Is hell real or just a metaphor? Is it eternal and without end as the Scriptures seem to indicate? What does the Bible say about whether hell is eternal or not?
The Old Testament uses a different word for hell than does the New Testament and that shouldn’t surprise us because the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew while the New Testament was written in Greek, although there is some Aramaic because that is what was commonly spoken in Judea at the time. So what are the differences between what translators used for the word hell in the Bible?
Old Testament Hell – Sheol
The Old Testament uses the word “hell” 31 times and each time in the Hebrew it is Sheol. While our English word hell seems to refer to a place of eternal torment, the Old Testament word for hell, Sheol, is not. It simply refers to the grave or the abiding place of the dead. It is not particularly a place of eternal punishment for the wicked as hell is mentioned in the New Testament, however it does appear that Sheol was divided into two different sections; one for the departed wicked and one for the righteous dead (like Abraham for example). Samuel was in the Sheol for the righteous when the wicked king Saul summoned him up from the grave (1 Samuel 28) but Sheol is also a place of torture for those who died outside of the faith in the Old Testament while awaiting a final resurrection for judgment at the Great White Throne Judgment in Revelation 20.
Prior to Jesus’ atoning work at Calvary, He spoke about such a place in a parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16). The rich man was in Sheol while Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom but both were dead. Is the place of the deceased righteous in the Old Testament what was called “Paradise?” It could well be. The Greek word of Paradise is “paradeisos” which refers to the Greeks’ idea of a Persian concept of a well-watered garden, park or hunting ground that is abundantly provisioned. Paradise is what Israel believed was the destination for those who had faith in God and died in the faith. From this parable that Jesus’ gave, it would appear that there are two places for the deceased after death. One place is a place of torture while the other is like a Paradise. It appears that after Jesus’ death on the cross, He made possible the way for those to cross over from Paradise into the presence of the Lord.
New Testament Hells – Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna
In the New Testament, there are three words translated “hell,” but that doesn’t mean that there are three different locations of hell or three different hells. The words Hades and Tartarus are Greek, and Gehenna, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew words Gee and Hinnom, meaning “the valley of Hinnom.” Let’s separate these to see what each means.
The Greek word for Hades occurs 11 times in the New Testament and refers to the grave and not necessarily a place of torment. Hell is what the English used to refer to as a pit in the ground and that is likely why the King James translations uses the word hell. Hades can refer to being in the state of death as well as we see Paul using it in 2 Corinthians 15:55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” and also in Revelation 6:8 “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” and so we see that Hades can refer to a grave or death and this is what is referred to when Jesus is said to have conquered or defeated death.
One important point about Hades is that it can refer to the place of the departed wicked and being in torment as this was where the rich man was at when he saw Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham; so context is everything.
This Greek word for hell is used only one time and it refers to a place of judgment and torment. It is mentioned only in 2 Peter 2:4, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.” This is not the place to enter into an exposition on why these angels were placed there and if they are still there today but it may well be that these angels were so wicked or despicable that God chained them up to keep them from doing such evil that they would have caused enormous destruction in the world. Are these the foul or unclean spirits that will be released in the tribulation (Revelation 16:13)? We can not be certain of this.
This Greek word occurs only 12 times and is always translated as hell. Gehenna was originally a Hebrew word and came from the “valley of Hinnom.” This same Hebrew word is used in Jeremiah 7:31, “and they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.” This valley was for the purpose of burning all the idols that were an abomination to God and this valley that is called “Tophet” became synonymous with a place of such abomination that all kinds of things were burnt up in it; dead carcasses, filth, unburied bodies, detestable tings, and refuse. The fire never went out because it was a garbage dump where every bit of trash and unclean things were being continually deposited and the fire never went out so as to burn everything up, thus Gehenna became symbolic of the place of an everlasting fire, a severe and eternal punishment. This may be why Jesus referred to hell “Gehenna” as the place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48) which seems to point to its eternity. The fire in the Valley of Gehenna and the worms eating the decaying bodies or garbage would never cease.
The words that are associated or written next to the different hells seem to indicate that it is forever. The definitions that are given for the noun, “aionon “ and the adjective “aionios” are accepted as authoritative for the teaching of the word used in the New Testament “everlasting” when used with “punishment.“ The Greek word for everlasting or eternal is “aionios” and is always restricted to the use of time in its adjective form in three ways that essentially mean the same thing; “without end,” “without beginning,“ and “without end or beginning.” This is used in Matthew 12:32 when Jesus said “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age [aionon ] or in the age [aionon ] to come.” This verse then clearly indicates that a person’s forgiveness in this case “will be without end.” That is, it means that it will be something that they will never, ever, and for ages without end, be forgiven. The Greek term “aionas ton aionon” means and is literally translated as “ages of the ages.”
The word “eternal” is the same as everlasting and it means that it is without end when the context is about judgment. It never indicates that it is a temporary state that will end because by definition “aionon ” or “aionios” is always without end. The same thing is mentioned by Mark (3:29) where Jesus says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” We can not take the context of this in any other way than that of being “without end” because the other two possible renderings for “aionon ” is “without beginning” and “without end or beginning” which makes the verse nonsensical, thus it can only mean “for ever” or what seems the best interpretation of the context and the Greek wording, “for ages without end.”
Some believe that eternal “punishment” is different that eternal “punishing” in the sense that the wicked will be punished and then cease to exist, and that is why they claim the use of the word “punishment” is a one time event. I return again to Mark 9:48 where Jesus said about hell “Gehenna” as the place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48) which seems to have no ending. The fire in the Valley of Gehenna and the worms eating the decaying bodies or garbage would never cease. Jesus uses the words “does not” and “is not” which are indicative of a time that is unceasing. The literal rendering can mean nothing else but what it implies. We see that by what Jesus was teaching in this setting in Mark 9:42-49:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire.”
We clearly see that hell is forever or for “ages without end’ as Jesus warned all who would not believe in Him in Matthew 25:46, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” If the righteous have eternal life which means that we will live forever, then we see that the same word for “eternal” means the same thing for punishment. Jesus can not mean that we will have life without end but then the punishment will have an end. That would be contradictory. If this were so, then this would seem highly unfair as Hitler would be annihilated just the same as the nice lady next door who, even though she was not saved, never hurt anyone.
In what is the most widely recognized verse of all, even by those who are not Christian, John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” but we must not take this verse out of context for the following verses say in verses 17-18, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Is there any better reason that to tell people of the coming judgment? We must be about the Great Commission and why Jude wrote in verse 23 to “Save others by snatching them from the fire.”
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