The popular conception of hell is of a place of punishment
for wicked ‘immortal souls’ straight after death, or the place of torment
for those who are rejected at the judgment. It is our conviction that
the Bible teaches that hell is the grave, where all men go at death.
As a word, the original Hebrew word ‘sheol’, translated
‘hell’, means ‘a covered place’. ‘Hell’ is the anglicised version of ‘sheol’;
thus when we read of ‘hell’ we are not reading a word which has been fully
translated. A ‘helmet’ is literally a ‘hell-met’, meaning a covering for
the head. Biblically, this ‘covered place’, or ‘hell’, is the grave (1).
There are many examples where the original word ‘sheol’ is translated
‘grave’. Indeed, some modern Bible versions scarcely use the word ‘hell’,
translating it more properly as ‘grave’. A few examples of where this
word ‘sheol’ is translated ‘grave’ should torpedo the popular conception
of hell as a place of fire and torment for the wicked.
“Let the wicked...be silent in the grave”
(sheol [Ps. 31:17]) - they will not be screaming in agony.
“God will redeem my soul from the power
of the grave” (sheol [Ps. 49:15]) - i.e. David’s soul or body would
be raised from the grave, or ‘hell’.
The belief that hell is a place of punishment for the
wicked from which they cannot escape just cannot be squared with this;
a righteous man can go to hell (the grave) and come out again. Hos. 13:14
confirms this: “I will ransom them (God’s people) from the power of the
grave (sheol); I will redeem them from death”. This is quoted in 1 Cor.
15:55 and applied to the resurrection at Christ’s return. Likewise in
the vision of the second resurrection (see Study 5.5), “Death and Hades
(Greek for ‘hell’) delivered up the dead who were in them” (Rev. 20:13).
Note the parallel between death, i.e. the grave, and Hades (see also Ps.
Hannah's words in 1 Sam. 2:6 are very clear: “The Lord
kills and makes alive (through resurrection); he brings down to the grave
(sheol), and brings up”.
Seeing that ‘hell’ is the grave, it is to be expected
that the righteous will be saved from it through their resurrection to
eternal life. Thus it is quite possible to enter ‘hell’, or the grave,
and later to leave it through resurrection. The supreme example is that
of Jesus, whose “soul was not left in Hades (hell), nor did his flesh
see corruption” (Acts 2:31) because he was raised. Note the parallel between
Christ’s ‘soul’ and his ‘flesh’ or body. That his body “was not left
in Hades” implies that it was there for a period, i.e. the three days
in which his body was in the grave. That Christ went to ‘hell’ should
be proof enough that it is not just a place where the wicked go.
Both good and bad people go to ‘hell’, i.e. the grave.
Thus Jesus “made his grave with the wicked” (Is. 53:9). In line with this,
there are other examples of righteous men going to hell, i.e. the grave.
Jacob said that he would “go down into the grave (hell)...mourning” for
his son Joseph (Gen. 37:35).
It is one of God’s principles that the punishment for
sin is death (Rom. 6:23; 8:13; James 1:15). We have previously shown death
to be a state of complete unconsciousness. Sin results in total destruction,
not eternal torment (Mt. 21:41; 22:7; Mk. 12:9; James 4:12), as surely
as people were destroyed by the Flood (Lk. 17:27,29), and as the Israelites
died in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:10). On both these occasions the sinners
died rather than being eternally tormented. It is therefore impossible
that the wicked are punished with an eternity of conscious torment and
We have also seen that God does not impute sin - or
count it to our record - if we are ignorant of His word (Rom. 5:13). Those
in this position will remain dead. Those who have known God’s requirements
will be raised and judged at Christ’s return. If wicked, the punishment
they receive will be death, because this is the judgment for sin. Therefore
after coming before the judgment seat of Christ, they will be punished
and then die again, to stay dead for ever. This will be “the second
death”, spoken of in Rev. 2:11; 20:6. These people will have died once,
a death of total unconsciousness. They will be raised and judged at Christ’s
return, and then punished with a second death, which, like their first
death, will be total unconsciousness. This will last forever.
It is in this sense that the punishment for sin is ‘everlasting’,
in that there will be no end to their death. To remain dead for ever is
an everlasting punishment. An example of the Bible using this kind of
expression is found in Dt. 11:4. This describes God’s one-off destruction
of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea as an eternal, on-going destruction in
that this actual army never again troubled Israel: “He made the waters
of the Red sea overflow them... the Lord has destroyed them to this day”.
