The popular conception of hell is of a place of punishment for wicked ‘immortal souls’ straight after death, or the place of torment for those who are rejected at the judgment. It is our conviction that the Bible teaches that hell is the grave, where all men go at death.
As a word, the original Hebrew word ‘sheol’, translated ‘hell’, refers to
the grave. Some say it means ‘a covered place’. There are some parallels
between 'sheol' and 'covering' in the Bible, e.g.
"Sheol is naked before God... Abaddon has no covering" (Job 26:6)
"Your pomp is brought down to the grave [she'ol]... and the worms cover thee" (Is. 14:10,11)
"In the day when he went down to the grave [she'ol] I caused a mourning: I covered the deep for him" (Ez. 31:15).
- “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 raised 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 Hades (Greek for ‘hell’) delivered up the dead who were in them” (Rev. 20:13). Note the parallel between death, i.e. the grave, and Hades (see also Ps. 6:5).
Hannah's words in 1 Sam. 2:6 are very clear: “The Lord kills and makes alive (through resurrection); he brings down to the grave (sheol), and brings 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 Hades (hell), nor did his flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31) because he was raised. Note the parallel between Christ’s ‘soul’ and his ‘flesh’ or body. That his body “was not left in Hades” 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 (Mt. 21:41; 22:7; Mk. 12:9; James 4:12), as surely as people were destroyed by the Flood (Lk. 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 raised 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 raised 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 forever.
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 Dt. 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 waters of the Red sea overflow them... the Lord has destroyed them to this day”.
One of the parables about Christ’s return and the judgment speaks of the wicked being ‘slain’ in his presence (Lk. 19:27). This hardly fits into the idea that the wicked exist forever 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 (Ez. 18:23,32; 33:11 cf. 2 Pet. 3:9).
A misbelieving 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. Ez. 32:26-30 gives a picture of the mighty warriors of the nations around, lying in their graves: “the mighty who are fallen (in battle)...who have gone down to hell with their weapons of war; they have laid their swords under their heads...they shall lie...with those who 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, “Your money perish with you” (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 from the fish’s belly. And he said: ‘I cried...to the Lord...out of the belly of Sheol (hell) I cried” (Jonah 2:1,2). This parallels “the belly of Sheol” with that of the fish. The fish’s belly was truly a ‘covered place’, which is the fundamental meaning of the word ‘sheol’. Obviously, it was not a place of fire, and Jonah came out of “the belly of Sheol” when the fish vomited him out. This pointed forward to the resurrection of Christ from ‘hell’ (the grave) - see Mt. 12:40.
I have emphasized throughout this book that the Bible seeks to deconstruct the wrong pagan myths about Satan figures, and presents Yahweh, Israel's God, as the one true God. One of the most pervasive Canaanite myths was the idea that Baal and Mot, the gods of the skies and underworld respectively, were locked in mortal combat. This idea of cosmic conflict recurred in Babylonian ideas of a struggle between light and darkness, and is found today in the common idea that God and Satan are locked in Heavenly and earthly combat. The Bible often refers to Mot, or Mawet, although in most translations the Hebrew is rendered as 'death' or 'the underworld'. However, very often Mawet is paralleled with sheol, the grave. Take Hab. 2:5- the insatiable hunger of Mawet / Mot is paralleled with the insatiability of the grave. The Ras Shamra texts speak of the insatiable appetite of Mot for dead people- he eats them ceaselessly with both hands (2). There are frequent parallels drawn between Mot / Mawet, and the grave: 2 Sam. 22:5,6; Is. 28:18; Hos. 13:14; Job 28:22; 30:23; Ps. 6:5; 18:5; 89:48; 116:3; Prov. 2:18; 5:5; 7:27. The point is that Mot / Mawet doesn't exist, it is simply to be understood as the grave. For very often, language used about Mot in the pagan literature is applied to God in order to show Mot's effective non-existence (see, e.g. section 5-4-3). In our context, the significance of this point is that at times, the Bible refers to pagan ideas about 'Satan' like figures in order to deconstruct them, and show their effective non-existence in the light of the supremacy of the one true God.
Figurative FireHowever, 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 I will kindle a fire in its gates, 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 houses of the great men in Jerusalem were burnt down with fire (2 Kings 25:9), but that fire did not continue eternally. Fire represents the anger/punishment of God against sin, but His anger is not eternal (Jer. 3:12). Fire turns what it burns to dust; and we know that the ultimate wages of sin is death, a turning back to dust. This perhaps is why fire is used as a figure for punishment for sin.
Similarly, God punished the land of Idumea with fire that would “not be quenched night nor day; its smoke shall ascend for ever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste...the owl and the raven shall dwell in it...thorns shall come up in its 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. Is. 32:14,15 is an example: “The forts and towers will become lairs for ever...until the spirit is 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: “My anger and My fury will be poured out on this place - (Jerusalem)...it will burn, and 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 is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming 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 forever. The language of ‘eternal fire’ therefore cannot refer to literal eternal torment. A fire cannot last forever if there is nothing to burn. It should be noted that “Hades” is “cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). This indicates that Hades 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 forever - 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 “to hell (i.e. Gehenna), into the fire that shall never be quenched ... where their worm does not die” (Mk. 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 does not die”, 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. Again, as with so many other doctrinal areas, pagan ideas influenced Christian perceptions. The Egyptians believed that the underworld was a place of fire- and this was imported into Jewish belief, and led to Christians being prone to misinterpret Christ's figurative use of the fires of Gehenna as a symbol of utter destruction. Note too how the Egyptian Copts believed that the gods of the underworld used tridents to torment the dead, and this too passed into Christianity in the form of depictions of Satan in "hell" armed with a trident. But the trident is never spoken of in the Bible, nor is there any hint of the wicked being tormented straight after death- rather their punishment is repeatedly spoken of as being reserved until the final day of judgment.
