I received the following question:
Nathan, would you please explain to me your views on hell? Thank you.
I will try to be basic and understandable, yet thorough enough that you get the idea.
The first fact we need to understand is that “hell” is on a much more shaky ground translation-wise even than “baptism.” “Baptism,” as I said, is really a Greek word that is not translated. “Hell,” on the other hand, is a very questionable translation of any word in the Hebrew or the Greek of the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, “hell” is exclusively translated from the Hebrew word sheol. The problem is that sheol is not consistently translated “hell.” It is translated “hell” 31 times, only about half of the time it occurs. It is translated “grave” another 31 times. 3 times (these numbers are from the King James Version) it is translated “the pit.” How a word could mean “hell,” “grave,” and “the pit” all at the same time, I am sure I do not know.
If we would try to figure out the method to the translator’s madness regarding this word, we would find that usually they translated the word “grave” if it referred to a good or Godly person. The first occurrence of sheol is a demonstration of this in Genesis 37:35.
35. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, “For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. (New King James Version)
This verse is speaking of Jacob, a good man, so they translated it “grave.” When the word sheol refers to wicked or godless people, the translators tend to translate it “hell,” as in Psalm 9:17.
17. The wicked shall be turned into hell,
And all the nations that forget God.
Why they ever translated sheol as “the pit” is anyone’s guess. One example is Numbers 16:30.
30. But if the LORD creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the LORD.”
If we would examine this word in all 64 Old Testament occurrences, we would find that both good men and wicked men are expected to go into sheol after they die. Therefore, I do not believe we can say that sheol is “hell” as people think of it today. I do not think that sheol is a place, but a word that should be translated. Yet it is really hard to translate, since I don’t think we have an English word that expresses the same idea as the meaning of sheol. If I had to define sheol, I would say that it describes the state of being dead. In English, we have a word for the state of being poor: poverty. We have a word for the state of being alone: solitude. But we do not have a word for the state of being dead. Yet that is what sheol is. If we would coin “deaditude,” that is the idea. Yet also it is death viewed as a temporary state. That is, it is death with resurrection expected in the future. Since I believe in universal resurrection (but not universal salvation) I believe that all men who are now dead are in the state of death with future resurrection expected, that is, in sheol. This includes both the righteous and the wicked dead.
The interesting thing about it is that sheol is the ONLY word translated “hell” in the Old Testament. The closest we get in the Old Testament to our modern idea of “hell” is in the place Topheth. “Tophet” or “Topheth” (as it is alternately called) means “Place of Fire.” It is mentioned in Isaiah 30:33.
33. For Tophet was established of old,
Yes, for the king it is prepared.
He has made it deep and large;
Its pyre is fire with much wood;
The breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone,
Aha, we might say. Here is the hell we were expecting! Yet not so, once we really look into it. For the Bible makes it clear to us where Tophet is located in II Kings 23:10.
10. And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech.
This verse tells us that Topheth is in “the Valley of the Son of Hinnom,” a valley on earth, and near the city of Jerusalem. A while back, a song was popular that repeated over and over in the chorus, “Ooo, heaven is a place on earth.” Well, if Topheth is hell, then hell is a place on earth! All the Biblical evidence is that people who are cast into this place of fire on earth experience the same thing that we would expect would happen to anyone who is cast into a fiery place on earth…they are burned up, and that is the end of them.
These two words are all we read of “hell” in the Old Testament. There is no sign in the entire first ¾ of the Bible of the “hell” of modern theology. The closest we get are a few vague references to wicked people being burned, as in II Samuel 23:7c, “And they shall be utterly burned with fire in their place,” but this should probably be connected with Tophet, which is a “place on earth.” So we would search the Old Testament in vain for any sign of the modern concept of “hell” at all.
When we move to the New Testament, we have switched original languages from Hebrew to Greek. Yet other than this, the ground is much the same. We would find the word hades used in quotations of the Old Testament to translate the word sheol, which shows us that hades is the Greek word for sheol. We would find that hades is used the same way that sheol is used, both for wicked and righteous people. It is translated “hell” ten times and “grave” once. I would conclude that it means “the state of death with resurrection in view,” just like sheol does. The one exception to this, however, is in Luke 16 in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. There is no doubt but that this passage is the one appealed to more than any other by those who hold the traditional view of hell. See my articles on Luke 16 to deal specifically with this passage.
The idea of Topheth, the place of fire, is also found in the New Testament. First of all, it is found in the concept of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which appears in the New Testament as the Greek Gehenna, coming from the Hebrew ge (of) ben (son) Hinnom. This word is also translated “hell,” and they have always translated it “hell” in all ten of its occurrences (unlike hades). It speaks of that same valley near Jerusalem where Israel originally practiced idolatry. By the time of the New Testament, that valley had been defiled by Josiah, and turned into the garbage dump for Jerusalem. Fires were continually burning there to incinerate the trash. The place was infested by worms which ate any organic trash that was not burned up first. If a man was a particularly vile criminal, after he was executed they would cast his body on the trash dumps of Gehenna rather than burying him. There, he would either be burned up or eaten up by worms. The Lord speaks of particularly vile men as deserving such punishment. However, this has nothing to do with the concept of an eternal “hell” where “souls” are cast to be tortured for all eternity.
Then there is one odd occurrence in II Peter 2:4 of the word tartaroo, which the translators often make to be “hell.”
