As a word, the original Hebrew word 'sheol', translated 'hell', means 'a covered place'. 'Hell' is the Anglicized version of 'sheol'; thus when we read of 'hell' we are not reading a word which has been fully translated. A 'helmet' is literally a 'hell-met', meaning a covering for the head. Biblically, this 'covered place', or 'hell', is the grave. There are many examples where the original word 'sheol' is translated 'grave'. Indeed, some modern Bible versions scarcely use the word 'hell', translating it more properly as 'grave'. A few examples of where this word 'sheol' is translated 'grave' should torpedo the popular conception of hell as a place of fire and torment for the wicked:-
- "Let the wicked...be silent in the grave" (sheol [Ps. 31:17]) - they will not be screaming in agony.
- "God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave" (sheol [Ps.49:15]) - i.e. David's soul or body would be resurrected from the grave, or 'hell'.
The belief that hell is a place of punishment for the wicked from which they cannot escape just cannot be squared with this; a righteous man can go to hell (the grave) and come out again. Hos. 13:14 confirms this: "I will ransom them (God's people) from the power of the grave (sheol); I will redeem them from death". This is quoted in 1 Cor. 15:55 and applied to the resurrection at Christ's return. Likewise in the vision of the second resurrection (see Study 5.5), "death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them" (Rev. 20:13). Note the parallel between death, i.e. the grave, and hell (see also Ps. 6:5).
Hannah's words in 1 Sam. 2:6 are very clear: "The Lord killeth, and maketh alive (through resurrection): he bringeth down to the grave (sheol), and bringeth up".
Seeing that 'hell' is the grave, it is to be expected that the righteous will be saved from it through their resurrection to eternal life. Thus it is quite possible to enter 'hell', or the grave, and later to leave it through resurrection. The supreme example is that of Jesus, whose "soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption" (Acts 2:31) because he was resurrected. Note the parallel between Christ's 'soul' and his 'flesh' or body. That his body "was not left in hell" implies that it was there for a period, i.e. the three days in which his body was in the grave. That Christ went to 'hell' should be proof enough that it is not just a place where the wicked go.
Both good and bad people go to 'hell', i.e. the grave. Thus Jesus "made his grave with the wicked" (Is. 53:9). In line with this, there are other examples of righteous men going to hell, i.e. the grave. Jacob said that he would "go down into the grave (hell)...mourning" for his son Joseph (Gen. 37:35).
It is one of God's principles that the punishment for sin is death (Rom. 6:23; 8:13; James 1:15). We have previously shown death to be a state of complete unconsciousness. Sin results in total destruction, not eternal torment (Matt. 21:41; 22:7; Mark 12:9; James 4:12), as surely as people were destroyed by the Flood (Luke 17:27,29), and as the Israelites died in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:10). On both these occasions the sinners died rather than being eternally tormented. It is therefore impossible that the wicked are punished with an eternity of conscious torment and suffering.
We have also seen that God does not impute sin - or count it to our record - if we are ignorant of His word (Rom. 5:13). Those in this position will remain dead. Those who have known God's requirements will be resurrected and judged at Christ's return. If wicked, the punishment they receive will be death, because this is the judgment for sin. Therefore after coming before the judgment seat of Christ, they will be punished and then die again, to stay dead for ever. This will be "the second death", spoken of in Rev. 2:11; 20:6. These people will have died once, a death of total unconsciousness. They will be resurrected and judged at Christ's return, and then punished with a second death, which, like their first death, will be total unconsciousness. This will last for ever.
It is in this sense that the punishment for sin is 'everlasting', in that there will be no end to their death. To remain dead for ever is an everlasting punishment. An example of the Bible using this kind of expression is found in Deut. 11:4. This describes God's one-off destruction of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea as an eternal, on-going destruction in that this actual army never again troubled Israel, "He made the water of the Red sea to overflow them...the Lord hath destroyed them unto this day".
Even in early Old Testament times the believers understood that there would be a resurrection at the last day, after which the responsible wicked would return to the grave. Job 21:30,32 is very clear: "The wicked...shall be brought forth (i.e. resurrected) to the day of wrath...yet shall he be brought (then) to the grave". One of the parables about Christ's return and the judgment speaks of the wicked being 'slain' in his presence (Luke 19:27). This hardly fits into the idea that the wicked exist for ever in a conscious state, constantly receiving torture. In any case, this would be a somewhat unreasonable punishment - eternal torture for deeds of 70 years. God has no pleasure in punishing wicked people; it is therefore to be expected that He will not inflict punishment on them for eternity (Eze. 18:23,32; 33:11 cp. 2 Peter 3:9).
Apostate Christendom often associates 'hell' with the idea of fire and torment. This is in sharp contrast to Bible teaching about hell (the grave). "Like sheep they are laid in the grave (hell); death shall feed on them" (Ps. 49:14) implies that the grave is a place of peaceful oblivion. Despite Christ's soul, or body, being in hell for three days, it did not suffer corruption (Acts 2:31). This would have been impossible if hell were a place of fire. Eze. 32:26-30 gives a picture of the mighty warriors of the nations around, lying at peace in their graves: "The mighty that are fallen (in battle)...which are gone down to hell with their weapons of war: and they have laid their swords under their heads...they shall lie...with them that go down to the pit". This refers to the custom of burying warriors with their weapons, and resting the head of the corpse upon its sword. Yet this is a description of "hell" - the grave. These mighty men lying still in hell (i.e. their graves), hardly supports the idea that hell is a place of fire. Physical things (e.g. swords) go to the same "hell" as people, showing that hell is not an arena of spiritual torment. Thus Peter told a wicked man, "Thy money perish with thee"(Acts 8:20).
