What is hell? Is it a boiling caldron of continuing suffering for unsaved sinners, or something entirely different? Where is it? How long does it last? Satan has blinded most of humanity on the subject of hell — and for a particular reason.
Major American religions and the principal faiths worldwide usually picture hell as a place of never-ending, unimaginable torment for the damned, a burning inferno of eternal torture where the devil and his demons gleefully roast unsaved sinners. But these views of hell do not come from the Bible. They have been foisted upon humanity by the living, real Satan, the old serpent who deceives the whole world (Rev. 12:9). Satan's concept of hell would portray God as some kind of sadistic monster who apparently delights in seeing the wicked suffer in endless torture. And Satan has a special reason for blinding mankind with this particular lie. Millions have lived and died believing in this concept of hell, horrified by the thought of being flung into some searing furnace to burn eternally. Jesus Christ revealed that this false doctrine was inspired by "the devil... [who] from the beginning ... abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (John 8:44).
God's Word is truth
According to the King James Version of the Bible published in 1611, the English word hell is translated from three different Greek words. These words — tartaroo, hades and gehenna — have totally different meanings, and thus it is impossible to understand the Bible's teaching about hell without noting which of these words is used in any given scripture.
A condition of restraint
One of the three Greek words translated hell in the New Testament is tartaroo: "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [Greek: tartaroo], and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment" (II Pet. 2:4). The archangel Lucifer anciently mounted a rebellion against God, and apparently convinced fully one third of the Creator's holy angels to support this attempt to knock the Almighty off the throne of the universe (Isa. 14:12-14, Rev. 12:4). But God put down the attack and cast Lucifer (now Satan) and his angels (now demons) out of heaven. Christ said He saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Luke 10:18). This tartaroo, then, is a condition of restraint in which God will confine the insurgent, evil angels. Jude gives further clarification about the present condition of the fallen angels: "And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day" (Jude 6). The apostle Peter tells us that while Noah was preparing the ark, Christ actually preached to the incarcerated angels: "By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison" (I Pet. 3:19). These scriptures show that tartaroo is some kind of a prison in which mutinous angels are kept to await the judgment of the resurrected, immortal saints of God (I Thess. 4:16-17). Paul asks, "Know ye not that we shall judge angels?" (I Cor. 6:3). The angels who sinned were cast down to tartaroo, but nowhere does the Bible say that man will ever be put into this particular hell. This is the only place in the entire New Testament where this word is used, and it applies to unruly angels, not to men.
Hades — the grave
The second Greek word translated hell is hades. This word hades occurs only 11 times in the New Testament and is always rendered hell except in I Corinthians 15:55, where it is translated grave. And that is the real meaning of this word — the grave. The scriptures show that this Greek word hades has the same meaning as the Hebrew word sheol, which means grave. The Hebrew sheol is used on 65 occasions in the Old Testament; it is rendered the grave 31 times, hell 31 times and pit three times. It always refers to the grave, which no human ever escapes: "it is appointed unto men once to die" (Heb. 9:27) and "All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Eccl. 3:20). Notice Acts 2:27: "Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [Greek: hades]." This New Testament verse is quoted from Psalm 16:10, where the Hebrew word sheol is used for hell. Thus the New Testament Greek hades is equivalent to the Old Testament Hebrew sheaf — they both refer to the grave. Righteous Jacob knew that when he died he would "go down into the grave" (Gen. 37:35). The prophet Jonah spent 72 hours in a watery grave, buried within the belly of the great fish: "Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice" (Jonah 2:2). Jesus Christ was to spend "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" — in hell (Matt. 12:40, Acts 2:27). Do any who go down into the grave remember God or have any ability to think? "In death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?" and "His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Ps. 6:5, 146:4). No biblical record of anyone who was resurrected from death to physical life mentioned that the person had any memory of anything that transpired while he was dead in his grave. Nor does the Bible ever refer to hades or sheol as a burning inferno of punishment for dead people who somehow are not really dead but can feel pain. The hell to which hades in the New Testament and sheol in the Old Testament refer is merely the grave, where all human beings are destined to be in total oblivion until the resurrection.
