Is There a Burning Hell?
The concept of a burning Hell where people are tortured eternally, is often thought of as a Bible teaching. It isn't. Rather, the whole concept of a Hell, which is thought to be an underground world that is ruled by an evil God, comes from a misunderstanding of the pagan Greek Mythology of Hades, the River Styx, and the God Pluto. For if you read Greek mythology, you'll see that Hades was never a place of torture. Rather, it was simply the place where everyone went when they died and where they had to await their judgment to eternal blessings or eternal damnation. So among the ancient Greeks who made up the word, Hades itself was never a place of fiery eternal torture.
The Ancient Egyptians were probably the first to teach belief in an underground world (see the link Ancient Egyptian Religion under the subheading Afterlife), which people had to pass through after death on their way to a better existence. And this teaching still survives in Christendom today in the doctrine of Purgatory, where the dead must go to be purged of their sins before being allowed entry into heaven. However, since neither the word Purgatory nor its concept can be found in the Bible, its roots probably come from ancient pagan sources.
Yet, Jesus and his Apostles likely did use the Greek word Hades (that is, if they really spoke Greek at all), and Jesus did tell the story of someone who was there and being tortured ('The Rich Man and Lazarus'). Also, the Bible does speak of a 'lake of fire' and of people being burned there eternally. So, you may ask, why have we concluded that there is no such thing as a burning Hell? For an answer, let's look at the history and uses of the words that are translated as 'Hell' in the Bible.
The Hebrew word that is often translated as Hell is 'Sheol.' And in the King James Bible (for instance), Sheol is translated variously as Hell, the grave, and the pit; but none of those words are accurate translations of the word Sheol, for it too was simply the Hebrew word for the place where all the dead go to be judged (see the Wikipedia definition, 'Sheol').
The reason why these three different and conflicting terms were used in that Bible is because its translators were members of the Church of England,
which taught a burning Hell. However, too many of the scriptures that speak of Sheol disprove the idea that it meant a place of conscious torture.
So in the many instances where the word obviously couldn't mean a place of torture, the King James translators chose to render Sheol as grave
(which isn't truly accurate, but it works). For example; at Job 14:13, the faithful man Job prayed:
'O that in the grave (Gr. Sheol), You'd guarded and hide me,
Until all of Your anger has passed.
Please order a time to be set for me,
When You'll mention my name once again.'
And at Ecclesiastes 9:3-6 we read:
'Indeed; the sons of men's hearts are filled what's bad, as well as madness throughout their lives… and then they go to the grave. But, for the living, there is still hope, since a living dog is much greater than a lion that's dead. For the living know that they'll die, but the dead know nothing at all, nor do they have a reward, since the memory of them is forgotten. Their loves and dislikes are both gone, and their zeal has already perished. Then, through the age they'll not be involved, in whatever is done under the sun.'
Then in verse 10 we read:
'So, whatever your hands find to do; do it with all of your power! For there's no doing, thinking, wisdom, or knowledge, in the place of the dead (Sheol) where you're going.'
Because of this, most Bible scholars admit that the ancient Hebrews (and the 'Old Testament” in general) had no concept of a burning Hell. So, did that idea come along with Jesus and the 'New Testament?'
It is interesting that in the Greek Septuagint (the first translation of the Hebrew Bible), which predated Jesus' earthly life by almost two-hundred years, the Hebrew word Sheol was translated into Greek as Hades in each instance where it was found. From this we must conclude that both words (Sheol and Hades) carried the same meaning to those ancient Jewish translators. And remember that the Bible that most Jews and all the Christians used back in the First Century was likely the Greek Septuagint.
So notice that when Jesus came along, the typical Jewish use of the word Hades didn't mean an underworld place of torture. Rather, it was a synonym for Sheol, and it still just meant The Place of the Dead.
However, Jesus did use the word Hades in his story of 'the Rich Man and Lazarus,' which many claim was a description of a burning Hell… but was it?
Not if you understand the context and the point that Jesus was making when he told the story. Notice the circumstances as found at Luke 16:14-16:
'Now, the Pharisees (who loved silver) were listening as he said these things, and they were looking at him with contempt. So [Jesus] said to them:
You claim to be righteous before men, but God knows what's really in your hearts, and the things that are important to men are disgusting in the eyes of God.'
