Question & Answer

SHOULD WE BELIEVE IN HELL? 

Forgive me, but I think this is the wrong question to ask. The right one is this: `Did Jesus, our Lord, believe in Hell?' The fact is that Jesus said more about Hell than almost anyone else.

However, we need to sort out some words. In some versions of the Bible it is a bit confusing. One word is "Sheol", which simply means the place of the dead, the grave or the unseen world. This is what is referred to in the Creed, where we say that Jesus "descended into Hell".

The other word is "Gehenna" . This name comes from the site which was the place for burning the refuse of the city and the bodies of criminals. This is the word which raises the difficulties.

Is there punishment after death or do we all go to heaven irrespective of whether we have turned to Christ or not? To put it another way in the words of Bishop Frank Houghton's great hymn, is it true that `unnumbered souls are dying and pass into the night'?

In Matthew 13 verse 31 we read that Jesus speaks of `a furnace of fire, a place where people will weep and gnash their teeth'. And in Luke 12: 5 we read of him who has the power to cast into Hell, and we are to fear him. Any good concordance will provide many such references in the Old and New Testaments.

But it may be that the questioner is asking something else. "Can a loving God bear to allow some of His creation to perish?'

Behind this question there is the great question of man's freedom. Would a loving God really force us to go to be with Him in heaven if we don't want to do so. The first chapters of the Letter to the Romans work out the thought that, because all people are `without excuse' they deserve wrath. These chapters repay careful study.

To sum up, the New Testament makes it clear that we do indeed need to believe in Hell, because it is revealed by God in Scripture.

John Pearce, the author of this piece is the Rector of Limehouse in the diocese of London.

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