Gehenna — the lake of fire
There is, however, a real lake of fire described in New Testament scriptures. The Bible reveals that God has planned a hell that will be a lot hotter than any of the ones Satan has palmed off on the world. It will be so hot that it will burn unrepentant humans to a crisp — and they will simply cease to exist forever: "He [God] will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12). Christ warned us to "fear him [God) which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" and said it would be better to actually lose precious physical capabilities in this life than to be cast into this fire (Matt. 10:28, 5:29-30). The word for hell in these verses is gehenna. Christ revealed the sobering meaning of this hell in His parable of the tares: "As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:40-42). Christ will say to the "goats" (the wicked, who have been separated from the righteous "sheep"): "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels... And these shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal" (Matt. 25:41, 46). Notice that this verse does not say the punishing will last forever. Indeed the Bible does not say "punishing" but "punishment." Those put in the lake of fire will not be tortured eternally, but will be burned up almost instantly by its heat. Thus the punishment will be everlasting. The Greek word gehenna is a transliteration of the Hebrew Gai Hinnom, meaning the valley of Hinnom. This rugged region, skirting the south side of Jerusalem, was where, anciently, fires were kept burning to worship the false god Moloch. During the time of Christ and His apostles, the valley of Hinnom had become a city dump, a place where garbage and the bodies of dead animals and despised dead criminals were burned. The fires there constantly smoldered. But the refuse and dead bodies dumped there burned up — did not continuously keep burning. The valley of Hinnom of the New Testament was referred to as Tophet in the Hebrew scriptures: "For Tophet is ordained of old: yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it" (Isa. 30:33). This is a prophecy of the coming gehenna, the lake of fire, into which Christ will fling the incorrigibly wicked. "And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet... These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone" (Rev. 19:20).
Shortly after this momentous event, the Kingdom of God will be established on this earth, and Christ and His saints will rule on earth 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-6). Furthermore, all during the Millennium when the Kingdom of God will rule all nations of this earth, the lake of fire will be' kept burning in gehenna (the valley of Hinnom). Thus Christ's warning should have strong impact: "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" (Mark 9:43-44). "And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh" (Isa. 66:23-24).
Does this verse imply that there will be immortal worms, maggots that never die, feasting on the carcasses of dead rebels? No, it simply means that the worms will continue to thrive as long as there is any flesh of the wicked to consume. Flies deposit eggs on dead bodies. These eggs then hatch into grubs or maggots. These larvae later change into flies, and the whole cycle is repeated. The statement that the fire will not be quenched simply means that no one will put out the flames. It does not mean that the flames can't burn themselves out. God told the Jews that if they b:pt His Sabbath, they would be blessed. "But," said the Eternal, "if ye will not hearken unto me... then will I kindle a fire in the gates... and shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it [the fire in Jerusalem] shall not be quenched" (Jer. 17:27). Did this mean that the fire would burn eternally? Certainly not! It means that no one would quench or put out the fires that God would send to devour Jerusalem. But those fires that the Babylonians and later the Romans started in Jerusalem did finally burn themselves out. They ceased to burn when there was no more combustible matter to keep their flames aglow. So when God's fire has consumed all physical matter on earth, it will have no more fuel and will cease to burn.
Why Satan's lie?
Will God's version of hell fire cease at the close of the Millennium? No. "And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison" (Rev. 20:7), This freed, angry, rampaging devil will then "deceive the nations" and incite them to rebellion and war against God's holy city, Jerusalem. But Satan and his army will be defeated, and his followers will be devoured by a fire that comes down from God out of heaven (verses 8 and 9). Then what will happen? "And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are [were cast is a more correct translation], and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (verse 10). And that is the reason behind Satan's lie to mankind — it is Satan and his demons who shall suffer mental torment forever. The devil. and his wicked angels are spirit beings and, unlike mortals, cannot die (Luke 20:35-36). But when Satan and his demons see that all they have labored to build up on this earth is destroyed, they shall experience great mental agony and torture. Even during Christ's earthly ministry, the demons were fearful of Christ tormenting them: "And, behold, they [the demons speaking through the mouths of those men they had possessed] cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? Art thou come hither to torment us before the time?" (Matt. 8:29). Satan and his demons know full well that they — not man — are the ones who will be tormented (mentally) after the Millennium.
Why a gehenna fire?
