The Hell of the Bible
For centuries clergymen and ecclesiastical leaders have pictured in gory detail the sufferings of the wicked and unbelievers in hell. Some have pictured hell as a sort of everlasting incinerator where the fire burns continually but does not consume. Evangelical ministers have preached that God, whom they believe to be a God of justice and infinite wisdom, condemns millions to this flaming torture from which there is no escape.
Such a concept of justice would never be tolerated in our courts. A jury that would sentence a guilty person to torture in flames even for a short period would arouse the horror of the whole civilized world.
Yet the doctrine of eternal torment, everlasting punishment, without any hope of release, is still credited to God by many churches.
Our question is not what anyone today believes or teaches but only, What says the Bible? Our study will include:
What Is Hell?
Words Translated “Hell” in Scripture
A Literal Hell? Impossible!
The Punishment of the Wicked
“Hell” Used in Scripture
- Sheol in the Old Testament
- Hades in the New Testament
- Gehenna in the New Testament
Is Hell “Hot”?
The Origin of Hell
What About Purgatory ... and Limbo
WHAT IS HELL?
In theological circles, hell is generally understood as “the abode of evil spirits; the infernal regions, where the devil rules supreme, and whither lost or condemned souls go after death to suffer indescribable torments and eternal punishment either for wickedness inherited from the sin of Adam or for more or less serious infractions of the divine law. This region was generally thought of as being beneath the earth in the darkness of vast underground caverns” (Encyclopedia Americana).
A comparable definition is to be found in most dictionaries, encyclopedias and Bible dictionaries.But this is not the hell of the Bible. The Old Testament Scriptures, spanning some 4,000 years of Bible history, contain no reference to punishment in hell or hellfire. The word hell appears 31 times in the Old Testament and in each case is translated from Sheol, a Hebrew word which, according to Cruden’s Concordance, “means simply the place of the dead without reference to happiness or the reverse.” “Hell” also occurs 23 times in the New Testament, where it is rendered from three different words: Hades (10 times) Gehenna (12 times) and Tartarus (1 time).
Why did the translators use the word “hell” to translate words like Hades and Sheol? The problem is in our understanding of the meaning of the word “hell” as the original translators used it. Our English word “hell,” like many other English words, has undergone radical changes of meaning through the years. Originally it meant simply “to cover, conceal, hide.” From the same root come the English words (hill, hull, hole, hold, hollow, helm), all of which meant “cover or conceal” in Old English. Thus the word was properly used in translating the Hebrew word Sheol as synonymous with “grave” and “pit.” In Old English Hell was also spelled Heel and carried the meaning of “covering as for protection,” as to cover the roots of trees or plants.
Words Translated “Hell” in Scripture
“Sheol” Was Not a Burning Hell
The Hebrew word sheol, from which “hell” is translated in the Old Testament, had several meanings. In the Hebrew language it meant a hollow place or a cave, a pit, or a grave. The word sheol appears 65 times in the Old Testament. It is translated “hell” 31 times, the “grave” 31 times and the “pit” 3 times.
The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home states: “In the Old Testament the abode of the dead is called sheol. The prophets and teachers of Israel made few formal statements about life after death, but many legends and folk tales arose about it. Sheol was not thought of as a place of punishment.”
Hasting’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics says concerning sheol.. “Early Hebrew writings give no detailed picture of the state after death to correspond with the pictures of Mohammedanism, Zoroastrianism, the religion of Egypt, or medieval Christianity. Prophetic influence was against any emphasis on [a continuation of] life after death. The place of the abode of the dead was called Sheol. The origin of the word is uncertain. Another primitive quality of Sheol was its non-moral character. It was not a place of punishment or reward. There were no compartments for good and bad.”
“Hades” Was Not a Burning Hell
The Greek word hades, from which hell is translated in the New Testament, occurs 11 times in the Greek New Testament and 10 of these times is translated “hell.” Hades is the word used in the Septuagint (the oldest translation of the Old Testament Scriptures from Hebrew to Greek) as a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol in 60 out of 63 uses of the word, and like Sheol denotes the abode or world of the dead, the state of death, the dominion of death; literally that which is “in darkness, hidden, invisible or obscure.”
Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott has the following comment: “To translate hades by the word hell, as it is done ten times out of eleven in the New Testament, is very improper, unless it has the Saxon meaning of helam, to cover, attached to it.
As a keen Bible scholar has observed, “The primitive signification of hell, only denoting what was secret or concealed, perfectly corresponds with the Greek term Hades, and its Hebrew equivalent, Sheol, but the theological definition given to it at the present day by no means expresses it.”
“Gehenna” Was Not a Burning Hell
The Greek word Gehenna is translated “hell” 12 times in the New Testament. Gehenna is a transliteration from Aramaic of the Hebrew gehennom, meaning “Valley of Hinnom.” This was a place near Jerusalem used for the disposal of refuse. In the days of the kings, children were burned in this valley in sacrifice to the pagan god Molech (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6).
The area took on a sinister significance and was later made into a garbage and rubbish heap into which was cast all kinds of filth, along with carcasses of beasts and the unburied bodies of criminals who had been executed. Continual fires were kept burning to consume these. The flames were believed to be the image of the tires of what was thought of as “hell,” hence Gehenna came to mean hell. But this in no way affects the Biblical use of the term. Gehenna, as used in the New Testament, symbolizes death and utter destruction. In no place does it signify a place of continuing torment. Knowing that the disciples were familiar with the fires of Gehenna, Jesus used Gehenna as a symbol of destruction.
