Not a nice subject, but it needs to be looked at.
There are three main views held by christians today. Examination of the historical evidence and Jesus’ teachings on the subject show that one of these doctrines cannot be true, and another is most likely what Jesus taught.
The English word ‘hell’ comes from an ancient German word hel or helle, meaning “a nether world of the dead”, and has sometimes been used to translate 4 words in the Bible:
Sheol: This word occurs almost 30 times in the Old Testament, and was once translated as ‘hell’. But most translations these days use the words ‘death’ or ‘grave’, and the IVF Bible Dictionary says that the meaning is ‘the state of death’. The Old Testament says nothing about ongoing punishment, and says nothing about ‘hell’.
Tartaro: This Greek word, meaning ‘abyss’ or ‘pit’, is used once in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:24), where it describes sinful angels being held for judgment in the abyss. It says nothing about people.
Hades: This Greek word is used 10 times in the New Testament and means the same as Sheol – the state of death. Again, it is generally no longer translated as ‘hell’ and says nothing of ongoing torment.
Gehenna: This is the main word translated as ‘hell’ and is used a dozen times in the New Testament as a name for a place of destruction or punishment of the wicked.
Other references to fire and punishment
There are references to punishment that don’t mention the word ‘hell’. Prominent among these are:
- Jesus spoke of ‘eternal punishment’ (e.g. Matthew 25:41,46).
- Paul spoke of punishment and death (e.g Romans 1:32).
- Revelation speaks of the punishment of the ‘fire that torments’ (Revelation 14:9-11) and the ‘lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:14-15).
Meaning of gehenna – a place or an image?
Gehenna is the English version of a Greek word Ge’enna, which comes via the Aramaic Gēhannā from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, which literally means “Valley of Hinnom”, referring to a valley outside of Jerusalem. The origin of this name can be seen 11 times in the Old Testament (e.g. Joshua 15:8, 2 Chronicles 28:3) as Gei Ben-Hinnom, the “Valley of the son of Hinnom”.
The Valley of Hinnom had a number of nasty associations in the Old and New Testaments – it was a place where worshippers of Canaanite gods sacrificed children, half a millennium before Jesus, it was the location of a rubbish tip where refuse was burnt, and the location of tombs. By the time of Jesus, it was used as a picture of Gehinnom, the place of purification after death, and perhaps of punishment or destruction of the most wicked.
Most of the NT references to ‘gehenna’ (11 out of 12) are from Jesus – the only exception is James 3:6 which uses ‘hell’ as a synonym for ‘evil’ and says nothing of punishment. Paul doesn’t use the word at all. So we must consider what Jesus meant by the word.
The afterlife in the Old Testament
The Jewish scriptures in the christian Old Testament say very little about any life after death. For most of the Old Testament, life ends at death, that’s more or less it. There was no real concept of reward or punishment.
Sheol, was sometimes seen as a place where the dead sleep or have a shadowy existence, but this isn’t considered to be life, and the dead either cannot, or shouldn’t, be awakened.
But there are glimpses of something more. Some of the Psalms and the prophets see hope, not based on an immortal soul, but on the goodness of God. However the details aren’t at all clear.
Daniel (probably one of the last Old Testament books to be written) talks of the dead waking, “some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
So there is no concept of hell in the Old Testament, and only a vague idea of an afterlife or judgment, reward and punishment.
Afterlife in second temple Judaism
However in the period of several centuries between the end of the Old Testament and the time of Jesus, Jewish rabbis and thinkers thought long and hard about these matters. The books in the Apocrypha and other writings (often called pseudepigrapha, writings in the name of famous Jewish figures but not actually written by them) contain a lot of these ideas.
Scholars have identified about 18 different beliefs about the afterlife in this period. The most commonly held by the time of Jesus were:
- Human beings are composed of an immortal soul and a body which disintegrates at death.
- Resurrection would occur at the end of the age, when the soul and body would be re-united. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, but most other groups and teachers did. Few believed that the soul continued to live without the resurrection of the body.
- Some believed that only the righteous would be resurrected, but most believed that all would be resurrected and face judgment. In this way, God would bring justice – vindication for the righteous and punishment for the wicked.
- There were various beliefs about what happened between death and the resurrection at the end of the age. Some thought the soul slept in Sheol, others that the righteous would exist somewhat like angels or spirits, while others thought there would be an initial and a later resurrection.
