HELL – Why Believe in it?
Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and other religious groups deny the idea that a literal “hell” exists in which all who reject Jesus Christ will be eternally tormented with fire. They question how a “loving God” could send people to such a place with no hope of an end to the torment. In answer, we must examine what the Bible teaches in regard to “hell,” God’s love, justice and the sinfulness of man.
Summary of Topic Contents:
1. How does the Bible describe Hell?
2. How do we know that these descriptions of Hell are not symbolic?
3. Why did God create Hell?
4. How can a loving God send people to Hell?
5. If Hell is punishment for sins committed in mortality, why is Hell forever?
There are two Greek words in the Bible that are often translated “hell.” One word is hades (αδης) and the other word is gehenna (or geenna, γε[η]εννα). In the Greek Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), the word hades is the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word sheol. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament notes that the term hades often refers to “the realm of the dead,” and in some cases “it denotes … the infernal regions, a dark … and dismal place … in the very depths of the earth … the common receptacle of disembodied spirits.” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Joseph H. Thayer, 2002 ed., Hendrickson Publishers, p. 11)
While the word hades is used to refer to mankind’s “grave” or the “realm of the dead,” the Greek word gehenna is more commonly used in connection with the idea of eternal fire. Concerning this word, Vine’s Complete Expository of Old and New Testament Words notes:
“Gehenna represents the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom (the valley of Tophet) and a corresponding Aramaic word. … To the passage in Matt. 18, and in Mark 9:43-47, is parallel; here to the word ‘hell’ are applied the extended descriptions ‘the unquenchable fire’ and ‘where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.'” (Vine’s Complete Expository of Old and New Testament Words, W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. 300)
“Tophet: Once a part of a king’s garden in Hinnom; it became a place where people in Jerusalem sacrificed their children (Isa. 30:33; Jer. 19:6, 11-14; 2 Kings 23:10)” (Nelson’s Quick Reference: Bible People & Places, 1993 Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. 349).
“Gehenna, the name of a valley on the S. and E. of Jerusalem … which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch. … The Jews so abhorred the place after these horrible sacrifices had been abolished by king Josiah … that they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed. And since fires were always needed to consume the dead bodies, that the air might not become tainted by the putrefaction, it came to pass that the place was called gehenna tou puros [gehenna of fire] … and then this name was transferred to that place in Hades where the wicked after death will suffer punishment.” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 111)
Keep the above definitions in mind and take note of how hell is described in the following verses:
- MATTHEW 10:28 – “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna].” 1.
- LUKE 12:5 – “And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell [gehenna]; yes, I tell you, fear Him!”
* If “hell” is simply mankind’s grave, why would Jesus exhort us to “fear” it more than death?
- MATTHEW 25:46 – “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 2.
- DANIEL 12:2 – “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”
* There are only two options for eternity — i.e., “everlasting life” or “everlasting punishment.” Hebrews 9:27 states, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” One does not have a second chance after death. In whatever state one may be found, it will last for eternity.
- MATTHEW 3:12 – “And His winnowing fork is in His hand … and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
- MATTHEW 8:11-12, 28-29 – “‘And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness, in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ … and when He had come to the other side … two men who were demon–possessed met Him. … and behold, they cried out, saying, ‘What do we have to do with You, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?'”
* Here we have an interesting statement made by the demons mentioning a “torment” that shall occur at a future time. This “torment” is alluding to the eternal fire of hell that was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (See Matthew 25:41). Although this punishment was originally created for Satan and his followers, Jesus warns that “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in “unquenchable fire” also awaits those who have rejected Him.
- MATTHEW 13:41-42, 49-50 – “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth … So it will be at the end of the age; the angels shall come forth, and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- MATTHEW 18:8 – “It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire.”
- MATTHEW 22:13 – “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”
- MARK 9:43, 47-49 – “It is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell [gehenna], into the unquenchable fire … it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, [gehenna] where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire.”
- ISAIAH 66:24 – “Then they 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.”
- LUKE 3:17 – “And His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
- LUKE 13:28 – “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being cast out.”
- LUKE 16:22-29 – “The poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And being in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me … for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house — for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment. But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.'”
- 2 THESSALONIANS 1:9 – “And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
- HEBREWS 10:26-27, 29, 31 – “For if we go on sinning willfully … there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries … How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve … And again, ‘The LORD will judge His people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
- REVELATION 14:9-11 – “And another angel … followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image … he will be tormented with fire and brimstone … and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night.”