So, that's the context; and the point that Jesus went on to make would illustrate how God views many things that men think to be important as disgusting. Notice how he did this in two different ways:
First: At Luke 16:16-18, he condemned the Pharisees by saying, 'So, whoever releases his woman and marries another, has committed adultery. And whoever marries a released woman has also committed adultery.'
So though these men thought they could righteously abandon their wives and take younger ones (which was a common practice among them), he showed them that God viewed this practice as disgusting and that He really viewed them as adulterers worthy of death!
Second: To further illustrate his point, Jesus told them a story (an illustration or parable) about a 'rich man' and a 'beggar,' who both 'died' (as recorded at Luke 16:19-31). Then he went on to show how each of these men was really viewed in the eyes of God.
The rich man (picturing the Pharisees) thought of himself as being high in the eyes of God, because he owned many things and he lived very well. On the other hand, the beggar named Lazarus (picturing the commoners of IsraEl) had nothing at all, and he had to beg for (spiritual) scraps that fell from the table of these rich religious leaders (the Pharisees).
However, as Jesus pointed out, things were about to change. The 'rich' would no longer be the true spiritual leaders of God's people, and 'the beggars' would find a place of comfort as the favored sons of righteous AbraHam (the one through whom all the blessings upon mankind had been promised).
Notice that Lazarus hadn't really done anything righteous; all Jesus said was that he was extremely poor. However, in the story he was 'carried off into
the favored position of AbraHam.' Was that heaven? It couldn't have been, because Jesus had earlier said (at John 3:13):
'No one has gone to heaven other than the one who came from heaven, the Son of Man.'
So up to that point, nobody (not Lazarus or even AbraHam) had been taken to heaven. And as you can see, this was just a story, because Lazarus wasn't in heaven yet, and the rich man couldn't have been alive in Hell!
Then, what was Jesus talking about? Well, this lowly, begging condition is similar to what the common people of Israel were in spiritually, prior to that time. And what Jesus was illustrating to the Pharisees (a point that they likely understood) is that because they had failed to learn from the Law and the Prophets, their lofty position was to be taken away and given to common, uneducated, and poor people like Jesus' Apostles.
So regardless of that most 'Christian' religions teach; the story of the rich man and Lazarus isn't a tale that describes the tortures of Hell Fire. It was an allegory or parable that Jesus told to the Pharisees as a warning to them that because of their pride and lack of study of the Scriptures, their elevated position as religious leaders was to be taken away and given to the spiritual beggars, who would then be in 'the bosom position of AbraHam.'
Another word that Jesus used to describe the outcome for the wicked was GeHenna (literally: Valley of Hinnom, also: Graveyard of the sons of Hinnom… see the Wikipedia reference, 'Gehenna'). It is usually translated as Hell Fire, as opposed to Hades, which is usually just translated as Hell in other Bibles. Yet, GeHenna was just the name of the valley that bordered the SSW wall of Ancient Jerusalem, which served as the city's garbage dump during the time of Jesus. For prior to the first destruction of Jerusalem (c 600-BCE) it had served as a place for sacrificing children to pagan gods (see Jeremiah 19:4-6). And for this, it was later turned into a place to burn garbage.
Of course, when Jesus used this word (eleven times in the Bible altogether), he was using it symbolically. As a symbol of what?
One reference says:
'It is a place of torment both for the body and the soul.'
But is that a natural conclusion? Being put 'in the garbage dump' would convey a totally different meaning to readers if they didn't already believe in a Hell Fire.
But didn't Jesus say (at Mark 9:47, 48):
'If your eye traps you, throw it away. For, it's better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have both eyes and to be thrown into the garbage dump (GeHenna) where there are always maggots and the fire is never put out'?
Oh yes, other Bibles render this verse:
'than to be cast into Hell Fire where the worms dieth not and the fire is not quenched.'
However, remember that Jesus was talking about a garbage dump when he said,
'hopou ho skolex auton ou teleuta kai to pyr ou sbennutai,'
'where the maggot of/them not finished and the fire not extinguished.'