One of the parables about Christ’s return and the judgment
speaks of the wicked being ‘slain’ in his presence (Lk. 19:27). This hardly
fits into the idea that the wicked exist forever in a conscious state,
constantly receiving torture. In any case, this would be a somewhat unreasonable
punishment - eternal torture for deeds of 70 years. God has no
pleasure in punishing wicked people; it is therefore to be expected that
He will not inflict punishment on them for eternity (Ez. 18:23,32; 33:11
cf. 2 Pet. 3:9).
A misbelieving Christendom often associates ‘hell’ with
the idea of fire and torment. This is in sharp contrast to Bible teaching
about hell (the grave). “Like sheep they are laid in the grave (hell);
death shall feed on them” (Ps. 49:14) implies that the grave is a
place of peaceful oblivion. Despite Christ’s soul, or body, being in hell
for three days, it did not suffer corruption (Acts 2:31). This would have
been impossible if hell were a place of fire. Ez. 32:26-30 gives a picture
of the mighty warriors of the nations around, lying in their graves: “the
mighty who are fallen (in battle)...who have gone down to hell with their
weapons of war; they have laid their swords under their heads...they shall
lie...with those who go down to the Pit”. This refers to the custom of
burying warriors with their weapons, and resting the head of the corpse
upon its sword. Yet this is a description of “hell” - the grave. These
mighty men lying still in hell (i.e. their graves), hardly supports the
idea that hell is a place of fire. Physical things (e.g. swords) go to
the same “hell” as people, showing that hell is not an arena of spiritual
torment. Thus Peter told a wicked man, “Your money perish with you” (Acts
The record of Jonah’s experiences also contradicts this.
Having been swallowed alive by a huge fish, “Jonah prayed unto the Lord
his God from the fish’s belly. And he said: ‘I cried...to the Lord...out
of the belly of Sheol (hell) I cried” (Jonah 2:1,2). This parallels “the
belly of Sheol” with that of the fish. The fish’s belly was truly a ‘covered
place’, which is the fundamental meaning of the word ‘sheol’. Obviously,
it was not a place of fire, and Jonah came out of “the belly of Sheol”
when the fish vomited him out. This pointed forward to the resurrection
of Christ from ‘hell’ (the grave) - see Mt. 12:40.
have emphasized throughout this book that the Bible seeks to
deconstruct the wrong pagan myths about Satan figures, and presents
Yahweh, Israel's God, as the one true God. One of the most pervasive
Canaanite myths was the idea that Baal and Mot, the gods of the skies
and underworld respectively, were locked in mortal combat. This idea of
cosmic conflict recurred in Babylonian ideas of a struggle between
light and darkness, and is found today in the common idea that God and
Satan are locked in Heavenly and earthly combat. The Bible often refers
to Mot, or Mawet, although in most translations the Hebrew is rendered
as 'death' or 'the underworld'. However, very often Mawet is paralleled
with sheol, the grave. Take Hab. 2:5- the insatiable hunger
of Mawet / Mot is paralleled with the insatiability of the grave. The
Ras Shamra texts speak of the insatiable appetite of Mot for dead
people- he eats them ceaselessly with both hands (2). There are
frequent parallels drawn between Mot / Mawet, and the grave: 2 Sam.
22:5,6; Is. 28:18; Hos. 13:14; Job 28:22; 30:23; Ps. 6:5; 18:5; 89:48;
116:3; Prov. 2:18; 5:5; 7:27. The point is that Mot / Mawet doesn't
exist, it is simply to be understood as the grave. For very often,
language used about Mot in the pagan literature is applied to God in
order to show Mot's effective non-existence (see, e.g. section 5-4-3).
In our context, the significance of this point is that at times, the
Bible refers to pagan ideas about 'Satan' like figures in order to
deconstruct them, and show their effective non-existence in the light
of the supremacy of the one true God.
the Bible does frequently use the image of eternal fire in order to represent
God’s anger with sin, which will result in the total destruction of the
sinner in the grave. Sodom was punished with “eternal fire” (Jude v. 7),
i.e. it was totally destroyed due to the wickedness of the inhabitants.
Today that city is in ruins, submerged beneath the waters of the Dead
Sea; in no way is it now on fire, which is necessary if we are to understand
‘eternal fire’ literally. Likewise Jerusalem was threatened with the eternal
fire of God’s anger, due to the sins of Israel: “Then I will kindle a
fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it
shall not be quenched” (Jer. 17:27). Jerusalem being the prophesied capital
of the future Kingdom (Is. 2:2-4; Ps. 48:2), God did not mean us to read
this literally. The houses of the great men in Jerusalem were burnt down
with fire (2 Kings 25:9), but that fire did not continue eternally. Fire
represents the anger/punishment of God against sin, but His anger is not
eternal (Jer. 3:12). Fire turns what it burns to dust; and we know
that the ultimate wages of sin is death, a turning back to dust. This
perhaps is why fire is used as a figure for punishment for sin.
