Both Jewish and Christian Bible commentators are forced to admit that the Old Testament is vague about ideas regarding the Afterlife, including concepts of Heaven and Hell. This means that anyone wishing to come to a strictly biblical view of any details about Hell must turn to the New Testament. If the notion of a Hell of eternal torture—the kind of Hell described by Dante, and illustrated so graphically in excruciating detail by medieval artists—is to be established by scripture, rather than by mere human speculation or fanciful invention, it will have to be found in the New Testament.
So—just what does the New Testament have to say?
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Greek: Gehenna] (Matthew 10:28 NIV)
This does not speak of eternal torment, either of bodies or souls. It speaks of both being destroyed.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26-27 NIV)
Yes, a judgment of the unsaved (“the enemies of God”) is mentioned here. And it even includes a “raging fire.” But this verse says nothing about this fire being an instrument of eternal torment for these enemies. It says that it will “consume” them.
Anyone convinced that an ever-burning Hell of torture has been the destination of the souls of billions of humans from throughout history will need to find a way to explain away these two scriptures. For they do not line up with that notion!
The KJV translators chose to use the English word hell when translating three different Greek words, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna.
The KJV translates Hades as hell 10 times. However, at the time the New Testament was written, the Greek word Hades and the Hebrew word sheol referred to exactly the same concept. In 1 Corinthians 15:55, Paul writes:
O death, where is thy sting? O grave [Hades], where is thy victory?
Here the KJV translators chose to translate Hades as grave, rather than hell. Why? Because Paul was here quoting an Old Testament passage from Hosea 14. The Hebrew word sheol is in that passage, and was there translated as grave. The comparable word in Corinthians was Hades, clearly showing that the words were considered as synonyms by Paul, and both referred to the physical grave.
But only in this passage does the KJV render Hades as the grave. In all other passages in the New Testament, the KJV translators chose to translate the word as Hell. (This strange choice will be explored in a future blog entry on this NonDante blog.)
The second New Testament word translated as hell in the KJV is Tartarus. This word occurs in only one verse in the New Testament. That verse is not addressing a place of punishment for humans, but a place of confinement and punishment for “fallen angels”:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus], putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment… ( 2 Peter 2:4)
In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the place of confinement for the Titans, rebels against Zeus. It is described in myth as being deep within the earth. It seems that Tartarus in the New Testament is another name for “the Abyss” referred to in other scriptures. In Luke 8, a legion of demons begs Jesus not to send them to the “the deep” [NIV: the Abyss]. The Greek word is abussos, which implies a “bottomless pit.” In Revelation 9, John sees a vision in which an angel opens the Abyss with a key, and swarms of locusts come out, whose “king” is “the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon [destroyer].” In Revelation 20, another angel casts Satan into the Abyss, where he is confined for 1,000 years. None of these passages implies that either Tartarus or the Abyss is a place of confinement or punishment for humans.
The third New Testament word translated as hell in the KJV is Gehenna. It is used 11 times by Jesus, in the Gospels, and once in the Epistle of James. This is the word that is accompanied by the concept of fire:
…Whoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell [Gehenna] fire. (Matthew 5:22)
If there is a clear Biblical basis for the doctrine of eternal, never‑ending torment of humans in the fires of Hell, we must expect to find it in these “Gehenna fire” passages.
Five of these 11 references occur in a description of only one discourse of Jesus.
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell [Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell [Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes be cast into hell [Gehenna] fire: where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43‑48)
The word Gehenna is translated as hell here in Mark three times. In the parallel passage in Matthew 5, describing the same discourse, it is translated that way two more times.
If someone comes to this discourse with an assumption that it is referring to eternal torture, it might be possible to “read into” it that meaning. But read it carefully. It does not describe what happens to the person once he is thrown into that “unquenchable fire.”
However… there is a passage in scripture that does tell us exactly that! For you see, in this passage in Mark, Jesus is not expounding some “new revelation.” He is directly quoting a phrase used by the prophet Isaiah. At the end of the book of Isaiah there is a description of the Millennium, after the Day of the Lord:
“From one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathesome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:23‑24)
This describes a scene in which passersby do not view a spectacle of torture, but dead bodies of those who came to an ignominious end because of rebellion against God. This is somewhat like the fate of Mussolini. Near the end of World War II, he was executed by his own people, and his dead body was put on display (along with those of his mistress and some of his henchmen). They were hung upside down in a public street. And this “public display” can still be seen to this day, through photos taken at the time and preserved for posterity.
Isaiah describes something that can be seen by “all mankind” … so this display is not in some “underworld.” These rebels against God were to be killed, and their “remains” physically left to be seen on the surface of the Earth.
Why did Jesus use the word Gehenna for this place?
Gehenna is a variation of a term that refers the “Valley of Ben Hinnom” near Jerusalem, believed by many to be the actual site of child sacrifice by the ancient Israelites when they turned from true worship of Yahweh. Jeremiah prophesied:
The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire‑ something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away. (Jer 7:30‑33)
You can still see this valley to this day. It’s quite pleasant now.
But in the time of Jesus, this valley was a “city dump,” where the garbage of Jerusalem was deposited. Refuse of all kinds was tossed there, including animal carcasses, making it a huge, stinking heap. As with many city dumps even today, such as the one below in Managua, Nicaragua, fires were always burning there.
Even the bodies of executed criminals were tossed there. If Joseph of Arimathea had not intervened and requested the body of Jesus to put in his own tomb, His body, along with those of the two thieves crucified with Him, may well have been tossed into Gehenna.
Some argue that this physical location was just a “symbol,” a metaphor of a supernatural “Gehenna fire” where souls are sent after death. If so, wouldn’t that leave room for proposing that eternal torment of souls is a feature of such an “ultimate” Gehenna?
But to establish this, you have to get past that Matthew 10:28 statement that you ought to “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].”
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].”
It is the premise of this NonDante blog that you cannot get past Matthew 28. And therefore you need to rethink the topic of Hell until you come up with a systematic view that harmonizes ALL that the Bible has to say about the topic.
This is not a minor doctrinal issue–it is at the core of our belief about the nature of God. Is He truly the God of love and justice, or is he a capricious Hitlerian figure who has condemned the vast majority of mankind who ever lived, most of whom never even heard of God, Jesus, or the Bible, to fry consciously forever in flames that will never be quenched?