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 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 , accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church but not by Protestant Church|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 Pharisee|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 Synoptic Gospels|synoptics except for an occurrence in James (3:6), and that in these synoptic references the word was used only by . In other words, the knowledge of hell comes almost exclusively from the teachings of Jesus Christ|Christ, who spoke emphatically on the subject on a number of occasions.
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:
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 (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 (c. 120) mentions “the way of eternal death with punishment.”
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 . 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.