But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Matthew 5:22 ESV
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 ESV
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;… 2 Peter 2:4 ESV
It is simply not controversial, by any reasonable application of the term, that the origins of the hideous doctrine of “hell” are for the most part pagan and extra-biblical superstition.
Among the more insidious problems caused by intentional mis-translations, this doctrine is the leading instigator of more wrong thinking than just about any other, for reasons unrelated to its hideousness or perhaps we should say, in spite of it. Almost all translations and paraphrases of the Bible uniformly translate three different Greek words (and for extra measure, one Hebrew word) as “hell”–the above three verses are somewhat well-known examples. In the first verse above, the word used is actually “geenna“, pronounced “Gehenna”, a well-known place from Jewish antiquity which can with reasonable certainty be located upon a map of Jerusalem today.
In the second verse above, the word used is actually “hades“, pronounced (correctly) “ha-DAHS”, originally equating with the Hebrew word “sheol“. The third use of “hell” above is actually “tartaroo“, or more commonly “Tartarus”. Tartarus originated with the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead, or the “deepest part of Hell” (we’re not making this up–look at the etymological key in the preceding link). In short summary, there is Jerusalem’s ancient city dump–Gehenna; the grave or similar place under the earth–Sheol/Hades; and a literal or figurative multi-level subterranean place of Greek mythology (judging from the depth of current offshore oil and gas exploration, it must be very subterranean).
We trust that the breadth of these different words is beginning to cast some doubt upon the commonly speculative place of the Devil in a red suit with a pitchfork, flames, never-ending punishment in burning torment, etc. etc. It is time for the church to face the questions: Is there a “Hell”, and exactly WHAT and WHERE is it? Is it in this realm (i.e., under the physical earth) or is it in another realm (i.e., a spiritual realm somewhere removed from heaven, the throne of God)? If the supposed place does NOT exist, why is the church threatening so many people with it? (In some parts of the church, it is believed to be the destination of the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived!)
It is time for the under-shepherds of God’s flock to stop the psychological mind-control of God’s sheep that occurs when the sheep are actively or impliedly given the choice between heaven or hell, turn or burn, and utopia or eternal separation from God. Perhaps the under-shepherds do not themselves know better, or perhaps their livelihoods depend upon keeping the sheep in line! If you are an under shepherd and are not able to convince your parishioners that the life of the indwelling Jesus Christ is better by far than anything this world has to offer (and we mean ANYTHING), without the fear of eternal torment, perhaps you are in the wrong calling!
In keeping with our practice of not dis-proving what is false, we will instead focus upon what is true and trust that He will guide us to Himself by the Holy Spirit. Let’s take “Gehenna” first. The following is a well-known passage from the gospel of Mark:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell (Gehenna), into the unquenchable fire, WHERE THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell (Gehenna), where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED. If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell (Gehenna), where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED. Mark 9:43-48 New American Standard Bible (NASB) (capitalization in original)
You may, dear reader, be able to tell that the Lord Jesus was here speaking figuratively to make His point, if for no other reason than your recollection of the number of preachers you have seen with one hand, one foot or one eye resulting from obedience to these words. (Thank God no one has taken Him literally here.) Before we consider what He actually did mean, we would like to point out that this link (it is the 5th picture from the left) is to a photo of the Valley of Hinnom, which was later called “Gehenna”. You will please note that the unquenchable fire has obviously gone out, and the worm has died! We think it is fair to say that the Lord was not speaking literally or Gehenna’s fire would still be burning!
The Lord’s point, in the Mark passage and other places, is that the seriousness of life issues require constant vigilance for oneself and for others so as not to unnecessarily consign one’s own life or the life of another to the trash dump of life. The same is true for the passage in Matthew–one risks throwing one’s own life or the life of another upon the trash dump by calling him a fool. Please note that nothing in the Lord’s words here indicate that the fire (assuming that it is the fire of judgment) continues AFTER the end of life–it is simply not there. One must read it into the passage. Much more could be said about the restorative effects of God’s fire, but that will be for another post.
What about Hades and its “gates” or what in the Old Testament is called “Sheol”? Is it time to be literal yet? Yes and no. The grave is very real, as is the spirit of Death which empowers it. And for now Death and the grave have some measure of victory, as we all know. But our Lord has conquered Death AND the grave. He has promised that all who are believing in Him will never die. And even if a believer should for some reason die, He has promised to nevertheless raise that believer up on the last day. Again we point out, there is nothing “everlasting” or “eternal” about Death and the grave, or “Hades”.
This is precisely the point the apostle Paul made in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians. He began by saying “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Understanding Paul’s point will help with what appears to be an inconsistency with the Lord’s words: Paul is not saying there are some who never die; instead he is saying that in the same way that all WOULD die but for Christ, BECAUSE OF Christ all WILL be made alive. Death is going to be ABOLISHED! Graves are going to be abolished, just like Gehenna was! The unquenchable fire (not to mention the worms) will no longer be necessary! Read it for yourself.
For He (Jesus) must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death…When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all…But when this perishable (body) will have put on the imperishable (body), and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?’ 1 Corinthians 15:25-26, 28, 54-55 NASB
Finally we come to Tartarus. We should perhaps be grateful that it is only mentioned one time in the entire Bible. Clearly, it is some type of abode for “angels who sinned”. But do you notice there is no mention of fire? Instead, we are told of “gloomy darkness”. In addition, it is clearly not an unending period without termination–Peter says “UNTIL the judgment.” So, we have gloomy darkness…until the judgment. Peter’s point is that Father knows how to correct bad behavior–He did it with the angels and he will do it with all others also:
(T)he Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,… 2 Peter 2:9 ESV These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. 2 Peter 2:17 ESV
Notice, again, the “gloom of utter darkness’…”until the day of judgment.” So whether we are referring to angels or ungodly men, described in some detail by Peter, the environment is the same, and there is a definite end-point–the day of judgment. It seems self-evident if the vast majority of all mankind from every age were ultimately destined to this fiery, tortuous “end”, Father would have been a little clearer in warning against it.
In point of fact, He did not warn against “Hell” (at least as it has been typically presented) because there is no such place. Likewise, “Hell” is not the ultimate destination for most of mankind, as the apostle Paul faithfully reported in the verses above from 1 Corinthians. Finally, Father’s punishment is not perpetual and un-ending, and it is a terrible and false accusation to ascribe the hideous doctrine to Him. Frankly, it has never entered His mind to burn any of His children, so you’ll just have to blame that idea on the next one-handed, one-footed, and one-eyed preacher you happen to meet.
Blessed are You, O Father of Love, who intends for all to be granted repentance in the fullness of time, because You do not want anyone to perish. By Your great plan, with Your great power, fulfill this great purpose in all mankind. There is no one like You, O Lord.