Read here about the true biblical hell — from one who has been there!
ON SUNDAY, July 12, I went to hell. On that day Jerusalem's sun stood directly overhead as I paused to recheck my map. If my bearings were correct, hell's very threshold lay before me! I had just left the Old City of Jerusalem through the Dung Gate, one of the eight gates in the old Turkish wall. I had headed west on the road paralleling the wall, then around the area known today as Mount Zion. From there I began my descent into the Lower Regions.
The "House of Hades"
The notion that a mortal might actually visit hell — and return — has been a source of fascination to people of almost every age. Since ancient times, the abode of the dead has been viewed as lying deep underground, with various entrances on the earth's surface — through caverns, volcanoes, underground rivers and the like. Ancient peoples — Greeks and Romans especially — reveled in fanciful accounts of heroes who dared pass through these fearful portals and into the Dark Realm. One of the earliest accounts of such a journey is found in The Odyssey. It is an ancient epic poem by the Greek poet Homer (8th century B.C). Homer writes of the Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses), the lost king of Ithaca, who wandered the seas in search of his home for 10 years following the fall of Troy. In desperation, Odysseus reputedly found his way into the "abode of departed spirits" to learn from the ghost of a famous seer how he might find his home. The underworld described by Homer was a shadowy place of dreary darkness lying-beneath the secret places of the earth. Though a place of gloom, it was not pictured as one of punishment and torture as is the traditional Christian or Oriental hell. Homer called the place of the dead the "House of Hades." Hades (the Romans called him Pluto) was the Greek king of the underworld, god of death. Eventually, Hades became the common name for the underworld itself. The ancient classicists believed that five rivers flowed through the underworld. The principal one was the Styx, across which the aged boatman Charon ferried the souls of the dead. (The Styx was an actual stream that disappeared underground in Arcadia in Greece) In the Aeneid, an epic by the Roman poet Virgil, the Trojan hero Aeneas, fleeing the burning ruins of Troy after the Greek victory, successfully besought the ferryman Charon for passage into the infernal region to consult his dead father. (Virgil preferred the name Tartarus to Hades for the fabled infernal region) Aeneas entered the underworld through a cavern at a foul-smelling lake near Naples in Italy. Descending on a road wrapped in shadows, he encountered numerous horrors and frightful terrors. Tartarus (or Tartaros) was a named used by the later classical writers such as Virgil as another name for Hades. Homer, on the other hand, described Tartarus as a different place, lying as far beneath Hades as Hades is beneath the earth. It was in this bottomless pit of Tartarus, according to classical mythology, that the Greek god Zeus confined those who had resisted him. Another hero of ancient Greece, the legendary Hercules, also reputedly traveled to the lower world. One of his famous Twelve Labors was to fetch up from Hades the triple-headed, dragon-tailed dog Cerberus, the feared guardian of Hades' gates. Many other ancients are said to have made the fearsome journey into Hades, including Theseus of Athens, Orpheus the musician, the princess Psyche and the twin Pollux, in search of his dead brother Castor.
Possibly the best-known "journey" of all is that of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the medieval Italian poet. His travels among the damned are recorded in The Inferno. It is the first part of his three-part Divine Comedy, an account of his imaginary journeys through hell, purgatory and heaven. Dante is conducted through hell by the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil. The trip begins on Good Friday, A.D. 1300, in a wooded area near Jerusalem. Over the gate of hell the two travelers find a fearful and now famous inscription: ABANDON EVERY HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE. Dante then witnesses in his imagination the eternal torments of the wicked. He describes hell as being divided into various levels, descending conically into the earth. Souls suffer punishments appropriate to their sins. Hypocrites, for example, wear gowns brilliant outwardly, but made of heavy lead instead of cloth. They must bear the weight of them forever. Gluttons are doomed to forever lie like pigs in a foul-smelling sty under a cold, eternal rain. Dante's descriptions are vivid — and frightening. Though Dante's primary purpose in writing the poem was to satirize persons and circumstances of his day, the theology of his work is based firmly on the system of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Italian theologian and philosopher. The Divine Comedy is a relatively accurate dramatization of medieval Christian theology. Some simple-minded of Dante's day actually believed Dante had really visited hell! His work had a tremendous impression and influence on popular Christian thought.
Dante's medieval picture of hell as a gigantic concentration camp — a nightmarish place of eternal torment, horrible beyond imagination, presided over by Satan and his demons — largely represents the thinking of significant groups of professing Christians to this day. The concept of a "hell" can be found in one form or another among all the world's principal faiths. Multiple billions around the world have lived and died over the millennia believing in — and in fear of — a place of eternal torment and punishment. Many today continue to wonder, "Is there really a hell?" and "Will I end up there?" Many are curious about just what hell might be like. It was with questions such as these in mind that I set out to investigate the subject — and to make an attempt to actually visit hell!
