Meaning of Hell in the Bible
Scripture reading – Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Some people suggest that for them life on this earth with all of its pain, sorrow, suffering and disappointment is “a hell”. Many sincere Christians see hell as the ever burning place of torment, pain and suffering where God keeps all the unsaved shut out from His presence – sort of a place of which Hitler’s torture chambers in Nazi’s concentration camps were only a faint reflection.
Let’s look at some of these views held by some prominent and godly preachers:
"In Christian literature," writes William Crockett, "we find blasphemers hanging by their tongues. Adulterous women who plaited their hair to entice men dangle over boiling mire by their neck or hair. Slanderers chew their tongues, hot irons burn their eyes. Other evildoers suffer in equally picturesque ways. Murderers are cast into pits filled with venomous reptiles, and worms fill their bodies. Women who had abortions sit neck deep in the excretions of the damned. Those who chatted idly during church stand in a pool of burning sulphur and pitch. Idolaters are driven up cliffs by demons where they plunge to the rocks below, only to be driven up again. Those who turned their back on God are turned and baked slowly in the fires of hell.”
Renowned 18th American theologian Jonathan Edwards, famous for his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," pictured hell as a raging furnace of liquid fire that fills both the body and the soul of the wicked: "The body will be full of torment as full as it can hold, and every part of it shall be full of torment. They shall be in extreme pain, every joint of them; every nerve shall be full of inexpressible torment. They shall be tormented even to their fingers' ends. The whole body shall be full of the wrath of God. Their hearts and bowels and their heads, their eyes and their tongues, their hands and their feet will be filled with the fierceness of God's wrath. This is taught us in many Scriptures. . . ." Newspapers reported people leaving his sermons and committing suicide from the fear he instilled in them. (I have read the Bible many times, but did not find this there.)
A similar description of the fate of the wicked was given by the famous 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon: "In fire exactly like that which we have on earth thy body will lie, asbestos-like, forever unconsumed, all thy veins roads for the feet of Pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the Devil shall for ever play his diabolical tune of hell's unutterable lament." It is hard to comprehend how the Devil can torment evildoers, when he himself will be "thrown into the lake of burning fire” after the end of millennium (Rev. 20:10), and “be no more” (Ezek. 28:14-19).
Are these descriptive views correct? What meaning have we attached to this word “hell”? Is this what the Bible actually teaches? Are we dealing with a cruel sadistic Deity who for few years of their lives keeps sinners confined to an inferno that never goes out?
Today we want to look at the topic of “hell” from the biblical point of view. But before we go on, we must remember that what most people understand by the word “hell” was never intended for any human being. This is from the well known parable of the sheep and goats – an illustration of the final judgment at the very end of age. Let us read Jesus’ own words in Matthew 25:41:
Then He will say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me you cursed into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The lost stand in sharp contrast with those who allowed God’s love and grace to change their self-centered lives to reflect God’s unselfish character – Matthew 25:34:
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come you blessed of My Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’.”
Now, let’s look at the words translated as “hell” and so used in the Bible. The word “hell” comes from 4 different words – 1 Hebrew word in the OT and 3 Greek words in the NT.
1) OT word SHEOL used 65 times in the OT ó in NT equals the word Hades (the world of the dead, pit, grave). In KJV English Bible sometimes translated as “hell”.
David’s song of thanksgiving in 2 Samuel 22:6: “The sorrows of hell (sheol, grave) surrounded me, the snares of death confronted me.”
Psalm 16:10: “For You will not leave my soul in hell (sheol, grave), nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption.”
Genesis 37:35: “And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him (Jacob, after told by his sons that his favorite son Joseph was dead); but he refused to be comforted and he said, ‘For I shall go down into the grave (sheol) to my son in mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.”
Sheol, which simply means the grave which is sometimes unfortunately translated by the word “hell” cannot mean the burning place, otherwise God’s special man David, Jacob, now
2) NT word HADES used 11 times = (same as the OT word sheol) = abode of the dead, grave, place or state of dead
Act 2:31: (Peter in his sermon quoting David’s prophecy about Messiah from Psalm 16:10) says: “He seeing this before, spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell (hades, grave), neither his flesh did see corruption.”
Mat 16:18: “And I say also unto you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell (hades, grave, same as OT sheol) shall not prevail against it.”
