How should Christians understand hell? What is it? Is it biblical? If so, then how is the word used in the Bible?
Over the years I have taught about the life and teaching of Christ to many different people from many cultures. In the process, I noticed that difficult questions about hell and eternal punishment kept coming up such as:
- So, if I don’t believe in Jesus, then I will be punished in hell forever?
- What about those who have never heard about Jesus, are they going to hell?
- Does God torture people forever?
You may have asked these questions yourself. And probably the most frequently asked is:
What is hell?
Throughout most of church history the understanding of hell that predominated was that of Augustine. He taught that the final punishment for the wicked consisted in torment or torture in a conscious state forever. This has been called the “eternal conscious torment” view of hell. The Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations have since adopted this view and is now considered the “traditional” view.
Quest for Answers
The English word hell was not used by the early Christian church as it did not originate from the Bible. The word was originally a medieval word fitted into the Christian idiom during the Middle Ages. It was derived from either the Old English word hel (referring to the place of the dead) or from Old Norse and Germanic words of the same root. The prevailing belief was of a punishment in a hidden underworld in the depths of the earth.
But when you look closely in English translations of the Bible you will notice that the word hell has been translated from three different Greek words: Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna. And these words all have different meanings. Hades was the Greek word for the place of the dead, located under the earth where the dead go to be judged. The wicked are punished there with a variety of extreme and fanciful punishments, all of which go on forever. The Greek god Hades was the caretaker. Tartarus was also based on Greek mythology. The Greeks thought of it as the lowest level of Hades where depraved criminals and evil gods go to be punished forever.
Greek culture and mythology permeate both Hades and Tartarus. The fact that the New Testament authors used these words does not mean that the early Christians accepted the Greek myths. The early believers, by means of the Holy Spirit, imposed Christian meanings on them. Hades came to mean simply the place of the dead, an intermediate state where the wicked await final judgment. They did not understand it to be the place of final punishment of the wicked. However, the word that Jesus used for the place of final punishment of the wicked is not Hades, but Gehenna.
The Valley of Ben Hinnom
The imagery behind the word Gehenna helps us tremendously in our understanding of hell. This name is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Hinnom, which was a valley located below ancient Jerusalem. In this valley, certain wayward Israelites and several evil kings sacrificed their children to the Canaanite gods by burning them in a scorching hot furnace (called Topheth). The prophet Jeremiah solemnly declared that God would punish the people for these and other sins.
For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. (Jeremiah 19:4-6)
The prophecy said that Jerusalem would be destroyed, and its people killed by the invading Babylonians. And the bodies of the rebellious people would be destroyed and dumped in that same valley below the city. This prophecy was fulfilled when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem in 589 B.C. and killed thousands of Israelites. Those that survived were taken into captivity. The Babylonians slaughtered those judged not strong enough to be of any use to the king, and disposed of them and the dead killed in battle, in the Valley of Ben Hinnom.
Jesus’ description of Hell
This is the image that Jesus used in his teachings to describe hell, the final punishment of the wicked. Jesus provides a concise description of the final punishment in his instructions to his disciples before sending them out to minister.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Gehenna is the word that Jesus used for hell here.
Destruction or Eternal Torment?
A thorough study of the final punishment of the wicked in the Bible will show that the great majority of the Bible passages of both old and new Testaments use the term destruction for the punishment at this event. Many references use images suggesting a complete destruction, such as “fiery furnace,” “lake of fire,” and “unquenchable fire.” This means that the final punishment for the wicked and unbelieving is an irreversible death by destruction of both body and soul, not torture of conscious beings forever, as taught by the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations.
In addition to Matthew 10:28, the following are two other examples describing the final punishment in literal non-allegorical language. The first is Jesus’ conclusion to the parable of the weeds and the second is his conclusion to the parable of the net and the fish.
As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matt. 13: 40-42
Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matt. 13:48-50
Allegories describing the final punishment as fire
There are a number of allegories and parables that help us in understanding hell. Most of them, interpreted correctly, also describe the final punishment as a complete destruction of the wicked. One allegory spoken by John the Baptist about Jesus is particularly striking:
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor, gathering his wheat in to the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matt. 3:12)
This allegory portrays Christ as a farmer who is processing grain at harvest time, separating wheat from chaff. It describes how Christ will be the judge at the final judgment: the wheat represents those who will be saved and have eternal life, while the chaff represents those who will be condemned. Notice that the chaff is not just simply charred, but totally burned up in the fire. In any reasonable interpretation, the purpose of burning the chaff is to get rid of it, not to rehabilitate or purify it. There is no mention of a prolonged burning—that would make no sense in the context of this story. The term “unquenchable” means that no one can quench or stop this fire. As with all fires, it burns until it totally consumes the combustible material.