- Gehinnom was the place where souls or people would undergo purification and eventually move on to Olam Ha-Ba or Gan Eden (more or less heaven, paradise or Garden of Eden). This purification was thought to last no more than a year. Most rabbis thought that only the very wicked would not eventually escape Gehinnom for paradise. Most commonly it was believed the very wicked would be annihilated or would waste away, but some thought the wicked would continue to be punished.
- The non-Jews weren’t often considered in all this, though some believed the righteous gentiles would be treated the same as righteous Jews.
Thus Gehinnom was more like the Catholic purgatory than the Protestant hell. And the most common belief was that most Jews would experience purification of their sins and ultimately paradise, and the very wicked would forfeit their life.
What did Jesus mean?
It is clear that Jesus believed in resurrection, as did most rabbis. He also believed in God’s judgment, though he gave hope that this would be merciful, certainly for those who suffered injustice in this life.
When talking about the judgment in the age to come, Jesus would have used the word Gehinnom or the Aramaic gehanna. He would have known the common usage of these words, as outlined above. We cannot know for sure how much he accepted the common views, but the prevailing views are the obvious starting point.
On that basis, we can examine which of the main views today (everlasting punishment, resurrection of the righteous and universal salvation) most fit his teachings (and the rest of the New Testament).
This view, commonly called Eternal Conscious Torment, has been the most common belief among christians for most of the history of christianity. It is based on a literal (and actually inaccurate) interpretation of the words ‘eternal fire’ and ‘eternal punishment’ in Matthew 25:41, 46, and several verses in Revelation, for example 14:9-11: ‘tormented … for ever and ever’. Thus the two key points are consciousness of punishment and unending duration.
It is worth noting that in none of the 10 occasions that Jesus mentions the threat of ‘gehenna’ does he infer that it is everlasting, and in several he suggests otherwise. Thus while the idea of judgment is fundamental to Jesus’ teaching, the idea that punishment endures forever can be inferred from only one or two sayings, and, as we shall see, is not the most obvious meaning even there.
The images of ‘unquenchable fire’ (Mark 9:43 – Greek: asbestos) are also used to support this view, although it is recognised that “the primary thought of asbestos is not one of duration … but … absolute immutability.” (RA Cole).
Proponents also refer to the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-37), where the rich man, alive and in torment has a conversation with Abraham in heaven, a picture based on a contemporary Jewish belief that there were two sections in Sheol (the state of death) – one for the righteous and one for the wicked. However no-one takes the possibility of such a conversation literally, so it is difficult to apply other parts of the parable literally either.
Two passages in Revelation speak of torment “forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11, 20:10). This is as close to everlasting punishment as the Bible gets, but:
- the word “gehenna” is never mentioned,
- neither passage specifically says people will be tormented forever – in 14:11 it is the smoke which rises forever, and in 20:10 it is the devil, the beast and the false prophet who are punished,
- the terrible imagery of Revelation (lake of fire, second death, etc) suggests destruction rather than continuing torment, and
- it is unwise to take the apocalyptic symbolism of Revelation too literally, here and elsewhere – these passages can be interpreted differently.
Critics of eternal conscious torment say:
- it is cruel and unjust (infinite punishment for finite sin is unjust),
- it is wrongly based on the Greek idea that the soul is immortal (a view not taught in the Bible, though taught by some rabbis) and therefore there is no alternative for unrepentant people (as if God couldn’t mercifully end their life if he chose, rather than continue to torment them),
- it is based on very few passages, most of which should be interpreted differently, and
- it ignores other contrary passages.
If combined with a belief that only those who specifically turn to Jesus can be saved (exclusivism), as it often is, this view condemns the majority of people who have ever lived to everlasting torture.
Nevertheless, proponents such as Professor AW Gomes say: “The language is unambiguous, emphatic, and conclusive …. sufficient to settle the argument forever.”
The resurrection of the righteous
Commonly named “Annihilationism” or “Conditional Immortality”, this has been a minority belief through the history of christianity, but is gaining ground in the past few decades (e.g. prominent christians such as John Stott and Michael Green endorsed it). It agrees with the traditional view that those who don’t repent will be judged, but teaches that those who fail God’s judgment are not punished forever, but rather forfeit their life and the opportunity to be resurrected into the new heaven and the new earth.
