Many staunchly believe the wicked are destined for eternal torment. A growing group of theologians and historians are questioning this idea. What does the Bible say?
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What if someone told you hell does not exist? Think of how it would make you feel. How you would react.
If you grew up in one of the many denominations of modern Christendom, your response would likely be, “If you don’t believe it, you’re bound to go there!” Or you would kindly agree to disagree, but one word would be at the forefront of your mind: heretic.
Eternal punishment for the wicked is a bedrock doctrine for most churches. It has been for centuries. This would be the first reason to believe in a place called hell—it has stood the test of time. It not existing can seem utterly absurd, and not even worth giving another thought.
Yet bear with me. Have you ever wondered why a loving, merciful God would want a large portion of humanity to exist eternally in hell? How could He live with Himself?
Even more, why would the Creator of the universe set up a system like this?
So what is the truth here? Every Bible believer owes it to himself to examine what God’s Word says about eternal punishment.
The Bible demands of its readers: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thes. 5:21). It also states, “Every word of God is pure: He is a shield unto them that put their trust in Him. Add you not unto His words, lest He reprove you, and you be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6).
It is time for you to prove once and for all whether you want to believe in an ever-burning hell.
The Only Source
Theologians and historians have dug into the question of eternal hell—and what makes its existence so appealing.
An opinion piece for The New York Times stated this: “It’s comforting to imagine that Christians generally accept the notion of a hell of eternal misery not because they’re emotionally attached to it, but because they see it as a small, inevitable zone of darkness peripheral to a larger spiritual landscape that—viewed in its totality—they find ravishingly lovely. And this is true of many.”
Yet the author continued that this viewpoint is not shared by all: “For a good number of Christians, hell isn’t just a tragic shadow cast across one of an otherwise ravishing vista’s remoter corners; rather, it’s one of the landscape’s most conspicuous and delectable details.”
What makes eternal torment a desirable doctrine?
The article attempted to answer that question: “How can we be winners, after all, if there are no losers? Where’s the joy in getting into the gated community and the private academy if it turns out that the gates are merely decorative and the academy has an inexhaustible scholarship program for the underprivileged? What success can there be that isn’t validated by another’s failure? What heaven can there be for us without an eternity in which to relish the impotent envy of those outside its walls?”
Understand. This is an opinion piece by someone who believes in universal salvation—that everyone will ultimately be saved. A little later, we will look into what the Bible says about that as well. But the point made in this article is clear: Some want an eternal hell to exist because it humanly feels good. Yet doctrines should come from the Bible—not human reasoning.
The popular imagery of hell—a place of flame and torture deep within the earth—also does not come from the Bible. In fact, most of these conventional ideas come from pagan poetry, namely Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. This work was completed in 1320.
A BBC article illustrated the poem’s outsized importance on popular culture: “The Divine Comedy reigns supreme—this is the work that…advanced the idea of the author as a singular creative voice with a vision powerful enough to stand alongside Holy Scripture, a notion that paved the way for the Renaissance, for the Reformation after that and finally for the secular humanism that dominates intellectual discourse today. You may have never read a single line of The Divine Comedy, and yet you’ve been influenced by it.”
The article added that Dante “had the presumption to fill in what the Bible leaves out…Dante’s idea of Hell draws from Aristotle’s view that reason is the most important thing in life—which would be the later idea in Protestantism that an individual’s reason is their path to salvation.”
Dante wanted to “fill in the blanks” of the Bible. He leaned on Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived in the 300s BC. Neither of these show God’s mind on the subject—and the Bible is most clear.
What Does God Want?
Let’s start with perhaps the Bible’s most familiar and often-quoted verse. 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.”
In The Truth About Hell, David C. Pack explained one phrase that is often overlooked in this verse. He wrote, “Those who receive salvation are promised that they ‘should not perish’ but ‘have eternal life!’”
Have you noticed that? God shows the alternative to having eternal life is perishing.
Mr. Pack continues: “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.’”
