What is Hell? Is Hell a Real Place?

Luke 16:

19 ¶ There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

There is a growing movement of open mindedness within the Christian movement to search deeply for original meaning and hidden spiritual messages in the Bible.  The author thinks along these lines and is not a literalist.  The story above is an important parable told by Jesus to explain spiritual truth.  Traditional interpreters of the Bible will naturally disagree that this parable is not a depiction of a real occurrence happening in a real physical place called hell –  that it contains representations of deep spiritual messages about the mental concept of hell for which explanation in human language is limited.  The parable was, however, Jesus’ best vehicle for expressing higher spiritual thought to lesser developed minds.

A traditionalist faction of believers insists that this particular parable is not a parable at all – but that it is an account of an actual event.  This class of believers also generally maintains the doctrine of a physical hell, and logically so because the conclusion that the account is a parable naturally also detracts strongly from the conclusion of the physicality of hell.  The appearance of symbolism throughout the account supports the view of the account as a parable.  For instance, the opening lines refer to the rich man’s wearing of purple and fine linen.  In that time and culture, purple was a color commonly representing royalty, and fine linen was worn by the clergy.  Some suggest that this and other less obvious symbolism further in the story point to the possibility that the rich man was intended to exemplify certain rich and sinful clergy members.  Though other elements of period symbolism also appear in the story, the point to be made in this article is about spiritual conclusions drawn from the content of the story.

Jesus definitely discusses and has a message about hell in the content of this parable, but there is actually no context present in the parable itself from which the listener may logically conclude that Jesus was referring to hell as a  physical place rather than a state of thought and being.   Such an assumption must be preconceived by the reader or listener.

Is it not possible then, that human preconception and belief in a real physical place called hell flavors the lesson of this parable with a misplaced emphasis on the physicality of hell?  Is it not possible that Jesus’ superior and perfect understanding of spirituality precluded him from speaking in direct spiritual terms to his listeners of less developed spiritual intellect?  This was after all the entire reason for his use of parables to illustrate spiritual lessons.

Jesus had a fantastic and incomparably superior understanding of existence.  He could not explain it to others in everyday terms.  Jesus’ healing actions spoke more powerfully than ever did his words.  In order to grasp this idea that possibly hell is not a physical place, one must first be willing and able to at least temporarily step out of a doctrine or dogma of physical hell.  If you hold this doctrine, try stepping out of it momentarily.  Imagine listening to this story for the first time, and that you have not already decided that hell is a physical place. Imagine that you have no concept of hell as a physical place.  Imagine that perhaps, perhaps, Jesus himself also understood hell not to be a physical place, but a state of thought, a mental environment.  If this possibility is not mentally possible for you, then you should stop reading at this point, and continue in your doctrine.  But, if you are willing, try on for size what Jesus may have understood from his supreme spiritual intellect about hell, but was not able to express to his human listeners without complete rejection.  How might you interpret this story in that frame of mind?

In this parable about hell, Jesus describes the state of erroneous thought that brings one into a mental and physical experience of hell.   As God’s perfect mediator, Jesus presented a picture palatable to the level of spiritual perception held by his listeners through the use of parables.  Deep spiritual messages are contained in this particular parable which is given in terms to which his human listeners could relate..

In interpreting the Scriptures, we approximate a writer’s meaning most clearly when we understand his original intent.   It must also be remembered that the writer here, Luke,  as well as later translators, unavoidably add their own personal flavor to the retelling of Jesus’ parable.  That being taken into account , note also that the present state of Jesus’ listener’s belief and their perception of their own mortal and immortal existence at the time he told this parable, is reflected in the format of the structure of the story.  His audience was more accustomed and attuned to the concepts of physical existence than they were to those of spiritual existence and ideology.  Accordingly, Jesus referred to states of heaven and hell with which his audience could relate – in terms of human and material existence.  Let’s examine this parable from a possible spiritual perspective – one  in which hell is not a physical place but a very humanly real state of mind and experience.

The rich man was materialistic.  He believed that his comforts were all of earthly origin.  He believed that all of his happiness could be derived from material things.  The material things of his life were, from a true and spiritual perspective, meaningless.  If his existence were, to his sense, to suddenly lose its materiality (such as death would cause), then this man would, in his belief, no longer have anything to live for.  This state of mind would comprise his own self created state of torment.  He would feel burned and tormented by his loss.  He would feel the fire and remorse and hatred of the destruction of everything he held dear in his human life.  This man had no gratitude for the things he had owned, for he had failed to recognize their spiritual substance and dwelt only in the mental environment of the physicality of his riches.

The beggar, Lazarus, on the other hand had no possessions in the human world.  He was grateful even for handouts.  He was a fine example of humility.  In putting himself as least important, he recognized that his true identity was not human, but spiritual.  This is in stark  contrast with the rich man who was absorbed in an imaginary self-important identity with no real substance.  It’s interesting to note that in the parable, Lazarus is given an identity, but the rich man’s name is not mentioned.  Lazarus knew his identity as God’s child.  The rich man had a completely false sense of his identity as being defined by his materialism, and so was not mentioned by name.

