May 13, 2016
Perhaps there is no more divisive doctrine than that of hell. It seems when the topic is brought up in both secular and Christian circles emotion runs high. Sometimes tempers flare and it seems the debate is left unresolved and the participants frustrated and uncomfortable. There are stories of eternal torments by fire and demons. Authors, such as Dante and others, along with Hollywood, have soaked the imagination of people in the West with gruesome images of tormented human souls and grotesque demons running around in immense flames of red and orange fire while Satan looks own in depraved amusement.
Yet, despite these absurd contexts, Hell is indeed a biblical doctrine. It can be described as one of mystery and controversy. Traditionally, Hell has been seen as a place of eternal fiery torment which reserved for those who die without accepting Christ as their savior. However, throughout the history of the church, there have always been those who found this teaching impossible to reconcile with the love and grace of God. In order to solve this dilemma some have proposed the Annihilationist View. Holders of this view, suggest that Hell is not the enduring of eternal punishment but the end of the existence of the wicked. The question is what is the Biblical view? Is there any reason to believe one view over the other? I suggest the answer is yes. The traditional view is simply unbiblical and as such must be rejected.
Usage in the Old Testament
The Hebrew word translated by the English word “hell” is “sheol.” Sheol occurs a total of sixty-nine times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is translated “hell” thirty-two times, “grave” twenty-nine times, and “pit” three times. However its primary meaning is the “underworld; a place where people descend at death.” Yet a look at a few of the scriptures shall suffice to show that sheol is never used in reference to a place of eternal punishment. It is used either to denote the resting place of the dead or two: describes a degraded condition of something.
Isaiah wrote, “Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations.” (Is. 14:9, KJV) Here, Isaiah is describing the greatness of the fall of Babel. Certainly, no one would think those who are eternally punished stirred at the fall of Babel. No, the context of the passage makes more sense when the reader uses grave instead of Hell.
David lamented, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.” (Ps. 139:7-8) Again, the idea of a place of eternal punishment defies logical context. David is asking where he can go to hide from God. Could David make his bed in an a place of eternal punishment? No, but he could make his bed in the grave.
Again David writes, “The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me. In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears.” (Ps. 18:5-6) Here David is recalling an instance of God’s saving intervention. It is an occurrence in his past. In order for a place of eternal punishment to be in view, one must accept that he entered hell this side of the grave. Commenting on this verse, Clarke writes, “The sorrows of hell – חבלי שאול chebley sheol, the cables or cords of the grave. Is not this a reference to the cords or ropes with which they lowered the corpse into the grave? or the bandages by which the dead were swathed? He was as good as dead.”
Solomon advised, “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 shalt deliver his soul from hell.” (Proverbs 23:13-14). No one would dare think that Solomon meant that if you beat your child you will prevent him or her from experiencing death and eternal punishment. No, Solomon employed a literary device known as a couplet. He repeats the same content in a different manner, using different words. In this case “hell” should be seen in the context of the previous verse’s use of the word “die.” Therefore, once more, the reader should substitute “grave” for “hell.”
For the sake of brevity, I have only offered a few examples where “grave” would be better suited as the translation of sheol. However, this is true in every occurrence where the Hebrew is translated “hell.” It seems a reality that the Old Testament concept was not one of eternal punishment but one of death or the grave. Yet, this does not automatically reject the possibility of Hell being a place of everlasting torment. Most scholars accept a progressive revelation within scriptures, therefore, we must turn our attention to New Testament passages.
Usage in the New Testament
Two Greek words in the New Testament are translated “Hell:” gehenna, and hades. Hades is used ten times in the New Testament. Jesus uses the word four times. The other six passages are found in the book of Acts (2) and Revelations (6). Hades while worthy of mentioning does not play heavily into our present discussion as it corresponds with Hebrew sheol. The word is “consistently the interim abode of both good and bad souls after death and prior to judgment.”
