Hell has been imagined in various forms over the years. These descriptions almost always involve the eternal fiery torment of those lost souls who have been judged and found deserving of such punishment. There are some descriptions, however, that reject the physical agony of Hell and instead presume that those souls that have been found undeserving of heaven will find themselves eternally separated from God. So what is hell? How can we have so many variations describing the ultimate punishment for the rejection of the one true God? How can we separate fact from fiction on this subject?
Old Testament Concept of Hell
Let’s start by examining how the Old Testament deals with the matter. The word “Hell” is not used in the Old Testament, but the word Sheol is used instead. So, what do we know about Sheol?
Jacob, Job, and King David Expected to go to Sheol
All his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said. “I will go down to Sheol mourning for my son.” So his father wept for him.Genesis 37:35
Sheol is translated as Hades in the Septuagint, and this tradition of referring to Sheol as Hades in the Greek tongue continues into the New Testament as well. In Genesis we find that Jacob, father of Joseph, believes that he will still be mourning the death of his son in Sheol. Now we must remember that this is Jacob, grandson of Abraham, blessed by God, and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. I don’t think that Jacob expects to spend eternity being punished for his misdeeds.
If only You would hide me in Sheol and conceal me until Your anger has passed!Job 14:13
Here we see Job, who is fearful that he has angered the Lord after the first round of tests against him, clearly asking to take refuge in Sheol as a means to avoid the wrath of God. If Sheol, or Hades, were the place where the wrath of God was being carried out against the wicked for all eternity, then we can be sure that Job would not be asking to be sent there.
So what happens to people in Sheol, especially since everyone will end up in Sheol one day? King David gives us a glimpse in one of his psalms.
This is the fate of the self-confident and their followers who endorse their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for Sheol. Death will be their shepherd. The upright will rule them in the morning, and their form will decay in Sheol, far from their lofty abode.Psalm 49:13-14
It appears that the self-reliant, the successful people who place their trust in material wealth a worldly power rather than placing it in God, will decay in Sheol, far from their status, or lofty abode, in this world. It should be apparent that David is not talking about being tortured at God’s behest for all of eternity. Of course, I had mentioned that David himself had expected to go to Sheol, right? Yes! David fully expected to go to the grave one day, or to go to Sheol, only he was confident that God would rescue him due to his faith.
But God will redeem my life from Sheol, for He will surely take me to Himself.Psalm 49:15
Though his physical life will undoubtedly end one day, David understands that God has power over life and death, and that it is only God who can provide our redemption and everlasting life.
Samuel Went To Sheol
In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul is distressed over the recent events in his kingdom, and is desperate to understand why God has seemingly left him. In light of this, he seeks out a spirit medium to commune with Samuel who has been dead for some time prior to this account.
So Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed facedown in reverence. Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”1 Samuel 28:14-15
“Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” This is the first thing that Samuel says to Saul. He doesn’t ask for a glass of water, he doesn’t thank Saul for interrupting his torture and providing him with a brief moment of relief, instead he asks Saul why he has been disturbed. This does not sound like a man who was being tortured, it sounds like someone who has been at rest (perhaps not literally, but figuratively), and probably awaiting judgement as described in the New Testament. The passage makes it sound as though Samuel wanted to be left alone and allowed to return to his proper place in Sheol.
New Testament Hell
The New Testament uses the word hell frequently, and there is some debate about whether this refers to Sheol, which we just discussed, or if it is explicitly referring to Gehenna, which is a physical location near Jerusalem. I do not think there is a distinction, and I believe that Jesus was simply using a contemporary term which had become synonymous with “the place of punishment after this life”. When we view it this way, the name of the place, as well as the type of punishment served there, is no longer relevant. Hell, Gehenna, Sheol, Hades, all become synonymous at this point.
Sheol Is Temporary
On the day of judgement, the dead will stand before the great white throne and Hades will be cast into the lake of fire. Remember, earlier I explained that Sheol was translated as Hades when the Hebrew Bible was originally translated into the Greek Septuagint. Thus, it follows that we can equate Hades with Sheol where the context is appropriate. In the following passage from Revelation, we are talking about a moment where the dead have been assembled before God, and so Sheol would be empty. This seems like an opportune time to destroy a place, especially if it will no longer be needed.
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death—the lake of fire. And if anyone was found whose name was not written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.Revelation 20:14-15
On occasion, the lake of fire is equated with Hell. This is due to the fact that most translations of Revelation 20:10 say that the beast and the false prophet were thrown into the lake of fire and that they will be tormented day and night, forever and ever. Here it should be noted that the words forever and ever are translated from eis ton aionon which is literally translated “into the age”. There is quite a bit of disagreement about how to properly translate this and what “into the age” might actually mean. However, there can be no confusion around “the second death” which is how Revelation 20:14 describes the fate of those thrown into the lake of fire. There can be no confusion because death is translated from thanatos which literally means “death, physical or spiritual” and the people being described here are already physically dead. This, the second death must be spiritual.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:28
Why fear God for His ability to destroy the soul if He would not actually do so? Why fear the destruction of our soul if it cannot be our punishment? We cannot be punished forever in hell if our soul is destroyed and we cannot experience a second death if we remain alive and in torment. These ideas are at odds with one another, and in the end the Bible is clear that those who do not have their name written in the Book of Life will be thrown into the lake of fire and die a second time.
In Luke 16, Jesus gives us an example of a rich man being tormented in Hades while Lazarus observes from the other side of an insurmountable rift. Many believe that this story, which is possibly a parable, is evidence of eternal torment. This is not so, the story takes place in Hades and we have already established that Hades will be emptied of its occupants and destroyed in the lake of fire. If anything, it simply serves to prove that any torment suffered after physical death is temporary and will culminate with spiritual death. After all, the wages of sin is death.
In the end, the Bible is very clear about the consequences of sin and the rejection of the gospel. Jesus atones for our sins on the cross, but sends a helper to provide testimony to all. This helper is called the Holy Spirit, and to reject the Spirit’s testimony is to commit the unforgivable sin.
“Truly I tell you, the sons of men will be forgiven all sins and blasphemies, as many as they utter. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of eternal sin.”Mark 3:28-29
If we are guilty of eternal sin, then we know the consequence. The wages of sin is death, not eternal punishment.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:23