The Truth about Hell

“The sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” —Revelation 20:13

AS A RESULT of Satan’s lie to mother Eve, “Ye shall not surely die,” traditional theology has changed the meaning of death from ‘the absence of life’ to ‘separation from God in a place of endless and excruciating torture’. Accepting the unscriptural, but in some respects palatable theory, that there is no death, it was reasoned that the wicked when “shuffling off this mortal soil” could not be worthy of spending eternity in happiness with the righteous, so the theory of torture in hell for these seemed an obvious solution.

As this God-dishonoring teaching was taking shape, there were probably very few who enthusiastically espoused it; therefore the more humane—although equally false—theory of purgatory was perhaps welcomed as mitigating the horrors of endless torture, since those tortured in this humanly conceived place of suffering would eventually escape; for when their ‘souls’ were purified by pain they would, according to this theory, be ushered into heavenly bliss.

But, as we have previously observed, there is no mention of purgatory in the Bible, so the Protestant fathers, in their desire to be loyal to the Word of God, and to discard all man-made teachings, especially those emanating from Rome, renounced their belief in purgatory, and eliminated all mention of it in their creeds. They concluded that the divine plan for all who were not good enough to go to heaven when they died was that they should suffer eternally in a hell of blistering torment.

Hell in the Bible

But let us say on behalf of those who discarded the purgatory dogma, and retained merely the eternal torture doctrine, that they did find the word hell in the Bible—in both the Old and New Testaments. We are speaking now, of course, of the older English translations of the Bible. In the Old Testament, hell translates the Hebrew word sheol. In the New Testament three Greek words are translated hell; namely, hades, Gehenna, and tartaroo.

The Hebrew word sheol appears in the Old Testament sixty-five times. But it is not always translated hell. Thirty-one times it is translated grave, and three times pit. But thirty-one times it is translated hell in our King James Version Bibles, and, with the false meaning that has, through misuse, been attached to the word hell in the minds of not too careful students, this helps to support the torture hallucination.

However, the variation of translation should at once raise a question concerning the real meaning of the Hebrew word sheol. Certainly the meaning of the word does not change to suit the whims of the translators. The fact that it can be translated grave and pit without doing violence to the text in which it is so translated, makes one wonder why it should not always be translated by these better understood English words. However, regardless of these variations, the word sheol describes the only hell with which the ancient servants of God were acquainted, and also the only hell God mentioned in his inspired Word for the first four thousand years of human experience. Whatever the nature of this hell might be, it is expressed by the word sheol. Since God is unchangeable, we can rest assured that every thought he conveyed to the minds of his ancient servants through the word sheol is still true today. Bearing out this thought is the fact, as we shall discover, that the hell of the New Testament is the’ same as the hell of the Old Testament.

Does the Hebrew word sheol, and do the Greek words in the New Testament describe the traditional hell of the Dark Ages? Let us see: (1) The traditional hell is a place of endless torture, whereas the Bible teaches that hell is a condition of unconsciousness, the state of death. (2) Tradition has it that hell is a place into which only the wicked go when they die, but the hell of the Bible is a condition into which both the righteous and the wicked go at death. (3) The hell invented in the Dark Ages is a place from which, it is claimed, no one will ever return, but the hell of the Bible will give up its dead. Let us examine these points as we find them set forth in the Word of God.

Unconscious in Hell

First we will turn to the Old Testament, where the word sheol is translated hell. We do not need to depend upon a Hebrew scholar’s definition of this word, for the Bible itself reveals its meaning. We find this information in Ecclesiastes 9:10, which reads, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” Here the word grave translates sheol, and the text says that there is no knowledge in sheol—that it is a condition of unconsciousness. This means that those in hell—the hell of the Bible, that is—do not suffer, are not in torment, but are completely unconscious.

Righteous and Wicked

The first time the Hebrew word sheol appears in the Old Testament it is used by the righteous patriarch, Jacob. He had been deceived into believing that his son, Joseph, had been slain by a wild beast. Jacob was heartbroken, and indicated that he would continue to mourn for his son until he died. In expressing his great grief he used the word sheol, saying, “I will go down into the grave [sheol] unto my son mourning.”—Gen. 37:35

Here it is clearly evident that Jacob expected to go to sheol when he died, and sheol, let us remember, describes the only hell of the Old Testament. This statement therefore proves that the righteous go to the Bible hell at death. Later Jacob affirmed his understanding of where he would go when he died. It was when he was protesting against his son, Benjamin, being taken down to Egypt. He said, “My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he is left alone: if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave [Sheol, hell].”—Gen. 42:38

Job was another righteous man, a servant of God, who expected to go to sheol when he died. His case is most interesting. God had permitted a very severe trial to come upon him. He was undergoing acute suffering, mentally and physically, so much so that he felt he could no longer endure, so he asked God to let him die. In his prayer for death Job said to God, “O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave [sheol, hell], that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me.”—Job 14:13

This was Job’s way of asking God to let him die. He knew that in death he would be in sheol, the Bible hell. The reason Job prayed to go to sheol, the Bible hell, is because he knew that those in sheol are unconscious. Job was suffering almost beyond the point of human endurance, so in his prayer for death he was crying for relief from suffering, which relief he knew he would find in sheol, the Bible hell.

