What is Hell?
A survey showed that 68 percent of Americans believe in heaven, but only 54 percent are persuaded of the reality of hell. Why the difference? Probably because many of those who believe in a heaven simply cannot bring themselves to think that a merciful, loving God would consign anyone to a place of eternal torment. Nor will He.
Common Ideas of Hell
A survey in New Zealand indicated that 60 percent of New Zealanders believe hell is simply a state of mind. Only 26 percent believe hell is a literal place. In San Francisco, random passers-by were asked: “How do you picture hell?” Some of the answers reveal the utter confusion surrounding the subject.
First person: “Honestly, I have doubts there is such a place. I feel hell is a means of scaring people so they will lead a better life….If there is such a place, I suppose it is craggy and filled with people feeding furnaces or breaking rocks.” Second person: Personally, I think it is just a Biblical term.” Third person: “When I was young I had a picture of what hell is like—flames and a devil with horns and a pitchfork. But one gets over this, just as he does with Santa Claus.”
Fourth person: “I would rather not think about it.”Fifth person: “I have never thought of it except as I have seen it staged in operas or plays.” Sixth person: “I picture hell as a big, hot, uncomfortable desert. I think it does exist. Not down in the ground. But since someone put us here, then he could easily have a place for us afterward.”
Seventh person: “Hell is a place of unhappy confinement, like a prison. Not necessarily with flames. More a torment of the spirit. I believe it is an actual area, although not necessarily down any more than heaven must be up.” Here are many vague ideas about hell, but almost no real knowledge. Probably the clear majority are those who would just “rather not think about it”!
What the Clergy Thinks
Many theologians today do not believe in a literal “hell.” Said one:”The essence of hell is separation from God—not really torture, but torment.” Another described hell as “a condition of human existence.”One minister claimed hell is “the loss of communication, insensitivity to spiritual values, the realization of how far short of our capacities we have fallen, the memory of some of the things we have done.” Isn’t it time we learned the truth from the Bible?
The Fiery Inferno
Most everyone assumes one of two extremes concerning “hell.” One group totally denies that hell exists. Hell is passed off as an ancient superstition which has no bearing whatever on modern life. The other group, including most so-called Bible fundamentalists, pictures hell as a terrible place of never-ending torment where Satan rules and his demons gleefully “roast” sinners like millions of wieners on a barbecue spit. But why do people believe what they believe? From where or from whom have these popular ideas come?
From the Philosophers
A few prominent religious leaders of the Middle Ages left writings and teachings which were so universally believed that they became the accepted doctrine of the Christian-professing world. One of the most important of these influential writers was Augustine (345-430 A.D.).
Augustine reasoned that there should be a temporary cleansing of imperfect souls in purgatorial fire. He, like other influential men of the Christian-professing church, were influenced by “pre-Christian doctrine”—the doctrine of the ancient pagan philosophers and other early church fathers (see Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., article “Purgatory”).
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), wrote a tremendously popular poem, La Commedia, in three parts—Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Although Dante’s purpose for writing his Commedia was to ridicule the religious concepts of hell which were prevalent during his day, his writing nevertheless tremendously influenced popular though and teaching.
“Of all poets of modern times,” says a modern author, “Dante Alighieri was, perhaps, the greatest educator. He possibly had a greater influence on the course of civilization than any other man since his day…he wrote, in incomprehensible verse, an imaginative and lurid account of a dismal hell—a long poem containing certain phrases which caught the attention of the world, such as ‘all hope abandon…ye, who enter here!’…His ‘Inferno’ was based on Virgil and Plato” (Dante and His Inferno).
And so Dante wrote from the ideas and concepts of the philosophers Plato and Virgil and the prevalent “Christian” concepts of his day. But who were Plato and Virgil? Says the Encyclopedia Americana: “Virgil, pagan poet, 70-19 B.C., belonged to the national school of pagan Roman thought, influenced by the Greek writers. Christians of the Middle Ages believed he had received some measure of divine inspiration.”
