What comes to mind when you hear the word Hell? When we hear or read the word "hell," all kinds of ideas probably come to mind. We may think of the abode of condemned souls and the devil, or a place of eternal fiery punishment for the wicked after death, presided over by Satan. We may think of a place of fire and brimstone, where the damned undergo physical torment eternally. The dictionary says that hell is, "a place regarded in various religions as a spiritual realm of evil and suffering, often traditionally depicted as a place of perpetual fire beneath the earth where the wicked are punished after death."
We often use statements like, "that sickness was hell" or "I'm going through hell." These expressions reflect our tendency to use the word hell as a descriptive term for the worst possible human experience.
There's a country song by Rodney Atkins called, "If you're going through hell", the chorus of that song says,
If you're going through Hell
Keep on going, don't slow down
If you're scared, don't show it
You might get out
Before the devil even knows you're there
These lyrics tell us that Hell is not a good experience, but they also tell us that the devil is there and has some form of rulership in hell.
The 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy with the idea that sinners are tortured in ways that represented ultimate justice for their sins. Have you ever heard the expression, "Cold as Hell"? That sounds like an oxymoron because we think of Hell as burning fire but Dante taught that the lowest lever of Hell, which was reserved for the worst of sinners, was freezing cold. Hence "cold as Hell."
In an article entitled, "What Is Hell?" Published on Jun 20, 2014, R.C. Sproul writes, "There is no biblical concept more grim or terror-invoking than the idea of hell. It is so unpopular with us that few would give credence to it at all except that it comes to us from the teaching of Christ Himself."
What if I were to challenge Sproul here and say, "Christ never taught on Hell, because there is NO biblical concept of Hell. He says that the teaching of Hell comes from Christ Himself. Other have said that Christ taught more on Hell than any other subject. We're going to look at Christ's teaching and see if this is in fact true. But before we look at the teaching of Christ, let's start in the Tanakh and see what we can learn about Hell.
Believer, we must test everything we believe by the text. The beliefs you hold must come from the text. And we must be open to allowing the text to shatter our false ideas.
You may be surprised to learn that the word "Hell" is not in the original language of the Bible, and if you see it in your Bible, it is a bad translation. In the KJV "Hell" is mentioned 54 times. As I said when we read the word "Hell," all kinds of ideas come to our minds. Most people, believers and non-believers think of a place of fire and brimstone, where the damned undergo physical torment eternally. "Hell" is found 31 times in the KJV Old Testament where it is translated from the Hebrew word "Sheol."
The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God. Psalms 9:17 KJV
Here the word, Hell is mistranslated from the Hebrew ,"Sheol." The ESV has:
The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God. Psalms 9:17 ESV
Do you get a different picture from these two translations? The word "return" is from the Hebrew word shub which means, "to turn back, return. We could translate this, "The wicked will return to the grave."
If you were to look up every use of the word "Sheol" in the Tanakh here is what you would find. "Sheol" refers to a place in the depths of the earth. The expressions "go down" or "brought down" are used twenty times in connection with Sheol. The "depths of Sheol" are mentioned six times (Deut. 32:22; Ps. 86:13; Prov. 9:18; 15:24; Isa. 7:11; 14:15). Four times Sheol is described as the farthest point from Heaven (Job 11:8; Ps. 139:8; Isa. 7:11; Amos 9:2). Often Sheol is parallel with the "pit" (Job 17:13-14; 33:18; Ps. 30:3; 88:3-4; Prov. 1:12; Isa. 14:15; 38:18; Ezek. 31:14-17). Nine times it is parallel with death (2 Sam. 22:6; Ps. 18:4-5; 49:14; 89:48; 116:3; Prov. 5:5; Isa. 28:15,18; Hos. 13:14; Hab. 2:5). Sheol is described in terms of overwhelming floods, water, or waves (Jonah 2:2-6). Sometimes, Sheol is pictured as a hunter setting snares for its victim, binding them with cords, snatching them from the land of the living (2 Sam 22:6; Job 24:19; Ps. 116:3). Sheol is a prison with bars, a place of no return (Job 7:9; 10:21; 16:22; 21:13; Ps. 49:14; Isa. 38:10). People could go to Sheol alive (Num. 16:30,33; Ps. 55:15; Prov. 1:12).
Sheol is the Hebrew word for the place of the dead. But nowhere do we see Sheol as a fiery place of torment. You will never get the traditional view of hell from the Tanakh. It just isn't there. Let's look at some verses that talk about the end of the wicked:
Of David. Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Psalms 37:1-2 ESV
For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. Psalms 37:9-10 ESV
But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away. Psalms 37:20 ESV
The word "perish" here is the Hebrew word "abad." Brown-Driver-Brigg's Definition is:
"perish, vanish, go astray, be destroyed, die, be exterminated." And the word "vanish" is from kalah, which, according to Brown-Driver-Brigg's Definition, means: "to accomplish, cease, consume, determine, end, fail, finish." Do you see any hint of eternal conscious torment in these verses?
