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TEXT: Genesis 2:17; 3:24
SUBJECT: Doctrine of Hell #1: Witness of the Old Testament
Today, as the Lord provides, I hope to begin an afternoon study of the Doctrine of Hell. I call it the Doctrine of Hell, because I don't know what else to call it, but let's be sure of one thing from the start: Hell is not only a doctrine! It is a reality. Some years ago, a Roman Catholic author was asked why he always capitalized 'Hell' in his books, and he replied-
Because it's a real place; like Scranton!
The cleverness of his answer makes me smile, but not its content. To know that there really is a Hell, that a great many people will be sent there someday-and that I could be one of them!-is no pleasant Sunday afternoon meditation. It is not pleasant to think about Hell, but it is necessary. Necessary to the unbeliever, first of all, who must-
Flee from the wrath to come.
.or be overtaken by it.
Also necessary to the believer-in-Christ, for we will never appreciate our Savior until we appreciate what He saves us from. Nor will we ever evangelize the world until what awaits them, if we don't, truly sinks in.
No sane man likes thinking about Hell, and no decent pastor enjoys preaching it, but both must be done, and while a slap in the face is never pleasant, it can be good for us-
Let the righteous smite me;
it shall be a kindness.
Let him reprove me;
it shall be an excellent oil.
Our present topic is the Witness of the Old Testament to the Doctrine of Hell. It is commonly believed that the Old Testament is a harsh and bloodthirsty book, while the New Testament is all sweetness and light. On the Doctrine of Hell, the opposite is true.
The Doctrine is in the Old Testament, but it is not nearly as developed-or terrifying-as it is in the New Testament, and in particular, in the sayings of our Lord Jesus Christ! If you want to see a Hellfire and Brimstone Preacher, don't go to the country Baptist Church, down in Mississippi, with the red-faced pastor. Go to Jesus! Almost every image the loud-mouthed Bible-thumper uses in his sermon, he got from The Prince of Peace, who is no less A Man of War!
In the Old Testament, two Hebrew words are sometimes translated 'hell'. The more common of the two is Sheol, which appears 66 times; the other is Gehenna, a word from the Old Testament used in the New Testament for 'Hell'.
Pretty much all scholars concur that Sheol means something like 'the realm of the dead'. Thus, it is not distinctly 'hellish' you might say. But, if not all men live alike, neither do they all die alike. Thus, in some places, Sheol definitely stands for a place of terrible loss and punishment. Deuteronomy 32:22, for example, emphasizes the punishment part-
For a fire is kindled in my anger,
And shall burn to the lowest parts of Sheol.
Isaiah 14 focuses on the aspect of loss. There the King of Babylon is warned that he will be consigned to Sheol, where all of the power and glory he enjoyed in this life will be taken away from him.
The Hebrew word, Sheol, while not exactly meaning 'Hell' (as we understand it) nonetheless, hints at it, suggests that the wicked will one day get their comeuppance!
The second Hebrew word is Gehenna also known as the Valley of Hinnom. What's that? It was a place in Jerusalem made notorious by some of the kings performing human sacrifices there, men offering their own sons to win the favor of the gods. Because human sacrifice is such an abomination, the Valley of Hinnom became an unclean place, where garbage was dumped--and burned. Our Lord Jesus used this word, when warning us of the consequences of our sin, Matthew 5:22, for instance-
Whoever says, 'You fool' shall be in danger of hell fire.
(That is Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom).
And so, was Gehenna a garbage dump? Yes it was. Was that all it was? No. It was also a byword for uncleanness and fire--and exclusion from God and His People.
It's something like Hiroshima. That is a real city in Japan; but that's not all it is. It is also a symbol of nuclear war or of unimaginable destruction.
Christians who deny the Doctrine of Hell will often point out the-let's say-'fluid' meaning of the words Sheol and Gehenna. And, of course, they're right-in part. Sheol and Gehenna are not exact translations of 'Hell', but no informed Christian says they are. They don't prove Hell! Anymore than the lambs sacrificed on the altar in Jerusalem prove Jesus is-
The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Sheol and Gehenna are not proofs; they're prophecies, being real things in themselves, but also pointing past themselves, into-if I can change the wording of Hebrews-
The worse things to come.
