Hell – what does the Bible say?

Not a nice subject, but let’s have a look at it.

4 words

The English word ‘hell’ has been used to translate 4 words:

Sheol: This word occurs almost 30 times in the Old Testament, and was once translated as ‘hell’. But most translations these days use the words ‘death’ or ‘grave’, and the IVF Bible Dictionary says that the meaning is ‘the state of death’. The Old Testament says nothing about ongoing punishment, and says nothing about ‘hell’.

Tartaro: This Greek word, meaning ‘abyss’ or ‘pit’, is used once in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:24), where it describes sinful angels being held for judgment in the abyss. It says nothing about people.

Hades: This Greek word is used 10 times in the New Testament and means the same as Sheol – the state of death. Again, it is generally no longer translated as ‘hell’ and says nothing of ongoing torment.

Gehenna: This is the main word translated as ‘hell’ and is used a dozen times in the New Testament as a name for a place of destruction or punishment of the wicked. The name comes from the Valley of Hinnom just outside of Jerusalem which has a number of nasty associations, including a place where worshippers of Canaanite gods sacrificed children, half a millennium before Jesus, the location of a rubbish tip where refuse was burnt, and the location of tombs.

Other references to fire and punishment

There are references to punishment that don’t mention the word ‘hell’. Prominent among these are:

  • Jesus spoke of ‘eternal punishment’ (e.g. Matthew 25:41,46).
  • Paul spoke of punishment and death (e.g Romans 1:32.
  • Revelation speaks of the punishment of the ‘fire that torments’ (Revelation 14:9-11) and the ‘lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:14-15).

Meaning and usage of gehenna

Most of the NT references to ‘gehenna’ (11 out of 12) are from Jesus – the only exception is James 3:6 which uses ‘hell’ as a synonym for ‘evil’ and says nothing of punishment. Paul doesn’t use the word at all. So we must consider what Jesus meant by the word.

‘Gehenna’ was in common usage in Jewish thought by the time of Jesus, and (according to the IVF Bible Dictionary) was used with three slightly different meanings:

  • a place of everlasting punishment for some sinners;
  • a place where the wicked were destroyed; and
  • a place where the wicked were purged of their sin before eventual reconciliation with God.

We cannot know directly which meaning(s) Jesus had in mind, but have to judge by what he says. Let us examine the arguments for each.

Everlasting punishment

This has been the most common belief among christians for most of the history of christianity. It is based on a literal interpretation of the words ‘eternal fire’ and ‘eternal punishment’ in Matthew 25:41, 46, and several verses in Revelation, for example 14:9-11: ‘tormented … for ever and ever’. Thus the two key points are consciousness of punishment and unending duration.

It is worth noting that in none of the 10 occasions that Jesus mentions the threat of ‘gehenna’ does he infer that it is everlasting, and in several he suggests otherwise. Thus while the idea of judgment is fundamental to Jesus’ teaching, the idea that punishment endures forever can be inferred from only one or two sayings, and, as we shall see, is not the most obvious meaning even there.

The images of ‘unquenchable fire’ (Matthew 9:43 – Greek: asbestos) are also used to support this view, although it is recognised that “the primary thought of asbestos is not one of duration … but … absolute immutability.” (RA Cole).

Proponents also refer to the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-37), where the rich man, alive and in torment has a conversation with Abraham in heaven, a picture based on a contemporary Jewish belief that there were two sections in Sheol (the state of death) – one for the righteous and one for the wicked. However no-one takes the possibility of such a conversation literally, so it is difficult to apply other parts of the parable literally either.

Critics of this belief say (a) it is cruel and unjust, (b) it is wrongly based on the Greek idea that the soul is immortal (a view not taught in the Bible) and therefore there is no alternative for unrepentant people, (c) it is based on very few passages, most of which should be interpreted differently, and (d) it ignores other contrary passages.

However proponents such as Professor AW Gomes say: “The language is unambiguous, emphatic, and conclusive …. sufficient to settle the argument forever.”