I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. Psalms 37:35-36 ESV
Notice that the wicked "passed away" and was "no more." The words "no more" are from the Hebrew word ayin, which is from a primitive root meaning: "to be nothing or not exist." The Psalmist doesn't say they pass away and are tormented, but they "are no more":
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. Job 4:8-9 ESV
Speaking of the wicked, Job says:
he will perish forever like his own dung; those who have seen him will say, 'Where is he?' Job 20:7 ESV
The word "dung" here is from the Hebrew gelel, which means: "dung, a ball of dung." He perishes forever like his dung.
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. Psalms 73:27 ESV
They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them. Isaiah 26:14 ESV
The Tanakh says the wicked are like: "grass that quickly withers; the green herb that fades; like refuse; like chaff":
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun. Psalms 58:8 ESV
As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away; as wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God! Psalms 68:2 ESV
There are at least 70 metaphors or similes of what the end of the wicked will be like in the Tanakh. What do these pictures tell us? Will reality resemble the picture? If the wicked are to be eternally tortured in flames, shouldn't the pictures some how reflect that? Shouldn't some of the pictures be, "the wicked will be like meat on a skewer roasting over the fire, or like those boiling in a caldron of oil?" Do you see eternal conscious torment even hinted at in any of these pictures?
So why did the KJV translators translate Sheol as Hell? It is because the wording of the KJV is more "interpretation" than "translation." You won't find the word "Hell" in the Old Testament of the NASB or ESV.
So what does the New Testament tell us about "Hell"? In the KJV New Testament the word "Hell" is found 23 times. It is translated from the word "Hades," which is the Greek equivalent of Sheol (the place of the dead), 10 times. It is translated from the Greek word "Tartaroo" once, and 12 times from "Gehenna."
So Gehenna is used 12 times in the New Testament, 11 in the Gospels and once in James, which says the tongue is set "on fire by Gehenna." As Sproul said, "The idea of Hell... comes to us from the teaching of Christ Himself." So let's look at Christ's teaching and see if this is true.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. Matthew 5:29-30 ESV
This is the first use of "Hell" in the ESV translation. And it is a bad translation. What is Yeshua saying here? Is He saying, If you don't deal with your sin you are going to go to Hell? The word translated "Hell" in these verses is from the Greek word Gehanna. This word "Gehenna" is used 11 in the Gospels and always by Yeshua.
Who is Yeshua speaking these words to? In 5:1 and 2 it tells us that He was speaking to His disciples and 7:28 and 29 it tells us "the crowd was astonished at His teaching." So as Yeshua taught His disciples the crowd listened in. So who was Christ speaking to? He was speaking to Israelites, to Jewish people. What did they know about Gehanna? Does it matter how they understood this word? You're familiar with audience relevance aren't you? As we read the Bible we must keep in mind the hermeneuticial principle of audience relevance, which seeks to discover what the original audience understood a passage to mean. The concern of the evangelical interpreter is to understand the grammar of a passage in light of the historical circumstances and context of the original audience.
Let's look at a little history. Gehenna began to be used as a place of human sacrifice in the days of King Ahaz. Gehenna is referred to in Jeremiah 7 as the valley of Hinnom. In this passage, people are burning their own sons and daughters as human sacrifices. That is how dedicated and committed they are to the worship of the fire god, Molech.
"For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. Jeremiah 7:30-33 ESV
Where they killed their helpless children, there shall they be slaughtered helplessly by their enemies. Later in Israel's history, a godly king, Josiah, came to the throne in Jerusalem and wanted to do away with the system of human sacrifices that had been practiced in the valley of Hinnom:
And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech. 2 Kings 23:10 ESV
Josiah wanted to do away with this practice, so he defiled the place by making it the garbage dump of Jerusalem. All of the trash, refuse, and dung from the city was dumped out there for centuries until the time of Christ. Characteristic of this place were the fires which were kept burning all the time—night and day. This fact is referred to by Christ in the Gospels as the place where the fires are not quenched and the worms have not died. That means the fires burn there constantly. The Valley of Hinnom was a place that had become identified in people's minds as a filthy and accursed place where useless and evil things were destroyed. Christ used it to describe a place of suffering and torment. That is the background of Gehenna.
So in Matthew 5 when Yeshua talks about "your whole body be thrown into Hell"
The word "Hell" is Gehenna which every Jew knew as a nearby location of the garbage dump. Those Jews who did not trust in Christ as their Messiah were going to end up with their bodies "thrown into Gehenna" at the destruction of Jerusalem.
