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The Biblical View of 'Hell'

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The end of this chapter delves into the matter of what will happen to the incorrigibly wicked—those who ultimately refuse to repent of their sins. Many assume that their fate is eternity in an ever-burning inferno in a dark underworld called hell, but is that really what the Bible says?

To answer that question, we need to understand the Hebrew and Greek words translated “hell” in most versions of the Bible. As we will see, the biblical view of hell is not one of unending torment.

Two words translated “hell” refer to the grave

Sheol is the Hebrew word translated “hell” throughout the Old Testament. It refers to “the state and abode of the dead; hence the grave in which the body rests” (William Wilson, Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies, “Hell,” p. 215). The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains, “Thus there are no references to eternal destiny but simply to the grave as the resting place of the bodies of all people” (Lawrence Richards, 1985, p. 336).

Reflecting its true meaning, many modern Bible versions translate this word as simply “the grave” or leave it untranslated as  Sheol.

Among those who knew that they themselves were going to sheol were such men of faith as Jacob (Genesis 37:35 Genesis 37:35And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave to my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.
American King James Version×
), Job (Job 14:13 Job 14:13O that you would hide me in the grave, that you would keep me secret, until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
American King James Version×
), David (Psalms 88:3 Psalms 88:3For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draws near to the grave.
American King James Version×
) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:10 Isaiah 38:10I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.
American King James Version×
). These followers of God would not have been going to an ever-burning inferno. Clearly, then, sheol must mean simply the grave, not a place of eternal torment.

The counterpart of sheol in the Greek language is hades, which also refers to the grave. Despite the use of the term Hades in Greek mythology to refer to a subterranean realm of shadowy consciousness after death, this is not the biblical usage. In the four New Testament verses that quote Old Testament passages containing sheol, hades is used for sheol (Matthew 11:23 Matthew 11:23And you, Capernaum, which are exalted to heaven, shall be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in you, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
American King James Version×
; Luke 10:15 Luke 10:15And you, Capernaum, which are exalted to heaven, shall be thrust down to hell.
American King James Version×
; Acts 2:27-31 Acts 2:27-31 27 Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you shall make me full of joy with your countenance. 29 Men and brothers, let me freely speak to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us to this day. 30 Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; 31 He seeing this before spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.
American King James Version×
). As with sheol, hades is rendered as “the grave” or “death” or left untranslated as Hades in recent Bible versions.

As with sheol, the word hades likewise does not refer to a place of fiery torment. Indeed, the apostle Peter refers to Christ Himself as having been in “Hades” (Acts 2:27-31 Acts 2:27-31 27 Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you shall make me full of joy with your countenance. 29 Men and brothers, let me freely speak to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us to this day. 30 Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; 31 He seeing this before spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.
American King James Version×
) or “hell” (King James Version), referring to the time He was entombed before His resurrection. Again, both words simply refer to the grave. And in the grave, there is no consciousness at all (Ecclesiastes 9:5-10 Ecclesiastes 9:5-10 5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun. 7 Go your way, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God now accepts your works. 8 Let your garments be always white; and let your head lack no ointment. 9 Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of the life of your vanity, which he has given you under the sun, all the days of your vanity: for that is your portion in this life, and in your labor which you take under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you go.
American King James Version×
; Psalms 6:5 Psalms 6:5For in death there is no remembrance of you: in the grave who shall give you thanks?
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; Psalms 146:4 Psalms 146:4His breath goes forth, he returns to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.
American King James Version×
, KJV).

One word refers to the imprisonment of demons

A second Greek word, tartaroo, is also translated “hell” in the New Testament. This word is used only once in the Bible (2 Peter 2:4 2 Peter 2:4For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved to judgment;
American King James Version×
), where it refers to the present restraint or imprisonment of the fallen angels, or demons.

The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains that tartaroo means “to confine in Tartaros” and that “Tartaros was the Greek name for the mythological abyss in which rebellious gods were confined” (Lawrence Richards, 1985, “Heaven and Hell”). Peter used this reference to contemporary mythology to show that the sinning angels were “delivered…into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.” These fallen angels are now restrained while awaiting their ultimate judgment for their rebellion against God and destructive influence on humanity. The place where they are restrained is the earth, where they wield influence over the nations, not some dark netherworld.

Furthermore, tartaroo applies only to demons. Nowhere does it refer to a fiery hell in which people are punished after death.

A word does refer to burning—burning up, that is

It is only with the remaining word translated “hell”—the Greek word gehenna —that we see some elements people commonly associate with the traditional view of hell. However, this word also has significant differences from the popular conception.

