In understanding the nature of hell, it is hard to get beyond the medieval paintings that are so viscerally imprinted on our cultural consciousness. To look beyond these lurid fantasies and focus on the scriptural teaching that was revealed by God involves peeling away our cultural preconceptions. It is important to realise that there is no horned red-skinned devil in the Bible, no pitchfork, no capering demons. There are no cloven feet or forked tails.
In fact there is no Hell at all.
By this I mean that the word Hell is not scriptural, it is an English noun used by the translators of the KJV Bible to translate four separate scriptural nouns. These scriptural words were Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and one instance of the word Tartarus. Each word originally conveyed separate distinct meanings but unfortunately over the years and translations these have been somewhat obscured and conflated.
Unfortunately the translators of the KJV chose to sometimes translate Sheol as 'the Grave', when it talked about God's faithful being there, and yet translated it as ‘Hell’ when it talked about the unrighteous being there. In this the bias of their pre-existing theology came into play. But in the Israelites’ theology, everyone who died went to Sheol alike, whether good or bad, to sleep and await God's judgement. The dead in Sheol are described as being unknowing, asleep and unaware of their condition: “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol” (Ecc 9:10); “in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Ps 6:5); “the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward” (Ecc 9:5).
The word Hades was the closest Greek equivalent to this concept and is found in the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament. In classical Greek mythology it was a place where everyone who died went, good or bad. The Greek concept is a loose ideological translation of Sheol, as the shades of the dead who reside there in classical Greek thought were semi-aware, not fully asleep. In legend they appeared somewhat greyed out, and they were not awaiting any other final judgement. It is unclear whether the use of this word in Scripture describes a later theological development of the concept of 'the grave' or was just the closest Greek word to refer to the Israelite concept of Sheol.
The word Gehenna is a separate concept, a place described by Jesus as the final punishment for the unrighteous after they had been resurrected from ‘the Grave’ (either Sheol or Hades depending on which language you spoke). It was a place where rubbish was burned up. It refers to a part of Jerusalem's environs, and interestingly even this place is described in Jeremiah 31:38-40 as part of that which God would redeem and make holy. This ash dump where rubbish was discarded and destroyed is used in the gospels by Jesus as a metaphor for the punishment of the unrighteous.
The lake of fire in Revelation may be a post-Jerusalem version of this same metaphor, as it conveys a very similar concept, a place where anything that is thrown in will be consumed utterly and be irretrievable.
In fact the only equivalent to our modern notion of Hell as a place of eternal torment for the wicked in classical thought is the Greek concept of Tartarus, described in Greek tradition as a place as far beneath Hades as the earth is below the heavens. This is a place of imaginative and ironic tortures like the torments of Sisyphus and Tantalus. But this word was used only once in the Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4, which describes it as the place where the angels who sinned against God were sent to await judgement. It is never described in scripture as a place where the human dead are punished.
So the punishment for the sinful dead is Gehenna (or the Lake of fire), a place where things are discarded, forgotten, and destroyed. As to why such a death is the punishment for sin, it is mentioned throughout the Bible, from Adam being warned that if he sinned he would surely die, to many instances of death being used as a punishment for disobeying God.
The Lake of Fire, or the Fires of Gehenna, are said by scripture to be eternal. But a fire that burns forever doesn't inform us that the things thrown into that fire will not be consumed and destroyed.
In fact, to me, the eternity of the flames merely highlights their properties of utter destruction. If one is thrown into a finite fire then there is hope that it will not be powerful enough to completely destroy us, perhaps it will only burn us a little and then go out. But no, once thrown into an eternal flame, a soul cannot be healed or reconstituted, even by God, since He has chosen to create the proverbial stone he cannot lift: a flame he has promised never to put out.
But what of eternal punishment as written in places such as Matthew 25:46? The concept of eternal punishment is surely to be read in contrast with the eternal redemption (Hebrews 5:9) of the saved. Does this mean that the saved are subjected to an ongoing eternal process of redemption that never concludes? Of course not, it is the consequence of the redemption that is eternal, it is done once, finished, and the results last forever. Similarly the punishment of the unrighteous must be understood as eternal in consequence, not an ongoing process which never concludes. In fact, surely if the punishment of the unrighteous never reaches its conclusion then God would be leaving His Holy justice forever unfinished! Is this not fully incompatible with the very concept of Final Judgement?
And surely if, as scripture states, only God is immortal (1 Tim 6:16), and he bestows the gift of immortality only on those who are in Christ (John 10:27-28: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish”, John 17:2: “For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him”, and 1 John 5:12: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”) How then can the souls of the unrighteous be tormented eternally if they do not have eternal life in which to experience it? Are they to be given immortality also so that they can experience this eternal torment? Doesn’t this go against the teaching of scripture?