Obviously, most ancient garbage dumps were kept burning and there were always maggots living there. So does this natural description of a garbage dump really prove eternal torment? We feel that the answer is clear.
Also notice that these words of Jesus were not original; he was actually quoting from a more ancient scripture found at Isaiah 66:24, which reads:
'They'll go out and see the bodies of men
(Those who rebelled against Me)
Whose worms won't come to an end
And whose fire will not be extinguished…
They'll be a sight for all flesh [to see].'
So according to God Himself, these destroyed people won't be burning in an unseen place of torture; rather, their bodies will lie exposed on the ground for all to see, and that is where 'their worms won't come to an end and their fire will not be extinguished.'
But what about Jesus' words at Matthew 10:28, where it's written that he said:
'Don't fear those who can kill the body (Gr. soma),
But can't kill the person inside (Gr. psychen).
Rather fear the One who can destroy
The person and the body in the garbage (Gr. Gehenne).'
Well, notice how Luke later phrased these very same words of Jesus at Luke 12:5:
'Fear the One, who after killing [the body],
Can throw it into the garbage… Yes, He's the One you must fear!'
So, notice that Jesus wasn't really offering immortality to the wicked (which would be required for them to live forever in agony). For the Bible shows that immortality was only offered to the righteous (see 1 Corinthians 15:53, 54). Rather, what Jesus was clearly telling his followers here is that they shouldn't fear those who can kill the body, but that they should fear God who can kill them and choose not to resurrect them (or throw them into the garbage).
Is there any Bible precedent for calling God's final judgment the garbage dump? Yes, for notice what King David wrote at Psalm 21:8-12,
when he was talking to God about such undeserving unrighteous ones:
'So, may his enemies be found in Your hands;
May Your right-hand grab those who hate You,
And in Your Day, throw them into an oven.
In Your rage, please send them disturbance,
And then destroy them in fire.
Destroy their fruit from the earth,
And their seed from among sons of men.
For their purpose toward You was just to do bad,
And they argued over plans unfulfilled.
So, throw them away with Your garbage,
And prepare their faces for this.'
So notice that David was praying that such ones would be treated as garbage and burned up in a fire.
Ah, but those who wish to believe in a burning Hell point to the words of Revelation 20:10 that speak of 'the Lake of Fire.'
For notice what the Bible tells us about it there:
'Then the Opposer who misled them will be thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the wild animal and the false prophet already are, and they will be tortured day and night for ages of ages.'
So, aren't these words proof that the lake of fire is Hell and that eternal torture is what happens there? No, for notice what the Bible then goes on to say about it at Revelation 20:14: 'Finally, death [Gr. thanatos] and the grave [Gr. Hades] were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire symbolizes the second death.'
So, what Bible translators have called Hell (Hades) will be thrown into something else they call Hell, the lake of fire, which the Bible says is simply the second (or eternal) death. And did you notice that death would be thrown there, as well as two political organizations (the wild animal and the false prophet)? Therefore, the torture must be symbolic.
Another Greek word that is found occasionally in the Bible is lakkon (pit or abyss).
This appears to mean the same as GeHenna or the lake of fire… it's a place from which people will not be resurrected.
We gather this from the words of Psalm 28:1, where we read:
'I'll call out to You, O Jehovah…
My God, I won't remain silent!
So, don't be silent with me,
Or make me like those who enter the pit.'
Then notice how just a few verses later (verse 5), David said:
'You should wipe them away,
And never rebuild them again.'
As you can see; David was likening going into 'the pit' to being eternally destroyed (not being tortured).
At 2 Peter 2:4 we read of 'angels' or 'messengers' who were put into Tartarus for bad acts they committed during the time of Noah. Notice that the account he was referencing is found at Genesis 6:4, where these angels were also called 'the sons of The God.' And there it tells us that they came to the earth and took 'the daughters of men' (see the linked scripture and the linked notes).
