Hell --

It's  Not  What  You  Thought!

Jack M. Lane

Hell. Crossing the River Styx. Dante’s inferno. Deep underground.

The place of final torture. Burning in flames forever.

Choking sulfur fumes belching from ignited gas pits.

Living forever in endless agony and torments.

This is what many thousands of people throughout the generations have had to look forward to, according to countless clergymen in numerous religions. "If you don’t accept our teachings, and do what we tell you to do, this is what will happen to you after you die."

Now, with that kind of picture as a motivator, with that kind of story bouncing around in people’s minds, do you suppose it might be a little easier to persuade the crowds of uneducated, superstitious, religious common folk to listen to what you have to say, and do what you want them to do, so they can avoid this fate? Many church organizations, and even pagan philosophies, have achieved a lot of compliance from their followers because they were able to instill a fear of going to this awful place.

Fear has always been an excellent motivator. For instance, Catholic priests in the Middle Ages had all the education while everyone else remained pretty much uneducated. I can’t help but think that the priests found it easy to strike fear into the hearts of the uneducated masses with the threat of hell fire, so they would do as they were told.

Fear may also have been an excellent motivator in the church organization you may have come from. Once people bought into the idea that they must be in that particular organization in order to be saved, then the only alternative for those who had been members but left, or who had been excommunicated because they didn’t go along with everything, was the unquenchable advancing wall of flame often called "Gehenna fire." This picture of "hell" was just as disturbing to us as the fires of Dante’s inferno were to Catholics of the Middle Ages. The end result? Behavior modification!

Our goal for today is to find out about hell, what it is, and what the Bible says about it. We won’t have any kind of action steps, like "make your husband’s life hell," or anything like that. But for us to have a study on the doctrine of hell, we must first untangle it from all the other doctrines that come with it. The concepts of the immortal soul, heaven, and hell are all closely related. Most religions, not just Christ-professing churches, teach that when people die, they (or their immortal soul) will go either to heaven or to hell, depending on their behavior in this life. Some religions put in other, unbiblical, intermediate steps along the way, such as the Roman Catholic concept of "purgatory," but the concept is still the same: Be good, go up; be bad, go down. But who defines "good" and "bad"? Why, the local religious authority, of course!

There has been some dispute about the nature of hell among the various Christ-professing religions. I recently heard a sermon tape from a pastor in the Atlanta, Georgia area. During his sermon, he told us how to tell the difference between a Northern Baptist and a Southern Baptist. The Northern Baptist says, "There ain’t no hell," and the Southern Baptist says, "The hell there ain’t!"

The three concepts -- the immortal soul, going to heaven, and going to hell -- are so large and all-encompassing, it’s almost impossible for people steeped in these doctrines to understand anything else. Many people simply can’t grasp the concept that the Bible teaches we simply cease to exist, and don’t continue on in some conscious existence of some kind. The closest many people can come to what we believe is to talk about the soul being "asleep." Those of us who believe in the extinction of life, the non-existence of dead people, and the absence of conscious thought, are labeled "soul-sleepers." Indeed, the Bible refers to death as sleep, but only as an allegory. There are no immortal souls slumbering and snoring away in spirit beds somewhere in a heavenly dormitory. But there are also no wide awake souls looking down on us from heaven, either.

We just don’t have time to look at all three concepts today, or even how they intertwine into a neat little theological package. Today we’re going to try to limit our topic to a discussion about "hell."


To the average person walking around out there, "hell" means only one thing: Dante’s inferno -- an underground land of flames and torture. Any references to hell stem from this idea. Someone may say, "You want to talk about hell? Come on over to my place and meet my wife. Talk about hell on earth!" The reference is back to Dante’s inferno.

Some Bible students may have heard that the Bible speaks about three different hells, or that the word "hell" has three different meanings. Actually, that’s not quite correct. More specifically, our English translations use the word "hell" for three different biblical concepts.

The way we used to look at Bible study, we would see the word "hell" in the King James Bible, and say that the Bible is talking about hell. Then we would study into it a little and notice that there are three or four different words in the Hebrew and Greek translated as "hell" in English. So we think of "hell" as having three or four definitions. That’s not really correct.

In fact, the Scriptures, in the original languages, talk about various things, which have various names, but the English translators saw fit to use the word "hell" whenever they came across these various topics. This has been very misleading to English-speaking Bible readers. The truth is, what the Bible talks about, and what people think hell is, are not the same thing!

Let’s look at the Hebrew and Greek words, and their meanings. We might want to actually place these words in our Bibles whenever the word "hell" comes up, so we’ll know what is being discussed.