Gehenna “is derived from the Hebr[ew] expression, ga-Hinnom, Valley of Hinnom … Religiously it was a place of idolatrous and human sacrifices … In order to put an end to these abominations, [Judah’s King] Josiah polluted it with human bones and other corruptions (2 Kings 23:10-14 2 Kings 23:10-14 10 And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. 11 And he took away the horses that the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entering in of the house of the LORD, by the chamber of Nathanmelech the chamberlain, which was in the suburbs, and burned the chariots of the sun with fire. 12 And the altars that were on the top of the upper chamber of Ahaz, which the kings of Judah had made, and the altars which Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the LORD, did the king beat down, and broke them down from there, and cast the dust of them into the brook Kidron. 13 And the high places that were before Jerusalem, which were on the right hand of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Zidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of the Moabites, and for Milcom the abomination of the children of Ammon, did the king defile. 14 And he broke in pieces the images, and cut down the groves, and filled their places with the bones of men.
American King James Version×
)” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, 1992, p. 360).

Thanks in large part to its evil reputation, this valley bordering Jerusalem on the south came to be used as the city garbage dump. Trash was burned there, along with the bodies of dead animals and criminals. Fires day and night consumed the refuse.

Gehenna is used 12 times in the Bible, with 11 of those recording Christ’s words. When Jesus spoke of gehenna, His listeners knew that this “hell” was a consuming fire in which garbage and the bodies of the wicked were destroyed. He bluntly warned that this destroying fire would be the fate of the incorrigibly wicked (Matthew 5:22-30 Matthew 5:22-30 22 But I say to you, That whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whoever shall say, You fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. 23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has ought against you; 24 Leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Agree with your adversary quickly, whiles you are in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. 26 Truly I say to you, You shall by no means come out there, till you have paid the uttermost farthing. 27 You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not commit adultery: 28 But I say to you, That whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. 29 And if your right eye offend you, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand offend you, cut it off, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell.
American King James Version×
; Matthew 23:15-33 Matthew 23:15-33 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. 16 Woe to you, you blind guides, which say, Whoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! 17 You fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18 And, Whoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is guilty. 19 You fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20 Whoever therefore shall swear by the altar, swears by it, and by all things thereon. 21 And whoever shall swear by the temple, swears by it, and by him that dwells therein. 22 And he that shall swear by heaven, swears by the throne of God, and by him that sits thereon. 23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought you to have done, and not to leave the other undone. 24 You blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. 25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. 26 You blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like to white washed sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. 29 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, 30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. 31 Why you be witnesses to yourselves, that you are the children of them which killed the prophets. 32 Fill you up then the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell?
American King James Version×
; Luke 12:5 Luke 12:5But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: Fear him, which after he has killed has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, Fear him.
American King James Version×
).

But when would this take place? The book of Malachi reveals that the future age to come is when the unrepentant wicked will be incinerated in an all-consuming inferno and turned to ashes on the earth (Malachi 4:1-3 Malachi 4:1-3 1 For, behold, the day comes, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yes, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that comes shall burn them up, said the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But to you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and you shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, said the LORD of hosts.
American King James Version×
).

The book of Revelation calls this inferno “the lake of fire”—with those cast into it at the end experiencing “the second death,” a death from which there will be no resurrection (Revelation 19:20 Revelation 19:20And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.
American King James Version×
; Revelation 20:10-15 Revelation 20:10-15 10 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. 11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. 14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
American King James Version×
; Revelation 21:8 Revelation 21:8But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
American King James Version×
).

In the time frame revealed in the Bible, this follows 1,000 years of Christ’s reign on the earth (Revelation 20:1-6 Revelation 20:1-6 1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. 2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, 3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. 4 And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
American King James Version×
) and a resurrection to physical life of all those who have never known God and His ways (Revelation 20:5 Revelation 20:5But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
American King James Version×
; Revelation 20:11-13 Revelation 20:11-13 11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
American King James Version×
). Those resurrected at that time will have the opportunity to learn God’s ways, repent and receive His gift of eternal life. Some, however, will refuse that gift. The Bible records their tragic epitaph: “And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15 Revelation 20:15And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
American King James Version×
).

Those who with full understanding willfully choose to reject God’s way won’t be allowed to continue living in the misery their choice will bring. They will die and cease to exist, not suffer forever.

We see, then, that an examination of all the words translated “hell” and of related concepts in Scripture shows that the traditional view of an ever-burning place of torment where the wicked are punished for eternity cannot be found in the Bible.

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