What Did Jesus Teach About Hell?
“If your eye causes you to sin,” said Jesus, “get rid of it. You would be better off to go into God’s kingdom with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. The worms there never die, and the fire never stops burning.”—MARK 9:47, 48, Contemporary English Version.
On another occasion, Jesus spoke of a judgment period when he would say to the wicked: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” He also said that these ones will “go off to eternal punishment.”—MATTHEW 25:41, 46, The New American Bible.
AT FIRST glance, the above words of Jesus may seem to promote the teaching of hellfire. Obviously, Jesus did not intend to contradict God’s Word, which clearly states: “The dead no longer know anything.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5, NAB.
To what, then, was Jesus referring when he spoke of a person’s being thrown “into hell”? Is “the eternal fire” Jesus warned of literal or symbolic? In what sense do the wicked “go off to eternal punishment”? Let us examine these questions one at a time.
To what was Jesus referring when he spoke of a person’s being thrown “into hell”? The original Greek word translated “hell” at Mark 9:47 is Geʹen·na. This word comes from the Hebrew Geh Hin·nomʹ, meaning “Valley of Hinnom.” The Valley of Hinnom hugged the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem. In the days of the Israelite kings, it was used for child sacrifice—a disgusting practice that God condemned. God said that he would execute those who performed such an act of false worship. The Valley of Hinnom would then be called “the valley of slaughter,” where “the carcases of this people” would lie unburied. (Jeremiah 7:30-34, King James Version) Jehovah thus foretold that the Valley of Hinnom would become a place, not for the torture of live victims, but for the mass disposal of dead bodies.
In Jesus’ day, the inhabitants of Jerusalem used the Valley of Hinnom as a garbage dump. They threw the bodies of some vile criminals into this dump and kept a fire constantly burning there to dispose of the refuse and the carcasses.
When Jesus spoke of the undying worms and unquenchable fire, he was apparently alluding to Isaiah 66:24. Regarding “the carcases of the men that have transgressed against [God],” Isaiah says that “their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched.” (KJ) Jesus and his listeners knew that these words in Isaiah referred to the treatment of the carcasses of those not deserving a burial.
Therefore, Jesus used the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, as a fitting symbol of death without hope of a resurrection. He drove this point home when he warned that God “can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matthew 10:28, NAB) Gehenna is a symbol of eternal death, not eternal torture.
Is “the eternal fire” Jesus warned of literal or symbolic? Note that “the eternal fire” mentioned by Jesus and recorded at Matthew 25:41 was prepared “for the devil and his angels.” Do you think that literal fire can burn spirit creatures? Or was Jesus using the term “fire” symbolically? Certainly “the sheep” and “the goats” mentioned in the same discourse are not literal; they are word pictures that represent two types of people. (Matthew 25:32, 33) The eternal fire that Jesus spoke of completely burns up the wicked in a figurative sense.
In what sense do the wicked “go off to eternal punishment”? Although most translations use the word “punishment” at Matthew 25:46, the basic meaning of the Greek word koʹla·sin is “checking the growth of trees,” or pruning, cutting off needless branches. So while the sheeplike ones receive everlasting life, the unrepentant goatlike ones suffer “eternal punishment,” being forever cut off from life.
What Do You Think?
Jesus never taught that humans have an immortal soul. However, he often did teach about the resurrection of the dead. (Luke 14:13, 14; John 5:25-29; 11:25) Why would Jesus say that the dead would be resurrected if he believed that their souls had not died?
Jesus did not teach that God would maliciously torture the wicked forever. Rather, Jesus said: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NAB) Why would Jesus imply that those who did not believe in him would die? If he really meant that they would live forever, suffering misery in a fiery hell, would he not have said so?
The doctrine that hell is a place of torment is not based on the Bible. Rather, it is a pagan belief masquerading as a Christian teaching. (See the box “A Brief History of Hell,” on page 6.) No, God does not torture people eternally in hell. How can learning the truth about hell affect your attitude toward God?
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF HELL
ROOTS IN PAGAN BELIEFS: The ancient Egyptians believed in a fiery hell. The Book Ȧm-Ṭuat, dated 1375 B.C.E., speaks of those who “shall be cast down headlong into the pits of fire; and . . . shall not escape therefrom, and . . . shall not be able to flee from the flames.” Greek philosopher Plutarch (c.46-120 C.E.) wrote of those in the world below: “[They] raised a cry of wailing as they underwent fearful torments and ignominious and excruciating chastisements.”
SECTS OF JUDAISM ARE INFECTED: The historian Josephus (37-c.100 C.E.) reported that the Essenes, a Jewish sect, believed that “the souls are immortal, and continue forever.” He added: “This is like the opinion of the Greeks . . . They allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments.”
INTRODUCED INTO “CHRISTIANITY”: In the second century C.E., the apocryphal book Apocalypse of Peter said of the wicked: “There is spread out for them unquenchable fire.” It also stated: “Ezrael, the angel of wrath, brings men and women with the half of their bodies burning and casts them into a place of darkness, the hell of men; and a spirit of wrath chastises them.” During the same time period, writer Theophilus of Antioch quotes the Greek prophetess Sibyl as foretelling the punishments of the wicked: “Upon you burning fire shall come, and ever ye shall daily burn in flames.” These are among the words that Theophilus says are “true, and useful, and just, and profitable to all men.”
HELLFIRE USED TO JUSTIFY VIOLENCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES: Mary I, queen of England (1553-1558), known as “Bloody Mary” for burning nearly 300 Protestants at the stake, reportedly said: “As the souls of heretics are hereafter to be eternally burning in hell, there can be nothing more proper than for me to imitate the Divine vengeance by burning them on earth.”
A RECENT DEFINITION: In recent years, some denominations have revised their teaching about hell. For example, the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England said in 1995: “Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being.”
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WHAT IS “THE LAKE OF FIRE”?
Revelation 20:10 says that the Devil will be cast into “the lake of fire” and “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (King James Version) If the Devil were to be tortured for all eternity, God would have to preserve him alive, but the Bible says that Jesus will “destroy him.” (Hebrews 2:14, KJ) The symbolic fiery lake represents “the second death.” (Revelation 21:8) This is not the death first mentioned in the Bible—death because of Adam’s sin—death from which one may be released by a resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:21, 22) Because the Bible does not say that “the lake of fire” would release those in it, “the second death” must mean another kind of death, an irreversible one.
In what sense are those in “the lake of fire” tormented eternally? At times, “to torment” can mean “to restrain” someone. Once when Jesus confronted the demons, they cried out: “Art thou come hither to torment us [restrain us in the abyss] before the time?” (Matthew 8:29; Luke 8:30, 31; KJ) So all of those in “the lake” will suffer the “torment” of everlasting restraint, or “the second death.”