Again the word hell used here in KJV is hades (grave). It is not a place of burning or punishment. It is a place and a condition where those who die end up.
1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death where is your sting? O grave (Hades), where is your victory?”
Paul is here speaking of the resurrection of the righteous which will take place at Christ’s 2nd coming. He is quoting from Hosea 13:14, which uses word sheol (grave, place of the dead, pit). This word Hades has nothing to do with burning either.
3) NT word TARTAROO – used only 1 times = the deepest abyss of Hades, pit of extreme darkness, the abyss
2 Peter 2:4: “For if God did not spare the angels, but cast them down to hell (Tartarus) and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.”
Tartaroo cannot mean a burning place as these fallen angels are reserved for judgment yet to come. Besides, they at times possess people and are active in our world causing calamities, wars, destruction and endless misery. Jesus tells us that the burning hell is prepared for devil and his angels – an event that will take place after the millennium, after the final judgment at the very end of time. (Matthew 25:41 and Revelation 20:10)
4) NT word GEENNA (Gehenna) – used 12 times in the NT. It is interesting to know that of 12 uses 11 uses are done by Jesus Himself – Jesus the kind and loving person that He was, He had some straight talk about the topic of Gehenna.
Gehenna = Valley of Hinnom, ravine valley outside of Jerusalem walls, Jesus used it as the type or symbol of everlasting destruction, place where all that is worthless, abhorrent, unclean, rejected and useless is cast out, thrown out, discarded, utterly rejected and eventually burned; consumed by burning fire.
A bit of history:
Solomon was the first one who erected “high places” for his heathen wives in the area. These horrid rites were revived and carried on more or less during the future succession of idolatrous kings. It reached its peak under kings Ahaz and Manasseh who sacrificed their children through fire in this valley. This is where Israelites made their children pass through fire to the heathen gods (burning human sacrifices to Molech; to Baal).
Later on as prophesied by a prophet it was defiled by a king Josiah. He smashed every trace of false heathen worship, defiled it by spreading bones and corpses of dead bodies over it and burnt it with fire. As in many similar OT events king Josiah is used as a local type that will meet its anti-type final fulfillment at the end of time universally.
2 Kings 23:10: “And he (king Josiah) defiled Topheth which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no man may make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech.”
Topheth = (literally place of burning) was another name for this place or possibly for a section of the
Prophet Jeremiah gives us interesting insight on the subject – Jeremiah 19:2-6:
“And go (Jeremiah) to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the Potsherd Gate and proclaim there the words that I will tell you and say: “Hear the word of the Lord O king of
Imagery of this and similar other texts help us understand the final destruction of all wicked recorded in the 20th chapter of Revelation. When the rebellious of all ages are resurrected and surround the beloved city New Jerusalem, then Gehenna, the hell’s type – in the OT called Valley of Hinnom, will become the NT antitype – 1) the Valley of mourning, 2) the Valley of slaughter, 3) the Valley of burning (in that sequence) – the NT Gehenna or hell.
In the time of Jesus the
Jesus used this term – “Gehenna” – as a metaphor and type or an example of the final destruction of the wicked at the very end of time describing their final end.
Luke 12:5: “But I will show you whom you shall fear: Fear Him who after He has killed, has power to cast into hell (gehenna); yes I say to you, fear Him!”
Let’s look at the representation of the 11 uses of the word Gehenna our gentle and loving Jesus used. 3 Gospels parallel some of these statements, so let’s look in what connotation Jesus used the word “gehenna” that alone has to do with burning. It stands as a stern warning against certain patterns of thinking, behaviors, attitudes and actions:
i) Mat 5:22: But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell (Gehenna) fire.
ii) Matthew 5:27-29: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell (Gehenna). Verse 30 repeats the warning saying that the whole body (the whole person) be cast into hell (Gehenna).
Notice that it is the whole body (a whole person) that is to be cast into Gehenna!
iii) Mark 9:42-48: “And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble (lead them into sin), it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand makes you sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than having two hands to go to hell (Gehenna), into the fire that shall never be quenched – where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. And if your foot makes you sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life lame than having two feet to be cast into hell (Gehenna), into the fire that shall never be quenched – where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. And if your eye makes you sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the
iv) Matthew 23:15, 33: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell (Gehenna) as yourselves. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell (Gehenna)?”
