Who Is Burning In Hell?
Millions of people around the world believe that some of their loved ones—and many of their enemies—are right now burning in the flames of hell! Others who consider themselves "sophisticated" condemn such belief as superstition. What is the truth? And, if there is a hellfire, is anyone right now suffering its torments?
It is interesting to note what most Americans believe about hell. The Barna Research Group reported: "While there is no dominant view of hell, two particular perspectives are popular. Four out of ten adults believe that hell is 'a state of eternal separation from God's presence' (39 percent) and one-third (32 percent) say it is 'an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death.' A third perspective, that one in eight adults believe, is that 'hell is just a symbol of an unknown bad outcome after death' (13 percent). Other respondents were 'not sure' or said that they do not believe in an afterlife (16 percent)" (October 21, 2003).
What does the Bible teach? The Bible certainly tells us that there is a judgment. Notice: "it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). But does this mean that there is an ever-burning hellfire, where the unsaved dead will go to suffer torment forever and ever?
Every human being on earth will be judged. In fact, God is right now judging His Church (see 1 Peter 4:17). But He will also judge the whole world in a final judgment, also known as the White Throne Judgment, a thousand years after Jesus Christ's second coming (see Revelation 20). What will be the fate of the wicked after that judgment? Will they burn forever in hellfire? Or are the departed souls of the wicked suffering torments—perhaps somewhere under the earth—right now?
Will judgment take place immediately after you draw your last breath, or will it occur at some future time before the end of our present world? Notice what Jesus Christ said: "Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation [judgment]" (John 5:28–29).
Yes, there will come a judgment for every human being. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). Yes, all human beings must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Each of us will receive either reward or punishment. And, as we shall see, a lake of fire will be the ultimate punishment for unrepentant sinners.
What happens in that lake of fire? Most people have the idea that souls in the lake of fire will writhe in agony for all eternity. As a minister, I have seen the distress felt by people who spend their whole lives saddened by the belief that the soul of a friend or relative is right now suffering in agony, and will suffer forevermore. I have also seen the self-righteous pleasure that some people take, believing that the soul of someone they dislike—maybe a member of a different denomination—is suffering eternal torment.
Would it shock you to learn that the souls of your dead friends and loved ones are not suffering, because they are not immortal? Contrary to much popular opinion, the Bible does not teach that human beings have immortal souls. The phrase "immortal soul" never appears in your Bible! Certainly there is a "spirit in man" which sets us apart from the animals (1 Corinthians 2:11). That human spirit, and human brain, constitute the human mind. But this is not an immortal soul; it can be destroyed. Remember what Jesus warned us: "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). God can destroy the soul. The "soul" is not immortal!
Where did we get the concept of souls burning in eternal fire? The fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri is perhaps most responsible for modern misconceptions of hell. His famous poem The Divine Comedy is divided into three sections: Paradise, Purgatory and Inferno. The latter section describes the ancient Roman poet Virgil guiding Dante on a journey through hell. At the entrance to Dante's hell is the foreboding sign: "Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here" (Inferno, A New Verse Translation, Dante Alighieri, ed. 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." (Canto I, p. 24).
Dante continues his journey through 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" (Canto XXI, pp. 189–190).
The poet then sees someone consigned to hell, "The sinner plunged into the pitch… They pricked the sinner with a hundred prongs" (Canto XXI, pp. 190–191).
Dante wrote The Divine Comedy as an allegory, to teach certain principles and lessons. The 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! Sadly, many have come to believe Dante's descriptions are more or less accurate. They are not!
What, then, does the Bible teach about hell and the afterlife? You may be familiar with some of the important scriptures on this topic. You may even have read right over them, taking for granted what your church taught you, or what your parents taught you as a child. Notice one very basic, yet fundamental, scripture: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
Notice the sobering contrast Paul describes in this verse. Sinners earn death, not eternal life. By contrast, God's gift is eternal life through Christ, our Savior.
The wages of sin is what? Death! Not "eternal life in torment." Your Bible makes this plain. Yet some Bible teachers try to confuse this simple truth. They want you to believe that up means down, right means wrong, and death means eternal life. But you do not have to believe their confusing tales. You can find the truth for yourself, in the pages of your own Bible.
Another much-misunderstood verse was written by the Apostle John. It is a famous verse; so famous that it is sometimes called the "golden verse" or the most precious verse in your Bible. What is it? "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).
Could John's words be more plain? Without Jesus' sacrifice, mankind would perish—not live eternally. To "perish" means to be destroyed, or "to come to nothing." But Jesus came so that we might not be destroyed forever. If we already had immortal life, He could not give it to us as a gift!
The book of Ezekiel also confirms the truth of what John wrote. Here, God is speaking through the prophet Ezekiel. "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). God repeats this truth a few verses later, "The soul who sins shall die" (v. 20).
The books of Ezekiel and John agree: the soul that sins shall die.
Many professing Christians have been unable to reconcile God's mercy with the idea of an ever-burning hell fire for those who never heard the message of Jesus Christ. As a result, even some evangelicals have come to believe the truth that God will destroy the wicked forever. For example, a Christianity Today magazine article, "Is Hell Forever?", states the following: "Since 1960, several prominent British evangelicals, as well as Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock, have embraced this [annihilationist] view. John Stott has likewise expressed sympathy for annihilationism while choosing to remain 'agnostic' on the question" (October 5, 1998).
The Evangelical Alliance UK sponsored an extensively researched report titled "The Nature of Hell." Christianity Today magazine wrote: "the report, The Nature of Hell, produced by five experts, also acknowledges a growing belief among evangelicals in 'conditionalism,' according to which, after judgment, sinners will be annihilated—something that is seen as a more merciful fate than the pit of unending torment" (April 17, 2000).