The second, more relevant word, gehenna, originally referred to the valley of Hinnom, near the town of Topheth. Here, pagan kings and priests would offer child sacrifices to the god, Molech. It is likely the metaphoric association to hell fire, which is evident by the first century B.C., arose from such practices. The twelve times the word appears in the New Testament seem to have the same metaphoric connotation.
Furthermore, of those twelve instances, eleven are found in the words of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels only. John makes no mention of gehenna. This is significant since John claims the purpose of his writing is that people will believe and obtain life through Jesus. (Jn. 20:31). Does it seem reasonable that John would not include a warning of eternal punishment? After all, he was a disciple of Jesus. He certainly would have noticed any emphasis upon eternal punishment that Jesus would have used. It is most probable that John, as many preachers and biblical teachers, do today, would have used such warning in aiding in his goal to get people to believe. His silence speaks volumes.
In addition, although the word is by Jesus eleven times in the synoptic Gospels, He only actually used it on four separate occasions. Most of the references are repeat references to the same event. It seems highly unlikely that in three and half years of ministry Jesus would only speak of such an outcome four times. If the warning of gehenna was so important why, then, did He not speak of it more often? Both John’s silence and Jesus’ limited use seem to contradict Slick’s assertion, “Jesus spoke more of Hell than Heaven and spent so much time warning people not to go there.”
et, limited use by Jesus is not necessarily evidenced that Hell is not an eternal torment. The times when He did use the term, what did He mean? Let’s examine the passages a little closer. Beginning in Matthew 5:22, we read, “But I say unto you, “That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” It would at appear with a cursory read that Jesus implying that harsh words endanger a person to eternal punishment. However, such a view does not take into account the cultural context. Commenting on this verse Henry notes,
“The Jews had three capital punishments, each worse than the other; beheading, which was inflicted by the judgment; stoning, by the council or chief Sanhedrim; and burning in the valley of the son of Hinnom, which was used only in extraordinary cases: it signifies, therefore, that rash anger and reproachful language are damning sins; but some are more sinful than others, and accordingly there is a greater damnation, and a sorer punishment reserved for them: Christ would thus show which sin was most sinful, by showing which it was the punishment whereof was most dreadful.”
In other words, Christ was not speaking of some future eternal punishment. He was referring to an actual capital punishment of his day. He was attempting to show the seriousness of such harsh thoughts and words to a fellow human being. That this was his purpose is evidenced by the reference to the council concerning the word Raca. Any view of eternal punishment by fire distorts the scripture’s context and is forced upon the text.
Later, during the same address, Jesus would say, “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” (v.30) This verse is paralleled by Mark 9:43 which adds “into the unquenchable fire.”
Two objections are made to the validity of the view that these passages reference and eternal punishment of fiery torture. First, Jesus is referring to the physical body. He is not addressing the soul. He is suggesting a literal act of dismemberment so as to preserve the literal body. Again, it must be remembered that one of the capital punishments performed was the burning of the criminal in the valley of Hinnom. In this sense, Jesus is speaking of the lesser of two evils. It would be better to literally cut off a body part, then to be burnt to death.
The other objections concern Mark’s addition of unquenchable fire. It is dubious at best to imagine this refers to an eternal fire. The reader may recall the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the 450 prophets of Baal. They will remember how Elijah soaked his offering and wood with water, which was surrounded by a trench of water. They will recall how the fire of God consumed all of the offering, wood, and water, stones and dust. (1Kgs. 18:38). One may argue that the fire which God sent to defeat the prophets of Baal was certainly unquenchable. No one would say that the fire was eternal. In light of this, Mark’s passage seems better understood as a certainty of judgment. In other words, Jesus was telling his listeners that if they don’t do whatever it takes to remove sin from their lives, the severe judgment would result. This, however, does not necessarily imply the traditional view of Hell.