Plato, born in Athens, Greece, 427 B.C., was a student of the renowned Socrates. Plato’s famous literary work Phaedo taught the immorality of the soul—the foundation for other writings on the doctrine of an eternal hell where wicked “souls” are supposedly punished forever. So the world’s concept of “hell” is admittedly a product of human thinking—OF PAGAN SPECULATION—as men puzzled over the eventual ‘fate of the wicked’.
What About the Billions of Mankind?
Before we examine the Bible to see whether the common ideas about hell could be true, let us consider where this concept of hell, if true, would lead us.
On this earth there are almost seven billion people. The most populous lands are China, India, and other parts of Asia. But in spite of the efforts of Western missionaries, more than half of all the people on the earth have never so much as heard the only name by which men may be saved (Acts 4:12). Literally billions of people on this earth have lived and died without having ever seen a Bible.
Now think what that means. If all the “unsaved” go immediately to a fiery hell at death, then more than half the people who have ever lived on this earth have been consigned to this terrible punishment without ever having had a chance to escape it! Can you really believe that is the method an all-wise, all-merciful loving God is using to work out His purpose? WHAT IS THE TRUTH?
We face these alternatives: Either the Creator reveals the TRUTH on this subject, or else we must confess we just don’t know. Either we believe what the Bible says, or we must—if we are rational and honest—admit ignorance. What does God say about “hell” in the Bible? You may be surprised! So be sure to read all of the scripture references given, and PROVE the truth from the Bible with your own eyes.
English Word Hell Misapplied
Let’s read what A Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hastings, says about the use of the word “hell” in the Old and New Testaments. Keep in mind, as you read this, that the Old Testament was originally written in the Hebrew language, and that the New Testament was originally written in the Greek language. Hastings says: “In our Authorized Version the word hell is unfortunately used as the rendering of three distinct words, with DIFFERENT IDEAS [Or meanings]. It represents,
1) the ‘sheol’ of the Hebrew Old Testament, and the ‘hades’ in the New Testament…. It is now an entirely misleading rendering, especially in the New Testament passages. The English revisers, therefore, have substituted ‘hades’ [going back to the original Greek word] for ‘hell’ in the New Testament…. In the American revision the word ‘hell’ is entirely discarded in this connection…. “The word ‘hell’ is used.
2) as equivalent to [the Greek word] ‘tartaros’ (II Peter 2:4)…and,
3)…as the equivalent of [the Greek word] ‘gehenna’….”
So we see that the real meanings of three different Greek words—hades (equivalent to the Hebrew sheol of the Old Testament), tartaros and gehenna -have been confused with each other because translators have attempted to make the one English word “hell” cover the definitions of all three words! No wonder confusion has reigned in the minds of millions. What do these words really mean?
The original Old Testament Hebrew word sheol and the New Testament Greek word hades mean the same thing—simply the grave. These original words have been translated “grave” in many places in the Bible. “Hell” is an old English word, and over 350 years ago when the Authorized Version was translated, the people of England commonly talked of “putting their potatoes in hell for the winter”—a good way of preserving potatoes—for the word then meant merely A HOLE IN THE GROUND which was covered up—a dark and silent place—a grave! But pagan teachings gaining popular acceptance have caused people to misapply the old English word “hell” to the lurid imaginations of Dante.
The second Greek word, tartaros, which has also been translated into the English word “hell,” occurs only once in the New Testament, (II Pet. 2:4) and does not refer to humans, but to the restrained condition of fallen angels. Its meaning, translated into English, is “darkness of the material universe,” or “dark abyss,” or “prison.”
But what about gehenna? This Greek word, as all authorities admit, is derived from the name of the narrow, rocky Valley of Hinnom which lay just outside Jerusalem. It was the place where refuse was constantly burned up. Trash, filth, and the dead bodies of animals and despised criminals were thrown into the fires of gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom. Ordinarily, everything thrown into this valley was destroyed by fire— completely burned up. Therefore, Christ used gehenna to picture the terrible fate of unrepentant law breakers.
