Hell: its true meaning

List of Studies

1. Introduction

The doctrine of an ever-burning hell, where the wicked burn for all eternity, is a commonly held belief in mainstream Christianity.  

However, many doubt this doctrine, wondering how a God of Love could impose so barbaric a punishment.  We must, then, examine this doctrine in the light of Scripture.  

We begin by examining the words in the Hebrew and Greek that are translated ‘hell’.

2. Hell in the Old Testament (Hebrew)

Sheol (Strong’s H7585, the place of the dead) 

Pr 7:27  Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death. 

1Sa 2:6  The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up. 

Job 17:16  They shall go down to the bars of the pit, when our rest together is in the dust. 

The Hebrew ‘sheol’ is translated equally as ‘hell’ and ‘grave’, and also as the place where the dead return to dust.  

Thus Hell is the grave, the resting place of the dead.

3. Hell in the New Testament (Greek)

3.1 Hades (Strong’s G86, unseen, place of departed souls)

Lk 10:15  And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell

Hell is cast into the lake of fire:

Re 20:14  And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 

If hell is cast into the lake of fire, hell cannot be the fire.

1Co 15:55  O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 

3.2 Gehenna  (Strong’s G1067, valley of Hinnom - where rubbish was destroyed by fire)

Mt 10:28  And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell

Mk 9:47  And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire

A place of destruction:

Mt 10:28  And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell

The wicked are destroyed by fire (that comes down from God, see study: ‘The end of sin and sinners’). 

The destroying fires in the valley of Hinnom are not burning today - likewise, the fire that destroys the wicked will not burn forever.

3.3 Tartaroo (Strong’s G5020, abyss)

Occurs once - a place for the angels that sinned:

2Pe 2:4  For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; 

The angels that sinned are reserved in hell for judgement.  Thus hell here is not a place where the evil angels are burned - it is a place of imprisonment, in which they are held until judgment.

This is a reference to the millennium which begins at the second advent of Christ, and during which Satan and his angels are bound - see study: ‘The end of sin and sinners’,2.2.

4. Everlasting / eternal fire   

Mt 18:8  Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. 

Jude 1:7  Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. 

Sodom and Gomorrah are not burning now.  Thus it is the effect of the fire that is eternal, not the fire itself.

5. Destruction

2Th 1:9  Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; 

Job 21:30  That the wicked is reserved to the day of destruction? they shall be brought forth to the day of wrath. 

Thus the wicked are not punished immediately after death, but are resurrected at the appropriate time to be punished.

Ps 37:38  But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the end of the wicked shall be cut off. 

Ps 92:7  When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever: 

Thus the wicked come to an end (they do not burn for ever)

Ps 104:35  Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD. 

Pr 10:25  As the whirlwind passeth, so is the wicked no more…

The wicked will cease to exist.  Thus it cannot be the case that they burn for ever.

He 2:14  Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 

The Devil comes to an end. Thus hell (supposedly the Devil’s abode) cannot be eternal.

6. Eternal Death

Death is the wages of sin:

Ro 6:23  For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

A wage is something that is earned justly - death is what we earn and deserve.  Furthermore, death here is the opposite of eternal life; thus it must be eternal death (Scripture presents the concept of the second, eternal, death, Re 21:8, which is the final destruction of sin and sinners - see study: ‘The end of sin and sinners’,4.1).

Note.  The reward of the redeemed is eternal life - it is a gift, and thus we do not earn or deserve it; Christ has ‘earned’ it for us.

7. Eternal torment

Re 20:10  And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. 

The Devil is destroyed:

He 2:14  Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 

The devil is both tormented and destroyed; thus eternal torment = eternal destruction. 

Re 20:9  And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. 

The wicked are devoured (eaten away) by fire.  Thus their torment must come to an end. 

Re 14:10,11  The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: 

11  And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name. 

Smoke is a consequence of fire - thus the ­consequence, not the fire, is eternal, i.e. eternal separation from God in the form of eternal death (this is the death that Christ died for us - see study: ‘The Cross’, 2.1).

The wicked have no rest: they do not enter into God’s eternal rest (He 4:9-11).

Our salvation depends upon Christ paying our debt for sin in full (He purifies us from all unrighteousness - 1Jn 1:9).  However, if the penalty for sin is a literal eternal torment, Christ would have to remain on the Cross, suffering for ever.  In indeed Hell is eternal suffering Christ could never pay our debt, it would always be out of reach - thus we could not be saved. 

