What is hell? For many Muslims, Hindus, professed Christians and others, hell is a burning, fiery place into which the wicked are eventually placed. In this paper, we will concern ourselves with hell as it is defined by and described in the Bible.
Although a few Protestant denominations hold that hell is either the grave or does not exist as a place, the official view of the majority of Protestant denominations and certainly of the Catholic churches is that hell is a place, a burning one, specifically designed to torture the ungodly.
What cannot be denied is that often the Bible associates fire with the fate of the wicked. Let us look at a number of scriptures doing that:
Do not the foregoing scriptures and others like them provide irrefutable evidence that the wicked will burn somewhere - and that that somewhere is the Biblical hell?
Before we go in depth discussing and defining the Bible hell, let us focus on a number of other Bible verses referring to the burning of the wicked and their dwelling places. Discussing the fate of ancient Edom, Isaiah 34:8-12 says, "For Jehovah hath a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion. And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever; from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever. But the pelican and the porcupine shall possess it; and the owl and the raven shall dwell therein: and he will stretch over it the line of confusion, and the plummet of emptiness. They shall call the nobles thereof to the kingdom, but none shall be there; and all its princes shall be nothing. And thorns shall come up in its palaces, nettles and thistles in the fortresses thereof; and it shall be a habitation of jackals, a court of ostriches." (American Standard Version). If we take all the foregoing comments to be literal, we would expect to find, if we traveled to the area of ancient Edom, "streams ...turned into pitch", "dust ...into brimstone", the "land ...burning pitch", and "smoke ...(going) up forever". It turns out that we do not see this literally happening. Not only that, if it was a literal burning, then how could we expect it to be "a habitation of jackals, a court of ostriches"? And how could vegetation grow in a literal burning? How could "thorns", "nettles" and "thistles" survive a literal fire? It becomes clear that the "brimstone", "burning pitch" and "smoke" that would last "forever" are symbolic and not literal; they represent or symbolize utter destruction. Jude 7 introduces us to another example of this. We read, "Even as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." Archaeologists know the region where these ancient cities existed. Nowhere have they seen the "eternal fire". It is obvious that the "eternal fire" these cities suffer is everlasting destruction; the fire symbolizes their complete finish. There is no literal fire to be seen.
Most people can see that in both Jude and Isaiah the "fire", "smoke" and "burning pitch" are not literal but symbolic. What is not commonly known is that the Bible relates that such a fate awaits all the willfully wicked, one not employing literal "fire", "smoke" and "burning pitch" but symbolic. Making that point is Revelation 21:8, "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death". The book of Revelation frequently gives a literal interpretation to a symbol; "the morning star" (a symbol) is identified as Jesus Christ at Revelation 22:16, the "seven candlesticks" (a symbol) are identified as the seven congregations at Revelation 1:20, "the incense" (a symbol) is identified as the prayers of the holy ones at Revelation 5:8. We are told that the "lake of fire" (a symbol) is the second death. We have been thus informed not to make the "lake of fire" anymore literal than making the "morning star" at Revelation 22:16 a literal morning star.
Another evidence that a symbolic fire awaits the wicked is found at Matthew 25:41 where Jesus is found judging the lost in these words, "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels". The fact that this "everlasting fire" is also "prepared for the devil and his angels" is significant. Elsewhere in the Bible we are informed that the devil will be destroyed, forced into non-existence. On this the latter part of Hebrews 2:14 tells us that, "...Through death (Jesus) might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil". This means then that "everlasting fire" prepared for the devil means that he will be ‘destroyed’ forever. That makes sense since it does not appear from scripture that literal fire could do anything to harm spirit creatures like the devil and his associate spirit rebels. Since the earthly wicked are thrown into the same "fire", we seemed to be forced to the conclusion that the "fire" confronting them is symbolic, not literal.
At Matthew 25:46, Jesus summarizes the matter in these words, "And these (the wicked) shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal". (King James Version) Now, "punishment" does not always mean conscious, painful suffering. It also includes literal death. Making this point is Jeremiah 11:22 which states, "Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, behold, I will punish them: the young men shall die by famine." (King James Version) The "punishment" (literally ‘cutting off’) that the wicked received is evidently everlasting death (the "second death") since the righteous receive the opposite consequence which is "life eternal". And since the "life eternal" is not only spiritual but literal, the everlasting death is not only spiritual but literal. All this agrees with the popular John 3:16 where Jesus tells us, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (King James Version) Only the believers get everlasting life. If the wicked are actually living forever in a literal burning hell, then they would have "everlasting life" without accepting Jesus as their Savior and King and that would be a contradiction of what John 3:16 is telling us. (Compare John 3:36).
