There appear to be many passages which would make hell appear to be a place of non-existence. For many years, Christians held the belief that hell is a place of fiery torment. A place where the dead receive their just punishment. Luke 16:23-31 speaks of a rich man who went into hell and looked up to heaven and spoke with Abraham, asking him to ease his suffering. Another passage; Matthew 13:42 states “And throw them into the furnace and burn them.” Certainly these passages are frightening and noteworthy. Instilling in us a fear of eternal torture and punishment for our wrong doings in life.
Often ignored and overlooked are two things: the history and deeper meanings of these passages, and the passages which clearly refer to hell as a place of non-existence and bodily decay. To examine further some of the passages referring to hell as a place of torment, let us consider the following passages.
A word often used in scripture in reference to hell is Gehenna. Gehennas' true meaning has been forgotten by the passage of time. Gehenna was a well-known location in the time of Christ. Contrary to popular belief, Gehenna was not a place of other worldly fiery torment. Gehenna was a location just outside of Jerusalem.
Gehenna was a garbage dump. Used by Jews of the time to get rid of, or destroy things. Gehenna was a place to cast ones garbage, dead and diseased bodies, the bodies of criminals, and other refuse. In order to ensure complete and utter destruction, the Jews kept the fires of Gehenna always burning. Often fueling the fires with sulfur. Gehenna was a large valley often resembling, because of its size, a “burning lake of fire”. Many things aside from garbage were thrown into Gehenna. Often, the bodies of diseased dead people were thrown into Gehenna to ensure the diseases utter destruction and removal from populated areas. Also commonly thrown into the fires were the bodies of criminals, seen as a somewhat cleansing of society by utterly destroying the offenders. The fires of Gehenna were kept perpetually burning to utterly consume the corrupt things which were thrown into it.
When Christ was referring to Gehenna, He was therefore not referring to a place one goes after death. Gehenna would have been an inappropriate word to use to describe such a place. As those who would have heard him use this reference would not have associated it with an afterwordly place of punishment. They certainly would have associated it with the burning garbage dump.
See Matthew 10:28 28 "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”
See James 3:6 “And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by Gehenna.”
See Luke 12:5 "But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, fear Him!”
See Matthew 5:22 "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into Gehenna.”
All or many of these passages refer to Gehenna as a place that one is “cast into”, and as a place of fire. Matthew 10:28 clearly states that the soul will be destroyed there.
Still another word frequently used in scripture where the dead go is Sheol. Sheol is the Hebrew word roughly translated as “the abode of the dead”, sometimes translated as “underworld”, “grave”, or “pit”.
The word Sheol was commonly used to denote not an afterlife of punishment and torment, but the earthly grave. The place where the body, not the soul goes.
Some of the earliest scriptures mentioning Sheol speak of it as a place where all undoubtedly go. In Genesis 37:35, Jacob does not question whether he will go there when hew says:
“All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. "No," he said, "in mourning will I go down to Sheol to my son." So his father wept for him.”
Again Jacob says:
Genesis 42:38; “But Jacob said, "My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow."
Job 7:9 "When a cloud vanishes, it is gone, So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.”
In Job 17:16, "Will it go down with me to Sheol? Shall we together go down into the dust?" Job clearly compares it to returning to dust.
Psalms 9:17 is noteworthy when it says: “The wicked will return to Sheol, Even all the nations who forget God.”
What is noteworthy about this passage is that it says nothing of those people who “forget god” being thrown into a place of fiery torment. They seemingly receive the same treatment as righteous men of the bible like Jacob and Job.
Very noteworthy is Psalms 49:14-15 “As sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; And the upright shall rule over them in the morning, And their form shall be for Sheol to consume So that they have no habitation. 15But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, For He will receive me.”
Many passages refer to both the righteous and unrighteous going to Sheol. Job speaks almost positively of it when he says in: Job 14:13 "Oh that You would hide me in Sheol, That You would conceal me until Your wrath returns to You, That You would set a limit for me and remember me!”
Certainly Job would not prefer the torments of a fiery hell to his unfortunate circumstances on earth.
Most passages in the Old Testament use the word Sheol. Likewise, most passages in the New Testament use the word Gehenna, sometimes “Hades“, which will be examined later. Still up for observation are the scriptures that clearly state hell as a place of inactivity, or a place where nothing happens other than bodily decay.
Psalms 16:10 is one of these many passages when it says: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will you allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.”
Perhaps one of the most convincing passages may be found in psalms 104:29: “You hide your face, they are dismayed; you take away their spirit, they expire and return to their dust.”
A commonly held belief is that God is the embodiment of life. Many passages refer to heaven as eternal life with god.
Ezekiel 18:4-20 is noteworthy here. V 5-9 speaks of a man who is very righteous. V9 states: “He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
V 10-13 speaks of a man, who is very unrighteous and sinful, V 13 states: “He lends money on interest and takes increase; will he live? He will not live! He has committed all these abominations, he will surely be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.”
Psalms 164:4 clearly states: “His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”
Acts 2:31 states “Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.”
Origins of the idea of hell being a place of fiery torment
Among the many words used in scripture to refer to hell, there are Gehenna, Sheol, Tartarus, and Hades. Our “Hell” is nothing but a mistranslation of these words.
The word “hell” appears nowhere in ancient biblical texts and is a mistranslation provided for us by non other than Martin Luther who translated scripture into German in the early sixteenth century. Martin Luther translated the word “Hades” into hell (German Hölle). The underworld in Norse mythology was ruled by the goddess Hel. The place was also called Hel.
We have already covered the meanings behind the words “Gehenna”, and “Sheol”. But what of “Tartarus”, and “Hades“?
Like “Hel” in Norse mythology, “Hades” is the ancient Greek abode of the dead and the god of that underworld.
The word “Hades” is used exclusively in the New Testament, and is obviously of Greek influence. Certainly Hades did not come to exist as soon as the Jews made contact with the Greeks. Certainly the Jews of the time did not ascribe to the Greek ideas of hell. To do so would be counter productive to their ideal. Neither would Jesus allow paganism to influence or be a part of his teachings.
The word Hades in Greek translates into “Hidden”, or “unseen”. And was probably used by Christ in place of Sheol. Also noteworthy is that the gospels were written in Greek. So naturally, the word Hades would have been used in place of “Sheol”. It may have been that while speaking Aramaic, Christ did use the word “Sheol” which was then translated into “Hades” in the Greek scriptures.
The word Tartarus is used only once in 2 peter 2:4 to describe a place where sinning angels go. It may be noted that Tartarus appears to be a place that is temporary.
2 peter 2:4: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment.”
Despite this essay and its biblical references, It should be noted that scripture can be interpreted in many ways. Consider the numerous denominations involved in Christianity. Who is to say what Christ ultimately meant when he used such words as Sheol, Gehenna and Hades or what ancient Jews understood these places to represent? Despite the fact that Gehenna was a fiery garbage dump, who can say 2000 years later what was meant by such phrases as “the will be cast into Gehenna.” Only one man who lived 2000 years ago knows the ultimate truth, which we shall all become aware of at our moment of passing.