So, Lazarus reached a point in his experience where his existence was no longer in the human body.  Mentally, through death Lazarus had lost nothing.  He had nothing to lose in the material world.  To Lazarus, death was more of a non-event than to the rich man.  Lazarus lost only the evil things of life when, through death, materialism became to him no longer any  part of the perceived identity he had held in human life.  Death for him was only the death of human lack and of evil, for which he strove to be rid of all of his human life.  Human lack and evil being destroyed, in the new and spiritual realm he found himself already in the kingdom of heaven.

Abraham was there to receive Lazarus in this perfect spiritual realm.  In Science and Health, Abraham is defined as follows:

“ABRAHAM.  Fidelity; faith in the divine Life and in the eternal Principle of being.
This patriarch illustrated the purpose of Love to create trust in good, and showed the life-preserving power of spiritual understanding.”

The humble Lazarus was figuratively carried after his death by the thoughts of God into the loving and protective bosom of Abraham – the bosom of fidelity, harmony.  Being embraced by Abraham, he was embraced by his faith in the divine Life. This was in direct contrast with faith in a material life that was held by the rich man.

The rich man was suffering greatly from this loss after he died.  Materialism was all that he had held dear in his human life, and now it was all gone.  This torment he felt was not a direct judgment from God in the human sense of judgment, but it was the direct natural consequence of his having willfully turned from the ever-supportive principles of compassion and love which reflect God’s real nature.  He had willfully turned away from divine Principle and never recognized that it was what was governing his very existence. This loss of all that he falsely held dear was the beginning of a hell experience for him.  The rich man cried to Abraham, he cried for faith in the divine Life to rescue him.  But the rich man still retained this selfish state of thought even after his death. He had no understanding of what faith is, or of what eternal divine Life is.  Mentally, his belief was stuck in a material realm, while he found himself no longer living in matter.  This was for him the torment of hell.

“…Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”

The rich man continued after his death to fail to understand his relationship to God, because the death process had produced no effect upon his false state of mind.  He was the same man mentally before death as he was after death.  In the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to The Scriptures, (p 290) Mary baker Eddy elaborates:

“If the Principle, rule, and demonstration of man’s being are not in the least understood before what is termed death overtakes mortals, they will rise no higher spiritually in the scale of existence on account of that single experience, but will remain as material as before the transition, still seeking happiness through a material, instead of through a spiritual sense of life, and from selfish and inferior motives.”

This is exactly the circumstance in which  the rich man found himself after his death.  Abraham referred to the great gulf between the rich man and Lazarus.  There is a great mental gulf between one whose thought is purely materialistic, and one who has reached the spiritually perfect state of the understanding of life.  They are two opposite places in thought.  Just as an uneducated and ignorant man cannot do the scientific tasks of a nuclear physicist, for example,  one who binds himself in the restrictions of materialism in his thought cannot be in the same mental plane as one who has reached a heavenly state of happiness in the spiritual state, where all is completely devoid of matter.  For matter cannot reside in the atmosphere of Spirit!  Therefore, the rich materialistic man cannot reside in the kingdom of heaven, where matter no longer claims to be a factor of existence.

But what of the eternal nature of this punishment?  Is it in accord with a loving God?  This too can be understood, but only by thinking in an entirely unconventional manner.  Open your mind again, and go slowly.  Eternal punishment of false belief is in consonance with divine Love.  To make sense of this, we must mentally separate the erroneous belief from  God’s spiritual man.  God’s spiritual man does not suffer and cannot experience hell.  But, so long as a man continues to think humanly and to worship materiality, as the rich man did after his death, his consciousness will be divided.  It will suffer from the effects of imagining his life to be outside of God’s realm of spiritual perfection.  This is the rich man’s eternal hell.  His trust in matter was no part of God’s creation.  Hell is but the by-product of indulging in this belief contrary to God!  It is the consequence of turning away from Truth.

God does not create a man subject to false belief, but God does create a spiritual and perfect image of Himself, namely spiritual man.  Only false belief creates a suffering man, and this man is thus false!  Remember that Jesus said of the devil that “he is a liar and the father of it.”  (John 8:44) . The false belief of a man who suffers from the belief of materialism, is the false man who suffers in eternal hell.  But the real man is not subject to false belief, for he resides in a perfect realm where there can be no self created and flawed ego.  The rich man in the parable also has a spiritual identity.  When this rich man’s human and dualistic nature of himself is purified, he will be able to drop his trust in materialism, and his consciousness will rise. But the old and false man will always figuratively burn in hell, while the real and spiritual man will regain his spiritual consciousness, and find himself in the heavenly state that always had existed.

Of course, nobody can do this for us.  As Abraham responded when the rich man asked that his relatives be saved from this sense of hell, “Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”   Nobody separated from you can save you from a false sense and from sin.  You must do it yourself, from within.

Lastly, the rich man went on “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

There is, I believe, some intended irony in that last statement of Jesus.  He knew his future and that he would later be called to endure the crucifixion and to rise from the dead for all of our benefits.  Since the Judaic world had already misunderstood Moses and the prophets, as does a vast segment of modern society today , there was no reason to expect that all would be convinced of Jesus’ message by his resurrection.  Jesus knew that spiritual conviction is never collective and that it comes only through individual understanding.




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One comment on “What is Hell? Is Hell a Real Place?

  1. I was led of the Holy Spirit to read this pssaage of scripture for closing this year for me and i came across this post which has been a real encourager to me. It has been a rough one but surely my God is about to enlarge my territory and that his hands are going to be on me.

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