Rev. Langerak is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
As with heaven, hell is represented by two outstanding pictures. They are the grave ( or sheol) and a garbage dump called Gehenna or valley of Hinnom. Some attempt to escape the existence of hell by noting that these words are used interchangeably in Scripture. But this is as futile and foolish as denying the reality of ‘heaven’ simply because that word refers also to the firmament and outer-space. Make no mistake, hell is real. And the grave and this garbage dump warn of the eternal terror, shame, darkness, and death that are suffered body and soul in hell, under the just wrath of God against sin, by everyone not reconciled to Him through faith in Jesus Christ.
As an extension of death, the grave is a familiar picture of hell. Death and grave are related, and often mentioned together in Scripture. As heaven is to life, the grave is to death. It is the place of death, one enters it by death, and there death inexorably works its corruption. The grave (hell) is a place—a pit with steep sides, chambers, and gates (Is. 14:15; Prov. 7:27; Matt. 16:18). But there are no windows or decorations. It is a deep abyss wherein is no light—no light of God’s love and grace, no glimmerings of natural light, no light of joy and life. Only outer darkness (Matt. 8:12). The grave (hell) is a terrifying, claustrophobic, lonely place. There is no friendship or conversation, as some suppose. Only torment, weeping, and gnashing of teeth (Ps. 18:5; Ps. 116:3; Luke 16:23).
In hell, one is alone, damned, separated from everything and everyone (Mark 3:29). And none escapes its destruction. The grave (hell) is a powerful, unyielding monster with gaping jaws that swallow up its victims to digest in its belly their beauty, glory, pomp, and life (Is. 5:14; Song of Solomon 8:6; Jonah 2:2). It is a shameful place where death, having defeated a man, strips him bare, and consumes him (Is. 57:9; Job 26:2; Ps. 49:14). And hell is never satisfied. It is a bottomless pit (Prov. 30:16; Rev. 9:2).
Gehenna is a less familiar but equally significant picture of hell. Gehenna was a deep valley outside Jerusalem, infamous as the place Ahaz and Manasseh established as official worship the burning of covenant children in sacrifice to Molech (Josh. 15:8; II Chron. 28:3; II Chron. 33:6). Hence it was also known as Tophet, a reference to the fires that consumed the little ones or the drums beaten to drown out their screams (Is. 30:31-32). To prevent this abomination from reoccurring, godly Josiah defiled the place by making it a garbage dump. There, the rubbish, excrement, animal carcasses, and corpses of criminals were discarded into a reeking, putrefied mass perpetually crawling with worms and smoldering with fire (II Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:33).
Gehenna is the word our Lord used most often for hell. Familiar to His audience, it served as a vivid and extended warning, especially to the complacent and apostates in the church, to “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” So also today. It emphasizes that hell is the place of lowest shame and eternal torment for all the dung, garbage, vile, and unclean beasts regardless of their place among men. So repent! The kingdom being at hand, hell is near.
When the Lord returns, He will destroy all things, so the pictures of hell give way to the reality (Rev. 20:14). From His kingdom the Lord will first gather, judge without respect of person, then take out the trash. Satan, his brood of vipers, Antichrist, even death and hell He will cast into the lake of fire (Matt. 23:33; Rev. 20:10-14). Also, all others who forget God and reject His Christ—the idolater, blasphemer, Sabbath desecrator, thief, fornicator, murderer, liar, and covetous have no place in His kingdom (Ps. 9:17; Matt. 5:22; Matt. 11:23; Prov. 5:5; Eph. 5:5). Objects of God’s killing wrath in hell, they are never consumed, their bodies fitted for perpetual destruction in the resurrection unto damnation (John 5:29; Mark 9:44).
Seek Jesus! He alone has the keys of death and hell. Crucified, dead, and buried in the grave, He descended into the deep pit of hell, the belly of that insatiable beast, passed through the darkness of the valley of death, and emerged victorious. Having paid the wages of sin, His soul could not be left in hell nor His body allowed to see corruption (Ps. 16:10). Damned, enduring the shame of hell, suffering its inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and agonies under the wrath of God, He has delivered all who find refuge in Him from the same (L.D. 16). In all my greatest temptations I may, as a believer, be assured of, not hell, but eternal life, joy, light, and glory in His heaven.