Is hell a place of never-ending punishment? (Part 3)

Most verses that talk about hell in the Old Testament call it Sheol, or the grave, or the pit.  It seems to me that it’s just talking about a place that holds the dead.  There are a couple of verses, however, that sound like the New Testament hell.  Daniel 12:2 says that some will rise to everlasting life, and others to everlasting contempt; Isaiah 66:24 says that the worms that eat the bodies of those who rebelled against God won’t die, and fire that burns them won’t be quenched.  Some verses in the New Testament seem to say that the punishment for sin is death or annihilation, and some verses talk about God’s wrath not lasting forever, but others talk about eternal punishment.  Eternity is a long time!  I can’t imagine God creating people, already knowing some wouldn’t listen to him, just to be sent to hell forever.  It’s too disturbing for me to imagine. What’s your take on this?

In my first post in response to this important and heartfelt question, I confirmed that Sheol in the Old Testament, translated as “hell” in some English Bibles, is indeed simply the place that holds the dead.  In my next post I considered the passages cited from Isaiah and Daniel and showed that they could be interpreted within the framework of a belief in either unconditional immortality (everlasting punishment for those who reject God and everlasting blessing for those who embrace him) or conditional immortality (annihilation or non-existence for those who reject God and everlasting blessing for those who embrace him).  In this final post I’d now like to look at the references to hell in the New Testament.

English Bibles have used the word “hell” to translate three different Greek words in the New Testament.  One is Hades, the Greek equivalent of Sheol.  We see this in quotations from the Old Testament, for example, the quotation from Psalm 16 in Peter’s Pentecost sermon as recorded in Acts:  “You will not abandon my soul to Hades” (ESV, NRSV), translating Sheol in Psalm 16.  (The NIV has “the realm of the dead” in both places; while the KJV has “hell,” the NKJV has Hades, here and in every other place where this Greek word appears.)

Besides using Hades to translate Sheol in quotations from the Old Testament, the New Testament characters and writers use it to mean the depths of the earth (“You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades“) or the realm of the dead (“I have the keys of Hades and of Death”; “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”). It must be acknowledged, however, that in a couple of places Hades is used to mean something closer to what the word “hell” connotes for us today: a center of opposition to God (“On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”) and a place of punishment for the wicked (“being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off”).  As we noted last time, all of the biblical data must be considered and an informed choice must be made among alternative interpretations.  It may be observed, however, that in almost every case in the New Testament, Hades means something much closer to Sheol than to “hell” as we popularly understand it.

Another New Testament word that English Bibles have translated as “hell” is Gehenna.  This is the Greek form of an Aramaic word referring to the Valley of Hinnom, which ran just south of Jerusalem. A large body of biblical interpretation holds that refuse from the city of Jerusalem was tossed into this valley, and that fires were kept burning perpetually there to consume the trash and to keep the odor down.  Organic material would be decomposed by worms and other critters. This seems to provide the context for Jesus’ statement, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into Gehenna—where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'”  (Note that this is a quotation from the very passage in Isaiah that we considered last time, and that this answers our question about into what kind of place unburied bodies might be cast where there would be perpetual flame and decomposition: a garbage dump.)  In other words, Jesus is saying it is better to take whatever measures are necessary to enter the kingdom of God rather than to be thrown into “the garbage dump.”  This would be a metaphorical rather than a literal description of what happens to those who reject God.

landfillMost of the other uses of Gehenna in the New Testament have a similar character: It describes a place of exclusion and disgrace, not necessarily of everlasting punishment.  However, as in the case of Hades, Gehenna sometimes is used with a meaning closer to what we understand by “hell” today: a center of opposition to God (“The tongue is a world of evil . . . set on fire by Gehenna“) and a place where the wicked are punished (“You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?”).  It must also be acknowledged that some people question the interpretation that Gehenna refers to a garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom. See, for example, this post, which disputes the interpretation in order to argue that Gehenna refers to a “place of everlasting fiery torment.”

The final term in the New Testament that’s translated as “hell” by some English Bibles is Tartarus in 2 Peter: “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them into Tartarus” (a single Greek verb, tartaroō). In Greek mythology, Tartarus is an underworld dungeon.  Few if any biblical interpreters would argue that Peter is endorsing a belief in Tartarus precisely as the the Greeks envisioned it. Rather, he’s making an allusion to this belief in order to describe a place of spiritual imprisonment. In any event, in context, Peter is describing a place where the rebellious angels were held pending judgment, not a place where people suffer everlasting punishment, so this reference to Tartarus doesn’t really shed much light on how we should think of “hell” today.

In short, the biblical data does not present a simple, straightforward picture of “hell” as a place of never-ending punishment for those who reject God.  The picture is complicated, and readers of the Bible must understand the Hebrew and Greek terms and ideas behind our English translations in order to reach the most informed conclusion possible about this issue.

One final thought:  In your question, you say it’s hard for you to reconcile the idea of never-ending punishment with your understanding of the gracious and forgiving character of God.  You allude to Psalm 103, which says that God “will not harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”  The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about the fate of people after death.  But it does tell us a great deal about the character of God, in which justice and mercy are perfectly balanced.  (As God said about himself to Moses, he is the “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness . . . yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.”)  Maybe the thing to do is to allow our understanding of the character of God to inform our view of what happens after death, rather than letting possible interpretations of the afterlife make us question what we would otherwise believe about what God is like.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

6 thoughts on “Is hell a place of never-ending punishment? (Part 3)”

    1. I’m open to both views. On the one hand, I can’t see how God would derive any pleasure or satisfaction from tormenting His creatures for eternity. On the other hand, a person who’s annihilated never has the opportunity to repent. And I think there is some biblical evidence that God does leave open the opportunity for repentance after death. See this post, for example, in which I discuss the passages about Jesus “making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits” and “leading captives in his train” after “descending to the depths of the earth.” As I say in this post, “The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about the fate of people after death.” That’s why, I think, there are these two views out there, and why I can see the possibilities of each.

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