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4.9 Hell

The popular conception of hell is of a place of punishment for wicked ‘immortal souls’ straight after death, or the place of torment for those who are rejected at the judgment. It is our conviction that the Bible teaches that hell is the grave, where all men go at death.

As a word, the original Hebrew word ‘sheol’, translated ‘hell’, means ‘a covered place’. ‘Hell’ is the anglicised version of ‘sheol’; thus when we read of ‘hell’ we are not reading a word which has been fully translated. A ‘helmet’ is literally a ‘hell-met’, meaning a covering for the head. In old English, especially in Scotland, there was the practice of "helling potatoes", burying them underground in Winter, covering them, in order to preserve them; putting a thatched roof on a building was to "hell a house", to cover it. Biblically, this ‘covered place’, or ‘hell’, is the grave. There are many examples where the original word ‘sheol’ is translated ‘grave’. Indeed, some modern Bible versions scarcely use the word ‘hell’, translating it more properly as ‘grave’. A few examples of where this word ‘sheol’ is translated ‘grave’ should torpedo the popular conception of hell as a place of fire and torment for the wicked.

§         “Let the silent in the grave” (sheol [Ps. 31:17]) - they will not be screaming in agony.

§         “God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave” (sheol [Ps. 49:15]) - i.e. David’s soul or body would be raised from the grave, or ‘hell’.

The belief that hell is a place of punishment for the wicked from which they cannot escape just cannot be squared with this; a righteous man can go to hell (the grave) and come out again. Hos. 13:14 confirms this: “I will ransom them (God’s people) from the power of the grave (sheol); I will redeem them from death”. This is quoted in 1 Cor. 15:55 and applied to the resurrection at Christ’s return. Likewise in the vision of the second resurrection (see Study 5.5), “Death and Hades (Greek for ‘hell’) delivered up the dead who were in them” (Rev. 20:13). Note the parallel between death, i.e. the grave, and Hades (see also Ps. 6:5).

Hannah’s words in 1 Sam. 2:6 are very clear: “The Lord kills and makes alive (through resurrection); he brings down to the grave (sheol), and brings up”.

Seeing that ‘hell’ is the grave, it is to be expected that the righteous will be saved from it through their resurrection to eternal life. Thus it is quite possible to enter ‘hell’, or the grave, and later to leave it through resurrection. The supreme example is that of Jesus, whose “soul was not left in Hades (hell), nor did his flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31) because he was raised. Note the parallel between Christ’s ‘soul’ and his ‘flesh’ or body. That his body “was not left in Hades” implies that it was there for a period, i.e. the three days in which his body was in the grave. That Christ went to ‘hell’ should be proof enough that it is not just a place where the wicked go.

Both good and bad people go to ‘hell’, i.e. the grave. Thus Jesus “made his grave with the wicked” (Is. 53:9). In line with this, there are other examples of righteous men going to hell, i.e. the grave. Jacob said that he would “go down into the grave (hell)...mourning” for his son Joseph (Gen. 37:35).

It is one of God’s principles that the punishment for sin is death (Rom. 6:23; 8:13; James 1:15). We have previously shown death to be a state of complete unconsciousness. Sin results in total destruction, not eternal torment (Mt. 21:41; 22:7; Mk. 12:9; James 4:12), as surely as people were destroyed by the Flood (Lk. 17:27,29), and as the Israelites died in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:10). On both these occasions the sinners died rather than being eternally tormented. It is therefore impossible that the wicked are punished with an eternity of conscious torment and suffering.

We have also seen that God does not impute sin - or count it to our record - if we are ignorant of His word (Rom. 5:13). Those in this position will remain dead. Those who have known God’s requirements will be raised and judged at Christ’s return. If wicked, the punishment they receive will be death, because this is the judgment for sin. Therefore after coming before the judgment seat of Christ, they will be punished and then die again, to stay dead for ever. This will be “the second death”, spoken of in Rev. 2:11; 20:6. These people will have died once, a death of total unconsciousness. They will be raised and judged at Christ’s return, and then punished with a second death, which, like their first death, will be total unconsciousness. This will last forever.

It is in this sense that the punishment for sin is ‘everlasting’, in that there will be no end to their death. To remain dead for ever is an everlasting punishment. An example of the Bible using this kind of expression is found in Dt. 11:4. This describes God’s one-off destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea as an eternal, on-going destruction in that this actual army never again troubled Israel: “He made the waters of the Red sea overflow them... the Lord has destroyed them to this day”.