Similarly, God punished the land of Idumea with fire
that would “not be quenched night nor day; its smoke shall ascend for
ever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste...the owl and the
raven shall dwell in it...thorns shall come up in its palaces” (Is. 34:9-15).
Seeing that animals and plants were to exist in the ruined land of Idumea,
the language of eternal fire must refer to God’s anger and His total destruction
of the place, rather than being taken literally.
The Hebrew and Greek phrases which are translated “for
ever” mean strictly, “for the age”. Sometimes this refers to literal infinity,
for example the age of the kingdom, but not always. Is. 32:14,15 is an
example: “The forts and towers will become lairs for ever...until the
spirit is poured upon us”. This is one way of understanding the ‘eternity’
of ‘eternal fire’.
Time and again God’s anger with the sins of Jerusalem
and Israel is likened to fire: “My anger and My fury will be poured out
on this place - (Jerusalem)...it will burn, and not be quenched” (Jer.
7:20; other examples include Lam. 4:11 and 2 Kings 22:17).
Fire is also associated with God’s judgment of sin,
especially at the return of Christ: “For behold, the day is coming, burning
like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble.
And the day which is coming shall burn them up” (Mal. 4:1). When stubble,
or even a human body, is burnt by fire, it returns to dust. It is impossible
for any substance, especially human flesh, to literally burn forever.
The language of ‘eternal fire’ therefore cannot refer to literal eternal
torment. A fire cannot last forever if there is nothing to burn. It should
be noted that “Hades” is “cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). This
indicates that Hades is not the same as “the lake of fire”; this represents
complete destruction. In the symbolic manner of the book of Revelation,
we are being told that the grave is to be totally destroyed, because at
the end of the Millennium there will be no more death.
In the New Testament there are two Greek words translated
‘hell’. ‘Hades’ is the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘sheol’ which we have
discussed earlier. ‘Gehenna’ is the name of the rubbish tip which was
just outside Jerusalem, where the refuse from the city was burnt. Such
rubbish tips are typical of many developing cities today (e.g. ‘Smoky
Mountain’ outside Manila in the Philippines.) As a proper noun - i.e.
the name of an actual place - it should have been left untranslated as
‘Gehenna’ rather than be translated as ‘hell’. ‘Gehenna’ is the Aramaic
equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Ge-ben-Hinnon’. This was located near Jerusalem
(Josh. 15:8), and at the time of Christ it was the city rubbish dump.
Dead bodies of criminals were thrown onto the fires which were always
burning there, so that Gehenna became symbolic of total destruction and
Again the point has to be driven home that what was
thrown onto those fires did not remain there forever - the bodies decomposed
into dust. “Our God (will be) a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) at
the day of judgment; the fire of His anger with sin will consume sinners
to destruction rather than leave them in a state of only being singed
by it and still surviving. At the time of God’s previous judgments of
His people Israel at the hand of the Babylonians, Gehenna was filled with
dead bodies of the sinners among God’s people (Jer. 7:32,33).
In his masterly way, the Lord Jesus brought together
all these Old Testament ideas in his use of the word ‘Gehenna’. He often
said that those who were rejected at the judgment seat at His return would
go “to hell (i.e. Gehenna), into the fire that shall never be quenched
... where their worm does not die” (Mk. 9:43,44). Gehenna would have conjured
up in the Jewish mind the ideas of rejection and destruction of the body,
and we have seen that eternal fire is an idiom representing the anger
of God against sin, and the eternal destruction of sinners through death.
The reference to “where their worm does not die”, is
evidently part of this same idiom for total destruction - it is inconceivable
that there could be literal worms which will never die. The fact that
Gehenna was the location of previous punishments of the wicked amongst
God’s people, further shows the aptness of Christ’s use of this figure
of Gehenna. Again, as with so many other doctrinal areas, pagan ideas
influenced Christian perceptions. The Egyptians believed that the underworld
was a place of fire- and this was imported into Jewish belief, and led
to Christians being prone to misinterpret Christ's figurative use of the
fires of Gehenna as a symbol of utter destruction. Note too how the Egyptian
Copts believed that the gods of the underworld used tridents to torment
the dead, and this too passed into Christianity in the form of depictions
of Satan in "hell" armed with a trident. But the trident is
never spoken of in the Bible, nor is there any hint of the wicked being
tormented straight after death- rather their punishment is repeatedly
spoken of as being reserved until the final day of judgment.
Joachim Jeremias explains how the literal valley of
Gehenna came to be misinterpreted as a symbol of a ‘hell’ that is supposed
to be a place of fire: “[Gehenna]…since ancient times has been
the name of the valley west and south of Jerusalem…from the woes pronounced
by the prophets on the valley (Jer. 7:32 = 19:6; cf. Is. 31:9; 66:24)
because sacrifices to Moloch took place there (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6), there
developed in the second century BC the idea that the valley of Hinnom
would be the place of a fiery hell (Eth. Enoch 26; 90.26)… it is distinguished
from sheol” (3).
