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 as people have been taught, where the bad are sent to 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, but simply the place where the dead go to be judged. And thereafter (in Greek Mythology), they either received blessings or damnation. So, Hades among Greek-speaking people was never a synonym for a fiery place of 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, neither the word Purgatory nor its concept can be found in the Bible. So, its roots probably come from ancient pagan sources.
Yet, Jesus (and his Apostles) did use the Greek word Hades; he did tell the story of someone who was there and being tortured; and the Bible does speak of a 'lake of fire' and of people being burned there eternally. So, 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 word 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 accurately translate Sheol, for it too is simply the place where the dead go to await judgment.
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, who taught a burning Hell. However, too many of the scriptures that speak of Sheol disprove the idea that it means 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, and madness throughout all their lives… and then they go to the grave (Sheol). 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 with all of your power; for, there's no doing, thinking, wisdom, or knowledge, in the place of the dead (Heb. Sheol) where you'll go.'
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. So, we must conclude that both words (Sheol and Hades) carried the same meaning to those ancient Jewish translators. And remember that the Bible which many Jews and all the Christians used in the First Century was the Greek Septuagint.
So, when Jesus came along, the typical Jewish use of the word Hades didn't mean an underworld place of torture, it was a synonym for Sheol, and it still just meant The Place of the Dead.
However, Jesus used 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 at Luke 16:14-16: 'Now, the Pharisees (who loved silver) were listening to these things and were looking at him with contempt. So he said to them: You are the ones who claim to be righteous in front of men… but God knows your hearts. Things that are considered important by men are disgusting in God's eyes.'
So, that's the context; and the point that he went on to make was to illustrate how God views many things that men view as important as disgusting. Then notice how he did this with two different arguments:
First: At Luke 16:16-18, he condemned the Pharisees by saying, 'Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery.' The point being: They thought they were righteous; but when they abandoned their wives and took others, they were really condemned as adulterous sinners in the eyes of God.
Second: At Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the story (a parable) of a 'rich man' and a 'beggar,' who both 'died.' Then he went on to show how each man was really viewed in the eyes of God.
The rich man (picturing the Pharisees) thought of himself as blest, because he was viewed by all as spiritually 'important.' While Lazarus, the beggar (picturing the common people), had nothing at all, trusting in their religious leaders (the Pharisees) to provide them spiritual scraps from their table. But, notice how God viewed each of them. For with the death of Jesus, this condition would be changed. The 'rich' would no longer be the spiritual leaders of God's people, and 'the beggars' would find a place of comfort as the favored sons of righteous AbraHam (he through whom the blessings on mankind were promised).
Notice that Lazarus hadn't really done anything righteous; his only virtue was that he was extremely poor. However, he was 'carried off into the favor of AbraHam.' Was that heaven? It couldn't have been, because Jesus said (at John 3:13): 'Nobody has gone to heaven other than he who came from heaven, the Son of Man.' So up to that point, nobody (not even AbraHam or Lazarus) had been taken to heaven.
Then, what was Jesus talking about? Well, this lowly, begging condition is similar to what the common people of Israel (such as Jesus' disciples) were in spiritually, prior to that time. And Jesus was illustrating that he was going to change all of that by offering common people (the lowly spiritual beggars) the favored position in the eyes of God.
So, what Jesus was illustrating to the Pharisees (a point which they probably understood) is that; because they had failed to learn from the Law and the Prophets, their high position was being taken away and given to common people. For, 'Things that are considered important by men are disgusting in God's eyes.'
As you can see; this isn't a tale that describes the torture of Hell Fire. Rather, it was an allegory or parable that Jesus told the Pharisees, warning them that because of their pride, they were soon to lose their elevated position as religious leaders (those in the favored 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 descendants of a man named Hinnom). It is usually translated as Hell Fire, as opposed to Hades (which is usually just translated as Hell in other Bibles). GeHenna is the valley that bordered the SSW wall of Jerusalem, which served as the city's garbage dump during the time of Jesus. Prior to the first destruction of Jerusalem (c 600-BCE) it had been a graveyard, and then it was set aside for profane use after it had served as a place for sacrificing children to pagan gods prior to JeruSalem's destruction.
Of course, when Jesus used this word (eleven times in the Bible altogether), he used 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,' or, '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 scripture that is 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 he said:
'Don't fear those who can kill the body (gr. soma),
But, cannot kill the inner person (gr. psychen).
Rather, fear Him who can fully destroy,
The person and the body in the garbage (gr. Gehenne).'
