HELL AND THE PUNISHMENT OF SINNERSBack to Alphabetical Index | Back to Chapter Index
For centuries, in order to motivate converts and prospective converts to strive to 'go to heaven' when they die, religious leaders have tried to frighten them with the threat of eternal punishment in a place called hell. As fearful as many are of going to hell, most people do not have the slightest understanding of what the Bible really teaches about this subject. This study investigates the myth of hell as a place were people are tormented with fire for eternity and what the Bible really says about hell.
In most Christian theologies, Hell is a place of punishment after death. Although there are many different and confusing explanations as to exactly what and where hell is, there are three widely accepted beliefs surrounding punishment in hell:
Although Catholic and Protestant theology differ radically in many respects, the foundation for the Protestant belief in 'hell-fire' is firmly fixed in early Catholic theology. The main difference between the two is that Catholics believe in an interim conditional stay in Hell, which they call 'purgatory', but Protestants believe that the wicked go straight to Hell and stay there for eternity.
The translators of the Authorized King James Version of the Bible lived at a time when the doctrine of 'hell-fire' and damnation was generally accepted. When it came to translating the original Hebrew meaning of the word 'sheol' (i.e., grave or pit) they used the English word 'hell' (i.e., to conceal, cover; hide); thereby, they effectively concealed the true meaning of scriptures while confirming their preconceived belief in a place where unrighteous people would be punished forever.
However, the translators found it impossible to use the word 'hell' in every instance as a translation of the Hebrew 'sheol', because to do so would place some of the most righteous individuals in the Bible in a place of torment with the wicked. Therefore, whenever necessary, they used other words in place of 'sheol' that would not conflict with their belief system. Had these translators simply left the word 'sheol' untranslated, the concept and meaning of each verse where it is used would have been readily understood by any serious reader.
In order to expose the false teaching of hell as a place of eternal torture and fiery torment, it is important to review many of the scriptures in which the Hebrew word 'sheol' and the Greek word 'hades' are translated into the English word 'hell.'
The Word Sheol
The Hebrew word 'sheol' appears 65 times in the Old Testament and is translated many times as 'hell', which confuses the meaning of the text in which it is used. The word 'sheol' simply refers to a hole in the ground, a pit, or a grave. Many times 'sheol' is also translated as 'grave' which makes its meaning clear. See Gen.37:35; 42:38; 44:29-31; 1.Sam.2:6; 1.Kg.2:6; Psa.49:14-15.
The Biblical Sheol
Both Job and the Psalmist indicate that 'sheol' is a place where the body resides to rot and decay in the dirt of the earth. Job also says that God has the power to bring one out of sheol and back to life:
"Are not my days few? Then cease, and set me alone, that I may take little comfort before I go; and I shall not return; to the land of darkness, and the shadow of death; a land of obscurity, the darkness of the shadow of death, and not any order; even the shining is as darkness" (Job 10:20-21 Para.).
"But man dies and is cut off, and expires; and where is he? As waters go from the sea, and a river wastes away and dries up, so man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no more, they shall not awake, nor be roused out of their sleep. Who will grant that you would hide me in sheol; You would hide me until your anger turns back; that you would set a limit for me and remember me? If a man dies, will he revive? All the days of my warfare will I wait, until my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer you; you shall long to the work of your hands" (Job 14:10-15 Para.).
"If I wait for sheol as my house; I have spread out my bed in the darkness; I have said to corruption, you are my father, to the worm my mother and my sister. And where is my hope? they shall go down to the bars of sheol, when our descent together is in the dust" (Job 17:13-15 Para.).
"Like sheep, they are appointed to sheol [the grave]; death shall reign for them; and the upright ones shall rule over them in the morning; and their form is for rotting; Sheol is home for them. But God will redeem my soul from the hand of sheol; for he will take me. Selah" (Psa.49:14-15 Para.). See also Psa.6:5; 30:3; 89:48.
When Korah and his sons rebelled against Moses and Aaron, God opened the earth and they descended into sheol (Num.16:20-30):
"For my soul is full with evils; and my life touches sheol. I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I have been like a feeble man, free among the dead, as pierced ones lying in the grave, whom you remember no more; yea by your hand they are cut off. You have laid me in the lowest pit in the dark places; in the deeps" (Psa.88:3-6 Para.).
The Condition of Death
There is nothing throughout the entire Bible that indicates humans have an immortal soul or that any human life function continues after death. The Bible indicates just the opposite; it clearly shows that the physical life of a human is a temporary condition that can be terminated forever.
