But, Isn’t Hell Real?

But, Isn’t Hell Real?


by Vladimir Gelesnoff

The word “hell” is defined as

“the abode of evil spirits; the infernal regions, especially as a place of eternal punishment for lost spirits; the state of eternal punishment.”

The "Hell" of orthodoxy
The “Hell” of orthodoxy

Whatever may have been its meaning in the old Saxon it is now almost universally applied to the state and place of endless punishment—the final state of wicked men. The mere mention of it quickens in the mind an image of some vast fiery furnace, in which myriads of wicked men are tasked, and tantalized, and tormented in the burning agonies of a flame that will never be extinguished; or a vast cesspool of immoral and degraded beings, continually existing in opposition to God, eternally sinful, vile, and morally hideous. In a word, the orthodox dogma is that at death, or after the resurrection, the wicked will be consigned to a place of torment, torment physical and metaphysical, to be ceaselessly consumed by pangs compared with which the horrors of a furnace would be a paradise.

Now there is no Hebrew or Greek word which at all answers to this theological conception.

In our current versions the word “hell” is used to render three Greek words, Tartarus, Hades, Gehenna; and since it is axiomatic that the meaning of words is established by their usage, we will examine the occurrences of each word in turn.

1. Tartarus occurs but once in the whole New Testament (2 Peter 2:4). Let us note the setting of this singular passage. In the three preceding verses the apostle predicts the doom of the false teachers that shall rise among the people. To prove the point that their “sentence from of old lingereth not,” Peter instances the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the sweeping away of Noah’s contemporaries in the deluge. From these examples is inferred that “the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation, and to keep the unrighteous unto the day of judgment to be punished.” The actual thought is not the final state of wicked men, but their being reserved for punishment unto the day of judgment. The judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah and the destruction of the antediluvian world are preceded by a reference to the angels that sinned. The verse is as follows: “For if God spared not angels when they sinned, but cast them down to Tartarus, and committed them to pits of darkness to be reserved unto judgment.”

It is useless to explain the term Tartarus by the aid of Greek mythology, as is customary with expositors, for the conceptions of the Greeks carry no authority in points of Christian doctrine. All that can be known of Tartarus can only be gathered from the passage itself. The phrase “pits of darkness” suggests a vast prison subdivided into dark compartments, or pits where the offending angels are held as prisoners until the day of judgment.

A Pit
Tartarus: A holding pit, nothing more

The following points are certain: (1) Tartarus is a place of confinement for angels alone; (2) it does not refer to the final estate of fallen angels, but to a state in which they are held until the day of judgment; (3) there is not the faintest intimation of any torment. Hence, Tartarus by no means answers to our “hell,” and whatever excuse may be pleaded for the translators of the Authorized Version, there is not the slightest justification to retain a word which conveys erroneous ideas and calls up in the mind the most terrible conceptions.



2. The word Hades occurs ten times in the New Testament, and in every instance our version renders it by “hell.”

Hades: Unseen – Grave

The biblical use of the word Hades proves that its meaning is in harmony with its etymology. It means the unseen, from a not, and ideein to see. When the thread of life is snapped at death, men depart from among the living. Whither have they gone? Into a region unseen to us. At death all men, saints and sinners alike, pass into Hades where they remain until the resurrection. An examination of the passages proves that Hades is never used of the final state of men, but of the state between death and resurrection.

In Matthew 11:23 and Luke 16:18 our Lord said: “And thou Capernaum, shalt thou be exalted unto heaven? Thou shalt go down to Hades.” He meant that that great and busy city would, in the not distant future, disappear from the stage of history, leaving behind no trace of its former greatness.

