of faith toward Christ? Are you faltering in your commitment to Him?
About other occurrences of “Hell”
- In many cases in the OT, Hell refers to the grave: “And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, ‘For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him” (Gen 37:35). In many cases, the word grave is used in place of Hell, but it is often the same Hebrew word, sheol. At other times, the Bible uses the word for a burial place, qeber.
- In other cases, Hell is used in place of death: “And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with Hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it” (Isaiah 28:18).
- In one reference, it is metaphorically referring to the great fish’s belly that held Jonah: “And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of Hell (sheol) cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (Jonah 2:2). This is similar to us borrowing an element of Hell and saying, “it was hotter than @#!*% today.”
- In the following passage, Jesus tells us that Hell has fire. After reading the passage, can you tell what one simple offense it takes to be worthy of Hell? “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool,’ shall be in danger of Hell fire” (Matthew 5:22). If it is your habit to do so, I recommend you stop calling people “stupid” and learn look on them with compassion.
- God has the ability to destroy body and soul in Hell: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matthew 10:28). As we have seen, there is no instance where God actually destroys anyone in Hell to the extent that they are nothing. They are preserved.
- Are there demons in Hell poking sufferers with pitchforks? No; according to the Gospels, they are on earth torturing people! They are also in heaven, still subject to God, and will be cast out at the end, as we read in Revelation 12:7-9. Also, Jude 1:6 tells us of an unnamed, dark place where angels are chained. Second Peter 2:4 talks about angels being chained in Hell (the Greek word here is tartaroo). they are not torturing souls there; they are themselves awaiting judgment. Forget all those paintings of the masters in which Hell is portrayed as a place where terrifying demons tortured the souls of the dead.
- The fallen angels, demons, know that the punishment of Hell awaits them: Matthew 8:29.
- Thankfully, God has prepared a way for all to escape Hell through the sacrifice, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
How I researched this chapter
I opened up my e-Sword Bible software obtained for free from www.e-sword.com. I have the KJV and KJV+ modules downloaded. The KJV+ module allows me to see the Strong’s numbers for each word, which are keyed to the Hebrew or Greek word used. The Hebrew word’s number begins with H and the Greek word’s number begins with G. (Mr. Strong is well known for his Strong’s Concordance, in which he carefully cross-referenced every word in the Bible with it’s Greek or Hebrew word.)
I did a search for “Hell” in the NT in KJV+ so I could get the Strong’s numbers, G86 (hades), G1067 (geenna – Jesus used this word a lot), G5020 (tartaroo – used once). Still in KJV+, I did a search for G86 (with filter of “search for all of the words”) and found all the occurrences of the word. I did the same with the other two numbers.
I did a search for “Hell” in the OT in KJV+ to get the Strong’s numbers. H7585 is the number for sheol. I then did a search for H7585 in KJV+ to get all the verses containing this word. There, I see it is translated as Hell, pit, and grave in the KJV.
Reading the passages in the OT and NT gave me the information about how Hell is used and understood by the NT and OT writers. I needed to keep an open mind as to how it is actually used and not the way I thought it should be used. In this way I saw several meanings and noted them in the bullet points above. Double-clicking on the verse reference opened up the chapter containing the full passage for reading, to learn the context. Meaning is determined by context as well as the dictionary meaning. As always with these articles, my main source was the Bible.
Many people hold ideas that they believe to be true because they are common knowledge. For instance, what about the idea of three Magi carrying gifts to the baby in the manger? That is a picture held in the collective public knowledge, but the scene does not occur in the Bible. (The truth is found in Matthew 2 and Luke 2 – the Magi bring gifts to the child’s home a couple years after he is born, not to the manger at his birth.) We hold to many spiritual ideas because of the collective public consciousness passed on to us through the culture, including faulty ideas about Hell.
So use e-Sword and other software like www.theWord.net or free online tools like www.blueLetterBible.org to search the Bible and find the truth of a matter. For spiritual truth, just use the Bible. Nevertheless, other study aids are helpful; see my article: http://www.stevehusting.com/doubtbusters/2013/10/19/whats-a-good-way-to-study-the-bible/ Keep a Bible-reading plan and follow it faithfully to become familiar with the whole Bible not just your favorite parts.