At death, the cerebral functions cease, the brain dies and there are no more thought processes, no reward, no memory, no knowledge, no access to this world; the dead are simply dead, not alive:
"For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in any thing that happens under the sun" (Ecc.9:5-6 NIV).
"All that your hand finds to do, do it with your strength. For there is no work, or planning, or knowledge or wisdom, in sheol, where you go" (Ecc.9:10 Para.).
"The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down in silence" (Psa.115:17 KJV). The reason they cannot praise God is that they are no longer alive; their life has been silenced. In death there is no thought process: "Return, O Lord, deliver my soul: oh save me for your mercies' sake. For in death there is no remembrance of you: in the grave who shall give you thanks?" (Psa.6:4-5 KJV).
"Put your trust not in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goes forth, he returns to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psa.146:3-4 KJV). See also Isa.38:17-19.
Where is Sheol?
Although the Bible does not indicate a specific geographical location on earth for sheol, there are many descriptions of the location of sheol. It is said to be under the mountains, the earth, the waters, and it is a place to where people descend. See Num.16:30; Psa.104:29; Job 26:5; 34:14-15; Pro.1:12; Isa.14:14-19; Ezk.32:23; Jon.2:6.
Sheol is a place of darkness, silence, and rest; moreover, it is a condition of unconsciousness. It is a place where there is no communication between God and man (Psa.6:5; 31:17-18; 94:17; 115:17; Ecc.9:5-6;10; Job 10:21-22).
Sheol is also a place where only the physical element of man resides, but not the spirit of man (Ecc.12:70). It is a place where both the righteous and the wicked go to await a resurrection to immortality, an opportunity for salvation, or the second death.
From the context of the many scriptures that speak of sheol, it is evident that sheol is not limited to one specific geographical location on earth. Instead, it is often used to describe a physical resting place for a dead body. It is also used to described a condition of rest. In the broadest sense, sheol simply means 'where dead bodies are.'
In most English translations, 'sheol' has been translated 'hell' with the conceptual meaning of a place of torture and suffering. However, 'sheol' does not even remotely denote a place of fiery torment.
There is no contradiction in the usage of the word sheol in the Bible; the contradiction is between what people believe and what the Bible actually teaches.
The Greek word 'hades' refers to the same place as the Hebrew word 'sheol' (i.e., the realm of the dead, a hole in the ground, a pit or grave).
Jesus Went to Hell
If hell is a place of eternal torment for the wicked as is commonly taught, we have a problem of monumental proportions, because the Bible clearly shows that Jesus went to hell after he was crucified and before he was resurrected:
"Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For you will not leave my soul in hell; neither will you suffer your Holy One [Jesus Christ] to see corruption" (Psa.16:9-10 KJV).
Both Peter and Paul spoke of this prophecy in reference to Christ's resurrection:
"Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One [Jesus Christ] to see corruption."He [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption" (Acts 2:27; 31 KJV). See also Acts 13:35-37.
In Psalms 16:9-10, the King James translators used the word 'hell' instead of the Hebrew word 'sheol', which can mean grave or pit. In Acts, they used 'hell' for the Greek word 'hades', which means grave.
In these statements by King David, Peter, and Paul, there is irrefutable proof that hell (sheol), or hades (grave) is not a place of eternal fiery torture. Was Christ sent to a place of torture before his resurrection? Of course not! Christ was buried in a tomb, which is the equivalent of the Hebrew word 'sheol' and the Greek word 'hades'. He did not go to a place of torture; his body lay in a tomb and his spirit went back to God the Father until his body was resurrected and his spirit was placed back into it.
When translating the prophecy of Christ's death and resurrection, the translators found themselves in a doctrinal dilemma. A correct translation of the words 'sheol' and 'hades' as 'grave' would not harmonize with current theology concerning the immortality of the soul. It would have shown that Jesus did not have an immortal soul, but that he was dead in a grave on earth until God the Father resurrected him. In order to solve their problem they used the word 'hell' to obscure the true intent of the scriptures.
"Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he has poured out his soul to death: and he was numbered with transgressors. . ." (Isa. 53:12 KJV).
Jesus went to hell. Moreover, Jacob said that he too would go to sheol (hell) where he thought his son Joseph was (Gen.37:31-35). Even righteous Job requested to go to sheol (Job 14:13-15).
If hell is a place of fire and torment for the wicked, why would Jesus and other righteous individuals be found there? The simple fact revealed in scripture is that all humans who die go to the same place at death.