Let us now turn to what the Bible says about "hell" in the so-called "New Testament" or Christian Greek Scriptures, primarily two Greek words have been translated into English as "hell" or "hellfire" and they are "Hades" and "Gehenna". This has led to some confusion since it is generally acknowledged that "Hades" is one thing and "Gehenna" is something else entirely. "Hades" and its counterpart in the Hebrew Bible, "Sheol", are associated with the resting place of those literally dead. Psalm 6:5 relates, "For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave ("Sheol") who shall give thee thanks". (King James Version). And at Ecclesiastes 9:10, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might: for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave ("Sheol"), whither thou goest." (King James Version) Again, looking at Isaiah 14:9, "Hell (Sheol) from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee...". In ancient times when soldiers died, they were sometimes placed in their graves with swords under their heads; see how this practice is mentioned and how hell ("Sheol") is connected to the grave at Ezekiel 32:27, "And they shall not lie with the mighty that are fallen of the uncircumcised, which are gone down to hell ("Sheol") with their weapons of war: and they have laid their swords under their heads, but their iniquities shall be upon their bones, though they were the terror of the mighty in the land of the living." (King James Version) Looking to the Christian Greek Scriptures, we find, "And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell ("Hades") delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works." (Revelation 20:13, King James Version). At Revelation 6:8 in the Apostle John’s vision of the horses of the Apocalypse, John reports, "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell ("Hades") followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to kill with sword, and with hunger and with death; and with the beasts of the earth". (King James Version) It will be observed that "Death and Hell (Hades)" are involved in killing individuals, taking their lives. That being the case, Hell ("Hades") is again associated with literal death, not a conscious tortured existence after death. Clearly, the foregoing scriptures from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Greek Scriptures show that "hell" ("Sheol", "Hades") means the place of those literally dead.
There is one particular place though in the Bible where the Greek word "Hades" (Hell) is associated with fire and gives, at least, a hint of support that "Hades" (Hell) may also be a place of fire. That place is the 16th chapter of Luke, verses 19-31. The Revised Standard Version renders the Greek text as follows:
Now, since we have already read elsewhere that Hades ("hell") is the place of those literally dead, is this a contradiction in Luke 16:19-31? We recall that at Matthew 13:34 we read, "All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them." (King James Version) Is Luke 16:19-31 an exception or is it a parable? Some clergymen say "yes" this is literal and further argue that Bible parables do not contain personal names. Since this account contains personal names, namely "Lazarus" and "Abraham", they conclude this cannot be a parable. Unfortunately, for those taking that position, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest’ that personal names cannot be employed in Bible parables. Not only that, the parable at Ezekiel 23:1-49 does employ two personal Hebrew names, "Aholah" and "Aholibah" (King James Version). What is clear in beginning the reading of Luke 16 is that it starts with the "parable of the unjust steward". Jesus indicates that this parable has to do with having the appropriate view of money. Then the text interrupts the discussion of what Jesus is saying and injects this comment in verse 14:
After what, on the surface, seems to be a change of thought in verses 16-18, the story of Lazarus and the rich man picks up. With the possible exception of verses 16-18, everything else is related to the use and misuse of wealth - and the Pharisees are directly tied to this subject in verse 14 (see above).
Since the Bible has told us elsewhere that Hades ("hell") is the place of those literally dead and since Matthew 13:34 has duly informed us that Jesus usually spoke in parables and since the whole discussion, verses 1-8, begins with a parable, it seems clear that Luke 16:19-31 is not to be taken literal but viewed as a parable. Obviously, individuals committed to the belief in a literal burning hell are not going to accept this conclusion. However, in view of the foregoing discussion, they have a lot of questions to answer.
Since verse 14 has tipped us that the religious Pharisees were covetous, money lovers; at least part of the puzzle has been solved. The rich man in the parable represents the Jewish religionists, the Pharisees and others, who exercised extensive control and influence over the Jewish masses. By deduction then, the poor Lazarus represents those masses. What is represented by the deaths of Lazarus and the rich man? In the parable, following the deaths of both individuals a reversal occurred in their circumstances. Lazarus was now in "Abraham’s bosom", faring well, while the rich man was in torments in Hades ("hell"). The coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Christian congregation in Jerusalem on Pentecost A.D. 33 brought a change that gave the Jewish masses a refreshing, spiritual option - Christianity. No longer did they depend on the Jewish clergy for spiritual nourishment and support (see Luke 11:52 and Acts chapters 2-5). The Jewish church was now dead in God*s eyes and was in torment and anguish over the growth of Christianity and its exposure of Judaism. Notice how the book of Acts recounts how the "rich man" reacted to the reversed situation:
Acts 4:1,2 (KJV):
Acts 5:17, 18 (KJV):
Acts 7:54 (KJV):
The Jewish religionists were tormented by the change. They wanted relief. They wanted it stopped and, in fact, demanded that it be stopped. Not long after the formal birth of the Christian church, Peter and John healed a lame man in the city of Jerusalem. This brought a notable public reaction that incensed the Jewish clergy. Acts 4:16-18 notes their plan of action, "saying, what shall we do to these men? For that indeed a notable miracle hath been done by them is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it. But that it spread no further among the people, let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name. And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus." (KJV) (See also Acts 5:28; 13:45; 14:1, 2, 19; 17:13). It was not to be, the tormenting was to continue.
