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 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.


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.

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

  1. Anthony Atkinson says:

    I am starting to read some on the aion issue and I am beginning to be a little if not completely convinced that understanding it as eternal is somewhat of an ambiguous meaning in the process of translation. I don’t really know but if the authors of New Testament wanted to convey a sense of eternal never ending punishment it seems to me that that perhaps using aion and its derivatives as they did, would also work just as well for meaning that. Especially if early Christians using Greek scrolls understood it that way. I’m not sure if anyone has written on that. All I know is there is a traditional view of Hell and if it is wrong it would be helpful to know how and why they got on the wrong track. I am beginning to look at Christianity in a new way. Not only are things like the Trinity beyond a rational understanding but many other matters that one would think should have a clear cut answer seem to be vailed by a semantics problem or lack of clarity. Devout people have come up with such divergent views over the ages and that both troubles and disturbs me. If Christians are supposed to give reasons for there hope but some things are so cloudy, it puts them in a difficult position. It creates the very atmosphere where wrong doctrines can so easily be created because people can and have rationalized / justified any number of things based on scripture. I feel I have more to say, that so many doors in my mind are opening that I hardly know where to begin. I just wanted to add these thoughts for now. I can see that opening the Hell door has led to so many others that I know I will need to continue to think on these things.


  2. unkleE says:

    Hi Anthony, I think it is good that you are thinking deeply about this. Doubt and questions can be the gateway to new understandings. My understanding of eternal etc came from a Professor of Greek, quoted in the post, and it certainly was a revelation and help to me.

    I think we can approach the Bible in several different ways. The more traditional evangelical way is to assume it is a recipe book for life and belief spoken out by God and written down faithfully by the writers who were effectively scribes. Then if it fails to fit that expectation (because it is unclear or contains apparent mistakes) then faith can be lost.

    But I think those “problems” with the evangelical view should rather be a sign that the view was wrong, not the Bible. I think the evidence indicates that God inspired the Bible in a more subtle way, because God is working on earth in a way that doesn’t destroy our autonomy and freedom. But the cost of that great gift of freedom is that we get more things wrong, and we struggle more. That is indeed worrisome, but if God is OK with that, then I feel I have to be as well.

    I think it is really exciting to see you write “so many doors in my mind are opening that I hardly know where to begin. I just wanted to add these thoughts for now. I can see that opening the Hell door has led to so many others that I know I will need to continue to think on these things.” I would be very interested to discuss more with you about some of these things. If you are interested, please feel free to use the email link at the top.

    Thanks, Eric


  3. pskinforte says:

    Hello again. I am sorry for the long delays between things I post. I’m thinking on these thoughts, though.

    I’m getting back to your response to my question on how you present the gospel. I and my husband read it and appreciated it. I still have many questions though. Here are 2.
    1. I understand the positive kind message to the regular people. But, those people were mostly Jews, if I’m not mistaken. They had some understanding of God and sin. I would imagine the Sermon on the Mount was given to people who already had some fear/respect for God already, yet they were oppressed. I understand, too, about the Pharisees and Sadducees. They certainly had a boast in God, but what an indictment when Jesus says in Matt 22:3, “Therefore do whatever they tell you and observe [it]. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach.”

    I just wonder if solely using Jesus’ model is accurate when we are preaching the Gospel to Gentiles. In America, we have some very secular Gentiles at that. So, perhaps, the take away I have is to really try to evaluate who I’m talking to.

    Even speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, though her life was immoral, she had somewhat of a knowledge and somewhat of a respect for the things of God.

    I don’t know. I guess my question would be, what are your thoughts on that line of thinking?

    2. This is the one that is just not sitting well with me. You mentioned you prefer not to use the old fashioned “wrath” type language. But, if that is how the apostles shared the Good News, I want to be very careful to not minimize that. I have been open to other arguments than the traditional hell, but I don’t think it wise to dismiss a coming judgment.

    Here are some….
    Rom 2:5, “But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed”

    Rom 5:9 Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath.

    Eph 5:6, Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for because of these things God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient.

    Col 3:6 Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient

    I Thess 1:10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead-Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

    This one seems clear to me as Paul preached to Gentiles. What did he talk about? Acts 24:25 Now as he spoke about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix became afraid and replied, “Leave for now, but when I find time I’ll call for you.”

