The distinction between “Hell” and the “Lake of Fire”
There is a difference between ‘Hell’ and the ‘Lake of Fire’. They are not the same place. In most people’s minds these are blended into one, but that is not biblically accurate. We therefore need to distinguish these places from each other and define them clearly.
Hell is not the Lake of Fire. At this moment, as you read this, nobody is yet in the Lake of Fire. The first person to go into the Lake of Fire will be the antichrist, followed by the false prophet and then, 1000 years later, by Satan himself. This will occur in the future, after Jesus has returned to the Earth. It is not until after these enter it that the great mass of unbelievers will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. Thus, nobody is in the Lake of Fire at the moment. Yet, there are countless people currently in Hell. What then is Hell?
The simplest way to describe Hell is to refer to some of the words that are used in the Hebrew and the Greek of the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament uses a Hebrew word “Sheol” and the New Testament uses a Greek word, “Hades”. These both refer to the same thing. Until the time of Jesus, Sheol or Hades, was divided into two sections. One of those is what we now call Hell. This was for unsaved unbelievers. The other section was for genuine believers who lived in Old Testament times, i.e. up until the time of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Until then, any genuine believing Jew would go to the good part of Sheol or Hades which was set apart for them. This was given another name, i.e. “paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom”. It was not heaven, but it was a place where those people were sent by God to wait until the time of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
After Jesus came and paid for their sins on the cross, those believing Jews and also faithful believers in God before the time of Abraham such as Adam, Abel, Seth, Noah, Job, etc, were then taken to Heaven. That is where they are now. We are now required to put our faith in Jesus Christ and in the sacrifice that he made (in the past) on the cross at Calvary. However, the Jewish people and other believers in the Old Testament did not know that that was going to happen. Therefore, they had to put their faith in God to forgive and save them. That is what God eventually did do when Jesus, their Messiah, finally came.
The Jewish People did not have a full understanding of what exactly the Messiah would do. They had no expectation of the cross, or the death of their Messiah on their behalf. But they knew that their Messiah would one day come. Thus, when He did actually come, it was possible for those who had already died prior to then to receive their complete salvation and to have it more fully explained to them. They were then taken up from that temporary paradise, or "Abraham’s bosom", to Heaven itself. That is where they have been since that time.
Therefore, from then on, since the time of the resurrection, when Jesus removed the Old Testament believers from it, Sheol/Hades has been populated only by unsaved people. Thus only the ‘bad’ section remains in operation. This is now where a person goes when they die, if they are an unbeliever and are unsaved. Our word for it is ‘Hell’. They go there to wait for the judgment at the Great White Throne which is to come in the future.
They have at least 1000 years to wait for the Great White Throne Judgment, even if they were to die today. The millennial reign of Jesus Christ on Earth will itself last for 1000 years and that period has not yet begun. Some people have been in Sheol or Hades, or what we now call Hell, for thousands of years already. We know from the Bible that the people in Hell are fully conscious and waiting for what lies ahead of them. They are therefore in a dreadful condition of torment, fear and anxiety, combined with extreme regret and bitterness. It is difficult to imagine what a harrowing place Hell must be.
Consider how it must be waiting for a judgment, from which you know that you will inevitably go on to the Lake of Fire. The only question is the precise degree of punishment that you will have to receive there. It is a terrible prospect. It should motivate us to give our lives now to tell others about Jesus while we, and they, still have the chance. Consider this important passage from Luke chapter 16. In it Jesus speaks about a man who was already in Hell:
19"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
24So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.' 25"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'
27"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' 29"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.' 30" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' 31"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Luke 16:19-31 (NIV)
Many people assume that Jesus is teaching a parable here when He speaks about the rich man and Lazarus. A parable is a story which is not literally true, but which illustrates a point or a message. Jesus told many of these, such as the parable of the sower, or the wheat and the tares, or the grain of mustard seed and so on.
However the account of the rich man and Lazarus is not actually a parable, even though some people wrongly assume that it is. Here Jesus is giving a true account which involves the real facts of two real men who had died. The people in parables were never given names. So, we learn from this literal account that Jesus gives in Luke 16 what Sheol/Hades was like at the time prior to Jesus’ resurrection, when it was divided into two parts. It is Hell that is being referred to in the next passage from Psalm 49. We are warned not to trust in or focus on financial wealth, because we cannot take any of it with us when we die:
16 Do not be overawed when a man grows rich,
when the splendour of his house increases;
17 for he will take nothing with him when he dies,
his splendour will not descend with him.
18Though while he lived he counted himself blessed—
and men praise you when you prosper-
19 he will join the generation of his fathers,
who will never see the light of life.
20A man who has riches without understanding
is like the beasts that perish. Psalm 49:16-20 (NIV)
The rich man described in this psalm is pictured here in Hell (without his money) awaiting the final Great White Throne Judgment. That thought is meant to sober us.
The Lake of Fire
Just to clarify again, the Lake of Fire does not at present, have anybody in it. But in the end, there will be thrown into it not only the antichrist, the false prophet and Satan, but also all of the fallen angels that we know as demons. They fell with Satan out of Heaven when he rebelled against God. This took place before the world was created. At that time Satan had the name ‘Lucifer’ and was the most senior angel in heaven. He was, in effect, God’s Prime Minister. But his pride swelled up and he decided that he wanted to be like the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. He envied the Son of God and wanted His place and started to look upon himself as equal to Him. There began in him at that time a hatred for, and a rivalry with, the Son of God that has continued ever since.
God exposed Satan’s rebellion, and threw him out of Heaven. But He did not do so until approximately one third of the angels in heaven at that time had joined with Satan to rebel against God. Because of this, they too were thrown out of Heaven. They now operate as demons, causing havoc on this earth. They do so through opposing and sabotaging the work that God wishes to do in our lives, particularly the preaching of the gospel and the saving of human beings from their sins.
Satan and his demons have pledged themselves to oppose God in all of this and especially to resist people’s salvation. They are filled with hatred and do all that they can to attack, undermine, deceive, demoralise and discourage God’s people. (See later books in this series for more details of what Satan and his demons are and how they operate in your life day by day).
The demons will, one day, go into the Lake of Fire for eternity. Indeed the Lake of Fire was originally created for them, not for us. It was intended for Satan and his fallen angels before any human being was ever created. Therefore those human beings who end up in the Lake of Fire are going to a place that was never originally intended for them.
I regret the fact that I have had to dwell so long upon these very unpleasant and terrifying things. But, without doing so you cannot understand what the good news is, because Jesus Christ came to save us from these very things. Without realising how terrible they are, we cannot fully appreciate what a magnificent thing Jesus has done for us. He died on the cross to suffer all that punishment in our place. That enables us to be saved and to avoid Hell, the Great White Throne Judgment and the Lake of Fire. Please remember that God does not want anybody to go to Hell or the Lake of Fire. He takes no pleasure in condemning any of us:
"Say to them, 'As I live!' declares the Lord GOD, 'I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?' Ezekiel 33:11 (NASB)