Scores of scriptures in both the New and Old Testaments say the same thing—that the only alternative to eternal life is death. Here is just a brief sampling of mankind’s twofold options:
• II Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
• II Thessalonians 2:10 – “And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.”
• John 10:28 – “And I [Christ] give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand.”
• Ezekiel 18:4, 23, 32 – “Behold, all souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine: the soul that sins, it shall die…Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? Says the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?…For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies, says the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live.”
Just from these few verses you can see that God does not want people to perish—which originally meant “destroy fully” in the Greek language from which the New Testament was translated. Clearly this means unconsciousness. It is death that is shown as the only alternative to being saved.
This naturally begs the question…
Is the Soul Immortal?
The idea that hell is a place of eternal torture goes part and parcel with the concept that every living person has an immortal soul. Because there is a spiritual part of you that cannot die, it must live on forever in some place—heaven or hell—after the physical body dies.
Yet read Ezekiel 18:4 again: “The soul that sins, it shall die.”
How can a soul die if it is immortal?
We also saw in John 3:16 that the alternative to having eternal life is perishing—being utterly destroyed—instead of automatically living either in heaven, hell or some other afterlife setting.
How can dying and living happen at the same time?
The Bible answer keeps it simple. It does not say human beings have immortal souls. Rather, it states we are souls. In Genesis 2:7, when “God formed man of the dust of the ground,” it says He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
It is that simple! Your soul, which is really just an English word that was put there in place of the concept of breath, life, creature—is you. When breath stops, so does your consciousness.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 furthers this by declaring “ the dead know not anything”— meaning they are unconscious. They are not experiencing either supreme bliss or ageless agony.
Reading the Bible’s simplest verses on a topic makes it absolutely clear: When you die, you remain unconscious.
But what about all the verses that talk about hell? Isn’t there punishment for sinners?
Though God’s Word clearly shows there is punishment for evildoers, it may be different from what you have always believed.
Various Types of “Hell”
Just like the word soul, the word hell is an English word that was used to translate various Hebrew and Greek words. They have different meanings.
Read again from The Truth About Hell: “The Bible uses three Greek words in the New Testament, and one Hebrew word in the Old Testament, explaining the meaning of hell. Let’s examine these words.
“The Hebrew word translated hell in the Old Testament is sheol. It has a New Testament counterpart, hades. Actually, if you look up sheol in a concordance, it will reference the Greek word hades. They both mean ‘the grave, pit, world of the dead or hell…’”
This is the case in most references to hell throughout the Bible. Psalm 9:17 states, “The wicked shall be turned into hell,” and Psalm 16:10 reads, “For You will not leave my soul [body] in hell.” In both cases, “hell” is clearly referring to the earthly grave.
Mr. Pack continues, “It was only with the passing of time that the pagan view of hell, as a blazing underground inferno, came to replace this original intent of the word.
“The second Greek word translated as ‘hell’ is found only once in the New Testament. Notice II Peter 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 word used here is tartaros and refers to angels, not people. It means ‘a prison, incarceration, place of restraint or a dark abyss.’”
The only other term for hell in the Bible is the Greek word “_ehenna.” This most closely resembles the mainstream concept of hell. The booklet adds: “From Hasting’s Dictionary comes the following definition of this word: ‘Gehenna: the word occurs twelve times in the New Testament. This term ‘gehenna’ represents ‘the Valley of Hinnom’ (Neh. 11:30, II Kings 23:10, etc.). The place was…a deep narrow gorge in the vicinity of Jerusalem, understood to be on the south side. It is repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament (Jer. 19:6, etc.). It became an object of horror to the Jews, and is said to have been made the receptacle for bones, the bodies of beasts and criminals, refuse and all unclean things. The terrible associations of the place…the fires said to have been kept burning in it in order to consume the foul and corrupt objects that were thrown into it, made it [an]…unmistakable symbol of dire evil…absolute ruin. So it came to designate the place of future punishment.’”
This is the place that Christ used in Mark 9 to say that the unrepentant could be cast into “hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched” (vs. 43-44).