    Some other verses….
    Rom 14:10 But you, why do you criticize your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God

    Hebrews 6:2 teaching about ritual washings, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

    In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I think Christian becomes a Christian from hearing the message, “Flee from the wrath to come.”

    I did not grow up in a Bible believing home, but at 13 I heard I, even then, wondered what the purpose of life was. I had some emotional holes because my dad was pretty emotionally absent and my mother worked a lot, but what I heard the Luke 18 parable of the Pharisee and publican, God opened my eyes and I saw that Jesus was the answer! It wasn’t that I was afraid of hell because at that age, I really didn’t think much of dying. It was that “God be merciful to me a sinner” was what my heart was hungry for. My sister, only a year older, heard that if you don’t want to go to hell when you die, ask Jesus to save you and He will. She did, and has not questioned that at all. We are in our early 50s now. I, on the other hand, have had doubts and questions at various times in my life. I have read people who have de-converted and have been plagued by “what if they’re right.” But the Lord always restores me. I have investigated various Christian apologetics ministries (William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias, for example) and heard many testimonies that have helped calm my fears.

    But I think this hell discussion is interesting and very important. At least for me to try to clearly present an accurate gospel to people who don’t know the Lord.

    Thank you for having this forum for discussion. I will read any responses, but might not respond myself for a while! I’m slow in my processing.
    God bless.


  4. unklee says:

    Hi, I’ve a little more time now.

    1. I think you are onto something here. Many years ago (about 45 actually) I heard a minister discuss why Jesus seemed to have a different approach in his teaching to Paul. I think there are many possible reasons for this, but he suggested one which has stuck with me.

    He said that Paul was speaking to a pagan culture that had no monotheism to speak of and pretty lax morality. They needed to hear a message and many were willing to hear it because it was new. So plain speaking of the basic story of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, was required, and Paul gave it to them. But even then, his approach was tailored to his audience – speaking to Jews he built off the Old Testament, speaking to philosophical Greeks, he built off Greek philosophy and poetry, and speaking to kings and Roman authorities he told his own story.

    But Jesus was speaking into a religious culture that had know of God for centuries, was full of religion (the Pharisees had invented numerous rules to supplement the Law) and the people were burdened down with poverty, Roman occupation and all these laws. They had heard it all before. So he spoke indirectly, he used parables, he appealed to people’s hearts and offered them hope more than doctrine. But to the religious authorities, he argued in Jewish rabbinical style.

    I think all this shows us that there’s many ways to share the good news about Jesus, not just one like many of our western evangelical churches have limited it. We should choose under the guidance of the Holy Spirit which approach to use. But it seems likely to me that our culture is more like the religious burdened heard-it-all-before society that Jesus spoke into.

    2. I said in an earlier comment that in the NT, “wrath” doesn’t quite have the meaning it has for us today but: “the emotional response to perceived wrong and injustice” (Holman Bible Dictionary) or “displeasure, indignation, anger, wrath” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. So the sense is more of “putting right” than “punishment”.

    I think there is no doubt that we all come under the judgment of God, both now and in the age to come, but I feel (not very certainly) that we have misunderstood this term a little too. Judgment can mean “punishment”, but can also mean “discernment”. In the end, if there is life in the age to come as christians (including me) believe, either everyone receives this gift of life, or only some do. Since I believe God respects our choices, I think some won’t receive it because they don’t want to know God, but others will receive it.

    But how does God decide? He must decide perfectly and he must decide lovingly, and that decision is his judgment on us. The Bible portrays God as being angry about things, and Jesus being angry in the temple, but we know that behind that anger is love – the Bible says “God is love” but it never says “God is anger”. So I think that if God judges that some don’t choose eternal life, I think he will make that choice with tears, just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem.

    That is how I see it, but doubtless much of that is uncertain. Thanks again for your comment. What do you think?


  5. wesley says:

    Great post. Especially the concluding remarks. I am sure if most people spent time studying the topic annihilation would be far more popular a position and accepted.


  6. unkleE says:

    Thanks. I think many christians fear that they need to keep to the traditional doctrine, otherwise people are not being warned. But I think the traditional doctrine makes it harder for people to believe in a loving God.


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