Are people from throughout history suffering eternal torment because they never accepted Jesus Christ? The truth about life after death is not what most assume.
Do you worry that your deceased friends and loved ones are suffering in fiery torment because they weren’t faithful Christians—or never accepted Jesus Christ at all? What about your own future? The truth of the matter is an awesome revelation of God’s mercy and justice—and it is not what most people assume.
A November 2021 survey found that 73 percent of Americans believe in the existence of Heaven, while 62 percent believe in Hell. Researchers from the Pew Foundation found that 61 percent believe in both Heaven and Hell, while 26 percent do not believe in Heaven or Hell (“Few Americans Blame God or Say Faith Has Been Shaken Amid Pandemic, Other Tragedies,” PewResearch.org, November 23, 2021). One percent said they believe in a hell, but do not believe in Heaven.
In August 2020, a similar survey conducted by researchers at Arizona Christian University found that 54 percent of adults in the United States believed they would go to Heaven after they died. Just 2 percent said they expected to go to Hell. Fifteen percent said they didn’t know where they would go after death. Another 13 percent said they did not believe in an afterlife, while 8 percent said they would be reincarnated and a similar 8 percent said they expected to go to a “place of purification” before entering Heaven (“AWVI 2020 Survey: 1 in 3 US Adults Embrace Salvation Through Jesus; More Believe It Can Be ‘Earned’” ArizonaChristian.edu, August 4, 2020).
The idea of a tormenting hellfire is understandably quite frightening. Can we imagine how the 2 percent feel who say they expect to go to Hell after death? Yet there are many who ridicule the entire concept of Heaven and Hell. How many people reject Christianity entirely when they hear that only those who hear Jesus Christ’s teachings and accept them can go to Heaven? What kind of God would send billions of people to Hell simply because they were born in times and places where Jesus’ message was not available?
It seems so cruel. So, why do the majority of professing Christians believe that billions of people who lived and died without ever hearing Jesus’ name will spend eternity experiencing unimaginable torment? Is this really what the God of the Bible has in mind for human beings He has created?
Would you be shocked to learn that your Bible actually teaches that no one is burning in hell at this moment? In fact, there are no immortal souls writhing and screaming in the flames of hell for eternity—and there never will be. Yes, there will be a hellfire, but not the kind that so many mistakenly imagine.
Your Bible teaches a truth that should both comfort you about your future and reassure you about the goodness, mercy, and perfect justice of God. If you have loved ones who died “in their sins” or you are frightened because someone has cursed you to “go to hell,” you need to read this article.
It may surprise you to learn that today’s most common ideas of hell come mostly from a work of fiction. Specifically, they come from the famous poem La Divina Commedia (in English, The Divine Comedy), composed more than 700 years ago by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Dante’s poem consists of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His vivid description of souls writhing in agony is central to the beliefs of millions even to this day.
In The Divine Comedy, the ancient Roman poet Virgil guides Dante on a journey through Hell. At Hell’s entrance is a foreboding sign with this message: “abandon all hope, you who enter here.” Here is how Virgil introduces his tour of Hell to Dante:
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, lines 107–110, translated by Elio Zappulla, 1998).
Notice the words “endless agony” in Dante’s description. Many are surprised to learn that the idea of an immortal soul did not come from the Old Testament or the New Testament, but was adopted by Roman Catholic philosophers familiar with the philosophy of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Consider this acknowledgement by the author Tertullian (155–220 AD):
For some things are known, even by nature: the immortality of the soul, for instance, is held by many…. I may use, therefore the opinion of Plato, when he declares: “Every soul is immortal” (“On the Resurrection of the Flesh,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3).
But we as Christians must hold to the opinion of the Bible, not of Plato or the “many.” Let’s look carefully at one of the most famous verses in the Bible, often called the “Golden Verse”—John 3:16. We read:
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.
Notice John’s claim that Jesus died so that you and I would not perish. Eternal life is a gift from God, not something we inherently have as human souls. Later in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul’s writings confirm this important truth, as when he wrote to the Corinthians:
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:53–55).
Could it be any more plain? Jesus gave His life so that we, His followers, would not need to perish—not need to be dead for eternity. He came that we might not be destroyed forever—not lose our life forever! To the surprise of many, the Bible teaches that human beings are mortal, not immortal. It is through Jesus’ death and resurrection that you and I can “put on immortality” at the resurrection from the dead.
We know that the body dies. But what about our “soul”? Jesus told us that God is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna fire (Matthew 10:28). How could that be possible if the human soul is immortal? Clearly, we can see that the human body is destroyed at death, but what happens to those human beings who supposedly would go to Hell?
We need to understand that we were not born with immortality. It is a gift from God! Remember that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23, Modern English Version). Notice that this scripture does not state, “The wages of sin is immortal life in hellfire.” The reward of sin is not immortal life, it is death—the absence of life. If you already have an immortal soul—if you already have eternal life—then you do not need it as a gift from God. Yes, a soul can die! The prophet Ezekiel reminds us, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). In that verse, the Hebrew word for “soul” is nephesh, which refers to physical or natural life. In Genesis 1, the same word, nephesh, also refers to every living “thing” and “creature”—to all animal life, including mammals, fish, and birds. The Bible does teach that there is a human spirit, the spirit in man (1 Corinthians 2:11; Job 32:8, 18), but that human spirit is not an immortal soul. So, what does it mean that a soul may go to hell?
When we read the Bible in English, we need to realize that there are actually four words in the original inspired Hebrew and Greek—one in Hebrew and three in Greek—that are translated as “hell” in English-language Bibles. And those four words have three different meanings. Yet many who read the Bible in English come to the mistaken conclusion that the word “hell” always means an eternal fire. In fact, it does not!
