Surviving Hell on Earth

The hell that the Bible teaches about is on this earth and in this life.  It’s what we make of the earth with our sins.  Hell is the accumulated consequences of our accumulated sins.  It comes on nations and it comes on individuals.  On last night’s news, I heard a doctor report from an African refugee camp.  The camp was teeming with starving people.  What little water there was had become contaminated.  As a result, disease had taken root among the refugees.  A doctor said, “It’s going to spread like wildfire.”  He could just as easily have said,  “It’s gonna be hell.”

It seems impossible that the world should know a day when war is not going on somewhere.  We see the images, we hear the reports. Not just soldiers are killed and wounded, though that’s bad enough.  Civilians, too, become casualties.  Add to this the enormous property damage that accumulates as fields are destroyed, buildings are razed, and factories are demolished.  The toll of war’s destruction is never fully tabulated.  Truly it is said, “War is hell.”

A hypothetical man and woman marry with the fondest of hopes.  Years later, the hopes have evaporated and left misery in their place.  The man sees the woman as uncaring and unappreciative.  The woman sees the man as insensitive and ungrateful.  Far from enjoying each other, they detest most of their moments together.  Each regards the other as having made their marriage “a living hell.”

The Bible’s Description of Hell

The examples above represent the Bible’s hell:  famine, disease, war, misery of every kind.  The world God created did not have such “thorns and thistles.”  Our sins and the resulting judgment against them brought all this misery forth.  As painful as all these negative circumstances are, they are a necessary part of the meaning of the world we live in.  Creation exists to put evil under our feet.  The only way to do that is to give people a choice about it.  And let them live with the consequences.

Jesus spoke about hell using the word “Gehenna.”  This was the name of the valley just outside Jerusalem where wicked people once sacrificed their children by fire.  Some say trash from Jerusalem was later dumped and burned there.  In any case, it was outside and away from the life of the city.  Just as Jerusalem epitomized for Israelites all that was good and glorious and wonderful about ancient Israel, so Gehenna represented all that was bad and shameful and disgraceful.  Jesus was likening the kingdom of heaven to Jerusalem in her glory, and life outside its rule as being like Gehenna.  In other words, doing the right things in life would be like living in a glorious city but doing evil would be like living in a trash dump just outside.  That is, our behavior could make life like heaven on earth (Jerusalem) or like hell on earth (Gehenna).

The book of Revelation at the end of the Bible uses this same imagery.  The book’s closing scene takes up the last two chapters.  It paints a detailed picture of a glorious Jerusalem with walls and gates of precious stones sitting in the midst of a lake of fire.  The word Gehenna per se is not found, but the connection to Jesus’ teaching is unmistakable.  The picture reinforces the idea that what happens on earth is largely a consequence of human behavior.  We make a heaven of it and we make a hell of it  – and the two conditions coexist.

Flames and burning are the Bible’s most common images for our sins and the resulting consequences they bring.  “Wrath” and “judgment” are the words most commonly used to describe the same phenomena. Some people who read the Bible apply these images to afterlife instead of this life and end up with a view of afterlife which has hell coexisting with heaven.  But studying how the word Gehenna is used in the Bible reveals that it has everything to do with this life and nothing to do with the afterlife (except maybe get you to it sooner).  (If you want to better understand the Bible’s teaching about afterlife and why Gehenna is not part of it see, if you haven’t already, the online book:  The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven.)

Not only do the Bible’s images of hell apply to this life, they provide a way of escape!  The Bible is nothing if not a book of hope.  Even when life is at its worst, God is not far away.  Even when we do make a hell of earth, He is nearby to be a refuge from the pain and a hope for something better.

A Place of Refuge Never Far Away

Even in those places that evil has scorched, God is only a step away.  Therefore, we can find a Jerusalem in the midst of a lake of fire.  Noah’s family could float in an ark above the flood.  Lot and his family could be pulled out of Sodom just before it was consumed.  The Israelites could be passed over when the angel of death came to take all the first-born of Egypt.  This is the constant picture that the Bible gives:  that we can find pockets of mercy in the midst of fiery judgment.

