The Descent Into GloomErwin W. Lutzer | May 18, 1997
Selected highlights from this sermon
From Genesis to Revelation we see glimpses of what the afterlife is like. Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek) has two compartments. For those who die without trusting Christ as their Savior, it’s a place of agony and unmet desires. And after the Great White Throne judgment, those in this shadowy part of Sheol will be thrown into the lake of fire. For those who have trusted in Christ, heaven awaits us with the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Death! What a topic! What a subject to speak about! If you came to the church this morning, you’ll notice that the sermon topic is The Descent into Gloom. Some people looked at that and they said, “That’s not a very good sermon topic. Imagine visitors coming, and that’s what they get—The Descent into Gloom.”
Well, you know it’s my responsibility as a minister not only to speak about happy topics. Sometimes I need to speak about those that give us a great deal of consternation. It’s not my responsibility to always speak on those things that make us leave happy, happy, happy! Sometimes we have to leave very sober, and today I’m beginning a series on the topic of death, and as a result of that, we will be speaking about such things as heaven and hell in this coming series, primarily on things that have to do with heaven, what it’s going to be like to have a resurrected body and all of the things that we can possibly know about the other side in this life as found in the Scriptures. But today’s message is going to be on Hades and Sheol, words like that. And then in the future I will be speaking on the topic of hell.
My desire will be to make heaven look so appealing that some of us are hardly going to be able to wait to get there, but also to make hell so fearful that those who do not know Christ as Savior will realize that it only makes sense to believe in someone who can save them from the wrath to come.
A number of years ago, here in the city, I was asked to take a funeral. That happens frequently to ministers. I did not know the family. I went to the funeral home and the son said to me, “I want you to know that we are not religious. We don’t believe in God. The only reason you are here is because some member of the family thought that a minister should be present.” He said, quote, “Anything that you say will not be too short.”
I said to him, “Why is it that you want it to be so short.” “Well,” he said, “we feel uncomfortable because we do not believe in God.” So I made a deal with him. I said, “Look, I’ll tell you what. I will be brief, but,” I said, “I do need to have the opportunity to tell you what I think about death in general, and Christ in particular,” so he reluctantly agreed.
Let me ask you a question today. What do you think that man, who was in that elegant casket, was experiencing at the time when we met together for that funeral? What happened to him one minute after he died? That’s a very good question, and that’s the one that we are going to try to answer today.
Now, I have to begin by saying that I know that we are not this man’s judge. Before God he stands or falls, but let us suppose that he was an unbeliever just as his son told us he was. What happens after unbelievers die?
You know, Betty Eadie, in her book Embraced by the Light, spoke about entering into another realm where there is light and where there is a being who will accept you, where there is a recognition that at the end of the day we are not sinners anyway, and that we are worthy to be embraced by this being. Well, I want you to know that if you’ve read that book, that being, whatever it is, is not the Lord Jesus Christ. That is not a biblical view of death.
So what we want to do today is to do a word study. Now, in order to do that, I hope that you brought your Bibles with you. You know, here at The Moody Church, if you are visiting, you need to know that we do encourage people to bring their Bibles, to open the text so that they can see the passages along with us. And I hope that you are ready to do that. We shall turn only to a few really because we don’t have time to look at all that we could look at.
But I want to begin with a word study of the Hebrew word Sheol—S-H-E-O-L. Now that word occurs 65 times in the Old Testament. In the King James version… Now get this because it will explain some of the confusion that exists regarding the Netherworld. In the King James Version, 31 times it is translated hell, 31 times the grave, and 3 times the pit. This has led to the view that many people think that people who die today without Christ are in hell. Well, as you shall see, as this message progresses, I disagree with that. I do not believe that they are in hell. They are in a place called Sheol, or as we shall see, the New Testament would call it Hades.
We must distinguish Sheol from hell and Sheol from the grave. There are some well-meaning people who say, “Well, you know, it means just the grave.” Well, it certainly means the grave. It includes the grave, but it is much more than that. It is the world of dead men’s spirits. That’s what it really refers to.
In fact, the Hebrews had a perfectly good word, which would mean grave, but they used it very infrequently. They preferred Sheol, which includes the grave. It includes death, but it is also a world where spirits—human spirits—congregate.
Now, take your Bibles and turn to Job chapter 26, for example. And I shall read very briefly verses 5 and 6 of Job, chapter 26. You’ll notice that the prophet Job, who was actually a righteous man, not a prophet in the classic sense of the word, was speaking, and he says these words: “The departed spirits tremble under the waters and their inhabitants. Naked is Sheol before him, and Abaddon has no covering.”