Both the Hebrew sheol and the Greek hades refer primarily to the grave. The English translators have translated these words as "hell," because all three words -- sheol, hades, and hell -- originally meant to be covered up, out of sight. Messiah also spoke about something called Gehenna, which the English translators have also rendered as "hell." Gehenna fire is the picture Yashua wanted His followers to see when He spoke of eternal punishment. Too often in later times, though, the concept of Gehenna fire was taught as eternal punish-ING, or burning in flames forever. That concept really doesn’t appear in any of Messiah’s references to Gehenna.

A third concept is used one time in the Greek scriptures to indicate Tartarus, a place of restraint for fallen angels, or demons. The translators came across this word, tartaroo, and translated it as "hell" also. In pagan Greek and Roman mythology, Tartarus was a part of Hades, so it’s understandable why the translators would translate tartaroo as "hell." However, in the Bible reference, the word doesn’t stand for the pagan Hades, but rather an angelic prison of some sort.

We’ll examine all three concepts -- the grave, Gehenna fire, and a place of restraint -- more closely.


First of all, what do people generally mean when they think of hell? What’s the mental picture most people have, whether or not they believe it to be true? Hell is usually thought of as being the abode of the dead. It’s self-contradictory -- a real oxymoron -- but it’s where the dead live. Few people stop to question this absurdity. The belief is so strong that life does not end -- that there is no such thing as my own personal extinction -- that the self-contradictory nature of the "living dead" isn’t even an issue! People simply accept it, and re-define the word "dead" to refer to a living state!

Most cultures and civilizations have had a concept of an afterlife, or a place where the dead go to continue their existence as disembodied spirits. For example, the Greek and Roman mythology had its underworld, or nether realm, ruled over by the god known as Hades (in Greece) or Pluto (in Rome). The living dead needed to take a boat across the underground River Styx in order to enter this place. Originally, then, if you were to "go to Hades," you went to the place where the god Hades was, and met you him there. Over time, "hades" became the name of the place, as well.

You may recall that the infant Achilles was supposedly dipped in the River Styx by his mother, and this is how he gained his invulnerability, except for his heel, which did not get wet in the river because his mother held him by his heel while she dipped him. This one weak spot in Achilles led to his ultimate downfall, and is where we derived the expression that someone who has one major weakness has an "Achilles’ heel." We also refer to the tendon at the back of the foot as the Achilles tendon. This is one example of how pagan mythology permeates our lives on a daily basis.

At some point, the Greeks embellished the underground concept of Hades by adding a place called Tartarus, far below the level of Hades, as a place of torment for the wicked. Over time, though, Tartarus lost its distinctness and became just another name for Hades.

In Norse mythology, "Hel" was the name of the world of the dead, and it was also the name of the goddess who ruled there. This Hel was especially for evil-doers, and was the opposite of Valhalla, which was the place for the souls of those who had fallen in battle.

In most cultures, the abode of the dead was often neutral -- that is, not good or bad. The concepts of "paradise/Abraham’s bosom/heaven" on one hand, versus "Hades/Gehenna/hell" on the other, developed over time, primarily in what we might call "Christian mythology." A large influence was the play, "The Divine Comedy," by Dante Allegherri, an epic poem which was published around the year 1600. Dante described heaven, hell and purgatory as a satire. This satire, however, became official Roman Catholic doctrine. Since the time Rome adopted the doctrines of heaven, hell and purgatory, as described by Dante, many people have been influenced by sermons exhorting people to do things their way, the Roman way, and go to heaven, otherwise you’ll go to hell and burn forever for being disobedient to the church hierarchy.

It’s interesting how the Christian theological dictionaries refer to hell in just the same terms so many other, non-Christian cultures use. The authors of the Christian dictionary and encyclopedia articles all refer to hell as being the abode of the dead, a place where immortal souls go, and a place of torment for the wicked. The concept of everlasting torture is prevelant in all these doctrinal discussions. Dante’s inferno is firmly entrenched as the source of most people’s concept of hell.

Now that we’ve had a brief tour through hell, let’s find out what the Bible talks about. It isn’t the same thing! I think we’ll find that the word "hell" should probably be discarded from our vocabulary for lack of meaning. It doesn’t really belong in any of the biblical contexts we’re about to examine.


The Hebrew word sheol (Strong’s #7585) is translated in the KJV 31 times as "hell," but also 31 times as "the grave," and another three times as "the pit."