But this wasn't the only mention of Tartarus in the Bible. The word is also found in the book of Job in the Greek Septuagint (the Bible of Peter's day). For at Job 41:32, where the reference is obviously speaking of the Opposer (Satan), it says that he thinks of 'the depths of Tartarus as his captive.' And this may be where people got the idea that the evil one and his demons rule over a burning Hell. Yet notice that the term Tartarus (from Greek Mythology) originally meant the place where gods (not humans) were sent. In fact, you'll find no place in the Bible that speaks of humans being sent there.
So, why did Peter use this pagan word that comes from Greek Mythology when speaking of the condition of unfaithful messengers of God? Well, he used the Greek word that best described such a place of confinement for spirits. And anyone who has studied Greek Mythology will notice close but sometimes-opposite parallels to Bible stories that are told in Genesis Chapters Two through Six. Stories such as Hercules and the Golden Apples, Medusa, immoral Gods who came to earth, etc., seem to closely resemble the stories of Adam and the forbidden fruit, the snake in the Paradise, and the sons of God who came to earth and lived as humans. So, it isn't surprising that the Greeks also had a name for the place where these sons of God (the gods) were sent after the Downpour. And since this correct idea was common at the time, Peter just used their word to convey what he was talking about to his readers.
Therefore, because these spirit 'sons of God' came to earth and apparently created havoc in Noah's day, God locked them up a prison-like state here on the earth, where they are no longer free to roam. This group is specifically referred to as the demons in the Bible, and it could be that their captive state was referred to as 'Tartarus.'
You will find several references to caged demons in the ancient Hebrew texts, and at Revelation 18:2 in the NT. In Greek, they are called the syrene, and this is often translated as sirens, which people think of as mythical women who lured ships to their destruction. Yet by definition; this is a reference to spirits that are somehow confined.
One of the reasons why there can be no Hell of eternal torture, is that a person would need an 'immortal soul' to be sent there. In other words, they would have to be incapable of dying to be forever alive and be tortured. And although the doctrine of the immortal soul is taught by almost all religions, it simply can't be found in the Bible. In fact, one of the things that differentiates the Bible from most (if not all) pagan religions and their sacred writings (such as the Koran), is that the Bible alone teaches that the only hope for the dead is a resurrection (being brought back to life) by the power of God. So according to the Bible, nothing inside us is currently incapable of dying (immortal).
If you go to Genesis the Third Chapter, you'll find that it was the Opposer (Satan) who first taught that men don't really die;
for we read at Genesis 3:5:
'Then the snake told the woman, You won't stop living and die. But God knows that on whatever day you eat from [the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad], your eyes will be opened and you will be gods who know good and evil.'
This was the first lie, and it directly contradicted what God had just said at Genesis 2:16, 17:
'You are free to eat from all the trees of Paradise, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Bad. Because, on whatever day you eat from it, your life will end and you will die (Gr. thanato apothaneisthe, or, death from dying).'
Obviously, souls are not immortal and they can die. For notice the Bible's definition of what a soul is at Genesis 2:7, where we read:
'Then God formed man from the dust of the ground, breathed the breath of life against his face, and He became a living creature (Gr. psychen zosan, or, soul living).'
As you can see, the word we translated as living creature in the text was psychen in Greek (Nephesh in Hebrew), and both words are the same ones that are translated as soul in other Bibles. So the Bible's own definition of a soul, is something made from the dust of the ground and has the breath of life… thus it is a whole living person or animal, not something that lives inside us. In fact, throughout the Bible, animals are also referred to as souls. So, psyche really means (as we have often translated it) a living creature.
Actually, the best true Bible definition of the Greek word psyche is what the word implies in modern psychology, 'the inner person,' not, 'the immortal person.' With this understanding, we can see how God could refer to 'My Soul,' for He was speaking of the person He truly is on the inside.
As history shows, it was the ancient pagan Egyptians and/or Babylonians who first started believing that they had immortal souls. However, righteous Hebrews made no mention of such a belief anywhere in the Sacred Scriptures of Israel (OT). It was only in the latter part of the millennium preceding the time of Jesus that we first see the 'immortal soul' doctrine starting to creep into Jewish teachings.
