Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Misconceptions about Hell

An atheist meme shows a picture of an old bearded man throwing his kids into a fire. The police burst into the house and pointing their guns at the man say, “You’re under arrest! Whoops. Is that you, God? Sorry ‘bout that. You can do anything you want.” ‘God’ replies, “My children refused to recognise my authority so I threw them on the fire.”

Or take this analogy – what would you think of a father that punished his kids to go to their rooms forever because they stole cookies from the cookie jar? I’m sure you would think that he is cruel and that the punishment is out of proportion to the crime.

Unfortunately, the average Christian view of God is pretty close to the above examples – although they try to deny it. Of course God is love and he doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, but the traditional view of hell taught by the church where God sends unbelievers to suffer forever and ever to be tormented in eternal fire is a big misconception based on wrong translations and wrong interpretations of the Bible. Even Hitler didn’t punish his enemies forever, but to say that God will punish unbelievers forever makes God seem worse than Hitler, and may has likely caused many to reject the traditional Christianity. (Churchianity?) Simply put, if God is love – how can he allow the suffering of people forever and ever without end? How could God or we enjoy eternity in heaven knowing that our loved ones were suffering forever in hell?  

There are two main views on hell – the traditional fundamentalist eternal torture chamber view (which comes from pagan ideas and Catholic tradition that have so pervasively influenced Christians thinking that even most Bible translations have minor but significant errors in their translations related to hell) – and the liberal view that has become more popular in recent times that says there is no literal hell or that everyone will get to Heaven in the end (universalism). (These views don’t have much support from the Bible and take verses on Hell as being symbolic).

However, there is also a lesser known third view that stays faithful to what the Bible says - annihilationism. Unfortunately, many Christians write off this view as heresy because they think it contradicts the Bible. However, this view has very strong biblical support when one properly understands and interprets all of the relevant scriptures on this topic based on the original Greek and Hebrew - a task that is not easy to do in the light of nearly 2000 years of misleading teaching on this topic by the church. The traditional view of hell has been the semi-official view of the church since around the 6th century. Despite this, annihilationism does have some support from early Christian theologians, even if it has always been a minority view.

So what about these Bible translation errors? Firstly, the word hell is not in the original Hebrew and Greek. The word ‘hell’ is in the KJV Bible 54 times, but in the NIV only 15 times. This massive reduction in the use of the word hell is related to properly translating the OT word 'sheol' as ‘the grave’. In the KJV NT hell is mentioned 10 times from the Greek word ’hades’ which also means ‘the grave’, 12 times from the Greek word ‘Gehenna’ which is a literal place outside Jerusalem that used to be the local rubbish dump (and is not referring to some kind of nebulous place of judgment for disembodied spirits), and 1 time from the Greek word ‘Tartarus’ referring to a place of darkness.

The second Bible translation problem has to do with the words ‘eternal’ and ‘forever’ in relation to hell. These words are a wrong translation of ‘aionios’ (the root is ‘aion’ where we get our English word aeon) which means ‘age’. For example, it is translated as ‘age’ (end of the age) in Matthew 28:20.  So basically ‘aion’ means a long time – how long? We don’t know. In Jonah 2:6 Jonah says he was in the fish ‘forever’ – but it was only 3 days. The only reason ‘hell’ is translated as being ‘forever’ is because of the arbitrary decisions of translators who have already decided that the traditional view of hell is correct despite the fact that in reality eternal hell fire is a pagan idea and not a biblical idea. Nearly all translators are doing this unwittingly because they have already decided that hell is eternal based on tradition rather than the word of God. The thing that makes it very complicated is that the word can mean forever (and does when used in relation to heaven). One of the only Bible translations that get it right on the topic of hell is Young’s Literal Translation. And the only verse that uses the aion word twice (aionas ton aionon / age of the ages) is in relation to Satan being cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10) - not every human being that has rejected God as is usually incorrectly thought.

Furthermore, even if you still hold on to the idea of eternal hell you still have to believe it is eternal in duration and not just eternal in consequences. And is it the punishing that is eternal, or the result of the punishment that is eternal?

The Bible teaches that the wicked will be burned to ashes and totally destroyed. (Malachi 4:1-3). And Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and this serves as an example of the destruction of the wicked in the future. (Jude 7). (Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t still burning). Psalm 37:20 says, “But the wicked will perish: Though the LORD's enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke.”

Many verses related to hell talk about this total destruction of the soul. For example in Matthew 10:28 Jesus said, “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.” (Here hell should be translated Gehenna). How can something be destroyed and live on? Destroyed means destroyed and death means death. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death…” (Not eternity in hell fire).

The Bible also talks about degrees of punishment for the wicked. Jesus said that sinners would be punished with ‘many blows’ and ‘few blows’. (Luke 12:47-48). Few means a finite number – once the few blows are over then that means the punishment must be over. If the traditional view were correct Jesus would have talked about ‘heavier’ and ‘lighter’ degrees of punishment. So a key question is - is it the punishing that is eternal, or is it the result of the punishment that's eternal? (i.e. the consequences of the final death sentence are eternal). 

One of the most common Bible passages that is used to argue for the traditional view of hell is the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. However, even if you want to take this passage literally it's not about hell as in the final judgment of the wicked - it's about Hades - the intermediate state before the judgment. It's a parable that says nothing about the duration of the punishment of the rich man. See here for more on this: Lazarus and the Rich Man - It's Not About Final Punishment.

This issue is vitally important because it impacts on ones view of God. God’s truth is out there for those who want to find it. But we live in a dark world where Satan’s lies have deceived even many of ‘the elect’ on this topic. Research it for yourself – and find out the truth. It’s not about what I think or what the majority of Christians think – it’s about what the Bible really teaches. God is not a sadistic being who will eternally torment unbelievers. God is love, and he desires a relationship with you. 

For further reading / research:

God or Absurdity Blog post: Is Annihilationism an Unbiblical Side Issue?.


  1. I see your point of view. I understand where you're getting it. I would definitely have to take some more time before I'm convinced of it. After reading it I'm not sure that you have a correct understanding of the doctrine of eternal condemnation. I base that off for your concluding statement which implies that people who believe in eternal condemnation believe that God tortures people for eternity. I can think of a scripture off the top of my head that probably supports anihilation, in the book of Revelation death hell and the grave are cast into the lake of fire. Assuming that that fire will consume them that would definitely constitute annihilation. Thanks for sharing

    1. Did you read my other blog post on hell? And as for verses in Revelation - we have to remember that it is a book full of symbolism and so we have to be careful not to take things literally that aren't meant to be taken literally. Which verse in particular were you referring to?

    2. At the website Rethinking Hell they go through all of the relevant scriptures that are used as proof texts against annihilationism, as well as looking at all of the verses that those who hold to the traditional view overlook. At the end of the day I've found that when all of the scriptures are looked at and carefully exegeted that the strongest biblical position is for annihilationism.