Why has God ordained that there would be a gehenna fire for the wicked? To answer this question, we need to briefly review God's purpose for man on this earth. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden and told him to "dress it and keep it" (Gen. 2:8, 15). He told Adam he could eat of all the trees, "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (verses 16 and 17). If Adam disobeyed God — if he sinned — death would be the result, but "the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die" (verse 3:4). Satan has deceived humanity into believing that man has an immortal soul — and thus will not die — ever since that time! Ezekiel wrote, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:20). Christ said, "fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28). And Paul said, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life" (Rom. 6:23). God will grant eternal life only to those who "seek for glory and honour and immortality" (Rom. 2:7). Man does not have immortality inherent within himself — he may receive it only as God's gift, according to God's terms and conditions. Why can't men believe God's Word — that man is mortal and will perish unless he receives everlasting life as God's free gift? "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Man must repent of his sins, accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior and obey God, or he will not receive the precious Holy Spirit of God — and will not, therefore, receive the gift of immortality from God. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man illustrates this truth. We are told that "the rich man also died, and was buried. And in hell [Greek: hades, the grave] he lift up his eyes [by a resurrection], being in torments" (Luke 16:22-23). The rich man looks up (he has no knowledge of the time that has lapsed since his death) and is struck with fear as he sees that God is about to destroy him and the rest of the willful sinners, the incorrigible evildoers, in the lake of fire. He sees that God is about to burn up the whole earth, and that there is a great gulf fixed between him and Lazarus. The rich man cries, "I am tormented in this flame" (verses 24-26). But what flame?
God's fiery indignation
Paul gives us the answer: "For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour [destroy] the adversaries [enemies of God] " (Heb. 10:26-27). Peter reveals that in the coming day of God, the very elements shall melt because of the intense heat. "But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men" (II Pet. 3:7). After the face of the earth has burned and purged away the dross of the willful evil ones, the earth will be as a new earth (Rev. 21:1). The prophet Malachi spoke of this same day: "For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch" (Mal. 4:1). Malachi then says that those who fear God's name "shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet" (verse 3). John predicts this same event: "And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Greek: hades] delivered up the dead which were in them... And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:13-15). It is beyond the scope of this article to explain every aspect of God's plan of salvation as revealed in the Bible. God is not, now, trying to save everyone. But God has a time when everyone shall have been called. He is not willing that any should perish — He wants all people to come to repentance and eternal life (II Pet. 3:9, I Tim. 2:4). But God will not cram immortality down anyone's throat! We must want eternal life badly enough to receive it by God's grace, by His conditions (when He calls us) of repentance and faith. We must struggle diligently to gain eternal life: "Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many I say unto you, will seek to enter into, and shall not be able" (Luke 13:24). If we choose eternal life, we shall not be hurt by the second death (Rev. 2:11, 20:6). We shall live joyous, abundant, productive lives for ever and ever and become the literal sons of God — inheriting the entire universe (Rev. 21:7)! What a glorious future awaits us — if we freely choose and diligently follow God's way of truth, righteousness and life!
The World's Definition
"The hells are places in which souls are purged, or punished for evil-doing and violating the laws of the Buddha, to fit them for rebirth in one or other of the six states of existence... After a longer or shorter period (with a minimum of 500 years) every being must leave the hells and pass through other states until it reaches Nirvana, the final extinction of personal existence" (A Dictionary of Chinese Mythology, by E.T.C. Werner, Longwood Press, Portland, Maine, 1977).
The inhabitants are chained (lxxiii: 12). They are given hot water... to drink (xxxviii: 57). They are given garments of fire, and hot water is poured over their heads (xxii: 19). When their skins are properly burned, God will give them new skins so that they may feel the punishment further (The Koran, iv: 590).
"Judaism, as it developed from Hellenistic times, viewed hell in terms of Gehenna... an. infernal region of postmortem punishment for the wicked" (Encyclopedia Britannica, "Hell," Vol. IV, 1974).
"Hell in Hindu mythology is divided into seven regions collectively called naraka... for sins of deep turpitude the torture is severe. The victims ... are given extra acute sensibilities so that they might suffer every refinement of agony to the full" (The Hindu World, by Benjamin Walker, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1968).
"Based on Jewish concepts, Christianity regarded hell as the fiery domain of the devil and his evil angels, a place of eternal damnation for those who lived a life of sin and who, according to the apostle Paul, deny God" (Encyclopedia Britannica, "Hell," VoI.IV,1974).
"As generally understood, hell is the abode of evil spirits; the infernal regions... whither lost and condemned souls go after death to suffer indescribable torments and eternal punishment... Some have thought of it as the place created by the Deity, where He punishes, with inconceivable severity, and through all eternity, the souls of those who through unbelief or through the worship of false gods have angered Him. "It is a place of divine revenge, untempered, never ending. This has been the idea most generally held by Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike. It is also the idea embodied in the Mohammedan's conception... The main features of hell as conceived by Hindu, Persian, Egyptian, Grecian and Christian theologians are essentially the same" (Encyclopedia Americana, "Hell").