Another passage in which Jesus refers to Gehenna is found in Matthew 10. Jesus said, “And 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.” (v.28). This verse is also paralleled in Luke 12:5 which reads, “But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” Here, we have a subtle difference in the account. We have a literal and figurative allusion being used, both to develop the idea of total annihilation. In the Matthew, account we have a figurative use of phraseology “body and soul.” While in the Luke account a literal allusion being used with “casting into hell.” Here, death has already occurred, and the lifeless body is thrown into Gehenna to be removed from existence. As Thayer notes,
“But the Savior is not to be understood as teaching that God will annihilate soul and body, because He said He was able to do it, any more than He is to be understood as teaching that out of stones God would raise up children to Abraham, because He said He was able to. Matt. iiI 9. And, moreover, He tells them in the very next words not to fear, because God watched over them, numbering the hairs of their head even, in His special keeping of them, and would surely protect them so long as they were faithful to Him and His truth.
The method of argument seems to be the same as that pursued with the Pharisees, when they complained of His keeping company with publicans and sinners. Matt. ix. “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” If you are righteous, as you pretend, that is good reason why I should not keep company with you, for I came to save sinners. But He did not allow that they were righteous. He only admitted their premises for the time, in order to show the absurdity of their reasoning.”
These passages are sufficient to show that Christ did not intend His use of Gehenna to mean an eternal punishment of tormenting fire. Yet, let’s play devil’s advocate, for just a minute. Let’s assume Jesus did mean the traditional view. Since Gehenna was an actual place, and nowhere in the Old Testament is it used to describe eternal punishment we would expect Jesus to announce this new teaching as he did several times within the Sermon on the Mount discourse. (Matt 5) Yet, nowhere is such a change ever expressly given or spoken of by Christ.
The only other passage in the New Testament where word Gehenna is found in James. Here, James writes, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell (gehenna). (3:6). As noted previously, Jesus never changed the understanding of the Jewish understanding of gehenna. James, who was writing to the Jews, does not author any change either. Instead, James intends his readers to understand it as a metaphor. According to Calvin,
“When he says that it is set on fire by hell, it is the same as though he had said, that the outrageousness of the tongue is the flame of the infernal fire. For as heathen poets imagined that the wicked are tormented by the torches of the Furies; so it is true, that Satan by the fans of temptations kindles the fire of all evils in the world: but James means, that fire, sent by Satan, is most easily caught by the tongue…”
Another objection is the silence of the Scriptures concerning the use of gehenna. As noted earlier, the Gospel of John never uses the word; nor is it to be found in any of his other epistles including Revelations. Paul never uses the term in any of his thirteen letters, neither does Peter or Jude. Luke records the history of the early church’s first 30 years and never once refers to the teaching. It seems odd then that a teaching of this magnitude would be hardly addressed at all in Scripture. Does this imply God’s lack of emphasis? Or did He fail to teach early believer such an important doctrine?
Finally, the traditionalist concept of Hades and life after death did not come into view until the intertestamental period between the Old and the New Testaments. As Dr. Bacciocchi notes:
“The Greek word “hades” came into biblical use when the translators of the Septuagint [the Greek Old Testament— SGD] chose it to render the Hebrew “sheol.” The problem is that hades was used in the Greek world in a vastly different way than sheol. Hades in Greek mythology is the underworld, where the conscious souls of the dead are divided in two major regions, one a place of torment and the other of blessedness. This Greek conception of hades influenced Hellenistic Jews, during the intertestamental period, to adopt the belief in the immortality of the soul and the idea of a spatial separation in the underworld between the righteous and the godless.”
And according to Kittel:
Under the influence of Persian and Hellenistic ideas concerning retribution after death the belief arose that the righteous and the godless would have very different fates, and we thus have the development of the idea of spatial separation in the underworld, the first instance being found in Enoch.
We can conclude then that the traditionalist view of the nature of hell is not in fact scriptural, but rather a developed concept occurring during “God’s silent period of revelation.”
Lazarus and the Rich Man
Luke 16:19-31 records what may be the most prominent passage used to support the idea of eternal punishment. Traditional teaching claims this to be in hell although the Greek word gehenna is never used in the passage. Nevertheless, the story is has remained provocative and no small matter of debate.