“Tartarus” Not a Burning Hell
This word appears but once in the Scriptures (2 Pet. 2:4) and is translated “hell” in the Authorized Version. According to a footnote in the Berkeley translation, Tartarus was the corresponding Greek name for the Jewish Gehenna. It was a product of Greek mythology, being a “deep and sunless abyss.” Later Tartarus was described as the place in which “the spirits of the wicked received their due punishment,” in the “lower world.” But note that this idea has no origin in the Bible.
A Literal Hell? Impossible!
To the average person there is no doctrine so revolting as the doctrine of hellfire, eternal torment or everlasting punishment for the wicked. And of all the false doctrines extant in the world today there is none that so dishonors the name of God as this one. That a God of infinite mercy, justice and love would or could torture a human being knowingly for even an hour would be unthinkable. Yet even in our “enlightened” twentieth century, the doctrine persists that the ultimate destiny of those who reject God is an eternity of misery. Can this be possible? Again we will go to the Bible for our answer.
The Goodness of God
God is a God of goodness. “Oh how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those that fear You,” declared the Psalmist; “the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (31:19; 33:5). Any form of torment or torture could not be imagined as proceeding from a God of goodness.
Paul reminds us of God’s goodness and also of His severity:“Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off” (Rom. 11:22). Those who do not merit His goodness will be cut off, not burned in a fire.
We are also told by Paul that God’s goodness, not the threat of eternal torment, leads men to repentance: “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4).
God is a God of mercy and justice. The Psalmist said:“For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You” (Ps. 86:5). How could we possibly believe He would cause physical suffering throughout an endless eternity for what evil a man could do during this life?“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; mercy and truth go before Your face”(Ps. 89:14).“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:9). A God of justice, mercy and truth, who renders righteous judgments would not sentence even the worst sinner to a flaming inferno.
God is a God of love.His compassion, His mercy, His forgiveness, His long-suffering toward His earthly children are all summed up in the term “love.” (See 1 John 4:8-16; Ps. 86:15; 103:10-18; 111:4; 145:8.) Such a God would not condemn even the most wicked to eternal torture. The punishment of the wicked will be limited to cutting off, destroying eternally all who are judged unworthy of eternal life.
Man Is Mortal
The doctrine that a man goes to his reward in either heaven or hell at death is based upon the false premise that man possesses an immortal soul that must be accommodated eternally in either bliss or misery. But from the Bible we learn that man is mortal, subject to death, and possesses no separate soul or spirit that is immortal, hence there is no possibility of reward or punishment at death.
Man does not possess a soul, he IS a soul. The soul is the whole living person. “Seventy persons”went down into Egypt with the patriarch Jacob (Ex. 1:5). And souls die: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). The words “soul” and “spirit” are not once used in Scripture as undying, immortal, deathless, or in any way everlasting.
It is plainly stated in the Bible that “the dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5). This precludes any possibility of torment in hell after death. Consciousness of suffering would have to be limited to a man’s life because “his spirit departs,… in that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:4).
THE PUNISHMENT OF THE WICKED
Not Hellfire but Destruction (Nonentity)
The Scriptures are explicit concerning the punishment of the wicked or evil servants. God’s message to His people from the beginning was that sin would be punished. Through Moses He said to Israel: When you beget children and grandchildren and have grown old in the land, and act corruptly and make a carved image in the form of anything, and do evil in the sight of the Lord,…you will soon utterly perish from the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess; you will not prolong your days in it, but will be utterly destroyed” (Deut. 4:25-26). God’s law has not changed. It is still the same: obey and live, disobey and die.
Hell is not a place of fire or torment. All men, good and bad, sleep in the grave until the Master returns to call His own servants to account. We will go to the Bible to learn who will be punished and what the punishment will be.
Who Will Be Punished?
God will not bring to Judgment all who ever lived upon this earth. Only His servants, those who agreed to serve Him, will be judged and recompensed. In the parable of the Talents, the man “called his own servants and delivered his goods to them.” And “after a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them “ (Matt. 25:14, 19). His servants are those who agreed to serve Him. After Moses had read the “Book of the Covenant” to the people, they said: “All that the Lord has said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:7). After we have learned God’s law and agreed to keep it, we are one of His servants and amenable to judgment; we have made a covenant with Him.
What Is the Punishment for Sins?
The reward for evil is described in various ways in the Scriptures. The wicked are said to be cut off, cut down, perished, destroyed, rooted out, removed, punished-all of which add up to the same sum: destruction, eternal death. None of these terms give any indication of continuing punishment or torment; the destruction of the wicked will be complete.
According to Paul: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). These six words best sum up the reward for evil.
Other Scripture writers agree with the apostle Paul.
Isaiah: “Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it.... For behold, the Lord comes out of His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity” (Isa. 13:9; 26:21).
Ezekiel: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4).
The Psalmist: “. . . evildoers shall be cut off. . . . the workers of iniquity. . . shall soon be cut down like the grass and wither as the green herb.... when the wicked are cut off, you shalt see it” (Ps. 37:9, 1, 2, 34).