Jews believed that 'hell' had three sections: Gehenna, a place of
eternal fire for those Jews who broke the covenant and blasphemed God;
'the shades', an intermediate place similar to the Catholic idea of
purgatory; and a place of rest where the faithful Jew awaited the
resurrection at the last day (4). This distinction has no basis in the
Bible. However, it's significant that the Lord Jesus uses 'Gehenna' and
the figure of eternal fire to describe the punishment of people for
what the Jews of His day would've considered incidental sins, matters
which were far from blasphemy and breaking the covenant- glancing at a
woman with a lustful eye (Mk. 9:47), hypocrisy (Lk. 12:1,5; Mt.
23:27-33), not giving a cup of water to a "little one", forbidding a
disciple of John the Baptist to follow Jesus (Mk. 9:39-43); not
preaching the Gospel fearlessly and boldly (Mt. 10:25-28). These
matters were and are shrugged off as of no eternal consequence. But
just like the prophets of Israel did, the Lord Jesus seizes upon such
issues and purposefully associates them with the most dire possible
punishment which His Jewish hearers could conceive- Gehenna. Time and
again, the Bible alludes to incorrect ideas and reasons with people
from the temporary assumption those ideas might be true. The language
of demons, as we will show later, is a classic example. And it's quite
possible the Lord is doing the same here with the concept of Gehenna-
the punishment for the Jew who breaks the covenant and blasphemes. The
Lord was primarily teaching about behaviour, not giving a lecture about
the state of the dead. And so He takes the maximum category of eternal
punishment known to His audience, and says that this awaits those who
sin in matters which on His agenda are so major, even if in the eyes of
the Jewish world and humanity generally they were insignificant.
also see the Lord doing this, in a very striking way, in Mt. 25:41.
There He speaks of "the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil
and his angels"- clearly alluding to the Gehenna myth. This is a phrase
taken straight from Jewish apocalyptic thinking and literature. It was
the worst category of punishment conceivable in Judaism. And yet Jesus
in the context is talking of the way that religious people who claim to
believe in Him will not go unpunished for ignoring the needs of their
poor brethren. This all too easy to commit sin... the Lord uses
Judaism's toughest language to condemn. But this doesn't mean that He
actually believed in the literal existence of either "eternal fire" nor
a personal Devil. The Devil's angels are those who ignore their needy
brethren. It's a powerful and telling juxtapositioning of ideas by the
A Psychological Note
Robert Funk observed: "Survey after survey has demonstrated that
most people who believe in hell think themselves headed for heaven; people
who believe in hell usually think it is for others" (5). I've done
no surveys, but my experience chimes in with this completely. Those who
believe and preach "hell fire" do so from deep seated psychological
reasons rather than from an honest examination of the Biblical text. A
desire to 'legitimately' damn others, with the apparent weight of the
Bible behind them; to hit back at the world whilst bolstering ones own
righteousness... it's really a classic.
(1) "The Indo-European word *kel means "cover"
or "concealment" and yields English "hole", "helmet"
and German hohl (empty), Hohle (cave), Halle
(hall, dwelling), and Holle (hell)"- J.B. Russell, The
Devil (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977) p. 62. Alva Huffer
in Systematic Theology (Oregon, IL: The Restitution Herald, 1960)
p. 160 suggests: "Scripturally speaking, hell is the grave. Hell
is an English word derived from the Anglo-Saxon word helan, which
means 'to cover' or 'to hide out of sight'". Another view, not necessarily
contradictory to this, is that ""Hell" is a Germanic word,
the name of an underworld goddess ("Hel")"- see T.J. Wray
and Gregory Mobley, The Birth Of Satan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
2005) p. 151. In this case we'd have an example of where using a word
doesn't mean that we necessarily agree with the mythological background
in its origin. I mean by this that I, for example, do not believe the
goddess Hel existed, I understand that hell means simply the grave. But
I still use the word "hell", because it's come into the English
language. Likewise we show several times in chapters 4 and 5 that incorrect
pagan and mythical ideas can be used in Biblical language, without meaning
that the Bible nor its writers actually believed in the source ideas of
(2) Reference in Umberto Cassuto, Biblical And Oriental Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975) Vol. 2 p. 115.
(3) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology
(London: S.C.M., 1972) p. 129.
(4) J.B. Russell, A History Of Heaven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) p. 28.
(5) Robert Funk, Honest To Jesus (New York: Harper Collins,
1996) p. 213.