HELL (γέεννα, G1147). The English word “hell” is from a Teutonic root meaning “to hide” or “to cover.” The real existence of hell is irrefutably taught in Scripture as both a place of the wicked dead and a condition of retribution for unredeemed man. It is plain that “to die in sin” is a dreadful thing
The Biblical word “Gehenna” refers to the valley of Hinnom, which was the Wadi er-rababi, just southwest of Jerusalem. This valley was the location of the notorious sacrificial offering by fire of children to the god Molech by Ahaz (2 Chron 28:3) and by Manasseh (33:6).
Josiah’s reforms included desecrating the high place of Topheth located in the valley to prevent the continuation of such sacrifices (2 Kings 23:10). According to Jeremiah, however, this practice continued, and therefore, he said the name of the valley would be changed to valley of Slaughter (Jer 7:32; 19:6) because it would become a place of death and burial for multitudes of people. The apocalyptic Book of Enoch states that there would be an abyss filled with fire south of Jerusalem into which ungodly Israelites would be thrown. Later the idea was extended so that this place was conceived to be the place of fiery punishment for all of the ungodly. Still later, when the place of punishment was conceived of as under the earth, although the original geographic location was shifted, the idea of fiery torment was maintained.
It is necessary to follow the NIV footnotes, for if KJV was inaccurate in translating Sheol as “hell” (e.g., Ps.9.17), NIV is equally inaccurate in formalizing it as “the grave.” Dan.12.2 takes the matter as far as the Old Testament will go, with its reference to “shame and everlasting contempt.”
In the KJV, the word hell is used thirty-one times in the Old Testament; in each case it is a translation of Sheol, which was the place where both the ungodly and the godly were to go at death. Ten times in the New Testament, hell is a translation of Hades, which is the New Testament counterpart of Sheol, the place where all of the dead dwell. On eleven other occasions, however, it is used to translate Gehenna, which refers to the place of the punishment of the ungodly, and therefore to “hell” as the term is used today. Hell also is used once in the KJV and RSV to translate Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4). In most instances in the RSV, the terms Sheol and Hades are retained, whereas Gehenna is translated as “hell.”
The teaching that there is a place where the ungodly are punished forever is scarcely mentioned in the Old Testament. In the intertestamental period, however, this idea became prominent, although its acceptance by the rabbis was far from unanimous. In the Second Book of Esdras, accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church but not by Protestants, the subject is discussed. In 2 Esdras 7:75, Ezra asks if the lost soul will be tortured immediately at death or not until the renewal of the creation, to which God answers:
as the spirit leaves the body...if it is one of those who have shown scorn and have not kept the way of the Most High...such spirit shall...wander about in torment, ever grieving and sad...they will consider the torment laid up for themselves in the last days (2 Esdras 7:78ff.).
In the Apocalyptic Literature of this period, the term “Gehenna” is used to describe the compartment for punishment. The pseudepigraphical Enoch gives detailed descriptions of this place of punishment. The Pharisees accepted this view. Josephus states that the Pharisees believe that “the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment”
[Jos. War II. viii. 14]. Elsewhere he describes the position of the Pharisees by saying that the wicked “are to be detained in an everlasting prison.” In the time just prior to the New Testament period, the rabbinical school of Shammai divided all men into three groups: the righteous, the wicked who are “immediately written and sealed to Gehenna,” and a third group of people who “go down to Gehinnom and moan and come up again.” The school of Hillel thought that the ungodly were punished in Gehenna for a year and then annihilated, although certain especially wicked men “go down to Gehinnom and are punished there to ages of ages.”
Teachings of Jesus
It should be noted that in the New Testament, Gehenna is used only in the synoptics except for an occurrence in James (3:6), and that in these synoptic references the word was used only by Jesus Christ. In other words, the knowledge of hell comes almost exclusively from the teachings of Christ, who spoke emphatically on the subject on a number of occasions.
Jesus states that “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” In the context Jesus is saying that whereas the Old Testament simply condemned murder, He has a higher demand and the result is that expressions of anger toward one’s brother can lead to the most severe punishment (Matt 5:22).