If we took the account at Luke 16:19-31 literal, it would run counter not only to what has already been noted but the following as well. Psalm 92:7 tells us, "When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever." (King James Version) In the original Hebrew of Psalm 92:7*, the word translated "destroyed" comes from the word "+/:" which means "exterminate", "destroy". If the wicked are "exterminated" forever, there would be nothing left to consciously torment. Yes, the fate of the wicked is eternal death. Truly, each one of them, "...shall go the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light". (Psalm 49:19) That would not be the case if Hades (Sheol) was a place of blazing fire and conscious inhabitants. Making the same point, the Apostle Paul wrote at 2 Thessalonians 1:8,9, "(Jesus) in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power." (King James Version). The fate of the wicked is "everlasting destruction", not everlasting life in a burning hell. Note again the association of "fire" with "destruction" in this text. (See Isaiah 33:10-14.)
The second Koine Greek word, in our discussion, that has been translated "hell" or "hellfire" in some translations is "Gehenna". Now, in Jesus* day, Gehenna was essentially a city dump. A continual fire was kept there in order to consume the waste and the dead bodies of animals and criminals. Jesus used Gehenna to represent the fate of the wicked. At Matthew 18:9, the King James Version uses the words "hell fire" where the original Greek uses the word "Gehenna". There we read in the King James Version, "And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee; it is better for thee to enter life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire (Gehenna)". (See Matthew 5:22; Mark 9:47,48 and James 3:6 for other examples of where the Greek word "Gehenna" has been mistranslated in the King James Version as "hell fire" or "fire of hell". Such mistranslations have no doubt contributed to the view that hell is a place of literal fire. Showing that Gehenna was a place of destruction rather than conscious existence, Jesus said the following, "And fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell ("Gehenna"). (Matthew 10:28) (King James Version)
* See Lexicon In Veteris Testamenti Libros by Koehler and Baumgartner under "+/:"
However, despite all the foregoing, some feel that Revelation 20:10 demonstrates that the wicked will suffer a conscious, fiery fate. There we find, "And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever." (King James Version) (See also Revelation 14:10,11). Now, since the scriptures have already stated that both the devil and wicked humans will be "destroyed", "annihilated", "be no more", is the message of Revelation 20:10, and Revelation 14:10, 11 telling us something different? Let’s examine the Biblical notion of "tormenting". The basic Greek word here is "Basanisteos" which is a verb meaning "to be put to the proof". The related word "Basanistes" is a noun translated "torturer", "tormentor" or "jailer". Notice how the related noun form is translated at Matthew 18:34:
Included in the definition of "Basanisteos" was not only conscious testing and torture but also the state of being confined, jailed, conscious or not. Interestingly, the Bible identifies Jesus as a jailer, a tormentor, at Revelation 1:18 where we read, "I am he that liveth and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. Jesus has the "keys". At Revelation 20:1-3 we note, "And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and shut him up, and set a seal upon him...". Here we have the devil "jailed" in the bottomless pit unable to "get out". He is hence "tormented", confined. In case this is not clear, let us look at the accounts at Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-17 and Luke 8:26-37. These accounts describe Jesus expelling demons from a possessed man living among the tombs in a part of Galilee. What the demons said to Jesus is of interest in helping us to understand the "tormenting" awaiting both humans and angels unfortunate enough to be at odds with Jehovah. Matthew 8:29 says, "And, behold, they cried out, saying, what have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? Art thou come hither to torment (Greek, "basanizo") us before the time?" (King James Version) Luke*s account focuses in on one of the spirits possessing this man and recounts, "...What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God Most High? I beseech thee, torment me not ... and they (the demon spirits) besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep (Greek, "abyss")." (Luke 8:28,31, King James Version). Here being "tormented" is associated with being confined to the "abyss", and clearly ties in with the action mentioned previously at Revelation 20:1-3. Those demons did not want to be "jailed", "shut up" and "sealed" in the bottomless pit, the "deep". At Romans 10:7, the Bible tells us that when Jesus Christ was dead, he was in the "abyss", or "deep". We read, "Or who shall descend into the deep? That is, to bring up Christ again from the dead." (King James Version) Dead individuals therefore are confined in the "deep", the bottomless pit - and according to Luke 8:26-37, Mark 5:1-17 and Matthew 8:28-34, that means that they are being "tormented". Obviously they are not conscious while they are being "tormented" if they are dead.
It should be clear now how to understand the four scriptures that we cited in beginning our discussion on hell. The Bible is plain in relating that only those saved by God will enjoy everlasting life; the "wicked shall not be". (Psalm 37:10) Jesus is the door to everlasting life; the "lake of fire" is the door to everlasting death. (Revelation 20:15) "Hellfire", as taught in many of the churches of Christendom, is an insult to Jehovah. It would make Jehovah unfair, by his own standards, and not a God of mercy and love. Hell is not a place of eternal conscious torture.
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