Sunday, March 5, 2017

Is Hell real?

“Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”

The concept of hell is without a doubt one of the most difficult to accept in the Bible. How can a loving God send people to hell? Some think hell is on earth, found in terrible situations. What is the truth? And, should we even bother asking these questions? If hell is real, we sure don’t want to go there and we don’t want our friends or loved ones to go there either. If there is a hell, only the most egregious sinners will go there – such as Adolf Hitler, David Berkowitz, and Ted Bundy – right? What is the truth?

Wish fulfillment?
Some people see Christianity as a Freudian type of wish fulfillment:  We want to believe in a loving God who took Grandma and Grandpa to heaven and will take us there as well someday. However, if this is true, hell creates a problem. As Dinesh D’Souza said:
Imagine a bunch of people who have gathered in a room because they want to avoid life's difficulties--sickness, suffering, death--by making up a religion that will make them feel better. I can entirely see how such a group would come up with the concept of heaven … But I don't see why this group would come up with the concept of hell … Hell is not only worse than sickness but also worse than death, because death is merely the end, while hell implies eternal separation from God.”[1]
If Christianity was invented as wish fulfillment, hell would likely not be on that list.

Different words for hell
Several different Hebrew and Greek words are typically translated as “hell” in the Bible. One of these – Hades - is a temporary location for those who have died. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word normally translated in the KJV as “hell” or “grave” is sheol (Strong’s H7585) and appears 66 times in the NASB version of the O.T. This word is rendered as “grave; by extension, realm of death, deepest depths, transliterated ‘Sheol’”.[2] In the New Testament, two Greek words are translated as hell: hades and gehenna (or geenna). Hades (Strong’s G86), used ten times in the NASB version, is used to refer to “the grave, the place of the dead, ‘the underworld’”.[3] Hades is more properly understood as “the region of the departed spirits of the lost … it expresses the general concept of the invisible world or abode into which the spirits of men are ushered immediately after death … [Hades is] the intermediate state between death and the ultimate hell, Gehenna”.[4]

What is Gehenna?
This is what we normally think of as hell, with fire and torment. The word geenna (Strong’s 1067), is rendered as “Gehenna, hell, ‘Valley of Hinnom’”.[5] This valley was used at one time to offer child sacrifices to Molech.[6] The Valley of Hinnom was located just outside of the southern part of Jerusalem and was used as a burning pit for trash from the city. The word Gehenna is used in the Bible twelve times, eleven by Jesus and once in James 3:6. The allusion by Jesus of Gehenna as a continuously burning trash dump for condemned souls would have been very poignant for the Jews living near Jerusalem and it provides for us today a powerful image of the destination for those who reject God. 

What is Tartarus?
Tartarus was used in Greek and, later, Roman mythology to describe “a sunless abyss, below Hades, in which Zeus imprisoned the Titans.”[7] The Greek word tartaroo is used only one time in the Bible translated as hell:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment …” (2 Peter 2:4).
Referring to malevolent angels, this verse “signifies to consign to Tartarus, which is neither Sheol nor hades nor hell, but the place where those angels whose special sin is referred to in that passage …”[8] This temporary holding location appears to be for rebellious angels, not humans, and is different from sheol or gehenna.

Is hell real according to the Bible?
Jesus believed hell is real and He warned us in very vivid terms to avoid this place. For example, Jesus said it would be better to cut off your right hand (Matthew 5:30), cut off your foot (Mark 9:25), or pluck out one of your eyes “than to have two eyes [or feet or hands] and be cast into the fiery hell (Matthew 18:9). He explained clearly the future reality for all people in Matthew 25:
when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left” (vs.31-33).
Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v.34).
Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’” (v.41).

A point to note here is that hell, the eternal fire, was not originally prepared for humans. Jesus also strongly advised us not to fear what humans can do to us, but “fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:5). Jesus, James[9], Peter[10], Paul[11], and John[12] taught that hell is real. Some people claim that hell may be on earth, found in horrible, dire situations. However, neither Jesus nor any of the Biblical writers make any reference to hell being on earth in this life. All mentions of hell indicate this is a place reserved for those who have rejected God and have departed this life.

Annihilation or eternal punishment?
Some religions promote the concept of annihilationism for the unsaved. For example, the official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses states concerning hell:
“Since the dead have no conscious existence, hell cannot be a fiery place of torment where the wicked suffer after death.”  Later on the same page, it goes on to say, “Willful, unrepentant sinners will also have their "portion" in that lake. (Revelation 21:8) They too will be annihilated forever.”[13]

One of the verses some use to argue for annihilation is 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, which states:
to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power”.
Use of the word “destruction” seems, at first glance, to indicate not continuous punishment, but rather a cessation of existence. The Greek word used here is olethros (Strong’s 3639), which is rendered as “destruction, ruin” by Strong’s.[14] Greek scholar Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D., states regarding the use of this word in 2Th 1:9; 1Cor 5:5; 1Th 5:3; 1 Tim 6:9: “The fundamental thought is not annihilation, but unavoidable distress and torment.”[15]

The warning Jesus gave in Matthew 25, used the term “eternal fire”, then He also used said “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (v.46). Jesus spoke of hell as a place of conscious torment:
“hell, into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-44).