One of the parables about Christ’s return and the judgment speaks of the wicked being ‘slain’ in his presence (Lk. 19:27). This hardly fits into the idea that the wicked exist forever in a conscious state, constantly receiving torture. In any case, this would be a somewhat unreasonable punishment - eternal torture for deeds of 70 years. God has no pleasure in punishing wicked people; it is therefore to be expected that He will not inflict punishment on them for eternity (Ez. 18:23,32; 33:11 cf. 2 Pet. 3:9).

A misbelieving Christendom often associates ‘hell’ with the idea of fire and torment. This is in sharp contrast to Bible teaching about hell (the grave). “Like sheep they are laid in the grave (hell); death shall feed on them” (Ps. 49:14) implies that the grave is a place of peaceful oblivion. Despite Christ’s soul, or body, being in hell for three days, it did not suffer corruption (Acts 2:31). This would have been impossible if hell were a place of fire. Ez. 32:26-30 gives a picture of the mighty warriors of the nations around, lying in their graves: “the mighty who are fallen (in battle)...who have gone down to hell with their weapons of war; they have laid their swords under their heads...they shall lie...with those who go down to the Pit”. This refers to the custom of burying warriors with their weapons, and resting the head of the corpse upon its sword. Yet this is a description of “hell” - the grave. These mighty men lying still in hell (i.e. their graves), hardly supports the idea that hell is a place of fire. Physical things (e.g. swords) go to the same “hell” as people, showing that hell is not an arena of spiritual torment. Thus Peter told a wicked man, “Your money perish with you” (Acts 8:20).

The record of Jonah’s experiences also contradicts this. Having been swallowed alive by a huge fish, “Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. And he said: ‘I the Lord...out of the belly of Sheol (hell) I cried” (Jonah 2:1,2). This parallels “the belly of Sheol” with that of the fish. The fish’s belly was truly a ‘covered place’, which is the fundamental meaning of the word ‘sheol’. Obviously, it was not a place of fire, and Jonah came out of “the belly of Sheol” when the fish vomited him out. This pointed forward to the resurrection of Christ from ‘hell’ (the grave) - see Mt. 12:40.

Figurative Fire

However, the Bible does frequently use the image of eternal fire in order to represent God’s anger with sin, which will result in the total destruction of the sinner in the grave. Sodom was punished with “eternal fire” (Jude v. 7), i.e. it was totally destroyed due to the wickedness of the inhabitants. Today that city is in ruins, submerged beneath the waters of the Dead Sea; in no way is it now on fire, which is necessary if we are to understand ‘eternal fire’ literally. Likewise Jerusalem was threatened with the eternal fire of God’s anger, due to the sins of Israel: “Then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” (Jer. 17:27). Jerusalem being the prophesied capital of the future Kingdom (Is. 2:2-4; Ps. 48:2), God did not mean us to read this literally. The houses of the great men in Jerusalem were burnt down with fire (2 Kings 25:9), but that fire did not continue eternally. Fire represents the anger/punishment of God against sin, but His anger is not eternal (Jer. 3:12). Fire turns what it burns to dust; and we know that the ultimate wages of sin is death, a turning back to dust. This perhaps is why fire is used as a figure for punishment for sin.

Similarly, God punished the land of Idumea with fire that would “not be quenched night nor day; its smoke shall ascend for ever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste...the owl and the raven shall dwell in it...thorns shall come up in its palaces” (Is. 34:9-15). Seeing that animals and plants were to exist in the ruined land of Idumea, the language of eternal fire must refer to God’s anger and His total destruction of the place, rather than being taken literally.

The Hebrew and Greek phrases which are translated “for ever” mean strictly, “for the age”. Sometimes this refers to literal infinity, for example the age of the kingdom, but not always. Is. 32:14,15 is an example: “The forts and towers will become lairs for ever...until the spirit is poured upon us”. This is one way of understanding the ‘eternity’ of ‘eternal fire’.

Time and again God’s anger with the sins of Jerusalem and Israel is likened to fire: “My anger and My fury will be poured out on this place - (Jerusalem) will burn, and not be quenched” (Jer. 7:20; other examples include Lam. 4:11 and 2 Kings 22:17).