Refugees like the ones I saw in Africa can find food, water, and medical care from the good Samaritans who come to help them.  Even the name “refugee” implies a refuge is possible.  Not everyone dies in wartime.  Those who survive can rebuild a better society on the war’s ashes.  Even couples on the verge of divorce have redeemed their marriages and transformed their hell into a paradise.  It is both a privilege and responsibility of human beings to endure hell on earth – and to even transform it into heaven on earth where they can.  Not only can we survive destruction, we can thrive in the midst of it!

The Bible’s pictures of judgment are constantly colored with hope by the prophets and the apostles.  The prophet Isaiah warned about a “consuming fire” and a “continual burning” that was on the way.  He said that the only way to avoid the pain of these flames was to live righteously.  He gave specific examples of such behavior:  “speak with sincerity,” “reject unjust gain,” “hold no bribe,” and so on.  Practical, personal, everyday ethics.

The apostle John similarly explained how to get from the flames of the lake of fire into the safety of the spiritual city.  He said that those who “wash their robes” have the right to enter.  A more modern idiom would be to “clean up their acts.”  You can’t clean up your act unless you’ve been dirty.  It must be possible for those of us less than perfect to find these pockets of mercy!

In the old age, the place of refuge was a physical place:  Noah’s ark, Jerusalem’s temple, any place other than Sodom.  In the kingdom of God, all these things are matters of the heart.  God knows your situation.  He can deal with you wherever you are.  When His Jerusalem was a physical place, people were limited by time and distance.  But now, you can find Jesus anywhere on earth.  Yes, we must endure the consequences of our sins.  But we can also ask for God’s mercy.  And there is a consequence to that request, too:  we find it.  If not here, then certainly in heaven.

A Higher Purpose:  Snatching Others from the Fire

There is a higher purpose to attain to than escaping the flames sparked by humanity’s evil.  None of us are going to get out of here alive anyway.  The higher purpose is to help others escape the flames.  On the same newscast in which I saw the doctor’s report of the plight of the refugees, I also saw pictures of workers distributing food and water and caring for the sick.

The workers didn’t question whether the people they were helping had brought this famine on themselves by the way their culture had been behaving.  The sins of corrupt political leaders was likely the immediate cause.  Nevertheless, the practical thing to do was to help those who were suffering in this hell.  There would be time later to determine the cause and try to prevent a recurrence.  In the meantime, the workers were meeting the more pressing needs of the refugees.  In this, the workers found purpose and meaning.

As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, love is the greatest value of all.  Knowledge has its limitations, but love knows no limitations.  So what if we understand every single cause that had led to the famine?  Would that end the aching of any refugee belly?  Sure, knowledge can prevent recurrences.  But without love, that knowledge will never be put to that use.  Love passes around food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty.  It meets pressing needs.  Love is goodness overcoming evil.  Knowledge can puff up but love only builds up.  While some people wring their hands or curse God at the sight of starving children, these workers show us why we were put here – to help the helpless.

We cannot always know whether the trouble that has come upon a person is the consequence of that person’s own behavior (Job’s friends lost sight of this).  We can most certainly know it is the consequence of someone’s behavior.  God alone, however, is the judge.  Our best role in this life is to hand out cups of water to our fellow refugees.  It’s rewarding, it’s fulfilling, and it needs no explanation.

You don’t have to travel to find “refugees” either.  Everyone is starving for something.  If it’s yours to give, and if it’s right to give it, then pour out acts of kindness wherever you see needs.  This is an attitude for living that has only good consequences for the giver as well as the receiver.  It’s an attitude that leads to a strategy for facing consequences…whether we’ve personally been part of the cause or not.