One only has to read the story espoused by Jesus to understand why it appeals to the Traditionalist. However, I suggest it must be rejected as evidence for an eternal torture in Hell on the following grounds:
- The context of the passage does not support the popular concept of hell.
- The story is not a historical event but a story drawn from other sources.
The examination of the Jesus’ teaching on Lazarus and the Rich Man must be done within the context of the entire chapter. As we shall see this context leads us to entirely different principle than a teaching on the nature of hell. The chapter itself is a teaching on greed as I shall show:
- Verses 1-8: Jesus tells a story of a dishonest manager who schemes to lower the debt of his master’s patrons, so as to be taken care of when he is found out. The master, who is not Christ, but a man worldly enough to recognize the worldly wisdom of such a plan commend such a plan, even though he, himself, is a victim.
- Verses 9-13: Jesus applies the story to his audience. He infers the master was just as unscrupulous as the servant when he says, “If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” Since the mammon was unrighteous it was deceitful gained. Yet, Jesus teaches that even though the money which entrusted is ill-gained, still it must be handled faithfully. He concludes that a person cannot serve God and money.
- Verses 14-15: Luke takes notice that Pharisees were greedy. They mock Jesus teaching since it was so poignantly directed at them. Jesus continues to correct them.
- Verses 16-18: John the Baptist is given as an example of a faithful servant. One who could not be bought off. John did not offer cheap grace to He certainly was not greedy.
- 19-31: Jesus gives the discourse on Lazarus and the Rich Man. Since the entire lesson up to this point has been about greed, it would be out of place to suddenly offer a teaching on the nature of final punishment. It may be noted that neither Lazarus nor the Rich Man is ever said to be righteous. In fact, the emphasis seems to be on socio-economic status. In Jewish thought, the wealth was equated with righteousness as it meant a blessing by God.
Taken From Other Sources
It seems the main debate of the Lazarus passage has been whether or not it is a historical reality or parable. I shall attempt to demonstrate that it is merely a well-known legend which Jesus uses to emphasize his current lesson on greed.
The word parable comes from the Greek word parabolḗ meaning to “throw along the side of.” The word itself then implies a story in which a comparison will be made in order to teach a moral or religious truth. Jesus story contains no comparisons. There are no simile’s or metaphors. The wide interpretations of those who view it as a parable are likely the result of attempting to understand the discourse as a comparison where no comparison exists.
If it is not a parable, then one may assert that is, in fact, a historical reality. Many have made such an assertion, mainly on the grounds that Jesus refers to a specific person in Lazarus. However West sufficiently defuses such an argument, noting:
“The objection of others is that parables do not use proper names. “And he took up his parable, and said, ‘From ARAM has BALAK brought me, the king of MOAB from the mountains of the East: come, curse me JACOB, and come, defy ISRAEL'” [Numbers 23:7]. Not one but FIVE PROPER NAMES are used in one parable. “SATAN” [Mark 4:14] “THE SON OF MAN” [Matthew 13:37].”
There must then be a third alternative: it is a commonly known legend. Hanson suggests:
“The Jews have a book, written during the Babylonish Captivity, entitled Gemara Babylonicum, containing doctrines entertained by Pagans concerning the future state not recognized by the followers of Moses. This story is founded on heathen views. They were not obtained from the Bible, for the Old Testament contains nothing resembling them. They were among those traditions which our Savior condemned when he told the Scribes and Pharisees, “Ye make the word of God of none effect through your traditions,” and when he said to his disciples, “Beware of the leaven, or doctrine of the Pharisees.”
Hanson is not the only scholar to come to such a finding, note the following quotes:
“Similar stories existed in Egypt and among the rabbis; Jesus could easily have adapted this tradition to his own purpose.”
“This parable follows a story common in Egyptian and Jewish thought. This parable does not intend to give a topographical study of the abode of the dead, it is built upon and thus confirms common Jewish thought.”