- REVELATION 19:20 – “And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence … these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.”
- REVELATION 20:10 – “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
REVELATION 20:13-15 – “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
- REVELATION 21:8 – “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Jesus described the “torment” of gehenna with severe illustrations and the acute language. It is evident that He did not regard such a place as a figurative expression of symbolism. Take note of the following passage:
“It is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell [gehenna], into the unquenchable fire … it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [gehenna], where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire.” (Mark 9:43, 47-49)
Likewise, just as Jesus utilized strong language to express the utter terror of hell, Jesus used real-life experiences in His parables to illustrate spiritual truths in a way that could be grasped by His audience. Such was the case with His parable of the rich man and Lazarus at Luke 16. This was the first and only parable in which Jesus mentioned the name of one of the individuals in His account as He related the rich man’s real-life story. This detailed exposition of the afterlife leaves little doubt as to the reality of hell and its subsequent effect on the fervency of the gospel message.
Furthermore, we know from Scripture that God is a God of love (1 John 4:8) and that He is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). We also know from Scripture that it was out of God’s great love for all mankind “that He gave His only begotten Son, and that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If there was any other way for mankind to be saved, Jesus would not have had to die to atone for our sins (see Matthew 26:39).
By the same token, if “hell” is merely a symbolic icon of complete annihilation, or is a figurative expression of a destruction of one’s reputation that will live on in infamy, what would be God’s purpose for sending His Son to pay an eternal price for our redemption? If all who die apart from the ransom provision will merely undergo the destruction of annihilation in which they will cease to exist for eternity, why wouldn’t God just start over with a new creation of humanity and let the current one run its course and cease with annihilation? After all, God did not send His Son to die for any other part of His creation (see Hebrews 2:16-17). If humans are like animals in that they become unconscious after death and dissolve into dust, why would God send His Son to die for our sins and to eternally bear the marks of our redemption in His body? (see John 20:25-28)
It is true that one can only speculate as to the reason God chose to exercise His overwhelming love to pay such a high price for us. However, when one grasps the existence of a literal hell to shun and an everlasting life to gain, this conveys a whole new dimension to the significance of Jesus’ ransom sacrifice on account of our sins, for there was a lot more at stake than just the atonement of Adam’s sin and its subsequent effects on human nature. Jesus’ ransom sacrifice paid the eternal price not only to redeem mankind from the curse of the law of Moses and Adamic sin nature, but to bring about permanent propitiation for each one of our personal sins and to deliver us from an everlasting torment in hell.
Hell is the opposite of everything that is good, righteous, pure and holy. This is why hell is described as a place of great pain and suffering. Scripture explains that in the new heavens and the new earth, “righteousness” will “dwell” (see 2 Peter 3:13) and there will be no more death, pain and suffering. It is for this reason, that God created hell as a place where evil could be separated from good for eternity.
God did not create hell with the intention of using it for mankind. Jesus explained that “the eternal fire … has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (see Matthew 25:41). When Satan rebelled against God and drew one-third of God’s angels after him (see Revelation 12:4), God created Hell in order to provide a place where the devil, his angels and everything that is evil could dwell in everlasting separation from God and His goodness.
Sin is like cancer or leaven (yeast) which infects the entire substance in which it is located (see 1 Corinthians 5:6). Just as cancer must be separated and removed from the body in order to keep it from spreading throughout the rest of the body, so it is with sin. God is a God of purity and holiness, and as a result, nothing unclean can stand in His presence.
“Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short that it cannot save; neither is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear.” (Isaiah 59:1-2)
Because sin cannot exist in the presence of good without soiling the good, God provided an everlasting place where every immortal creature that has been permeated by sin and wickedness and has not been cleansed by the blood of Christ can dwell in everlasting separation from God and everything that is pure and holy.
This question is misleading in that it implies that God “sends” people to Hell. As we just discussed, God does not send people to Hell. It is our sin and wickedness that cause us to be condemned before the perfect and righteous standard of God’s holy law, and cause us to be tainted in a way that will not allow us to enter God’s presence where His glory dwells.
“As it is written, ‘there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.’ Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10-11, 19-20, 23)
We must recognize that God is just as much a God of righteousness and true justice as He is a God of love and mercy. Just as oil cannot mix with water, neither can God overlook sin and allow it to dwell in His presence. It is for this reason that God in His love and mercy provided a means by which His justice could be fully satisfied.
