The word hell conjures up many images in our minds. Most imagine a place of flames and eternal torment, but is this place ever mentioned in God’s word? On the surface the answer appears to be an obvious yes, as Jesus himself speaks of hell (in most English translations); giving us the impression that it was something he actually taught or said. However, with a closer look, we will find something remarkably different.
Did Jesus Teach Hell?
Jesus is never recorded in any Greek New Testament manuscript using a word that denotes hell; in fact, there's not a single Greek word in any New Testament manuscript that denotes hell. We only see this word in our English translations of the bible.
The word Jesus used that is most often translated as hell is the Greek word Gehenna. Gehenna is a narrow rocky valley located below the southern wall of ancient Jerusalem. Gehenna is still located in Jerusalem.
In Hebrew the word Gehenna is “Gai Ben-Hinnom” literally “the valley of the sons of Hinnom” or “the valley of Hinnom”. Gehenna was more or less the town’s garbage dump. The dead bodies of criminals and animals were often burned there, along with trash and other debris.
Gehenna is mentioned in the Old Testament on numerous occassions, but in none of those occurrences is it ever translated as hell. Our translators seem to understand that Gehenna is literal place in the Old Testament, but quickly forget as they move to the book of Matthew.
Most translation teams assume that Jesus was referring to hell symbolically when he spoke of Gehenna, which is why they stray from what he actually said. Jesus’ use of Gehenna may indeed be symbolic, but to exchange this literal place in Jerusalem with a place of eternal torment demonstrates very poor judgment on behalf of our translation teams. In the book of Matthew alone, Jesus mentions Gehenna seven times, with the average reader seeing hell every time.
So why does Jesus warn us of Gehenna? The answer is simple; Jesus and his followers were very familiar with the Old Testament and the fate prescribed to the wicked, which was nearly identical to the people or things burned in Gehenna.
The Old Testament (approximately 75% of the bible) never mentions hell, but it does paint a very clear picture of the wicked’s fate.
According to the Old Testament the wicked will be faced with a fire or something comparable to a fire, but it doesn't burn them forever, it simply destroys them. We see an example of this in Malachi.
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty.” Malachi 4: 1-3
The fire here in Malachi leaves the wicked without “a root or a branch”. When all is said and done, the wicked are left as ashes. Theses events are in perfect alignment with Psalm 110:1, where the enemies of Christ are said to be made a footstool to his feet.
In Psalm 1:5 we are told that the wicked do not survive the judgment.
“Therefore the wicked will not survive the judgment, and the sinners will not be in the community of the righteous.” Psalm 1:5
Unlike the righteous, the wicked do not survive the judgment. Something that is hard for many Christians to imagine, because we’re typically taught that all people both good and bad have eternal life, or more specifically, an “eternal soul”. However, the phrase “eternal soul” never appears in scripture. Biblically speaking, the soul can die.
The word soul comes from the Hebrew word “nephesh” and the Greek word “psuché” which both mean “breath of life”, even animals are said to have souls (Gen. 1:20). The meaning of nephesh is made clear in Psalm 22:29…
“All those who go down to the dust will bow before Him, even he who cannot keep his soul alive.” Psalm 22:29
No one has the power to preserve their life (soul); only God can do this, by giving us eternal life. Jesus knew that we were in danger of losing our lives (souls), and he made sure to warn us of this.
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 (Gehennah). Matthew 10:28
Jesus tells us that both body and soul can be destroyed by a fire comparable to Gehennah. Not knowing the original language and context of verses like this make it difficult for us to understand the true message of Jesus and the rest of God’s word. Jesus wasn’t warning us about hell, he was telling us that we could be destroyed by the fire that will one day destroy the wicked.
In the beginning, man was made by God from the dust of the earth to live forever, but as we know; mankind messed up, making death inevitable. God told Adam that the day he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that he would “certainly die” (Genesis 2:17).
The disobedience of Adam brought death upon us all, but we were given a second chance at eternal life through Jesus Christ.
“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:22
We see perhaps one the most well known, yet highly overlooked examples of this in John 3:16.
“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
God loved us so much that he didn’t want us to perish. We should know this great love, and realize that God’s ultimate goal in sending His son was to give us a chance to spend eternity with him. God doesn’t hold hell under our feet, but he does warn us of what could be.
