Well, it's an interesting title - but an important issue, I think. Lots of relevant information and verses about hell can be found on my other blog. Here, I've tried to condense down my main ideas.
The word ‘hell’
Originally, ‘hell’ simply meant to conceal, to hide, to cover; hence it was properly descriptive of any concealed, hidden, or covered place. In Old English literature may be found references to the helling of potatoes - that is, putting them into pits - and of the helling of a house, meaning to cover it with a thatched roof. Thus, originally, the word had no connotation of an ‘eternal world of torment’, but rather a practical daily meaning.
There are four words translated as ‘hell’ in the KJV, ‘sheol’ (63), ‘hades’ (11), ‘Gehenna’ (12), and ‘Tartarus’ (1). I will only talk about the first three.
Almost invariably in the OT, ‘sheol’ simply means ‘the grave’, or the condition of being dead. Occasionally, it seems to be used as a hyperbole. ‘Hades’ is synonymous with ‘sheol’, being used to translate ‘Sheol’ in the LXX. It should be noted that neither of these words indicate punishment of any kind, or a literal ‘place’ – they both simply refer to the state of being dead.
‘Gehenna’ is another Greek word that Jesus uses in his teachings. Gehenna, literally, was a deep valley just outside
In Jesus' day the people were well acquainted with the purpose for which Gehenna was used, so when he employed it as a symbol of the utter destruction of those unworthy of life everlasting, they would be quick to get the force of the illustration. It is said that the carcasses of dead animals and dead criminals - whom the Jews judged as unworthy of a resurrection - were also destroyed in Gehenna. So, people listening to Jesus would be quick to catch the thought of eternal destruction and death when he used Gehenna as a symbol of the punishment of the wicked.
Jesus used the word Gehenna in his Sermon on the Mount, saying, "Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell [Gehenna] fire." (Matt. 5:22) Gehenna was not far from where Jesus uttered these words, and those who heard them would not think for a moment that he was teaching that all who do not accept him before they die were to be tortured forever. So, while both Sheol and Hades represent the death condition, Jesus seems to have used ‘Gehenna’ when referring to the destruction, not punishment, of those unworthy of life.
Eternal torment as the punishment of sin
It seems that eternal torment/punishment of the wicked was a heathen idea, as it is not found in the Old Testament, yet had its beginnings with the Egyptians a few centuries before Christ. The Romans expanded these myths, and they came into the church gradually, as heathens were converted but carried across their old ideas. The Egyptian and Roman authorities fostered the belief in eternal torment, that they did not believe themselves, as a means of controlling the uneducated masses. Several ancient works, from Polybius to Plato to Aristotle make it clear that this was the purpose of these myths.
Consequently, there were mixed opinions on the matter in Jesus’ time. Many have debated what Jesus taught on the matter, indeed what the Bible teaches on the subject, and there are several aspects that need consideration…
The Biblical punishment of sin - death
Clearly, the Bible states many times that wicked people are “destroyed”, will “perish”, and are punished with “death” and “eternal destruction”. Some example verses are:
Joh 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that everyone believing into Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Rom For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is everlasting life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Phi 3:18-19 For many walk as hostile to the cross of Christ, of whom I often told you, and now even weeping I say it, whose end is destruction
1Jo -13 The one having the Son has life. The one not having the Son of God does not have life. I wrote these things to you, the ones believing in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have everlasting life, and that you may believe in the name of the Son of God.
Gen but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, dying you shall die. (c.f. Gen 3:4 And the serpent said to the woman, Dying you shall not die.)
Joh 15:6 Whoever doesn't live in me is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Branches like this are gathered, thrown into a fire, and burned. (clearly the idea here is destruction, not torment)
Rev 21:8 But for the cowardly and unbelieving, and those having become foul, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all the lying ones, their part will be in the
Irenaeus supported the idea that the wicked go out of existence. In his work against heresies, he says: "The principle of existence is not inherent in our own constitutions, but is given us of God; and the soul can exist only so long as God wills. He who cherishes the gift of existence, and is thankful to the Giver, shall exist forever; but he who despises it, and is ungrateful, deprives himself of the privilege of existing forever."..."He who is unthankful to God for this temporal life, which is little, cannot justly expect from him an existence which is endless."
Most ‘traditional’ Christians teach that the punishment of sin - ‘death’ - is actually not death. It is ‘the death that never dies’, it is ‘separation from God’, it is ‘somewhere we don’t want to go’ – it is anything but death in the commonly accepted definition of ‘the complete absence of life’. On what basis is this taught? Why, it is on the basis of eternal torment of the wicked.
So let us consider some of the verses, words and phrases in the Bible people use to support eternal torment.
‘Torment’ after death
First the supporter of eternal torment points to Mat 25:41:
Then He will also say to those on His left, Go away from Me, cursed ones, into the everlasting fire having been prepared for the Devil and his angels.