The end of life

This has been a minority belief through the history of christianity, but is gaining ground in the past few decades (e.g. prominent christians such as John Stott and Michael Green endorsed it). It agrees with the traditional view that those who don’t repent will be judged, but believes that the judgment is the end of life.

Support for this view comes from the following considerations:

  • When Jesus speaks of ‘eternal punishent’, the words do not mean the punishment endures forever as we might think. The Greek word aionios (from aion = ‘age’), translated as ‘eternal’, does not mean ‘forever’ but ‘in the age to come’. Even proponents of the traditional view agree on this (e.g. JI Packer: “‘eternal’ (aionios) in the New Testament means “belonging to the age to come” rather than expressing any directly chronological notion”) however they argue that if the age to come continues forever, then so must the punishment – an argument that seems quite unconvincing to me.
  • Jesus speaks not of unending torment but of ‘destruction’. When in Matthew 10:28 he warns of the one who can kill or destroy body and soul in hell, the Greek word used, apollumi, has the primary meaning ‘to destroy fully’ (Strong’s Concordance), and the Bible dictionaries give the following range of meanings: destroy, abolish, ruin, lose, perish, kill. Furthermore, the word ‘destroy’ is used in at least 8 other places in the NT in this context. However critics argue that despite these definitions, apollumi in the NT means ‘ruin’ rather than ‘annihilation’, though I find this argument hard to sustain when I look at the passages (see References below).
  • The Bible nowhere speaks of souls being eternal, but rather says humans will ‘return to the dust’ except if we are resurrected to new life.

Commenting on Matthew 25:41 & 46 in his Tyndale Commentary on Matthew, Professor RVG Tasker sums up this view: “aionios is a qualitative rather than a quantitative word. Eternal life is the life characteristic of the age (aion) to come, which is in every way superior to the present, evil age. Similarly, ‘eternal punishment’ in this context indicates that lack of charity and of loving-kindness, though it may escape punishment in the present age, must and will be punished in the age to come. There is, however, no indication as to how long that punishment will last. The metaphor of ‘eternal fire’ wrongly rendered everlasting fire in verse 41 is meant, we may reasonably presume, to indicate final destruction.”

Universalism

Universalism holds that, in the end, all will be saved because of God’s great love for us. The view has been a minority view in christianity from the early days (Origen and Clement believed this) and is growing in popularity today.

The view seems to be contradicted by both logic (will everyone respond to God’s love?) and by the sayings of Jesus discussed above, but proponents point to passages like 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”, of which there are several in the NT. But critics say these passages must mean something less than is claimed.

What may we conclude?

After surveying the evidence, I am drawn to the following conclusions:

  1. Whatever view we hold, the picture is not crystal clear, and we would do well to hold our view with humility rather than unjustified certainty.
  2. The traditional view (unending punishment) may initially seem strong, but it is based on surprisingly few unambiguous passages. It rests most strongly on a few verses in the highly symbolic book of Revelation. It appears to be unjust (do finite sins deserve infinite punishment?), and is often only sustained by appeals to not think we can know more than God (when in fact the question is knowing what God says).
  3. Universalism is attractive (we should all desperately want everyone to be saved), but seems to lack both Biblical support and common sense.
  4. The middle view, often called ‘conditional immortality’ seems to me to make most sense of the Biblical evidence, and is also more realistic than universalism and more compassionate than the traditional view.
  5. No view is entirely satisfactory as each has passages that appear to support it and others which appear to oppose it. But the conditional immortality view seems to explain more and require less of a stretch when considering difficult passages.
  6. We should be careful how we discuss our views, and proponents of the traditional view need to be very careful they do not appear vindictive.

A final view?

