Is Hell Eternal? – Part 3

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Part II of this series concluded with discussion of Abraham’s bosom (Paradise) as the place of blessing, in contrast to the place of torment for the unbeliever.

The great chasm separating Abraham’s bosom from the place of torment (hadēs), is likely the heavens themselves. The notion that Old Testament saints were captives in Abraham’s bosom, and they needed to be released and carried with Christ in triumph to heaven, is derived from certain passages: Luke 16:19-31, Ephesians 4:8-10, and 1 Peter 3:18-20. The present article will consider the validity of this understanding.

First Peter 3:18-20
The fact that Christ is said to have “made proclamation to the spirits now in prison” (1 Pet 3:19), has led some to conclude that Christ descended to the place of torment (hadēs) and preached to the spirits there: either to offer a second chance to any who would repent, or to proclaim their eternal condemnation in His triumph over them. Peter was specific with regard to who received the message of proclamation: those “who once were disobedient . . . in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark” (v. 20). The notion that Christ would descend to hadēs and there make proclamation to such a limited audience, does seem peculiar. Moreover, if the Lord did descend to hadēs to proclaim His triumph, certainly He would have declared that message to all the sinners there. Even more problematic is the idea that Christ would offer a second chance to sinners, when Scripture indicates the impossibility of repentance after death (Luke 16:26; Heb 9:27).

While it is possible that Christ truly descended to the place (Tartarus) where demonic spirits are confined, to make proclamation of His victory accomplished on Calvary’s cross (1 Pet 3:18-20), there is no reason to conclude that Christ descended into any compartment of hadēs for the purpose of releasing Old Testament saints from captivity. The purpose of Jesus’ instruction in Luke 16:26 was to indicate that upon death, a person would either go to a place of everlasting blessing or eternal torment. The place of blessing for the Old Testament believer would be where Abraham is, and unbelievers would experience torment in hadēs, until their final sentencing to hell at the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15).

Revelation 20:11-15 reveals the final judgment awaiting those in prison (hadēs). Hell is the ultimate destiny for the unbeliever; it will be an eternal torment “with fire and brimstone” (Rev 14:10-11; cf. 19:3; Isa 34:10). The unbelieving do not cease to exist through annihilation, for this would contradict both the experience of torment stated in Revelation 14:10, and the very next line in verse 11, where it says, “they have no rest day and night.” The experience of torment continues perpetually. The depiction of the final judgment in Revelation corresponds to Matthew 25:46, where the unbeliever will “go away into eternal punishment,” and “the righteous” are brought “into eternal life.”

The final sentencing to hell occurs when the dead stand before the “great white throne” and are “judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Rev 20:11-12). Salvation has always been by grace through faith; thus, the judgment “according to their deeds” is to determine where in hell the unbeliever will be, since there are degrees of suffering, even though hell is a place of torment wherever one may be.

Luke 16:19-31
Luke 16 reveals that unbelievers will be jailed in hadēs until being imprisoned for life. At the most basic level, the fundamental difference between jail and prison is the length of stay for detainees. Hadēs is a place of fiery suffering, yet it is the temporary residence of the lost. The unbeliever’s final judgment and sentencing to hell will not occur until a future time. Consequently, the grim reality “is a great chasm fixed” between heaven and hell (Luke 16:26).

Subsequent to Jesus asserting “that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us,” the rich man begged for someone to warn his five brothers, so that they would not enter the “place of torment” (vv. 26-28). No one would be sent to them because, “They have Moses and the Prophets” (v. 29). The Word of God is sufficient for salvation: someone being raised “from the dead” is unnecessary, for it would trivialize Christ’s resurrection and the lost would “not be persuaded” (vv. 30-31). Even two millennia after Christ died and was raised from the grave, people remain unconvinced. Individuals have the opportunity to hear, and still choose to be disobedient.

