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In 1999, Pope John Paul II said this about the nature of hell: “Rather than a physical place, hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”
A few years earlier, popular televangelist Billy Graham told Time magazine, “The only thing I could say for sure is that hell means separation from God…When it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it.”
And at a recent community gathering outside Rome, Pope Benedict XVI stated that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much anymore.” Benedict, formerly the enforcer of Catholic doctrine, also told gatherers that if sinners fail to “admit blame” they risk “eternal damnation.”
The idea of an ever-burning hell has frightened countless millions!
What really happens to the wicked after death? Are they “doomed to hell,” where their “souls” roast in “torment” forever? If hell exists, and the wicked go there, where is it and what is it? And when do they go? What about the resurrection of the dead? And the parable of Lazarus and the rich man?
There are many popular beliefs about the fate of unrepentant sinners. Why such confusion? What are the Bible answers? Here is the truth about hell!
Several years ago, a well-known unrepentant mass murderer was executed. A grim-faced relative of one of his victims appeared at a press conference shortly afterwards and pronounced that the killer was now “burning in hell.” It was obvious that the relative also wanted this to be true just as sincerely as he believed his own statement. What was this killer’s fate? Did his crimes doom him to roast in hell forever? Most professing Christians would answer “yes.” But is this what the Bible teaches?
The most common image of people “roasting in hell” pictures a God willing to burn people for all eternity without ever totally burning them up. Apart from what the scriptures teach, ask yourself, what kind of God is capable of this? Modern “human rights activists” recognize the terrible evil of torture—even in its temporary forms. Would the loving God of the Bible design an everlasting torture chamber? If so, He would have to witness—for the rest of eternity—the suffering of those that He had condemned to such a “hell.”
We might also ask: How enjoyable could salvation be for the saved, if they were forced to watch their children or parents—and other loved ones—screaming in pain and agony for the rest of time? Do you see the absurdity of this idea? Yet millions upon millions come to this conclusion when they accept the beliefs surrounding the popular concept of hell.
Consider what the Encyclopedia Americana says about hell: “…As generally understood, hell is the abode of evil spirits; the infernal regions…whither lost and condemned souls go after death to suffer indescribable torments and eternal punishment…Some have thought of it as the place created by the Deity, where He punishes with inconceivable severity, and through all eternity, the souls of those who through unbelief or through the worship of false gods have angered Him. It is the place of divine revenge, untempered, never ending.” An additional quote, also from the Encyclopedia Americana, makes this stunning admission about the almost universal acceptance of the popular belief about hell: “The main features of hell as conceived by Hindu, Persian, Egyptian, Grecian and Christian theologians are essentially the same.”
Almost no one understands that it was primarily pagan poets who authored today’s widely believed concept about an underground, ever-burning hell.
Much of the tradition surrounding this subject came from Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) famous work Divine Comedy. In it, he described his view of paradise, purgatory and hell. Notice this quote from a book about his life, Dante and His Inferno: “Of all poets of modern times, Dante Alighieri was, perhaps, the greatest educator. He possibly had a greater influence on the course of civilization than any other man since his day…He wrote, in incomprehensible verse, an imaginative and lurid account of a dismal hell—a long poem containing certain phrases which have caught the attention of the world, such as, ‘all hope abandon…ye, who enter here!’ This had a tremendous impression and influence on the popular Christian thought and teaching. His Inferno was based on Virgil and Plato.”
This makes obvious where Dante got his ideas. He believed that the pagan philosophers Plato and Virgil were divinely inspired. His fascination with the Greek philosopher Plato caused him to accept Plato’s ideas about the immortality of the soul as described in his famous work, Phaedo. Here is what the Encyclopedia Americana says about Virgil: “Virgil, pagan Roman poet, 70-12 B.C. Belonged to the national school of pagan Roman thought, influenced by the Greek writers. Christians of the Middle Ages, including Dante, believed he had received some measure of divine inspiration.”
Few know the true origin of the beliefs that they hold. Fewer still even wish to know! We have just laid bare, in the quotes above, the real origin of this belief. Did you realize the source of these ideas? The concept of an ever-burning hell comes from outright paganism! We will see that the popular version of hell has never had anything to do with the true teaching of the Bible.
Perhaps the most familiar and often-quoted verse in the Bible is understood by almost no one. John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Millions routinely quote this verse, while ignoring an essential phrase within it.
Reread it! Those who receive salvation are promised that they “should not perish” but “have eternal life!” If hell is a place of eternal torture, then the people suffering this torment must also have eternal life. But the verse says, “should not perish.” It does not say, “Should not suffer eternal life in torment.” How does the word perish relate to the popular teaching about hell and hell fire? Why did God inspire John to use the word perish if this is not what He meant?