Gehenna is a proper noun just like Jerusalem and the term "Hell" is not a translation of Gehenna, it's a theologically loaded substitution. Gehenna is a literal place and the only people ever threatened with Gehenna were the Judean Jews of Yeshua's generation.
In a parallel text Yeshua says:
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. Mark 9:43 ESV
The word "unquenchable" is from the Greek word asbestos. This word is only used three time in the NASB, once here and in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, where John the Baptist said Yeshua would baptize with "unquenchable fire." Unquenchable fire is unstoppable fire! It's fiery destruction brought about by God. God promised such a national judgment on Judah:
Say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. All flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it; it shall not be quenched." Ezekiel 20:47-48 ESV
Babylon fulfilled these words in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The fire was not quenched— the destruction was unstoppable, but Jerusalem didn't burn unendingly from 586 B.C. on.
So when Yeshua spoke of "unquenchable fire" in our text, He used language that His Jewish listeners would associate with the national judgments God had brought on nations in the Old Covenant. In fact, unlike us, they had never heard such language used any other way!
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.' Mark 9:47-48 ESV
Here Yeshua says that Gehenna is a place, "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched." What is this language referring to? Where would we go to find out? The Tanakh:
"And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh." Isaiah 66:24 ESV
This verse is talking about God's destruction of Jerusalem in the generation when Yeshua was crucified. When Yeshua spoke about "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched," the disciples would have been familiar with these words as referring to a national judgment.
So fire that is not quenched is not talking about an eternal fire, but a fire that can't be quenched or put out. It is used of judgment on Israel in:
but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing." Seek the LORD and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, Amos 5:5-6 ESV
It is also used of Babylon's burning of Jerusalem in:
For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the LORD: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.' "And to the house of the king of Judah say, 'Hear the word of the LORD, O house of David! Thus says the LORD: "'Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed, lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of your evil deeds.'" "Behold, I am against you, O inhabitant of the valley, O rock of the plain, declares the LORD; you who say, 'Who shall come down against us, or who shall enter our habitations?' I will punish you according to the fruit of your deeds, declares the LORD; I will kindle a fire in her forest, and it shall devour all that is around her." Jeremiah 21:10-14 ESV
Israel did not heed the warning, and as a result, Jerusalem and the Temple of God were burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar (See II Kings 25:8,9). Is Jerusalem burning today? Obviously not. An unquenchable fire clearly does not burn forever. So what does the phrase mean? A fire that cannot be quenched burns until its divine purpose has been accomplished and then it goes out. Man cannot extinguish or quench the fire, but it does indeed go out when there is nothing left to burn.
So Gehenna was a place that had become identified in people's minds as a filthy and accursed place where useless and evil things were destroyed. This is not talking about eternal damnation. It was a defiled place, and it became the garbage dump of Jerusalem. Fires smoldered there continuously; repulsive and ugly worms ate at the garbage. That becomes the symbol of national judgement.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 ESV
Notice that Matthew did not use the words "punishment," "torment," or "eternal." He used "destroy," which means: "to annihilate." Yeshua was speaking here to "Jews" that were living under the Law of Moses. Throughout His ministry, He made continual references to the judgment (wrath) of God that was soon to come upon them. The unfaithful "Jews" (those who rejected Him, as the Anointed of God) would be destroyed, while those of the faithful remnant would be spared.
Yeshua didn't say here, fear him who after he has killed your body will punish your conscious soul forever. The Greek would used here for soul is psuche, which means, "life."
As the disciples went out, they were not to fear death at the hands of their unbelieving brethren, as they could only rob the body of life. They were to fear God, who could permanently extinguish their life force (psuche), by denying them the resurrection unto everlasting life.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Matthew 23:15 ESV
Here the judgment of Gehenna, the national judgment of Israel, is given a time as to when it will happen:
Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Matthew 23:36 ESV
The judgment of Gehenna was to happen to the generation to which Christ preached.
So what we have seen is that Yeshua threatened the Jews in Jerusalem that if they rejected Him they were headed for the Gehenna. They would suffer a national judgment against Jerusalem.
So none of the KJV's uses of "Hell" have anything to do with a fiery place of torment. So as I said earlier, the word "Hell" should not be in your Bible. The NASB has the word "Hell" 13 times. ESV has it 14 times and Young's Literal Translation does not have the word "Hell" in it, not once. So to answer the question," What does the Bible say about Hell?" The answer is nothing! The word "Hell" is not in the original translations of the Bible.
We saw that the Tanakh said nothing about the wicked suffering after death. But what about the New Testament. We saw that Gehenna speaks of national judgment and not about the after life. But what does the New Testament say about the end of the wicked? Where did the New Testament writers get their information? The teaching of the apostles was based on Moses and the Prophets; therefore, their writings reflect the truths found in the Tanakh.
