Is Hell Hot?
IS IT NOT a fact that many translations of the Bible refer to a place called “hell”? Yes, many translations of the Holy Scriptures use that expression. But the question is whether the things that the clergy have taught about the place called “hell” have come from the Holy Bible or from some other source.
Did you know that, not only members of Christendom’s churches, but many non-Christians as well, have been taught to believe in a hell of torment? It is revealing to read from a variety of sources what is said about the torments of those confined in hell.
A non-Christian “holy book” of the seventh century C.E. says the following:
“Hell!—they will burn therein,—an evil bed (indeed, to lie on)!—Yea, such!—Then shall they taste it,—a boiling fluid, and a fluid dark, murky, intensely cold! . . . (They will be) in the midst of a fierce Blast of Fire and in Boiling Water, and in the shades of Black Smoke: Nothing (will there be) to refresh, nor to please.”
Buddhism, which got started in about the sixth century B.C.E. provides this description of one of the “hells” about which it teaches:
“Here there is no interval of cessation either of the flames or of the pain of the beings.”
A Roman Catholic Catechism of Christian Doctrine (published in 1949) states:
“They are deprived of the vision of God and suffer dreadful torments, especially that of fire, for all eternity. . . . The privation of the beatific vision is called the pain of loss; the torment inflicted by created means on the soul, and on the body after its resurrection, is called the pain of sense.”
Also among the Protestant clergy in some places there are those who paint vivid verbal pictures of the horrors of hell. Even their church members at times claim to have had visions of its torments. One man described what he envisioned as follows: ‘As far as my eyes could reach there were only burning fire and human beings to be seen. What pain and suffering! Some people screamed, others wailed and begged for water, water! Some rent their hair, others gnashed their teeth; still others bit themselves in the arms and hands.’
The claim is often made that the threatened punishments of hell are a strong force in moving people to do what is right. But do the facts of history bear this out? Have not some of the greatest cruelties been perpetrated by believers in the doctrine of hellfire? Are not the horrible inquisitions and blood-spilling crusades of Christendom examples of this?
So it should come as no surprise that a growing number of people do not really believe in the existence of a hell of torment nor do they view its punishments as a deterrent to wrongdoing. Though not having actually disproved this teaching, they are simply not inclined to believe what does not appeal to them as reasonable and true. Still they may be members of a church that teaches this doctrine and, by supporting it, share responsibility for propagating the teaching of hellfire.
But just what does the Bible say about torment after death? If you have read earlier chapters of this book, you know that many common beliefs about the dead are false. You know, according to the Bible, that no soul or spirit separates from the body at death and continues conscious existence. Hence, there is no Scriptural foundation for the doctrine of eternal torment after death, for nothing survives that can be subjected to literal torment. What, then, is the place that various Bible translations refer to as “hell”?
In the Catholic Douay Version, the first mention of “hell” is found at Genesis 37:35, which quotes the patriarch Jacob as saying respecting Joseph, whom he believed to be dead: “I will go down to my son into hell, mourning.” Clearly Jacob was not expressing the idea of joining his son in a place of torment. Even the footnote on this verse in the Douay Version (published by the Douay Bible House, New York, 1941) does not put such an interpretation on the text. It says:
“Into hell. That is, into limbo, the place where the souls of the just were received before the death of our Redeemer. . . . [It] certainly meant the place of rest where he believed his soul to be.”
However, nowhere does the Bible itself refer to such a place as “limbo.” Nor does it support the idea of a special resting-place for the soul as something distinctly separate from the body. As acknowledged in the glossary of a modern Catholic translation, The New American Bible (published by P. J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1970): “There is no opposition or difference between soul and body; they are merely different ways of describing the one, concrete reality.”