Now, let me point out that many translations, like the New American Standard, do not translate Sheol. They simply transliterate the word as it is in Hebrew and let it stand. That’s why my translation, wherever the word Sheol occurs in those 65 instances, is simply referred to as Sheol. It is not translated at all. That probably was wise. Then the context enables us to know the meaning of the word.
But notice the departed spirits tremble. Naked is Sheol before him. Obviously there is activity in the world to come. Let’s look at Isaiah 14:9. Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come. It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth. It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones.” There again Sheol, first of all, is a shadowy world in which human spirits gather after the person has died here on earth.
Let me give you a second observation regarding the use of this word. You can be united with your relatives in Sheol. It is a place where people meet. For example, in Genesis 49:33, it says that Jacob went down into Sheol and was gathered with his people. Some people think that means that they went to the same cemetery together, but I think the clear implication is that there was some meeting on the other side. Even Abraham, in Genesis 15:15, was assured that he would go down to his fathers in peace, so in the Old Testament you know that there was life beyond the grave, the activities of human spirits.
Now all these have been somewhat negative. Is there any indication in the Bible that there were some who anticipated a life of bliss on the other side? I won’t turn to the passage but you can write it down if you are taking notes. Psalm 73, verses 23 to 25 says: “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory,” said Asaph. Now Asaph believed that he would be (and he did not understand heaven as we do) in glory with God, so one can be united in the world to come with your friends, and you can also be united with God.
Let me give you another observation. There are indications in the Bible that Sheol has different regions. We know that because the wicked and the righteous both go into Sheol. That’s why some people think that it refers only to the grave, but we know that it means more than the grave. It has to do with what lies on the other side, and we have accounts, for example, of Jacob, who was a righteous man and goes into Sheol. But the sons of Korah who rebelled, the rebellious ones who were against God, they also go into Sheol. So this may be ancient rabbis coming to a conclusion that was, I think, very biblical, as we shall see. They said, “Since Sheol has two different kinds of inhabitants, Sheol also then must have two different compartments. It must have two different regions. And the Bible does speak about the lower regions of Sheol in some of the texts and passages. David says, “God will redeem me from the power of Sheol.”
Now the whole idea that there are two classes of people in the world to come—the righteous and the wicked—is expressly stated in the book of Daniel, and this is one of the clearest verses in all the Old Testament about the belief in the Old Testament that the Old Testament saints had regarding a future life.
It says in Daniel 12:2: “Many who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, some to everlasting life, and others to everlasting shame and contempt.” They will awake but you have two different resurrections because you have two different classes of people. Therefore, you have two different places where they go when they die.
Now, when you study all the passages, and of course, I gave you only two or three because we simply could not possibly begin to look at all the texts, what you discover in the Old Testament is that the curtain to the afterlife is opened just a little bit. We don’t see everything that we would like to see. We do see that there are those who intended and hoped to go to Glory, but you also find a lot of depressing comments about this place called Sheol, which supposedly is under the earth, though we know not where it is.
But when you get to the New Testament, that’s when suddenly the floodlights come on. The curtain is opened, and now we begin to see very clearly what lies on the other side, both for the righteous and for the wicked. And so for this reason I want us now to turn to the New Testament. The Old Testament used the word Sheol, and that’s the place where both the righteous and the wicked entered, and where we have every indication that there were two compartments.
In the New Testament now you have the word Hades, and Hades is translated in the King James Version. Also in places it’s translated hell, and that adds to the confusion because people think Hades is hell. Well, Hades is not hell, as we shall see. And that’s why most translations of the Bible, like mine, the New American Standard, now wherever the word Hades occurs (at least in most instances) it simply lets the word stand as Hades untranslated. And that probably is good because it helps us make these necessary distinctions.
With that background now, Luke 16. This is surely one of the clearest passages in all the Bible as to what it is like to die without faith in Jesus Christ. As I mentioned to you in another context Jesus told this story to show that the fortunes of the poor might be reversed on the other side of death, because He was speaking to Pharisees who loved money, it says. And in verse 14 of Luke 16 they were scoffing at Him because they loved money. And He had been talking about the need to be faithful with the funds that God has given to us. And in order for Jesus to explain to these people that it’s possible to be rich in this world and poor in the world to come, He told this story.
Verse 19: “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Can’t you just see him? It would be a man that the artist would like to paint, a man of opulence and riches.