Support for this view comes from the following considerations:
- When Jesus speaks of ‘eternal punishent’, the words do not mean the punishment endures forever as we might think. The Greek word aionios (from aion = ‘age’), translated as ‘eternal’, does not mean ‘forever’ but ‘in the age to come’. Even proponents of the traditional view agree on this (e.g. JI Packer: “‘eternal’ (aionios) in the New Testament means “belonging to the age to come” rather than expressing any directly chronological notion”). They argue that if the age to come continues forever, then so must the punishment, an argument that seems quite unconvincing to me.
- Jesus speaks not of unending torment but of ‘destruction’. When in Matthew 10:28 he warns of the one who can kill or destroy body and soul in hell, the Greek word used, apollumi, has the primary meaning ‘to destroy fully’ (Strong’s Concordance), and the Bible dictionaries give the following range of meanings: destroy, abolish, ruin, lose, perish, kill. Furthermore, the word ‘destroy’ is used in at least 8 other places in the NT in this context. However critics argue that despite these definitions, apollumi in the NT means ‘ruin’ rather than ‘annihilation’, but I find this argument hard to sustain when I look at the passages (see References below).
- The Bible nowhere speaks of souls being eternal, but rather says humans will ‘return to the dust’ except if we are resurrected to new life.
Commenting on Matthew 25:41 & 46 in his Tyndale Commentary on Matthew, Professor RVG Tasker sums up this view: “aionios is a qualitative rather than a quantitative word. Eternal life is the life characteristic of the age (aion) to come, which is in every way superior to the present, evil age. Similarly, ‘eternal punishment’ in this context indicates that lack of charity and of loving-kindness, though it may escape punishment in the present age, must and will be punished in the age to come. There is, however, no indication as to how long that punishment will last. The metaphor of ‘eternal fire’ wrongly rendered everlasting fire in verse 41 is meant, we may reasonably presume, to indicate final destruction.”
Thus this view, sometimes named “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality”, accepts that the Bible teaches of God’s judgment, but sees that judgment as being limited in scope, as befits both the finite nature of the sin and the limitless nature of God’s love. I prefer to name it “the resurrection of the righteous”, for this emphasises that we humans will return to dust unless we are resurrected by God’s grace.
It is more or less a middle view between the other two more extreme views, and believers in both the other views seem to accept conditional immortality as an acceptable “second best” alternative.
Universalism holds that, in the end, all will be saved because of God’s great love for us. The view has been a minority view in christianity from the early days (Origen and Clement believed this) and is growing in popularity today. It is often held that those who refuse God’s love in this life will go to a purgatory or hell where God’s love will be further revealed to them until, eventually, all will respond, repent and enter eternal life.
This view is based on several thoughts:
- Quite a number of passages speak of “all” people or the “whole world” being saved. Typical is 1 John 2.2: “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”, but others include 1 Corinthians 15:22 and John 12:32.
- Another strong NT theme is the final reconciliation of “all things (Colossians 1:20, Romans 11.32) when God will make “all things” new (Revelation 21:5).
- God is said to want everyone saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), and if he is sovereign, he achieves what he wants.
- This view is the one most similar to the first century Jewish view of hell as purging for a limited time followed by restoration, and therefore possibly what Jesus had in mind.
- In response to the passages that talk about God’s justice or punishment, proponents of universalism argue that restorative justice is far more effective and loving that retributive justice, and so God only punishes to bring us to recognise our need of his forgiveness.
However critics say that (1) the sayings of Jesus discussed above indicate the possibility of separation from God, (2) the word “all” doesn’t always mean absolutely everyone or everything, but can mean just everyone in a certain class (e.g. Mark 1:5: “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to [John the Baptist]”), (3) universalism doesn’t take enough account of people’s freedom to choose and to continue to reject God, and (4) giving the unrepentant and unbelieving time in hell to experience God’s love goes against the idea that we are not immortal, and won’t survive death unless God resurrects us.
What may we conclude?
After surveying the evidence, I am drawn to the following conclusions:
1. The truth is uncertain
Whatever view we hold, the picture is not crystal clear, and we would do well to hold our view with humility about details rather than unjustified certainty.
We should be careful how we discuss our views, and proponents of the traditional view need to be very careful they do not appear vindictive.