Fire is also associated with God’s judgment of sin, especially at the return of Christ: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up” (Mal. 4:1). When stubble, or even a human body, is burnt by fire, it returns to dust. It is impossible for any substance, especially human flesh, to literally burn forever. The language of ‘eternal fire’ therefore cannot refer to literal eternal torment. A fire cannot last forever if there is nothing to burn. It should be noted that “Hades” is “cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). This indicates that Hades is not the same as “the lake of fire”; this represents complete destruction. In the symbolic manner of the book of Revelation, we are being told that the grave is to be totally destroyed, because at the end of the Millennium there will be no more death.


In the New Testament there are two Greek words translated ‘hell’. ‘Hades’ is the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘sheol’ which we have discussed earlier. ‘Gehenna’ is the name of the rubbish tip which was just outside Jerusalem, where the refuse from the city was burnt. Such rubbish tips are typical of many developing cities today (e.g. ‘Smoky Mountain’ outside Manila in the Philippines.) As a proper noun - i.e. the name of an actual place - it should have been left untranslated as ‘Gehenna’ rather than be translated as ‘hell’. ‘Gehenna’ is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Ge-ben-Hinnon’. This was located near Jerusalem (Josh. 15:8), and at the time of Christ it was the city rubbish dump. Dead bodies of criminals were thrown onto the fires which were always burning there, so that Gehenna became symbolic of total destruction and rejection.

Again the point has to be driven home that what was thrown onto those fires did not remain there forever - the bodies decomposed into dust. “Our God (will be) a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) at the day of judgment; the fire of His anger with sin will consume sinners to destruction rather than leave them in a state of only being singed by it and still surviving. At the time of God’s previous judgments of His people Israel at the hand of the Babylonians, Gehenna was filled with dead bodies of the sinners among God’s people (Jer. 7:32,33).

In his masterly way, the Lord Jesus brought together all these Old Testament ideas in his use of the word ‘Gehenna’. He often said that those who were rejected at the judgment seat at His return would go “to hell (i.e. Gehenna), into the fire that shall never be quenched ... where their worm does not die” (Mk. 9:43,44). Gehenna would have conjured up in the Jewish mind the ideas of rejection and destruction of the body, and we have seen that eternal fire is an idiom representing the anger of God against sin, and the eternal destruction of sinners through death.

The reference to “where their worm does not die”, is evidently part of this same idiom for total destruction - it is inconceivable that there could be literal worms which will never die. The fact that Gehenna was the location of previous punishments of the wicked amongst God’s people, further shows the aptness of Christ’s use of this figure of Gehenna.

Joachim Jeremias explains how the literal valley of Gehenna came to be misinterpreted as a symbol of a ‘hell’ that is supposed to be a place of fire: “[Gehenna]…since ancient times has been the name of the valley west and south of Jerusalem…from the woes pronounced by the prophets on the valley (Jer. 7:32 = 19:6; cf. Is. 31:9; 66:24) because sacrifices to Moloch took place there (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6), there developed in the second century BC the idea that the valley of Hinnom would be the place of a fiery hell (Eth. Enoch 26; 90.26)…it is distinguished from sheol” (1).

A Matter Of Psychology

Robert Funk observed: "Survey after survey has demonstrated that most people who believe in hell think themselves headed for heaven; people who believe in hell usually think it is for others" (2). I've done no surveys, but my experience chimes in with this completely. Those who believe and preach "hell fire" do so from deep seated psychological reasons rather than from an honest examination of the Biblical text. A desire to 'legitimately' damn others, with the apparent weight of the Bible behind them; to hit back at the world whilst bolstering ones own righteousness... it's really a classic.


(1) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: S.C.M., 1972) p. 129.