The contrast is in verse 20: “And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.(How poor can you get?) The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades (Now that’s the translation of the word in the Old Testament–Sheol. Hades equals Sheol. It is the difference between Hebrew and Greek.), being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
What a story! It’s a true story. What a picture of life on the other side of the grave!
What I’d like to do now is to give you several descriptions that will help us to uncover what it is like to die without personal faith in Jesus Christ.
First of all, number one, notice that this man was fully conscious—memory, speaking, pain, bliss. Verse 24: “Send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.”
You realize, of course, that Hades is a place of unmet desires. Here’s a man who is in torment. He’s thirsty, of course, and what he would like to do is to at least have a drop of water put on his tongue, but no water was given to him.
Can you imagine those who are alcoholics with that insatiable desire for alcohol? And now suddenly they find themselves in a region where they scream for a drop of alcohol and none is given to them because they are in the world to come. They have heightened desires but those heightened desires must, of necessity, remain unfilled, just a constant burning without being satisfied.
Here’s someone who, in this life, is on heroin. Heroin is his god. He will kill for heroin. He will steal for it. He will do all that he possibly can to get another fix. And suddenly he’s in a realm where he has these desires, and the desires are there, and they are growing, but there is no heroin in Hades. There is nothing he can do to deaden the pain.
Now let’s go back to that funeral that I was asked to take here in the city of Chicago. I remember the funeral home. I won’t mention it to you but it’s just a couple of miles north of here. I remember going there, and because the man was well known, and apparently he had made millions of dollars in the shipping industry as I discovered later, he not only was in a very elegant casket, but I had to find a place to park, and so I drove around finding that place to park. What was he doing when I was trying to find a place to park, to find his son, and to say some words to his distraught widow? He was in agony in a flame and he was not satisfied. That’s what happened one minute after he died.
Let’s look at a second characteristic—fully conscious, memory, speaking, pain, bliss, unmet desire, a tortured conscience. Secondly, his eternal destiny was fixed. His eternal destiny was fixed! In verse 26 when he says, you know, “Abraham, please send Lazarus to dip my tongue and bring me some water,” Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your life you received good things and now things are reversed, and beside all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed (And you’ll notice… We read it a moment ago.) and no one can cross from one side or the other. That’s it. That’s it.”
And so while this man’s friends were able to go to lunch afterwards… Obviously I was not invited, but that’s what they did. They went for lunch in a restaurant. And while they were able to plan a trip maybe to Europe and to use some of the money that the man left behind, he was in a state, he was in a place of monotony, boredom and triviality, and there was no way out. The words of Dante, long since forgotten, perhaps came to mind: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
May I emphasize to you that your eternal destiny is fixed in this life, not in the life to come? You cannot reroute your travel plans. You can’t arrive and say, “Well, this is not where I was intending to go, and I do not like what is happening here. Can I at least call an airline and get me a ticket to somewhere else?” This is it! Your suitcase is unpacked, and this is (quote) home, such as it is. So secondly, eternal destiny was fixed.
Thirdly, I think that he believed that his fate was fair and just. You’ll notice that in Hades his life was presented to him. He begged Abraham to send Lazarus back to his father’s house. Let’s look at verse 28. We’ll pick it up in verse 27: “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him (that is Lazarus) to my father's house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’”
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what makes you think that he thinks that the consequences of his life were just in this place called Hades?” There are two reasons why I think that. Number one, it’s interesting that though he complained about the pain, he did not complain about injustice. He did not say, “I don’t deserve to be here.” And I want you to know that throughout all of eternity those who do not know Christ as Savior I believe will be satisfied that God acted justly. That will come up more specifically when I actually preach a message on hell.
But there’s a second reason why I think that. I found this fascinating. Suddenly this guy, who loved his money and who dressed in purple and in splendor every single day, and could care less about the world to come, I find that interesting. People go into travel stores as I frequently have to buy books on travel. If you are going to visit a country, study the country. But they don’t give that much time of day to the country that they are someday going to be in forever. You know, you find people going to Europe. They are trying to learn the language, and yet they are not interested at all in the language of heaven. It’s human nature. And this man suddenly, of all things, becomes interested in missions. He says, “Please send somebody to my five brothers that they might repent so that they won’t come here.” Now finally he gets the message of a missions conference. It takes a while. And it’s too late, but he becomes missionary minded.
