What Is Hell?

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Is there really a fiery hell where the souls of condemned men, women and children suffer for all eternity? Traditional Christianity has its answer, but you may be surprised—and reassured—by what the Bible really says about hell.


A Gallup Poll earlier this decade revealed that approximately three out of five Americans believe in hell. But popular opinion cannot tell us whether there really is a hell fire that forever torments the souls of the wicked. What does the Bible actually say?

The Bible clearly mentions the words hell and fire. But there are many misconceptions about hell. These misconceptions are not unique to Christians; indeed, this world's religions have a variety of beliefs regarding hell and the final judgment.

For example, the religion of Islam describes hell as a lake of fire. Islam's holy book, the Koran, states this belief regarding the wicked, "Sufficient scourge is the fire of hell. Those that deny Our revelations We will burn in fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge." (Sura 4, verses 55–56, translated by N. J. Dawood)

Such notions are common to many other faiths. In an article entitled "Other Faiths, Other Hells," (U.S. News & World Report, March 25, 1991) author Jeffrey Sheler notes that the religion of Jainism "views the universe as having three realms, the lowest containing 8.4 million hells where humans are punished for their sins. Those guilty of unpardonable sins are kept in a bottomless abyss forever." Sheler also points out that there are 21 hells of Hinduism where "the soul is recycled to a higher state in the next life."

Compare this to many Christians' belief in a temporary purgatory where souls are being purified by suffering excruciating torments, and their belief in a similar but never-ending hell in which souls will be tormented forever without any hope of redemption.

All of this can be quite upsetting and frightening. I remember as a boy hearing my pastor describe the flames of hell. This vivid and horrifying imagery stuck with me over the years. Yet had I known the truth at the time, I could have been comforted instead of frightened. Indeed, Jesus made the reassuring statement, "…you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).

That Biblical truth, I later learned to my great surprise, is that at this moment in time there is no human soul suffering in an ever-burning hell fire. That's right! You need not worry that your relatives who may not have converted to your religion are now being tormented in the flames of hell!

Does that disappoint you? Sadly, some take pleasure in believing that the unconverted are suffering in eternal torment. They expect to spend eternity in heaven looking down on others suffering in hell. Could you enjoy heaven for all eternity, knowing that your loved ones and others are suffering excruciating torment? Many people expect to do just that. Such ones have been fooled terribly by Satan, and have been given a false and unbiblical understanding of the Creator as a cruel God, which He is not. As we will see, God will in the future use a lake of fire at the final judgment. That fire will eventually engulf the earth and purify it. That—not an everburning torture pit for human beings—is the ultimate hell revealed in your Bible.

The Fate of the Wicked

You have heard the gospel of the Kingdom preached on the Tomorrow's World telecast, and in the pages of this magazine. That gospel is the good news of Christ coming back to rule this earth as King of kings and Lord of lords! But did Jesus Himself also speak about a fiery judgment? Yes, He did!

When Christ returns, He will bring both rewards and condemnations. He will reward His faithful servants. As the Bible describes it, "Then the King will say to those on His right hand, 'Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'" (Matthew 25:34).

But there is also punishment for those who have sealed their character as wicked and evil rebels against the way of God, the law of God and the love of God. As the Bible tells us, after rewarding His faithful servants, "Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels'" (Matthew 25:41).

What happens to these cursed individuals? Do they remain alive for all eternity? Or are they burned up? Here is what the Bible says will happen to the incorrigibly wicked—those who have sealed their minds to never repent and never obey God: "'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,' says the Lord of hosts, 'That will leave them neither root nor branch'" (Malachi 4:1).

The wicked will be totally destroyed. They will receive the eternal death penalty. Malachi continues with the description, "'You shall trample the wicked, For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,' says the Lord of hosts" (Malachi 4:3).

Those who have sealed their own fate, those who have determined never to repent of their evil attitude and nature, will be totally burned up and will become ashes! They will not be tormented forever. They will be totally annihilated!

Many people have wondered why, if God is such a just God, He condemns people to suffer for all eternity when they have never had a real chance to hear, believe or act upon the gospel. The answer is simple: He does not do that! God is just and fair.

It is Satan and his angels who will be tormented forever. Satan wants us to believe that his fate, as a spirit being, will be the fate of humans! Satan "deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9). Contrary to Satan's propaganda, God will not allow humans to suffer forever!

Notice Jesus' amazing statement, "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).

Read this scripture in your own Bible! God is able to destroy both soul and body. Yes, God is so powerful that He can destroy souls forever! This means that life, psuché in the Greek, will be totally destroyed. There is no resurrection from the death that Jesus is speaking about! We will see this more clearly when we look at the book of Revelation later in this article.

We have seen that there is a widespread religious belief in the eternal punishing of wicked souls. Various religions believe that an ever-burning hell fire will torment evil humans forever. But we also saw that God is able to destroy the souls of humans. He will put the incorrigibly wicked out of their misery forever! God is fair and just!