(Return to the Table of Contents for this series of 21 essays)
(This is a series of essays on the implications of Everyone Is Going to Heaven)

17 Replies to “Surviving Hell on Earth”

  1. In reading your post, you are stating that hell is on earth. I believe this is a stretch. And your premise does not harmonize with the Bible.

    Hell is equal to the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades. This is fact that is not refuted. The English translators of the Authorized Version, or King James Version, translated Sheol 31 times as “hell,” 31 times as “grave,” and 3 times as “pit.” The Catholic Douay Version translated Sheol 64 times as “hell.” In the Christian Greek Scriptures (commonly called the “New Testament”), the King James Version translated Hades as “hell” each of the 10 times it occurs. Additionally, 12 verses in the Christian Greek Scriptures where the King James Version uses “hell” to translate the Greek word Gehenna.

    The Bible speaks of people wanting to go Hell or Sheol (Job 14:13) and of those that get out of hell or Sheol (Jonah 2:2). Jesus was dead and in his grave for three days. But the Bible reports: “His soul was not left in hell . . . This Jesus hath God raised up.” (Acts 2:31, 32, King James Version).

    The Bible states that hell is place for the dead. And the dead are conscious of nothing at all (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10). Therefore, the pholosphy of hell (a place of torment) being on earth is not supported by the Bible.

    1. Sheol (Hades) is the place of the dead. Hell (Gehenna), on the other hand, speaks of judgment. That makes for a big difference. It is good that you are aware of these different words but you will understand their respective meanings better if you read The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven, because it explains these terms as they are used in the original texts.

      English Bible translations that are not literal often obscure these respective meanings by imposing the theological opinions of the translators. Assuming you do not know Hebrew and Greek, you should rely on literal English translations and an exhaustive concordance to sort out the accurate meanings of these terms.

  2. Mike,
    The Bible is not that complicated. It is the word of God. He is the maker of everything we have come to know and will ever know. The Bible is written for our benefit.

    Adam disobedient made it necessary for Jehovah to provide mankind with his laws. If Adam would have remained obedient, the Bible would not be needed.

    The Bible is an act of love on Jehovah’s part. Therefore, a God of Love would not make something available for humans to benefit themselves difficult to understand.

    This issue of where the dead are is an elementary teaching in the Bible. There is no reason to have to create some special theology to understand where people go when they die. The Bible is clear. They go to Sheol (Hebrew), Hades (Greek), Grave, Pit, or Hell. This is where Job wanted to go for relief from his suffering. This is where Jesus was resurrected from. And this is where Lazarus was resurrected not to mention others that were resurrected. None of the people that were resurrected ever describe themselves being in a place of torment.

    1. The Bible is not that complicated. It is the word of God. He is the maker of everything we have come to know and will ever know. The Bible is written for our benefit.

      Agreed.

      Adam’s disobedience made it necessary for Jehovah to provide mankind with his laws. If Adam would have remained obedient, the Bible would not be needed.

      That Adam sinned is undeniable. Beyond that, I don’t know that it does much good to speculate on what would or wouldn’t be part of our existence if he, and all the rest of us, hadn’t sinned.

      In any case, do not lose sight of the fact that until Jesus was resurrected from the dead the promises of the Scriptures were to the descendants of Abraham only. Only through Christ were Gentiles put on an equal footing with Jews.

      The Bible is an act of love on Jehovah’s part. Therefore, a God of Love would not make something available for humans to benefit themselves difficult to understand.

      Agreed, but note also that the Bible is not understood by those who are wise in worldly ways. Academic prowess does not prevail. Rather, understanding of the Bible comes to those who are humble and lowly of heart, who seek to honor and obey God. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures in the first place.

      This issue of where the dead are is an elementary teaching in the Bible. There is no reason to have to create some special theology to understand where people go when they die. The Bible is clear.

      Agreed.

