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What is hell?

The word “hell” as it is translated in the Bible actually refers to both “the grave” and to “second death.” The word for “hell,” is the Hebrew word “sheol,” meaning “grave” or “pit.” We note that it is translated 31 times as “grave” and 31 times as “hell.” 

To the Jews of the Old Testament, “sheol” was the end result for everyone. No distinction was made between the good and the bad. But, we find when reading scriptures that pertain to evil, translators have imposed the word “hell.” For example, 

“The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” (Psalms 9:17 KJV) 

Conversely, translators have used the word “grave” to describe the ending that awaits the good.

Such an example is found in Job 14:13 KJV. “O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!” We ask, “Can the same word sheol have two different meanings?”

No. The answer is that Job is talking about being hidden in death until the wrath of God is past and he is again remembered in resurrection. If the word “oblivion” were substituted for both “hell” in the first scripture and “grave” in the second scripture, it would impart the correct meaning.

Therefore, based on the definition of the word “sheol” and on its uses applying to both good and bad people, the conclusion is reached that there is no fire attached to its meaning, only death and destruction. 

Was a hell of torment taught in the New Testament? The answer is no. In the New Testament the Greek word “hades” is used for “sheol.’” 

This can be proven by an example found in I Corinthians 15: 54-55,

“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that it is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” I Corinthians 15: 54-55

Paul is referring to Isaiah 25: 8, “he will swallow up death forever” and to Hosea 13:14, “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; … Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?” 

We can see from these scriptures that there is a very clear transition from “hell” in the Old Testament to “hades” in the New. Neither word represents a place of burning. We must then ask if there is a difference between hell and the lake of fire? 

Revelation 20:14 NIV states, “Then death and Hades (KJV – Hell) were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.” 

What is this lake of fire that is the second death, and how is it different from Hades? The word for the lake of fire is “gehenna.” It is of Hebrew origin and pertains to the Valley of Ge-Hinnon. In Jesus’ time this valley was the garbage dump of Jerusalem. Into it were thrown the dead bodies of animals and executed criminals. Fires were kept burning continuously so that all would be consumed. No living thing was ever thrown into it. This valley stood as an ominous symbol of everlasting and total destruction and that is why Jesus used it as an unmistakable symbol of the second death. 

Three examples where Jesus used “gehenna” appear in Mark 9:43, 45, and 47. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.” (Mark 9:43)

 Jesus is symbolically saying control your body so you will not be unfaithful, or you will be destroyed. The difference, then, between “Hell” (Hades) and “The Lake of Fire” (Gehenna) is that “hell” is the death that everyone goes to, and “Gehenna” is the second death from which there is no resurrection. 

A challenging text found in Luke 16: 19-31 is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It concerns the fate of the rich man, who died, was buried and then found himself in the flames of torment. 

Verse 24, “And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” 

After reading this verse it is important not to arrive at the hasty conclusion that hell is indeed a place of torment before looking at the context of this story. Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee, eating a meal with his disciples. Luke 15:1 begins the first of five parables spoken by Jesus, the Rich Man and Lazarus being the fifth. 

In this parable Jesus speaks to his disciples, but his message is meant for the Pharisees’ ears. It is important to remember that Jesus related a parable, which is a fictitious story illustrative of a moral or religious principle. Therefore, the story is not literal, but representative. 

The word “tormented” from the Greek ”odunao” means to grieve or sorrow. (See use of this same word in Luke 2:48 and Acts 20:38) The word “flame” from the Greek word “phlox” means “to flash or flame” or “a blaze.” (See use of this same word in Acts 7:30, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, and Hebrews 1:7.) 

In all the examples mentioned, the flame is a light to see previous indiscretions. It is not a fire to torture. Therefore, we can interpret Jesus’ meaning of the rich man’s statement “for I am tormented in this flame” in Luke 16:24 to signify “for I grieve and anguish at my sin and transgression.” 

We should all be encouraged in our Bible study to look up word meanings and challenge what is said. Weigh the evidence. Is torment taught in the Old Testament or not? Is it taught in the New Testament? 

When we look into the Scriptures to discover the character of God, we not only find a God of love, justice, wisdom and power, but we encounter a God who has an incredible plan for the redemption of all mankind and where eternal torture has no part in that plan. 

Our belief is that hell is not a scriptural concept and that salvation is available to all of humanity, but that availability exists on two levels, heavenly and earthly. The subject of the two parts of salvation is basic and crucial for understanding God’s beautiful plan of the ransom for all.

When Jesus died, he paid the price once for all. God has a place for everyone in either his heavenly or earthly kingdoms and Jesus’ sacrifice included all of humankind, regardless of when a person lived or whether he has accepted Jesus as his Savior now or not.

 “This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given at its proper time. (1 Timothy 2:3-6) 

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) 

These scriptures tell us that Jesus came to provide a ransom for Adam and all his progeny, some now, who are following Jesus and sacrificing their wills, and some later. Those who are sacrificing now have been called by God and look forward to a heavenly reward mentioned in John 13:33-36; 14:1-4; and 17:24. 

Although there is definitely a heavenly destination, it is only for a very select few who, if faithful, will have a change of nature from human to spiritual (Romans 6:5; 2 Corinthians 5:1-2; Revelation 3:20-21). 

But, the vast majority of humankind will be awakened on earth to a period of judgment, or decision, in which they will have an opportunity to willingly follow God’s laws of righteousness and perfect their characters. 

Jeremiah speaks of this future time. “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34) 

God’s purpose was not to have millions be born and die in this present evil world with no chance of salvation. Nor was it God’s purpose to destroy those who knew of Him, but sinned in this present life. When humankind is awakened on earth, there will be a period of judgment, the purpose of which will be to destroy sin and evil and bring everyone by his own free will to salvation. 

Although this will be a time of pruning, it will also be a time of great joy, in which everyone will understand God’s plan. (See Isaiah 11:1-9.) Bloodshed, hurting or destroying will be only a memory because the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. 

God does not wish to destroy those who have sinned in this present life, but to destroy sin and evil and bring everyone to salvation. Would Jesus instruct us to pray for a kingdom to come on earth if there wasn’t going to be one? (Matthew 6:6-13) 

For more on the peaceable kingdom soon to be established on earth in which all who are not of the heavenly class will come forth from their graves, read Isaiah 35:5-10, Revelation 21:1-4, Revelation 11:15, Isaiah 9:6-7, and Isaiah 65:21-25. We look forward with great joy to that day when all these scriptures will be fulfilled. 

Jesus died as a ransom fulfilling God’s perfect justice. God has a plan and His plan is for the redemption of mankind through the incredible edifying sacrifice of Jesus. He gave everyone an opportunity for life that cannot be denied. 

To learn more about hell listen to our series, “Is the Hell of the Christian Tradition Taught in the Bible?”

To learn more about salvation for everyone listen to, “Are Jesus’ Ransom and Our Salvation the Same?”