The Jews returned from Babylonian captivity with a form of the Babylonian religion, including the concept of an afterlife. To the Jews of first century Palestine, sheol referred to the place where the dead go, and also as a place where the wicked are sent for punishment. That may suggest torment, but consider this: What do we do with our children when they misbehave? We send them to their room! What does God do with people when they misbehave? He lets them wait in the grave until His own time when He calls them forth and deals with the problem. So, sheol is properly translated as "the grave," but to translate it as "hell" is misleading, because we tend to read a meaning into that word that probably wasn’t intended by the original authors.

The Septuagent was the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. It was the translation used by Jews and Nazarenes in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. The Septuagent translated sheol as hades (the Strong’s number is, appropriately enough, #86). Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew sheol.

Some authorities insist that, before the time of Christ’s ascension, Hades was the place of all departed souls, including the "blessed dead"! So before Christ, everyone went to hell. After Christ ascended, then, the "good guys" supposedly began going up to heaven, while only the "bad guys" went down to hell. How the "good guys" in hell were transferred to heaven is not explained. And apparently, there were only "good guys" and "bad guys," with nobody in the middle, sort of a "neutral guy."

Of course, the truth of the matter is that the grave really is the place where all the dead go, good and bad alike. But because so many people read into that idea the existence of immortal souls going to Paradise or damnation, we can’t assume that anyone really understands us when we say that all the dead go to the grave, or to sheol or hades.

You can look up these scriptures, and see how "the grave" would make a sensible thought in each case: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. Beware the figurative language used in Revelation. The Father, who sent this message, is a skillful author, and is using a technique known as "personification and imagery." Don’t get hung up on trying to understand how death and the grave can literally be thrown into a lake of fire. We’ll examine this principle a little later.


Is gehenna simply a stronger definition of the word "hell"? No, it’s a different concept entirely! When we see how the word gehenna is used in contrast to hades, we will see two different ideas, and to label both as "hell" has been very misleading to English-speaking Bible readers down through the centuries!

We have heard that Gehenna is a valley just outside Jerusalem, which was used basically as the city dump. Trash was burned there, as were the bodies of dead criminals. Maggots and other scavengers thrived in the debris, which gave rise to the vivid picture of "worms that don’t die," as Yashua warned about in Mark chapter 9.

What else do we know about this "Valley of Hinnom" outside Jerusalem? It had a rich history before it became the city dump. In this valley, the ancient Canaanites worshiped Baal and the fire-god Molech by sacrificing their children in a fire that burned continuously. Ahaz and Manasseh, two of the kings of Judah, revived this horrible practice when Baalism became the state religion of Judah (1 Kings 11:7; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). King Josiah finally put an end to this worship. He defiled the valley in order to make it unfit even for pagan worship (2 Kings 23:10-14). By the time of the Messiah, it had become nothing more than a garbage dump. As for its future, Jeremiah has prophecied that God will send so much destruction on Jerusalem that this valley would be known as the "Valley of Slaughter" (Jeremiah 7:31-34; 19:2-6).

The word gehenna occurs 12 times in the Greek scriptures, each time translated in KJV as "hell": Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5. The word also occurs once in the epistle of James (3:6).

Because of the constant references to fire and destruction, likening the Valley of Hinnom to the fate awaiting the wicked in the future, it’s easy to see why later theologians transferred the word gehenna into the concept of eternal torments found so often in pagan cultures. Then, it was a simple matter to translate gehenna into the English word "hell," then also translate hades and sheol as "hell," and so confuse and terrify the English-speaking members of the Catholic and Protestant churches into submission.


Imagine now that we add in other scriptures which talk about fire, and especially "unquenchable fire," and you can see how the concept of burning forever in hellfire can be reinforced. But let’s examine some of these verses to see what is really taking place. Is an ever-burning place of eternal torments being described? Let’s see.

One of the favorite verses used to reinforce the concept of burning forever in hellfire is Matthew 3:12 (NASB): "And His [Messiah’s] winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." This passage can be likened to the separating of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. The intent of the verse is clear. The interpretations of many people are not as clear, or as accurate as they could be.

Notice first of all that the chaff will be burned up -- consumed! -- which would strongly imply that the chaff is combustible, and will burn up until there is no chaff remaining! How, then, could the fire be unquenchable? Once the fuel is used up, the fire simply burns out! School children are taught that fire requires three things: heat, fuel, and air. Without all three ingredients, there is no fire! Once any chaff is burned up, the fuel is gone, and the fire goes out. Conversely, if the chaff is not burning up -- being consumed by the flames -- it is not fuel! Again, the three elements would not all be there! So the concept of something burning eternally, without burning up, is an impossibility, as we understand the laws of physics.

