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Table of Contents

Section 1: Is Salvation for All Biblical?

Section 2: Is the Doctrine of Hell Biblical?

Section 3: Symbolism

Section 4: Biblical Judgment: a Consistent Theme of Redemption

Section 5: Philosophy and Scripture

Section 6: History and Tradition

Section 7: Addressing Objections

Section 8: Strongholds

Is the Doctrine of hell Biblical?

Introduction

So far, a reader of this argument should rightly be somewhat confused. What about all of the passages in the Bible describing hell as eternal, as the lake of fire, as outer darkness, and as a place where the worm doesn’t die and the fire is never quenched? What about those passages?

I am glad you asked, because they will not be ignored. In fact, they are extremely important to examine in order to find the beauty of the gospel, and critical to understanding the wonderful redemptive story described throughout all of Scripture.

But before we do this, let’s do our best to define the traditional doctrine of hell that I’m arguing against. There are several “orthodox” versions of the doctrine but they all basically say something like this:

1. If a person dies without knowing Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, then they will go to a place called hell.

2. Hell is a place of torment, suffering, and separation from God. Usually the torment is said to be “conscious.”

3. Different Christian groups have differing views on how literally or figuratively to interpret the imagery used to describe hell, but agree that it will be really, really awful.

4. Hell is a place that people will be in forever, with no hope of ever escaping or coming into right relationship with God.

I think that is a pretty fair description of the doctrine as it is generally described although there are some subtle variations.

Is “hell” in the Bible?

Now, let’s examine the biblical evidence for the doctrine of hell described above. First off, we should determine if the word “hell” is found in the Bible at all. This is not difficult to do anymore. With the internet, you can get practically any English translation of the Bible and search it using sites like Bible Gateway or Bible Hub (which are both fantastic resources). If you do the search, you will find that the word is in fact used 13 times in the Bible and 11 of those times by Jesus himself, which is the reason why some argue that Jesus talked more about hell than anyone (you may have heard that as an argument before for why you must accept the traditional doctrine). It is also used once by Peter and once by James. So is hell in the Bible?

The answer is yes, it is… and NO, IT ISN’T.

You may be thinking that I’m clearly nuts in making the above statement. But read on carefully and you will see what I mean.

I’m sure you’re probably aware of the fact that the Scriptures weren’t originally written in English. The languages used in the original writings and teachings were Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, depending on the context and the audience they were presented to. So, the English versions that we read are all translations. Translations are necessary. Consider the following:

Καὶ ἔδειξεν ποταμὸν ὕδατος ζωῆς λαμπρὸν κρύσταλλον ἐκπορευόμενον θρόνου θεοῦ ἀρνίου

Yeah, I didn’t get it either… It’s actually Revelation 22:1 but I clearly wouldn’t understand how to read it as is and in fact couldn’t even copy it correctly because “early Greek was written right-to-left, just like Phoenician. However, eventually its direction changed to boustrophedon (which means "ox-turning"), where the direction of writing changes every line” (click for citation).

Weird… (no offense to ancient Greeks).

So translation is necessary, and the translating of the Bible is a wonderful thing that makes the Word of God accessible to people from every tribe, tongue and nation. I am very thankful and greatly appreciate the hard work of translators.

But translating is difficult! This is especially true when not only language, but culture differs markedly between people groups.

So, what does this have to do with hell and why did I write that it is NOT in the Bible?

The reason is that, in every instance that the word “hell” is used as a translation in the Bible (except one), the actual term being used was Gehenna (Valley of Hinnom, aka Valley of Ben Hinnom). Naturally, an English speaker* would not be familiar with the meaning of Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom, so it was translated as “hell,” a word that English speakers were more familiar with because it was tied to their own pagan mythology (more on this later).

(*note: I am using the term English speaker generically as the English language has evolved significantly from a Proto-Germanic origin and since there are significant linguistic connections between Northern European tribes of the time period…)

So now let’s look at all the instances of the word “hell” in the entire Bible and substitute them with a more literal translation:

Matthew 5:22

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).