Not Necessarily Permanent

But Job did not wish to remain in hell permanently, for in his prayer he asked God to appoint him a set time and remember him. Then he added, “All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change [from death to life] come. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee: thou wilt have a desire to the work of thine hands.” (Job 14:14,15) Job expressed his hope of returning from sheol, in the resurrection, which is contrary to the teachings of the Dark Ages relative to the creedal hell.

The word sheol is again translated grave in I Samuel 2: 6, which reads, “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave [sheol, hell], and bringeth up.” The thought of this text is the same as that expressed in a prayer by Moses in which he said to God, “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.” (Ps. 90:3) This seems to be a reference to the sentence of death which came upon our first parents, a sentence which plunged the whole world into death, destruction, sheol. But God’s plan is to restore the dead to life, which means that those in sheol will not remain there. Hell will give up its dead.

Why the Variations of Translation?

It is proper to inquire why the translators of our Common Version Bibles did not in every instance translate the Hebrew word sheol by the same English word. Why did they at times use the word grave, and at other times hell? It is obvious that this variation of translation must of necessity make it more difficult for the ordinary reader of the Bible to ascertain the real truth about hell.

In examining the work of the translators it appears that the general rule they seemed to follow was that when the righteous were involved they used the word grave, but when the text referred to the death of wicked persons; sheol was translated hell. To the casual reader this was sure to lead to the erroneous conclusion that the righteous and the wicked go to different places when they die—the righteous into the grave, and the wicked into hell. With the meaning which became attached to the word hell during the Dark Ages, this meant that the wicked go to a place of torture.

Let it be said on behalf of the translators, however, that the English word hell did not always have the thought of torture associated with it. Like many other words, it has undergone a complete change of meaning. Originally hell meant simply ‘to conceal’, ‘to cover’. The British ‘helled’ their potatoes for the winter, which simply meant that they buried them in the ground to protect them from the winter’s frost. We do not know, of course; whether or not the translators had this original meaning of the word hell in mind when they used it to translate the Hebrew word sheol, or whether they hoped that the reader would take its attached meaning and thus reach the conclusion that the wicked go to a place of torment.

However, while usually the translators employed the word hell in texts which refer to the death of the wicked, and grave when the reference is to the righteous, there are exceptions to this rule, a very noteworthy one being Psalm 16:10. This text reads, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” Here we have a Holy One expressing confidence that God would not leave his soul in hell, in sheol.

In the New Testament we learn that the Holy One whose soul was not left in hell was Jesus, the Redeemer and Savior of the world. This is confirmed by the Apostle Peter in the sermon he preached on the Day of Pentecost. At that time there was an outstanding display of divine power, the Holy Spirit of God. God’s Spirit, or power, which had brought the whole universe into existence in that “beginning” in which “God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1); the same Spirit of God which “moved upon the face of the waters” (vs. 2) forming the oceans, regulating the tides, and causing the waters to swarm with fish, ‘now had come upon the disciples to accomplish still another aspect of the divine plan.

In the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were empowered to speak in various foreign languages and the enemies of Jesus charged that this unusual conduct of the disciples was merely a case of their being intoxicated by strong drink. The Apostle Peter was quick to answer this charge. First he said, “These are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day; but this is that which was spoken by the Prophet Joel.” (Acts 2:15,16) Joel had prophesied that God would pour out his Spirit upon his servants and handmaids, and Peter identified what was happening as a fulfillment of this prophecy.

Then Peter continued his sermon, saying, “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”—Acts 2:22-27

It will be recognized that the Apostle Peter quoted Psalm 16:10, applying it to the death and resurrection of Jesus. This means that Jesus went into the Bible hell when he died. Hell, as we have seen, is the death condition, and in Isaiah 53:12 we read concerning Jesus, “He hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

In other words, Jesus took the sinner’s place in death. Since, through Adam, all mankind was condemned to death, to the Bible hell, if Jesus were to redeem Adam and his race it was essential that he take this penalty upon himself. For this reason he poured out his soul unto death, going into the Bible hell. It was by this means as Isaiah states, that Jesus bore the sins of many—that is, of all mankind. Paul wrote, “Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.”—Rom. 5:18

Hades in the New Testament

When the Apostle Peter quoted Psalm 16:10, the prophecy which reveals that Jesus’ soul was in the Bible hell from the time of his crucifixion until his resurrection, he used the Greek word hades to translate the Hebrew sheol. Thus we know, upon the basis of this inspired authority, that hades, which is translated hell ten times in the New Testament, has exactly the same meaning as sheol of the Old Testament; that is, the state, or condition of death.

