Is Hell real? Christ’s Descent into the place we commonly refer to today as “Hell” is referred to in the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed. We as Bible believing Lutherans have always believed in hell. Martin Luther, in a sermon delivered in Torgau in 1533, stated that Christ descended into Hell. The Formula of Concord (a Lutheran confession) states, “We believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.” (Solid Declaration, Art. IX). This makes it pretty clear that this was a victory march. Some will try to say that Luther hedged his bets on this and wouldn’t come clean as to whether or not he saw this event as part of the humiliation or exaltation of Christ, but, without knowing the actual citations they use, I don’t see how we can attribute to Luther any belief except that of a victory march.
Some of the biggest obstacles to understanding Jesus descent into hell come out of Catholicism and are caused by the use of Latin Vulgate translations of the Bible and the creeds. The Latin is a translation of the Bible from its original Greek and Hebrew languages and can add insight but is to be rejected, therefore, out of hand if it disagrees with the Greek and Hebrew records. The meaning is always lost with a translation. Therefore we will disregard the Latin word Limbo, translated sometimes as hell, from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible.
The bottom line up front is that Hell is a real place and the English Word comes from three words of the Biblical language of Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic. In these languages there are three Words which we translate as Hell today. We first have the Hebrew word Sheol which in theHebrew Old Testament, is a place of darkness where spirits of the dead go. We next have the Greek Word Hades of the New Testament which was the god of the underworld; and the name eventually came to also describe the home of the dead as well. Finally, we have the Greek Word Gehenna (from the Ancient Greek and Hebrew): this word for hell appears to be almost a transliteration (making the word sound audibly the same) in the Ancient Greek of something out of the Ancient Hebrew/Aramaic language. Originally, Gehenna was said to be a small valley in Jerusalem in OT times. It was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. After this it was considered to be cursed (Book of Jeremiah 7:31, 19:2–6). Some then suggested that it became a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem but it seems more likely that it became a burial site. In the case of Gehenna, it has really become a dead metaphor to refer to hell in the Greek New Testament. A Dead Metaphor is a figure of speech which has lost the original imagery of its meaning due to extensive, repetitive, and popular usage. Examples would be foot of the bed and leg of the trip; obviously beds and trips don’t have foots and legs, but we know what is meant. And so Gehenna became like a dead metaphor that simply meant Hell in the Bible.
Sheol appears about 26 times in the Old Testament. In the English New Testament there are no less than 10 uses of the words Hades and about 13 uses of the Word Gehenna, which is translated as Hell. We cannot help but read these words in context and quickly realize that the Doctrine of the existence of hell is clearly taught in the Bible and is something to be taken seriously.
A thought to ponder this Lenten season. These three words, “Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna” are all synonyms’. A synonym is a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language. These three words all mean Hell even though only Gehenna is translated as Hell.
There are many other verses that refer to Hell by use of other figures of speech such as metonymy’s and idioms. A Metonymy is a figure of speech that replaces the name of a thing with the name of one thing with something which it is closely associated. For example, we might say that “the whole city of Jerusalem came to see Jesus at the Jordan River.” What we mean is that most of the people IN the city came to see Jesus. Here, the city, with all of its walls and buildings, is put to represent the people of the city. We read in 1 Peter 3:19-20:
(Jesus) “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water….”
We see the words “imprisoned spirits” here which is also a metonymy whereby the location of hell is represented by those who inhabit it. This then, in the big picture, becomes another type of synonym once again referring to hell.
We have other references to hell which are figures of speech called idioms. An Idiom is a word or combinations of words that have a different figurative meaning than the literal meanings of each word or the phrase. Typically these are phrases that only have an understood meaning in the languages and/or cultures they developed in. An example would be, “It is raining Cats and Dogs.” Or “I’m going to hit the road.” We read in Philippians 2:19;
Philippians 2:9-10: “God exalted Him and gave to Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, of those in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth“
Since Paul here is talking to Greeks this is likely an idiom which refers to the Greek underworld where souls go after death—sometimes known as Hades–is described as being either at the outer bounds of the ocean or beneath the depths or ends of the earth. It uses this as a idiomatic way of describing the Christian doctrine of hell.
Make no mistake, if we understand and use good Bible translation principles, are knowledgeable of figures of speech, and look at things in context both narrow and large, we can come to no other conclusion then that the Bible really does teach the Doctrine of the existence of a place called hell. I had about three more pages to this article so trust me when I say that I could better document all of this. I leave you with this thought;
5 “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. –1 Corinthians 15:55-57