Many people believe the Bible teaches they will either go to heaven or hell when they die. But are these ideas really based on the biblical truth about hell? Would a loving God vengefully torment people for all time without end?
The Bible actually reveals there is no hell as most people understand the term. The word “hell” is used in English translations, but it does not refer to an afterlife of unending torment. There will be judgment for every human being, and ultimate punishment for those who refuse to repent. But what exactly is that punishment?
We don’t automatically go on living forever, either in heaven or in hell. Death is the cessation of life—not conscious separation from God, as many try to redefine it. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Those who sin, or disobey God, are not subjected to continual torture and unending pain, but they have earned death and their life will end. Ezekiel 18: 4 and 20 tell us “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).
God grants everlasting life to those who obey and submit to him. Jesus Christ said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him [God] who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). So there is a “hell” of sorts—but it results in total destruction of body and soul, not life in torment while forever separated from God.
When recognizing hell isn’t eternal conscious torment, we need to make sure we don’t fall into the other ditch and think there is no ultimate punishment for the wicked. The hardened, unrepentant sinner will be thrown into a lake of fire and burned up. This is the real hellfire, but the unrepentant wicked will not burn forever in this fire. They will be quickly reduced to ashes. “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble....for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 4:1-3).
God wants us to willingly choose His way. The desperately wicked will be punished, but not because God refuses to forgive them. It will be a conscious choice on their part to refuse God’s mercy and remain unrepentant.
When it comes to the topic of eternal punishment and hell the most important thing to remember is that God is a God of mercy and love (1 John 4:8 and 16). Jesus Himself taught, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
When God’s plan for humanity is complete, there will be no more crying, no more tears, no more sorrow and no more pain (Revelation 21:4). The final, very quick death of the hopelessly wicked in a lake of fire is an act of God’s justice and mercy.
None of the words translated “hell” in English Bibles refers to a conscious afterlife of endless torment. In fact, Scripture states there is no conscious awareness in death, and that we must be raised to conscious existence in a future resurrection (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10; 1 Corinthians 15:6,18, 20 and 51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
So what do these words translated “hell” mean?
The Old Testament Hebrew sheol is equivalent to the New Testament Greek term hades. Both these words are used in Scripture in reference to the grave—to burial in the earth.
The Greek term tartaroo, occurs only in 2 Peter 2:4. It refers here to the present condition of demons, rebellious angels, being restrained or imprisoned on the earth.
This word is the New Testament Greek form of the Hebrew Gai Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom that ran along the west and south sides of Jerusalem. People were burned there in pagan sacrifice, and it later became a place to burn garbage. This term was used by Jesus in reference to future judgment in the lake of fire that will ultimately destroy the wicked, but there is no sense here of a fire burning and torturing forever.
Beyond Today Magazine (Jan-Feb 2018)