We have now looked at how almost every instance of what we tend to presume is a reference to “hell” in the New Testament is really referring to something else. Gehenna refers to the city dump which was used as a warning of national destruction (where the ruins of the city and people will be cast into the dump). Hades refers to the Hebrew concept Sheol, a place where the dead wait in a sleep state until the resurrection. Christ also has the keys of Hades and the Church will invade it, and even in the end Hades itself must give up all of its dead occupants. Tartarus is a special place of darkness that holds the rebellious angels until the day of judgment.
Then there is the Outer Darkness; which is a warning of losing God’s privilege of special revelation. The Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth refers to the mourning over losing one’s calling to carry God’s special revelation. And the Furnace of Fire seems to be a farming term for fruitless crops (referring to His people not bearing fruit – the fruit of the Spirit which is His Character). These last three are very peculiar b/c they are directed at God’s chosen people rather than those outside of the kingdom.
That being seen, I can now continue the assertion that the New Testament, like the Old, is remarkably silent on the topic of Hell. To start, the Son of God arrives on the scene after 400 years of silence since the last prophet in the Old Testament. Jesus (not surprisingly) continues the Old Testament’s trend of silence on the subject! You would think that this fact (God finally speaking to us directly), would be a perfect opportunity to warn us of the unspeakable terror of hell! But He doesn’t.
Then follows the book of Acts; the main purpose of which is to show the transition of the Kingdom of God from the unbelieving Jewish nation to the heathen nations of the Gentiles. One would think that with all the heinous and wicked behavior found amongst the heathens that Acts would be full of warnings about hell in order to really convince people to turn from their wicked ways and be saved from the practical certainty of going there. But there simply is no mention of it! In the entire book of Acts there is only 1 mention of Hades and that reference is made by Peter quoting an Old Testament Psalm which speaks of the resurrection of Jesus saying,
“[David] looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay.” (Acts 2:27-31).
In other words, God wasn’t going to let Jesus’ body rot in the grave, and so His soul wouldn’t be asleep in Sheol/Hades waiting for the general resurrection from the dead. There is no hint that it will be the final destination of the wicked.
The rest of Acts is silent on hell. There is however one odd instance in Acts 24:15 where Paul makes a reference to a resurrection of the wicked; the context and his wording is somewhat strange, for in defending his faith he declares that he has,
“a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.”
The reason it is strange is b/c this resurrection of the wicked is part of his “hope in God!” Unless Paul is extremely cruel and his heart is full of lust for vengeance to see the wicked tormented in unspeakable horror for their crimes (and I personally do not see a tendency for vengeance in any of Paul’s writings or experiences), then he must be referring to something good in store for the wicked! B/c whatever it is, it is hopeful! The context certainly implies it.
Next we come to the Epistles, and (surprise!) once again there is no mention of hell. Paul does reference Hades 1 time, in a kind of round about way, in 1 Corinthians 15:55 – and yet that one instance is to declare that Hades and death will be overcome! When I say that Paul doesn’t reference Hades directly it is b/c he is quoting a verse in the Old Testament book of Hosea where it says, “O death where is your victory? O Sheol where is your sting?” And the Greek word Hades is synonymous with Sheol (as we have seen previously), however Paul simply uses the word “death” twice, “O death where is your victory? O death where is your sting?” After that, Paul doesn’t reference hell again (and he wrote 2/3ds of the New Testament).
Peter is the next one in line and he has one reference to “hell,” however he uses the word Tartarus, which was a special place for fallen angels as we also saw previously.
James comes after Peter and he uses the word Gehenna one time, which we also have already looked at. He uses the city dump to describe the source of filth/pollution found within our hearts and which seems to flow so predictably out of our mouths! Its use there is more metaphorical than literal.
John’s epistles come after James and he has no reference to hell. Jude follows John and remains likewise silent.
And lastly we have the Book of Revelation with its reference to the Lake of Fire, and out of all of Scripture, this is the ONE PLACE where Hell is truly referenced. And that will be part of what we will look at it in depth in the next series.
If hell was truly a place of unending torment for not only the wicked, but those who, though never having done much wrong in this life, were unregenerate b/c they never believed in Christ, then we would think that God would have been prolific in warning us about it. But what we find is the exact opposite – complete silence!
To be fair, with all we have seen, there are 4 instances that can “possibly” be interpreted as a reference to hell, though not without complications. The first being the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus which remains somewhat ambiguous in its interpretation, but even if it were truly a warning about suffering in Hades…it isn’t forever, b/c even Hades will give up its dead.
The second is the instance where we are warned to fear God who can destroy/kill the body and soul in Gehenna, however we saw that “destruction” is the prerequisite for salvation (which we shall see very clearly in the next series). Not only that but it’s a warning about the soul being destroyed and killed, not a warning of being in a place of unending living torment. On top of the fact that the threat of Gehenna was a local, physical and national judgment.
Thirdly is the 2 Furnace of Fire references; for the imagery of fire certainly calls to mind the concept of hell and there is certainly room for a different interpretation than the one I present. However, b/c they reference fire, I believe that they are a reference to the Lake of Fire; which we will look at in the next series, along with various pictures of fire found in Scripture.
The Lake of Fire obviously being the fourth and last possible reference to hell.
Most cults have more than 4 verses to support their heresies, so we ought to be begin to tread carefully in what we proclaim as truth. Even with those 4 exceptions, I think it ought to be astonishing that the entire rest of the Bible is silent about hell. Such a fact ought to give us reservation in believing and teaching a doctrine of endless hell.
But understanding all of this still leaves a gigantic question hanging in the air – what will become of the wicked? Or, similarly – how will God bring about justice in light of so much evil?
Well I can assure you that the Bible does speak of justice being done, of judgment upon the wicked, of wrath poured out on all those who wrought evil upon their neighbor. There will be recompense to all those who committed heinous sins and wickedness in the earth. Their punishment will be equal to the gravity of their sins. Though the wicked are comfortable in this life and seem to get away with all their atrocities Scott free, they will not be so lucky in the next life. The Bible is clear about that, and that will be the subject of the next series.
We had to tear down the false concepts of hell in order to build up a correct understanding of righteous judgment. Justice according to God’s law. And so in the next series we will look at what the Bible teaches concerning Destruction, Judgment, Death, Wrath, Fire, Discipline and the Cross. It will be heavy for sure, certainly not something to read for enjoyment. But it will be true, and it will set you free.
For it applies to all, good and bad; as Jesus said, “everyone must be salted with fire.” (Mark 9:49) Nevertheless, “His wrath is but a moment, but His mercy endures forever,” (Psalm 30:5) for “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) And in the end, it will be for our good, and even though “no discipline is enjoyable for the moment…yet afterwards, it yields a harvest of righteousness.” (Hebrews 12:11)
But before we go there, I want to give a short history of how the concept of endless hell became part of Church doctrine. That will be the subject of the next blog.