And notice this now. Don’t overlook the text. It says, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Notice this. He knew exactly what needed to be done so that his brothers would not come to the same place of torment. He knew that what they needed was what he did not do, and that was repentance. I find that remarkable. Don’t you feel intrigued by the fact that here’s a pagan man who intuitively, if he took out the time to examine his own heart, would have known even in this world that the way that you avoid the judgment of God is through repentance? He knew that unforgiven sin would eventually lead people to the place where he now was. And don’t you believe that he now knew that where he would spend eternity should have been his first and utmost priority?
There’s something else in this text which I find very interesting. Do you notice how natural human compassion is evident in his life? I mean, this is startling, and I’m going to refer to this again when we talk about heaven, and what it’s going to be like in the life beyond. And all of those things are going to be coming in future messages, but I need to point it out very quickly here. He’s the same person after he has died as he was before he died. He knows all about his family relationships. He knows that he has five brothers. He could name them. He probably knew their birthdays. All of this information he had in this life was present to him in the life to come because he’s the very same person. And notice his human compassion. Theologians call it common grace. Even though he was not a believer in this life, and is a believer now, it’s too late, but even so he longs that his brothers might not come here.
Sometimes unsaved people joke about hell. I’ve heard it said, “Well, you know, I’m going there, and if I’m going there I want to go there because that’s where some of my friends are going to be.” Now there are some things that you can joke about. And those of you who know me well know that I think that there are some things in this life that are funny, but one of them is not hell, because I want to tell you today that if you think that, you are very, very foolish. Notice this man. He is willing to forego meeting his brothers forever if only they will not come to this same place of torment.
And I might say here that those of you who kind of play around with where you are going to spend eternity, you make glib comments about going where your friends are, I’ll tell you, you had better get on your knees and do what this man knew his brothers would have to do if they wouldn’t come to the same place, and that is to repent, or you shall likewise perish.
Now, what about that rich man that I had the privilege of burying in Chicago, the funeral at which I was asked to speak where the young man sarcastically, though very sincerely said (quote) “Anything that you say will not be too short.” He let me know that I was not wanted there, but some shirttail relative had said, you know, “Surely a preacher should be present,” and I guess I was in the phone book.
I’ll tell you something. What do you think this self-assured young man’s father would have told me to say at the funeral? If only he could have spoken to me, and given me instructions of what he wanted to be said at that very hour, can you imagine how different it would have been? He’d have said, “Oh, Pastor Lutzer, warn them that they not come to this same place of torment.” That’s what the dad was saying, and the wonderful eulogy that was said (The eulogy was long even if the sermon was short.) would have mocked this man about all the nice things that were said about him, and all the big business deals that he pulled, and all the money that he had. What difference did it make at this hour? None! It rose to mock him.
Now, there’s something else that we must say about Hades, and I’ve already eluded to it, but now I have to show it to you from a text of Scripture, and that is that Hades is not hell. Sheol, that’s the Old Testament word, but the same place, remember, is not hell. Hades is not hell. And that’s why translations of the Bible that confuse these sometimes are misleading in the implications that they give.
Take your Bible now and turn to the Book of Revelation, chapter 20. It’s a passage that we shall have to return to when I speak on the topic of hell. Revelation 20, the Great White Throne Judgment. I have been pondering this judgment for several weeks because of some other studies that I have been doing, and I will certainly preach on this on the message on hell. But notice it says in verse 12: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.” Verse 14: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
I take the lake of fire to be hell. No one is in hell today. They will be judged personally and individually by God before that happens, but those who die today without saving knowledge of Christ are in a place called Hades.
I always get questions like this from people. They say, “Well, you know, is Hades kind of a purgatory?? No. Let’s clarify that too. Purgatory arose in medieval times because of a misunderstanding of the view of justification by faith. People said to themselves, “You know, nobody dies righteous enough to go into heaven,” because it was believed that people became righteous by participating in the sacraments, and hopefully you had enough righteousness. In fact, they even had theories whereby you could borrow some other people’s who had more than they needed, so that you’d get enough to make it. But people still said, “Uh-uh. I don’t think that I measure up.” So the belief came about that people who died who can’t go directly to heaven, which was the majority of the people, would go to purgatory, and there they would be purged maybe for 50 years, a thousand years, a million years. But eventually then they would become righteous enough to enter into heaven after the purging was complete.
Oh, how thankful I am that we don’t have to believe that. When Martin Luther understood more clearly the doctrine of justification by faith, he understood that people who put faith and trust in Jesus Christ are legally pronounced as righteous as God. And because they are as righteous as God, they can go from this life to the next. You don’t have to pass “go.” You don’t have to pay $200, those of you who used to play Monopoly. You can go directly from this life into the life to come. No hassle at the border! No need to show complicated I.D.s. If your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, the flight from here to there is direct.