Well, notice also how Luke phrased these same words of Jesus at Luke 12:5:
'Let me show you whom you should fear:
Fear Him, who after killing [the body],
Has the power to throw you into the garbage… Yes, He's the One you should 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 and sang about when mentioning such undeserving unrighteous ones at Psalm 21:9-12:
'You will throw them into an oven of fire,
In Your Day [Jehovah, our God].
'In Your rage, You'll disturb them,
And destroy them in fire.
You'll destroy their fruit from the earth,
And their seed from the sons of men.
'For, their purpose toward You was just to do bad,
And they argued over plans that were never fulfilled.
So, throw them away with Your garbage (Gr. periloipois sou – leavings your),
And prepare their faces for this.'
So, notice that as garbage or residue, they are to be burned up in a fire.
Ah, but those who wish to believe in a burning Hell for everyone who disagrees with them point to 'the Lake of Fire.' Notice what we read about this at Revelation 20:10: '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.'
Isn't this the conclusive proof that the lake of fire is Hell and that eternal torture happens there?
No, for notice what Revelation 20:14 says: '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… that a person who is sent there 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, You will never be silent with me,
And make me like those who enter the pit.'
Then notice how just a few verses later (verse 5), David said:
'So, You will wipe them away,
And never rebuild them again.'
2 Peter 2:4 speaks of 'angels' or 'messengers' who were put into Tartarus for bad acts they committed during the time of Noah. Genesis 6:4 calls them 'sons of God,' and it tells of their coming to earth and taking 'the daughters of men' (see the linked scripture and the linked notes).
Actually, the first mention of Tartarus in the Bible is found in the book of Job in the Greek Septuagint (the Bible of Peter's day), and it may have been this reference that Peter was quoting. For there (at Job 41:32), where the reference is obviously speaking of the Opposer (Satan), it says that he lives as a captive in 'Tartarus.'
In other Bibles, this Greek word has wrongfully been translated as Hell and Hell Fire. However, the term Tartarus (from Greek Mythology) refers specifically to the place where gods (not humans) were sent. And as the result of past misunderstandings about the meaning of this word, many have come to believe that the Slanderer and his demons are in Hell watching over its flames and torturing human souls.
This has caused many Bible students ask why Peter used this pagan term that comes from Greek Mythology to describe the condition of unfaithful messengers of God. For, the appearance here is that the Bible had its roots in Greek myths. However, the opposite is true.
Anyone who takes the time to carefully consider Greek Mythology will notice close but sometimes-opposite parallels to Bible stories 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.
It appears as though these spirit 'sons of God' came to earth and assumed human bodies in Noah's day. And since they were not truly flesh, they couldn't be destroyed by the Downpour (flood). And because they had forsaken heaven, they were apparently put into a prison-like state here on the earth, where they are no longer able to roam. This group is specifically referred to as the demons in the Bible.
You will find several references to caged demons in the ancient Hebrew texts, and you will find a similar term at Revelation 18:2. 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; they are to spirits who are fixed in one place (Tartarus).
One of the reasons why there can be no Hell of eternal torture is because a person would need an 'immortal soul' to be sent there. In other words, a portion of his or her personality would have to be incapable of dying. And although such a doctrine 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 a dead person must be resurrected (brought back to life) by the power of God. So, nothing inside us is incapable of dying (immortal).
Why, if you go to Genesis the Third Chapter, you'll find that it was the Opposer (Satan) who first taught that men wouldn't 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 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. Genesis 2:7 tells us this: '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 and 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 referred to as souls also. 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.' He wasn't speaking of the individual we all believe that we know, but of the person He is on the inside.
As history shows, the pagan Egyptians believed 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 proceeding the time of Jesus that we first see the 'immortal souls' doctrine starting to creep into Jewish teachings.
Then, did 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, and let's see how the word is used in each of these cases:
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 those scriptures, and then say the thing that is 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 (when his 'spirit' returned to God). However, the Bible says that he wasn't resurrected until the third day, and he didn't return to God in heaven for many days after his resurrection. So that can't be true. And in the third case (in Ecclesiastes), they conclude it's saying that we go to God (to the 'light') immediately when 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.'
Yes, the breath (Gr. pnoen, a conjugation of pneuma) of life came from God to begin with, so it 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 to cause 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 that a God of Love would never approve of, 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 men, and from a desire to frighten others into following corrupt and empty religious teachings.
Yes, many people want to believe that there is a Hell. After all, shouldn't there be such a thing for those like Adolph Hitler, who have committed such terrible crimes against humanity? On the other hand, it is only because such religious people as Adolph Hitler* believed that God is to blame for such badness, 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' is 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 those who are bad? 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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