Resurrection From Hell
God will resurrect those in the grave. If the King James translators had been consistent with their usage of the word 'hell' in place of 'sheol', it would have caused a problem with their doctrine of hell being a place of eternal torment.
The prophetess Hannah says,
"The Lord kills, and makes alive: he brings down to the grave [sheol], and brings up" (1.Sam.2:6 KJV). See also Job 21:23-32; 30:23; Psa.30:3; 49:15; 86:13; Hos.13:14; Nah.1:14; Rev.1:18.
"And when I saw him, I fell at his feet, as dead. And he put his right hand on me, saying to me, do not fear. I am the first and the last, and the Living One; and I became dead; and behold, I am living forever and ever. Amen. And I have the keys to Hades, and of death" (Rev.1:17-18 Para.).
Jesus has the authority and power to unlock the grave and resurrect those who reside there. See Acts 10:42; Rom.14:9.
In 1.Corinthians 15:55 KJV 'hades' is translated as 'grave', "O death, where is your sting? O grave (hades), where is your victory?"
"And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [hades] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works" (Rev.20:13 KJV).
This is an important scripture because it contradicts the traditional teaching of the immortality of the soul and that hades is a place of eternal torment from which there is no escape.
A short study into the references where the word 'hades' is used will easily show that it means the 'grave' and not an 'ever-burning place of eternal torture'.
The Greek word 'gehenna' and the Hebrew word 'gehinom' are translated as 'hell' in the New Testament and come from the Hebrew phrase 'Gay Ben Hinnom', which means 'The Valley of the Son of Hinnom'. This small valley was located south of Jerusalem on one of the borders between the territories of Judah and Benjamin (see Josh.15:8). Periodically, during the times of the Kings of Israel, the sacrificial burning of children was practiced there:
"Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem: but he did not that which was right in the sight of the Lord, like David his father: For he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and made also molten images for Baalim. Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel" (2.Chron.28:1-3 KJV). See also 2.Kg.23:7-10; 2.Chron. 33:1-6; Jer.7:31;32:35.
These sacrifices were a part of the worship of Molech. Jeremiah and many other prophets condemned this practice and prophesied that the valley would be called 'The Valley of Slaughter' because of the events that would transpire there (see Jer.19:5-6). The location in the Valley of Hinnom where the children were burnt in sacrifice to pagan gods was called 'topet', which means 'a burning place'.
The Gehenna of Christ's day was the name of a deep ravine about a thousand yards south of the temple area just outside of the city of Jerusalem. This ravine was used as the city's garbage dump. It is said that all sorts of things were disposed of there, such as bones and the bodies of animals and criminals. Fires were kept continually burning in the Valley of Gehenna in order to consume whatever was thrown there.
Because of the circumstances associated with Gehenna, the Hebrew word 'gehinom' became an idiomatic expression for 'a place of fiery destruction.' When Jesus spoke of Gehenna it was for the purpose of describing destruction, not torture:
"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 [gehenna]" (Matt.10:28 KJV). See also Gen.6:1-7; Lk.12:4-5 KJV.
The Greek word for 'destroy' is 'apollumi', which means 'to destroy fully', 'to kill', 'to perish', 'to completely do away with.' The usage of the word 'apollumi' in the New Testament always indicates complete destruction. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for 'destroy' mean 'the destruction and cessation of existence'.
There is no doubt that Christ's audience knew exactly what he was referring to when he spoke of gehenna. His symbolic usage of gehenna in portraying destruction was a very graphic illustration and an unmistakable reference to total destruction.
"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitened graves which outwardly indeed appear beautiful, but within are full of bones of the dead, and of all uncleanliness. So you also indeed outwardly appear righteous to men, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the tombs of the righteous. And you say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. So you witness to yourselves, that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets. And you fill up the measure of your fathers. Serpents, offspring of vipers! How shall you escape the judgment of gehenna?" (Matt.23:27-33 Para.).
Here, Jesus gives a powerful rebuke and warning to these wicked religious leaders. Notice that, if they do not repent, there is no escape from the punishment for sin, which is utter, final destruction by fire.
The destructive power of fire was used many times to destroy those who opposed God or his people. There are many warnings in the Bible, which show that those who oppose God, his prophets, and his people will be destroyed with fire. See Gen.19:24; Deut.4:23-24; 9:3; Isa.9:18-19; 30:26-23; Matt.3:10; 5:21-22; 2.Thes.1:7-8.
The Gehenna fire that Jesus warned of is not a place of eternal torture; it is a place where the death penalty will be administered. It is a place of the final destruction of wicked humans and spirits.