And then connects this with Rev 14:9-11:
If anyone worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead, or in his hand, he also shall drink of the wine of the anger of God having been mixed undiluted in the cup of His wrath. And he will be tormented by fire and brimstone before the holy angels and before the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.
And also :
And the Devil leading them astray was thrown into the
So, eternal torment is concluded by such arguments. But, consider two places where similar figurative language is used:
Isa 34:9 And its torrents shall be turned to pitch, and its dust to brimstone; and its land shall become burning pitch.
Isa 34:10 It shall not be put out night or day; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation, it shall lie waste.
Rev 18:8b And she [Babalon] will be consumed with fire
And they cried out, seeing the smoke of her burning
Rev 19:3 And her [Babalon’s] smoke rose up forever and ever.
From these passages, it seems clear that the ‘smoke rising for ever and ever’ is a symbol of their complete destruction, not that the things are being continually burned forever. So, why do we assume anything different in the other passages in Revelation? Perhaps it is because of that word ‘tormented’ (‘basanizo’ in the Greek).
The word for ‘tormented’
Some research on this word quickly yields that originally the word simply meant to test the authenticity of gold and silver coins using a touch-stone. If the scratch made by the coin on the stone is a certain colour, the testing of the coin resulted in it acceptance. But if the testing proved it to be fake, it was no doubt removed from circulation. A jailer, who confined prisoners for debt, was called a "basanistes" (Mat ).
So, the idea of ‘test’, ‘examine’ or ‘convict’ perhaps best conveys the meaning. I suggest that ‘basanizo’ does not carry connotations of torture, but perhaps it ties in with being ‘tested by fire’ (see 1Co 3:11-15, Mar 9:49, 1 Pe 1:7, Luk 3:16, and also Heb 12:29). Perhaps God will both test and prove who are His by ‘fire’ – those who are righteous live through it, and the wicked are destroyed by it. Furthermore, in general usage, fire is associated not with torture, but destruction. In light of all this, relevant passages from Revelation seem to be best interpreted not as torment, but instead ‘the smoke from their *test and destruction by fire* would go up forever and ever’.
Even if one grants the meaning of ‘torment’, the torment is not everlasting. Rather, it is the smoke that is ‘everlasting’. What would that smoke be from? Perhaps, just like
“Nashing of teeth”
Jesus uses pictorial language of ‘weeping and nashing of teeth’ only in His parables, often seeming to use it to highlight how undesirable everlasting death is in contrast with everlasting life. Further, the weeping and nashing of teeth is never described as ‘everlasting’. Hence, even if there is ‘weeping and nashing of teeth’ of the wicked after physical death, it needn’t be prolonged. Indeed, when they are informed of their fate, they will likely weep or be angry before it is carried out.
These phrases were used by writers of the time to express fires that completely consumed (destroyed) what was put into them. The suggestion that people will dwell in fire forever, being ‘tormented by the flame’ and yet not destroyed is never hinted at in these phrases.
Simply, if the consequences of a punishment are everlasting, surely it is within reason to call it an ‘everlasting punishment’. Both ‘everlasting life’ and ‘everlasting death’ are everlasting in nature, one is a reward, the other a punishment. So, if the wicked are put to death by being consumed by fire (which may well be painful for a time), they will be dead forever – not tormented forever.
The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luk -31)
There are abundant reasons why this is, in fact, a parable. A manuscript of the seventh century (Beza) introduces it with, "And he spake also another parable." Another of the tenth century reads: "the Lord spake this parable." This is the fifth in a series of parables; the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the unjust steward, and Lazarus. He reproves the Pharasees (who were listening), before telling them this parable.
Lazarus means "whom God helps" (a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar). The Rich man portrays the Jewish leaders and their nation. The symbolism used is clearly targeted at conveying that God accepts the lowly but does not like the self-righteous. It is suggested by some commentators that this parable was an adaptation of a heathen story common at the time.
In light of all this, plus verses on the resurrection, I have reached something like a ‘conditionalist’ view of eternal life. These are a few difficulties with this view, but it seems there are far more with the idea of eternal torture, and on the whole this view seems to line up with Scripture more.
1) When anyone dies physically, they do not live again at all until the resurrection. Their ‘soul’ is not conscious, for they are not alive.
2) Both the ‘saved’ and wicked will be resurrected
3) The ‘saved’ will continue to live forever, but the wicked will be ‘turned back’ into the state of death (not being consciously alive/ceasing to exist as a living person).
4) Upon learning this and possibly while being destroyed by fire, the wicked will probably ‘weep and be angry’. However, they will ultimately be destroyed. 5) Thus, our ‘hope in resurrection’ is quite literally the promise of eternal life instead of ceasing to consciously exist.