But didn't Jesus and his Apostles teach that we have immortal souls? No, for those two words (immortal soul) don't appear
together anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the words immortal and immortality (Gr. athanasia or undying) can only be found in three
places in the Bible. Notice how the word is used in each of these cases:
1 Timothy 6:15, 16 – 'He will appear at his own set time… this praised and only sovereign; the King of those who rule as kings and Lord of those who rule as lords; the one who alone has immortality and who lives in unapproachable light; the one whom no man has seen or can see. May he have honor and age-long power… may it be so!
1 Corinthians 15:53, 54 – 'Then that which is corruptible will put on incorruptibility, and that which is dying will put on immortality. But when that which is dying puts on immortality, the words that were written will be fulfilled: Death, which prevails, will be swallowed.'
So in the first case, we can see that Jesus is immortal. And in the second case, we can see that immortality is offered as a reward to the righteous… so it is not a possession of the wicked and they have no immortal soul that can be sent to burn in Hell.
We are always amazed at how quickly people will turn from the teaching of (but not their belief in) an immortal soul after reading the above scriptures, and then they say that the thing that's immortal is the spirit (Hebrew – ruach, Greek – pneuma, Latin – spiritu, which can be translated as breath or wind, but means an unseen force). However, the Bible doesn't ever speak of an immortal spirit either.
Scriptures that those who teach that we have an immortal spirit like to quote to prove their point include the following:
Now, in the first two cases above, the references are to Jesus and his final words and actions as he was dying, and the third case talks about what happens to all men when they die. So the conclusion that many have reached is that Jesus himself returned to God that day. However, the Bible says that he wasn't resurrected until the third day, and he didn't return to God in heaven for forty days after his resurrection. And in the third case (in Ecclesiastes), they use this scripture to say that we go to God (to the 'light') immediately after we die. However, did you notice that the other option such people also believe in, going to 'Hell,' isn't even mentioned there?
So, let's see exactly which 'spirit,' 'breath,' or 'wind' actually returns to God. What caused humans to live to begin with?
Genesis 2:7 says:
'Then God formed man from the dust of the ground, breathed the breath of life (Gr. to pnoen zoes) against his face, and he became a living creature.'
As you can see, the breath of life came from God to begin with, and that's what returns to God when we die.
Now, we certainly don't claim the 'the breath of life' that God breathed was just some form of artificial respiration which caused Adam to start living. Rather, it is obviously the power that God gave to all of Adam's cells, which brought each of them to life. So, something more than breath or wind is implied here. However, literally millions of cells in our bodies die each day, and the power of their life must return to God who originally gave it to Adam. This gradual form of death can be proven scientifically, and some cells continue to live long after clinical death (the death of the brain). So the 'breath' that returns to God is obviously His record of who and what we are, which will allow Him to resurrect us (if He chooses) just as we were.
As you can see, it appears as though we are arguing against something that is proven by several words throughout the Bible. However, recognize that the teaching of a Hell Fire has thousands of years of background in pagan ideas throughout the religions of this world. And the fact that people needed to distort the meanings of such Bible words as Hades ('grave' or 'place of the dead'), GeHenna ('garbage dump'), Lake of Fire ('Second Death'), and Tartarus ('dark place of fallen gods') to try to prove the existence of a place of which a God of Love would never approve, shows a deep, dark, inward hatred. Nobody with any understanding of God's love would ever accuse Him of torture; or worse yet, of eternal torture. Such evil could come only from the minds of the evil one, and from the desires of men to frighten others into following corrupt and empty religious teachings.
Yes, it's a fact that many people want to believe that there is a Hell. After all, shouldn't there be such a punishment for a man like Adolph Hitler who committed such terrible crimes against humanity? But realize that it is only because religious people such as Adolph Hitler* believe that God does such evil things, that they have felt justified in their own acts of horror against humanity.
It's an interesting fact that among religious works, it is easy to tell true Bible books from other 'sacred writings' by whether they teach a burning Hell. Whereas the Bible only teaches it through mistranslations; such works as the Moslem Qur'an and the Book of Mormon teach it openly and without shame. And just good sense should tell us which is truly inspired by God.
So then, what happens to the bad after they die? Proverbs 12:7 tells us:
'When the irreverent are overturned they'll disappear (Gr. aphanizetai), but the homes of the righteous will remain.'
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