The Gift of Everlasting Life

John 3:16 is one of many Bible verses demonstrating God's loving nature toward every human being. Those who believe that God cannot, or does not, totally destroy the incorrigibly wicked should take a closer look at this verse: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

First, let us realize that God has given His Son for you! You do not have to be one of those incorrigibly wicked that will be burned up in a lake of fire. You can be forgiven, if you repent and believe the gospel as Jesus said! "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15).

But you need to know what you are doing, and not just react emotionally without proving the truth to yourself. The Bible tells us, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV). We encourage you to do that, by checking up—in your own Bible—on what you read in the pages of this magazine.

Of course, if you already have an immortal soul, then you would never perish. You would already have immortal life. Again, what do we read in John 3:16? "Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."

Jesus said that the wicked will perish, but that those who genuinely believe Him and obey Him will receive the gift of everlasting life. If you already have everlasting life as an immortal soul, then everlasting life would not be a gift. This is further emphasized in another scripture with which you are becoming familiar if you are a regular viewer of the Tomorrow's World telecast: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord"

(Romans 6:23). Again we see that the penalty for sin is death! Death is the absence of life. Eternal life is a precious gift through Jesus Christ!

Dante and Hell Fire

Just where did the concept of souls burning in fire come from? Some ideas came from pre-Christian concepts, but the common idea of hell was popularized in the famous poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, written between 1302 and Alighieri's death in 1321. The poem consists of three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In Inferno, the poet Virgil guides Dante on his journey through hell. At the entrance to Hell they encounter the foreboding sign: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here" (Inferno, translated by Elio Zappulla, Canto III, p. 39). Virgil tells Dante about his tour of hell, "I'll be your guide, and you will follow me, and I will lead you through a world of pain where dead souls writhe in endless agony and clamor, as they cry, to die again" (Inferno, Canto I, p. 24).

Dante continues his journey through the various compartments of hell, and writes, "So in the ditch, far down below the arch on which we stood, there bubbled viscous pitch… I only saw the bubbles rise and burst, the huge mass heave, contract, heave, and contract repeatedly…" Dante then sees someone consigned to hell, "The sinner plunged into the pitch… They pricked the sinner with a hundred prongs…" (Inferno, Canto XXI, pp. 189–191).

Dante wrote The Divine Comedy as an allegory, to teach certain principles and lessons. Its content also reflects the politics and history of Dante's contemporary Italy. His poem is not a literal reflection of the Bible's teaching on hell, but many have mistakenly come to accept as literal truths the images painted by Dante in his poem!

As we have already seen in Romans 6:23, "the wages of sin is death"—not life! Interestingly, Dante's poem calls sinners' supposed eternal agony the second death. This is very deceptive. The Bible refers to the second death, we will see later, as the total destruction of life in the lake of fire. The second death is not life in some place called hell. Death is death, not some form of continued living. Death is the absence of life!

Which "Hell" Do You Mean?

What is incredible in most discussions about hell is the assumption that hell automatically means eternal fire! This is a very misleading definition. In fact, there are four words in the Bible that are translated "hell." Let us get to the truth of the matter.

The original Old Testament language is Hebrew. In the King James translation of the Bible, the Hebrew word often translated "hell" is sheol—which simply means pit or grave. It does not mean a place of ever-burning fire! The Hebrew word sheol occurs 65 times in the Old Testament and in the King James Version it is translated as "grave" 31 times; "hell" 31 times; and "pit" 3 times. The New International Version of the Bible translates the word sheol as "grave" and never translates sheol as "hell." The word sheol simply means a "pit" or a "grave."

So when someone asks you if you believe in hell, your response should be "Which hell?" The English word "hell" in your Bible does not automatically mean a place of fire or a place of eternal punishment!

There are three Greek words in the New Testament translated as "hell," each of which has a different meaning. They are: hades, gehenna and tartarus.

The Greek word hades means "grave" or "pit" as does the Hebrew word sheol. It does NOT mean a place of fire.

The word Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew expression ge hinnom which means the "valley of Hinnom." The valley is on the south side of Jerusalem. As have millions of other visitors, I have been there several times. You could say I have been to hell and back!

Anciently the valley of Hinnom was used as a place to dump Jerusalem's trash, which was burned up by sulphur-fed fires or devoured by worms and maggots. Occasionally the body of an executed criminal would be thrown into the fire. Gehenna thus became a symbol of a place of judgment associated with fire. The Greek word gehenna is used by the Gospel writer Matthew as he recounts Jesus' words, "But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22). That "hell fire" is actually Gehenna fire.

Jesus was saying that those who have an unrepentant murderous attitude would be in danger of Gehenna. As we will see later, it is the lake of fire where the unrepentant wicked are burned up and suffer the penalty of eternal death!