In the next instance (Matt.16:18), in answer to Peter’s confession, our Lord said: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The powers of Hades here referred to are the principalities and powers frequently mentioned in the New Testament, and with which, according to Paul, we wage our warfare (Eph.6:12). They are real powers, as real as any now existing on earth; but because invisible to us they are called “powers of Hades,” unseen or invisible powers. The thought here is warfare between Christ’s disciples and the powers of the unseen world. The spiritual hosts of wickedness in the high places would be unable to overthrow this congregation, which, like Peter, is the recipient of the Father’s revelation of the Son.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus presents many exegetical difficulties. I have read a good deal on that Scripture by writers of every shade of thought, but, thus far, have not found any cogent interpretations. I am waiting for light. But while unable to interpret this Scripture myself, I can clearly see the glaring contradictions of current interpretations. Augustine and other teachers of the early church, take the dispensational view, the Rich Man is the Jew; the poor beggar at his gate is the Gentile. But does this view harmonize with the facts? Abraham said to the Rich Man “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed.” This was unquestionably true once of the respective position of Jew and Gentile. But the Ephesian letter teaches that Christ has broken down the middle wall of partition, and has reconciled Jews and Gentiles in one body unto God through the cross. The impassable gulf which formerly intervened between Israel and the other nations has been bridged by the cross. The distinctive truth of the present dispensation is that Israel has no preeminence over the other nations; but Jew and Gentile share equally the celestial honors belonging to the body of Christ. It is for this reason that the Augustinian view falls wholly beside the mark.

The more general interpretation is involved in more flagrant contradictions. The Rich Man and Lazarus is the keystone passage on endless suffering with orthodox writers. The “great gulf fixed” is supposed to teach that the punishment of the wicked is both unending and irrevocable. A few considerations show convincingly that this treatment is as fallacious as it is unwarranted. Peter affirms that in saying “Thou wilt not leave my soul in Hades,” David spake of the resurrection of Christ that “He was not left in Hades.” Thus we learn that resurrection is the exit from Hades, as death is the entrance to it. And Rev.20:13,14 reveals the added fact that Hades must give up its dead ere the judgment of the Great White Throne takes place. Consequently the righteous dead of Israel will be liberated from Hades by the first resurrection at the return of Christ, and the wicked dead are released from it a thousand years later to appear at the judgment. Our Lord is speaking only of the state which follows after death. Neither Lazarus nor Dives has reached his last state, his final condition, or can reach it until the dawn of the resurrection day.

Nor will a true exegesis fail to take into account the moral effects of the “torment” on Dive’s character. For obviously the beautiful flower of repentance has begun to unfold itself, and has even now attained a remarkable degree of development. He whose thoughts had been exclusively preoccupied with gorgeous apparel and sumptuous fare now evinces solicitude that his five brethren should be diverted from pursuing the path of luxury and idleness, which he had followed himself, and should be renewed in the spirit of their mind. Surely, a torment producing such salutary effects cannot be enduring.

Acts 2:27,31 has already been referred to. It was foreseeing the resurrection of Christ that the Psalmist wrote “Thou wilt not leave my soul in Hades.” That the word “hell” is grotesquely inaccurate is evident. Just men do not go to “hell,” but at death they enter Hades; and while God suffers just men to remain there, Christ was not suffered to remain there. His soul was not left in Hades, as ours are, any more than His flesh saw corruption, as ours does.

There are four places in the Apocalypse where the word Hades occurs. They are as follows: Rev.1:18, “I have the keys of death and Hades;” Rev.6:8, “His name was Death, and Hades followed him;” Rev.20:13, “Death and Hades delivered up the dead that were in them;” and Rev.20:14, “Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire.” In none of these is there the remotest reference to torture or the final state. Indeed one is puzzled to know what those who hold the “orthodox” view can make of the last of these texts, if they retain the word “hell;” for surely the lake of fire comes nearest to the idea of hell; and if Hades also be hell, their hell is to be cast into hell!

I have now cited every passage in which the word Hades occurs; and it is clear that in none of these cases does it answer to the theological conception of “hell.” For whereas our word “hell” is now applied to the place and state of endless torture, there is not a single instance in which the word “Hades” is used in that sense. It simply denotes that unseen region in which the good and the bad alike await the resurrection morning.

3. It remains to examine the word Gehenna, which both our versions render by “hell.”

As I have already stated, it is useless to go outside the Bible in search for light on Scripture terms. The meaning of Gehenna must be established from facts furnished by the Bible itself. Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, or “Valley of Hinnom.” This valley, situated to the southwest of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:8; 18:16; Neh.11:30), in the days of the Kings became a center of idolatrous worship, where altars were erected to various deities, and children were burned on the horrid fires of Molech (2 Chron.28:3; 33:6).