Two Different Hells
In most of the passages of the New Testament where we see the word “hell,” the original Greek word is not gehenna. Most often it is hades—which does not refer to fire at all, but to a grave—a hole in the ground. Yet the translators have confused and obliterated the two entirely separate meanings of these words by indiscriminately rendering them both by the same English word “hell.”Let’s study the proof.
1. What can we learn from Luke 12:5 about “hell”?
COMMENT: If you were to look up the original Greek word that is here translated into the English word “hell,” you would find it is gehenna. Gehenna, then, is plainly a place where bodies are thrown and, as Christ indicated, destroyed by fire! (Mark9:43)
2. But now notice the same English word “hell” in Acts 2:31?
COMMENT: The original Greek word which is translated by the English word “hell” in Acts 2:31 is hades. Hades means the “grave,” as its usage in this verse clearly shows! We can plainly see that the English word “hell” can have different meanings! So when we come to the word “hell” in the New Testament, we must keep in mind these two vastly different meanings and carefully determine by the context whether it refers to destruction by fire, or the grave where the dead lie buried.
Whenever you’re in doubt about the intended meaning of the word “hell” in the New Testament, look it up in a concordance, such as Strong’s or Young’s, to see which Greek word it was translated from, and its true meaning.
Where to After Death?
When a person dies and is interred in his grave, he knows absolutely nothing (Eccl. 9:5). He merely lies quietly and silently there as in a “sleep,” totally oblivious to everything. Let’s briefly review this important truth.
1. What one thing happens to both men and animals? Eccl. 3:19. Do they all go to one place—the same place—when they die? Verse 20 and Genesis 3:19.
2. What place does God say man goes to when he dies? Eccl. 9:10. Did Job realize he would go to the grave after death? Job 17:13.
3. Was the One who became Jesus Christ "made flesh”? John 1:14. Did Christ take on the same flesh which we have? Heb. 2:14. Didn’t He also have to go to the grave as other men do? Turn to Acts 2:31 once again.
COMMENT: The original Greek word in Acts 2:31 is hades which, as you now know, means the “grave.” Jesus’ “soul” (body) did not see corruption (did not decompose in the grave) because He was resurrected after three days!
Resurrected to Judgment
1. When will the dead be judged? John 5:28, 29.
2. Are those who have been called by God the Father and have rejected His way of life to be judged? II Pet. 2:9.
3. Does Revelation 20:13 also prove there is to be a future resurrection to judgment?
COMMENT: Notice that those who are in watery graves (the sea) are to be resurrected; and those who are in earthy graves (“hell”—the Greek word here is hades which means the grave) are also to be resurrected at this time. No one is, or ever has been, down in a fiery “hell” dancing around on hot coals, shrieking in terror and torment! God’s time for judging has not yet arrived!
Death By Fire?
What is the ultimate penalty for breaking Gods Law? Is it eternal life in torment, or simply cessation of life?
1. What is the penalty- and the reward? Rom. 6:23.
2. What does Paul warn will be the judgment or sentence of those who, knowing God’s commandments and having received God’s Spirit and tasted of His way of life, willfully sin against Him? Heb. 10:26-27. Will such persons live on in torment in fire—or will they be “devoured ” by it? Verse 27 (ceasing to exist).
3. Does Jesus Christ compare false ministers who don’t bring forth good works to trees that don’t bring forth “good fruit”? Matt. 7:15-19. What did He say would happen to such people if not totally deceived? Verse 19. Is wood put into a fire to be tormented-or simply to be burned up? Did Christ clearly indicate that the few who do not bring forth good fruit but instead re bell, will likewise be cast into fire? Matt. 7:17-19.
4. What did Christ say to the unrepentant scribes and Pharisees of His day? Matt. 23:33.
5. What did Christ warn would happen to those who will not repent? Luke 13:3.
COMMENT: “Perish” means to cease existing. It does not mean to continue living. Life in eternal torment is not what God has decreed. The punishment revealed in the Bible is death—cessation of life forever. Eternal life is something we were NOT born with. It is a gift of God which He will bestow at the resurrection to those who obey Him. Eternal Life and death are contrasted all through your Bible!