The record of Jonah's experiences also contradicts this. Having been swallowed alive by a huge fish, "Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly, and said, I cried...unto the Lord...out of the belly of hell cried I" (Jonah 2:1,2). This parallels "the belly of hell" with that of the whale. The whale's belly was truly a 'covered place', which is the fundamental meaning of the word 'sheol', translated 'hell'. Obviously, it was not a place of fire, and Jonah came out of "the belly of hell" when the whale vomited him out. This pointed forward to the resurrection of Christ from 'hell' (the grave) - see Matt. 12:40.
However, the Bible does frequently use the image of eternal fire in order to represent God's anger with sin, which will result in the total destruction of the sinner in the grave. Sodom was punished with "eternal fire" (Jude v. 7), i.e. it was totally destroyed due to the wickedness of the inhabitants. Today that city is in ruins, submerged beneath the waters of the Dead Sea; in no way is it now on fire, which is necessary if we are to understand 'eternal fire' literally. Likewise Jerusalem was threatened with the eternal fire of God's anger, due to the sins of Israel: "Then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched" (Jer. 17:27). Jerusalem being the prophesied capital of the future Kingdom (Is. 2:2-4; Ps. 48:2), God did not mean us to read this literally. The great houses of Jerusalem were burnt down with fire (2 Kings 25:9), but that fire did not continue eternally.
Similarly, God punished the land of Idumea with fire that would "not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste...the owl and the raven shall dwell in it...thorns shall come up in her palaces" (Is. 34:9-15). Seeing that animals and plants were to exist in the ruined land of Idumea, the language of eternal fire must refer to God's anger and His total destruction of the place, rather than being taken literally.
The Hebrew and Greek phrases which are translated "for ever" mean strictly, "for the age". Sometimes this refers to literal infinity, for example the age of the kingdom, but not always. Ez. 32:14,15 is an example: "The forts and towers shall be dens for ever...until the spirit be poured upon us". This is one way of understanding the 'eternity' of 'eternal fire'.
Time and again God's anger with the sins of Jerusalem and Israel is likened to fire: "Mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place (Jerusalem)...it shall burn, and shall not be quenched" (Jer. 7:20; other examples include Lam. 4:11 and 2 Kings 22:17).
Fire is also associated with God's judgment of sin, especially at the return of Christ: "For, behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up" (Mal. 4:1). When stubble, or even a human body, is burnt by fire, it returns to dust. It is impossible for any substance, especially human flesh, to literally burn for ever. The language of 'eternal fire' therefore cannot refer to literal eternal torment. A fire cannot last for ever if there is nothing to burn. It should be noted that "hell" is "cast into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:14). This indicates that hell is not the same as "the lake of fire"; this represents complete destruction. In the symbolic manner of the book of Revelation, we are being told that the grave is to be totally destroyed, because at the end of the Millennium there will be no more death.
In the New Testament there are two Greek words translated 'hell'. 'Hades' is the equivalent of the Hebrew 'sheol' which we have discussed earlier. 'Gehenna' is the name of the rubbish tip which was just outside Jerusalem, where the refuse from the city was burnt. Such rubbish tips are typical of many developing cities today (e.g. 'Smoky Mountain' outside Manila in the Philippines.) As a proper noun - i.e. the name of an actual place - it should have been left untranslated as 'Gehenna' rather than be translated as 'hell. 'Gehenna' is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew 'Ge-ben-Hinnon'. This was located near Jerusalem (Josh. 15:8), and at the time of Christ it was the city rubbish dump. Dead bodies of criminals were thrown onto the fires which were always burning there, so that Gehenna became symbolic of total destruction and rejection.
Again the point has to be driven home that what was thrown onto those fires did not remain there for ever - the bodies decomposed into dust. "Our God (will be) a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29) at the day of judgment; the fire of His anger with sin will consume sinners to destruction rather than leave them in a state of only being singed by it and still surviving. At the time of God's previous judgments of His people Israel at the hand of the Babylonians, Gehenna was filled with dead bodies of the sinners among God's people (Jer. 7:32,33).
In his masterly way, the Lord Jesus brought together all these Old Testament ideas in his use of the word 'Gehenna'. He often said that those who were rejected at the judgment seat at His return would go "into Gehenna (i.e."hell"), into the fire that never shall be quenched; where their worm dieth not" (Mark 9:43,44). Gehenna would have conjured up in the Jewish mind the ideas of rejection and destruction of the body, and we have seen that eternal fire is an idiom representing the anger of God against sin, and the eternal destruction of sinners through death.
The reference to "where their worm dieth not", is evidently part of this same idiom for total destruction - it is inconceivable that there could be literal worms which will never die. The fact that Gehenna was the location of previous punishments of the wicked amongst God's people, further shows the aptness of Christ's use of this figure of Gehenna.