“I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:3
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23
There are many other ways, other than mistranslating Gehenna, that have been used to promote hell. Multiple words have been translated as hell at one time or another and we should be aware of every area of God’s word that has been under attack.
Many of us have held the doctrine of hell close to our hearts and accepted it as part of God’s plan, but we must be aware of the truth, and realize what this doctrine is, and how it has negatively impacted the image of the one true God. God’s word in its original form taught us that we could die, and that God didn’t want this for us. In fact, God doesn’t even want the wicked to die, “but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). If we teach the lost that God wants them to burn forever in their present state of being, yet He also loves them; how can we justify ourselves in this? We must make every effort to tell the world that God loves them, and that he sent his only begotten son to give each and every one of them a chance to escape death and have everlasting life.
We must first understand that death is God’s enemy. According to God’s word “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The simple fact that death is referred to as an enemy should help us understand where and who it comes from. Death is not a gift from God as it is often portrayed today.
In the beginning, man lived as God wanted, without the possibility of death. However, man sinned which brought about death (Romans 6:23). As death entered the world, the power of death was given to the devil.
“…so that by his (Jesus') death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” Hebrews 2:14
With the power of death being held by the devil, we should never associate it with God’s will. As Peter warned us, it was our “enemy the devil” who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
God wants all people to live, even the wicked. There were times when the death of a person or persons was inevitable, as with Sodom and Gomorrah, but even these deaths were not what God wanted.
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)
As God’s son, Jesus was well aware of God’s take on death, which is why he often used the authority God gave him to raise the dead. The love and compassion that God has for us was revealed by Jesus Christ. If we had any confusion about God’s role in death before the life of Jesus, little should remain here after.
If God was responsible for death, there is no doubt that Jesus would have welcomed it whole heartedly. Yet Jesus is never recorded taking the life of anyone, nor does he ever speak well of death.
Whenever Jesus rebuked a storm, healed a sick person, gave sight to the blind, or raised the dead, he was perfectly in line with God’s will. Jesus wanted his followers to proclaim a very important message, a message that has been all but reversed by present day teachings.
As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. Matthew 10:7-8
The true meaning of what Jesus says here has been lost in translation. When we see the phrase kingdom of heaven we usually think of some place in the great beyond, but Jesus was actually speaking of God’s authority. The Greek word for kingdom is “basileia” which refers to the authority or rule of a king. It was under God’s rule, that Christ and his followers were given the authority to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy", and "drive out demons”.
What really happens when we die?
Perhaps one of the greatest reasons many Christians have a skewed perception of death, is because they've been taught that their loved ones go straight to heaven when they die. If death provides us with an instant trip to heaven, then we should no longer count it as an enemy. However, according to God’s word, all those who have died in Christ will not rise again until Christ returns.
Because we do not rise until Christ’s return, Paul refers to those who have died in Christ as “fallen asleep”.
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” 1 Thessalonians 4:14
What Paul says here is much different than what we’d expect to hear at a present day funeral. He tells us that we should not grieve as the rest of mankind; not because our loved ones are in a better place now, but because we know they will rise again. Should we mourn death? Yes; but not as those “who have no hope”.
When we die or “fall asleep” there will be no perception of time.
“in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom”. Ecclesiastes 9:10
What about the natural disasters?
Another place of confusion is natural disasters, often referred to as “acts of God”. This gives us the impression that God causes these acts and the deaths that accompany them.
But God’s word tells us that “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” is “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).
As Jesus and his followers were out to sea, they found themselves in the middle of an intense storm.
Instead of welcoming the storm as a gift from his Father, Jesus rebukes the storm openly and it dissipates. The men around him asked “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him” (Matthew 8:27). We know exactly what kind of man this is; he is God’s son and faithful servant.
As believers in God, we should make every effort to fully understand deaths place in God’s kingdom. Knowing that no part of our deaths were brought about by God’s will. Until death is destroyed, it will remain our enemy. As we suffer the loss of a loved one, we should be certain that we will be called to meet them again at Christ’s return. At the present time, we should look forward to the day when death is no more.
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4