What, then, is the “hell” in which Jacob thought he would join his son? The correct answer to this question lies in getting the proper sense of the original-language word for “hell,” namely, she’ohlʹ, which is transliterated “Sheol.” This term, also translated as “grave,” “pit,” “abode of the dead” and “nether world,” appears sixty-six times* (in the New World Translation) in the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly called the “Old Testament”), but it is never associated with life, activity or torment. To the contrary, it is often linked with death and inactivity. A few examples are:
“For in death there is no mention of you [Jehovah]; in Sheol [the grave, Authorized Version; hell, Douay Version] who will laud you?”—Psalm 6:5 (6:6, Douay Version).
“All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol [the grave, Authorized Version; hell, Douay Version], the place to which you are going.”—Ecclesiastes 9:10.
“For it is not Sheol [the grave, Authorized Version; hell, Douay Version] that can laud you [Jehovah]; death itself cannot praise you. Those going down into the pit cannot look hopefully to your trueness. The living, the living, he is the one that can laud you, just as I can this day.”—Isaiah 38:18, 19.
Hence, Sheol is obviously the place to which the dead go. It is not an individual grave but the common grave of dead mankind in general, where all conscious activity ceases. This is also what the New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges to be the Biblical significance of Sheol, saying:
“In the Bible it designates the place of complete inertia that one goes down to when one dies whether one be just or wicked, rich or poor.”—Vol. 13, p. 170.
That no place of fiery torment existed during the entire Hebrew Scripture period is also confirmed by the fact that torment is never set forth as the penalty for disobedience. The choice that was put before the nation of Israel was, not life or torment, but life or death. Moses told the nation: “I have put life and death before you, the blessing and the malediction; and you must choose life in order that you may keep alive, you and your offspring, by loving Jehovah your God, by listening to his voice and by sticking to him.”—Deuteronomy 30:19, 20.
Similarly, God’s later appeals for unfaithful Israelites to repent served to encourage them to avoid experiencing, not torment, but an untimely death. Through his prophet Ezekiel, Jehovah declared: “I take delight, not in the death of the wicked one, but in that someone wicked turns back from his way and actually keeps living. Turn back, turn back from your bad ways, for why is it that you should die, O house of Israel?”—Ezekiel 33:11.
HADES THE SAME AS SHEOL
Yet someone might ask, Did not the coming of Jesus Christ to this earth change matters? No, God does not change his personality or his righteous standards. By means of his prophet Malachi, he stated: “I am Jehovah; I have not changed.” (Malachi 3:6) Jehovah has not changed the penalty for disobedience. He is patient with people so that they might be able to escape, not torment, but destruction. As the apostle Peter wrote to fellow believers: “Jehovah is not slow respecting his promise, as some people consider slowness, but he is patient with you because he does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.”—2 Peter 3:9.
In keeping with the fact that the penalty for disobedience has continued to be death, the place to which the Christian Greek Scriptures (commonly called the “New Testament”) describe the dead as going does not differ from the Sheol of the Hebrew Scriptures. (Romans 6:23) This is evident from a comparison of the Hebrew Scriptures with the Christian Greek Scriptures. In its ten occurrences, the Greek word haiʹdes, which is transliterated “Hades,” basically conveys the same meaning as the Hebrew word she’ohlʹ. (Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23;* Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14 [If the translation you are using does not read “hell” or “Hades” in all these texts, you will, nevertheless, note that the terms used instead give no hint of a place of torment.]) Consider the following example:
At Psalm 16:10 (15:10, Douay Version) we read: “For you [Jehovah] will not leave my soul in Sheol [hell]. You will not allow your loyal one to see the pit.” In a discourse given by the apostle Peter, this psalm was shown to have a prophetic application. Said Peter: “Because [David] was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath that he would seat one from the fruitage of his loins upon his throne, he saw beforehand and spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he forsaken in Hades [hell] nor did his flesh see corruption.” (Acts 2:30, 31) Note that the Greek word haiʹdes was used for the Hebrew word she’ohlʹ. Thus Sheol and Hades are seen to be corresponding terms.
Observes the glossary of the French Bible Society’s Nouvelle Version, 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.”