The Preacher: “The wicked will be cut off from the earth, and the unfaithful will be uprooted from it… it will not be well with the wicked” (Prov. 2:22; Eccl. 8:13).
New Testament writers were equally explicit.Jesus: “Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it” (Matt. 7:13).
James: “. . . sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death sin” (Jas. 1:15). Peter: “The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Pet. 2:9).
Paul: “And to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God [refuse to acknowledge God - NEB], and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
John the Revelator said: “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).
“HELL” USED IN SCRIPTURE
“Sheol” (Hell) in the Old Testament
As we noted above, the Hebrew word sheol appears 65 times in the Old Testament and is translated “hell” 31 times, “the grave” 31 times and “the pit” 3 times. The translators of the Revised Version left sheol untranslated. As a rule, the translators of the King James Version have used the word hell when the text applies to wicked people and the words grave or pit when righteous persons are involved, leading the casual reader of the Bible to an erroneous conclusion. We will discuss some of the passages in which sheol is used.
The first time sheol appears in the Old Testament is in Genesis 37:35. Here the patriarch Jacob is mourning for his son Joseph whom he believes to be dead. He said: “I shall go down into the grave [sheol] to my son in mourning.” Jacob later expressed a similar thought regarding his son Benjamin, saying that if he did not return safely from Egypt it would bring down his “gray hair with sorrow to the grave [sheol]” (Gen. 42:38). There is no thought of torment or punishment here; Jacob merely expected to go to the grave.
In the book of Job, sheol appears 8 times. The Authorized Version of the Bible translates it “grave” 5 times, “hell” 2 times and “pit” 1 time. Both the Revised Version and the New English leave sheol untranslated in all 8 verses-an evidence that nothing more than the grave was meant in each case.
Job’s use of the word sheol in 14:13 proves conclusively that there is no knowledge or suffering in the grave. When his suffering became unbearable, Job prayed to the Lord to let him die, that he might sleep in the grave [sheol] “until thy wrath be past,” that is, until the resurrection. Other verses in Job where sheol is used are 7:9; 11:8; 17:13, 16; 21:13: 24:19 and 26:6. If you have a Revised Version or New English Bible, compare these verses with the King James Version to better understand the meaning of sheol. In Job 26:6, sheol, translated hell in our common version, is equated with destruction thus lending no support to the theory of hell as a place of torment or punishment. “Hell [sheol] is naked before him, and destruction hath no covering.”
In the Psalms
We find the Hebrew word sheo! appearing 16 times in the Psalms. In our common version it is translated “grave” 9 times and “hell” 7 times. Here again both the New English and the Revised Standard Version leave them all untranslated sheol, the grave, the resting place of the dead, as meant by the Hebrew writers.It is interesting to note that in our common version Psalm 16:10, a verse applied to Christ by Peter in his Pentecost sermon, is translated: “You will not leave my soul in Sheol; nor will You allowYour Holy One to see corruption.” This translation is not in keeping with other translations of the word .sheol since the verse obviously refers to a righteous Person. It proves that .sheol was not thought of as a place of hellfire or torment.
In the wisdom of Solomon we find the word sheol translated “hell” 7 times. However, the fault lies with the translators and not with the Wise Man. In each instance the word in the original Hebrew is sheol, the grave or the place of the dead. By the sixteenth century when the English translations of the Bible were being compiled, the doctrine of hell as a place of punishment had become firmly established and the translators seized upon any opportunity to condemn the wicked to hell. Thus sheol has been translated “hell” in Prov. 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14 and 27:20. The NEB renders all sheol with the exception of Prov. 23:14, rendered “death.”
In the Prophets
Among the prophets, the Hebrew word sheol appears 9 times in Isaiah, 5 times in Ezekiel, 2 times in Hosea, and 1 time in Amos and Habakkuk. Of these it is 12 times translated “hell” and 6 times “grave.” Not once does its usage infer any form of torment or punishment, nor does it suggest a separate resting place for the wicked. And contrary to the teaching that hell is everlasting, the prophet Hosea tells of its coming destruction: “O death, I will be your plagues; O grave [sheol], I will be your destruction” (Hos. 13:14). Here the Prophet uses the only word of the Old Testament that is translated “hell” and says definitely that it shall be destroyed.
“Hades” (Hell) in the New Testament
By a careful analysis of a word-for-word translation of the Greek Testament we learn that Hades is in the New Testament what sheol is in the Old Testament. It was the word commonly used in the Septuagint as a translation of sheol, the Hebrew word denoting the abode or world of the dead. Hades occurs 11 times in the Greek Testament (the New Testament in Greek), and according to Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott, it is improperly translated “hell” 10 times. Its general meaning is “death, a state of death, the dominion of death.”
Used by Jesus
Jesus used the word Hades only three times in His discourses.
Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of this wicked city is recorded in Matt. 11:23 and Luke 10:15. Jesus said of Capernaum, “Will be brought down to Hades” The prophecy is against the city: it was to be destroyed. There is no suggestion of the city being tormented forever. But just as prophesied, Capernaum did literally disappear. Its site is now “a tumbled mass of stones.”
Concerning the Church
Jesus also used hades when He spoke to Peter concerning the establishment of His church: “And I also say to you that you are Peter [Petros],, and on this rock [Petra] I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The Revised Standard Version translates “the gates of hell” as “the powers of death.” Jesus was saying that nothing could prevent the fulfilling of His Father’s plan, the establishment of His church.
