Hell (Human Damnation) — Questions and Answers
Hell or human damnation isn’t a cheery subject; it’s a dreadful reality in Christian thought. Unfortunately, false teachings abound on the topic, typically due to blind adherence to flawed religious tradition or superficiality and bias in biblical studies. So what does the Bible really teach about human damnation? You might be surprised.
What is Hell?
The English word “hell” is not found in the Greek or Hebrew Scriptures, but the term is often used in English translations to interpret three different biblical words that refer to different things: gehenna, hades (or sheol in Hebrew) and tartaroo. Let’s look at each:
1. Gehenna (geh-HEN-nah) literally means “Valley of Hinnom” (HIN-im). This valley was a ravine located outside the walls of SW Jerusalem that had an infamous past of idol worship and child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3, 21:6 & 23:10). At the time of Christ Gehenna was used as a trash dump and incinerator for the city.
Jesus used Gehenna as an example of the lake of fire because it was something all his hearers readily understood; observe:
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).”
Trash was discarded in Gehenna for the purpose of disposal and eradication, as was the corpses of animals and despised criminals. Just the same, on judgment day those people who choose sin over reconciliation and eternal life through Christ will be discarded and destroyed in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).
2. Hades (HAY-deez) or Sheol (Sheh-OHL) in the Hebrew are two other biblical words often translated as “hell” in English Bibles but, unlike Gehenna, Hades or Sheol do not refer to the lake of fire. They refer to the intermediate state of the unredeemed between physical death and resurrection. We’ll address this topic later.
3. The final biblical word translated as “hell” is tartaroo (tar-tar-OH), which only appears once in the Bible (2 Peter 2:4) and refers to the nether region where exceptionally wicked demons are held captive. It has nothing to do with human damnation.
Which One of these Words Refers to the True Hell?
Gehenna, because the Valley of Hinnom was an illustration of the lake of fire, which is where the unrepentant wicked will be cast:
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. (14) Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. (15) Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Since only Gehenna—the lake of fire—refers to the true hell (that is, the damnation of the unredeemed) it’s not a good practice to translate Hades (Sheol) and tartaroo as “hell” since they don’t refer to the lake of fire. Doing so just confuses the issue and this explains why some modern English translations do not translate these terms as “hell,” like the NASB and NRSV.
Why must People be Damned?
Because God is just and therefore must punish transgression against divine law, i.e. sin. But the good news is that no person has to be damned to the lake of fire to suffer the “second death.” That’s what the gospel of Christ is all about—redeeming people from eternal damnation and reconciling them to their Creator; and, furthermore, granting them eternal life!
Notice what the most popular passage of the Bible says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
What is the Penalty for Sin?
Death. As the Bible plainly declares: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Could it be stated any plainer? The wages for sin is shown to be death; and eternal life is a gift from God, not something people already have.
Doesn’t Damnation consist of Eternal Torture?
Not for human beings. Jesus clearly said that the lake of fire was originally prepared for the rebellious angels (Matthew 25:41,46). However, the lake of fire is defined for human beings as the “second death” (Revelation 20:13-14). This is where God will “destroy both soul and body,” as Jesus Christ declared (Matthew 10:28). Paul described it as “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9)—destruction that lasts forever. The lake of fire is the LORD’s chosen instrument to execute the second death.
Jesus and others in the Bible backed up this notion of literal everlasting destruction with numerous easy-to-understand examples. For instance, the Messiah said “Just as the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire so it will be at the end of this age” (Matthew 13:40). Jesus was talking about human damnation here—the “second death”—and he likened people to weeds that will be pulled up and discarded in fire. What happens to literal weeds when they’re thrown into fire? Why, they burn for a little bit and then BURN UP. Jesus said “Just as” this happens with literal weeds “so it will be” with unredeemed people at the end of this age. Was the Lord giving an inappropriate illustration or did he mean what he said? The answer is obvious.
There are many other unmistakable examples of everlasting destruction in the Bible, like Luke 19:11-27.
But Didn’t Jesus Say the Wicked would Suffer Eternal Punishment?
Yes, but there’s a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing. The ultimate wage of sin is death—death that last forever; in other words, everlasting destruction. This eternal punishment takes place on the day of judgment when those who choose sin over reconciliation and eternal life will be cast into the lake of fire.
The Bible uses the word “eternal” to describe the results of an act even when it is clear that the act itself is not of endless duration. For instance, Hebrews 9:12 speaks of the “eternal redemption” that Christ obtained for us; yet no one absurdly supposes that this redemption will be an endless process that goes on through all eternity “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14). Also, Hebrews 6:2 speaks of “eternal judgment,” yet no one ludicrously claims that the work of judging goes on forever and ever without end. In the same way, the act of punishment need not go on endlessly for the punishment to be eternal. Like eternal redemption and eternal judgment, eternal punishment is eternal in the sense that its results are eternal.