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Matthew 3:11-12 ESV
What is John talking about here, is this a reference to Hell? No, he is talking about the fiery destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. John is warning the religious leaders of Israel. The fact that the axe was already laid at the root of the tree (God's covenant people) indicates the nearness of the judgment.
John the Baptist comes on the scene as a Prophet of Yahweh after 400 years of silence. The Tanakh closes with the book of Malachi. The book of Malachi is one long and terrible impeachment of the nation Israel. Malachi is the Prophet of doom. Coming judgment is the burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi:
"Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:5 ESV
"For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. Malachi 4:1 ESV
Well this verse sounds like Hell, doesn't it? No, He says the evildoer will be chaff. The reference to "burning like an oven" is speaking of judgment on Jerusalem. This verse points to an approaching crisis in the history of the nation when Yahweh would inflict judgment upon His rebellious people. "The day" was coming—the day that shall "burn like an oven." This period is more precisely defined as "the great and terrible day of the Lord" in Malachi:
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. Malachi 4:5 ESV
That this "day" refers to a certain period and a specific event, is clear. Yeshua tells us that the predicted Elijah that was to come before "the great and terrible day of the Lord" was, in fact, John the Baptist:
and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Matthew 11:14 ESV
This enables us to determine the time of the event referred to as "the great and terrible day of the Lord." It must be in the time period of John the Baptist. It seems clear that the allusion is to the judgment of the Jewish nation in A.D. 70, when their city and Temple were destroyed, and the entire fabric of Judaism was dissolved. So Matthew 3:11-12 is not talking about Hell.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 ESV
The clear contrast here is "perish" and "eternal life." Those who trust in Christ don't perish. The Greek word "perish" is used literally of death. Paul taught the same thing as Lazarus did in:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Yeshua our Lord. Romans 6:23 ESV
Note the wages for sin is death, not eternal punishing and torment in some place called "Hell." In the context of Paul's dissertation in his letter to Rome, "the death" refers to the sentence given to Adam who was guilty of "the sin." Paul's message was that a life in Adam would result in "the death," while a life of faith in Christ brings everlasting life. Again the contrast is death and eternal life, not eternal torture or eternal life.
The Greek scholar and New Testament translator, R. F. Weymouth, wrote, "My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying 'destroy,' or 'destruction,' are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this."
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Matthew 25:46 ESV
Here we have a comparison between eternal punishment and eternal life. The word "eternal" is the same in both cases. "Eternal" is from the Greek aionios from aion, which means: "existing at all times, perpetual, pertaining to an unlimited duration of time." So people argue if the righteous get eternal life then the wicked get eternal punishment. This is true, but what does "eternal punishment" mean? As we have seen from other Scriptures, the punishment is death. So what the wicked get is eternal death. It is talking about the result of the action and not the action itself. The punishment is death and that is eternal. The destruction of the wicked in the lake of fire is permanent. It is a punishment that cannot be reversed. The act of punishing will come to an end, but the consequences will last for eternity.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV
Here, those perishing are the non-elect:
but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:24 ESV
So the contrast is, those who are "perishing" and those "being saved."
The Bible teaches that the reward of believers is everlasting life, while the punishment of the wicked is just as the Scriptures state—death, which is the opposite of life. As the wicked will have no escape from death, it is indeed an eternal punishment:
just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7 ESV
Notice that the punishment is "eternal fire"—is this a reference to eternal conscience torment? Who or what is it that "serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire"? Isn't this a reference to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? It is the cities that are an example of the punishment of eternal fire. Are the cities still burning? No, but the fire is said to be eternal because its destruction is eternal, permanent, never ending.
he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name." Revelation 14:10-11 ESV
At first glance this passage may seem to confirm the traditional idea of a seething, sulfurous hellfire, mercilessly and eternally tormenting helpless immortal souls. But notice the setting for this passage. From the context we see that the events it describes occur in Jerusalem amid earth-shaking events and disasters occurring immediately before or at Christ's return, not in Hell or the afterlife at all. This warning describes the punishment that will befall all the Jerusalem's inhabitants "who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." This is another passage that is speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem.
What about the Lake of fire?
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. Revelation 20:14-15 ESV
I believe, at this time, that the "lake of fire" is a sign or symbol of the fiery judgment that was about to take place on Jerusalem. It is a sign or symbol of Gehenna.
Translating the terms "Sheol," "Hades," "Gehenna," or "Tartarus" in a manner that denotes a place of "eternal punishment" is a perversion of God's Word. The insertion of the word "Hell" into any Bible verse only serves to mislead the reader. As with all other pagan concepts, "Hell" must be pre-determined prior to coming to the Scriptures, as the original language does not use the term; nor does it present any evidence to support the existence of a place of eternal torment.
As always, I ask that you not accept what I say and not reject what I say, but that you be a Berean and search the Scriptures and see if these things are so. Please study this out for yourself from the Scriptures and come to an informed decision.