Concerning the Rich Man
Jesus’ use of Hades in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:22-23) is one of the most misunderstood in the Scriptures. The verses in question read: “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”
Taken literally, this passage would contradict other plain texts which state the impossibility of thought or feeling in the grave. The Scriptures being divinely inspired, such contradictions cannot exist. The seeming contradiction is caused by an erroneous interpretation.
Although Jesus did not specify that it was a parable, we read that “without a parable He did not speak to them” (Mark 4:34, Matt. 13:34). Furthermore, simple reasoning tells us that such an incident could not have taken place. The language of the parable is symbolic. If the torment in the passage is literal, then we must think literally of Abraham’s bosom and also the “great gulf”-both of which are unquestionably symbolic.
Of the rich man we read: “The rich man also died, and was buried; and being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes….The Greek word here translated hell is hades, meaning the grave. The New Catholic Bible reads: “And the rich man also died: and he was buried in hell,” or in other words, he was buried in the grave, the proper place in which to bury the dead. Continuing, the Douay Version reads: “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (vs. 23). When was the rich man tormented? The key is in verse 30 of the same chapter: “If one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” The rich man is in torments after the resurrection when he sees the faithful in the Kingdom and himself cast out (Luke 13:28). No one is tormented in the grave. The Bible is specific concerning the state of the dead: “The dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5). (For further discussion of the state of the dead, see Bible Study lesson in this series entitled, “Of Life. Death and Immortality.”)
Used by the Apostles
It is apparent that the doctrine of hellfire was not a tenet of the Apostolic Church as the subject is hardly mentioned in the writings of the apostles. The Greek word hades appears only 3 times from the Gospels to Revelation. The apostle Peter used the word when quoting the Psalmist (16:10): “You will not leave my soul in Sheol, [hades],not will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27). But this had no connection with any burning hell, as Peter in verse 31 applies this text to Christ’s being raised from the dead. Peter was explaining that Jesus had been restored to life, brought back from the grave, the hell of the Bible and the only hell to which any man is destined.
In all of the writings of Paul, constituting 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament, he used the Greek word hades only once, and that in reference to the eventual destruction of death. Jesus had triumphed over the grave and it was Paul’s one desire to attain to a resurrection like His and to inspire his hearers that they might also gain the victory over death (1 Cor. 15:55-58).
According to Revelation
In His last message to mankind, delivered by an angel to John, Jesus made clear that He had the power to free men from the grave, the hell of the Bible. He said: “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Rev. 1:18). “The keys of Hades and of Death” symbolized Jesus’ power and authority to free men from the tomb at His coming.
In the sixth chapter of Revelation we find hell [hades] pictured as following Death on the pale horse (v. 8). This verse presents a vivid picture of the destruction of the wicked at Armageddon. There is no suggestion of torment or everlasting punishment, but annihilation, utter extinction of the wicked element.
Again in Revelation 20 we find the word hades used. “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death” (vs. 13-14). Taken in context, these verses describe the time when the dead shall be raised and judged. It is interesting to note that “hell ... delivered up the dead” that were in it-they were dead, in the grave, not alive and suffering torments.
Verse 14, the last use of the word hades in the Bible, assures us of the ultimate destruction of the Bible hell. “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” If the theory of hell as a place of burning were true, then we literally have hell cast into hell! The “lake of fire” is used here as a symbol illustrating the end of death and the grave, its absolute destruction. The “lake of fire,” the “second death,” destroys all the incorrigibles at the end of the thousand years, then destroys death itself, for after the Millennium “there shall be no more death.”
“Gehenna” (Hell) in the New Testament
Gehenna, also translated hell in our common version, occurs 12 times, and as previously stated should not be translated at all since it is a proper name designating a specific place. That which was consigned to Gehenna was destroyed, not preserved in torment. The people of Jesus’ day were well acquainted with Gehenna and would have associated it with destruction, annihilation.
Without a Literal Hell
Some fundamentalists make the claim that “You can’t have a heaven without a hell.” One writer decries those who “explain hell out of the Bible” and cites what he calls “plain and forcible passages of Holy Writ” which prove to him that hell, as a burning fiery furnace. exists. Of the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, he comments: “He [the rich man] might not have believed in a hell before he went there, but that did not alter the case, he went there just the same.... Listen to his soliloquy; `I am tormented in this flame.’ Mark you, this man in hell says, `I am tormented.”‘ He also makes mention of other New Testament Scriptures that prove to him that there is such a place of torment. (For discussion of the Rich Man and Lazarus, see page 7 of this lesson.)
IS HELL “HOT”?
Bible Texts Using the Ward “Fire”
One of the prime reasons behind the belief in literal hellfire is a misunderstanding of the use of the term “fire” in the Scriptures. Fundamentalists can see nothing in its use but their concept of literal hellfire, hence when “fire” is coupled with such adjectives as “everlasting,” “devouring,” “consuming,” or “unquenchable,” they visualize a flaming inferno in which the wicked are tormented eternally.
Fire as used in the Bible symbolizes destruction, not eternal torment. The definition of “fire,” as given by the Hebrew Lexicon is: “A symbol of destruction, whether of men or things, so that to be destroyed by war is said to be destroyed by fire: figuratively used of the judgments of God.” This definition should be kept in mind when studying God’s Word. Fire consumes, destroys, burns up; it in no way preserves, tortures or torments.