How Can Human Beings be Destroyed if They have Immortal Souls?
Because the Bible plainly declares that immortality and eternal life are only available through the gospel of Christ (2 Timothy 1:10). Immortality is something we’re called to seek and not something we intrinsically possess apart from Christ, as shown in Romans 2:7. Furthermore, nowhere does the Bible state that the human soul, once created, is immortal and can never die. The Hebrew word for “soul,” Nephesh, appears over 750 times in the Old Testament and the Greek word for “soul,” psuche, appears over 100 times in the New Testament. These over 850 references should tell us all we need to know about the soul, yet none say anything about it being immortal by nature. If the immortal soul doctrine is true, why did God inspire hundreds of references to the soul without mentioning anything about it being inherently immortal?
On the contrary, God plainly informed Adam, who was a “living soul,” that he would “surely die” if he sinned (Genesis 2:7,17). He also pointed out in Ezekiel 18:4,20 that “the soul (nephesh) who sins… will die.”And, as we’ve already observed, Jesus plainly declared that God would “destroy both soul (psuche) and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). A usual knee-jerk, but hollow, response is to argue that these Scriptures “are taken out of context.” I would like to use this same argument and point out that biblical references to the immortal soul are taken out of context, but I can’t because no such passages exist.
Where Did the Idea of an “Immortal Soul” apart from Christ Originate?
From the devil, the “father of lies,” as Jesus called him (John 8:44). Remember what God said to Adam and Eve would be the consequence of disobedience? He warned them that they would “surely die” (Genesis 2:17). You see, the LORD made it perfectly clear way back in the beginning that going the wrong way—the way of selfishness and rebellion—would lead to death. This is in harmony with the biblical fact that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Yet when “the father of lies” tempted Eve to sin in Genesis 3:4, he contradicted what God said by saying that she would “not surely die” if she sinned. This is the very first lie recorded in the Bible. The devil was saying in essence, “What God said is a lie, you will not surely die—you have an immortal soul.” Unfortunately people have been believing this lie about the so-called immortal soul ever since; this false doctrine infiltrated Christianity early on and has gone on to become the “orthodox” view even though the Bible does not teach it, thus proving the power of religious tradition and sectarian allegiance. This long-lasting mass deception explains why I refer to the doctrine of the immortal soul as The Great Lie.
After the unfortunate fall of Adam and Eve, notice what the LORD said to Himself:
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
God would not have said this if Adam already possessed an immortal soul (i.e. unconditional immortality). Secondly, this statement makes it clear that human beings can obtain unconditional immortality if they eat of the tree of life. The obvious reason God did not want Adam to eat of the tree of life is because he was unredeemed. If Adam ate of the tree of life in his unredeemed condition he would have attained unconditional immortality and thus would have condemned himself and his descendants to live forever in a fallen, ungodly state (like the devil and his angels). The LORD is just, righteous and merciful and didn’t want such a horrible tragedy to befall humanity so he immediately banished Adam & Eve from the garden and was sure to guard the way to the tree of life (verses 23-24).
The LORD would have to redeem humankind before allowing us to eat “from the tree of life and live forever.” That’s what the gospel of Christ is all about. And this explains Jesus’ statement in Revelation 2:7: “To him who overcomes I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Notice clearly that only those who are born of God and overcome the world by faith (1 John 5:4) have the right to eat of the tree of life and live forever. That’s because eternal life and immortality are only available through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10).
So People will be Destroyed in the Lake of Fire, not tortured for eternity?
Yes, this is explicitly stated throughout the Bible. Notice for yourself:
“Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
The one who sows to please the sinful nature from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the spirit, from the spirit will reap eternal life.
As you can see, the two possible destinies for people are life or death, not eternal life in heavenly bliss and eternal life in roasting torment. Life and death are the two polar opposites.
I’ve Heard it said that People Choose Hell; is this True?
No, people choose sin over reconciliation with God; and the wages of sin is death. The LORD will execute this death sentence in the lake of fire, which is why it’s called the “second death.”
Are You Saying that God Condemns People to Hell where they will be Destroyed Forever?
Yes, remember Jesus plainly said to fear God “who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). You see, the LORD is going to do one of two things with people based on their decisions: He’s going to save those who turn to him in repentance and faith and bless them with eternal life (Acts 20:21) or he’s going to condemn them to the lake of fire where they’ll suffer “everlasting destruction.” James put it like this: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, the One [God] who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12).