But what is this "hell" where souls can be destroyed? In Matthew 10:28, the Greek word translated as "hell" is gehenna, derived from the Hebrew expression ge hinnom—a reference to the valley of Hinnom to the south of Jerusalem. Anciently, the valley of Hinnom was used as a place to dump Jerusalem's trash. Fires burned continuously and fed on the city's garbage, which included the dead bodies of condemned criminals. As a result, "Gehenna" became a symbol of judgment associated with fire. This same word was also used in Matthew 5:22, when Jesus said: "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"—Gehenna fire.
Yes, unrepentant sinners will be cast into a lake of fire. Gehenna fire is a reference to this final fate of the wicked.
Does this mean, then, that hell is a valley to the south of Jerusalem? Yes, in one sense the valley of Hinnom is "hell" as described in the Bible. But in another sense the word "hell" can be misleading, because there are actually three Greek words, and one Hebrew word, which your English-language Bible translates as "hell." Gehenna is just one of the four. Many Bible students become confused by the different references to "hell" and their different meanings. There are four words for "hell" in your Bible, with three different meanings. To properly understand the Bible's teaching about hell, you must first ask, "Which hell are we talking about?"
The Hebrew word that your King James Version often translates as "hell" is sheol—which simply means "grave" or "pit." It does not denote a place of ever-burning fire. This word occurs 65 times in the Old Testament, and is translated 31 times as "grave," another 31 times as "hell" and three times as "pit." The New International Version of the Bible always translates sheol as "grave"—never as "hell." The word sheol simply means a "pit" or a "grave."
So, if we ask, "Who is burning in sheol (the pit, or the grave)?" the answer is: No one!
In addition to gehenna, which we discussed above, two other Greek words are translated as "hell" in your Bible. The Greek word hades, like the Hebrew sheol, simply means "grave" or "pit." It does not mean a place of ever-burning fire. If you have a copy of the New King James Version, or the New International Version, you will see that the translators often leave the word hades untranslated.
The fourth word translated as "hell" in your Bible is based on the Greek word tartarus. This word denotes a condition of restraint, and it applies not to human beings, but rather to fallen angels. Notice: "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" (2 Peter 2:4).
As one scholarly source explains: "The verb tartaroo, translated 'cast down to hell' in 2 Pet. 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.'" (An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, W.E. Vine, p. 300).
So, as we have seen, "hell" can describe three very different places or conditions. It can describe a pit or grave (sheol or hades). It can refer to a place of fiery judgment (gehenna). It can indicate the confinement of fallen angels (tartaroo). As you can see, using the one word "hell" to convey all three of these meanings can cause confusion, and does not accurately communicate the truth of the Bible.
Do you think God is unfair? Has He predestined some human beings—made in His image—to burn in hell, with no genuine opportunity for salvation? Shockingly, this idea of a cruel and capricious God is commonly taught in the name of "Christianity." But it is wrong! God's plan will give every human being a genuine opportunity to be saved.
Many who call themselves Christian have been unable to reconcile God's love, mercy and justice with the idea of eternal hellfire for those who have never heard the message of Jesus Christ. Yet the Bible plainly teaches, "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).
How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction between God's mercy and His justice? Your Bible reveals that billions of people will have their very first opportunity for salvation in the White Throne Judgment, described in Revelation 20:11–12. God's plan of salvation may be difficult for some to believe. But it is very encouraging when you understand the hope it brings to all of humanity. Those who have suffered from their own sins in ignorance, and those who have been innocent victims of war, oppression and genocide will be resurrected to understand the Bible—the Book of Life. They will have their first true opportunity to understand God's love for all humanity. In the White Throne Judgment, billions of human beings who were previously spiritually blinded will finally learn from the pain of the past, and they will be given the opportunity to truly repent, believe the gospel and eventually inherit the Kingdom of God. 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).
But what about those who have seared their consciences, and knowingly rejected God's truth, love, knowledge and forgiveness in favor of rebellion, hatred and sin? These willful sinners will be burned up in a lake of fire! Notice: "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 minds never to repent or surrender to Jesus Christ will be totally burned up—destroyed!
In Luke 16, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man illustrates the torment unrepentant sinners will experience before they are totally burned up. Notice that the rich man is about to be thrown into the lake of fire. Notice also that he is in hades—he is in the grave, not in Gehenna fire. He is resurrected for final judgment, as described in Revelation 20. So what does he ask for? A drop of water to cool his tongue. He did not ask for buckets of water to be poured over him. The rich man was in deep mental torment and anguish just before his destruction. The incorrigibly wicked 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. They will be totally burned up and destroyed forever, annihilated in the lake of fire—a fire that will spread over the whole earth!
Yes, 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 3:10–11).
Those who have sealed their own fate—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 receive their eternal punishment, not eternal punishing. Their death, their eternal punishment, will last for eternity!
This is what the Bible teaches. The incorrigibly wicked will be totally destroyed—annihilated. But they will not be destroyed capriciously, or unfairly, or because God predestined them never to hear Christ's message. As we have seen, no one can be saved without accepting the message of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). Through the White Throne Judgment, those human beings who have not previously had their minds opened by God's truth will have their first genuine opportunity for salvation.
So, who is burning in hell? By now you know the answer. The answer is: "No one!" There is a future lake of fire that will burn up, consume, and annihilate the wicked forever. That fire will purify the earth for the new heavens and earth promised in Revelation 21. We can all be thankful for God's justice, fairness, and plan of salvation through Christ. There is judgment coming, but there is also hope for many of your friends and relatives you thought may have been lost!