Scripture Studies

The Truth About Hell

dante infernoApart from the fear of dying, another most common fear of people is the notion that they will go to an “ever-burning hellfire” after death. Mainstream Christianity embraces the general belief that when a person is “good” he/she will go to heaven, but those who are “bad” will be sent directly to a place called “hell” (an eternal burning place of “sulfur and fire” where sinners are burned and tortured every-day, forever and ever).

While the idea may seem appealing to theologians, if only to send a chilling reminder to the wicked and unbelievers; how does this concept reconcile with the belief of a very merciful and loving God and yet, could torture people “forever” for their past misdeeds?

It was the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who popularized the idea of an “eternal punishing” through his satirical novel, “The Divine Comedy” (or La Divina Comedia). As detailed in the book section on Inferno he vividly portrayed how sinners are suffering endlessly in ways that represented ultimate penalty for their sins. (See above art illustration by Gustave Doré of Dante’s hell)

In recent times, however, major denominations seem to have softened their stand on a “harsh” hell, favoring a reinterpretation of hell vaguely as an “eternal separation” from God. Still, the general understanding is that evil people and nonbelievers will live in perpetuity in some state of torment.

But what does the Bible really tell us about hell?

An up close study of the word “hell” in the New Testament will reveal some very direct and unmistakable truths. There are three Greek words translated “hell” in the New Testament, and these words are Hades, Gehenna and Tartaroo.

1. Hades refers to “the grave,” “the pit” or “place of the dead.” A common reference to the grave as resting place for the dead. Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27 use Sheol and Hades to describe the location of Christ’s body when He was dead for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40).

“For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. (Acts 2:27; compare with Psalm 16:10)

“Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term ‘Sheol,’ which refers in general to the place of the dead” (Ref: The Holman Bible Dictionary 1991, “Hades”).

2. Gehenna refers to the valley of Hinnom, “a valley near Jerusalem … where children were sacrificed by fire in connection with pagan rites” (New Bible Dictionary, 1982, “Hell”). Later, garbage and dead bodies were disposed of and burned in this valley. This Gehenna valley was prophetically used to picture the “lake of fire” described in Revelation 19:20, the unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43) that will completely destroy the unrepentant (Matthew 10:28).

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell (Gk. “gehenna”), into the fire that shall never be quenched” (Mark 9:43).

3. Tartaroo appears only once in the Bible.  It refers to a condition of restraint for demons (fallen angels) until their later judgment (2 Peter 2:4).

“For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell [Gk. “tartaroo”] and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.” (2 Peter 2:4)

While these are very clear references of hell, the idea of an immediate afterlife of torture in hell, is not what the Bible says. There is no mention in the Bible of wicked people who are now either tormented forever in a “lake of fire” or are living in a place of separation, except that of the grave (Gk. hades).      

Moreover, the concept of an eternal punishing contradicts directly one of the plainest statements in the Bible about the result of sin in our life. In the apostle Paul’s writing describing the consequences of sin, and the need for the gift of eternal life through Christ, the apostle Paul said:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

This also echoes what prophet Ezekiel declared, “The soul who sins shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4,20).

The Bible makes clear that the result of sin or transgression in life is eternal death. As humans do not possess any inherent “immortality” (a gift reserved only to the righteous), it follows that as mortal, man cannot go on living eternally in hell if he/she is a sinner. Hence, the ideas of an eternal life in a burning hell are both a contradiction of terms in the Bible!

Death as the “wages of sin”, harmonizes very clearly with the last book of the Bible, where the fate of the incorrigibly wicked is called “the second death” in “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14).

This “lake of fire” described in the book of Revelation is far from the common concept of hell. It is a place that will utterly destroy and kill the wicked as Jesus Christ also warned us about,

“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).” (Matthew 10:28).

The prophet Malachi prophesied,

“All who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up” (Malachi 4:1).

So, what really is hell? The truth of the Bible reveals that hell is a final place of eternal death in the future. It will also show how God will be ultimately just and merciful, as the incorrigibly wicked will be dealt with in a merciful way, extinguished and be dead forever—not tormented or in agony for all eternity in an ever-burning hellfire.

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