Fire is used repeatedly throughout the Bible as a symbol of destruction, but never as a means of punishment or in the sense of torment. We will review some verses using “fire” in the Bible.
Let us examine closely a few of the texts that use the word “fire.” Matthew 3:11-12: “. . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
A careful reading of this text should convince all that no part of it is literal. No enlightened person would ever pray to be baptized with literal fire. “Baptism by fire” denotes the punishments of the judgments of God. The context of the verse clearly indicates two rewards, blessing for the righteous and punishment for the wicked. As the wheat and the tares are symbolic of the righteous and the wicked respectively, so the fire is symbolic. Note also that the tares will be “burned up”-they will not continue to burn forever in torment, but will be consumed, destroyed.
Matthew 25:41: “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire…”
Exponents of the torment theory seize upon this statement of Jesus in an effort to prove their doctrine, but no such thought is attached to the text. Fire, as used elsewhere in the Bible, is a symbol of destruction, not torment. Everlasting fire would simply be everlasting destruction (2 Thess. 1:9). “Everlasting punishment,” as it is translated in verse 46 of the same chapter, denotes the same destruction. Harper’s Bible Dictionary defines “everlasting punishment” as a “metaphorical term very appropriate to the context but distorted by the influence of Milton and Dante.”
Matthew 13:40-42, 49-50: “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.… So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire.”
This chapter contains many of Jesus’ parables and their exposition. We must remember that a parable is an illustration which teaches a moral or spiritual lesson, thus the terms in the parable are only illustrations, symbols: the tares that are gathered and burned represent the wicked who shall be destroyed by God’s judgments. The wailing (v. 50) results from the unfaithful realizing what they have lost, not from physical suffering.
Jude 7: “As Sodom and Gomorrha,. . . are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”
This text shows the results of pursuing evil: they pursued it to their own destruction. Like the fires of Gehenna, the fire destroyed the cities. The use of “eternal fire” here could not possibly mean that the fire will never burn out, that the wicked will be tormented forever, or Sodom and Gomorrah would be still burning. The “vengeance of eternal fire” was God’s immediate judgments on the wicked cities.
2 Peter 3:7: “But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.”
Here again the terms are symbolic: the heavens represent the rulers; the earth, the people ruled over; the physical earth shall abide forever (Eccl. 1:4). Again, fire represents the judgments of God which shall come upon the earth to destroy the wicked. There is no suggestion of torment or punishment lasting forever. Note that they are “reserved unto fire,” NOT reserved in fire. Rev. 20:9-10, 14-15: “: . . fire came down from God out of heaven. “ These verses are often used to picture the torments of hell, but such a meaning is not intended. We cannot imagine literal fire coming down from God. The fire represents the judgments of God, hence it is said to come from heaven, since the judgments are at God’s direction. The destruction is the same as that described in 2 Thess. 1:9, “everlasting destruction” of the wicked servants.
In verse 10, the devil is said to be “cast into the lake of fire and brimstone.” where he “shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” The “lake of fire” is “the second death” (v. 14), or penal death. As to the torment, it cannot be literal, else it would contradict plain Bible teaching. Revelation 21:4 describes the Kingdom as free from all pain and suffering, hence there could not be torment of any duration. The phrase is used figuratively to describe the remorse of the unfaithful servants (Luke 13:28).
The phrase “day and night” also limits the torment to their lifetime, for when the Lamb and the saints are the light (Rev. 21:23), there shall be “no night there” (v. 25).
Revelation 20:14 is self-explanatory. The “lake of fire” is “the second death.” If the “lake of fire” represented a literal burning hell as some believe, then hell would be literally cast into hell. This would be nonsense. The term simply refers to the end of all death. It is the time when the Kingdom is fully come and “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Then death will have been “swallowed up in victory”; and when there is no more death there will be no need for hell-the grave.
THE ORIGIN OF HELL
Where did HOT HELL come from, if not from the Bible?
The idea of hell, like many other doctrines of the Roman Church, has undergone a gradual development through the centuries. Hell as a place of torment or punishment was unknown to the Jews in Old Testament times. To them, sheol was simply the abode of the dead, the grave, as its usage in the Scriptures indicates. Nor is there any indication that the Apostolic Church believed or taught such a doctrine. As we have seen, Jesus’ use of Gehenna was meant to convey the thought of destruction, extermination or annihilation. An analysis of His teachings reveals no thought of punishment or torment. Gehenna was symbolic of the “rubbish heap of the universe to which men consign themselves when they reject God.”
The belief in hell as a place of punishment came about largely because of the “immortal soul” concept. This belief was adopted from the pagans and finds no place in the Scriptures. But believing the soul to be immortal necessitated a doctrine to provide some form of punishment for the souls of the wicked after death. Since all souls went to be with God immediately after death, they reasoned that without an eternal place of punishment, the soul of the wicked person would fare as well at death as the soul of the righteous. The sinner would have triumphed, enjoying what he wanted of this world and obtaining the world to come.
Influence from Outside the Bible
The concept of sheol, or hell as a place of punishment and torment has come about largely from outside influence. There is nothing in the Old Testament to indicate that the Jews thought of sheol, often translated “hell,” as anything but the grave, the place of the dead.