Matthew 10:28 records Jesus’ words: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."
Jesus here is describing Hell as a place where both body and soul are utterly destroyed, where after the body is killed, the soul is killed also.
So where did Christians get their notion of a place of eternal suffering? The concept of suffering is taken largely from the scriptural phrase 'In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' This is a strange phrase as it does not say that the people who are thrown into the fire will be weeping and gnashing their teeth, which would seem to be the obvious way of describing it if that is what Jesus meant. No, it just says that in that place will be weeping and gnashing. It does not describe who will be weeping and gnashing, or for how long it will go on for. Perhaps it refers to the realisation of the unrighteous of their error just before they are destroyed. Or perhaps it refers to the mourning of the angels on the Day of Judgement, just as the salvation of the redeemed will be accompanied by trumpets and cries of hallelujah. It is an ambiguous phrase and I do not think it can be used to trump the many other passages that liken the Eternal Fire as a place that utterly, irrevocably destroys.
The other major scriptural backing for the theory of eternal torment comes from the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (traditionally called Dives). The story Jesus tells us does not however refer to the final judgment, the fire of Gehenna, since it calls the place that the Rich Man ends up in ‘Hades’, a place that the later book of Revelation describes as being destined to be thrown into the Lake of Fire itself (along with Death). From this we must conclude that the Rich Man’s torment in Hades is temporary, destined to be ended at the Final Judgement. It is also somewhat problematic to use a parable as a literal description of the afterlife, when we do not seek to use Jesus’s other parables in the same literal fashion. There was no geographical vineyard whose tenants killed the owner’s servants and son, there was no historical king who threw a wedding banquet which no one came to. We must understand parables to be metaphors for a spiritual truth, not literal descriptions of actual places.
And finally, the support for eternal torment comes from the apocalyptic vision of Revelation, specifically Rev 14:9-11 and Rev 20:10. These passages explicitly says that those who “worship the beast” will be “tormented with burning sulphur and the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest, day or night for them”. Revelation is of course a highly symbolic book, and notoriously difficult to interpret. But surely these passages are clear?
Yet the passage is full of questions. Who are these people being tormented – can the consequences described here be extrapolated to cover the fate of all those who are not saved by Christ, or is it restricted only to the subset of them who specifically worship the beast and have its mark on their forehead as the passage states? Can it be implied that their torment itself lasts for ever or just the smoke of their torment, which is the only thing mentioned by the passage itself? Surely this is a verse that becomes clearer when read in the light of Isaiah 34:9-10, which it closely parallels: “Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulphur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.” Of course the literal smoke of Edom is not still ascending today, and the destruction of Edom is not still an ongoing process. The passage is an idiom which means that Edom’s destruction will be total, absolute and eternal in consequence.
But what about the lack of rest day and night? Doesn’t this mean that these people are being constantly agitated (with pitchforks – metaphorical or otherwise)? Or does it actually mean that they are deprived forever of the spiritual rest in God, which scripture states is the reward given to the saved. Hebrews 4: 9-11 for instance states: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience”. Shouldn’t the verse in Revelation be interpreted in the light of this scriptural concept?
Jesus repeatedly likened the fate of the unrighteous to things being discarded, thrown away like bad fish, or burned up like weeds or chaff thrown into a fire to be burned. These analogies, in my opinion, can only refer to death and destruction, the same destruction that occurs to weeds when they are burned. If one is to believe only in the Hell that Jesus speaks of then I cannot see how one is lead to view it as anything other than a place of annihilation.
Yet the Church largely teaches now that the unsaved themselves will be eternally tormented. How did this come about if the Bible itself does not teach it? Unfortunately a great many doctrines were developed in the centuries after the Apostles death. From the Primacy of Rome and the infallibility of its Bishop, to Purgatory, the Sacrament of Confession, the banning of marriage for clergy, and many others. Many books have been written about how the Church built a religion that ended up looking so drastically different from what was in the Bible that it caused a schism so terrible that the Body of Christ is still not united. We can trace the development of these ideas through the centuries, from initial thought, through a wide diversity of opinion, to gradual acceptance and eventually to claiming the idea to be as true as if it were spoken by Christ Himself.
