What Is Hell?

The Philadelphia Trumpet, in conjunction with the Herbert W. Armstrong College Bible Correspondence Course, presents this brief excursion into the fascinating study of the Bible. Simply turn to and read in your Bible each verse given in answer to the questions. You will be amazed at the new understanding gained from this short study!

Even if you are a Christian, you may go to hell. Some of your loved ones are already in hell. But don’t be alarmed. “Hell” is not what most people have imagined!

Most people assume one of two extremes concerning “hell.” One group totally denies that it exists. It is passed off as an ancient superstition with no bearing on modern life. The other group pictures hell as a terrible place of never-ending torment where the devil rules and his demons gleefully “roast” sinners like meat on a bonfire. There is bitter weeping and wailing, agonized cursing, shrieks and screams from those in eternal torment—according to this concept.

Before we examine the Bible to see whether the common ideas about hell could possibly be true, let us consider where this concept of hell, if true, would lead us.

On this Earth are nearly 7 billion people. The most populous lands are China, India and other parts of Asia. In spite of the efforts of Western missionaries, literally billions of people on the Earth have never so much as heard the only name by which, the Bible tells us, men may be saved: “Jesus Christ”! (Acts 4:12).

If all the “unsaved” go immediately to a fiery hell at death, then multiple billions of people who have ever lived have been consigned to this terrible punishment without ever having had a chance to escape it!

Can you really believe this is the method an all-wise, all-merciful, loving God is using to work out His purpose here below?

What is the truth?

Christ Spoke of “Hell Fire”

1. What punishment did Christ warn would ultimately befall those who refuse to quit sinning? Mark 9:43.

Comment: Hell is an English word. When Mark recorded Christ’s words, he wrote them in the Greek language. The Greek word translated “hell,” which Mark was inspired to write down, is gehenna. Since in this verse Christ says the sinner is “to go into hell, into the fire,” it follows that those who go to gehenna will receive punishment by fire.

Keep in mind, then, that Christ associated the Greek word gehenna with fire.

2. How did Christ reemphasize what He said about “hell fire”? Verse 47.

Comment: Again, the Greek word Mark used in this verse is gehenna. This word is derived from the name of the narrow, rocky Valley of Hinnom, which lies just outside Jerusalem. It was the place where refuse from the city was burned up. Trash, filth and the dead bodies of animals and despised criminals were thrown into the fires of gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom. Ordinarily, everything thrown into this valley was destroyed by fire—burned up. Christ used gehenna to picture the fate of unrepentant sinners!

Two Different “Hells”

In many passages in the New Testament where we see the word hell, the original Greek word is gehenna—but not always. Often, the Greek word translated “hell” is hades, which does not refer to fire at all, but to a grave—a hole in the ground. Yet the translators have confused and obscured the two entirely separate meanings of these words by indiscriminately rendering them both as hell.

Let’s study the proof.

1. What one thing befalls both men and beasts? Ecclesiastes 3:19. Do they all go to one place—the same place—when they die? Verse 20 and Genesis 3:19.

2. What place does God say man goes to when he dies? Ecclesiastes 9:10. Did Job realize he would go to the grave after death? Job 17:13.

3. Was the God Being who became Jesus Christ “made flesh”? John 1:14. Did Christ take upon Himself the same mortal flesh of which we are composed? Hebrews 2:14. And didn’t He also have to go to the grave as other mortal men do? Acts 2:31.

Comment: The original Greek word translated into the English hell in this verse is hades. Hades simply means the grave, as its usage in this verse clearly shows! Jesus’s “flesh” (body) did not see corruption (in other words, it did not decompose in the grave) because He was resurrected after three days.

We can plainly see that the English word hell can have different meanings! Hades (which can also be translated as “grave,” as in 1 Corinthians 15:55) has a completely different meaning than gehenna. Whenever you’re in doubt about the intended meaning of the word hell in the New Testament, look it up in a concordance, such as Strong’s or Young’s, to see which Greek word it was translated from, and hence its true meaning.

4. When a person dies and is buried in his grave, does he know anything? Ecclesiastes 9:5.

Comment: When people die, they go to hades, or the grave, where they are aware of nothing!