Revelation 20:10 describes the fate of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet as:
the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
The next five verses describe the fate of all humans who had died and “if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (v. 20). So, the lake of fire is described as a place of torment “day and night”, not cessation of existence. This is certainly not stated gleefully - most of us would likely choose to either have no hell at all or a hell only used for mass murderers and the most detestable malefactors. However, it is crucial we hold no illusions. The future reality for those who reject God will be eternal punishment.

Why is hell necessary for all who reject God?
Why does God not simply send all those who prefer to be apart from Him into exile somewhere, as criminals were sent in 1787 from Great Britain to a penal colony now known as Australia? By doing this, heaven would be filled with only those who choose God and we could eliminate hell. The problem with this is that rejecting God is not the same as rejecting a political candidate or a brand of cereal. God is the personification of all that is good. So, to reject God is to reject truth, because He is truth.[16] Refusing God is refusing love, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

But, wait a minute – atheists have some truth and some love without God. That’s right: Because we are made in the image of God, all people possess some of His attributes. But, there is disease mixed in with the healthy and the unsaved person remains condemned for the sin and evil in his/her life. In addition to truth and love, God is also holy[17] and righteous.[18] By choosing to go our own way, we turn away from the ultimate perfection of truth, love, holiness, and righteousness. Daniel provides a good explanation of our free will in relation to God’s attributes:
“"Therefore the Lord has kept the calamity in store and brought it on us; for the Lord our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice” (Daniel 9:16).

Do we really think we deserve heaven?
One of the main reasons people don’t want to believe in hell is that we think of ourselves as good people for the most part. However, that goodness is relative. By comparing myself with other sinners, I think I’m not so bad. But, if humans are not so bad, why are there so many murders, thefts, assaults, and other crimes in the world? Why is there an abundance of hatred, jealousy, pride, greed, and selfishness if people are good? And, those are merely comparisons among sinners. What if we compare ourselves with Jesus Christ or God the Father? God’s word states that no one is good:
“There is none righteous, not even one; … there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:10-11).
A common tactic of critics and skeptics is to attack; for example, placing the blame on God for sending people to hell. The truth is we send ourselves there through our own stubbornness in rejecting the forgiveness He provides and the chance to escape the punishment for our own sin.

Free Will
God will not force people to choose Him and heaven. As Hank Hanegraaff explains, “the concept of choice demands that we believe in hell” and “the unrighteous would be incarcerated in heaven against their wills” and “humans would be forced to worship God against their will”.[19] People who have rejected God all their lives will not be forced to spend eternity in His presence in heaven.

Good news!
God has done everything in His power to offer a way out of punishment for our sin and evil, short of overriding our free will.  God’s word states:
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

His love is so great and He loves each of us so much that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God takes no delight in seeing people choosing hell and rejecting the free gift of forgiveness and salvation He offers; rather, exactly the opposite. God sent Jesus, who willingly gave His life, suffered an excruciating death, so we may escape punishment we deserve.[20] Why would He do this if He enjoyed seeing people on the way to hell? And, why would He send Jesus to die if there was another way? “So, choose life in order that you may live”.[21]

(Biblical references are from the NASB version.)

[1] D’Souza, Dinesh, Sigmund Freud’s Illusions,, published 8 Aug 2008, accessed 19 Oct 2008,
[2] James Strong, John Kohlenberger, and James Swanson, The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2001), 1569.
[3] Strong’s, 1588.
[4] Zodhiates, Spiros, Executive Editor, The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, (Chattanooga, TN: 1996), p. 1575.
[5] Strong’s, 1599.
[6] “They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin” (Jeremiah 32:35).
[7] "tartarus." Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 22 Oct. 2008. <>.
[8] Vine, W.E., Merrill Unger & William White, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), p. 300.
[9] James 3:6
[10] 2 Peter 2:4
[11] 2 Thess. 1:9
[12] Revelation 20:15
[13] Jehovah’s Witnesses official website, “What has happened to hellfire”, appeared in The Watchtower 15 July 2002, accessed online 23 Oct 2008, <>
[14] Strong’s, p. 1630.
[15] Zodhiates, Spiros, The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1996), p. 1655.
[16] Psalm 31:5 and Romans 1:25
[17] 1 Peter 1:16
[18] Daniel 9:14
[19] Hanegraaff, Hank, The Bible Answer Book, (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 2004), p. 211-212.
[20] John 3:16
[21] Deuteronomy 30:19

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