Notice that all the scholars quoted above make the claim that Jewish thought assimilated the legend from outside, pagan sources. In this way, Jesus used a common legend to demonstrate the error of such thinking. In essence, he turned their own thought process against them. This does not mean that Jesus was endorsing any particular detail of the story. Parents use similar techniques all the time. For example, parents threaten their kids with the idea that they will get coal from Santa if they misbehave. The use of the Santa legend does not mean the parents think it is a reality; merely that their kids are aware of the concept of the legend and therefore will respond to their message.
I have attempted to demonstrate error in biblical exegesis upon which the traditional view of Hell is founded. It seems obvious that nowhere in the New or Old Testament is there any grounds for viewing Hell as a place of eternal fiery torment. The concept is so foreign to both the Scripture and normal reasonable human sensibility that it verges on the preposterous. “There is certainly a need to warn unbelievers of the impending judgment of God. The warning that the annihilationist gives is both biblical and believable.”
Bacchiocchi, S. Immortality or Resurrection?: A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny: Biblical Perspectives, 1997.
Boyd, G.A. and P.R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: Baker Publishing Group, 2009.
Brown, R.E. and J.A. Fitzmyer. The Jerome Biblical Commentary: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Calvin, J. Calvin’s Commentary on the Epistle of James, Newly Translated from the Original Latin, Vol. 1: With Notes, Practical, Historical, and Critical (Classic Reprint): Forgotten Books, 2015.
Clarke, A. and R. Earle. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible: Baker Book House, 1967.
Cruz, V., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Academic, 2001.
Hanson, J.W. The Bible Hell: The Words Rendered Hell in the Bible : Sheol, Hadees, Tartarus, and Gehenna, Shown to Denote a State of Temporal Duration : All the Texts Containing the Word Examined and Explained: Universalist Publishing House, 1878.
Henry, M. and J.W. Hayford. Matthew Henry’scommentary on the Whole Bible: Super Value Edition: Thomas Nelson Incorporated, 1997.
Kittel, G., G.W. Bromiley and G. Friedrich. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Eerdmans, 1973.
Orr, J. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia: Howard-Severance Company, 1915.
Slick, Matt, “Hell”, Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry https://carm.org/hell#footnote1_r0x43f6 (accessed May 13 2016).
Strong, J. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to the Bible: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.
Thayer, T.B. The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment: Universalist Publishing House, 1855.
West, William Robert. If the Soul or Spirit Is Immortal, There Can Be No Resurrection from the Dead. 3rd ed. Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2006.
 J. Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to the Bible (Hendrickson Publishers, 2009).
 A. Clarke and R. Earle, Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible (Baker Book House, 1967).
 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. s.v. “Gehenna.”
 M. Henry and J.W. Hayford, Matthew Henry’scommentary on the Whole Bible: Super Value Edition (Thomas Nelson Incorporated, 1997).
 Isaiah uses the same illusion, c.f. Isaiah 10:17-18
 T.B. Thayer, The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment (Universalist Publishing House, 1855).
 J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on the Epistle of James, Newly Translated from the Original Latin, Vol. 1: With Notes, Practical, Historical, and Critical (Classic Reprint) (Forgotten Books, 2015).
 S. Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection?: A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny (Biblical Perspectives, 1997), 170.
 G. Kittel, G.W. Bromiley, and G. Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1973), 147.
 The entire book of Job has this thought running through it as a thematic undercurrent.
 William Robert West, If the Soul or Spirit Is Immortal, There Can Be No Resurrection from the Dead, 3rd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2006).
 J.W. Hanson, The Bible Hell: The Words Rendered Hell in the Bible : Sheol, Hadees, Tartarus, and Gehenna, Shown to Denote a State of Temporal Duration : All the Texts Containing the Word Examined and Explained (Universalist Publishing House, 1878), 43.
 R.E. Brown and J.A. Fitzmyer, The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice-Hall, 1968).
 J. Orr, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 94.
 G.A. Boyd and P.R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology (Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 291.