Matthew 5:29

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).

Matthew 5:30

And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).

Matthew 18:9

And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).

Mark 9:42-44 (NASB)

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. 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 ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna) , into the unquenchable fire, [where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.]

Mark 9:45

And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna). .

Mark 9:47

And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).

Luke 12:5

But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).  Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Matthew 10:28

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).

Matthew 23:15

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna ) as you are.

Matthew 23:33

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna) ?

James 3:6

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna). .

2 Peter 2:4

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell ( tartarōsas) , putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment;

So what was Gehenna really? Here is a definition from Easton's Bible Dictionary (click to see this resource)

Gehenna-
(originally Ge bene Hinnom; i.e., "the valley of the sons of Hinnom"), a deep, narrow glen to the south of Jerusalem, where the idolatrous Jews offered their children in sacrifice to Molech ( 2 Chronicles 28:3 ; 33:6 ; Jeremiah 7:31 ; 19:2-6 ). This valley afterwards became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by fire kept always burning. It thus in process of time became the image of the place of everlasting destruction. In this sense it is used by our Lord in Matthew 5:22 Matthew 5:29 Matthew 5:30 ; 10:28 ; 18:9 ; Matthew 23:15 Matthew 23:33 ; Mark 9:43 Mark 9:45 Mark 9:47 ; Luke 12:5 . In these passages, and also in James 3:6 , the word is uniformly rendered "hell," the Revised Version placing "Gehenna" in the margin. (See HELL; HINNOM.)

M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain, copy freely.

So the word translated “hell” was an actual place that Jesus’ audience knew about! It was the dump! It was also clearly unclean and repulsive, not only because it was a place of rotting garbage, but also because it was the place where the Israelites had falsely worshipped Baal and Molech by burning their own children as sacrifices to false gods.

Not surprisingly, God did not approve of this latter practice of child sacrifice by immolation. Read what he says through the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 32:35

They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.

The type of sacrifice being practiced is also briefly described below (and is confirmed by historians):

2 Kings 23:10

He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek.

Notice that God finds the burning (presumably alive) of children detestable. I think our consciences innately agree. Several questions must then be asked: Would He do this to his children or to any human being as is suggested by the doctrine of hell? Aren’t we His children?  It clearly was an abomination to Him and inconsistent with His character (more on this later). Yet the popular doctrine of hell suggests that this may be exactly what God is doing, tormenting people endlessly in flames (whether literal or figurative). The interpretation of the Valley of Ben Hinnom as promoted by the doctrine of hell aligns God with the horrific practices of idol worship and child sacrifice that He clearly despised. This is not only illogical and inconsistent with the rest of Scripture, but also maligns the name of God. I really, really don’t want to do that!

Other Observations on Gehenna (“hell”)

There are several other noteworthy observations to be made about Jesus’ references to Gehenna. Let’s examine them carefully, using our Bibles for confirmation.

It is never stated that Gehenna is eternal or everlasting.

This is an interesting observation because it is frequently argued that Jesus spoke “hell” in this manner. On the contrary, He never spoke of “hell” using any words that denoted duration at all. This is an inference being made because people assume that Jesus is speaking of Gehenna in other passages in which he does not use the term. While this inference may be valid, it is not demanded by the text.

It is never stated that Gehenna is a place of conscious torment.

Jesus never says anything about conscious torment in any of the passages that mention “hell.” He does mention destruction of body and soul, saying that we should fear God because he is able to destroy (apolesai in the Greek) both. This word denotes destruction, not torment. Also, it is worth noting that the text does not say that He will destroy both body and soul, just that He is able. In other words, he has the ultimate power and is worthy of reverence.

It is likely that Gehenna represented national judgment to the Israelites

Because the Valley of Hinnom evoked images of national judgment in the minds of Jesus’ audience, it is likely that they understood his warnings in this light. I won’t spend a ton of time on this but there is a great exposition of this view here: (click to see resource).  I’d recommend taking a look at it as well as the rest of the articles in the series, as they are excellent resources. Nevertheless, we will look at a short summary of the understanding that Gehenna was representative of the destruction that took place at the hands of the Babylonian empire.