6. Did Christ show by His parable of the tares that there is to be a future harvest? Matt. 13:30. Did He say the truly evil will afterward be burned? Same verse.
COMMENT: In this parable Christ likened the earth to a “field” (verse 24), the obedient people to “wheat” (verses 25, 29), and the disobedient to “tares” (verses 25, 29, 30).
7. Does Psalm 37:20 also show the ultimate fate of those who reject God’s Spirit will be destruction by fire? Is there coming a time that will be extremely hot—so hot that it will burn up—consume? Mal. 4:1. What will be left ? Mal. 4:3. Who will burn the wicked up—Satan and his demons, or the Eternal God? Same verse.
COMMENT: The “fire” that the Bible speaks of will be thousands of degrees hotter than the imaginary “hell fire” of most preachers—which is only hot enough to torment. The Biblical “hell fire” will totally consume! Never will they exist again.
The Bible plainly shows that those who rejected God’s Spirit, will cease to exist! (Rom. 6:23). This scripture means what it says. The attempts of many theologians to “explain away” death and to “interpret” it as mere “separation from God” cannot be reconciled with Scripture. Death does NOT mean “eternal life” in the torments of an eternal “hell.”
The author of this pagan deception is none other than the father of lies—Satan (John 8:44). If you have innocently believed his doctrine and have suffered mental torment because of it, thank God that He has opened your mind to understand the TRUTH!
What Is the Lake of Fire?
Exactly what is the ‘gehenna’ fire that will consume? When and where will it occur? Forget all the ideas you may previously have been led to believe. Read now in the Bible what God reveals, “hell fire” does not even exist yet!
1. Are all who stubbornly refuse to repent and persist in breaking God’s commandments after being called and having received God’s Spirit become hostile toward God ultimately to find themselves in a lake of “fire “? Rev. 21:8.
COMMENT: We’ve already seen that the fate of these few is gehenna fire. So gehenna and the lake of fire are the same. A very large fire would have the appearance of a fiery lake.
2. Will it cause death? Notice Revelation 21:8 once again. Which death will it cause? Same verse.
COMMENT: Humans naturally die once, because we just “wear out” (Heb. 9:27). But if anyone dies the second death, that individual will have been judged by God to be guilty of persistent disobedience. The second death will be for all time!
3. Does Revelation 20:13-14 verify the fact that all who are incorrigible and continue to reject God’s way of life will be consumed by this future fire—not now, but after the coming judgment? Verse 15.
4. When does this actually begin—at Christ’s second coming? Rev. 19:20. Will the two chief enemies of Christ be cast into it at that time? Same verse.
5. How long will this fire last? Matt. 25:41.
COMMENT: The word “everlasting” is aionion in the Greek. Aionion comes from the root aion which often means “age.” In this case, the correct translation into the English language should be “age-lasting fire.”
6. Much later—after the Millennium—will the flames purify the earth’s surface. II Pet. 3:10 along with those who will have rejected God’s Spirit because of willful rebellion against God? Same verse and Rev. 20:15
COMMENT: Here is God’s—not man’s—description of what the final “hell fire” will be! It is yet in the future. It has not yet occurred. Nothing is said anywhere in the entire Bible about “souls” descending beneath the earth into “hell fire,” or of torture for all eternity!
7. Are some to be reduced to ashes by the fire which will consume the earth’s surface? Turn to Malachi 4:3 once again. Can ashes be tormented forever and ever? Of course not! The death they will have suffered will be forever. Not an everlasting punishing by torment. There is a big difference between punishment and punishing! The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), not eternal life in hell fire!
8. What is meant in Revelation 20:14 by the words, “death and hell were cast into the lake of fire”?
COMMENT: The original Greek word here translated “hell” is hades. Only those who have permanently refuse God’s way of life will still be human at the time of this resurrection. There will be no one else who could die. Therefore, death and the grave will both cease to exist when the lake of fire engulfs the entire surface of the earth.