An important development was the gradual acceptance of the Hellenistic notion of the immortality of the Soul. The Israelites believed that only God was immortal, but the Greeks believed that human souls were also inherently immortal. Ignatius of Antioch in the first century shows that this view had not yet permeated the Church when he wrote to the Ephesians: “For this end did the Lord allow the ointment to be poured upon His head, that He might breathe immortality into his church. …Why do we foolishly perish, not recognising the gift which the Lord has of a truth sent to us?”, and in his letter to the Magnesians he writes “For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be.” The writer of the Epistle of Barnabas in the first century also wrote “For the day is at hand on which all things shall perish with the evil [one].” For these first century writers, it was clear from Christian teaching that the reward of the unrighteous was non-existence, to ‘cease to be’, since immortality was breathed only into the Church.
However the second development in Christian doctrine about Hell was the idea that God would not just breathe immortality into the church, but would bestow eternal life on sinners also, in order for them to suffer eternally. Tatian who was after 165 expelled from his church for his ascetic and gnostic views, wrote in the second half of the second century: “We who are now easily susceptible to death, will afterwards receive immortality with either enjoyment or with pain.” We can see that even though Tatian did not accept that the soul was immortal by nature, he did believe that the unsaved would be given immortality alongside the saved, in order to be punished.
Yet by the end of the second century Greek thought about the soul had permeated into the Church. The biggest culprit for this was perhaps the *Apocalypse of Peter*, a book that purported to be a vision of Heaven and Hell by the Apostle Peter and which contains highly visceral and imaginative descriptions of the eternal torments of the damned. The Apocalypse has however been conclusively dated to some point in the second century, at least several generations after Peter’s death.
This was a forgery, yet it contained enough Christian elements to deceive many Christians, even church elders and was circulated widely during the late second and third centuries, and even into the fourth. It was accepted by Clement of Alexandria as part of his canon of scripture, though most other Churches rejected it. It also appears in the Muratorian fragment, the oldest surviving list of a canon dating from the last quarter of the second century, which mentions that though the anonymous author receives it as scripture, many church elders do not allow it to be read in Church. It was never widely accepted and was eventually forgotten to history, along with its successor the Apocalypse of Paul, which contained much of the same ideas and material. However the damage was done, and the effect of this forged document on the popular imagination of Christians and their common understanding of Hell was widespread.
Clement of Alexandria was a pupil of Tatian and a student of Greek philosophy. His three major works show that he was heavily influenced by it to a greater extent than any other Christian thinker of his time. It was either this Greek education, or the Apocalypse of Peter which he had been deceived into thinking was genuine, which caused him to write: “All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked”. And this belief led him to make the argument: “For, punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire, and not dying, it is impossible for [the wicked] to have a period put to their misery.” This was an extraordinary development of thought.
However, despite the growing influence of the Greek concept of the naturally immortal soul and the growing development of belief in the endless torment of the lost we continue to see a diversity of opinion throughout these first centuries.
Irenaeus of Gaul wrote just before Tertullian in 180 AD. He was a student of Polycarp who was considered to have been a direct disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus wrote in chapter 34 of ‘Against Heresies’ that a person’s soul does live on after death, but denied that this was an eternal natural state. He argued that the soul only lasts for as long as God decides: “it is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God.” He argues that for as long as God wills us to have continuance we exist, and as soon as God chooses to withdraw his sustaining power, we cease to exist.
Irenaeus goes on to argue that those who accept God’s grace “shall receive also length of days for ever and ever”, yet one who rejects God “deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever”, and that those people “shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever.”
Irenaeus could not be clearer, the unsaved shall not continue their existence, even in a state of suffering, since continuation of existence is a privilege reserved only for the saved. Who was right? Ireneaus’ firm statement that those who reject God “shall not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever”, and Clement’s stark belief that “all souls are immortal” are mutually contradictory.
At the beginning of the third century we find Tertullian, a member of the Montanist group who believed in new revelation separate to the Bible and were later declared heretics. Before he joined the Montanists he had an incredible influence on the development of Christian thought with writings such as ‘De Spectaculis’ around 200AD. In this work he expounds on the sufferings of the unsaved with unrestrained glee: “At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians”.
Following this some people developed the concept of eternal suffering further by the end of the third century. Marcus Menucius Felix, a man of whom nothing is known except for a single surviving work which shows strong influence from the Greek Stoic school of philosophy wrote: “Nor is there either measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them.” We see here a massive development in thought. Felix is proposing something previously unheard of, a “clever” fire, which does not act like any other fire, one that can both burn and restore. Where did he get this idea from?
Yet we must remain aware that even alongside these writings, the traditional view was still accepted at the same time and widely taught across the Christian world.