Many believers don’t realize this but we are actually saved from God’s wrath—yes, we are saved from God Himself. Notice how John the Baptist put it:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them”
Observe two important things about this passage: (1.) Those who reject Christ “will not see life”—meaning they won’t see any kind of life at all, including a horrible life roasting in fiery torment forever and ever (sounds absurd, doesn’t it?); and (2.) The reason people who reject Christ “will not see life” is due to God’s wrath! This is why the Bible says that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). This point is made in the context of this sober statement:
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”
Notice what will happen to the “enemies of God”: Raging fire will consume them, not torture them for all eternity. The Greek word translated as ‘consume’ here literally means “to devour.”
Is this immoral on the LORD’s part? No, he’s the author and giver of life (Psalm 36:9); none of us would even exist apart from him. As noted above, he’s the Lawgiver and Judge of the universe (James 4:12) and reigns supreme over all creation. He therefore has the right to take life away; and only does so if he must.
But I thought God was Akin to a Cosmic Teddy Bear
Many people in the modern world have this impression of the LORD—that he’s so loving, kind and gentle that he will not punish sin—but this is a lopsided view of the Creator and therefore inaccurate. Other people go to the opposite extreme and view the Almighty as some merciless cop in the sky who can’t wait to utterly smash sinners and, worse, condemn them to never-ending fiery torment with no possible respite. Passages like John 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:9 offer a more balanced view of God, as does Ezekiel 18:32, which reveals well the heart of God: “ ‘For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,’ declares the Sovereign LORD, ‘Repent and live!’
What about Jesus’ statement: “ ‘Hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ ”
‘Hell’ in this passage (Mark 9:48) is the Greek word Gehenna, which—again—literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom, the perpetually smoking trash dump of Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Jesus used this incinerator as a figure for the lake of fire and the final punishment of the wicked. Jesus said, “Their worm does not die,” which the revised NIV puts like this: “ ‘the worms that eat them do not die.’ ” You’ll notice that verse 48 is in quotation marks. That’s because Jesus is quoting the very last passage of the book of Isaiah. Let’s look at this verse as it will help us to properly interpret Jesus’ words:
“They [the righteous] shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against me. For their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.”
Isaiah 66:24 (NASB)
The “corpses” refer to the people who have transgressed against the LORD and will be thrown into the lake of fire. Please notice that they are no longer alive. They are dead. They have been destroyed. They are loathsome, ashen, worm-chewed corpses. They will be “an abhorrence to all mankind” just as an ashen, worm-chewed corpse of a despised criminal would be abhorrent to you or me.
The fact that these transgressors are, in fact, lifeless corpses is backed up by verse 16 of the same chapter of Isaiah, which says that they will be “slain by the LORD;” and verse 17, which says that “they will meet their end.” The second death is when the ungodly will meet their end, not when they’ll meet the beginning of life in never-ending roasting agony.
The Hebrew for “worm” in this verse refers to maggots (Strong 123) and the bodies affected by these maggots are dead, which is fitting since maggots exclusively devour dead flesh, not living creatures. And, it should be added, maggots don’t die, they turn into flies. Being that Gehenna was a garbage dump maggots bred freely and preyed upon the filth. When corpses of animals or executed criminals were thrown in they would be destroyed by maggots or by the fires that were kept constantly burning there, or a combination of both.
Understanding the unmistakable context of Jesus’ quote from Isaiah, as well as the historical facts concerning Gehenna, help us to properly interpret Jesus’ words in Mark 9:48.
As for the phrase “the fire is not quenched,” there are multiple references to unquenchable fire in the Scriptures and none of these passages refer to eternal torment, but rather to fire that cannot be extinguished or resisted and consumes until nothing is left. Jeremiah 7:20 and 21:12,14 are two examples. These and the other passages that mention unquenchable fire prove that such phrases simply refer to the irrevocability of God’s judgment and wrath—for when the LORD’s judgment is pronounced and the fire is set to destroy, he will allow nothing to quench it until the consumption is complete (see, for example, Isaiah 34:9-11, Ezekiel 20:47-48, Amos 5:6, Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17).
Misguided preachers who advocate eternal roasting have had a field day with Mark 9:48, conjuring up all kinds of bizarre interpretations, including how immortal worms will forever chew on the undying souls of the damned in the lake of fire. They do this by not rightly-dividing the Word of God—ignoring the facts about Gehenna and the context of Jesus’ quote from Isaiah. They’re obviously biased on the subject and, sadly, superficial in their studies.