Ah, then, suppose we are talking about a spiritual "burning forever" rather than a physical burning. No, scripture simply does not teach this concept, any more than it teaches a physical burning without consuming in the eternal flames of hell. It is simply not a biblical doctrine.

What about the word "unquenchable"? If this fire is not eternal, how can it be unquenchable? The Greek word used here is -- believe it or not -- asbestos! The definition in Strong’s (#762) is simply that it is not going to be extinguished. The implication is that it means "perpetual," but only to those who have already learned to read that meaning into the word! The phrase asbestos pur ("unquenchable fire") simply means that the fire is not going to be put out. It won’t need to be put out! Once the fuel is consumed, the fire will go out by itself!


What about the Lake of Fire in Revelation chapters 19 and 20? Isn’t that hell fire? Yes, that is the picture Messiah was attempting to teach us when He spoke of Gehenna fire! But what have we seen regarding fire? We have seen that it destroys! In Revelation 19:20, we see the political beast and the religious false prophet thrown alive into the lake of sulfury fire. In chapter 20, the devil is thrown in in verse 10, and in verse 14 death and the grave are thrown in, followed in verse 15 by those whose names were not written in the Book of Life.

Revelation 20:14 identifies the lake of fire as the second death. Is it a real lake of real fire? As mentioned before, it’s difficult to picture death and the grave as being literal objects thrown into a literal lake of fire. But then, it’s also difficult to picture a literal lake of fire. Perhaps we might wish to read Revelation 20:14 for what it says. The lake of fire doesn’t just lead to the second death -- it is the second death!

We’ve always been taught that the lake of fire will be a literal flaming area. Because we were involved with a physical religion, led by men who could only see the physical, because we all too often walked by sight and not by faith, perhaps we have missed a vital lesson because we always pictured the lake of fire as being literal. I’m going to propose that we begin to look on the lake of fire as being non-literal.

Then, we can have a different understanding of the accounts of the beast, the false prophet, the devil, the state of being dead, and the institution of the grave itself, as all being thrown into -- not a literal lake of fire, but permanent non-existence! The blackness of darkness forever. Imagine -- the devil, forever gone. Not just locked up somewhere, but no longer existing! Imagine death dying! Imagine the grave buried! If you wrap your mind around these pictures, it helps you understand how great a victory our Father has in store for us in the future!

But doesn’t it say that the devil will be cast into the lake of fire and be tortured day and night forever?

"And when the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:7-10, NASB). Does the "they" refer to Satan? No, Satan is a "he," not a "they." Perhaps the beast and false prophet? No, they were apparently sent into permanent non-existence a thousand years before. "They" obviously refers to the hordes of Gog and Magog, as the context shows.

Will Gog and Magog be tormented in unquenchable hellfire for all eternity? Another understanding for the Greek words translated "forever and ever" might be, "into the age, the age." These events seem to be taking place at the end of one era and the beginning of another, so it may be that this "torment," or vexation, may be the turning point from one aion of time into another. It doesn’t necessarily mean eternal torturing, but rather a vexation marking a turning point in history.

What about this idea that people will be deceived by Satan, and roused up into a fighting force, then God steps in and removes Satan, but then goes on to torture the deceived people eternally? This picture simply does not fit in with what we know about the love, grace and mercy God intends to show all mankind, as He continues His plan to bring all humankind into His Family. If we remember what God’s plan is, and that God’s personality is not like Satan’s personality, we can quickly see that eternal torture has never been part of God’s plan. Eternal life is what God wants to give to all humankind!


Other phrases are used throughout scripture to indicate Gehenna fire and total extinction, such as "unquenchable fire," "black darkness," "furnace of fire," "fire and brimstone," "the smoke of their torment," "the lake of fire which burns with brimstone," "where their worm does not die," "the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels."

We’re not going to cover the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), but we do need to discuss everlasting fire, everlasting punishment, and how these relate to what we have seen about the dead being in the grave.

In 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 (NAS), Paul writes:

6 For after all it is {only} just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you,

7 and {to give} relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire,

8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

9 And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,

10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed -- for our testimony to you was believed.

In Matthew 25:41, Messiah was saying: "Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels." And in verse 46, He concluded, "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Revelation 19:19-21 (NAS)

19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies, assembled to make war against Him who sat upon the horse, and against His army.

20 And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.

21 And the rest were killed with the sword which came from the mouth of Him who sat upon the horse, and all the birds were filled with their flesh.