THE SOURCE OF THE HELLFIRE TEACHING
Clearly, references to Sheol and Hades in the Scriptures do not support the doctrine of a fiery hell. Admitting that it is not Christian and even contradicts the spirit of Christianity, the Catholic periodical Commonweal (January 15, 1971) notes:
“For many people, some philosophers included, hell answers a need of the human imagination—a sort of Santa Claus in reverse. . . . Who among the righteous doesn’t like to see the unjust get punished with some equity? And if not in this life, why not in the next? Such a view, however, is not compatible with the New Testament, which invites man to life and to love.”
Then this magazine goes on to show probable sources of this doctrine, saying:
“Another element that might have contributed to the traditional Christian concept of hell can be found in the Roman world. Just as intrinsic immortality was a premise in a major part of Greek philosophy, justice was a primary virtue among the Romans, particularly when Christianity began to thrive. . . . The wedding of these two minds—the philosophical Greek and judicial Roman—might well have brought about the theological symmetry of heaven and hell: if the good soul is rewarded, then the bad soul is punished. To confirm their belief in justice for the unjust, the Romans merely had to pick up Virgil’s Aeneid and read about the blessed in Elysium and the damned in Tartarus, which was surrounded by fire and overflowing with the panic of punishment.”
The teaching about a fiery hell is thus acknowledged to be a belief shared by persons alienated from God. It can rightly be designated as a ‘teaching of demons.’ (1 Timothy 4:1) This is so because it has its source in the falsehood that man does not really die, and it mirrors the morbid, vicious and cruel disposition of the demons. (Compare Mark 5:2-13.) Has not this doctrine needlessly filled people with dread and horror? Has it not grossly misrepresented God? In his Word, Jehovah reveals himself to be a God of love. (1 John 4:8) But the teaching about a fiery hell slanders him, falsely accusing him of the worst cruelties imaginable.
Those teaching the hellfire doctrine are therefore saying blasphemous things against God. While some clergymen may not be familiar with the Biblical evidence, they should be. They represent themselves as speaking God’s message and therefore are under obligation to know what the Bible says. They certainly know full well that what they do and say can deeply affect the lives of those who look to them for instruction. That should cause them to be careful in making sure of their teaching. Any misrepresentation of God can turn people away from true worship, to their injury.
There can be no question that Jehovah God does not look with approval upon false teachers. To unfaithful religious leaders of ancient Israel, he pronounced the following judgment: “I . . . for my part, shall certainly make you to be despised and low to all the people, according as you were not keeping my ways.” (Malachi 2:9) We can be sure that like judgment will come upon false religious teachers of our time. The Bible indicates that they will soon be stripped of their position and influence by the political elements of the world. (Revelation 17:15-18) As for those who continue to support religious systems teaching lies, they will fare no better. Jesus Christ said: “If . . . a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”—Matthew 15:14.
That being the case, would you want to continue supporting any religious system that teaches a fiery hell? How would you feel if your father had been maliciously slandered? Would you continue to accept the slanderers as your friends? Would you not, rather, cut off all association with them? Should we not likewise want to break off all association with those who have slandered our heavenly Father?
Fear of torment is not the proper motivation for serving God. He desires that our worship be motivated by love. This should appeal to our hearts. Our realizing that the dead are not in a place filled with screaming anguish in blazing fires, but, rather, are unconscious in the silent and lifeless common grave of dead mankind can remove a barrier to our expressing such love for God.
Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Numbers 16:30, 33; Deuteronomy 32:22; 1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Samuel 22:6; 1 Kings 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 11:8; 14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6; Psalms 6:5; 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 31:17; 49:14, 15; 55:15; 86:13; 88:3; 89:48; 116:3; 139:8; 141:7; Proverbs 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Song of Solomon 8:6; Isaiah 5:14; 7:11; 14:9, 11, 15; 28:15, 18; 38:10, 18; 57:9; Ezekiel 31:15-17; 32:21, 27; Hosea 13:14; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2; Habakkuk 2:5.
Luke 16:23 is discussed in detail in the next chapter.
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Scenes from Buddhist pictures of hell
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Scenes from the “Inferno” of Catholic Dante