The Imagery and Reality of Hell
The imagery for New Testament descriptions of Hell is found in the Old Testament. Passages such as Jeremiah 19:1-9 describe a place called The Valley of Ben Hinnom. To this day it is still remembered as one of the most infamous places on earth.
The Valley of Ben Hinnom (Son of Hinnom, perhaps the original Jebusite owner of the land) is a deep, narrow ravine south of Jerusalem. At the High Places of Baal in this valley, parents sacrificed their children as burnt offerings to the pagan god Molech (2 kings 23:10). The various tribes among the ancient inhabitants of the Holy Land all worshiped the same pantheon of gods. The most prominent of which was known as Baal to the Canaanites, Kronos to the Phoenicians (no Biblical reference), Moloch to the Ammonites, Dagon to the Philistines and Chemosh to the Moabites.
Dr John Currid, professor of O.T. describes an area in ancient Phoenicia, now Lebanon, where this practice occurred for several hundred years. (Jezebel came from that region and may have brought Baal worship to Israel when she married Ahab.) Dr Currid says archaeologists have unearthed one sacrificial cemetery measuring 60,000 square feet and containing the remains of 20,000 burned children.
The practice of sacrificing infants was described by the Greek author Kleitarchos in 300 B.C.: “Out of reverence for Kronos (Baal) the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, whenever they seek to obtain some great favor, vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity. There stands in their midst a bronze statute of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier; the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall on the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems to be laughing, until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier.”
Incredibly, God’s chosen people fell into this abominable practice and the idolatry that accompanied it. Ahaz and Mannasseh, kings of Judah, were both guilty of this awful wickedness (2 Chron 28:3; 33:6). Some of the harshest language in the Bible is directed at those ancient sinners who sacrificed children in places like the Valley of Hinnom.
Jeremiah prophesied that God would judge this awful abomination of human sacrifice and would cause such a destruction that the Valley of Hinnom would become known as the Valley of Slaughter (Jer 7:31-32; 19:2,6; 32:35).
Later, and apparently during the time of Christ, the Valley of Hinnom was used as a garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. Refuse, waste materials, and dead animals were burned here. Fires continually smoldered, and smoke from the burning debris rose day and night. Hinnom thus became a graphic symbol of woe and judgement and of the place of eternal punishment called hell.
Many do not believe in hell or the idea of eternal punishment. The official position of other religions bear this out. The Christian Science belief is that hell is on earth. Those known as Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that to be lost eternally simply means to be annihilated. The Universalist believes that God is too loving and merciful to allow any one to be sent to an eternal punishment. Polls taken over the years also point out that the existence of a literal, eternal hell is not commonly believed. Only 30% of Catholics believe in hell and among the general U.S. population only about 1 in 8 believe in hell. Generally, religious people (even those who call themselves Christians) in the United States believe in God, Jesus, and Heaven, but deny the reality of hell!
As Christians, we must accept the reality of hell. It exists just as surely as heaven exists. Our understanding that hell is a real place is based on the way Jesus and the writers of the New Testament speak of it. There is as much evidence of the existence of hell in the New Testament as there is of heaven.
Translated into Greek, the Hebrew “Valley of Hinnom” becomes gehenna, which is used 12 times in the New Testament (Matt 5:22,29,30; Matt 18:8,9 – Mk 9:43-47; Matt 10:28 – Lk 12:5; Matt 23:15,33; James 3:6). There is no reason to accept these references to hell as being any less than descriptions of an actual place. Beyond these references, there are at least a dozen other passages in the New Testament that describe a place of punishment for the wicked. Matt 13:42 speaks of a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth; Matt 25:46 – eternal punishment; Phil 3:19 – whose end is destruction; 2 Thess 1:9 – eternal destruction away from God and His glory; Heb 10:39 – shrink back to destruction; 2 Pet 2:17 – the black darkness; Jude 13 – black darkness forever; Rev 2:11; 19:20; 20:6,10,14; 21:8 all speak of either the 2nd death, or fire and brimstone.
Accepting the reality of hell not only requires coming to grips with its existence but also with the eternal nature of the punishment to be suffered. In Matt 25:46 the term “eternal” is applied equally to heaven and hell. You don’t hear too many people arguing against the eternal nature of heaven. Also, 2 Thess 1:7-10 speaks of “everlasting” destruction (also see from 2 Pet 3:6,7 that destruction does not necessarily imply a cessation of existence as the Jehovah Witness teach).
In conclusion, we cannot say that the existence of hell is inconsistent with the mercy of God. After all, we have been given timely and adequate warning about hell and complete instructions in how to avoid it. We can rest assured that no one will go there accidentally. God is just, and will make no mistakes in the final judgment. Finally, it should be noted that Jesus, the lamb of God who demonstrated his love for all of mankind by dying on the cross for our sins said more in his own words about the existence of hell than any other New Testament character. The reality of hell cannot be changed, but your life and the direction in which you are headed can be changed. Please prepare now to avoid the eternal punishment of this dreadful place.
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary ; “Abortion: Child Sacrifice in the ‘90’s?” Dr John Currid, Ministry, Summer 93. p. 2.