Quick reads: christian belief.
The idea of hell may be the most repugnant of all christian doctrines. Could a loving God really send people to punishment that goes on forever?
Hell in the Bible
Three main words in the Bible are sometimes translated as “hell”:
- Sheol is used 30 times in the Old Testament. It says nothing about punishment, and is best translated as “the state of death” or “the grave”.
- Hades is used 10 times in the New Testament. It has a similar meaning to sheol, and also says nothing about punishment.
- Gehenna, translated as “hell”, is used 12 times in the New Testament, all but one of these by Jesus in the gospels, to warn of the fate of the wicked. Paul never uses the word. Gehenna is a Greek word which comes from the Valley of Hinnom just outside of Jerusalem, which was the location of a rubbish tip where refuse was burnt.
The book of Revelation, which is a vision with highly pictorial language, speaks of punishment and fire, but never uses the word “hell”.
What Jesus meant when he spoke of hell
When Jesus talks about hell, he uses the word “destruction”, and the Greek word used means exactly that – the end. Right through the Bible, the end of the wicked is that they perish.
The word “eternal” doesn’t mean “everlasting” but “in the age to come”. So when Jesus talks about “eternal punishment”, he means punishment in the age to come, not punishment forever.
Three ways of looking at it
Over the years, christians (and the Jews of Jesus’ day) have had three different views of the fate of the wicked:
1. Never-ending conscious punishment?
The most widely held view among christians is that that unbelievers will be condemned to unending punishment. However we can see this is a misunderstanding of the words Jesus used – he didn’t say the punishment for sin would be everlasting.
It seems likely that this view arises from the belief that we have immortal souls, which live forever. But this isn’t a Biblical teaching, but has come from Greek philosophy – the Biblical view is that we return to the dust when we die, except if God resurrects us.
This view also seems quite unjust – a finite amount of sin surely doesn’t deserve infinite punishment? Would God be both unjust and unloving?
2. Everyone makes it in the end
There are a few passages in the Bible that suggest that all will receive eternal life (“universalism”). Perhaps hell is a place where people have another opportunity to respond to God’s love, which will finally win them over.
However if we have freedom, would God over-ride that freedom?
3. The end of life
A midway view, is that those who accept God’s offer of forgiveness receive eternal life, or life in the age to come, but life ends at death for those who refuse God. This was apparently the most widely held belief at the time of Jesus.
This view seems to fit the Biblical passages the best, and is also more humane than everlasting punishment – non-believers receive pretty much what they were expecting – an end to their life.
The bottom line
God has given us all one life. I feel it is clear that the Bible, love and justice all point to God giving eternal life to all who seek him, but not forcing it on anyone who doesn’t seek him. But God isn’t vindictive, and those who refuse him are not punished forever, but their life mercifully ends at death.
If you want to look a little deeper and check out the relevant Bible passages, see Hell – what does the Bible say?