Jeremiah 7:32

‘Therefore, behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when it will no longer be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place.’ (7:32)

Jeremiah 19:1-8

This is what the Lord says: “Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take along some of the elders of the people and of the priests and go out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. There proclaim the words I tell you, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, you kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.
“‘In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds…”
“Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room…’”

So you see the Valley of Ben Hinnom was a place of temporary, earthly destruction and death. The Babylonian empire did in fact invade and destroy Jerusalem and killed so many people that the Valley became full of corpses. This was undoubtedly the interpretive context of Jesus’ Jewish audience. They knew exactly what had happened as a result of their former disobedience and almost certainly interpreted Jesus’ warnings about Gehenna (the Valley of Ben Hinnom) to mean that Jerusalem would once again be laid waste and Gehenna be the refuse heap for those killed.

And in A.D 70, this very thing happened! Jerusalem was destroyed and so many killed that the historian Josephus claimed that the death count was over 1 million. He says that the “number of those that perished during the whole siege” was “eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread…” (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews VI.9.3 ).

It is certainly possible that Jesus was warning his Jewish audience of this impending judgment, just as the prophets had done before Him. Some would argue that this is the only context in which to appropriately interpret Jesus’ warnings on Gehenna. While I’m not personally prepared to argue that point, there is certainly some merit to it. Nevertheless, it is clear that the destruction of Jerusalem was a judgment that has already been completed, not an everlasting one.

The Tongue (Set on Fire by a Place of Eternal Punishment?)

We must also address the use of the term Gehenna in the text of James 3:6 which says “the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell ( Valley of Hinnom/Gehenna).” Is it reasonable to assert that the tongue is set on fire by a place of eternal torment? In short, the answer is no (because this makes no sense).

It does, however, make sense if we consider the original meaning of the term Gehenna as the unclean, filthy dump where the flesh is rotting. It brings to mind our sinful natures that need to be purified by God’s consuming fire. Similar imagery is used in Matthew 23:27, where Jesus says: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” In a sense, Jesus was comparing the hearts of the Pharisees to a place as unclean as Gehenna, a tomb full of dead men. This view of Gehenna actually makes sense in the context of James’ discussion of the evils we can cause with our speech. Viewing it as a hell of eternal suffering clearly does not.

What is tartarōsas?

Now that we’ve established the true meaning of most of the “hell” references in the Bible, we need to address the final usage of this translation. Here it is again for review.

2 Peter 2:4

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell ( tartarōsas) , putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment;

Below, you can see information on the word:

HELPS Word-studies

5020 tartaróō – properly, send to Tartarus ("Tartaros"). The NT uses 5020 (tartaróō) for the netherworld – the place of punishment fit only for demons. Later, Tartaros came to represent eternal punishment for wicked people.

"5020 (tartaróō) is a Greek name for the under-world, especially the abode of the damned – hence to cast into hell" (A-S); to send into the subterranean abyss reserved for demons and the dead.

[In Greek mythology, Tartarus was a "place of punishment under the earth, to which, for example, the Titans were sent" (Souter).]

Retrieved from http://biblehub.com/greek/5020.htm

 

There are several highly significant things to notice about this. First, it is a place for sinful angels (demons).

Second, it clearly is not a permanent destination. Notice that they were sent there in chains “to be held for judgment.” Therefore, it is somewhere demons reside prior to judgment and clearly can NOT be the lake of fire. So in the word study above, the fact that “later, Tartaros came to represent eternal punishment for wicked people,” demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of this passage.

Third, it is a word derived from Greek mythology. Since Peter was speaking to a Greek-speaking audience, it appears that he chose a familiar myth to make it clearer to his audience that even sinful angels are held captive awaiting judgment.

At any rate, this “hell” described by Peter is clearly not a place of eternal punishment for people as proponents of the hell doctrine would have you believe.


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