Valley of Hinnom ('Hell')
Valley of Hinnom (‘Hell’)

The Lord foretold by Jeremiah that for these crimes the valley of Hinnom would be called the Valley of Slaughter, because in days to come the carcasses of the idolatrous Jews will there lie exposed to the wild beasts and birds of prey (Jer.7:31-33). This threat was carried into effect by King Josiah, who “defiled” the Valley of Hinnom and made it forever unclean (2 Kings 23:10). To the readers of the Old Testament Gehenna can only mean a verdict which, besides condemning a man to death, also ordains that, after death, his body should be cast into the loathsome Valley of Hinnom. This being the sense of Gehenna in the Old Testament Scriptures, we may be sure that this is the sense in which Christ used it.

Before examining the occurrences of Gehenna in the New Testament, we must bear in mind that, in the era of Israel’s restoration, there will exist in the contiguity of Jerusalem a place similar to the Valley of Hinnom. In the last chapter of Isaiah we read that the bodies of those criminals who at the time of the Lord’s return are to be slain with fire and sword will be thrown into a cesspool adjoining the city. There their carcasses will remain unburied: worms will prey on their corrupting flesh; and fires will always be at work to purify the air from pestilential infection. The representatives of the nations, who will come to Jerusalem at stated seasons of worship, will go forth and look on the caresses of the men that have transgressed against Jehovah (Isa.66:24).

The first three occurrences of Gehenna are in the Sermon on the Mount. Now, whatever principles of perpetual application may be found in it, it is evident that the Sermon as a whole embodies the code of laws which will be in force when the Kingdom is set up. The best proof of this is the fact that those who take it as a standard for believers now, do not practice its precepts; not because of insincerity, surely, but because they are impracticable at present. The Millennial Kingdom, as the last eight chapters of Ezekiel testify, will be a reign of law. The Sermon on the Mount is but an explanation and amplification of the law. The word Gehenna is used by Christ in vss.22,29,30, in commenting on the laws relating to murder and adultery. The old law is expanded so as to condemn the angry passions and unchaste thoughts in which murder and adultery take their rise. The disciples are warned to nip those passions in the bud, otherwise they run the danger of committing the acts which the kingdom code punishes with Gehenna. Matt.18:9 and Mark 9:43,45,47, contain teaching to the same effect.

Matthew 10:28, which is repeated in Luke 12:5, represents our Lord as saying, “Fear him which is able to destroy both life and body in Gehenna.” The context shows that these words were spoken to the multitudes and the disciples in warning them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Later on, in Matt.23:15, a woe is pronounced against the Scribes and Pharisees because they compassed sea and land to make one proselyte, whom they made “twofold more a son of Gehenna than themselves.” “A son of Gehenna” means what “son of Belial” means in the Old Testament, namely, a worthless person, a wicked and abandoned man, “a child of the devil.” Our Lord meant that the Pharisees corrupted the proselytes they were so zealous to make; corrupted them by making them hypocrites like themselves. Hence in v.83 of the same chapter He demands of them, “How shall ye escape the judgment of Gehenna?” Taking all these passages together, we see that hypocrites and rebels will, at the return of the Messiah, be executed and their bodies cast into the Gehenna, the unclean valley outside Jerusalem.

The last passage is James 3:8, “The tongue…setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by Gehenna.” There the language is figurative, and the meaning is that the invective of an unruly tongue is like the noxious flames which will burn night and day in the loathsome valley outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Every passage in which the word Gehenna occurs is now before us. We have found that it means the verdict of death pronounced against idolaters, apostates, and traitors and the casting of their bodies into the unclean valley, to become the prey of the worm or of the fire. Therefore, the word “hell,” in the sense in which it is now used, is a monstrous perversion of the idea conveyed by the original term.

We have seen that neither the Lord Jesus Christ nor the inspired writers of the New Testament had any word bearing the faintest resemblance to the theological sense of “hell.” The words employed are Tartarus, which is a subterranean prison where the angels that sinned are confined until the day of judgment; Hades, which stands for the region which all men enter at death and leave at resurrection; and Gehenna, which stands for the penalty of death with denial of burial, which will be inflicted on the King’s enemies at the return of Christ.

We are bound, therefore, to expunge the word “hell” from the pages of the New Testament. It should never have been allowed to defile them. There is not the least excuse for retaining it once we have learned that the Greek words it is employed to represent never mean more than imprisonment, a temporary state which reaches at the farthest only to the day of judgment, or a death sentence followed by the casting of the body to the place where the city offal is thrown. The barbarous and heathen dogma of endless torment is refuted by the very passages on which orthodoxy depends for its support.

by Vladimir Gelesnoff

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