I am therefore drawn to the view that Jesus used the images and thought forms of his day to make it clear that judgment would indeed come to those who deserve it, unless we/they seek his grace. That is an immutable fact (that is the meaning of the ‘unquenchable fire’). We are mortal, and our life ‘should’ end at death, but the grace of God is that those who seek him will receive resurrection into a new, eternal, life. The images of the ‘lake of fire’ and the ‘smoke of their torment’ in Revelation are disturbing, but they are symbolic, and interpreting them literally creates problems (e.g. death is thrown into the lake of fire, suggesting a final end).

But God is merciful, and holds out forgiveness for all who will receive it. It is notable, as RA Cole observes, that Jesus only spoke of hell to his followers or to the religious leaders, but offered forgiveness and the hope of heaven to acknowledged ‘sinners’. We could well follow his example.

It is said that this view removes the incentive for people to believe. I believe quite the opposite is true:

  • God is a God of love, and does not wish to scare anyone into his kingdom. Rather he offers it lovingly to all, and seeks to woo us.
  • The traditional doctrine of hell is a barrier to many people who believe it is unjust as well as unloving.


References

Bible verses which mention gehenna: Matthew 5:22,29,30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15,33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6.

NT verses which mention ‘destruction’: Matthew 10:28; John 3:16; Romans 6:23; James 4:12; Philippians 3:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Hebrews 10:39; Revelation 20:14.

Key verses to consider: Matthew 10:28, 25:41,46; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 12:5, 16:23; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:10.

Websites presenting the traditional view: JI Packer, AW Gomes, Christian Courier.

Websites presenting the conditional immortality or ‘annihilationist’ view: Christ Victor Ministries, Jewish not Greek, Theopedia.

Website presenting the universalist view: The Christian Universalist Association, Eric Stetson.

Wikipedia on Gehenna, Annihilationism.

17 thoughts on “Hell – what does the Bible say?

  1. You said, “Proponents also refer to the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-37), where the rich man, alive and in torment has a conversation with Abraham in heaven, a picture based on a contemporary Jewish belief that there were two sections in Sheol (the state of death) – one for the righteous and one for the wicked. However no-one takes the possibility of such a conversation literally, so it is difficult to apply other parts of the parable literally either.” Yet at the same time, as far as I can remember, Jesus’s parables were not like say “The Tortoise and the Hare” where circumstances are understood to be purely allegorical. The thing that bothers me is, why would Jesus use/perpetuate the idea that the dead exist in a conscious state somewhere. His parables are made up stories to be sure, but he never seems to go as far as stretching the boundary between reality or real experience and fairy tales where unreal things happen. It just dosen’t sound like the same thing as a camel going through the eye of a needle saying. At the same time I think an eternal hell is the most hideous unjust concept that has ever been thought. But If you take away the notion that Jesus did not mean that the dead are conscious somewhere, there seems to me barely an iota of a reason left to tell the parable.Everything in the parable seems to be about two states of being namely suffering and comfort. It is further reinforced by the idea that the situations of the two men in life are reversed in the afterlife. I don’t think that would make any sense if both were in a state of non-conscious death.

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  2. G’day Tony, thanks for your comment. We are agreed about much it seems.

    “The thing that bothers me is, why would Jesus use/perpetuate the idea that the dead exist in a conscious state somewhere. His parables are made up stories to be sure, but he never seems to go as far as stretching the boundary between reality or real experience and fairy tales where unreal things happen.”

    I’m not sure I agree here, because there are cases where he does indeed seem to build his argument from current views that we would think to be true.

    1. Jesus commonly used non-literal (‘pesher’) interpretation of the Old Testament (see Interpreting the Old Testament.

    2. In John 10:34-35 Jesus deflects criticism of his own claim to be one with the Father by quoting the OT to say that some OT people were ‘gods’. I assume he didn’t mean this literally.

    Like I said, if the discussion between Abraham and the rich man isn’t literal, why should the rest of the trappings of the parable? So for the moment, I feel comfortable with what I wrote. Thanks for you interest.

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  3. Stumbled on this post. Although you know by now where I stand, theologically, this is the best, most balanced post on this subject I have ever read.
    Excellent job.

