Jerusalem’s sizzling summer sun in ‘73 fiercely scorched my exposed skin and slow-cooked my brain. I found archaeology at the Temple Mount to be good, hard, hot, dusty, thirsty work. It was so hot and three of us so thirsty that we stood at the edge of the precipice that noonday summoning the nerve to launch an expedition into the very depths of hell itself to find something to cool our dry tongues and parched lips.
Down we went, down, down into the Valley of Hinnom, down into Gehenna, down into the very hell that Jesus spoke of, down, down … until we found the small grocery store that sold the most delicious pineapple Popsicles you can imagine. We bought four, including one that I got for a beautiful coworker (now my lovely wife), and marched back up the steep street happily licking our treats. After that, we regularly went to hell and back for Popsicles.
Hell must not be so bad then? No, hell is bad enough, but more importantly hell is badly misunderstood by every religion of the world—especially traditional Christianity. There is no need for you to misunderstand hell, however. Come, let me take you on a quick tour of the Bible. We’ll go to hell and back with true understanding.
Hell to the world
At the turn of the 21st century various surveys show that in America about half of the population believes in a hell of some sort.
Some believe in the basic, popular hell of Catholic and Protestant Christianity—an ever-burning place of torment and punishment for the immortal souls of wicked people. They’re firmly convinced that the Bible teaches that kind of hell—even though it was not part of Christian doctrine until nearly two centuries after Christ!
Others can’t conceive that a loving God would administer such a heinous punishment for eternity. They reason that since God is so loving, everyone, no matter how evil and demented, will receive eternal life and no one will go to hell—never mind that such a philosophy has no basis in Scripture, and its logical conclusion would be that nothing is really wrong or evil.
Hell in the Bible
The truth is, there are actually three “hells” mentioned in the Bible as it is commonly translated into English—and not one of them matches either of the above schools of thought. The confusion arises when the usual Christian theology swirls the three “hells” together into one great muddled mass. Let’s look at each as the Bible explains it and sort out fact from fiction.
Hell #1: Hades or Sheol. Hades is the Greek word often rendered as “hell” in the New Testament, and sheol is the corresponding Hebrew word used in the Old Testament. Both words simply mean “the grave.”
The classic example drawn from the beautiful, Shakespearean—sounding King James Version is in 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×: “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” The word translated “hell” is the Greek hades.
This verse is a direct and inspired quotation from one of King David’s psalms in the Old Testament—Psalms 16:10 Psalms 16:10For you will not leave my soul in hell; neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption.
American King James Version×. There the Hebrew word translated as “hell” is sheol. Both passages refer to the fact that Jesus as Messiah would not remain in the grave, but would be resurrected.
We will all go to this kind of “hell,” for it is appointed for all men to die once (Hebrews 9:27 Hebrews 9:27And as it is appointed to men once to die, but after this the judgment:
American King James Version×). But the grave is not a place of constant conscious torture and torment!
Solomon wrote of the grave like this: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave [ sheol ] where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10 Ecclesiastes 9:10Whatever 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×). The grave is simply a place of very dead sleep until the resurrection, which itself is another story. You will find no Popsicles in this hell.
Hell #2: Tartaroo. This Greek word, found and translated only once in the New Testament as “hell,” has a very clear and specific application: “God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment” (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×).
Fallen or sinning angels do exist. They are called demons and the chief one is Satan the devil. God has justly prepared a condition of spiritual restraint or imprisonment for them today. This is the idea behind the use of the term tartaroo in this passage.
However, there are no human beings who will experience the hell of tartaroo. Yet much of Christianity thinks that the traditional ever-burning hell will be like tartaroo, where they think the immortal souls of bad human beings will suffer forever.
Here’s the bombshell—they’re wrong because human beings have no such thing as an immortal soul! But that is a huge, other story.
Hell #3: Gehenna. Now we have arrived at the business end of the biblical hell. God will offer the gift of eternal life in His great Kingdom to every last human being. But to accept the sacrifice of Christ for our sins—and to live God’s way of life of overcoming—forces each of us to make a choice. Do we want to live forever or not? The answer should be obvious, right?
But “should be” sometimes gets slippery. The bottom line is that those few who ultimately rebel against their Creator and refuse to change their ways to embrace His ways will die in the true hell of the Bible. God means what He says: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 Romans 6:23For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
American King James Version×, emphasis added), not eternal life in some bad place.
Completely contrary to the hellfire of many religions and certainly most of Christianity, the hell of the Bible simply ends the life of the wicked—it does not torture and torment them forever. After all, how could an average 70-year life of a sinner equal a never-ending eternity of heinous agony?
The true hell reflects both God’s justice, by enforcing His divine laws of life, and His mercy, by swiftly ending the existence of the unrepentant few who choose to be the evil, the covetous, the thieving, the cowardly, the unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and liars (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 9 Know you not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortionists, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
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×).
How to go to hell and back
Now here’s how I went to hell and back for the Popsicle. Gehenna is a Greek word meaning “valley of Hinnom.” Jesus used gehenna to describe the true hell that He also called the lake of fire, the place of destruction of the wicked referred to in the prophetic book of Revelation (20:15).
The site of ancient Jerusalem, then as well as today, was marked by two deep valleys, almost canyons, running along its east and south sides. The valley to the south is the Valley of Hinnom or gehenna.
During part of ancient Israel’s history it was the site of idolatrous shrines where disobedient and perverted Israelites committed the evil sin of child sacrifice. By Christ’s day it had become Jerusalem’s city dump, where refuse was always being burned. As the historical site of infanticide and then as a trash dump, Jesus chose gehenna (Luke 12:4-5 Luke 12:4-5 4 And I say to you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.
5 But 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×) as a fitting reference for the lake of fire.
The Temple Mount excavations where my wife-to-be and I were working that hot summer stood uphill from the lower end of the Valley of Hinnom. During our noon breaks we had time to walk down into gehenna —hell—and get those delightful Popsicles. That is, get Popsicles and do some deep thinking about our lives and life itself in the light of God’s Word.
Life has consequences. Knowing what you and I know now, if we choose life, then a happy eternity in the Kingdom of God is our destiny. If, however, we choose to reject the great and loving God who made us, then our conclusion is death in the lake of fire, the true hell of the Bible. And believe me—we don’t want to go there! VT