Arnobius of Sicca, a man of whom very little is known wrote his work ‘Against Heathens’ around 300 AD. In chapter 2 he writes specifically in order to oppose the prevalent pagan Greek ideas about the afterlife: “What, does not your Plato also, in the book which he wrote on the immortality of the soul… [assert that] souls are rolled along, engulfed and burned up? But…he essays a problem which cannot be solved; so that, while he says that the soul is immortal, everlasting, and without bodily substance, he yet says that they are punished, and makes them suffer pain. But what man does not see that that which is immortal, which is simple, cannot be subject to any pain; that that, on the contrary, cannot be immortal which does suffer pain?” Here Arnobius is making the philosophical argument that the soul, believed by Plato to be immaterial, cannot be damaged and therefore would not be able to feel pain.
But Arnobius goes on to contrast this muddled belief of Plato with a clearer Christian teaching: “And yet his opinion is not very far from the truth…For they are cast in, and being annihilated, pass away vainly in everlasting destruction. For theirs is an intermediate state, as has been learned from Christ’s teaching; and they are such that they may on the one hand perish if they have not known God, and on the other be delivered from death if they have given heed to His threats and proffered favours. And to make manifest what is unknown, this is man’s real death, this which leaves nothing behind. For that which is seen by the eyes is only a separation of soul from body, not the last end—annihilation.”
It is true that Arnobius wrote a few lines later that this annihilation was “long protracted” and carried out by “certain fiercely cruel beings”, but his belief is clear, and his description of this ultimate “annihilation” that awaits the unsaved completely contradicts Clement’s doctrine that “it is impossible for [the wicked] to have a period put to their misery”.
By the time of the late fourth century the competing beliefs about the soul and the ultimate fate of the unsaved were held across the Church, with no official doctrine agreed. Belief in this matter, as with many other points of doctrine, was diverse. In the early Church differences of belief were largely permitted as long as they did not teach anything inherently heretical about the nature of God.
Yet in the second half of the fourth century certain ideas became firmed and fixed. This coincided with the officialising of Christianity under the authority of the Emperors. While Emperors did not directly force any one doctrine or other the very process of making Christianity the official religion of the Empire could not help but force homogenisation of doctrine, and the suppression of different viewpoints. The process of homogenising doctrine was often the result of political pressure, force, and sometimes outright violence. Did this always lead to the correct doctrine winning out?
In the second half of the fourth century, two highly respected theologians taught very different views on the soul and its fate after death. Athanasius of Alexandria was slightly earlier, dying in 373 AD. He was called the ‘Pillar of the Church’ after his death, and considered by the Eastern Orthodox church to be the ‘Father of Orthodoxy’. His career overlapped with the slightly later Augustine of Hippo who died in 430 AD. Augustine is largely considered the father of Western theology, and possibly the most influential theologian of the Roman Church, though in the Eastern Orthodox church many of his ideas were at the time, and continue, to be strongly disputed.
Athanasius wrote the work ‘On the Incarnation of the Word’. In chapter 4 he writes “For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time.”
What does Athanasius mean by this “corruption into nothing”? He goes on to explain: “For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated”.
Athanasius here is clear that the ultimate fate of the unsaved is to be “disintegrated”, to return to their former state of “non-existence”. However, it must be acknowledged that in other places Athanasius does state that the human soul is immortal as part of its inherent nature (i.e. ‘Against the Heathen’ 2:33). Athanasius came from a Christian family, but had an education steeped in Greek philosophy. It appears that in his writings he struggled to reconcile these competing ideas, on the one hand accepting the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul, yet on the other still holding fast to the Christian teaching that existence is a gift which comes only from God and the fate of the unsaved is to be bereft of being.
Perhaps because of this lack of clarity Athanasius’ views on the afterlife were not as influential on Western doctrine as Augustine, who discarded any sense of ambiguity and made his position absolutely clear. Augustine’s magisterial work ‘City of God’, was possibly the most influential single work of Christian theology ever written. It was written at the start of the fifth century and in it Augustine became the first theologian to expound a full, clear and fervent biblical defence of the view that the unsaved will suffer forever in Hell.
From the fifth century until today Augustine’s view has been held by the majority, and the alternative perspectives of Athanasius and his forebears have been almost entirely ignored and forgotten. Yet what was Augustine’s central reasoning for this viewpoint that has dominated Christian theology on the afterlife for so many centuries? To one of the central and major objections to the doctrine - how can the soul be burned by fire and yet not be consumed - he pointed to the Salamander as proof of a creature that could live in fire and yet survive. Unfortunately for Augustine the Salamander was fictional.
PS: In discussing this idea on an online forum I was introduced to an excellent article by the prominent evangelical leader John Stott who illuminated this concept far better than I can. I would recommend it highly: http://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/judgement-hell.php#.V1hVMfkrKUk