Does God Send People to Hell?

Does God Send People to Hell?

September 13, 2023 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

St. Luke’s UMC

September 10, 2023

Fall Series


Does God Send People to Hell?

Psalm 139:7-10; Matthew 5:22; 1 Peter 3: 19-19 (Msg)

When I was about 8 or 9, I learned at my elementary school that the YMCA had a program where kids can be taken after school and play sports. Some of my friends told me about this so I asked my parents and got permission to attend. What better way to spend the hours after school than playing basketball, swimming, or kickball outside? What my friends failed to inform me about was the first 30 minutes “Spiritual Lesson” you had to sit through.

A man stood in the front and read from the Book of Revelation, “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (20:15) He went into great detail about this lake of fire. He spoke as if he’d been there! He had us imagine swimming in fire for all eternity, and that because we are all sinners this is what we deserve, that God will send us there. But Jesus comes to rescue us and keep us out of the fire. Then he said, “Everyone who doesn’t want to go to the lake of fire, raise your hands.” We all raised our hands, which turned out to be a good call, because that ended the lesson and we got cookies and could then go play basketball.

Now, I didn’t have things clearly delineated in my 8 or 9 year old head, but what I remember thinking is that this lake of fire place sounds really awful, and that Jesus sounds like a cool guy, but God is another story. God sounds pretty ornery. You don’t want to be on God’s bad side. And it was like Jesus and God were “good-cop; bad-cop.”

As Rob Bell says in his book Love Wins, the gospel is framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners because God is holy, and Jesus rescues us from eternal damnation. And what this “can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God!” (p182)

Maybe you are like me and can recall some event long ago when you first became troubled by the idea of a God who punishes. Maybe you are still trying to figure this out, this whole heaven and hell concept and how a good God might consign people to eternal punishment. The question today is remarkably straightforward, Does God send people to hell? But that doesn’t mean the answer is simple. And the answer we give has deep implications. Our answer reveals what we believe about the character of God, Judgement, and what happens to us after we die.

{Now let me point out that the question implies a belief in hell. If you don’t believe in the reality of hell, then today’s question doesn’t bother you. You’re not worried about God sending you to a place that doesn’t exist. But it’s also hard to believe in heaven and not hell. Whatever words you would use to describe heaven like good or perfect or joyful can be understood only in the context of their opposites. We can’t call something good if there is not a bad. So to believe that heaven is a condition where the values of God are fully realized, then it means there is an alternate reality that exists.}

At least that’s what the Bible says and it is what Jesus said. So if we are going to take this question seriously—Does God send people to hell?—then we need to know what the Bible says about hell. There are three words: Sheol, Gehenna and Hades.

First, sheol is the Old Testament word associated with hell.

Sheol means “the abode of the dead.” Sheol is described as being deep in the earth, a place we all go after death. It’s simply described as a reality, not a place of punishment. But, interestingly sheol is a place where God is present. This is what the Psalmist meant: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”

Sheol is understood in the context of the way the Old Testament speaks of life and death. This is different from our understanding which looks at these words as fixed realities, either we are alive or we’re dead. The Old Testament talks about them as two attitudes by which we live. We either choose to live for things that brings life and have a future to them, or we choose things that don’t bring life or a future. This is what Moses meant in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…”

So in the Old Testament hell is described as sheol—this place below ground where we go when we die, but not as a place of punishment, but more connected to our choices in life and how we can seek in things that give life or not. o while not explaining a lot about what sheol is and is not, we see that it is a place where God is still at work.

Now, the New Testament word that is used most often for hell is Gehenna. This word has a geographic reference. It refers to the Valley of Hinnom just outside Jerusalem. (map)

This was the place in the Old Testament where child sacrifices were made to the god Molech. It was a desecrated place. By Jesus’ day it became the city dump where garbage was burned. There was always a smoldering fire burning, so that Gehenna became associated with waste where fires consume that which no longer has a future.

So when Jesus talked about hell like in Matthew 5:22 and says, “If you say, ‘you fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” He is talking about a real location. If someone said, “Go to hell!” They weren’t being metaphorical. It was a real place and a real metaphor for the way we can treat ourselves and others.

--When we are betrayed by people we feel burned.

--When we get put down and demonized by others, we feel scorched.

--When our rights are ignored or we’ve been disrespected it is like we have been thrown on the trash heap.

So you put these two words together, sheol and Gehenna, and you have this understanding of hell that has to do with choices we make that don’t bring life. In fact, just the opposite. Choices that destroy just like a fire. And, of course, this is what makes hell a very present reality. We don’t have to speculate what hell is like, we see it all the time:

--people who buy and sell others in human trafficking for exploitation.

--wars in which bombs are dropped in populations killing children and families so that power hungry leaders can control more land.


But then there is one other word used in the New Testament for hell. It is the Greek version of the word sheol which is Hades. Hades is named for the Greek god of the underworld. It has to do with death, but different from sheol, Hades does describe death as a place of punishment and torment. Like Gehenna, it is associated with fire. Jesus told a very important parable about Hades. It’s a story that when you look at the deep meaning of it, reveals what Jesus thought about the question Does God Send People to Hell?

The parable begins with a rich man who lived in luxury. Hi name isn’t mentioned, but the one time a parable of Jesus does include a name is for the poor man who used to lies at the rich man’s gate, hungry and craving for scraps from his table. The poor man’s name was Lazarus.