Mr. Pack’s booklet clarifies: “He was referring to the bodies of certain criminals that were thrown over the edge of the ravine but did not burn up because they got stuck on a ledge. They literally rotted and decomposed where they were. The maggots that entered their bodies completed the decomposition process without interruption from either the fire or anything else. These worms ‘died not,’ so to speak, because they later developed into flies. This graphic picture is part of the reason that Gehenna was such a place of revulsion to all who were familiar with it!”
When properly examined, verses referring to what seem to be an ever-burning hell actually describe a permanent death by fire. Unlike the idea of universal salvation, which purports God will save every human who has ever been born, God’s Word clearly shows human beings can face either outcome.
The True Ultimate Punishment
Let’s look more at what we should fear in place of the idea of a never-ending torment. Note these three statements in the Bible.
The first: “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).
Again, when people die, they “sleep in the dust of the earth.” They are dead, they “know not anything.”
The confusion can come with being resurrected to either to everlasting life or contempt. This can appear to read “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting hellfire.”
Yet the next verse clarifies what awaking to contempt looks like: “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” (Matt. 10:28).
The term translated “hell” here is gehenna. Recall that is where refuse is destroyed. The verse even states God can destroy your body and life—your entire possibility for existing again—in this fire.
Christ was educating His listeners about who to fear. Men can destroy one’s physical life. But this is only the first death (see Hebrews 9:27). God has the power to raise back to life, and He has the power to take that life away permanently—something no human being can do.
This is what all references to the “lake of fire” picture. Revelation 20:15 shows: “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”
The very verse before this refers to the lake of fire as the “second death” (vs. 14). Death is a cessation of life.
God can make it as if someone never existed. That is what we should fear, rather than burning indefinitely in hell and never being able to be put out of that misery. No loving God would take pleasure in seeing someone suffer for all eternity.
If God has not authored an ever-burning hell, then who did? The popular version of hell more closely resembles the fate that awaits Satan the devil rather than the fate of human unrepentant sinners:
In Leviticus 16:22, he is represented as the “Azazel goat” that was to be released alive “unto a land not inhabited.”
Revelation 20:3 says to cast Satan “into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.”
Matthew 25:41 speaks of “everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Understand. The one who has afflicted mankind for thousands of years will be finally placed where he will no longer be able to torment people. Knowing his end, the devil flips the narrative to make people to believe that is their future!
Satan is the author of the belief that eternal fire is the fate for human beings. Only the “father of lies” (John 8:44) could have inspired the idea that people would spend time forever in a fictitious place with elements of the punishment he will receive. Satan is an insane immortal being. He literally wants people to “go to hell” and stay there, because he fears our future potential as God’s offspring. (To learn more, read The Awesome Potential of Man.)
Satan’s incredible deception is the fundamental reason people want to believe in hell, even though no one really would ever choose to go there.
Take this all in. Human reasoning should not color your picture of eternal punishment. Also, using Dante’s writings as a basis to understand hell is comparable to using space alien movies to understand the vast universe! Neither will provide an accurate picture.
When Christ spoke of hell, no one at the time could have conceived of anything written by Dante, who was not born until well more than 1,000 years later! Yet we have been so deeply steeped in these ideas that it can be difficult to come to grips with the fact that there is no ever-burning hell. When we die, we stay in the ground.
Review the literature referenced in this article. It will bring further clarity to other supposed “hell passages” such as the story of Lazarus and the rich man, and many more. As you continue to arm yourself with these truths from God’s Word, you will begin to build a correct picture of what comes after life, including His judgment.
Now, as you think about all the Bible truths on hell and eternal judgment we have covered throughout this article, it is time for you to make a choice.
Are you comfortable with the idea of a God—who says He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked—sitting in heaven to the tune of millions, perhaps billions of torturous screams? The stench of burning flesh filling the halls? Of residents in heaven looking down every so often to see the silhouette of their unrepentant family members—children, parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses—writhing within the bright towering flames?
Do you really want to cling to the doctrine of an everlasting hell? Or will you accept the plan clearly laid out in the Bible by a fair, just, loving God?