The Biblical View of 'Hell'
Is eternity in an ever-burning inferno the fate of the wicked? Many assume that it is, but is that what the Bible says? To answer that question, we need to understand the four Hebrew and Greek words translated "hell" in most versions of the Bible.
Sheol is the Hebrew word translated "hell" throughout the Old Testament. It refers to "the state and abode of the dead; hence the grave in which the body rests . . ." (William Wilson, Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, "Hell," p. 215). The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains, "Thus there are no references to eternal destiny but simply to the grave as the resting place of the bodies of all people . . ." (Lawrence O. Richards, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1985, p. 336).
Reflecting its true meaning, many more-recent Bible versions translate this word as simply "the grave" or leave it untranslated as Sheol.
Among those who knew that they were going to sheol—the grave, not an ever-burning inferno—were such men of faith as Jacob (Genesis 37:35), Job (Job 14:13), David (Psalm 88:3) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:10). Clearly, sheol does not refer to a place of eternal torment.
Greek words translated 'hell'
The counterpart of sheol in the Greek language is hades, which also refers to the grave. In the four New Testament verses that quote Old Testament passages containing sheol, hades is used for sheol (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15; Acts 2:27, 31). As with sheol, hades is rendered as "the grave" or "death" or left untranslated as Hades in recent Bible versions.
Hades likewise does not refer to a place of fiery torment. Indeed, the apostle Peter refers to Christ Himself as having been in "Hades" (Acts 2:27, 31) or "hell" (King James Version), referring to the time He was entombed before His resurrection. Both words simply refer to the grave.
A second Greek word, tartaroo, is also translated "hell" in the New Testament. This word is used only once in the Bible (2 Peter 2:4), where it refers to the place where the fallen angels, or demons, are restrained awaiting their judgment. The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains that tartaroo means "to confine in Tartaros" and that "Tartaros was the Greek name for the mythological abyss in which rebellious gods were confined" (p. 337). Peter used this reference to contemporary mythology to show that the sinning angels were "delivered . . . into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment." These fallen angels are in a condition or place of restraint awaiting their ultimate judgment for their rebellion against God and destructive influence on humanity.
Tartaros applies only to demons. Nowhere does tartaroo refer to a fiery hell in which people are punished after death.
It is only with the remaining word translated "hell"—the Greek word gehenna—that we see some elements people commonly associate with the traditional view of hell. However, this word also has significant differences from the popular concept of hell.
Gehenna "is derived from the Hebr[ew] expression, ga-Hinnom, Valley of Hinnom . . . Religiously it was a place of idolatrous and human sacrifices . . . In order to put an end to these abominations, Josiah polluted it with human bones and other corruptions (2 Kgs. 23:10, 13, 14)" (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary New Testament, AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, 1992, p. 360).
Thanks in large part to its evil reputation, this valley bordering Jerusalem came to be used as the city garbage dump. Trash was burned there, along with the bodies of dead animals and criminals. Fires day and night consumed the refuse.
Inferno to destroy the wicked
Gehenna is used 12 times in the Bible, with 11 of those recording Christ's words. When Jesus spoke of gehenna, His listeners knew that this "hell" was a consuming fire in which garbage and the bodies of the wicked were destroyed. He bluntly warned that this destroying fire would be the fate of the incorrigibly wicked (Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 23:15, 33; Luke 12:5).
But when would this take place? Many of those who opposed Christ were among the religious and civil leadership of His day; they weren't treated as criminals, with their bodies burned in the city dump. Christ knew that their ultimate judgment, along with that of the overwhelming majority of humanity throughout history, would be far in the future (as made clear throughout this booklet).
After being resurrected, those who are shown God's way but still refuse to repent will face gehenna fire, an all-consuming inferno that will completely destroy them and all memory of them, with no hope of further resurrection (Matthew 10:28).
The book of Revelation calls this inferno "the lake of fire" (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14-15). In the time frame revealed in the Bible, this follows 1,000 years of Christ's reign on earth (Revelation 20:1-6) and a resurrection to physical life of all those who have never known God and His ways (verses 5, 11-13). Those resurrected at that time will have the opportunity to learn God's ways, repent and receive His gift of eternal life.
Some, however, will refuse that gift. The Bible records their tragic epitaph: "And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (verse 15).
Those who willingly choose to reject God's way will not be allowed to continue living in the misery their choice will bring. They will die, not suffer forever. They will be consumed in this fire, leaving nothing but ashes (Malachi 4:1-3). An examination of all the words translated "hell" shows that the traditional view of an ever-burning place of torment where the wicked are punished for eternity cannot be found in the Bible.
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