Who Is in Hell?
March 28, 2011
It’s a question professing Christians have asked for nearly two millennia. The traditional teaching of hell as a place of eternal torment for those who don’t accept Christ—even if they’ve never heard of Him—conflicts with the idea of a loving God. Musing on this contradiction got the influential Christian writer Origen in big trouble as early as the third century.
More recently, it cost North Carolina pastor Chad Holtz his job. Holtz posted a comment on his Facebook page in support of a book that denies the concept of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls. Some of Holtz’s parishioners complained, and the United Methodist Church dismissed him shortly thereafter. The belief in the unsaved suffering forever in fiery agony has been central to traditional Christian teaching almost from its beginning. But is it true?
What does the Bible teach about hell?
The Hebrew word translated hell in the Old Testament is sheol, which generally means the grave. The dead were buried in sheol.
Sheol was understood to be a place of unconsciousness:
“For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
“His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4, King James Version).
The hope of the dead was understood to be a resurrection:
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
"If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my struggle I will wait until my change comes. You will call, and I will answer You; You will long for the work of Your hands” (Job 14:14-15, New American Standard Bible).
Three Greek words in the New Testament are translated “hell”:
Hades is used to translate the Hebrew sheol; it, too, generally means the grave.
Referring to Jesus, Acts 2:27 states: “For You will not leave my soul in Hades [“hell” in the King James Bible], nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.”
Tartaroo is used only once, to refer to a condition of restraint for fallen angels.
God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).
Gehenna is the hell where fire will burn. This word has its origin in a specific place, “the Valley of the Son of Hinnom” in Jerusalem. The valley was a place where children had been sacrificed in fire to pagan gods (2 Chronicles 28:3). During Jesus’ earthly ministry, it was a city dump where fires constantly smoldered on burning refuse and where the bodies of detested criminals were thrown. So Gehenna symbolized both a shameful end and being consumed by fire.
Jesus said: “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire” (Matthew 18:8, emphasis added throughout). The fire is everlasting, but this doesn’t mean that the people who go into this fire will live eternally.
This fire has not yet begun to burn, it will begin only at the return of Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:19-21).
The idea that the damned will forever burn in hell stems from the belief in an immortal soul. But the Bible teaches that immortality is something we can receive, but don’t yet have.
“For the wages of sin is death [not eternity in gehenna], but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Romans 2:6-7 states God will give “eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality.”
“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:53–54).
God will see to it that every human being has the opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life (1 Timothy 2:3-4). The Bible also explains that some people will reject that gift by refusing to submit to Him.
Since we don’t yet have immortality, any rebellious human beings that go into the everlasting gehenna fire will die and be consumed. While their torment will be momentary, their punishment (death) will be eternal.
Our Creator is just, and He is merciful.
For more information on what the Bible teaches on judgment and resurrections, see the FAQ: “What Is the Punishment of the Wicked?” and Fundamental Belief: “20. The Resurrections.”