Jesus says that the punishment of hell is so severe that it would be better for a person to lose an eye or a hand rather than that these members of the body should be instruments of sins that would lead to hell. Twice he speaks about the whole body being thrown into hell (Matt 5:29, 30).
Although the word “Gehenna” itself is not used, Jesus is obviously speaking of the punishment of hell when He says that the tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and “thrown into the fire” (Matt 7:19). It is noteworthy that all of the above references come from the Sermon on the Mount.
Part of the punishment pronounced upon the ungody will be that they will be cast out from the presence of Christ (Matt 7:23).
The ultimate punishment resulting from apostasy will include being consigned to “the outer darkness” that will produce a reaction of extreme anguish on the part of those who suffer this punishment. “There men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt 8:12).
Jesus states that God has the power to “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
At the conclusion of the Parable of the Tares, Jesus says that at the end of the world, sinners will be cast into “the furnace of fire,” which will produce anguish described in the same words as those of Matthew 8:12. In the Parable of the Net (13:49, 50), the same punishment and the same reaction are again predicted.
The ultimate punishment inflicted upon sinners is described by Jesus as being much worse than death itself, for it would be better to be drowned than to be punished for causing a child to be led astray (Matt 18:6). In the parallel Markan passage, Jesus then adds that it would be better to lose a limb that was the source of sinfulness than to “go to hell, to the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:42, 43). Hell is further described as the place “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (9:48). Here Jesus is using the terminology of Isaiah 66:24. In the parallel passage in Matthew (18:8, 9), the threat is that of being thrown into “the eternal fire” or the “hell of fire.”
In the Parable of the Wedding Feast, the punishment is again described as that of being cast into “outer darkness” with resulting anguish of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 22:13).
Jesus condemns the Pharisees for making their converts “twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15). A little later he warns that they will not be able to escape “being sentenced to hell” (v. 33).
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus again uses the phrases “outer darkness” and “weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt 25:30). In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus says to those whom He condemns, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). Later in the same parable, Jesus describes their fate as “eternal punishment” (v. 46).
In several passages, Jesus implies that there will be degrees of punishment in hell. He speaks of hypocrites as those who will “receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40), and Jesus speaks of some who will receive “a severe beating,” whereas others who have a lesser knowledge of the master’s will, receive “a light beating” (Luke 12:47, 48).
The certain conclusion from all of these passages is that Jesus taught the doctrine of hell clearly and emphatically. All but those who interpret Scripture with the most extreme literalism agree that this is figurative language used to describe hell, but the figures stand for the most terrible reality.
Writings of the apostles
Although the word “hell” (Gehenna) was not used in the New Testament outside the synoptics (with the exception of James 3:6), the idea of severe punishment in the world to come is taught in several passages. For example:
Paul speaks of the impending judgment of God, which will result in eternal life for those who do good, “wrath and fury” for those who do wickedness. For the evildoer, “there will be tribulation and distress” (Rom 2:3-9).
Appearance before the judgment seat of Christ will result in receiving “good or evil” depending on the actions during this life (2 Cor 5:10). Paul sees the danger of this terrible fate as an impelling force in his ministry (v. 11).
At the return of Christ, those dwelling in complacency will experience “sudden destruction...and there will be no escape” (1 Thess 5:3).
The fate of the ungodly at the Second Coming of Christ will be administered by the angels accompanying Christ who will come “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:6-9).
The author of Hebrews speaks of “eternal judgment” as a fundamental of the faith (Heb 6:1, 2) and of the threat of punishment in these terms, “a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries” (10:27). He speaks of this as “much worse punishment” (v. 29) than the death that was administered to those who broke the law of Moses.
James (3:6) speaks of the tongue as “set on fire by hell (Gehenna).”
Second Peter deals with the subject (2 Pet 2:4-9), that tells of the angels who sinned being cast “into hell (Tartarus),” which is described as “pits of nether gloom.” Later in the passage, God is described as knowing how “to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” The ungodly who revel in sin will “be destroyed in the same destruction” (v. 12). “For them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved” (v. 17).
In the similar passage in Jude, it is revealed that the fallen angels “have been kept by him [God] in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day” (v. 6). The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (v. 7).