It is the Greek word hades that is translated hell in Matthew 11:23. This is a prophecy by Jesus concerning the destruction of the wicked city of Capernaum. It reads, “Thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell [hades].” From this we see that even a city can go into the Bible hell. It is an historical fact that Capernaum was completely destroyed, that it went into oblivion, into hades.

In Revelation 1:18 we find another very revealing use of the Greek word hades. The resurrected Jesus is here speaking to the Apostle John, and he says, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell [hades] and of death.” Jesus had been dead, in sheol, hades, as a substitute in death for Adam and his race. The result of this is explained by the Apostle Paul in Romans 14:9, where we read, “To this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.”

To be ‘Lord’ of the dead and the living is to have control over them. It is this fact that Jesus symbolizes by “keys.” He said: I “have the keys of hell and of death.” (Rev. 1:18) That is, Jesus, by virtue of his own death and resurrection, now has the authority and power to liberate from death those who are in hades, and to restore to health and life those who are dying. Paul explains the philosophy of this in I Corinthians 15:22, which reads, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

The “Gates” of Hell

In Matthew 16:18 Jesus is quoted as saying, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell [hades] shall not prevail against it.” Many long centuries before this, God had promised Abraham that through his “seed” all the families of the earth would be “blessed.” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18) In the New Testament we learn that this promised ‘seed’ is Jesus, and associated with him are his faithful footstep followers. (Gal. 3:8,16,27-29) In their relation to Jesus these are described as “the church, which is his body.” (Eph. 1:22,23) It is this ‘church’ which Jesus refers to, and says that the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”—Matt. 16:18

This is a most reassuring promise. The divinely planned work of Jesus and the church is the blessing of all the families of the earth, but how can all the families of the earth be blessed since they are all either in the Bible hell or on their way thereto? Jesus answers this question in his assertion that the ‘gates of hell’ will not prevail against the church; that is, will not hinder the church, in association with him who has the ‘keys of hell’, from blessing all mankind as designed by the Heavenly Father.

We already have proof that this is true. Jesus the great lifegiver of mankind, was himself in death, in hell. The ‘gates of hell’ did not prevail to hold him a prisoner in death. God exercised his mighty power and restored Jesus to life. Peter said, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32) Nor will the ‘gates of hell’ hold the followers of Jesus prisoners in death. The release of these is prophetically described in Revelation 20:6, which reads, “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection, … they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”

With this ‘first resurrection’ complete, the work of the thousand-year reign of Christ and his church will begin. Then will take place in reality what the Apostle John saw in vision. Describing his vision John said, “Death and hell [hades] delivered up the dead which were in them.” (Rev. 20:13) For this to be accomplished, Jesus will use the keys of hell to unlock its gates, to set its prisoners free. This great work of Christ and his church is otherwise described in the Bible as the resurrection of the dead.

Hell Destroyed

The word hell (hades) appears for the last time in the Bible in the verse following the one in which John tells us that he saw hell give up its dead. In this text we are told that hell is to be destroyed. The text reads, “Death and hell [hades] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” In the Old Testament God prophesied the ultimate destruction of hell, sheol, hades. Through the Prophet Hosea he promised to ransom the people from the power of sheol. This, we have found, was the purpose of Jesus’ death, of his going into sheol. The ultimate result of this the Lord said, would be, “I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave [sheol], I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes.”—Hos. 13:14

John saw hell (bodes] destroyed in the “lake of fire,” which he defines as the “second death.” (Rev. 20:14) This is not a literal lake of fire, although many have used this text in their effort to establish the Satan-inspired teaching of eternal torture for the wicked. They have spoken of the ‘lake of fire’ as though it were the hell of the Bible, failing to take into consideration that John saw the Bible hell cast into the lake of fire. Surely hell could not be cast into itself. Throughout the Scriptures, fire is used as a symbol of destruction, and this is no exception to the rule. The condition of death which came upon the world of mankind as a result of original sin is to destroyed, and this destruction is symbolized by a lake of fire.

Gehenna Fire

The everlasting destruction of individuals who prove themselves to be incorrigibly wicked is shown by Jesus to be accomplished by “Gehenna” fire. Gehenna is a Greek word which Jesus used on a number of occasions, and in our Common Version English translations of the Bible is translated “hellfire.” Where the word is used without the association of fire, it is simply translated “hell.”