The doctrine of the immortality of the soul was entirely of pagan origin. Greek mythology and philosophy influenced the doctrine. The Greeks had definite ideas about the hereafter. Plato, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century before Christ, had much to do with the idea of the “immortal soul,” explaining the theory in great detail.
At this same period in history, mythology was the religion of the Greeks. These myths were the product of an overworked imagination. The Greeks worshiped many gods, but not the true God. To their gods they attributed life, death, the movement of earth, the rain, the wind, the sun that moved across the sky, the moon and the stars-everything that lived or moved.
One of these was hades, the god of the underworld kingdom, a realm of darkness in some imaginary region under the earth. According to the myth, hades supervised the trial and punishment of the wicked souls after death. The name hades came to be applied to the region itself, which led to the use of the term in the Greek translations of the Scriptures.
Hades was generally thought of as a place where the souls of all the dead led a shadowy existence. From this beginning, the idea gradually developed of a paradise for good souls, and Tartarus (discussed earlier in this series), a deep pit beneath hades, where the souls of the wicked were punished. Although generally thought of as a place of heat and flames, some myths describe it as cold and dark.
As the Jews came in contact with the Greeks after the Babylonian exile, they gradually adopted Greek thought concerning the hereafter and the immortal soul, but not until the sixth century A. D. did the doctrine of everlasting punishment come into prominence. It was not accepted as a tenet of the church before this time.
Poets, artists and authors have had a large part in formulating the doctrine and establishing the idea of a blazing inferno. Medieval artists pictured hapless victims surrounded by beasts and flames. Dante, the well-known Italian poet of the Middle Ages, saw hell as a vast crater that pierced the center of the earth. Milton, the famous poet of the fifteenth century did much to influence the conception of hell in the minds of people through his well-known work, Paradise Lost. His vivid portrayal in words was so striking that it has endured the test of time. According to one authority, its influence on English thought has been surpassed only by the Bible. (In the matter of establishing the doctrine of the immortal soul, it has surpassed the Bible, since the Bible does not support the theory.)
Thus hell as a place of flames and torment became firmly fixed in the minds of so-called “Christians”-not because the Scriptures taught it but because it had been accepted from tradition.
Early American Concepts
To the early evangelists, hell was very real. Their concept of hell was drawn from a very literal interpretation of the New Testament Scriptures coupled with the words of Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is said that the Puritans, a religious separatist group of the era immediately preceding the settlement of America drew their ideas of hell more from Paradise Lost than from the Bible. For them, the flames of hell provided a strong deterrent to sin and evil.
The Puritan concept. The Puritan concept was best exemplified in the words of its great champion, Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards was born in 1703, less than a century after the landing of the Pilgrims. He was reared in an age when religion was an integral part of life, his forefathers having come to a new land in search of religious freedom. His father before him was a minister and it never occurred to him to be anything else.
Jonathan Edwards’ preaching has been described by one as a sort of “spiritual hurricane” before which his hearers collapsed, or “like a sharp sword to his hearers, as painful to their hearts and consciences as burning metal on flesh.” He used the threat of literal hellfire to subdue his hearers. It was not unusual for him to warn his congregation that they might be in the flames of hell “before the end of this very night.”
The following is quoted from one of his sermons: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell but the mere pleasure of God [His arbitrary will] ... they are the objects of the anger and wrath of God that is expressed in the torments of hell. And the reason why they do not go down to hell is not because God is not angry with them as he is with many now tormented in hell.... Yea, God is a great deal more angry with many that are now in this congregation than He is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.
“It is not because God is unmindful of their wickedness that He does not let loose His hand and cut them off. . . . The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.” (Jonathan Edwards, Puritan Sage, edited by Vergilius Ferm, Library Publishers, New York, 1953, pp. 366-367)
There is no doubt that he was sincere in his belief, but a man may be dead earnest and be dead wrong.
Other concepts in early America. The general teaching of the early centuries of America was not unlike that of Jonathan Edwards. At this time, “piety and earnestness in the things of religion were taken to be axiomatic as the greatest issue of life, an integral part of a basic tradition.” Puritanism and Calvinism were the religions of the day, both of which accepted a literal burning hellfire as a punishment of the wicked and both of which would be considered overly-fundamental in our day of modernism.
Present Day Concepts
Although the doctrine is still in the creeds of many churches, few people could be “scared” into the church by the threat of literal hellfire, and hell as a deterrent to wrongdoing has almost lost its impact. The reason: in the majority of churches, the subject is never mentioned. According to one writer, the records of a large church in New York City indicate that no sermon has been preached on this subject within 40 years.
Modern Christianity’s concepts of hell fall into three distinct categories: 1) The fundamentalist concept of literal hellfire for all who reject salvation; 2) the modified concept of hell that delivers nearly all from its torments; 3) the modernist concept of a hell as nothing more than eternal separation from God, and 4) the Biblical concept of hell as total destruction, annihilation, nonentity, the grave.
The Fundamentalist Concept. The fundamentalist concept results from a literal interpretation of many Biblical statements without considering the original meaning of those statements and a strong belief in a literal burning hell. The words of some modern fundamentalist preachers are so like those of Jonathan Edwards they might well have taken from the script of one of his sermons.