The Revelation of John says, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest” (Rev 14:11); “their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (21:8).
These scriptural references demonstrate that the apostles followed Christ in teaching that life issues in two possible destinies, eternal blessedness or the torment of hell. The New Testament writers are very reserved in their descriptions of hell, especially in comparison to the contemporary noncanonical Apocalyptic Literature, but they are clear in teaching a judgment issuing in eternal punishment. (See Everlasting Punishment for a discussion of the claims that the Bible teaches annihilation or universalism.)
The Early Church.
In the period immedately after New Testament days, the doctrine of hell was clearly taught. Many of the martyrs of that period, considering hell to be the fate of those who denied the faith, were given courage to face martyrdom by the conviction that this was the easier of the two alternatives.
In the 2nd century, the Church Fathers give evidence in their writings of their convictions on the subject. For example, Ignatius (died a.d. 117), commenting on a passage in Ephesians says, “one so defiled will go into unquenchable fire.” The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 115) speaks of “those which fell into the fire and were burned are those who have departed for ever from the living God.” The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 120) mentions “the way of eternal death with punishment.”
Justin Martyr (c. 110-165) in his Apology says, “we are fully convinced that each will suffer punishment by eternal fire, according to the demerit of his actions.” Irenaeus (a.d. 135-200) uses the term “eternal fire” repeatedly. Tertullian (c. 160-220) mentions “the greatness of the punishment which continueth, not for a long time, but forever.” He is the first of the Fathers who expresses joy at the spectacle of the lost in hell, an attitude not found in the Bible, but one that became common in the Middle Ages. The early Fathers gave unanimous testimony in favor of the belief in hell. It was not until Origen (c. 185-254), who held a number of other un-Biblical views as well, that a major church teacher denied this doctrine.
A Note on Duration of "Eternal"
Hell is, therefore, both a condition of retribution and a place in which the retribution occurs. In both of these aspects the three basic ideas associated with the concept of hell are reflected: absence of righteousness, separation from God, and judgment.
The absence of personal righteousness, with its correlative of the presence of personal unrighteousness, renders the individual unable to enter a right relationship with the holy God (Mark.3.29). The eternal state of the wicked, therefore, will involve a separation from the presence of God (John.3.36). The concept of judgment is heightened by the note of finality in the warnings against sin (Matt.8.12). It is a judgment, however, against man’s sinful nature—still unredeemed though Christ died—(Matt.25.31-Matt.25.46) and is decisive and irreversible.
When all else has been said about hell, however, there is still the inescapable fact taught by Scripture that it will be a retributive judgment on the spirit of man, the inner essence of his being. The severity of the judgment will be on the fixed character of a person’s essential nature—his soul, which will involve eternal loss in exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and fellowship with God.
In conclusion, the doctrine of hell is a thoroughly Biblical doctrine. Therefore it is not surprising that in the history of theology, a denial of this doctrine has often accompanied weak views of Biblical inspiration. The reaction against this doctrine has, however, been partly the fault of some of its adherents who have proclaimed it in crudely literalistic terms. Thoroughgoing conservatives such as Calvin, Hodge, Strong, and Schilder have recognized the symbolic nature of the Biblical terms “worm,” “fire,” etc. Another cause of reaction against the doctrine has been the exultant glee or other unloving attitudes held by some who have proclaimed it, but this is not a part of the Biblical doctrine. The Bible does not give the physical location of hell or anything about its furnishings, but it assures readers that those whose sins are not atoned for by Jesus Christ will receive perfect justice from God, that they will receive exactly what they deserve for all eternity, which will be a most miserable fate. This ought to be one of the impelling motives making evangelism the urgent business of all Christians.
Bibliography and Further Reading
S. Bartlett, Life and Death Eternal (1866).
W. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II (1888), 667-754.
K. Schilder, Wat Is De Hel? (1920).
Inge and others, What Is Hell? (1930).
J. S. Bonnell, Heaven and Hell (1956).
H. Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (1957).
J. A. Beet, The Last Things, 1905;
J. S. Bonnell, Heaven and Hell, 1956;
H. Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, 1957;
W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 1967, 2:210-Matt.25.28.
Dr. D. S. Salmond. "Hell." HDB.