Is Hell a Place of Torment?
SOME say yes; some say no; others just do not know. A few centuries ago the belief in hell as a place of fire and torment for unrepentant souls after death was almost universal in Christendom. Today many people reject it and prefer the homespun philosophy that “hell is right here on earth.” What is the truth? Do wicked people actually go to hell? Is it a place of torment?
There are many theories about hell. The medieval concept was an underworld place where unrepentant sinners suffered intense agony forever. Dante, the famous poet, born in the 13th century, wrote in his work The Eleven Pains of Hell:
“There are burning trees upon which are hanged the souls of those who would never go to church in this life, . . .
“There is an oven heated, at which stand seven devils who shovel the guilty souls into the furnace. . . .
“No rest have the guilty souls.”
Michelangelo depicted such a fearsome hell in his painting in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. It was said to have scared the wits out of Pope Paul III, who had commissioned it.
Both Calvin and Luther accepted the Catholic idea of hell. Today, the doctrine of hellfire is still upheld. “The chief characteristic of hell,” states the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “is its fire that is unquenchable . . . and everlasting . . . Whatever may be implied by the terms ‘unquenchable fire’ and ‘everlasting fire,’ they should not be explained away as meaningless.” Adds Billy Graham, famous American evangelist: “The teaching of a literal hell is found in the creeds of all the leading churches. . . . God considered hell real enough that He sent his only Son to the world to save men from hell.”
A recent trend, though, has been to play down the teaching that the fire and torment of hell are literal and to explain them as indicating the possibility of one’s being lost and eternally apart from God—a mental anguish. However, a Vatican letter published in 1979 with the approval of Pope John Paul II, restated the belief that unrepentant sinners will go to a burning hell and warned against spreading doubts about it.
Effects on the Living
The very thought of a burning hell has caused untold mental torment. John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote that when he was a child of just nine or ten he was scared “with fearful dreams, and did . . . tremble at the thoughts of the fearful torments of hell fire.” Many others have suffered in the same way. A Durban, South Africa, man recalls: “When I was a boy, I had terrible nightmares about hell and used to cry at night. My loving parents tried to comfort me but could not.”
For centuries the dogma of hellfire has been drummed into the impressionable minds of youngsters and thundered from pulpits. What effect has this concept had on people’s hearts? Has it caused them to be kinder, more loving and compassionate in their dealings with others?
After mentioning that those who conducted the infamous Inquisition felt that their heretical victims “might be saved by temporal fire from eternal flame,” historian Henry C. Lea writes in A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages: “If a just and omnipotent God wreaked divine vengeance on those of his creatures who offended him, it was not for man to question the righteousness of his ways, but humbly to imitate his example and rejoice when the opportunity to do so was vouchsafed to him.”
Also, the Spanish historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto says: “It is of course true that the Inquisitorial tribunals were ruthless in the use of torture to obtain evidence; but again, the barbarities of torture must be judged against the torments that awaited in hell a heretic who did not confess.”—Italics ours.
The doctrine of eternal torment has turned many churchgoers into atheists. Even Billy Graham admitted that it was “the hardest of all the teachings of Christianity to receive.” But is this really a teaching supported by the Bible?
A Teaching of Christianity?
‘Of course, it’s in the Bible,’ many say. The Bible does speak of people being thrown into a fire. But symbolisms are frequent in the Bible. So, is the fire literal or symbolic? And if symbolic, what does it represent?
For example, Revelation chapter 20, verse 15 (King James Version), says: “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” But Re 20 verse 14 says: “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.” Strange! Is hell itself to be tormented? And how can death, a condition, be thrown into a literal fire? The rest of Re 20 verse 14 reads: “This [the lake of fire] is the second death.” Revelation 21, verse 8, repeats this point. What is this “second death”? The Catholic Jerusalem Bible adds this footnote concerning “the second death”: “Eternal death. The fire . . . is symbolic.” Very true, for it signifies complete destruction, or annihilation.
How interesting! “Hell” is to be destroyed! Note, however, that the Greek word used here is Hades, which, according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, means “grave.” Are the dead conscious or suffering in hell, or Hades? The Bible replies: “The dead know nothing . . . for neither work, nor reason, nor wisdom, nor knowledge shall be in hell, whither thou art hastening.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, Catholic Douay Version.
Do the dead remain in Hades? No. Jesus himself was in Hades, or hell, but was “raised up the third day,” as both church creeds and the Bible teach. (1 Corinthians 15:4; Acts 2:29-32; Psalm 16:10) Also, through him “there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) So Hades will finally be emptied and cease to exist—“cast into the lake of fire.”
However, some may ask: ‘Why does Revelation 20, verse 10, say that the Devil will be tormented in the lake of fire?’ If, as we have seen, the lake of fire is symbolic, then, logically, the torment is also.
In Bible times, jailers often cruelly tortured their prisoners, hence they were called “tormentors.” In one of his illustrations, Jesus spoke of a cruel slave as being ‘delivered to the jailers’ (Greek, ba·sa·ni·stesʹ, which actually means “tormentors” and is so rendered in several translations). (Matthew 18:34) So when Revelation speaks of the Devil and others as being “tormented . . . forever” in the lake of fire, it means that they will be “jailed” to all eternity in the second death of complete destruction. The Devil, the death inherited from Adam, and the unrepentant wicked all are spoken of as being destroyed eternally—“jailed” in the lake of fire.—Compare Hebrews 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; Psalm 37:38.
Appreciating Bible symbolism helps us to understand what Jesus meant when he spoke of sinners’ being “cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47, 48, KJ) The Greek word here used, translated as “hell fire,” is geʹen·na, or Gehenna. A valley by that name was located just outside Jerusalem and was used as a garbage dump. A fire burned day and night there to destroy the city rubbish. This, at times, included the bodies of criminals considered unworthy of a decent burial or of a resurrection. Worms were also present in the valley as destructive agents, but they were certainly not immortal! Jesus was simply illustrating graphically, in a way well understood by Judeans, that the unrepentant wicked would be everlastingly destroyed. Hence, Gehenna has the same meaning as “the lake of fire”—it represents the second death of everlasting destruction.
The dogma of eternal torment is based on the immortal-soul theory. However, the Bible clearly states: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20; see also Acts 3:23.) Proclaimers of hellfire have made the true God, Jehovah, appear to be a fiend—a cruel monster—instead of what he is: a God of love, “merciful and gracious . . . and abundant in loving-kindness.”—Exodus 34:6.
Lovingly, God has made provision to save men, not from torment, but from being destroyed. Said Jesus: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.”—John 3:16.
[Blurb on page 26]
The inquisitors believed that their terrible tortures were saving sinners from a worse fate
[Picture on page 25]
Until recent times, almost all of Christendom believed in a place like this