Evangelist John R. Rice, editor of the Sword of the Lord, an independent religious newspaper, writes in a sermon entitled, “Is There a Bible Hell?”: “I make no apology for preaching on Hell everywhere I go.... Jesus preached about hell all the time! ... We would not have to preach to people about compassion if we understood what hell was like.... It would be a good thing if we would warn church people that they had better make sure they keep out of hell.... Let me repeat it: The Lord Jesus Christ preached about hell all the time.”
He further explains: “If you have not made sure your poor immortal soul is sure for heaven and that you have escaped the horrible clutches of hellfire, then you are nothing but a fool and you may wake up in hell where the fire never goes out and the worm never dies.... It is a horrible thing to die unconverted and meet God and wake up in hell ... it is instantly heaven or hell when you die.... There cannot be any heaven if there is not any hella torment for the unregenerate sinners!”
Anyone understanding the true teaching of the Bible can readily perceive the falsities contained in the above quotation. As pointed out earlier in this lesson, the entire doctrine is built on a misunderstanding of the meanings of the words translated “hell” and on the false belief in an immortal soul. Without these, the doctrine falls of its own weight.
The Modified Concept of Hell. A somewhat modified concept of hell has been taught by some who could not believe that God could possibly burn or torment human beings. Origen, a third century church father, questioned the existence of eternal hellfire; but his doubts were overruled by the majority of the church fathers, who adhered to the literal interpretation of Jesus’ words. Supporters of this theory hold that God will continue to “seek the salvation of his erring children. They protest that eternal punishment would be disproportionate penalty for sins committed during man’s brief period on this earth.” They hold that punishment for sin in the hereafter will be disciplinary, often with some hope of reformation and eventual salvation. For support of this viewpoint they use Acts 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:22; and 1 Cor. 15:28.
The answer to this viewpoint is evident: There can be no sin overcome after death. The eternal principle is: “Where the tree falls, there it shall lie” (Eccl. 11:3). In the words of the Revelator, “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still” (22:11).
The Modernist Concept. At the opposite extreme from the preachers of a literal burning hell are those who hold that God will save all mankind, even the vilest sinner, if he calls on the Lord before he dies. Believers in this category never mention the subject of hell; God is thought of as a God of nothing but love for everyone, even the sinner.
While God will not condemn anyone to a burning hell, neither will He save those who are not worthy. God is a God of justice and judgment; He will save eternally the righteous and destroy eternally the wicked. The promise is: “The righteous will never be removed, but the wicked will not inhabit the earth” (Prov. 10:30). The wicked “shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9).
The Biblical Concept of Hell. We have studied in detail the Biblical concept, showing that the original words translated hell had for their meanings such terms as “the grave,” “the pit,” “annihilation,” and not eternal torment.
WHAT ABOUT PURGATORY ...
Belief in purgatory and limbo is limited to the Roman Catholic faith, butbecause Catholicism is embraced by more than half of the estimated Christian population of the world, we will include a brief discussion of these terms. Our concern is whether or not the doctrine is Biblical. “Prove all things” was the command of the apostle Paul, and it is the basis of all true religion. We must be able to prove what we believe by the Bible.
Purgatory-Is it Biblical?
Purgatory is defined as “A place or state in which some souls are detained for a time after death before entering heaven, which literally means a place of cleansing.” It is further defined as a state of temporary punishment for those who died without having fully paid the satisfaction due for past forgiven sins. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, souls in purgatory are subject to “punishment and suffering,” but “these souls are sure of their salvation.”
The existence of Purgatory was defined at the Council of Florence (1438-1445) as follows: “The souls are cleansed by purgatorial pains after death and in order that they may be rescued from these pains they are benefited by the suffrages of the living faithful, namely: the sacrifice of the mass, prayers, alms and other works of piety.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia further states: “Whether purgatory is a state or a place is a disputed question among theologians. The idea of Purgatory is certainly a reasonable one. It would seem quite unfitting for souls still defiled by even the slightest sin to appear before God.... Scripture gives indications if not strong proof of the existence of Purgatory.”
Does Scripture give proof or even any indication of such a place as Purgatory? Have we any reason to believe that satisfaction can be made for sin after death? Is such a doctrine reasonable?
The Bible does not teach it.
The “proof” referred to in the above quotation is found in 2 Maccabees 12:46 (an Apocryphal book) and Matt. 12:32 in the common version. Since the Apocryphal books are admitted to be of doubtful origin and are no part of the Canon of Scripture, we cannot accept a quotation from it as proof. Matthew 12:32 reads: “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” In other words, they say, it shall be forgiven between this world and the world to come-in Purgatory. But is not this conjecture added to Jesus’ words?
Nowhere in the Scriptures do we find any suggestion of the forgiveness of sins after death and we cannot believe it was Jesus’ intent to teach it. Jesus was making the point that all sins were forgivable except the sin against the Holy Spirit. By saying “neither in this world, neither in the world to come,” He was saying that the sin against the Holy Spirit was unpardonable; it could not be forgiven, then or ever. A footnote on the verse in the New Catholic Bible is interesting: “. . . it is morally impossible that he should ever meet the conditions for absolution.” This approach would not appear to support the doctrine of Purgatory.
It is based upon the false doctrine of the “immortal soul.”