Gehenna portrayed in the Old Testament
Many of Jesus’ teachings about hell emphasized the severity of the final punishment. Whatever sacrifices we have to make in this life to avoid being destroyed on that great day are worth it.
And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47-48)
In this passage, Jesus uses the word Gehenna. He also quotes the prophet Isaiah, and the full text of the Isaiah passage reads as follows:
“From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:23-24)
Isaiah is prophesying about the kingdom of heaven after the final judgment is complete. Heaven’s inhabitants will worship God forever. But he also provides an image of the final end of those who rebelled against God. The passage does not mention continual torture or endless pain, but only an image of final and irreversible death—portrayed as a field of dead and decomposing bodies. This is very similar to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, or the Valley of Slaughter, of Jeremiah 19. The fire here, as in other passages, is unquenchable or unstoppable. But the result is clear: death and not torture.
Hell and God’s justice
To support the conscious eternal torment view of hell, many Bible teachers like to point out that God is not only a God of love, but of justice. They believe that somehow punishment of the wicked by being tormented in hell forever demonstrates God’s justice. However, it is actually the opposite. If people were tormented continually forever, then justice would never be served, because the punishment continues on forever without ever being completed. There would always be future justice that needed to be served, and this condition would never end.
But if God destroys the wicked, he destroys them in one final act. Justice is fulfilled for good. God will have completed the punishment and there would be no outstanding justice to fulfill. Also, an eternally angry God is not found in Scripture. In the description of the end of all things in Revelation, there is not only justice, but the elimination of evil and any reason for God to be angry.
Many respected scholars have been down this road before. Other writers and scholars have struggled with understanding hell, and after serious investigation, are “rethinking hell” and coming to the same conclusions. John Stott has been my favorite author throughout the years. I was overjoyed that he came to the same conclusions as I did, many years before. I found that the scholarship of other distinguished authors like John Wenham and Edward Fudge also confirmed my discoveries.
My time searching the Scriptures led me to many other truths that I had never seen before, and Scripture started to become alive to me again. This answered other nagging questions, reaffirming my faith in God as a good and loving Creator. The teaching that God kills the unrepentant, not tortures them forever, provides more proof that God is indeed a good God. I assembled all the info I had gathered and put it all together in a book, Final Judgment and the Goodness of God.
In my opinion, those authors that defend the traditional understanding of hell and judgment rely more on church tradition and logic than Scripture. Hopefully, this blog post will inspire you to conduct more in-depth study of Scripture, to see if these things are true. In doing so, you may question the conventional beliefs about final judgment and open up to other views that more conform to the character of God as presented in the Bible.
A Few Questions to Ask Yourself
- If a non-believing friend asked you probing questions about hell, how would you answer?
- How did you arrive at your beliefs about hell?
- How have they changed since you came to faith?
For a deeper understanding of the topic of hell, I recommend the works of the following authors. These authors cover the topic thoroughly and convincingly, and in some detail. In addition to being accomplished scholars and theologians, they researched these topics thoroughly and came to their conclusions by sound biblical exegesis.
Atkinson, B. F. C., Life and Immortality, in: Rethinking Hell, Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, edited by C. M. Date, G.G. Stump, and J. W. Anderson, 2014
Fudge, E.W., The Fire That Consumes, Verdict Publications, 1982
Hughes, P. E., The True Image, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989
Marshall, C. D., Beyond Retribution, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001
Stott, John R.W., Judgment and Hell in: Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue, Questions from David Edwards, Intervarsity Press, 1989.
Wenham, J. The Case for Conditional Immortality, Fourth Edinburgh Conference on Christian Dogmatics, 1991.
Books for a good overview
A good collection of short works and excerpts by various authors (including those listed above) is: Rethinking Hell, Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, C. M. Date, G.G. Stump, and J. W. Anderson (editors), Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014.
A good presentation of the major views on hell is: Four Views on Hell, Second Edition, Stanley Gundry, Preston Sprinkle (Editors), Denny Burk, John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls (Contributors) Zondervan, 2016.