Wednesday, February 28, 2018

In Regard to Hell – Part Three

He’s heating up. He’s on fire! – NBA Jam (Sega Mega Drive – 1993)

We’ve covered a bunch of stuff so far, this one, part three, is probably the most interesting as we get to what Jesus is saying when he talks about "hell."

First a bit of a summary…

Hell is an Old English word that is used in our English translations of the Bible as a substitute for sheol, hades, Tartarus, and gehenna. 

Sheol is a Hebrew word that appears in the Old Testament. Essentially it means death, the grave, gravedom, pushing up daisies, 6 ft under. If, when we read “hell” in our Old Testaments, we start imagining some sort of tortuous furnace we are reading ideas into the text (popular and/or pagan) that simply aren’t there. We're best to leave sheol as sheol rather than translate it as "hell." Many English translations do. 

Hades, more-or-less, means the same thing when it appears in the New Testament. There is one slight development though, as hades in the Greek is the name of both the Greek god of the underworld and the underworld itself. Sometimes the New Testament use of hades makes allusions to this reality. In one instance Jesus tells a story in which the Greek understanding of the underworld features as a vehicle to make a point – the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. This isn’t an endorsement of Greek mythology nor is it a story that offers any insights into “hell.” We'd do well to simply let hades be hades and not translate it to "hell." That leads us astray. 

All of the above is covered in a lot more detail in part one and part two of this series on “hell.”

Now for some new territory, Tartarus and gehenna. 


There is one passage in the New Testament where hell is used as the English translation of the Greek word Tartarus.

2 Peter 2:4
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment.

If you’ve read part one and part two in this series you’ll know that Tartarus is a domain within the Greek underworld, a prison, an abyss, a dungeon. Here Cronus, king of the Titans, imprisoned the one-eyed Cyclopes, and it is here that Zeus imprisoned many of the Titans themselves when the gods of Olympus triumphed over them.

Here in 2 Peter, Peter borrows this term straight from classical Greek literature and mythology as an appropriate simile by which to point out that in the eschaton there will be a judgement for fallen angels. His audience would have instantly understood what Peter was trying to explain in drawing parallels between God and Zeus, between angels and Titans, and between imprisonment and final judgement. Even these “heavenly” creature would be judged in good time.

In terms of our discussion of “hell” and the final judgement of human sinners, this passage is of little help. It is focused on sinful angels not people, and is concerned with the detention of these angels not with punishment post the judgement of God.

All in all, that leaves us now with gehenna, the third Greek word that in our English Bibles is translated as “hell” and the one that Jesus uses.    

Gehenna is used twelve times in the New Testament, in Matthew (x7), in Mark (x3), in Luke (x1), and in James (x1). We’ll have a look at these verses but will do so within a bigger discussion of judgement and punishment.

Let’s start in Matthew 25.

Matthew 25:46
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christ comes in glory. We’ve the resurrection of the dead. We’ve a judgement. And, some “go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Our focus is on the nature of the eternal punishment and our understanding of “hell.” What is going on here? More specifically, is the punishment of the unrighteous eternal in consequence or eternal in duration – are they destroyed forever, or forever being destroyed?

How should we understand “hell”?

The fate of the wicked in the Old Testament

Yep, sorry, before we consider the words of Jesus we need to back the truck up a little. Well not a little, quite a bit actually. We’ve got to go all OT (Old Testament).

Throughout the Old Testament the consistent message / threat / promise that comes from God in relation to the wicked is that they will be destroyed; they will be annihilated.

In Deuteronomy 29:20, God warns Israel that those who turn to false idols will be cursed and their names blotted out from under heaven – they’ll simply be no more.

The prophet Isaiah warns…

Isaiah 1:28, 30-3128 But rebels and sinners will both be broken,
    and those who forsake the Lord will perish.30 You will be like an oak with fading leaves,
    like a garden without water.
31 The mighty man will become tinder
    and his work a spark;
both will burn together,
    with no one to quench the fire.”

The metaphors are those of total annihilation, of perishing. There is no one to quench the fire, it will do its work, it’ll burn everything up until nothing remains. There will be no rescue.

The book of Psalms is loaded with this kind of imagery.

Psalm 1 – Those who delight in the Lord will be “like trees planted by streams of water,” the wicked, however, will be “like chaff that the wind drives away,” “their way leads to destruction.”

Psalm 2 – The wicked will be dashed to pieces like pottery that is smashed.

Psalm 50 – The wicked will be blotted out of the book of life, not listed with the righteous. (Like in Deuteronomy, cease to exist, not even remembered).

Psalm 92:6-7
Senseless people do not know,

    fools do not understand,
that though the wicked spring up like grass
    and all evildoers flourish,
    they will be destroyed forever.

Obadiah 16 – For the wicked, it will be as though they had never been.

Again and again, the imagery is of the wicked being extinguished, annihilated, destroyed. Plain and simple they will cease to exist.

