Sources for the Doctrine of Hell
There are three primary sources of information for the doctrine of hell and its corollary of eternal punishment:
- The Bible – both Old and New Testaments
- Tradition of the church fathers – starting with the post-apostolic age and the written accounts of the New Testament
- Church doctrine and tradition – built up over nearly two millennia of teaching and practice
The Case for Reconsidering Hell
There is a case to be made on biblical grounds to suggest that the concept of a literal, eternal hell be reconsidered and discarded in favor of a more authentic scriptural understanding of judgment, rewards, punishment, and even redemption after death.
Of the three information sources for a doctrine of hell, the case for reconsidering hell rests primarily on what scripture itself says. This is viewed as the primary authority, superceding other conclusions that might result from church tradition or doctrine – especially when separated from a clear, direct scriptural foundation. As Martin Luther proclaimed, "sola scriptura" (scripture only).
While church tradition and doctrine are to be considered, they should be viewed as clearly subordinate and supplemental to conclusions drawn first and foremost from the Bible itself.
The Bible & Hell
While commonly viewed as making the case for hell, in fact the Bible pushes in just the opposite direction. Seven primary reasons are advanced to suggest that neither the Old nor New Testaments supports the idea of an everlasting place of eternal torment for the damned (i.e. non-Christian) after death:
1) The English term “hell” misrepresents what the Bible in its earliest versions really says.
2) While the 1611 King James Version (KJV) makes liberal use of the term “hell”, biblical use of the term “hell” is on a downward trend with more recent translations.
3) As the last term for hell remaining with modern New Testament translations, Gehenna is better understood as an actual earthly place rather than as the symbol of a never ending place of personal torment for non-believers after death and judgment.
4) While condemnation and judgment are theological concepts widely shared throughout the New Testament, hell is not. More specifically, both John’s gospel and Paul’s epistles never once use the term “hell”.
5) A similar case can be made that other scripture references that imply the spiritual condemnation to a never ending hell also are incorrectly interpreted.
6) In place of hell without end, the Bible clearly recognizes accountability after death for the actions of this earthly life.
7) The Bible offers an alternative that is far superior to hell, the divinely appointed mission of Jesus Christ that none should be condemned “but that the world through Him might be saved.”
Consider just the first of these seven arguments ...
To begin with, it is noted that the English word “hell” is not even a Biblical term. It is a word that was first coined and given form in written expression well after the earthly days of Christ.
The word we know today as “hell” is much more recent, coming from an old English and Germanic term for the “netherworld of the dead.” Hell is derived from a Teutonic word Hel, the name of the goddess of the infernal regions. In the Norse as well, Hell is the name of the ruler of the underworld.
In its earliest usage, the Old English/Germanic/Norse hell is not necessarily a place of judgment, nor of damnation. Similar to the Greek “Hades,” the Saxon term hell was depicted as a place where both good and evil people (of all stripes) pass after death – a sort of post-life waiting room.
Hell & The King James. This is an appropriate point at which to introduce the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible – which establishes for English speaking peoples an unfortunate and distorted linkage between the Saxon Hell and different terms taken from earlier Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments and given the English equivalent of Hell.
Terms Translated as Hell. The 1611 King James Version (KJV) liberally translates four different Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms as meaning “Hell” – sheol, gehenna, hades and tartarus. The term “hell” is used a total of 54 times in the KJV, including 31 times in the Old Testament (OT) and 23 times in the New Testament (NT).
The 31 OT references of the KJV to “hell” are distributed through 10 books of the Old Testament, starting with Deuteronomy. In the KJV, Psalms and Proverbs each use “hell” seven times, followed by Isaiah (6 times), Ezekiel (4), and Job (2). Books to which “hell” is applied one time each are Deuteronomy, II Samuel, Amos, Jonah, and Habakkuk.
Of the 23 KJV references in the NT to “hell”, 15 are found in three of the gospel accounts (all except John), with 2 references in Acts, one each in James and II Peter and four in Revelation.
The KJV uses the word “hell” as an all-encompassing term for one Hebrew word found in the Old Testament and three distinct Aramaic and Greek terms found in early manuscripts of the New Testament:
- Sheol is a Hebrew term which has been interpreted to mean not only the underworld abode of the dead, but which also can be interpreted as a pit or grave. Sheol finds its application exclusively in the OT, with no direct NT references. While the OT contrasts Sheol with heaven, Sheol generally was understood to be a place that does not readily discriminate between OT saints and sinners. Rather, it is a place to which even those clearly chosen of God have or would descend. And it is a place from which the soul of the godly can be rescued.
- Gehenna is derived from a Hebrew phrase for the Valley of Hinnom (or Ge Hinnom), a ravine running west and south of the old city of Jerusalem – just beyond the western city wall. Gehenna served as the garbage dump for Jerusalem and was virtually always smoldering or on fire. During OT times, Gehenna was periodically used as a place of human sacrifice to the Ammonite god Molech, with pagan worship continuing up to the time of King Josiah. Gehenna is a place described by the OT and by Jesus of the NT as a place “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
- Hades is a Greek term for the place or abode to which all people go upon death, both the good and the wicked. This term is similar to the earlier Hebrew Sheol in that it represents a place experienced by a wide range of people – both God-fearing and otherwise. And it provides a meaning similar to that of the later teutonic word for the abode of the dead that found its way into the English lexicon as “hell”.
- Tartaros (or tartarus) is a term used far less frequently – in fact only once in the canonical Bible in the book of II Peter. The word Tartaros is a variation on the Greek (Tartaroo) which is translated as to cast down into hell. In Greek mythology, it is depicted as the deepest, gloomiest place of the Hades underworld.
In short, the words that have been appropriated by the KJV as implying a place of eternal torment are really Sheol and Hades (the after death abodes of both the righteous and wicked), Gehenna (an earthly, ever smoldering and rancid garbage dump) and Tartaros (the lowest level of Hades applied by Peter to the angels of Satan). With the possible exception of Tartaros (for demons), none of these terms are necessarily intended as places of torment, nor is the torment necessarily never ending.
As illustrated by just this first argument, the concept of a hell as a place of never ending torment for non-believers after death is supported by neither the Old nor New Testaments. Personal accountability for the actions of human life is clearly scriptural and represents a virtually insurmountable barrier to experiencing the kingdom of heaven – if not for the mercy of a loving and holy God.
Rather, the Bible and more specifically the New Testament offers an alternative that is far superior to hell. This alternative is provided via divinely appointed mission of Jesus Christ on behalf of God the Father that none should be condemned and punished for all time but rather that “the world through him might be saved.” The effectiveness of the earthly Church of God on earth as bearers of the truth depends on this long overdue return to scriptural authenticity.
This is just the first argument of seven. Want further elaboration of the remaining six?
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