2. Gehenna in Jesus day was more like a limited time purgatory than an everlasting hell
This seems to have been true for most Jews, and while Jesus’ teachings don’t support the purgatorial aspects, he didn’t teach everlasting torment either.
3. The traditional view is least likely
The traditional view (unending punishment) may initially seem strong, but it is based on surprisingly few unambiguous passages.
- It rests most strongly on a few verses in the highly symbolic book of Revelation.
- The sayings of Jesus, which seem at first sight to support this view, turn out not to.
- It is telling the Paul, the early church’s greatest evangelist, never speaks of hell.
- It wasn’t commonly believed by Jesus’ contemporaries and he didn’t correct them.
- It appears to be unjust (do finite sins deserve infinite punishment?) and entails the conclusion that the majority of human beings will suffer forever while the elect few enjoy eternal life – and yet God is love!
- It is sometimes only sustained by appeals to not think we can know more than God, when in fact the question is knowing what God actually says.
I think eternal conscious torment cannot be supported.
4. Universalism shouldn’t be ignored
Universalism is attractive (we should all desperately want everyone to be saved), but while it has some Biblical support, there seem to be more passages that teach contrary to it. The New Testament speaks with some ambiguity, but I feel it is fairer to the text to accept a weaker use of the word “all” than to weaken the widely taught idea of a judgment.
Universalism wasn’t commonly believed in Jesus’ day. However it was commonly believed that most Jews would reach paradise after purification in Gehinnom, a process similar to what universalists today believe.
5. The resurrection of the righteous is much to be preferred
The middle view seems to me to make most sense of the Biblical evidence, and fits best into the first century Jewish views, provided we see God as taking a very compassionate view. Jesus’ hearers would most likely have assumed a view like this and his brief teaching on the subject best supports this view.
The resurrection of the righteous is (I think) more realistic than universalism and more compassionate than the traditional view.
No view is entirely satisfactory as each has passages that appear to support it and others which appear to oppose it. But the resurrection of the righteous seems to explain more and require less of a stretch when considering difficult passages.
A final view?
I am therefore drawn to the view that Jesus used the images and thought forms of his day to make it clear that judgment would indeed come to those who deserve it, unless we/they seek his grace. That is an immutable fact (that is the meaning of the ‘unquenchable fire’). We are mortal, and our life ‘should’ end at death, but the grace of God is that those who seek him will receive resurrection into a new, eternal, life. The images of the ‘lake of fire’ and the ‘smoke of their torment’ in Revelation are disturbing, but they are symbolic, and interpreting them literally creates problems (e.g. death is thrown into the lake of fire, suggesting a final end).
But God is merciful, and holds out forgiveness for all who will receive it. It is notable, as RA Cole observes, that Jesus only spoke of hell to his followers or to the religious leaders, but offered forgiveness and the hope of heaven to acknowledged ‘sinners’. We could well follow his example.
It is said that this view removes the incentive for people to believe. I believe quite the opposite is true:
- God is a God of love, and does not wish to scare anyone into his kingdom. Rather he offers it lovingly to all, and seeks to woo us.
- The traditional doctrine of hell is a barrier to many people who believe it is unjust as well as unloving.
Bible verses which mention gehenna: Matthew 5:22,29,30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15,33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6.
NT verses which mention ‘destruction’: Matthew 10:28; John 3:16; Romans 6:23; James 4:12; Philippians 3:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Hebrews 10:39; Revelation 20:14.
Key verses to consider: Matthew 10:28, 25:41,46; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 12:5, 16:23; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:10.
First century Jewish views:
- Afterlives of the Afterlife: The Development of Hell in its Jewish and Christian Contexts. MT Finney, University of Sheffield (2013).
- The Afterlife Views and the Use of the TaNaKh in Support of the Resurrection Concept in the Literature of Second Temple Period Judaism: The Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. Jan A. Sigvartsen, Andrews University, 2016.
- Afterlife and Resurrection Beliefs in the Second Temple Period.. The Bible and Interpretation. University of Arizona.
- Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition Rabbi Or N Rose, My Jewish Learning.
- Afterlife in Judaism. Jewish Virtual Library.
- Views on the Afterlife in the Time of Jesus. Meghan Henning. Bible Odyssey.
- NT Wright. Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem. (1998) and Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins (2002).