9. What will Satan’s part be in this coming “hell fire”? Rev. 20:10.
10. Will the “beast” and “false prophet” still be in this fire? Rev. 20:10.
COMMENT: Some Bibles use italics to show that the word “are” in this verse was supplied by the translators. It is not found in the Greek manuscripts. The phrase should read, “where the beast and the false prophet were”—the unwritten verb being understood to be in the same tense as the verb in the first half of the sentence. The Amplified has it correct.
Hell Fire -Never Quenched?
1. Did John the Baptist ever speak of “unquenchable fire”? Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17.
2. Did Jesus say that hell fire will never be “quenched”? Mark 9:43-48. (The Greek word for “hell” in verses 43, 45 and 47 is gehenna.)
COMMENT: Jesus repeated this statement five times for emphasis. From this, people have carelessly assumed the “fire that never shall be quenched” (verse 43) is a fire of torture which has been in existence for centuries, and will continue to exist for eternity. We have proved that this idea is ABSOLUTELY FALSE! Notice God’s own inspired explanation of unquenchable hell fire.
3. Did God (over 2,500 years ago) warn the inhabitants of Jerusalem that He would kindle a fire in Jerusalem’s gates that would not be quenched? Jer. 17:27. But what would that fire do to the city’s palaces? Same verse.
COMMENT: This fire occurred a few years later, and it destroyed all the houses of Jerusalem (Jer. 52:13). Since God said this fire “shall not be quenched” and since it is not burning today, it obviously went out by itself after accomplishing its purpose—after devouring all combustible material!
4. What punishment befell the notorious cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Gen. 19:24. Was it literal fire that destroyed human beings? Luke 17:29. What do we read in Jude 7 about this event? Is there still a fire burning in those cities which God destroyed long ago? Of course not!
COMMENT: The expression “eternal fire” used in Jude 7 means a fire whose results are permanent or everlasting—obviously NOT a fire that burns forever! Sodom and Gomorrah were utterly destroyed centuries ago,they are not burning today. The fires which burned these cities simply died out after consuming all combustible material. These scriptures prove the “fire that shall not be quenched” WILL NOT torment people forever and ever!
Christ, as we have seen, often referred to the fires that burned in the Valley of Hinnom at the edge of Jerusalem to illustrate the final “hell fire” or gehenna which is to consume the wicked. But did those fires ever go out? The fact is, they were kept burning as long as there was refuse to burn. Then they burned themselves out!
They were never quenched or put out prematurely by anyone! The flames died out when they had nothing more to consume. So it will be with the final gehenna fire. It will be unquenched, but it will finally burn out!
Worm’s That Do Not Die?
A startling statement is found in Mark 9:44, 46 and 48. In these verses, Christ spoke of a worm that “does not die". Are there really worms that do not die? Some people think Jesus referred to people as worms, and that He was trying to say that these “people” never die but live on forever in agonizing torment– FALSE! Those who believe this fail to notice that what Jesus spoke of was “their worm.” So the wicked themselves are not the “worm.”
What is this mysterious “worm” that does not die? Notice what Jesus really meant. Jesus clearly had reference, as the marginal notes of many Bibles show, to Isaiah 66:24, where a similar statement is made about “their worm”—the worm of dead “carcasses.” Now what is the “worm” of a dead decaying carcass? To put the matter beyond all doubt, we find that the lexicons define grub or maggot both the Greek and the Hebrew words translated as “worm” in Mark 9:44 and Isaiah 66:24.
But Jesus didn’t mean that each individual worm continued to live forever! Actually, the larvae—maggots—would hatch from eggs, eat the flesh, continue in the larval form only a few days, then go through pupation or metamorphosis and finally emerge as flies! The worms didn’t die—they became flies! Later, the flies died. These are facts known by any student of biology! And Christ was not ignorant of them.
