What Is the Bible’s View?
Is There a Fiery Hell?
THE doctrine of torment after death is taught by major religions of Christendom as well as by Hindus, Buddhists and Mohammedans. Are you associated with one of these religions?
According to Catholic doctrine, the torments of hell “will afflict the sinful soul immediately after death.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home) Is that what you were taught? Did you know that the Buddhists believe in the existence of both hot and cold hells? Those confined to one of the hot hells are depicted as being cut to pieces and then restored to life, only to receive the same punishment. Of the Mohammedan concept of those tormented in hell, we read: “They will live ‘in hot blasts and boiling water and a shade of pitchy smoke.’ They ‘shall broil upon a burning fire, shall be given to drink from a boiling spring! no food shall they have save from the foul thorn, which shall not fatten nor avail against hunger.’ They shall abide therein for ages. No cool thing shall they taste or drink.”—Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics.
Such teachings about hell are based on the belief that something, a “soul,” survives the death of the body. Depending upon the kind of life a person has lived, the “soul” is thought to go to a place either of bliss or of torment.
The claim has been made that the threatened punishments of hell deter crime. Says the Cyclopædia by M’Clintock and Strong (quoting Knapp’s Christian Theology): “To threaten positive punishment has far more effect, as well upon the cultivated as the uncultivated, in deterring them from crime, than to announce, and lead men to expect, the merely natural consequences of sin, be they ever so terrible.”
But has the teaching about a hell of torment deterred crime? History indicates that the most adamant proponents of the hellfire teaching have been among those perpetrating some of the worst crimes against humanity. For example, the terrible tortures and cruelties of the inquisitions and religious crusades were carried out by men who believed in the hellfire doctrine. And in no way did belief in hellfire restrain men from committing the greatest atrocities during the two world wars of this century.
Then, what about the basis for belief in a hell of torment? No one can prove scientifically or otherwise that a “soul” survives the death of the body. Personal observation confirms the Bible’s statement: “There is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast . . . As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit . . . All are going to one place. They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust.”—Eccl. 3:19, 20.
So belief in the survival of the “soul” after death is a matter of “faith.” But is it solidly based?
If man has an invisible, immortal soul that survives the death of the body, the only way he would know of its existence would be through divine revelation. Those accepting the Bible as God’s revelation to mankind should therefore be able to back up their beliefs by means of it, is that not so? Can believers in the immortality of the human soul do so? Consider the facts, and check them out in your own Bible.
In the Scriptures the words “immortal” and “immortality” are never used in connection with the human soul. But we do read: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.”—Ezek. 18:4.
Regarding the Bible’s use of the word “soul,” the New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “The concept of the human soul itself is not the same in the O[Id] T[estament] as it is in Greek and modern philosophy. . . . The soul in the O[Id] T[estament] means not a part of man, but the whole man—man as a living being. Similarly, in the N[ew] T[estament] it signifies human life: the life of an individual, conscious subject.”
Rather than having an immortal soul, mortal man is a soul. “The first man Adam,” says the Bible, “became a living soul.” (1 Cor. 15:45) This being the case, no “soul” survives the death of the body, and hence there is nothing that can be tormented after death. But what can be said about the word “hell”?
It is noteworthy that the English word “hell” originally conveyed no thought of heat or torment but simply denoted a ‘covered over or concealed place.’ Did you realize that? The term was very similar in meaning to the Hebrew “Sheol” and the Greek “Hades.” Says the glossary of a French version based on the translation by Louis Segond, revision of 1910, under the expression “Abode of the dead”: “This expression translates the Greek word Hades, which corresponds to the Hebrew Sheol. It is the place where the dead are located between [the time of] their decease and their resurrection (Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 20:13, 14). Certain translations have wrongly rendered this word as hell.”
So, then, references to Hades and Sheol in the Scriptures do not support the existence of a place of torment after death. Neither can references to “Gehenna” (rendered “hell” in various translations) be used to support the idea of conscious torment after death. The Bible does not say that God will torment those who are thrown into Gehenna but says that God “can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matt. 10:28) Fire being the most thorough means of destruction used in Bible times, the “fire” of Gehenna fittingly represents complete destruction.
As for the “lake of fire” mentioned in Revelation 20, this “lake” is explained in verse 14 as being, not literal, but a symbol of “second death.” All who experience “second death” will remain in its grip “forever and ever.” (Rev. 20:10) Notice that verse 14 says that “death and Hades” themselves are “hurled into the lake of fire.” (Rev. 20:14) Obviously, death and Hades have no consciousness, but they can be destroyed, and fire represents that.
Thus it can be seen that the teaching about a fiery hell is not based on the Bible. It is merely an outgrowth of man’s not wanting to accept the fact that death ends all conscious existence. This teaching has misrepresented God as being cruel and has concealed what he desires in those whom he approves. Jehovah God does not want people to serve him simply because of fearing dreadful punishment but because of their deep love for him. (Jer. 9:24; Ps. 97:10; 119:104, 128, 163; 1 John 4:8-12) Love is a far greater deterrent to wrongdoing than is fear of punishment. (Rom. 13:8-10) To those desiring to please him, Jehovah God holds out the opportunity of gaining everlasting life. Millions will be enabled to seize that opportunity by means of a resurrection.—John 5:28, 29; 17:3.2