Without the foundation of the “immortal soul” the theory of Purgatory falls of its own weight. In previous lessons we have proved the doctrine of the “immortal soul” to be the word of man and not the Word of God. When a man dies, “his spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:4). How could he ask or receive forgiveness? Again, “in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” (Ps. 6:5). Any change after death is impossible. It is a Bible principle that “where the tree falls, there it shall lie” (Eccl. 11:3).
At death, man goes to the grave.
The Bible is explicit on this point. There is no intermediate state: “…for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Eccl. 9:10). At death the whole man goes to the grave. Nothing in the Scriptures indicates otherwise. Job said, “If I wait for the grave as my house” (17:13). He did not expect to stop anywhere short of the grave, nor did he expect to go to heaven and meet the Lord at death. Job’s words are too plain to be misunderstood; he desired that his words be “engraved on a rock with an iron pen and lead, forever.” The point he was impressing was that he would someday meet his Redeemer-on the earth, (Job 19:23-27). All shall “sleep in the dust of the earth” (Dan. 12:2) until the resurrection and Judgment.
The doctrine of purgatory is contrary to plain Bible teaching.
We cannot interpret one single verse in the Scriptures in a way that would be contrary to other plain Bible teachings, for we believe the Bible to be without contradiction. Neither can we accept as truth a doctrine that is based wholly on assumption. There is nothing in the Scriptures to indicate that either a state or a place of purgatory exists. A man’s status is to be determined at the Judgment, not at death. Both righteous and wicked will sleep until they stand at the Judgment. (See Matt. 25:32-34; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 14:10.)
... ABOUT LIMBO
Limbo is a much-debated question even among those who profess to believe in the doctrine. The dictionary defines limbo as “A region on the edge of hell for the souls of the righteous who died before the coming of Christ, and those of infants who die before baptism.” Like purgatory, it is described as an intermediate state, neither heaven nor hell, but nevertheless an eternal state.
Over the centuries the doctrine of Limbo has undergone a noticeable evolution, and today the question is far from settled. Volumes have been written on the subject revealing a wide range of opinions concerning the salvation of infants. Limbo is admitted to be “more the construction of theologians than the working of divine providence,” _yet it remains a tenet of the Catholic Church.
According to the modern concept of Limbo, an unbaptized child at death is judged worthy of neither heaven nor hell. Instead, he is consigned to some middle ground where he knows neither the joys of heaven nor the torments of hell, but has a measure of happiness in keeping with his mental development. The Limbo theory assumes that a child is born with original sin in his soul. He is a sinner, not by choice, but by heritage; and because of this stain of sin he cannot enter heaven. Limbo is pictured as a necessary exile, a separation from God because of the inherited sin.
Limbo is described as “both a beautiful and consoling conception.” Being “beautiful and consoling” does not make it Biblical. (No Scriptural proof is offered.) The dispute over limbo could be quickly solved by going to the Bible. There is considerable proof that such a region could not exist.
Limbo presupposes the existence of “original sin.”
There is no such thing as “original sin.” Every man is condemned for his own sin: “His own iniquities entrap the wicked man, and he is caught in the cords of his sin” (Prov. 5:22). A child does not inherit the sin of a parent or grandparent or remote ancestor. “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16). This was the law in ancient Israel, and the principle still stands. “The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek. 18:20).
Limbo is based on the immortal soul theory.
Limbo, like purgatory, assumes the existence of an “immortal soul.” Any doctrine without Biblical support is worthless. The theory of the “immortalsoul” is a product of Greek thought and not the Word of God. Nothing can be found in the Scriptures to support it. There is nothing in the Bible to substantiate the theory of Limbo.
A living soul is a living person; a dead soul is a dead person. Souls or people are not preserved eternally, but go to the grave at death regardless of age Whether or not they are worthy of eternal life is dependent upon the decision of the Judge at the resurrection. The reward will be either eternal life or eternal death with no intermediate state. A child who dies before reaching the age of understanding is not amenable to Judgment and not subject to either reward or punishment.
The hell of the Bible is not the hell of theology. The words translated “hell” in Scripture (sheol, hades, Gehenna) have for their principal meanings “death, destruction, annihilation.” The same words translated “hell” in many cases are rendered “pit,” “grave” or “death.” There is no suggestion of eternal torment in any of these words.
God is not cruel and diabolical, as many religious teachers have thought and taught. The diabolical doctrine of hellfire originated in the writings of men, not of God.
The punishment of the wicked is to be eternal death, not eternal torture in hellfire. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Purgatory and Limbo are the products of centuries of religious debate and are not mentioned in the Bible.
Men may dream and speculate and imagine; but the Word of God stands immutable: “The soul who sins shall die”-not burn forever.
Can You Answer These?
1. What is the word most frequently translated “hell” in the Old Testament? in the New Testament?
By what words other than “hell” is it translated?
2. Define Sheol and give four texts where it is used in Scripture.
3. Define Hades and give four texts where it is used in Scripture.
4. What was Gehenna in Biblical times?
5. Compare the “hell” of theology with the usage of the word “hell” in the Bible.
6. What is to be the punishment of the wicked? Give Scriptural evidence for your answer.
7. What is the “lake of fire” in Revelation 21:8? How can we be sure?
8. What is the torment which the “Rich Man” experiences in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus?
9. Discuss briefly the influence of Milton on the modern concepts of hellfire.
(If you need assistance in answering these questions, refer to your Bible and the pages of this lesson.)
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