But then, when do people go to gehenna fire for punishment? Let’s notice when and how the dead will be judged by God.

The Resurrection to Judgment

1. Is there to be a future resurrection to judgment of the unsaved dead? John 5:28-29. (The word damnation in the King James Version in verse 29 is correctly rendered as “judgment” in most modern translations.)

Comment: Here is further proof that the unsaved dead are not being tormented in a “fiery hell.” They are now dead! But there is coming a time (“the hour is coming,” said Jesus) when they will be resurrected for judgment.

2. Does the first sentence of Revelation 20:5 and verses 11-12 also prove there is to be a future resurrection to judgment? (Note that the first sentence in verse 5 is a parenthetical statement inserted within verses 4-6, which describe the first resurrection.)

Comment: Some of the dead—the “dead in Christ”—will be resurrected to eternal life in the first resurrection at Christ’s Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). But the “rest of the dead” will not live again for a thousand years, at which point they will be resurrected to mortal life. These are the unsaved dead who will rise in the second resurrection to be “judged.”

The Great White Throne Judgment described in Revelation 20:11-12 is the period when the vast majority of mankind (the dead, and most who are now alive) will be resurrected and given their opportunity to learn about God’s plan of salvation. These billions are those who never heard or understood God’s truth. They will be judged daily by how well they live by the Word of God.

At the end of this period of judgment, God will render a sentence—a verdict—for each individual. The vast majority will inherit eternal life.

3. Will there then follow a resurrection of all the incorrigible dead—all those who refuse to repent? Revelation 20:13-15.

Comment: After the Great White Throne Judgment period, the incorrigible dead of past ages, who may have perished at sea, or on land (the Greek word for “hell” in verse 13 is hades), will be resurrected to physical life. They will then be formally judged by God and sentenced. But what will be their penalty? Is it eternal life in the torment of gehenna fire?

4. Will all who stubbornly refuse to repent be cast into a lake of “fire and brimstone”? Revelation 21:8.

Comment: We saw earlier that the fate of unrepentant sinners is gehenna fire. So gehenna and the lake of fire are the same. A very large fire would have the appearance of a fiery lake, hence its description.

5. Will the fire cause the death of the wicked? Notice Revelation 21:8 once again. Which death will it cause? Same verse.

Comment: Mortals naturally die once, because we just “wear out” (Hebrews 9:27). But if anyone dies the second death, that individual will have been judged by God to be guilty of persistent disobedience and incorrigible rebellion. The second death will be for all eternity!

6. What is the “wages of sin”? Romans 6:23.

Comment: Death is the opposite of life! The final wages the incorrigible will receive is the complete cessation of life!

7. What does Paul warn will be the judgment, or sentence, of those who, knowing God’s commands and having tasted of His way of life, sin willfully—that is, refuse to repent? Hebrews 10:26-27. Will they live on in fiery torment—or will they be “devoured” by it? Verse 27.

8. Does Psalm 37:20 also show that the ultimate fate of the wicked will be destruction by fire? Will this fire be so hot that it will burn upconsume—the wicked? Malachi 4:1.

Comment: The biblical “hell fire” will totally consume the disobedient! Never will they exist again.

The Bible plainly shows that those who have known God’s truth and willfully disobey and refuse to repent will reap the wages of sin—which is eternal death! This scripture means what it says. The attempts by many theologians to explain away death and to interpret it as mere “separation from God” cannot be reconciled with Scripture. Death clearly does not mean eternal life in the horrifying torments of an eternal “hell.”

God Is Love

Why do so many people have a false concept of “hell”? Because they have been deceived and do not understand God’s overall purpose for creating mankind.

God’s purpose for man is that he develop the holy, righteous character of God, which will make him fit to receive the precious gift of eternal life. But God created man of the dust of the ground, subject to death, so that if he failed to develop righteous character, he could—unlike Satan and the immortal angels who sinned and became demons—be released from his misery by death.

God has no desire to torment or to torture anyone. God is love (1 John 4:8). He created us mortal for our own good. He will condemn no one because of ignorance, and will see to it that every person ultimately learns the truth and has a real opportunity for salvation upon sincere repentance, no matter how terrible his or her sins have been.