      They go to Sheol (Hebrew), Hades (Greek), Grave, Pit, or Hell. This is where Job wanted to go for relief from his suffering. This is where Jesus was resurrected from. And this is where Lazarus was resurrected not to mention others that were resurrected. None of the people that were resurrected ever describe themselves being in a place of torment.

      If you remove word “hell” from this paragraph, I completely agree with it. Hell is a different matter and relates to the Greek word “Gehenna” and the Hebrew word “Ben-Hinnom.” Hell has nothing to do with Sheol, Hades, grave, or pit – other than to precede and hasten the coming of death (which those other four words represent).

  3. Mike,
    It seems that we are not that far off after all.

    On the subject of the need for the Bible if Adam would have remained obedient, I agree with you on not speculating as an absolute. Everlasting life was and still is rewarded to those who obey Jehovah. Adam’s disobedience lost that for him and his offspring. If Adam had of remained faithful, it is possible that someone else in his line could have been disobedient since we are all free mortal agent.

    As for Hell, in 1885, with the publication of the complete English Revised Version, the original word she’ohl′ (Sheol) was in many places transliterated into the English text of the Hebrew Scriptures, though, in most occurrences, “grave” and “pit” were used, and “hell” is found some 14 times. This was a point on which the American committee disagreed with the British revisers, and so, when producing the American Standard Version (1901) they transliterated she’ohl′ in all 65 of its appearances. Both versions transliterated hai′des (Hades) in the Christian Greek Scriptures in all ten of its occurrences, though the Greek word Ge′en‧na (English, “Gehenna”) is rendered “hell” throughout, as is true of many other modern translations.

    Jesus Christ associated fire with Gehenna (Matthew 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:47, 48), as did the disciple James, the only Biblical writer besides Matthew, Mark, and Luke to use the word. (Jas 3:6)

    Some commentators endeavor to link such fiery characteristic of Gehenna with the burning of human sacrifices that was carried on prior to Josiah’s reign and, on this basis, hold that Gehenna was used by Jesus as a symbol of everlasting torment. However, since Jehovah God expressed repugnance for such practice, saying that it was “a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart” (Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35), it seems most unlikely that God’s Son, in discussing divine judgment, would make such idolatrous practice the basis for the symbolic meaning of Gehenna.

    It may be noted that God prophetically decreed that the Valley of Hinnom would serve as a place for mass disposal of dead bodies rather than for the torture of live victims. (Jeremiah 7:32, 33; 19:2, 6, 7, 10, 11) Thus, at Jeremiah 31:40 the reference to “the low plain of the carcasses and of the fatty ashes” is generally accepted as designating the Valley of Hinnom, and a gate known as “the Gate of the Ash-heaps” evidently opened out onto the eastern extremity of the valley at its juncture with the ravine of the Kidron. (Nehemiah 3:13, 14) It seems obvious that such “carcasses” and “fatty ashes” are not related to the human sacrifices made there under Ahaz and Manasseh, since any bodies so offered would doubtless be viewed by the idolaters as “sacred” and would not be left lying in the valley.

    Therefore, your understanding of the symbolic use of the word Gehenna is not what the Bible teaches. Gehenna is symbolicly used to represent complete destruction (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4, 5). Additionally, was used by James to shows that an unruly tongue is itself a world of unrighteousness and that one’s whole round of living can be affected by fiery words that defile the speaker’s body. The tongue of such a one, “full of death-dealing poison” and so giving evidence of a bad heart condition, can cause the user to be sentenced by God to go to the symbolic Gehenna (James 3:6, 8).

    1. So do you agree or disagree that “Gehenna” means something different from “Sheol,” “Hades,” “grave,” and “pit”?

      (In other words, I’m still trying to get clarity on the last part of our exchange above.)

      1. Gehenna or Valley of Hinnom was a literal place during ancient times. That is fact. And what Gehenna was used for is widely documented.

        Gehenna is also used symbolically to represent “complete destruction” which corresponds to what actually occurred in the literal place. It is also used figuratively as I stated earlier at James 3:6, 8.