They both die. Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham’s side, an image of heaven. The rich man, well, not so much. He went to Hades and was in torment. The parable doesn’t mention about how they got there, whether there was a judgment or God sent them. It just says they both went to these places after death. But in these places there is still a story to be told.

The rich man is in agony in a fire. So I guess the guy from the YMCA was right after all about hell and the lake of fire! Anyway, the rich man calls to Abraham to send Lazarus to him to cool his tongue with water. But Abraham points out that in his life he lived in luxury while Lazarus was poor, and it sort of implies that their earthly life has something to do with where they are now.

But Abraham also says that there is a great chasm between them so one cannot cross over to the other. So the rich man begs that Abraham send Lazarus to warn his family so they don’t end up in Hades with him. In other words, the rich man says, “If you can’t help me, then help my people!” But Abaraham says they have Moses and the Prophets, if his family won’t pay attention to them, they won’t heed someone who rises from the dead.”

And that’s how the story ends. And you would think from this story that the answer to our question today must be yes, God does send people to hell. But think about a few points. First, notice that the rich man even after death treats Lazarus like a servant. He calls to Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him water. He doesn’t speak directly to Lazarus even though he knows his name. He treats Lazarus as less important than himself just like he did in his lifetime, somebody not worth helping.

Then, secondly, think about what it says about hell. Jesus describes this chasm, this divide between heaven and hell that can’t be crossed, but perhaps what he is describing is what is fixed in the rich man. Even in death there is not repentance. There’s not a change in perspective or attitude. There’s just this trajectory of life which the rich man refused to ever change.

If this is what Jesus meant to communicate in this parable, then it makes an important point about hell. Hell is not the final destination to which God sends us as punishment for our bad choices, but hell becomes nothing more than the outcome of life that refused to change. As Tim Keller said in his book The Reason for God: “Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.” (p.77)

And then a third observation, and one that I frankly consider an outstanding thought. If these interpretations of hell are close to Jesus’ understanding, then it raises the question, could there be opportunity for repentance in hell? Or maybe more positively stated, could hell be a place where grace is found?

You wonder if the rich man in Jesus’ parable could have changed his condition with a change of heart? He treats Lazarus insignificantly. He basically blames God for not giving enough information in his life so he could have changed his eternal fortunes. But what if he had just pointed the finger at himself? What if he had, in fact, sought to get out of hell? He didn’t. He just wanted to make his conditions in hell more tolerable. But he didn’t actually want to change anything. What if he had wanted real change?

I know the Bible is full of ideas about hell as a fixed place where God sends us. You can certainly find plenty of verses that support hell as a place where there is no hope of change. But to be fair to the Bible, there are these other verses. Verses that give a different idea of hell.

For instance, 1 Samuel 2:6: “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.”

Or Psalm 30:3: “O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.” Psalm 30:3

Could hell be a place where God still offers the chance of changing our direction and outcome? As C.S. Lewis said, “the doors of hell are locked from the inside.” (The Problem of Pain)

Lewis even illustrated this idea in one of his books, The Great Divorce. Its an imaginary story about a person who takes a bus ride from hell to heaven. You get to know others on the bus. They represent lots of different personalities of people who are unhappy. There are the grumblers, there are those who can’t forgive, there is even a liberal pastor who doesn’t believe in heaven or hell and therefore finds it hard to really believe anything. Faith has been turned into something academic.

In heaven they are each confronted with the opportunity to make changes, but they have to be willing to let go of some things. In the end, most of them choose to get back on the bus and return to hell.

For Lewis hell isn’t a literal place of fire and brimstone, but it is a real condition. A condition that starts in this life, where we choose to keep holding onto the things that make us miserable, the things that can consume our living and lessen our life.

And you probably think to yourself right now, “well this isn’t a very uplifting sermon.” But it is! This very idea says that even hell can be a place of grace. Even hell can be an opportunity to choose differently, to let go of things, to embrace a life we want to have.

In fact there are a few places in the New Testament that suggest that after the resurrection, the first thing Jesus did was descend into hell.

Ephesians 4:9: “When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” Paul is talking about the concept of sheol.

1 Peter 3:19: “He went and proclaimed God’s salvation to earlier generations who ended up in the prison of judgment because they wouldn’t listen.” (The Message)

This is why the earliest creed of the church was written with a line we don’t typically include in the Apostles’ Creed today:

I believe in Jesus Christ…He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again…

In other words Jesus never stops trying to reach people, even if it means going to hell and back. His grace never ends. Just as Jesus meets people in their literal hells today, in their abuses, their torments, their fires; Jesus enters the eternal hells to give us chance to let go of things, things we don’t need to carry with us forever, things that don’t fit in heaven.

Is their Judgement? Is there life after death? The Bible would have us believe so. I believe so. But I also believe that mercy triumphs over judgement, as the Bible says.

Does God Send people to hell? What do you think?

I think there may be an even better question. What am I holding in my heart today that won’t fit in heaven? What about my life won’t fit the conditions of heaven?

One final thought. In some of Jesus parables where he describes people being sent to eternal punishment, he describes it as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. That’s an interesting description, gnashing of teeth. It certainly doesn’t sound pleasant but why such an image? I once heard a speaker say that it’s a picture of regret. Have you had a moment where you say something, you do something and instantly regret it? What do we often do in that moment? Clinch our teeth! Hell is described as place where all we do is live in regret. And that’s not where God lives. God lives in hope where there is release from the past, willingness to forgive, and opportunity to embrace the new.

Maybe the great question is why not choose that? Why not welcome God’s help to let go of things that won’t belong in heaven, and live toward the kind of life we hope will never end.