THE THING ITSELF
Word studies can be very helpful, at times, but you mustn't run amok with your concordance, especially an English concordance. The Old Testament's witness to Hell does not depend on the words, Sheol and Gehenna. If they were removed from the Old Testament entirely, its testimony would be the same. Even without the 'hell' words, the Hebrew Bible certainly teaches the Doctrine of Hell-not the whole Doctrine of Hell, but enough that we wouldn't want to end up there!
A lot of its teaching can be found right near the beginning, in the second and third chapters of Genesis. Right on the surface what do the first chapters teach?
They teach that God is all powerful, 1:1-
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
A few verses later, we see that the making of mankind is the climax of His creative work. Already, we see the first article of our Creed-
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
The chapters also teach that our Maker has given us a law to keep, 2:17-
But of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.
Adam and God do not 'hammer out an agreement'. The Lord simply exercises His lordship, allowing Adam to eat any fruit he likes in the Garden--except for one. This is Law at its most basic.
The chapters, thirdly, teach that God attached a penalty for disobedience, 2:17-
For in the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.
Fourthly, Adam and Eve disobey God, 3:6-
She took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.
Finally, God punishes Adam and Eve with a variety of consequences, the most important of which are banishment and death, 3:19, 24-
To dust you shall return.so He drove out the man.
These five headings make up the outline, explanation, and defense of the Bible doctrine of Hell.
God is our Maker, and to Him we are accountable. He has given us a Law, which we have broken. Thus, we both deserve to be punished, and will be. And, whatever else this punishment includes, it definitely means some kind of death and exclusion from God's Presence.
This short story becomes a pattern, recurring time and again in the Old Testament. Israel became the New Adam and promised a New Eden-if only they would obey the voice of the Lord their God. But they did not obey His voice, and.what happened? The nation sort of died with the Exile and was certainly put out of their Eden and driven from the Presence of God.
This is the Old Testament Doctrine of Hell in miniature. Man is made good; he is put under the law; he breaks that law; he dies and is kicked out of God's House.
A BRIEF ANSWER
Most unbelievers want no part of this outline! Either there is no God, or if there is, He doesn't have a Law, and if He does, there are no penalties for breaking it, and if there are, He's not going to enforce them, and if He does, I haven't broken them, and if I have, He'll let me off the hook anyway.
If many unbelievers think this way, I have never met a Christian who does. The real objection to the Bible Doctrine of Hell is not that 'people shouldn't be punished' so much as it is 'They shouldn't be punished forever!'
In my opinion, if the Bible only taught 'not everyone goes to Heaven', there wouldn't be that many objections to its Doctrine of Hell. But that many will go to Hell and stay there forever! is what's so hard to stomach.
The New Testament plainly teaches this (we'll get to that next time), but does the Old Testament? Or does it solely concern itself with the things of the earth, in time and space?
We all agree that the Flood wiped out the whole world except Noah and his family. Or that Sodom and Gomorrah were reduced to ashes. Or that the Lord--and not just David-killed Goliath!
It's the eternal part of Eternal Damnation that keeps us up and night and tempts us to limit 'hell' to time and space. And so, does the Old Testament anywhere teach that Sheol, Gehenna or whatever really has no end? At least two passages certainly teach that, Isaiah 66:24 and Daniel 12:2.
Speaking of the punishment God will inflict on His enemies, the former says-
Their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched.
The latter says the wicked will-
Rise to everlasting contempt.
If we had nothing but the Old Testament, our knowledge of Hell would be wholly inadequate, and we'd have to be very careful about spouting our opinions. But even in this incomplete form, the Old Testament warns us to-
Flee from the wrath to come.
..which can only be done by fleeing to the God of Israel, who will find a way to both maintain His justice and extend His mercy to the people who are not just.
This is where the Old Testament leaves us, in a state of waiting to see how God would pull off the miracle. He began doing that in a way no one could have expected. A young girl (maybe out doing the wash, who knows?) was approached by an angel with the great good news-
The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the holy one who shall be born to you will be called the Son of God!
The Problem of Hell, therefore, is not solved by the preacher, the theologian, the philosopher, or the psychiatrist. It is solved by the Son of God. To whom be praise, now and forever. Amen.
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