        A lot of the confusion stems from how some scholars have translated Hell.
        Hell has been widely used to translate Sheol and Hades. However, some scholars have translated Gehenna as “Hell” just as they have translated Sheol as “grave” and “pit”.

        1. A lot of the confusion stems from how some scholars have translated Hell.

          I agree.

          Gehenna or Valley of Hinnom was a literal place during ancient times.

          Again, I agree. The question you should ask yourself is “Where was it located?” The answer, of course, is that it is outside Jerusalem. And as Jerusalem was a literal place that came to be used in a figurative sense so Gehenna came to be a complementary term. Thus, Jerusalem represents life in the kingdom of God and Gehenna represents existence outside it. Thus when we walk with God we walk in Jerusalem; when we walk without God, we walk (or rather stumble, given the darkness) in Gehenna. Jesus taught that these terms apply to this life, not the afterlife.

          By contrast, no one “walked” in Sheol, Hades, grave, or pit – for that was the abode of the dead and the reason why resurrection was so desperately important to humanity.

          1. Mike,
            I agree that Jerusalem and Gehenna are not only literal places but are used figutively.

            Where we differ is on your interpretation of their figurative meanings. I do not see in scripture support for Jerusalem having to do with “life in the kingdom of God”. Nor do I see any scriptural support for Gehenna representing life outside of Jerusalem. Gehenna represents of utter destruction resulting from adverse judgment by God, hence with no resurrection to life as a soul being possible. Nobody lives in Gehenna, literally or fugitively. This is how Jesus used the word at Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:4, 5.

            Additionally, unless I am misunderstanding you, no one ever walk in Gehenna except to dump bodies and trash. Gehenna served as a place for mass disposal of dead bodies (human and animal) as well as other rubbish.

            1. Steve,

              The New Testament speaks of Jerusalem in an explicitly spiritual way (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22). The city is depicted as heavenly until the coming of the kingdom of God, at which time Jerusalem came down out of heaven to earth (Revelation 3:12; 21:2,10; 22:14). Those outside it (that would be Gehenna), are those who practice unrighteousness (Revelation 21:8; 22:15). For this reason the New Testament saints were exhorted to walk in holiness and purity that they might enter those gates at the proper time (2 Peter 1:2-11; Matthew 25:31-46). Since the kingdom is eternal (2 Peter 1:11; Isaiah 9:6-7; Daniel 7:13-14), its gates remain open today for all those who will cleanse themselves (Revelation 21:10-27 and especially verse 25; also 22:14). Thus, for the kingdom of God on earth, spiritual Gehenna is the only source of new entrants.

              As for Gehenna per se, you may be placing too much emphasis on the “garbage dump” interpretation which is extrabiblical. Instead, focus on what the Scriptures say about Hinnom, especially Jeremiah.

              1. There is no reason to speculate on the what if Adam or Eve had not sinned. Scripture and the Bible states that Jesus was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. Before it all happened, God knew the plan and purpose of Jesus! He knew that the mankind he created certainly would be in need of HIS SALVATION and would need to be BORN AGAIN, in order to inherit the KINGDOM, of which I BELIEVE is WITHIN US through JESUS CHRIST, OUR HOPE OF GLORY! THIS I BELIEVE IS IN EXISTENCE NOW! THE WHOLE EARTH IS GROANING FOR THE MANIFESTATION OF THE SONS OF GOD! FOR US TO ALLOW JESUS AND GOD TO LIVE IN OUR EARTHLY MORTAL BODIES HERE and NOW! IT IS NOT jUST a one day hopeful thing to go to HEAVEN! WE are RESURRECTED IN THE SPIRIT and are already JOINED and MARRIED TO THE LORD NOW!!! THEY THAT ARE JOINED TO THE LORD are ONE SPIRIT! Don’t mean to get totally off track from the issue of the hell topic. BUT most people who claim to be Christians are so deceived as to who they are and where they are going. We are already seated with CHRIST in SPIRITUAL PLACES as HIS OFFSPRING! We are the CITY OF GOD! THE NEW JERUSALEM! MY PEOPLE PERISH FOR LACK OF KNOWLEDGE! THERE is so much delusion in the so called church today! I am glad to KNOW THAT I AM THE TEMPLE OF THE LIVING GOD and that HE DWELLS WITHIN ME! HIS KINGDOM HAD COME and CONTINUES to COME INSIDE ME! GOD BLESS THOSE SEEKING TRUTH and LIGHT!