The fate of the wicked in the New Testament

When we get to the New Testament, the imagery continues, both that of fire and of total destruction 
and annihilation.

John the Baptist in Matthew 3, regarding the righteous and the unrighteous… “the axe is at the root, and trees that don’t produce fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire,” and, “the wheat will be gathered and the chaff thrown into the fire.” No one would imagine a tree or chaff surviving in the fire, the imagery is one of total destruction.

Jesus as well talks about bad trees being thrown into the fire in Matthew 7:19, and then also about being the true vine and that the branches that don’t remain in him will be thrown into the fire in John 15:6.

Again, what happens when branches or chaff are thrown into the fire? They are destroyed, burnt up, vaporised, turned to ash. They cease to exist.

“Go and grab me that branch you burnt in the fire yesterday please?” It isn’t happening. The branch is gone.

We’ve other passages too.

Matthew 7:13-14
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Destruction and life should be seen as opposites. Not as two different types of existence.

Hebrew 10:27
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 

Here we’ve a raging fire consuming the enemies of God. That is what fire does. It consumes things, it destroys things.

The Apostle Peter refers to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as being burnt to ashes and as an example of the fate of the ungodly.

2 Peter 2:6
He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.

The idea again and again is that of total and utter destruction – ceasing to exist – annihilation.

So, what about “hell,” doesn’t Jesus even talk about “hell”?

Well no. Not if you come back to the point I was trying to make in part one of this series. Jesus doesn’t mention “hell” even once. Jesus talks about gehenna whereas “hell” is an English translation of a Greek word and not one that necessarily helps us given the pagan and popular ideas now embedded within the concept of “hell.”

In terms of our use of “hell” in the English language, where did that word come from?

Hel is the name of a Nordic goddess, Loki’s daughter, who ruled over the Nordic underworld, also called Hel. To “go to Hel” when one died was to go to this goddess and her underworld abode. All-in-all a similar idea to that in Greek mythology of hades ruled by Hades. Evolving from these Nordic origins, hel inherited an extra “l” and came to mean in Old English both “underworld” and “concealed place,” as well as, “to cover,” “to conceal,” and “to hide.” 

When the Bible was eventually translated into English, “hell” was the word chosen to translate what Jesus spoke of – “gehenna.” Thus, one commentator writes; a pagan concept and word was fitted to a Christian idea. “Hell” then, like “hades,” is a word that potentially imports ideas into the Bible rather than being an idea we can read out of the Bible. We have to pay attention to language.

Like sheol and hades, “hell” is such a loaded word, I think we’d be better to just leave our Bibles with the Greek word “gehenna.” This is what Jesus talked about and is what we need to try and get our head around.

So, gehenna…

Gehenna is the Greek translation of what in Hebrew was “the Valley of Hinnom,” a valley south-west of Jerusalem. This valley is referred to in the book of Joshua (15:8 and 18:16), and in the book of 2 Kings (16:3), as well as in Jeremiah (7:31 and 19:2-6). It was a place of child sacrifice where children were burnt. Not a pleasant place at all. Isaiah (30:33) refers not by name, but as “a burning place” (topheth) in which the Assyrian army will be destroyed, and in 66:24 as a burning place for those that have rebelled against God… “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

Some have suggested that by the time of Jesus, the Valley of Hinnom, gehenna, served as Jerusalem’s garbage dump. Supposedly, as an incinerator, located near the Dung Gate of Jerusalem, and would have seen a constant flow of waste deposited into it with fires burning day and night. It would have therefore been a place of stench and decay with rotting fish and animals, as well as the bodies of vanquished enemies as well. It seems however that there is very little evidence for that.

Notwithstanding that, Jesus’ use of gehenna nevertheless conjured for his listeners this kind of imagery. the Valley of Hinnom as a place of fiery destruction. Flames, flies and maggots consuming defeated enemy corpses, destroying and vaporizing all that we are thrown into it. It wasn’t a nice picture. It wasn’t meant to be.

The long and the short of it though, whatever was thrown into gehenna would be burnt up and consumed. It would cease to exist. It would be no more. It was not a placed you wanted to be cast into.

For Jesus, the fate of the wicked is some sort of fiery demise, and he uses this imagery of gehenna, The Valley of Hinnom, as the best way to paint the picture.

Matthew 5:22
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of gehenna.

Matthew 5:29-30
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into gehenna.

Matthew 10:28
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in gehenna.

Matthew 18:9
And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Matthew 23:29-33
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to gehenna?

The passages in Mark and Luke are Mark and Luke’s version of these passages in Matthew.

James 3:6
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by gehenna.

Again and again, the judgement of God is the destruction of the wicked. Partly why it is better to only lose and arm or an eye, than to be thrown into gehenna. It’s a place of total destruction, which is a concept entirely in keeping with the Old Testament, and other imagery we find throughout the New Testament. 

Everything (in terms of the imagery) in the New Testament points towards the fiery punishment of the wicked in a gehenna-like-punishment with the result being that of total destruction rather than some sort of ongoing or everlasting tortuous existence.