8. The Rich Man and Lazarus - Lk 16:19-31 

This passage is used by many to ‘prove’ the doctrines of eternal hell and the immortality of the soul. They hold that this passage is factual rather than a parable. We must therefore examine this passage closely.

In the passage, both Lazarus and the rich man are dead. Abraham too must be dead - there is no scripture reporting that Abraham was translated or resurrected.  We see the redeemed Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom conversing with the condemned rich man burning in hell.

The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent, but Abraham replies that they have the Word of God, and if they will not learn from God’s Word, they would not listen to one who rose from the dead. 

If, as many claim, this passage is fact, it must be consistent with all of Scripture, especially with respect to what happens at death.

In study: ‘Death and the state of the dead’ we learn that the dead are unconscious, they know nothing, they are silent and do not praise God - they are asleep. Thus the dead are not able to converse with one another. 

If In addition, we have seen earlier that hell is the grave, the place where the dead go - it is not a place of everlasting burning.

Thus, if the passage is indeed fact, there is a serious contradiction in Scripture.  Scripture, however, does not contradict itself. Therefore the passage is a parable, not fact.

In the context of the whole chapter (Luke 16), the passage is a rebuke to the covetous pharisees (Lk 16:14), who had supplanted their own traditions in place of God’s Word (Mk 7:9). 

The passage teaches that it is in this life that we must prepare for eternity - there is no further opportunity. 

Christ was speaking in terms of the Jews’ understanding - they had become tainted with the Zoroastrian ideas of hell and punishment encountered in Babylon, and also later Greek ideas - similar to today’s popular beliefs.

Mt 13:13  Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

It is particularly important to understand the parable (the rich man and Lazarus) correctly  - it condemns the Papal doctrine of purgatory, which is a most pernicious doctrine because it leads many to delay a preparation for eternity, thinking (mistakenly) that they will have an opportunity after death to ‘work off’ their sins.  Like the Pharisees, the Papacy has supplanted its traditions in place of Scripture truth. 

9. Consequences of the doctrine of an ever-burning hell

The doctrine of an ever-burning hell reduces obedience to God to something we do merely out of fear, or it kills belief in God altogether.  These consequences are, of course, exactly as Satan would have it.  

However, as we have seen, an ever-burning hell cannot be found in Scripture.  

Thus the doctrine of eternal torment slanders God and misrepresents Him, making Him seem a vicious tyrant instead of the loving, saving God that is His true character.  

Again, Satan is well pleased when the character of God is so maligned, especially by those who claim to be His faithful followers.

10. Origins of the doctrine of an ever-burning hell

The concept of an afterlife existed in pagan belief long before Christianity adopted it  

The belief in an afterlife varied in its conception from a place of joyless existence to a place of torment for the wicked - for instance, ancient Egypt had the God Ammit who consigned the wicked to a lake of fire.  Pure Judaism, however, did not have the concept of torment in hell, and thus there is no justification for its adoption into pure Christianity, which is the continuation of pure Judaism.

Errors were imported early into the fledgling Christian church.  To expand the church nominal converts were accepted into fellowship, bringing with them pagan beliefs and practices, which were then 'christianised'.

The doctrine of an ever-burning hell appears in the writings of many early church fathers.

Later, Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Roman Catholic theologian, in his Summa Theologiae attempted to justify, at length, the everlasting burning of the wicked.   

Despite the attempts to justify it, the doctrine of an ever-burning hell is an abomination.  It offends the character of God, the purity of which would be revealed to all if they studied Scripture rather than the corrupt doctrines of apostate Christianity. 

11. Summary

Hell in both the Old and New Testaments is the place to where all the dead go: the grave.  

The punishment for sin is eternal destruction, not eternal torment in an ever-burning hell. Eternal destruction is everlasting lifeless separation from God.

An ever-burning hell is a pernicious doctrine designed to paint God as an unjust, monstrous tyrant, and to undermine faith in the Atonement, which is the free gift of a God who is love.

The concept of an ever-burning hell did not enter Christianity until pagan beliefs were introduced in order to make Christianity palatable to nominal converts, who became Christians merely for expediency and political advantage.

An ever-burning hell has no place in the pure religion of Christ.  We have Scripture to present the truth, and the Holy Spirit to guide and teach us - we have no excuse for falling into error.

List of Studies