Revelation 21:7-8

7 "He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.

8 "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part {will be} in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."

Ephesians 4:8-10 (NAS)

8 Therefore it says, "When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men."

9 (Now this {expression,} "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?

10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

In Mark 9:46 and 48, hell is described as a place where "their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched." Repeatedly Jesus spoke of outer darkness and a furnace of fire, where there will be wailing, weeping, and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28). Obviously this picture is drawn from the valley of Gehenna

The Book of Revelation describes hell as "a lake of fire burning with brimstone" (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14-15; 21:8). Into hell will be thrown the beast and the false prophet (Rev. 19:20). At the end of the age the devil himself will be thrown into it, along with death and hades and all whose names are not in the Book of Life. "And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10b).

(1) "Eternal."-- The word "eternal" (aionios) is repeatedly applied to the punishment of sin, or to the fire which is its symbol. A principal example is Matthew 25:41, 46, "eternal fire," "eternal punishment" (kolasis aionios). Here precisely the same word is applied to the punishment of the wicked as to the blessedness of the righteous. Other instances are Matthew 18:8; Jude verse 7; compare Revelation 14:11; 19:3; 20:10. In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, we have, "eternal destruction." The kindred word aidios, "everlasting," is in Jude verse 6 applied to the punishment of the fallen angels.


There is one more instance of the word "hell" in the English Bible.

4. Tartarus: In yet one other passage in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:4), "to cast down to hell" is used (the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) to represent the Greek tartaroo, ("to send into Tartarus"). Here it stands for the place of punishment of the fallen angels: "spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to hell, and committed them to pits (or chains) of darkness" (compare Jude verse 6; but also Matthew 25:41). Similar ideas are found in certain of the Jewish apocalyptic books (Book of Enoch, Book of Jubilees, Apocrypha Baruch, with apparent reference to Genesis 6:1-4; compare ESCHATOLOGY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT).

The verb tartaroo, translated "cast down to hell" in 2 Peter 2:4, signifies to consign to Tartarus, which is neither Sheol nor hades nor hell, but the place where those angels whose special sin is referred to in that passage are confined "to be reserved unto judgment"; the region is described as "pits of darkness."

While speaking about wicked angels who are being held in "everlasting chains," the writer of Jude in the New Testament likened these wrongdoers to the wicked men of Sodom and Gomorrah, who "are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 7).

Here we find the only place in scripture where there is a mention of a place of restraint for wicked spirits. Because the myth of Hades was already known, and the English word "hell" was assigned to that concept, the translators came across this word, tartaroo, realized it dealt with a place of restraint for spirits, saw the association with Tartarus, and translated this passage with the word "hell." We can follow the reasoning process of the translators, but we can also see that combining the idea of Hades, where everyone was supposed to go, and Peter’s usage of Tartarus, to indicate that demons are incarcerated someplace, can lead to confusion, and seem to reinforce the idea that all of us run the risk of going to Tartarus! This is what the Greek mythology teaches, but is definitely not what Peter had in mind!


Is it merely a sad situation that so many people believe in immortal souls going to heaven or hell? Is it just a minor problem that so many Christ-professing people have this wrong concept? Or is it really a serious problem that has Satan gloating in triumph?

What difference does it make if someone believes in going to heaven and going to hell? The answer becomes obvious when you stop to realize that people’s minds are closed to what the Bible says because they so firmly and deeply hold to this wrong concept. If you’ve ever tried to tell someone about death and the resurrection, you might have come up against this wall.

The problem is: If we are immortal souls, there is no death. If there is no death, there is no need to be redeemed from death, so there is no need for a resurrection! If we are already judged, and it’s been determined if we go up to heaven or down to hell, there is no further need for a judgment. If there is no need for a resurrection, or for judgment, there is no need for Christ’s return! Has Satan won this round? You bet! But that’s just to help set up affairs for end time events.

The world will see the returning Messiah and His armies, and think that they are the bad guys, perhaps space invaders, perhaps the devil himself. The world will unite to try to repel Him. How can that be? Here’s why: If the false prophet is a Roman Catholic pope, then the Roman view of immortal souls, heaven, and hell will be taught to the world, leaving no room for a returning Messiah! The world won’t recognize their Savior when He returns.

(My apologies for the abrupt ending to this article. I actually never finished it, but I wanted to get it posted to the web site so you could read it. There's a lot of good information here, even if the ending hasn't been polished yet. There also seem to be quotations from one or more reference work which I have not cited appropriately.  I hope to get back to this article someday and finish it.)