Randall Ricker (listen to audio)
Many people fear burning forever in hell after they die. Some strive to obey God, or to do what men say that God requires, hoping that they will be good enough to escape that fate. A few just assume that they will end up there, so they run wild and try to enjoy life in their own way. Others see beautiful thoughts of God like John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” and 1 John 4:8, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love,” and cannot believe that a loving God would sentence anyone to burn forever. But they cannot prove that the concept is wrong.
What does the Bible actually say about hell?
HELL IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The misconceptions on the subject of hell began centuries ago. There are four words in the original languages of the Bible that were translated as “hell” in the King James Version, which we will be using in this study. One of those words is used in the Old Testament. For example, read Proverbs 9:18: “But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell.” The word for “hell” here is number 7585 in the Hebrew section of Strong’s Concordance. The definition is “hades or the world of the dead.”
HELL IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
In the New Testament, the corresponding word for hell is used in Acts 2:31: “he seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” “Hell” is number 86 in the Greek section of Strong’s Concordance, which means “unseen, i.e., Hades or the place (state) of departed souls.” Since this verse refers to Christ in hell, obviously hell does not mean hellfire here. The Companion Bible has an interesting observation: Acts 2:27 quotes Psalm 16:10. In Psalm 16:10 (and in the rest of the Old Testament), “hell” is translated from the word that means the grave. Therefore the word “hell” in Acts 2:27 and 31 must also mean the grave.
Another word that is translated hell is used in 2 Peter 2:4: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment…” Used only in this verse, “hell” is number 5020, which means “Tartaros (the deepest abyss of Hades); to incarcerate in eternal torment.” This word is never used in reference to humans, only for demons, and it does not mention fire.
The third New Testament word for hell is found in verses such as Matthew 5:22: “…whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” This is number 1067, geenna, “valley of (the son of) Hinnom; ge-henna (or Ge-Hinnom), a valley of Jerusalem, used (fig.) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment.” Garbage was burned in this valley, and it was used as a symbol for hell fire.
We have seen so far that only one of the four words that is translated as “hell” refers to fire. That definition includes eternal punishment, but not eternal punishing as burning forever: there is an important difference.
THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH
The Bible tells us what the punishment for sin is. In Ezekiel 18:4 we read, “the soul that sinneth, it shall die,” and this statement is repeated in verse 20. It does not say that a soul will live forever in hell fire or anywhere else. Romans 6:23 adds to this: “for the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The punishment for sin is death. Eternal life is a gift, which we do not have unless God gives it to us.
The Old Testament describes what it is like to be dead. Psalm 146:4: “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” At death, our thoughts will end; there is no mention of our consciousness continuing in heaven or in hell. Read Ecclesiastes 9:5: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing.” Verse 10 also states, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave where thou goest.” Elsewhere in the Bible, death is compared to sleep.
THERE IS A HELL FIRE
There is a punishment for sinners who refuse to repent. In Revelation 20:13-15 we read of a resurrection where people will be judged, “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” The incorrigibly evil persons whom God cannot work with will be put into hellfire. Read Malachi 4:1-3. Notice, “all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up,” and “ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet.” They will be burned up, and only ashes will remain; they will not be tortured forever.
A BETTER ALTERNATIVE
Existence does not have to end that way for anybody. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Our potential is to be part of God’s family and to inherit the universe! Please see our Bible study “Our Potential” for more information on this topic.