The starting point for such an investigation can be none other than the very book from which Christians profess to derive their doctrine of hell — the Bible! By scrutinizing its pages, one can strip away the theological trappings of ancient and medieval myth and fabrication and discover the true teaching on the subject. One's first surprise is that the Bible speaks of not one but of three different "hells"! In the widely used King James Version, three totally different Greek words — words with totally different meanings — are translated by the one English word hell. The three words are hades, tartaroo and gehenna. In biblical usage, the Greek word hades — used only 11 times in the New Testament — is roughly equivalent to the Old Testament Hebrew word sheol, meaning grave or pit (compare Acts 2:27 with Psalm 16:10). Hades may be likened to a hole in the ground. In the Bible it has nothing to do with fire. Most modern biblical translators admit that the use of the English word hell, to translate hades and sheol is an unfortunate and misleading practice. Why? Because in seeing the word hell, many readers impute to it the traditional connotation of an ever-burning inferno — when this was never remotely intended in the Greek language or in Old English! In its true biblical usage, hades does indeed refer to the state or abode of the dead — but not in the sense of spirits walking around in some sort of "shadowy realm." Hades is simply the abode we call the grave. All the dead go to this hell.
The Second Hell
The second hell of the Bible, tartaroo, is mentioned only once in scripture — in II Peter 2:4: "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [tartaroo], and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment." Following their rebellion to unseat God from His throne (Isa. 14:12-14; Rev. 12:4), the archangel Lucifer (now Satan) and a third of the created angels (demons) were ejected from heaven (Luke 10:18). They were cast down to tartaroo, a place or condition of restraint that God has imposed on the mutinous angels as they await ultimate judgment (Jude 6; I Cor. 6:3). Tartaroo, then, is a "hell" that applies only to evil, rebellious angels or demons. It is interesting that the ancient Greeks used this word to describe the place in which Zeus confined the rebellious Titans. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of men being put into this particular "hell."
The Third Hell
So far, we have seen that the first hell of the Bible — hades — is simply the grave. The second hell tartaroo — a place or condition of restraint for demons. What, then, is the third hell of the Bible? Surely it must be the old-fashioned Bible "hell" — the literal ever-burning inferno, the place of eternal torment of the damned! Or is it? Did you ever notice that the Greek word used by the writers of the New Testament for this third hell is gehenna? It comes from the Hebrew Gai Hinnom, meaning "valley of Hinnom." Hinnom is a deep, narrow ravine located to the south and west of Jerusalem. It is to this hell that I recently traveled. But what does this valley have to do with the traditional Christian concept of "hell"? The answer may surprise you!
Lunch in Hell
Gehenna — the valley of Hinnomis today a relatively pleasant place. In recent years, grass and even some flowers have taken over portions of the valley floor, and there are plenty of trees to provide shade from the scorching sun (see photos on these pages). I descended into the valley by means of a rocky dirt path. A small dog — no three-headed Cerberus! — barked briefly, then returned to scavenging in a small cave near the path. Further on down the valley two boys were kicking a soccer ball between them. I sought refuge from the heat of the noon sun under a large tree, and took out my lunch. A few birds came by for a handout. The surroundings were not unlike those of a typical city park. After enjoying a leisurely lunch, I headed up out of the valley and proceeded unimpeded toward the Jaffa Gate. My memory of the valley is one of a pleasant and relaxing haven in the midst of a hot and tiring walking tour of Jerusalem. Gehenna, in short, is a far cry from the hell of Dante or from what this valley was like in Jesus' day! The valley was not always such a pleasant place. In the Old Testament it was a place of abominable pagan rites, including infant sacrifice. It was there that the apostate kings Ahaz and Manasseh made their children "pass through the fire" to the god Molech. The rites were specifically celebrated in Tophet, the "place of abhorrence," one of the chief groves in the valley. King Josiah of ancient Judah finally put an end to these abominations. He defiled the valley, rendering it ceremonially unclean (II Kings 23:10). Later the valley became the cesspool and city dump of Jerusalem — a repository for sewage, refuse and animal carcasses. The bodies of despised criminals were also burned there along with the rubbish. Fires burned continuously, feeding on a constant supply of garbage and refuse. Aceldama, the "field of blood" purchased with the money Judas received for the betrayal of Christ (Matt. 27:8), was also in part of the valley of Hinnom.