Gentle, kind and loving Jesus speaks with authority about the effect of un-confessed, cherished and un-forsaken sin(s) that will not only prevent people to enter into life and into His kingdom, but it will exclude them from it. It will seal their fate which will be the total and final destruction in hell (Gehenna).
In our texts Jesus warns against and points out following sins:
a) Seeds of murder which are – angry resentments, judgmental attitude, talking down on others, showing open disrespect, animosity, hate, un-forgiveness and unwillingness to initiate reconciliation
b) Cherishing, entertaining and practicing sensual thoughts and fantasies that will eventually lead to the acts of adultery or fornication
c) Hurting children or leading baby Christians into sin or away from Jesus
d) Hypocritical practice of religion, any kind of fanaticism and extremism as a substitute for genuine faith and committed love relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus uses very drastic illustrations:
Cutting off the hand, foot, plucking out the eye – illustrating the necessity of drastic measures even some pain such parting with cherished sin may cause.
In case of Pharisees it is letting go of externalism and self-willed religion for the genuine surrendered relationship with the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let’s look again at these 2 texts:
1) Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).”
2) Luke 12:1b, 4, 5: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy… And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who after He has killed, has power to cast into hell (Gehenna); yes, I say to you, fear Him!”
In these 2 texts Jesus tell us 2 important things:
a) Both soul and body are DESTROYED in hell (Gehenna), not kept there alive burning for ever (words “for ever” or “everlasting” can be used in the Bible as idioms meaning “as long as it lasts” or “accomplishes its intended purpose”).
b) Individuals that are cast or thrown into the hell (Gehenna) fire seem to be cast there already dead or unconscious – which we could equal to the crematorium process as we know it today. This would mean that the intensity of suffering preceding the 2nd death would be according to each person’s measure of guilt – suffering which Jesus endured on the cross for them and which they rejected. The consequences of their sins they will have to bear each in the proportion and length according to fair justice of God – Satan suffering the longest.
When will this happen? Are these people in “gehenna” now? Not according to the Bible!
Jesus speaks of 2 separate resurrections (John 5:28.29).
Revelation 20:4-6 says they are 1000 years apart. Jesus presents contrast between those found in the Lamb’s (Christ’s) book of life and those whose names are not there. Bible tells us of:
- Resurrection of life at the 2nd coming of Jesus where all judged worthy of eternal life will receive immortality
- Resurrection into damnation after the end of millennium where Satan, his evil angels and all who allowed his spirit of rebellion to control them will perish.
First group is inside the New Jerusalem, the second group will be on the outside. The eternally lost on the outside will face the records of their lives of unrepentant rebellion, un-confessed and un-forsaken sin. According to Scriptures they will realize justice of their sentence and will bow to Christ. They will for a short time worship God realizing that God was not only fair with them, but that He gave them maximum opportunities to change their attitude and accept salvation.
Then all the resurrected unsaved after the millennium are again deceived by the devil and imbued with Satan’s spirit of rebellion and war. They surround the Holy city, the New Jerusalem to take it by force. This is when the last judgment takes place. Rewards will be meted out as taught by the parable of sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46.
God’s people who are inside of the city’s walls will shortly receive their inheritance – this earth after it will be re-created to its original beauty. “Meek shall inherit the earth”.
Revelation 20:7-10 describes the last act of “the war of all wars” this way: “Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the (now resurrected and lost people of all) nations which are on the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breath of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them. And the devil who deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone…”
Finally death and grave is thrown into the lake of fire to be “no more”. This is the 2nd and final death – Revelation 20:14.15
Actually teachings of the Bible on this subject are rather simple if we do not allow preconceived ideas, few unclear texts and long held traditions color our understanding.
Today’s post-reformation Christians should study the Bible for themselves and stop using the Greek concepts or “dark ages” superstitious, cruel and un-biblical concepts of hell to turn people away from God. Our Lord does not need such false advertising which led millions of sincere and thinking people to hate and reject Him! Besides, no one will love God from fear of punishment!
God is love and He is just – yes He is a consuming fire to sin wherever found and this is what will take place at the end of age. At the same time He is the source of life and healing to all who confess their sins and call on Him to save them!