If you are employed, you receive regular paychecks. They represent wages paid to you for work done. What about God? Does He ever pay wages for work? Notice Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This verse exactly mirrors John 3:16! Eternal life is contrasted to death—to perishing! The wages of sin is death, not eternal torture in hell.
There is no mystery regarding the meaning of wages that an employer pays an employee for his work. Why should there be confusion over the meaning of wages that God pays a sinner for his works? God says He pays the wicked a paycheck of death—not life in a place of torment. The Bible says what it means and means what it says. It states that “scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) and “Your [God’s] word is truth” (17:17). If we are to believe that the Bible is unbreakable truth, then we must believe that death means death and life means life! How sad that most do not understand these straightforward verses.
Before examining a number of additional verses about the subject of hell, important groundwork must be laid. The idea of an ever-burning hell is inseparable from the popular belief that all human beings have immortal souls. We must examine what God says about souls. It is not what you may think!
Most people do not understand the relationship between physical men and souls. In Sunday school, I was taught that human beings are born with immortal souls. The common belief is that, upon death, the souls of sinners go to hell forever, since they are immortal. Is this what the Bible says? If the wages of sin is death, could the Bible also teach that people have immortal souls?
Genesis 2:7 says, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” This verse does not say that men have souls, but that they are souls. Adam became a soul—he was not given a soul. Then, almost immediately, God warned him, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die” (vs. 16-17). When placed together, these verses reveal that men are souls and that souls can die!
The prophet Ezekiel was inspired to write (twice): “The soul that sins, it shall die” (18:4, 20). Death is the absence of life. It is the discontinuance—the cessation—of life. Death is not life in another place. It is not leaving “this life” for “another life”—the “next life.”
Further, on the subject of whether or not the soul can die, consider Matthew 10:28: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him [God] which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” The Bible says that souls can be destroyed! According to this verse, they can be destroyed as much as bodies can. We all recognize that bodies eventually die and that, when they do, they naturally decompose and are completely “destroyed” due to the process of natural corruption. Any undertaker recognizes this. This verse introduces the understanding that God does the destroying of souls in hell! Bodies can die and be destroyed in many different ways. However, souls are destroyed in hell by God.
Human minds are differentiated from animal brains by intelligent thought. Presumably, if the dead are not dead, but are really still alive, then they must be capable of some kind of intelligent thought. They must at least be conscious of their surroundings. Let’s consider a series of scriptures.
First, notice Psalm 146:3-4: “Put not your trust…in the son of man…His breath goes forth, he returns to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” When people die, their thoughts end immediately—“in that very day.” That is what it says. This verse is not compatible with the idea that the dead are consciously suffering in a place of torment. We could suppose that, if they are suffering, they do not have knowledge that they are. They are unaware of what is happening to them. Ask yourself: What would be the point of their suffering? It would be as though they were in a coma—i.e., completely unaware of what is going on around them—while their sensory nervous system is feeling the tremendous pain sensation of burning. How would this work?
Use the following analogy. If someone is to undergo major surgery, they are anesthetized—they are made to be unconscious—so that they will not experience pain. Medical doctors understand this—why don’t theologians and religionists? Why do they deny the plain statements of the Bible?
Some who willingly ignore the message of scripture allege that only mortal thoughts “perish,” in the sense that the dead leave this earthly realm and experience some mysterious, different kind of thought than they previously knew. Is this true? Of course, this is ridiculous, and the Bible does not say this, but we should at least examine the idea. Now consider an even more direct verse: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing…” (Ecc. 9:5).
To the honest reader, there is no mistaking the plain meaning here!
Solomon recorded, “For that which befalls the sons of men befalls beasts; even one thing befalls them: as the one dies, so dies the other; yes, they have all one breath; so that a man has no preeminence above a beast…All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecc. 3:19-20).
Now consider Psalm 115:17: “The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.” Death involves “silence.” This certainly does not square with any of the popular concepts of millions of the dead wailing and screaming in agony. Such a scene could never be described as silence! And, if many of the dead go to heaven, why are they not praising God?
Psalm 6:5 further explains that the dead do not experience conscious memory: “For in death there is no remembrance of You: in the grave who shall give You thanks?” Could anyone seriously suggest that the dead, suffering in hell, could experience the normal range of human memories but not be cognizant of God—not remember Him? Would God put people in “hell” and then leave them there suffering, forever wondering how they had gotten there and who had put them there—because they have “no remembrance” of anything related to God? Remember to let the Bible interpret the Bible. Always keep its truth simple, and the deceptive ideas of men will fall like a house of cards.