Scripture declares: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). Thus, the only way God could extend love and mercy to sinful humanity was to redeem mankind by allowing the blood of His Son to be shed to pay the price for our sin. All who have embraced the free gift of forgiveness granted in Jesus Christ will be spiritually cleansed from their sins and will thus be able to dwell in God’s presence forever in everlasting life (see Romans 6:23; John 5:24; 1 John 1:9; Hebrews 10:20, 14). Those who reject the cleansing offered in Christ, however, will have no other option than to enter everlasting punishment in hell, as this is the only place that they will be able to reside with their sin and impurity apart from the presence of God.
Just as hell stands for everything that is evil and wicked, so God stands for everything that is righteous, pure and holy. By rejecting God and His provision for spiritual cleansing in His Son, those who will end up in hell have made the decision to reject everything that is good and righteous. Thus, on judgment day, God merely confirms the decision they have already made by allowing them to dwell in everlasting punishment away from His presence and virtue. Thus, hell (which encompasses all pain, suffering and wickedness) becomes the everlasting abode of those who reject God.
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46) 2.
We have discussed how hell is the opposite of everything that is good, holy, pure and virtuous. It is the place that God has designated for unclean, immortal creatures to dwell in everlasting separation from Him and His holy presence. Since we were created with immortal souls that continue to exist after physical death (see Matthew 10:28), our eternal destiny will either be spent in God’s presence or in everlasting hell away from the presence of God. Because God’s righteous holiness will not allow one to receive His love and mercy apart from personal acceptance of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin, those who reject the spiritual cleansing offered in Christ have, as a result, made the personal decision to dwell in everlasting separation from God. It is for this reason that hell is described as torment that will last forever.
Quite often, those who struggle with the concept of an everlasting hell do so because they fail to grasp the eternal consequence of sin. Our finite minds cannot comprehend the extensive gap that God bridged to redeem mankind. God Himself, who eternally stands outside of time, space and created matter, entered His creation by being born a human, in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. Confining Himself to the limitations of His creation and experiencing all the boundaries of human weakness, Jesus died an excruciating death for all of our past, present and future sins. Thus, in His human body, Jesus will forever bear the marks of our redemption (see John 2:18-22; 20:25-27; Luke 24:39-40). And just as the scars of our redemption live on in eternity, so the penalty for anyone who rejects God’s gift of salvation results in everlasting punishment and separation from God.
Jehovah’s Witnesses who deny the concept of a literal “hell” often rationalize Biblical passages on this subject by claiming that they merely symbolize the “destruction” of a complete “annihilation” of the human soul in judgment. However, in reality, the Jehovah’s Witness concept of “annihilation” results in an avoidance of judgment, rather than the righteous recompense for various degrees of sin. If “annihilation” of the human soul and the repudiation of one’s character after death is to be equated with righteous judgment, one would question how this type of judgment would be “torment” when people today often commit suicide in this life as a means of “escape” from reality.
Furthermore, if annihilation were God’s permanent judgment against those who reject Him, how would this type of judgment be righteous, as it would treat everyone alike — regardless of the kind of life he or she lived here on earth? How could God be righteous to allow someone who lived a relatively moral life to undergo the same kind of judgment of “annihilation” that a person like Adolph Hitler, who killed over 6 million Jews through his Nazi regime, would receive?
As can be seen, such reasoning does a disservice to the righteous character of God as it fails the test of equitable standards in judgment. Scripture is clear that not only is hell a literal place of torment, but there will be degrees of punishment based on one’s level of sin in this life. In closing, we ask Jehovah’s Witnesses, if indeed “annihilation” is the “destruction” of “everlasting fire” spoken about in the Scriptures, why does Scripture speak of degrees of punishment? One cannot have degrees of annihilation, can he?
- LUKE 10:12, 14 – “I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city … But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment, than for you.”
- HEBREWS 10:26-27, 29, 31 – “For if we go on sinning willfully … there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries … How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God … And again, ‘The LORD will judge His people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION SEE:
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible. Although Matthew 10:28 states that the “soul” can be “destroyed,” the Greek word apollymi (απóλλυμι) translated “destroy” does not mean annihilation, but rather “to perish” in the sense of “ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, 1977, p. 164)
2. For information on why most Bibles render the Greek words kolasis (κολασις) in Matthew 25:46 as “punishment,” rather than the NWT’s rendering of “cutting-off,” see: Dialogue 5a: Is Hell Real and the Human Soul Immortal?