One day, I was on a radio program and it was a talk show and people were calling and asking questions, and a woman… And my heart went out to her, and I mention this because many of you would like to ask the same question and my heart goes out to you as well. She said, “My father was a very religious man, but he did not put faith and trust in Christ.” She said, “I suspect that he is not in heaven.” And then her question was this: “Is there anything that I can do to get him to where I would really want him to be?” And I said, “I have some good news, and I have some bad news. I’ll give you the bad news first, and then the good news. The bad news is no. Now that your father is dead, his future is irrevocably fixed. There is nothing that you can do. There is even in Hades a great chasm fixed so that nobody can go from one area to the other.” But I said, “Here’s the good news. When God judges him, God will be meticulously just. Meticulously just! He will take into account all the opportunities that your father had to respond to saving faith. If your father was brought up in a non-Christian home (his parents), all of the blame will be accurately assessed throughout all of his generations. There will not be one single fact that will be overlooked, and throughout all of eternity he will admit, even as we admit, ‘Just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints,’ that God deals justly.” Now it’s difficult for us to grasp, but as I mentioned, we shall have to come back to that theme at another time.
What about Lazarus, the man here in this passage of Scripture? Well, you know the Bible teaches that he went to Abraham’s bosom, which now really is Paradise or heaven. And I don’t believe that the two are next to one another anymore. When Jesus ascended He took captives with Him. He took those who were redeemed, I believe, from the Old Testament to heaven so that people who die today are instantly with Christ in Paradise. “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
Yesterday, my wife and I were at a memorial service for a friend of ours, Phil Cornes whom some of you know. Phil, whatever else may be said about him, really did love God. He came to saving faith in Christ, and even though he was an unrepentant optimist who always believed that the cancer that he was fighting would eventually be beaten, it did not turn out that way. I visited him last week before he died, and helped him understand that “Cancer may be the chariot,” I said, “that God will use to take you all the way to heaven.” And he accepted that. And then he died about three or four days later. But just after he slipped into a coma (We discovered this yesterday when friends were standing around and telling about his life and paying tribute to his life.) they said that after he was in the coma, he shouted, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” And then a short while afterward he died. We never build theology on experience, but it’s entirely possible that the reason that he shouted “Jesus,” though in a coma, was because he saw Him. He saw Him!
I want you to know today that seeing Christ can happen just that fast. We could die in a moment of time—a heart attack, a car accident. There are hundred different ways to go. Death is so creative. It’s just got all kinds of different ways.
You know what distinguished this rich man and Lazarus was not the fact that the man was rich. You have to understand that. Christ’s point lay in a different direction. He wanted to show that your riches don’t help you when you die. It’s not because he was rich. There will be rich people in heaven. As Jesus makes clear, the great distinction is between those who trust in Christ alone because they recognize that they are sinners (and they have recognized that sin is sin, and they have repented, and they trust Him), and those who merrily go on their way, thinking, “I’ve got lots of time to figure out where I’m going to go, and who cares?”
You know, one of your great leaders here in America, Benjamin Franklin, a friend with Whitefield, as some of you know (good friends), before he died Ben Franklin said, “You know, Whitefield frequently prayed for my conversion, but he never did see an answer to his prayers.” And then he said, “Why should I believe now? Soon I shall know what it is like on the other side.” And so he drifts into eternity, lost forever, because he didn’t take Christ seriously.
“He that believeth on the Son is not condemned. He that beiieveth not on the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
So what about you? Where will you be one minute after you die? Paradise or Hades?
Let us pray.
Our Father, we ask in the name of Jesus that You shall graciously do now what only You can do, and that is to cause men and women to examine their hearts, to look deep within to know where they shall spend eternity. For those who do not know, we pray that in this moment, You will grant them the ability to trust Christ as Savior. And for those who know You, we pray that their faith in You might be affirmed, and help all of us to be witnesses to people while they are alive, for after they are dead it is too late.
And now I am going to ask that we have a silent time of prayer. There may be those here who have never believed on Christ, or you may be listening on the radio. You’ve never trusted in the Savior. Would you at this moment say, “Lord Jesus, I’m a sinner. I am a sinner. I have no idea where I’d go if I died, but I suspect it would be Hades. I trust Christ.” Would you tell Him that right now?
If you don’t know how to pray, you can pray like this:
Lord Jesus, I know that I have sinned. I know that I desperately need You. I thank You that Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice. I let go of all things and trust Him alone. Save me for Your name’s sake.