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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!
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), David (Psalms 88:3 Psalms 88:3For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draws near to the grave.
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) 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.
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). 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.
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; Acts 2:27 Acts 2:27Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption.
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, 31). 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 Acts 2:27Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption.
American King James Version×
, 31) 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 Ecclesiastes 9:5For 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.
American King James Version×
, 10; 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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; 146:4, 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 Kgs. 23:10, 13, 14)” (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 Matthew 5:22But 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.
American King James Version×
, 29-30; 23:15, 33; 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.
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).

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 (4:1-3).

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.
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; 20:10, 14-15; 21:8).

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.
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) and a resurrection to physical life of all those who have never known God and His ways (verses 5, 11-13). 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” (verse 15).

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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