  4. I am new to studying the bible and i am also a bible college student. In reading the bible I get exactly what you get out of it yet I am afraid to express my views in class out of fear of getting judged or/and kicked out. I feel a lot of preachers are teaching or preaching the bible wrong and are misguiding people who if they just took the time to read it and study by any means necessary to understand they would agree. I say well done I look forward to read more on your site.

    1. You are in a difficult place (2 Chronicles 13:7). Be careful about airing your views in that context (Matthew 7:6). Above all, keep your heart pure before God and quietly build up your faith in Christ (Romans 14:22; Galatians 1:10). Keep purifying your conscience by removing all your sinful thoughts from His sight. In due time, you’ll be strong enough to know His will (1 Chronicles 12:32). When He reveals His will to you, which will come as a conviction of conscience, do not hesitate and do not fear – do His will, and keep doing His will for the rest of your life. He who does the will of God never stops experiencing eternal life (1 John 2:17). Avoid doubt and fear as you would avoid germs and bacteria.

      If you ever lose your way, go back to the word of God. It will not fail you. Your own mind and your own thoughts can fail you, but the word of God will never fail you.

  5. The bible is a apology letter from god. Saying I screwed you over. But you can learn a few things love is at all angles not just some he is of loving character. Loves all kinds of objects. The angles of pattern can send out all kinds of true potiential. Love is of greatness to many different people. Love is saying heaven or hell I’m taking the bullet for you just so you can see, touch, feel, and care. Living it care free under gods free will. Justified to stand above the tallest mountain just to see the otherside. To fight beyond reason if it comes down to it. To aprreciate the little things. To value a diamond in the rough. To have patience for a great leadership. I do not wish to judge for it takes up to much time. What is judgement we automatically pass judgement everyday whether we like it or not. Now how do you pass the sugar. Attitude is everything. We have a choice to make our day great or terrible. We have choices everyday how do you thrive from them. You may have gotten a flat tire but remember before birth you didn’t even know what a flat tire was. We should be thankful and nothing more. And if god is willing to give me a coin flip then ill take it. But I will keep in mind that this world was indeed free. It was not by choice to be here and you may have to go through hell to get out. But its a privelege to be in the grace of god for the book is real seeing is believing my friends I can see the bible therefore it is real. We haven’t even began to stretch the limitations of what we can do. Probability of birth is ZERO percent that’s the math. Before birth we have no recollection of death or life. Their is only one book that gives us a meaning and that’s the holy writ. God is great. The god that created this parrellel universe is of rightousness. A god would be a ninja not wanting to be seen. And just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean its not there. But yeah I’m tired I have only began to stratch the surface.

  6. Is the Bible the “Word” of God, or is Jesus the “Word”? Wouldn’t the bible be the words of God as interpreted by man?

    I’m a little confused on this subject.

  7. The word of God is whatever God says.

    The Bible is the word of God in written form. Obviously, it’s just a subset of all that God has said.

    Jesus is the word of God made flesh.

    Yes, it is possible for us to misunderstand the word of God – whether that means the word of God to our hearts, the word of God in the Bible, or the word of God that is Jesus. For this reason we must pray and obey. It is impossible to truly understand the word of God without doing it. See Psalm 111:10.

    See also A Bible Reader’s Guide to Jesus and His Kingdom.

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