A one-time punishment with eternal consequences, rather than a punishment that is continually unfolding.


Eternal in the Bible is a word that has both qualitative and quantitative implications.

It is qualitative in the sense of being “of the age to come,” e.g. eternal life, the age to come quality kind of life, that can be experienced here and now, but won’t be known in full, until the other side of Christ’s return. But it also quantitative in terms of a period of time, eternal life, not in this age, but in the age to come will be everlasting life.

The task when we read the word eternal is to work out what it is in the verse that is qualitative (as in from the age to come) and what is quantitative (as in enduring for eternity).

Here are a few…

Eternal salvation in Hebrews 5 is the salvation that will come with resurrection life, in the age to come (qualitative), in terms of time, the effect of salvation will be everlasting (quantitative). It isn’t that someone will be “in the process of being saved forever and ever.” Rather it is a one-time age-to-come action with everlasting implications.

Eternal judgement in Hebrews 6 is not the process of being judged in an ongoing manner. It is a one-time judgement, in the age to come (qualitative) that has consequences that will extend forever (quantitative). It isn’t being judged forever, it is being judged once, but then the judgement stands forever.  

Eternal redemption in Hebrews 9 is not a process of being redeemed in an ongoing manner. It is a one-time redemption, in the age to come, resulting in a redemption that is everlasting.

Eternal punishment in Matthew 25, our verse from the start, is not a process of being continually punished, it is an age to come punishment (qualitative) with eternal consequences (quantitative). In that it is a punishment in the age to come, a one-time punishment that will have consequences that last forever.

Eternal destruction in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, not an everlasting process of deconstruction, it is a onetime destruction (qualitative) that is everlasting in consequence (quantitative).

There is one judgement. One punishment. One destruction. And the result is eternal.

If you think about a house of cards, I can destroy, destruct, or deconstruct a house of cards forever – i.e. knock the cards down, rip them to pieces, burn them in a fire. The house of cards has now been eternally destroyed and isn’t going to be rebuilt. But I can’t be in the process of destroying them forever. The only way to do that would be if simultaneous to the destroying there was ongoing restoring - which is a dilemma that Augustine faced.

Augustine was a great theologian from whom the church has inherited much that is commendable, as well though, he got a few things hopelessly wrong. His answer, conclusion, belief was that; “God has the power to do such things that transcend ordinary nature. He will employee his power to perform miracles to keep [those in hell] alive and conscious in the fire.” Or in other words, will simultaneously destroy and sustain in order to torture them forever.

Oh my goodness!

So now, we’ve a God who scripture tells us again and again, has anger that lasts a moment and love that endures forever, who in Jesus told us to love God, love our neighbour, and, love our enemies, who in Jesus on the cross, declared, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” also miraculously sustaining finite beings, the pinnacle of creation, in order to torture them infinitely. That’s abhorred. Even earthly Father’s know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more your heavenly Father!


There is no hiding the fact that Jesus speaks of a judgement and punishment for the unrepentant wicked who reject God. What is that jdugement and punishment? It is their final and everlasting destruction.

Everlasting in consequence, not, duration – not being worked out forever and ever.

When it comes to the Bible we’d be better off leaving sheol as sheol, hades as hades, Tartarus as Tartarus, and when it comes to the words of Jesus - gehenna as gehenna.

“Hell” is a word that is loaded with popular and pagan misconceptions to the point that “hell,” as popularly understood, has become a blight on the Christian gospel.  It is an odd and appalling doctrine that degrades God into our image rather than lifts us to grow more fully into the image of Christ.

That eternal punishment turns out not to be an eternity of torture makes it no less dreadful. Rather it is what makes the second death, death. It’s what makes death the enemy. It is the end of your story. It is the end of relationship. It is a grim prospect. It is to miss the purpose for which one was created, to pass into oblivion and miss out on a relationship with God, self, others, and creation.

It doesn’t have to be cruel, vindictive, or torturous to be terrible.

And yet, we have great hope as we entrust our lives to Christ and live the way of the kingdom.


Dennis Acraman said...

Are you still comfortable with the AOG's constitutional statement of faith:
"unbelievers will face eternal separation from God in hell."
Dennis Acraman

Joseph McAuley said...

Hi Dennis, yes and also no.

Yes I am comfortable in that, as a straightforward statement, I think it is true and speaks to the heart of the issue - separation from God for all eternity. Yes, as well, in that the statement has enough latitude in it to allow a diversity of opinions. Obviously, I believe the eternal separation is a result of the second death (annihilation) in hell. Others, however, could fit other conclusions into the statement which does allow for varying historical perspectives (and varying current perspectives).

The sense of which "no I am not comfortable with it," is the sense of which having said what I have said about the statement, it still does still hint towards an everlasting conscious existence in hell (which cannot really hope to avoid all the folk/popular ideology that goes with the idea of "hell"). It could perhaps be re-worded to simply read, "unbelievers will face eternal separation from God."