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  4. Reading through your posts about hell, unklee. Very well thought out. I’ve been reading a bit about grace and hell lately, and I really appreciate the time you took to outline these points :)

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  5. Regarding The Rich Man and Lazarus, although the issue of hell especially its’ duration are not crystal clear in the Bible the following questions are rather knotty, I think.
    1.Jesus used a commonly held view of hell where the unrighteous went to a not so nice place and the righteous went to Abrahams bosom or Paradise. Even if the story is complete fiction Jesus was propagating the idea that there is a realm in the afterlife where some people supper.
    2.Why would Jesus perpetuate such an idea if it was false? He often corrected people’s views or enlightened them about spiritual matters.
    3.If this was a commonly held view of hell how would people know he didn’t mean there was a literal hell?
    4.You said some of the elements of the story don’t seem plausible so the parable must not refer to literal events. But I’m not sure we can say what may not be possible in a spiritual realm like hell. My best guess is that such a realm might be rather like some accounts of NDE’s where time and space are at least skewed if not moot.
    5.Jesus told one of the thieves crucified with him that they would be together that day in paradise.
    6.There are a couple of places in the NT that suggest when Jesus died he descended to hell and freed spirits that were there.
    7.Why did Jesus give the beggar’s name, Lazarus, when he could have simply referred to him as a beggar? (I have sometimes wondered if there was a connection between this Lazarus and the one he raised from the dead)

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  6. Hi Tony, thanks for your comments. I would agree with most of what you say. Specifically….

    1. Yes, I agree. But since Jesus used the words “destroy” and “destruction”, that means the end of life for the “unrighteous”, not everlasting torment.

    2. End of life for the unrighteous was apparently the most commonly held belief at the time.

    3. See #2.

    4. This is where I most disagree. I am basing my view on the nature of parables. The good samaritan and the prodigal son may indeed have been historical events, but there is no indication that this was so, and it is unnecessary for the parable to be able to teach us. So the same applies to the rich man and Lazarus. Can you imagine christians sitting up in heaven enjoying eternal life, while all the time having conversation with friends and relatives who are suffering deep and eternal torment by fire?

    5. Yes.

    6. Yes.

    7. I don’t know. There is no indication that the “real” Lazarus was dirt poor with dogs licking his sores, etc.

    What conclusion do you come to from all that?

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  7. My conclusion is that you make a good case. Most people I think are repulsed by the idea of an eternal cosmic torture chamber although some think it’s necessary and that a punishment of limited duration would be letting sinners off easy. Christians who object to the idea of annihilationism seem to believe that a quantitative (eternal suffering in hell) rather than a qualitative punishment (merely eternal death) is necessary according to God’s justice. The idea being that a resurrection then mere execution soon afterwards seems to be letting people get away with their sins in the sense that they won’t pay for everything tit for tat; sort of like the OT idea of an eye for an eye, etc. What about Hitler people say. Shouldn’t he experience the pain of every single life he is responsible for harming and killing? If the punishment is limited, somehow God has to squeeze in a proportional punishment for sins during a limited amount of time . Of course it’s impossible to get into God’s mind as to how that works. I feel rather like Dante thinking about this and wondering if the choice is between experiencing a hyper-intense pain for a brief period or a slow roast forever. Either way sounds quite horrible but a never ending hell seems so horrible that it calls into question the nature of a God who would allow a universe where such an outcome was inevitable for some souls and I am still somewhat bothered by the fact that Jesus used such an idea.

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  8. Hi Tony, yes I agree with all of that. I didn’t say much of that on this page because (1) I think we cannot really know much about how God thinks unless he reveals it to us, and (2) I wanted it to be what the Bible says. But I too feel the conventional view of hell is inhumane, unjust and a travesty of God’s character.

    Thanks for your comments.