The fourth word translated "hell" in the Bible is based on the Greek word tartarus. This denotes a condition of restraint—and it does not apply to humans, but to fallen angels. Notice 2 Peter 2:4, "…God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment…"

Here is the explanation given in An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words by W. E. Vine: "The verb tartaroo, translated 'cast down to hell' in 2 Peter 2:4, signifies to consign to Tartarus, which is neither Sheol nor hades nor hell, but the place where those angels whose special sin is referred to in that passage are confined 'to be reserved unto judgment'; the region is described as 'pits of darkness.' RV"

So what then is hell? From the biblical perspective it is one of three different places or conditions:

  • Sheol (in the Hebrew) or Hades (in the Greek) means "pit" or "grave."
  • Gehenna ns "the valley of Hinnom." Symbolically, this refers to fiery judgment.
  • Tartarus which signifies the confining of fallen angels.

So you see, to use the word "hell" for all three meanings does not accurately communicate the truth of the Bible! You need to ask, "What particular hell are you talking about?"

What Happens to the Ignorant?

Is God unfair? Will He not give a genuine opportunity for salvation to everyone on earth? Would God consign individuals, made in His image, who have never heard the Gospel, to an ever-burning hell fire? No! God is not unfair—He will give everyone an opportunity!

Yet how will the multitudes who have never heard Christ's name receive their opportunity? We recall that, speaking of the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, the apostle Peter boldly proclaimed "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

But billions of people have not even heard the true gospel or the name of their Savior. How could they even have a chance to believe? The Bible shows us that all humans will have their opportunity for salvation. For those who have not been called to really understand the truth, there is the White Throne Judgment described in the 20th chapter of Revelation.

Who will be in that judgment? Who will then be given their first opportunity for salvation? Let's look at one encouraging example. What do you think is the ultimate fate of some of the most wicked people on earth—people whom God has already punished? Notice what Jesus said about the wicked people of Sodom, "And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:23–24).

God consumed the people of Sodom with fire and brimstone and destroyed every human being! Are they now also suffering the so-called flames of hell? No! They are dead! Yet Jesus said it will be "more tolerable" for them in the day of judgment. What day of judgment is that? We discover in the 20th chapter of Revelation a resurrection to judgment, in which the books will be opened as the scriptures say. It is at this point that all those who have been spiritually blinded will receive an understanding of the Bible and the words of life for the first time: "And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books" (Revelation 20:12).

Yes, those who have suffered from their own sins and those who have been innocent victims of oppression and genocide, will be resurrected to understand the Book of Life. They will have their first real opportunity to understand the Gospel and the love of God the Father for all humanity. As Peter wrote, "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

In the White Throne Judgment, billions of atheists, sinners and pagans will finally learn from their past suffering, and will be given the opportunity to truly repent, believe the gospel and eventually inherit the Kingdom of God.

The Second Death

But what about those who have seared their conscience and given over their will to rebellion, hatred and sin? Those who have known the truth of God, but have willfully rejected His forgiveness and love, will be burned up in a lake of fire. "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14–15).

Here is the second death—the eternal death penalty from which there is no resurrection. Those who have sealed their mind never to repent or surrender to Jesus Christ, will be totally burned up. They will suffer the torment of knowing their fate before their final execution. But a loving and merciful God will put them out of their misery for all eternity.

Then, the whole earth will be purified by fire! "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness" (2 Peter 3:10).

Once the earth is purified by Gehenna fire, the lake of fire, everyone will either be a glorified member of God's family (as described in 1 Corinthians 15, the "resurrection chapter")—or they will be dead for all eternity, burned up in the lake of fire. The Devil and his angels (as immortal spirits) will be tormented forever. That is their fate, not humanity's!

God is a God of absolute justice and absolute love. He will give everyone the opportunity for salvation in His time and in His way. The Devil has deceived the whole world and has blinded the vast majority of human beings on earth today. But God has a plan of salvation, even for the wicked sinners of Sodom. They will have learned an excruciatingly painful lesson and will have their chance in the White Throne Judgment. And those who have been the innocent victims of injustice and genocide will be healed, restored and blessed with their first opportunity for salvation!

Those who are called, faithful and chosen in this age, will rule with Christ in His Kingdom. They will help teach, serve and rule the earth with Christ for 1,000 years. After this "Millenium" comes the resurrection to judgment. Then, finally, the real hell fire—the lake of fire—will consume the incorrigibly wicked.

Until then, we must heed the Apostle Peter's warning, "Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?" (2 Peter 3:11)

Yes, we must be spiritually vigilant and faithful, looking forward to a wonderful future, a hope-filled future you have heard about on the Tomorrow's World telecast and in the pages of this magazine. Peter continues, "Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless" (2 Peter 3:13). Indeed, we can rejoice with the apostle Peter that there is hope for all of us through our Savior Jesus Christ.

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