Joachim Jeremias explains how the literal valley of Gehenna came to be misinterpreted as a symbol of a ‘hell’ that is supposed to be a place of fire: “[Gehenna]…since ancient times has been the name of the valley west and south of Jerusalem…from the woes pronounced by the prophets on the valley (Jer. 7:32 = 19:6; cf. Is. 31:9; 66:24) because sacrifices to Moloch took place there (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6), there developed in the second century BC the idea that the valley of Hinnom would be the place of a fiery hell (Eth. Enoch 26; 90.26)… it is distinguished from sheol” (3).
The Jews believed that 'hell' had three sections: Gehenna, a place of eternal fire for those Jews who broke the covenant and blasphemed God; 'the shades', an intermediate place similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory; and a place of rest where the faithful Jew awaited the resurrection at the last day (4). This distinction has no basis in the Bible. However, it's significant that the Lord Jesus uses 'Gehenna' and the figure of eternal fire to describe the punishment of people for what the Jews of His day would've considered incidental sins, matters which were far from blasphemy and breaking the covenant- glancing at a woman with a lustful eye (Mk. 9:47), hypocrisy (Lk. 12:1,5; Mt. 23:27-33), not giving a cup of water to a "little one", forbidding a disciple of John the Baptist to follow Jesus (Mk. 9:39-43); not preaching the Gospel fearlessly and boldly (Mt. 10:25-28). These matters were and are shrugged off as of no eternal consequence. But just like the prophets of Israel did, the Lord Jesus seizes upon such issues and purposefully associates them with the most dire possible punishment which His Jewish hearers could conceive- Gehenna. Time and again, the Bible alludes to incorrect ideas and reasons with people from the temporary assumption those ideas might be true. The language of demons, as we will show later, is a classic example. And it's quite possible the Lord is doing the same here with the concept of Gehenna- the punishment for the Jew who breaks the covenant and blasphemes. The Lord was primarily teaching about behaviour, not giving a lecture about the state of the dead. And so He takes the maximum category of eternal punishment known to His audience, and says that this awaits those who sin in matters which on His agenda are so major, even if in the eyes of the Jewish world and humanity generally they were insignificant.
We also see the Lord doing this, in a very striking way, in Mt. 25:41. There He speaks of "the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels"- clearly alluding to the Gehenna myth. This is a phrase taken straight from Jewish apocalyptic thinking and literature. It was the worst category of punishment conceivable in Judaism. And yet Jesus in the context is talking of the way that religious people who claim to believe in Him will not go unpunished for ignoring the needs of their poor brethren. This all too easy to commit sin... the Lord uses Judaism's toughest language to condemn. But this doesn't mean that He actually believed in the literal existence of either "eternal fire" nor a personal Devil. The Devil's angels are those who ignore their needy brethren. It's a powerful and telling juxtapositioning of ideas by the Lord Jesus.
A Psychological Note
Robert Funk observed: "Survey after survey has demonstrated that most people who believe in hell think themselves headed for heaven; people who believe in hell usually think it is for others" (5). I've done no surveys, but my experience chimes in with this completely. Those who believe and preach "hell fire" do so from deep seated psychological reasons rather than from an honest examination of the Biblical text. A desire to 'legitimately' damn others, with the apparent weight of the Bible behind them; to hit back at the world whilst bolstering ones own righteousness... it's really a classic.
(1) "The Indo-European word *kel means "cover" or "concealment" and yields English "hole", "helmet" and German hohl (empty), Hohle (cave), Halle (hall, dwelling), and Holle (hell)"- J.B. Russell, The Devil (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977) p. 62. Alva Huffer in Systematic Theology (Oregon, IL: The Restitution Herald, 1960) p. 160 suggests: "Scripturally speaking, hell is the grave. Hell is an English word derived from the Anglo-Saxon word helan, which means 'to cover' or 'to hide out of sight'". Another view, not necessarily contradictory to this, is that ""Hell" is a Germanic word, the name of an underworld goddess ("Hel")"- see T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, The Birth Of Satan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) p. 151. In this case we'd have an example of where using a word doesn't mean that we necessarily agree with the mythological background in its origin. I mean by this that I, for example, do not believe the goddess Hel existed, I understand that hell means simply the grave. But I still use the word "hell", because it's come into the English language. Likewise we show several times in chapters 4 and 5 that incorrect pagan and mythical ideas can be used in Biblical language, without meaning that the Bible nor its writers actually believed in the source ideas of those words.
(2) Reference in Umberto Cassuto, Biblical And Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975) Vol. 2 p. 115.
(3) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: S.C.M., 1972) p. 129.
(4) J.B. Russell, A History Of Heaven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) p. 28.
(5) Robert Funk, Honest To Jesus (New York: Harper Collins, 1996) p. 213.