view as web pdf Does God Torture People in Hell?

"Hell" is an English word which has been greatly misused, and is consequently much misunderstood. At the risk of oversimplifying a rather complicated subject, the main facts about hell can be summarised like this:

1. In the Old Testament, the word "hell" always means "the grave". To be more precise, it is a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, which is a poetical word meaning "the dwelling-place of the dead", or, more simply, "the grave".

Modern translators of the Bible often avoid using the word "hell" in the Old Testament, and instead leave the Hebrew word Sheol untranslated. For example, take Proverbs 23:13,14. The ancient King James Version (1611) translates it in these words:

"Withhold not correction from the child: For if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.Thou shalt beat him with the rod, And thou shalt deliver his soul from hell".

The modern Revised Standard Version (1952) replaces the last line with "you will save his life from Sheol".

Yet there are some passages where the Hebrew word Sheol so obviously means "the grave" that both the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version translate it that way. For instance, "Jealousy is cruel as the grave." (Song of Solomon 8:6).

There is nothing in the Old Testament to suggest that the souls of wicked people are tormented in a fiery hell.

2. In the New Testament there are two quite different Greek words translated "hell". One of these, Hades, is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol, and consequently this also means "the grave".

A good example of the New Testament use of this word is in Acts 2, where Peter quotes Psalm 16 and says it is a prophecy of the resurrection of Christ. The prophet David, the author of this Psalm, wrote: "Thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the Pit". When Peter quoted this in a speech, he declared: "For David says concerning him (Jesus), `For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, Nor let thy Holy One see corruption ...' he (David) foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. Clearly, what David and Peter are both telling us is that Christ rose from the dead: his body did not remain in his tomb, that is, in "Sheol", or "Hades", and so it did not "see corruption".

It is so obvious that the Greek word Hades does not mean "hell" that modern translations usually leave it untranslated. The RSV does this in most places, but in Matthew 16:18 it translates it as "death".

3. The Greek word Gehenna is altogether different. Modern translations do translate this word as "hell", and at first glance it seems as if they have good reasons for doing so. To begin with, the word always refers to a place of punishment. It occurs twelve times in the New Testament, all but one of them in the sayings of Jesus, and in several of these places it is associated with fire. It does rather look as if Gehenna refers to the classic idea of hell, as a place of fiery torture.

However, when we take a closer look at the twelve "Gehenna" verses, a very different picture emerges. In only one of them (Matthew 10:28) is there any mention of souls going to Gehenna. And even there it does not suggest that the soul is tormented in Gehenna; on the contrary, it says that the souls are destroyed there. Moreover, in seven of the twelve passages it refers to the body ­ or parts of it such as feet, eyes and hands ­ going into hell. What are we to make of that ?

Reference to any good dictionary soon solves the riddle. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary says:

"GEHENNA, the valley of Hinnom, near Jerusalem, in which the Israelites sacrificed their children to Moloch, and to which, at a later time, the refuse of the city was conveyed to be slowly burned: hence hell ...".

So when Jesus spoke of Gehenna, he was talking about a place that everybody who had ever been to Jerusalem would know. He was making a sort of parable out of it. In effect, he was saying something like this:

"You know that horrible place, Gehenna, where the people of Jerusalem get rid of their rubbish by burning it ? Well, let that be a lesson to you. On the day of Judgement, God will rid the world of what He regards as `human rubbish' ­ people not fit to be given everlasting life. Instead, they will be sentenced to an everlasting death. Body, soul, feet, hands, eyes ­ everything belonging to an evil person will be destroyed on that Day, as surely as the fires of Gehenna destroy Jerusalem's rubbish nowadays."

4. To recapitulate, in all the Old Testament references to hell, and some of the New Testament references, the word simply means "the grave". In the other twelve New Testament references to Hell, the word means "The place where the wicked will be wiped out of existence on the day of Judgement."

These facts fit in with the Bible teaching that "God is love". (1John 4:16). It is hard to see how a loving God could possibly torture wicked people for ever and ever ! But it is altogether reasonable that, on the day of Judgement, our Maker should "unmake" (destroy) those rebellious people who refuse to accept His way of salvation.

Bro. Alan Hayward (UK)

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