By contrast, the misunderstanding of Christ’s simple statement by some people should be an object lesson to always be careful to use wisdom and common sense in studying God’s Word. God’s Spirit is the spirit of a sound mind (II Tim. 1:7). The Bible is one book that makes good sense! Let’s always study these scriptures carefully and not jump to hasty, erroneous, weird conclusions.
The Story of Lazarus and the Rich Man
Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) is perhaps one of the most outstanding texts used by those who attempt to prove there is an eternal hell fire. What lesson did Jesus intend to illustrate by this strange story? Let’s carefully study this story word by word, comparing it with other clear scriptures.
1. Did Lazarus—a poor but righteous beggar—die? Luke 16:22. Was he later carried by angels to “Abraham’s bosom”? Same verse.
COMMENT: God considers us Abraham’s “seed”—descendants or children—and we become heirs with Abraham to receive the promises God made to him (Gal. 3:29). Through faith we may all become “children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). This is a close relationship, spiritually speaking with Abraham. We are to be in close contact with him in sharing the promises. This is the sense in which Lazarus was taken to Abraham’s bosom.
When, then, will Abraham and the Lazarus of our story actually receive the fulfillment of the promises? The answer of the Bible is that Abraham and his “seed”—will inherit the promises at the resurrection of the just when Jesus Christ returns to earth to establish the Kingdom of God!
2. And what about the sinful rich man of Jesus’ parable? Did he also die? Luke 16:22. And do we next see him lifting up his eyes, indicating his having been resurrected, and calling to Abraham for water? Luke 16:23-24.
COMMENT: The word “hell” used here is translated from the original Greek word hades, which we know means the “grave.” It is not from the Greek word gehenna. The rich man is pictured at the very moment of his coming up out of his grave in a resurrection!
Abraham and Lazarus will have already inherited the God’s Kingdom (Matt. 25:34). They will have been living for over 1,000 years before the rich man is resurrected to be burned in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:4-5, 15). Until then, the rich man will have been dead in his grave, having no consciousness of the passing time (Eccl. 9:5).
3. What did Abraham then answer the rich man? Luke 16:25-26.
COMMENT: The great “gulf” between the two will be the difference between physical and spirit. Those who will have been made spirit shall never die because they will have become Spirit (Rev. 20:6). Abraham and the beggar made spirit will be on one side of this gulf—the rich man on the other side, facing death.
Many of the condemned, like the rich man, will want their relatives warned (Luke 16:27-28), not realizing how much time has passed since they died and that all other people will already have had their chance to become spirit.
The story or parable of “Lazarus and the rich man” does NOT prove eternal punishing by God in hell fire. Rather, Christ used this short illustration to picture to His listeners the REALITY of the resurrection from the dead of both the righteous and the wicked. He was picturing the resurrection to eternal life as contrasted with the ultimate fate of those resurrection to eternal death
God Is Love—and Justice.
Why do so many have a false concept of “hell”? Because they fail to understand God’s overall purpose in putting man on this earth. God has NO desire to torment or to torture anyone. God is LOVE (I John 4:8). He created us for our own good. He will condemn no one because of ignorance, and will see to it that every single one will ultimately learn the truth. But if God made those live forever who persistently rebel and fail to develop righteous character, they would simply bring misery on themselves as well as others for all eternity!
Certainly the kindest thing God can do, for all involved, is not to allow those few who rebel to continue living. This TRUTH should inspire NO terror, such as the satanic doctrine of eternal hell fire has caused to SO MANY innocent people. On the other hand, the ‘lake of fire’ should stand as a fearful warning to those few who know God’s truth and still stubbornly refuse to obey it! Only those who obey God will live forever (John 3:16).
The idea of an ever-burning “hell” is clearly a PAGAN MYTH that has crept into professing Christianity!
Summary, A. C. Study. Free Library Copy
Return to Library
In accordance with Sec 107 of Chapter 1 of Title 17 of US Copyright Law, this material is distributed without charge or other commercial interest for the purposes of comment, teaching, scholarship and review.
U.S. British Future, P.O. Box 4877, Oceanside, Ca. 92052. U.S.A.