Gehenna — and the Lake of Fire
What, then, does this valley called gehenna have to do with hell? The answer may surprise you. Notice: At the end of this age, at the crisis at the end of this world's civilization, the prophesied Beast of the book of Revelation — a Satan-inspired political dictator — and a miracle-working religious figure, the False Prophet, working with him will resist the reestablishment of the government of God by fighting against Jesus Christ at His Second Coming. Their fate is revealed by the apostle John: "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). Where will this temporary lake of fire — this "hell" — be? The prophet Isaiah wrote of this lake of fire prepared for the Beast: "For Tophet [in the valley of Hinnom] is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it" (Isa. 30:33). One thousand years later, Satan himself will be cast into this rekindled fiery lake where the Beast and False Prophet were cast! (See Revelation 20:10) But what of the wicked who have died over the many millennia? Does the Bible say that they are now suffering fiery punishment for their sins in a lake of fire? Absolutely not! In the sequence of Revelation 20 — read it for yourself — the incorrigibly wicked are resurrected to be thrown into the lake of fire after Satan is cast there! Read it, in Revelation 20:15.
Where Are the Wicked Now?
In the well-known parable of the tares (weeds), Jesus Christ made it plain that it is in the distant future and not now that the wicked are committed to the flames: "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... 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). When does Jesus say that the wicked will be cast into the fire? "In the end of this world"! Where, then, are the wicked now? Understand this: the Bible teaches that the dead — those billions who have ever lived and died, whether righteous or wicked, of whatever creed or faith — are at this moment still in their graves, "asleep in the dust of the earth." They lie unconscious beneath the ground — in hades — oblivious to all sensory perception (Ecc. 9:5, 10). They are "on hold," as it were, awaiting future judgment. The majority of these buried billions are neither "lost" nor "saved." Most — deceived and misled during their lifetimes by Satan, "who deceives the whole world" (Rev. 12:9) — await in their graves a future resurrection back to physical life, and their first real chance for salvation! (See "Who Says Time Is Closing in on You?" in the March 1981 Plain Truth, U.S. edition, or request our free booklet The Three Resurrections) It will be only those incorrigibly wicked — most of whom are yet to be resurrected and given their first real chance to qualify for immortality but who will turn it down — who will ultimately be cast into the lake of fire at the time of their judgment. These, along with those few during the past 6,000 years who have knowingly defied and rejected God, will suffer the "second death." We read of these unrepentant individuals in Revelation 20:15: "And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."
The Second Death
What, then, will become of these wicked? Will they writhe in flames for eternity? Does the Bible say that the punishment of the wicked will be eternal torment? No! The wicked will be burned up in the intense heat of the coming gehenna fire on earth. They will be consumed, annihilated, destroyed! This punishment will be everlasting — permanent and final. The Bible calls it the "second death" (Rev. 20:14; 21:8) — from which there is no possibility of a further resurrection. The Bible does teach eternal punishment, but not eternal punishing. As the apostle Paul declares in Romans 6:23, "The wages of sin is death " — not everlasting torture in hellfire! Death is the cessation of life. The prophet Ezekiel said it plainly: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (18:20). The 'prophet Malachi provides a graphic description: "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..." (4:1). To the righteous, God says that the wicked shall be "ashes under the soles of your feet..." (Mal. 4:3). The apostle Paul writes of the "fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries" (Heb. 10:27). Jesus Christ himself 'declared that God "is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28).
These scriptures and many others leave no doubt! Hell fire is not a place where the condemned live, but where they DIE — body and soul. (If you want to know the truth about the soul — whether it is immortal — write for the eye-opening brochure "What Is Man?") The biblical hell fire is a place of DESTRUCTION and DEATH death for all eternity. This utter and complete annihilation is referred to in the oft-repeated but little understood passage of John 3:16: "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." The fire from the valley of Hinnom in which the wicked perish will ultimately engulf the whole world. It will cover the face of the entire earth, purging away the dross and refuse of ages and creating a new earth (II Pet. 3:7; Rev. 21:1). It will be a fire that cannot be quenched. It will burn until it burns itself out by melting this earth and turning to ashes the bodies of all the wicked. Then comes the stupendous act of recreation — a new heaven and earth to be man's inheritance forever. (See Revelation 21)
This is the quick and merciful sentence of a merciful God. The torment of the wicked — largely mental anguish — will be brief. They will cease to exist in gehenna fire. God in his mercy will put them out of their self-imposed misery once and for all time. God does not take delight in seeing men suffer. He does not take vengeance on his adversaries by roasting them for eternity in a subterranean Dachau or Auschwitz. Those who claim that God, in the exercise of some sort of "mysterious" and "unfathomable" sense of justice, would ordain eternal torture simply do not know the mind of God! The false "hell" of traditional Christianity is actually a concoction of the perverted mind of Satan! The Bible reveals a very different God than the one so often preached today. Yet millions remain deceived — by mistranslations and misinterpretations — and continue to impute to God a sadistic character that is really Satan's. Few have the spiritual courage to reexamine long-cherished religious beliefs, such as the heathen doctrine of eternal torture. God is not willing that any should perish. He wants all to come to repentance and eternal life (II Pet. 3:9-10; I Tim. 2:4; Luke 9:56). The wages of sin is death. "But," as Romans 6:23 continues, "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." There is no need to live in fear of tortures to come!