(2) Robert Funk, Honest To Jesus (New York: Harper Collins, 1996) p. 213

Bible Basics: Contents

Part 1: "The things concerning the Kingdom of God" Study 1: God 1.1  The Existence Of God || 1.2  The Personality Of God || Belief In Practice 1: Knowing God || 1.3  God's Name And Character || Belief In Practice 2: Grace (John Parkes) || Belief In Practice 3: The All Seeing God || Belief In Practice 4: God Is Omnipotent || Belief In Practice 5: Responding To The One God || 1.4     The Angels || Belief In Practice 6: God As Creator || Digression 1: God Manifestation || Digression 2:  Why The Trinity Was Accepted || Study 1: Questions Study 2: The Spirit Of God 2.1  Definition || 2.2  Inspiration || 2.3  Gifts Of The Holy Spirit || 2.4  The Withdrawal Of The Gifts || 2.5  The Bible The Only Authority || Digression 3: Is The Holy Spirit A Person? || Digression 4: The Principle Of Personification || Belief In Practice 7: The Implications Of Inspiration || Study 2: Questions Study 3: The Promises Of God 3.1  Introduction || 3.2  The Promise In Eden || 3.3  The Promise To Noah || 3.4  The Promise To Abraham || 3.5  The Promise To David || Belief In Practice 8: Covenant Relationship With God || Study 3: Questions Study 4: God And Death 4.1  The Nature Of Man || 4.2  The Soul || 4.3  The Spirit || 4.4  Death Is Unconsciousness || 4.5  The Resurrection || 4.6  The Judgment || Belief In Practice 9: Judgment Now || 4.7  The Place Of Reward: Heaven Or Earth?|| 4.8  Responsibility To God || 4.9  Hell || Digression 5: Purgatory || Digression 6: Ghosts And Reincarnation || Digression 7: The 'Rapture' || Belief In Practice 10: The Motivational Power Of Understanding Death || Study 4: Questions Study 5: The Kingdom Of God 5.1  Defining The Kingdom || 5.2  The Kingdom Is Not Now Established || 5.3  The Kingdom Of God In The Past || 5.4  The Kingdom Of God In The Future || 5.5  The Millennium || Digression 8: The Kingdom Of God Now (Graham Bacon) || Belief In Practice 11: What The Kingdom Of God Means Today || Study 5: QuestionsStudy 6: God And Evil 6.1  God And Evil || 6.2  The Devil And Satan || 6.3  Demons || Digression 9: The Implications And Origin Of The Belief In A Personal Satan || Digression 10: Witchcraft || Digression 11: What Happened In Eden? || Digression 12: Lucifer || Belief In Practice 12: Battle For The Mind || Study 6: Questions

Part 2: "The things concerning...the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12) Study 7: The Origin Of Jesus. 7.1  Old Testament Prophecies Of Jesus || 7.2  The Virgin Birth || 7.3  Christ's Place In God's Plan || 7.4  "In the beginning was the word" || Digression 13: Jesus The Son Of God (Michael Gates) || Digression 14: Did Jesus Create The Earth? || Belief In Practice 13: Jesus Didn’t Pre-exist: And So What? || Study 7: Questions Study 8: The Nature Of Jesus 8.1  Introduction || 8.2  Differences Between God And Jesus || 8.3  The Nature Of Jesus || 8.4  The Humanity Of Jesus || 8.5  The Relationship Of God With Jesus || Belief In Practice 14: The Real Christ || Digression 15: How The Real Christ Was Lost || Digression 16: The Divine Side Of Jesus || Study 8: Questions Study 9: The Work Of Jesus 9.1  The Victory Of Jesus || 9.2  The Blood Of Jesus || 9.3  Jesus As Our Representative || 9.4  Jesus And The Law Of Moses || 9.5  The Sabbath || Digression 17 The Crucifix || Digression 18: Was Jesus Born On Dec. 25th? || Belief In Practice 15: The Meaning Of Christ’s Resurrection For Us || Belief In Practice 16: Christ Died For Me- So What Should I Do? || Belief In Practice 17: The Real Cross || Belief In Practice 18: The Inspiration Of The Cross || Study 9: Questions || Study 10: Baptism Into Jesus 10.1  The Vital Importance Of Baptism || 10.2  How Should We Be Baptized? || 10.3  The Meaning Of Baptism || 10.4  Baptism And Salvation || Digression 19: Re-baptism || Digression 20 The Thief On The Cross || Belief In Practice 19: The Certainty Of Salvation || Study 10: Questions Study 11: Life In Christ 11.1  Introduction || 11.2  Holiness || 11.2.1  The Use Of Force || 11.2.2  Politics || 11.2.3  Worldly Pleasures || 11.3  Practical Christian Life || 11.3.1  Bible Study || 11.3.2  Prayer || 11.3.3  Preaching || 11.3.4  Ecclesial Life || 11.3.5  The Breaking Of Bread || 11.4  Marriage || 11.5  Fellowship || Study 11: Questions ||