One meaning of “hell” in your Bible comes from the Hebrew sheol or the Greek hades. This “hell” simply means “the pit” or “the grave.” It is this word that found its way into Old English as the word describing a hole in the ground or the earth. Farmers stored their potatoes in helle, what we might call a “root cellar.”
Of course, today many people choose cremation over burial. Still, the ancient connection between hades and sheol and “the grave” as the place where we all go until our future resurrection is plain, and is recognized by modern Bible translators.
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” three times. The New International Version of the Bible, however, translates the word sheol as “grave” and never translates it as “hell.”
Another meaning of “hell” comes from the Greek word tartarus, which indicates the confinement of fallen angels—it does not refer to human sinners. Notice: “God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell [tartaroo] and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).
The third meaning of “hell” is found in the Greek word Gehenna, which literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem. The residents of Jerusalem maintained a fiery pit where the city’s garbage was burned to ashes. Jesus warned us to “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 [Gehenna fire]” (Matthew 10:28). Gehenna fire thus pictures the lake of fire, also described in the book of Revelation (Revelation 21:8).
Do you realize what this means? If we ask the question “Who is burning in hell right now?,” the answer is “No one” if we are talking about sheol or hades.
But what about Gehenna fire? If you are a longtime reader of Tomorrow’s World, you know that we look forward to three resurrections described in your Bible. The first resurrection is for the saints—the followers of Jesus Christ who have lived and died as His faithful disciples in this present age. They will assist their Savior in ruling planet Earth during the Millennium and will continue that role during the Great White Throne Judgment, the time just after the Millennium when the second resurrection will give most of humanity their first genuine opportunity to hear and accept Jesus Christ as Savior and to live His way. We read:
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books [Greek biblion, meaning the Bible] 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 20:11–12).
At the end of that judgment period, those who refuse to obey God—those who have sealed their character as evil—will be thrown into the 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).
This is when the “third resurrection” will occur. Those who were called and rejected Jesus Christ will be resurrected to receive their punishment—the same punishment meted out to those who reject Christ after the second resurrection.
That punishment is the “second death” spoken of in Revelation 20, from which there is no resurrection. Remember, God can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna fire.
But who will be consumed in that fire? The wicked—incorrigible sinners who will never repent—will be destroyed, not tortured forever. Notice: “He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:7–8).
This punishment is called a death, not an eternity of torture—though the punishment will be eternal in the sense that the wicked will be burned into non-existence. The lake of fire will completely destroy forever every human being cast into it. And it will not be just some trash heap outside of Jerusalem. It will eventually encompass the whole of the earth, as God purifies our planet before the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. We read that “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” (2 Peter 3:10).
Is this an eternally burning fire? Notice that Jude writes of “Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (v. 7).
But, obviously, fire is not still burning in the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Greek word for “eternal” in this verse is aionios, meaning age-lasting. This is the way Young’s Literal Translation renders it: “as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them, in like manner to these, having given themselves to whoredom, and gone after other flesh, have been set before—an example, of fire age-during, justice suffering.” In other words, the fire of judgment lasts only for the age in which it was intended. The wicked will be burned up—destroyed—reduced to ashes. They will be extinguished. Their punishment will be everlasting, in that they will cease permanently—never to be seen or brought to life again (Matthew 25:46).
The Apostle Peter’s sobering descriptions should motivate us to avoid such an awful destiny. We read:
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? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11–13).
There will be a fire burning on earth throughout the Millennium, and it will eventually engulf the entire planet. After the earth is finally purified with fire, the fire will cease, and the new heavens and new earth will prevail. The torment suffered by Satan and his demons, however, will never cease: “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). They will suffer in the fire “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). But any human being thrown into that fire will perish and be forever destroyed—as will be the “beast” described in Revelation, along with the “false prophet” (Revelation 19:20).
You do not want to be in that fire—and you need not be in that fire! You can repent and be saved! If you feel that God is calling you, I urge you to contact the Regional Office closest to you and ask for counsel. Tomorrow’s World has representatives around the world who will be happy to meet with you at your convenience.
Will you be one of those faithful Christians who inherit the earth—and eventually “all things,” as we read in Hebrews 2:8? Notice that God not only promises Christians the earth (Matthew 5:5)—He will also give us the entire universe: “He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son” (Revelation 21:7; Romans 8:32). Consider this amazing promise: “For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him” (Hebrews 2:8).
“Nothing” not put under him? “All” in subjection? Yes, this is the promise! The Greek phrase translated as “all” in Hebrews 2:8 is ta panta—which literally means “the all.” As Greek lexicons explain, ta panta in the absolute sense means “the universe.” God wants to give you, along with billions of others, dominion not just over the earth, but over the universe. Yet we can only receive that after we have inherited eternal life—only once we’ve become God’s immortal children to reign with Christ in His Kingdom for all eternity. Our job during the Millennium, vital as it will be, will only amount to a foretaste of what will come afterward.
God’s purpose is to prepare us to govern the universe. We will be able to travel instantly to far-off galaxies. We will not be limited by time and space. God wants us to liberate the creation from its decay and corruption. As Paul wrote, “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). We will not spend eternity with nothing to do in a Heaven of only harps and clouds—God is preparing us for an awesome destiny across the universe!
Thank God for His awesome plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. Thanks to that plan, no one is now burning in hellfire—and no one will be burned in hellfire simply because of not hearing Jesus’ name or His true Gospel. Today, your deceased loved ones are asleep in the grave. Most who live and die in this present age—who were never called and may never even have heard of Jesus Christ—will be resurrected in the White Throne Judgment to have their first genuine opportunity for salvation. Only after that will the incorrigibly wicked be thrown into “Gehenna fire” where they will be burned up and destroyed forever. May you choose God’s way of life, and ultimately receive His gift of life everlasting!