This Greek word Gehenna described, what was called in the Hebrew language, the “Valley of Hinnom.” This was a deep ravine just outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem. It was used as a place for the disposal of the refuse of the city, including the carcasses of cats and dogs and other ‘unclean’ animals. According to tradition, bodies of humans who, according to the Jewish Sanhedrin, had committed crimes making them unworthy of a resurrection, were cast into the Valley of Hinnom. Fires were kept constantly burning in this valley to assure the destruction of everything that was thrown into it. Because of this use of the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, and the obvious significance of the fire which was kept burning therein, Jesus employed it to illustrate the utter destruction of the willfully wicked.

In Matthew 10:28, Gehenna is translated hell. This text quotes Jesus as saying, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” This shows clearly that Gehenna is used by Jesus to denote destruction, not torment. The words kill and destroy are used with respect to both body and soul, thus the literal meaning of both words is shown to apply to the entire being.

In Mark 9: 43, 44 the word Gehenna is again used. Here Jesus is quoted as saying, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” This passage has been erroneously seized upon to teach the God-dishonoring doctrine of eternal torture. The ‘worm’ that ‘dieth not’, they say, is the soul that is tortured in hell. However, this latter part of the text about the ‘worm’ is evidently spurious, since the oldest manuscripts omit it. It does appear, though, in the 48th verse. But how contrary is this interpretation to Jesus’ own declaration that the soul is killed, or destroyed, in hell, the same as the body.—Matt 10: 28

Besides, there is no Scriptural authority for saying that a human soul is a ‘worm’. Here Jesus is again using Gehenna as a symbol of destruction. All know that dead bodies exposed to the elements soon become infested with worms, or maggots, and other insects which, if left alone, in time completely destroy the carcass. It is to this that Jesus is referring. Presumably, bodies hurled into Gehenna would not always reach the fire that was kept burning for the destruction of refuse. But if not, then they would be destroyed by worms. Thus does Jesus emphasize the certain inflicting of the death penalty upon all who are not found worthy of everlasting life.

The Rich Man in Hades

There is one use of the Greek word hades in the New Testament which has been thought by some to confirm the doctrine of eternal torture. It is in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, recorded in Luke 16:19-31. After the death of the rich man in this parable, it is said that “in hell [hades] he lifted up his eyes, being in torments.” (vs. 23) Simply because the word hell is used here, and the rich man is said to be tormented in hell, this parable has been seized upon to prove that all believers in Christ go to heaven when they die and that all unbelievers, the wicked, go to eternal torture.

Satan’s original lie, “Thou shalt not surely die,” has gained such a hold upon human thinking that reason and logic have often been thrown to the winds in order to prove that there is no death, and that torment, not death, is the divine penalty for sin. We have a vivid example of lack of reason in the generally accepted interpretation of this parable. We suggest a careful reading of the parable, as cited. It says nothing about the righteous nor the wicked. Nor are believers and unbelievers mentioned in the parable. Nothing is said in the parable about anyone going to heaven.

In the parable a poor beggar dies, and is carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom, not to heaven. The beggar is not described as righteous, or as being a believer in Christ. Nor is the rich man said to be a sinner. After his death, and when in hades, he is shown to be conversing with the beggar who is in Abraham’s bosom. There is not a single detail of the parable which, in reality, harmonizes with the Protestant view that all good people go to heaven when they die, and all others are forever tortured. No one believes that those they claim are being tortured in hell are able to converse with the saved in heaven.

We refer to a booklet entitled, “The Truth About Hell,” for a full explanation of this parable. We will mention here merely that the two men of the parable represent the Jews and the Gentiles, not as individuals, but as groups; the rich man picturing the natural descendants of Abraham, and the beggar the Gentiles. Beginning with the First Advent of Jesus, the Gentiles began to inherit the promises God made to Abraham, while those to whom the promises were originally made died to their position of special favor before the Lord and, as a people, have been persecuted or ‘tormented’, ever since.

Briefly, then, the torment mentioned in this parable symbolically describes the age-long national persecution of the Jewish people, and has no reference at all to the actual death condition of individual members of the human race. In recent years the Jewish national scene has undergone considerable change. Eventually the torments of this people will be entirely over, and for this we are glad.

No More Death

In Isaiah 25:8 we read of a time when the Lord will “swallow up death in victory” and when he will “wipe away tears from off all faces.” The Apostle Paul quotes this promise, and then adds, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave (hades), where is thy victory?” (I Cor. 15:54,55) Thus again are we given assurance of the ultimate destruction of death, and that this will mean victory over hades, sheaf, the Bible hell. Just as Jesus explained, the ‘gates of hell’ will not prevail. The victory will be the Lord’s because he will destroy hell, and set its captives free.

Then, for the first time, it will be true that “there is no death,” not because Satan told the truth when he said, “Ye shall not surely die,” but because the Lord will destroy death. As we read in Revelation 21:4, then “there shall be no more death, … neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

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