There is no denying that the Bible speaks about hell and that hell is a reality in the life of us all. However, it is not the ‘Hell’ that some Christians have written about and warn us against in the strongest possible terms. Few people, whether Christian or not, believe in the old belief that hell is a place of fiery torment somewhere below the earth, presided over by a supernatural devil where the unfaithful and unrepentant dead are tortured for eternity.
It is a tragedy that this old doctrine was such a stumbling block to true Biblical teaching, as it has no foundation in the Bible. Unfortunately, the denial of this view of hell has often gone with a total rejection of the doctrine of sin and belief in God. It is equally untrue that ‘hell’ is a state of mind. An understanding of the Bible’s teaching concerning hell is dependent on a correct understanding of Bible teaching on sin and death.
The Bible teaches that sin entered into the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve and that, as a result, Adam and Eve were condemned to death. We inherit their sinful nature and we are all, therefore, sinners under the sentence of death. We find God’s judgment recorded in Genesis 3 v 17-19. In the New Testament the apostle Paul is clear in his teaching:
Romans 3 v 23: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’
Romans 5 v 12: ‘Therefore, just as sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.’
Sin is an unpopular word to Twenty-First Century ears but it is at the heart of the human condition. In Bible terms, sin is disobedience to God and death is the punishment for sin. If it were not for the work and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, then the Christian is in a pitiable condition.
The truth about the Bible’s teaching on hell is both simple and beautiful. In the Old Testament, the word translated ‘Hell’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ and is actually translated ‘Grave’. Two quotations illustrate this meaning perfectly:
Psalm 16 vv 9-10: ‘Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also shall rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave ( hell), nor will you let your Holy One see decay.’
This psalm is a prophecy of the Lord Jesus Christ and speaks of His resurrection from the grave ( see Acts 2 vv 27-32). It is unthinkable that Jesus went to the conventional hell, as a place of torment. One of the earliest Christian creeds, is called the ‘Apostles Creed’, where we read that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell, and on the third day was raised from the dead.
Jonah 2 vv 1-2: ‘From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave (hell) I called for help, and you listened to my cry.’
The fish was a living grave and to see it as the conventional hell is out of the question.
In the New Testament, where the original language was Greek, the word ‘Hades’ that has the same meaning as the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ is translated ‘the grave’,as seen in the following quotations:
1 Corinthians 15 v 55: (A.V.) ‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave (Hades), where is thy victory?’
Acts 2 v 27 is a quotation from Psalm 16 (see above) and is applied to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Acts 2 v 31 (A.V.): ‘He seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in hell (Hades, i.e. the grave), neither His flesh did see corruption.’
Another word, ‘Gehenna’, is also translated ‘hell’ in the New Testament and Jesus was fully aware of what the word meant. Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom, where Jerusalem’s refuse, including the bodies of executed criminals, was destroyed by fires which were never quenched; these fires burnt so that all was consumed and the word is used to describe the utter destruction of unrepentant sinners. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the word ‘Gehenna’ to describe the seriousness of sin in God’s sight:
Matthew 5 vv 29-30: ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, 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 ( gehenna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, 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.’
Jesus is not teaching self-mutilation but is rather showing that sin is abhorrent in the eyes of God. The crowd hearing Jesus would have understood the use He made of ‘Gehenna’ and would certainly not have seen the Lord’s words as referring to a place of eternal torment.
All these verses explain that ‘Hell’ is the grave and not a place where the unrepentant sinner will be tortured for eternity, a place where the Devil reigns supreme. The Bible does not recognise such a power of evil and other answers in this series will show that the Bible sees the ‘Devil’ as a personification of sin.
If we see all references to ‘Hell’ in the Bible as simply referring to the grave then our understanding of death will be in line with the teaching of Scripture. We are mortal because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve and without the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s mercy and grace, we will all die and remain in the grave. The Christian hope is resurrection at the second coming of Jesus. The apostle Paul teaches the doctrine of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 and this chapter needs to be read in its entirety. It includes these magnificent words of hope and joy for all true believers:
1 Corinthians 15 vv 21-22: ‘For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.’