Every time Jesus referred to gehenna, those listening knew exactly what he was saying. They did not imagine a place of fiery torture under the earth or anywhere else. They visualized a foul, stinking garbage dump where refuse and unwanted waste of all kinds was thrown to be destroyed by fire.
The Worm of Gehenna
In another reference to Gehenna, Jesus makes the picture of destruction more graphic by referring to the ever-present worms that infested the garbage and dead bodies that were thrown there:
"And if your hand offend you, cut it off. For it is profitable for you to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go away into the fire of gehenna that cannot be put out: Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not put out. And if your foot causes you to offend cut it off, for it is well for you to enter into life lame, than having two feet to be thrown into gehenna, into the fire that cannot be put out: Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not put out. And if your eye offends you, cast it out. For it is profitable for you to enter into the kingdom of God one-eyed, than having two eyes to be thrown into the fire of gehenna: Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not put out" (Mk.9:43-48 Para.). See also Matt.5:29-30;18:8-9.
Somehow many think that these scriptures say that wicked people will be tortured forever. However, Jesus uses the city dump where garbage was burned as an example of the destruction of the wicked.
But what about the worm that does not die? Some feel that because Jesus says 'their worm does not die', there must be eternal punishing for sinners? However, Jesus is using the city dump and its fires as a symbolic representation of final punishment.
The English word translated as 'worm' is the Greek word 'skolex', which refers to 'a grub', 'maggot', or 'earth worm,' which fits perfectly into the symbolism of the Gehenna-fire garbage dump. When a carcass was thrown into Gehenna, but it was not totally consumed by the fires or did not reach the fires to be burned, it would be consumed by animals, birds, insects, maggots, and/or worms.
When dead flesh is infested with worms/maggots, their endless reproductive life cycle (e.g., egg, pupa, larva, insect) will eventually totally consume the flesh. This is what Jesus meant when he said 'their worm does not die'. He did not mean that the worm was eternal, he was using the city dump and its destructive nature as an allegory for the finality of the punishment for sinfulness.
The prophet Isaiah also used the symbolism of a worm and fire when he foretold the total destruction of the wicked during the millennial reign of Christ:
"For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, says the Lord. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh" (Isa.66:22-24 KJV).
When Jesus spoke of Gehenna and worms that did not die, he was giving a graphic description of the finality of the destruction of the wicked to his audience. They knew he was speaking of a most foul and miserable destruction in a Gehenna type garbage dump where worthless things were disposed of.
The Greek word 'tartaroo' appears only once in the Bible: "For God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down into hell [tartaroo], and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved to judgment;" (2.Pet.2:4 KJV). See also 1.Pet.3:19-20; Jude 6.
The beings who will be sent to hell (tartaroo) are not people; they are wicked angels. Tartaroo is neither gehenna nor hades; it is a place of darkness and restraint and its literal meaning is 'incarceration' or 'restraint'. It does not necessarily mean a place at all. Moreover, in no way whatsoever can this word be applied to a place of punishment for humans. See our study paper about immortality for a detailed explanation of tartaroo.
The Bible is very clear in stating that the wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God:
"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulters nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1.Cor.6:9-10 NIV). See also Gal.5:19-21.
The Incorrigibly Wicked
What will happen to the incorrigible sinners? Are they all to be tortured with fire forever? No, they will not be tortured forever. The wages of sin is death (Rom.6:23)ónot eternal life in torment.
Those who willfully disobey and reject God will receive eternal punishment, not eternal punishing. They will be cast into a fire that will terminate their existence forever (Matt.13:38-42; Rev.20:15), and they will be ashes under the feet of the righteous (Mal.4:3):
"But for the cowardly and unbelieving, and those having become foul, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all the lying ones, their part will be in the Lake burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Rev.21:8 Para.).
It is evident that the popular concept of hell as an ever-burning place of torture for the wicked cannot be substantiated by honestly translating the Bible. Because it cannot be proven from scripture, it is obviously a false teaching and a deception of Satan who is the God of this world's religions. The traditional teaching of an eternal 'hell-fire' torture that is reserved for the wicked is false. Such a place simply does not exist as a teaching of the Bible. Although Jesus and the prophets did not teach ever-burning torture, they did teach a final punishment for the wicked.
The wicked will be punished by fire. However, this fire is far hotter and more permanent than most believe. The fire that will be used to punish the wicked will consume both body and spirit; therefore, it will terminate the totality of their existence forever:
"For, behold, the day comes, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yes, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch . . .. And you shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, says the Lord of hosts" (Mal.4:1;3 KJV).