Ephesians 4:8-10
Ephesians 4:8 refers to the fact that when Christ “ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES.” The image is that of a conqueror who, as a display of victory, leads the defeated in a triumphal procession. The same expression of “captives” was used in Judges 5:12, where Barak was urged to “take away your captives.” Psalm 68:18 refers to how God led captive His captives. The Lord entered Zion when David moved the ark to Jerusalem (an event attended by “myriads, thousands upon thousands,” v. 17). God “ascended on high” in triumphal ascent. He was victorious over His enemies, and took as “captives” those who were “rebellious” toward His rule. Ephesians 4:8 quotes Psalm 68:18, in reference to Christ’s triumphant ascension to His Father’s throne subsequent to His resurrection. (Jesus’ prohibition in John 20:17 likely has nothing to do with the nature of His resurrection body; rather, the Lord was instructing Mary not to cling to Him since He might disappear imminently and return to heaven.)

The imagery of leading captivity captive does not refer to believers being freed from Abraham’s bosom in hades and then being led in triumph to heaven, because that interpretation does not correspond to the biblical usage or the idea being conveyed. Abraham was never a captive, for he is the very example of righteousness through faith (Rom 4)! The Old Testament souls in Paradise were not enemies of God. Old Testament believers were just as redeemed as New Testament believers, for salvation has always been on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

Jesus was the first to receive a glorified body, yet it was not required for Him to be the first to ascend to heaven. All believers who have died enter heaven; however, their experience is an intermediate state, while awaiting the glorification of the body. Moreover, the tombs opening when Christ died (Matt 27:52-53) were not resurrections but resuscitations (similar to Lazarus). Though he was resuscitated, Lazarus would grow old and die again, for he returned to the same life he had prior to dying. When the Lord Jesus died, some tombs were opened (probably of those who had died recently) so they would be a testimony to the power of God, just as Lazarus was.

The expression “LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES” is simply an idiom meaning that Christ defeated His enemies. Thereafter, He was free to give “GIFTS TO MEN.” The captive being led captive was Satan and his demonic hosts. Colossians 2:15 is a parallel passage to Ephesians 4:8 (Ps 68:18), which declares of the death of Christ (Col 2:13-14): “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.” At the cross, the Lord Jesus divested Himself of the wicked powers that had opposed Him so obstinately throughout His ministry. The “public display” refers to Christ disgracing the powers of evil when He died on the cross. Jesus “triumphed” over Satan and his demonic hosts with His sacrificial death. He accomplished the victory that rendered “powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).

No Old Testament saint was ever held captive in hadēs. Satan had no power over Abraham, because God declared him righteous through faith (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3). There was no reason for Abraham or any Old Testament saint to be held captive in hadēs for any period of time. They would have gone immediately into the presence of God in heaven upon death. Scripture gives no indication that fullness of access to the blessings of being in God’s presence in heaven, was withheld from any Old Testament believer when they died. There is every indication that believers who died prior to Christ’s death entered the presence of God immediately, because their sins were forgiven by God’s grace and their faith in the Messiah who was to come.

When the Lord Jesus died, His experience was the same as those of believers throughout the ages who die. His departed body remained on the earth buried in the grave, yet His incorporeal being (soul/spirit) immediately entered God’s presence in heaven. On the third day of His burial subsequent to His death, the Lord Jesus rose from the dead; it was then that His spirit was reunited with His body. Similarly, when the Lord Jesus returns, those who have died in Christ will be reunited with their bodies and be raised to glorification (while the living will be immediately transformed).

Revelation 6:7-8 prophesies the breaking of the fourth seal. The horse that will emerge is “ashen . . . and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.” The ashen horse rider has the ability to claim the physical lives of earth dwellers. Consequently, their incorporeal being (soul/spirit) will be confined to “Hades” to await the final judgment. Hadēs is the prison and temporary location for the unbeliever, between their death and the time of the Great White Throne Judgment. Hadēs is the compartment called “torment” in Luke 16:23, and is where all unbelievers remain until the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20.

Midnight Call - 09/2021

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