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  9. Hi! I’ve been trying to find things on ‘hell’ for a friend of mine. She and her husband have lost both of their sons recently, and I’m afraid she’s buying into the teachings of her church. This, I’m sure is weighing heavily on her mind and heart. I’m sharing your blog post with her, hoping that it’ll help give her some comfort. But it has reopened a festering sore of my own. Why are evangelicals so attached and drawn to the idea of hell? Is it really nothing more of a scare tactic for their desire to see the lost saved? Or do you feel that there is some deeper, psychological, need for some people to fear punishment? I know you’re busy, but sometime when you have a few seconds, maybe you could help me understand? THANKS!!!

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  10. Hi Jack, thanks for reading, and for your comment.

    I really feel for your friends, it must be awful to lose two children. I hope this page does help them, but I think it would offer only partial reassurance, at best. I think disposing of false ideas about hell is only the first step, we need to also remember the positive love of God.

    My blog post Hell and Rob Bell (written as the same time as this page) is a slightly summarised version of this page, and may be a more helpful thing to read. Can only christians be saved? may also offer some comfort, for I believe “God’s mercy is wider than we may sometimes think”. I think I will write something more directly on this topic, and refer to your comment here if that is OK?

    I don’t think hell is a “scare tactic” much these days, though it may once have been, and may still be in some places. I think christians really believe it, and feel they have to warn people. But it does seem as if some people are “attached and drawn” to the idea, and some even seem to be glad of it, not so much out of a need to fear punishment, but out of a need to feel in the end that their side “wins” and those (in their eyes) foolish people who refuse to believe in Jesus will one day be proven wrong. Such an attitude seems very unloving to me.

    Finally, you may be interested in two recent posts, Rob Bell: heretic, visionary, or …..? and Universalism is the new black?. I don’t agree with all the views of Rob Bell and the universalists, but they do rightfully stress God’s great love, and there may be something there that will help you comfort and encourage your friends.

    Please write again if there is more that you want to say or ask. Best wishes.

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  11. Jesus did not descend into hell, He went to “sheol” or “hades” where the spirits of the dead reside.
    There are other ancient writings that mention this event and even expound on it a little more.

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  12. Good analysis here! I would critique one portion though; universalism can follow common sense and even a train of basic logic. Tossing judgment literature aside for the time being (I’ll bring it back in a moment), let’s look at what we know about God. God’s love and forgiveness is new every morning and it is unconditional. Nothing that we could ever do can separate us from God’s unending love. Repentance is not required to be forgiven (it’s unconditional). Now we can throw in judgment literature. Jesus often spoke of a place of judgement, but as you have said, it is not eternal and is most likely only for a period of time according to most scripture. Now imagine this for a moment, what if when we die and go to judgement, we are judged based on our reception of Christ and if we did not receive Him, then we go to hell. What if hell is a smelter? Hell is generally seen as a place of fire even in Biblical literature, but “eternal fire” Christians twist it into Dante’s Inferno rather than what scripture says. Now what if that fire was a refining fire that destroyed our bad and refined our good; much like a smelter destroys rock and dirt, but refines the precious metal. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 seems to reference this. Hell seems to be a place where we go to have our wrongdoing burned away and our good-doing refined and made pure. Now this doesn’t mean that everyone will be refined, I suppose if you continually reject Christ, even in the refining fires, then you will not have any good to refine. Just food for thought.

    P.S. It is interesting to know that the Greek word for repent is metanoia, which literally translates to meta – to change and nois – mind, so metanoia means to change one’s mind. This differs from the English definition of repent, which means to feel remorse. We aren’t supposed to feel sorry for what we did and apologies, we are supposed to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s].” Romans 12:2.

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  13. Hi John, I think universalism is very attractive (I really wish or hope it is true, and I think every christian should hope it’s true) and your idea of refining is possible – I think it is Rob Bell’s suggestion in Love Wins and it is similar to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. I feel that there are too many things against it in the end to actually choose it, but I understand it’s attraction. Thanks for your comment.

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