In response to this, I have a much less ambiguous “worm verse” that I’d like to share, which is also from the book of Isaiah:
“For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”
Just as moths eat or destroy garments, so the ungodly will be destroyed in the lake of fire. Like Mark 9:48, this is undoubtedly a figurative example of everlasting destruction. It is meant to be taken seriously, but not necessarily literally. I doubt, after all, that there will be literal moths or worms in the lake of fire devouring those thrown in. We’ve already deduced from Scripture that, literally, the ungodly will be consumed by raging fire—both soul and body—when cast into the lake of fire. This will result in the blackest darkness of all—absolute obliteration and extinction of being.
Notice how the everlasting destruction of the ungodly is contrasted with the LORD’s righteousness and salvation which will last forever. Those who accept God’s gracious gift of salvation—eternal life—will experience this salvation forever. Those who reject it have no “forever” to look forward to; they will be destroyed like garments devoured by moths or worms. Verses 3, 6-8 & 11 also confirm that this is indeed an eschatological passage and therefore relevant to the eternal fate of ungodly people. Why is it that proponents of eternal torture fail to ever mention this “worm verse”? I’ll tell you why—it contradicts the religious position they so dearly embrace.
What about the Rich Man and Lazarus?
This question refers to Luke 16:19-31 where Jesus tells the story of a rich man and poor beggar named Lazarus who die and go to “hell” (verse 23). Regardless of whether you take this tale literally or figuratively, it’s not applicable to the eternal fate of the unrepentant because the word translated as ‘hell’ in the story is the Greek word Hades, which refers to the intermediate state of the unredeemed between death and resurrection. It does not refer to the lake of fire and therefore isn’t relevant to the topic of eternal punishment. Furthermore, Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus is obviously a parable since it uses symbolic language (like “Abraham’s bosom,” which literally refers to Abraham’s chest cavity) and, furthermore, it comes in a long line of parables: The whole first half of Luke 16 is a parable that starts with the same exact words as Jesus’ tale of the rich man and Lazarus; and Luke 15 consists of three other parables. It simply makes no sense that Jesus would suddenly switch to giving a supposedly historical account that contains obvious symbolism and contradicts what the Word of God has plainly established about the nature of Sheol up to that point. For more information on this parable go to this article.
Who Will be Condemned to Hell?
Salvation from the sentence of eternal death is both a matter of faith in response to the gospel (faith, by the way, is simply admitting the obvious), but also a matter of repentance (Acts 20:21). “Repent” was the first word of Jesus and John the Baptist’s first sermons (Matthew 3:2 & 4:17). It means to turn from what is evil by making a 180; it means to change for the positive. It’s a very positive thing and not negative in the least. True faith acknowledges the Creator and is willing to conform to God’s will. People who say they’re Christians and have faith, but are unwilling to give up something evil and continue practicing it are not walking in faith and repentance. This explains something that Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (10) nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (11) And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Notice that it’s not just those who refuse to repent of sexual immorality (including adultery and homosexuality) who won’t inherit the kingdom of God, its people who refuse to repent of greediness, drunkard-ness, and slander! (By the way, slander is saying something about someone that isn’t wholly true, which would include gossip that naturally devolves into slander and also putting a negative spin on a person; I’m shocked at how much gossip & slander I see in the church, including amongst fivefold ministers).
Two important points: (1.) Paul was talking to Christians and (2.) he was referring to those who practice these types of things with no intention of repenting; in other words, as a lifestyle. We are called to turn away from sin as a lifestyle, which is what repentance is. Of course, we all miss it, even those of us who are spiritually mature (particularly in the “smaller” areas, like envy, arrogance, gossip, etc.), which is what 1 John 1:8-9 is for: When we miss it we need to be quick to fess up and God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is “keeping in repentance” (Matthew & Luke 3:8). So always please be sure to keep in repentance! Don’t allow any sin to become a lifestyle. Be sure to throw off every weight that hinders you and every sin that entangles you (Hebrews 12:1). Amen.
I want to stress that no one has to be damned and suffer the punishment of eternal death. Yes, “the wages of sin is death,” but the good news is that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:23) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life“!
This leaves us with a slew of questions, such as: What about those who’ve never heard the gospel? What about those who heard a flawed, religionized version of the gospel? What about the devil and his angels? What about “the smoke of their torment rises forever”? If the Bible really teaches everlasting destruction, why has the church largely adhered to the eternal torture doctrine, at least since the time of Augustine?
Human damnation is a huge topic and it’s impossible to adequately cover every question and point on the subject in a relatively brief article like this, but we hope this will get you interested in the topic and start researching it in greater detail. Here’s a good place to start…
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Watch this 10-minute video on what the Bible says about human damnation.
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