4. For if 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;
This word comes from the Greek name “Tartaros,” which was a legendary prison for “gods.” The word in II Peter literally means that God “Tartaros-ized” these angels. I would take it to mean that He imprisoned them in a prison for super-human beings. This prison is called “The Abyss” or “The Pit (or Well) of the Abyss” in other passages. It is a prison for heavenly creatures, not Adam’s race of human beings, and so I do not think any human will ever be incarcerated there.
Finally, the book of Revelation speaks four times of the “lake of fire.” This is the Greek ten limnen tou puros. It occurs in four passages, all in this last book of the Bible.
Revelation 19:20. Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone.
Revelation 20:10. The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Revelation 20:14. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
Revelation 20:15. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
Matthew 25:41 calls this “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” This should probably also be connected with the “Gehenna” that Christ spoke of, although whether or not it literally exists in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom is hard to say. I would expect that the typical result of being cast into the lake of fire would be to be burned to ashes, not to continue to live there for eternity, or for any length of time. Revelation 20:10 is an odd passage, though some would use it, again, like Luke 16 to try to negate everything else we would learn from the Bible about God’s mode of future punishment. In regard to this verse, my cousin Andy Brown wrote the following:
It is my understanding that the lake of fire is a literal place that will be the incinerator for the wicked dead during the Kingdom of God. There is no return from the lake of fire which is the 2nd death. There is no resurrection in view for those who are cast here. As mentioned in my paper, there are only three “people” who are cast in alive. Everybody else is cast in dead. (That said it can be used symbolically, but that only makes sense if it is actually literal). The word “are” should be “were cast” as they are not there anymore since they were cast into the lake of fire before the 1000 years and the devil is cast there after it. They would have been consumed shortly thereafter. We know from Mr. Sellers’ work on the word, “torment” here would be better understood as “tested.” These three will be tested most thoroughly (day and night) for the “eons of the eons.” Eon has the basic meaning of “flow” so they will be tested for the “flows of the flows.” I take that to mean that they will be tested for the results of the flows that they have done. With Satan this could be since the fall of Adam and down through all the periods of time. Satan has been doing much harm to our world; however, many people may blame him for a lot of things he didn’t do. All of Satan’s activities will be put to light during this thorough test. The reason why this test needs to be so thorough is because it will truly put rebellion and deception in its place as God will teach us with this test all the horror that takes place due to not listening to Him, and listening to Satan. This test will put Satan in the worst “correct” light possible and it will really bring enormous glory to God.
As Andy said, I do not believe that even Satan and his angels will be suffering in the lake of fire for all eternity. They will be severely tested for all the wickedness they have done, and will suffer for it. Yet ultimately, death will be their end, for God will not allow wickedness to remain in His perfect creation forever.
From the very beginning, the just punishment for sin has been declared to be death. This is what Adam was warned the punishment would be if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as we read in Genesis 2:16-17.
16. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17. but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Adam was warned that if he ate of the forbidden fruit, the punishment he would experience would be death. He was not warned about any kind of after-death suffering in a place called “hell.” If this, and not death, was the real punishment he had to look out for, then God was guilty of seriously failing to state anything like the truth in His warning to him. Yet if God’s warning was accurate, then the punishment Adam really faced for his sin was death, not eternal suffering in hell.
In Genesis 3:19, after Adam and Eve’s sin, God sets forth to them what the punishment for their sin is going to look like.
19. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”
Here, God defines what this “death” they are facing will look like. It will mean a return. When they were created, they were taken out of the dust, and when they die, they will return there. Many today suggest that “death” means a separation. Yet this is not what the Bible reveals. Death is a return. Ecclesiastes 12:7 makes this clear.
7. Then the dust will return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit will return to God who gave it.
Thus, death is a return, the body to the dust, and the spirit (the breath of life) to God Who gave it.
Many try to fight this idea of death meaning the end of a person by using the word “soul.” They claim that the “soul” is an immortal thing that goes right on living once the body dies. Yet this does not fit with the Bible’s teaching on the subject. Over and over, the Bible uses the word “soul” in Hebrew, nephesh, for a “dead soul.” Our translators make this disappear by translating “soul” as “body” in these occurrences. Yet these uses of “soul” are there in the Bible as God originally wrote it, and in God’s view, a soul can die. Even in English, this is confirmed in Ezekiel 18:4.
4. “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.
On the other hand, the “soul” is never spoken of in the Bible as being immortal or not subject to death, in spite of the fact that everyone wants to insist this is the truth about it. In fact, the Bible says that only Jesus Christ is immortal in I Timothy 6:14-16.
14b. …that you keep this commandment without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing, 15. which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16. who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen.
If Jesus Christ alone has immortality, then we human beings do not have it, either in our souls or any other way. The only way we can get immortality, then, is to receive it as a gift from God. This is how I believe we get perpetual life…it is a gift of God through faith in Christ, and not at all something we have as a right from birth. The fact that death is the punishment for sin and eternal life is a gift is stated over and over in the Bible. One clear place is Romans 6:23.
23. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The fact that death, not eternal torment, is the penalty for sin is confirmed in the way Jesus Christ paid the penalty for us. When Christ “Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24), He bore them by dying for us. He did not bear them by going to hell and suffering for all eternity. His punishment did not fit with our punishment if our “real” punishment is suffering for all eternity in hell. If our punishment for sin is death, however, that is exactly the price Christ paid, and we are right to think that He suffered and died in our place. This is what the Bible teaches, and it makes a lie out of the idea that the “real” penalty for sin is not death, but is suffering for all eternity in fire.
I pray this helps.