What Kind of Place Is Hell?
1. What have religions taught about hell?
MILLIONS of persons have been taught by their religions that hell is a place where people are tormented. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The Roman Catholic Church teaches that hell . . . will last forever; its suffering will have no end.” This Catholic teaching, the encyclopedia goes on to say, “is still held by many conservative Protestant groups.” Hindus, Buddhists and Muhammadans also teach that hell is a place of torment. No wonder that people who have been taught this often say that if hell is such a bad place they do not want to talk about it.
2. What did God think of the burning of children in fire?
2 This raises the question: Did Almighty God create such a place of torment? Well, what was God’s view when the Israelites, following the example of peoples who lived nearby, began to burn their children in fire? He explains in his Word: “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, in order to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart.”—Jeremiah 7:31.
3. Why is it unreasonable, as well as unscriptural, to think that God would torment people?
3 Think about this. If the idea of roasting people in fire had never come into God’s heart, does it seem reasonable that he created a fiery hell for those who do not serve him? The Bible says, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Would a loving God really torment people forever? Would you do so? Knowing of God’s love should move us to turn to his Word to find out just what hell is. Who go there, and for how long?
SHEOL AND HADES
4. (a) What Hebrew and Greek words are translated “hell”? (b) How is Sheol translated in the King James Version?
4 Webster’s Dictionary says that the English word “hell” is equal to the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades. In German Bibles Hoelle is the word used instead of “hell”; in Portuguese the word used is inferno, in Spanish infierno, and in French Enfer. The English translators of the Authorized Version, or King James Version, translated Sheol 31 times as “hell,” 31 times as “grave,” and 3 times as “pit.” The Catholic Douay Version translated Sheol 64 times as “hell.” In the Christian Greek Scriptures (commonly called the “New Testament”), the King James Version translated Hades as “hell” each of the 10 times it occurs.—Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14.
5. What question is raised regarding Sheol and Hades?
5 The question is: What kind of place is Sheol, or Hades? The fact that the King James Version translates the one Hebrew word Sheol three different ways shows that hell, grave and pit mean one and the same thing. And if hell means the common grave of mankind, it could not at the same time mean a place of fiery torture. Well, then, do Sheol and Hades mean the grave, or do they mean a place of torture?
6. (a) How does the Bible show that Sheol and Hades mean the same thing? (b) What is shown by the fact that Jesus was in Hades?
6 Before answering this question, let us make clear that the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades mean the same thing. This is shown by looking at Psalm 16:10 in the Hebrew Scriptures and Acts 2:31 in the Christian Greek Scriptures, which verses you can see on the next page. Notice that in quoting from Psalm 16:10 where Sheol occurs, Acts 2:31 uses Hades. Notice, too, that Jesus Christ was in Hades, or hell. Are we to believe that God tormented Christ in a hell of fire? Of course not! Jesus was simply in his grave.
7, 8. How does what is said about Jacob and his son Joseph, and about Job, prove that Sheol is not a place of torment?
7 When Jacob was mourning for his beloved son Joseph, who he thought had been killed, he said: “I shall go down mourning to my son into Sheol!” (Genesis 37:35) However, the King James Version here translates Sheol “grave,” and the Douay Version translates it “hell.” Now, stop for a moment and think. Did Jacob believe that his son Joseph went to a place of torment to spend eternity there, and did he want to go there and meet him? Or, rather, was it that Jacob merely thought that his beloved son was dead and in the grave and that Jacob himself wanted to die?
8 Yes, good people go to the Bible hell. For example, the good man Job, who was suffering a great deal, prayed to God: “O that in Sheol [grave, King James Version; hell, Douay Version] you would conceal me, . . . that you would set a time limit for me and remember me!” (Job 14:13) Now think: If Sheol means a place of fire and torment, would Job wish to go and spend his time there until God remembered him? Clearly, Job wanted to die and go to the grave that his sufferings might end.
9. (a) What is the condition of those in Sheol? (b) So what are Sheol and Hades?
9 In all the places where Sheol occurs in the Bible it is never associated with life, activity or torment. Rather, it is often linked with death and inactivity. For example, think about Ecclesiastes 9:10, which reads: “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 [grave, King James Version; hell, Douay Version], the place to which you are going.” So the answer becomes very clear. Sheol and Hades refer not to a place of torment but to the common grave of mankind. (Psalm 139:8) Good people as well as bad people go to the Bible hell.
GETTING OUT OF HELL
10, 11. Why did Jonah, while in the fish’s belly, say he was in hell?
10 Can people get out of hell? Consider the case of Jonah. When God had a big fish swallow Jonah to save him from drowning, Jonah prayed from the fish’s belly: “Out of my distress I called out to Jehovah, and he proceeded to answer me. Out of the belly of Sheol [hell, King James Version and Douay Version (2:3)] I cried for help. You heard my voice.”—Jonah 2:2.
11 What did Jonah mean by “out of the belly of hell”? Well, that fish’s belly was surely not a place of fiery torment. But it could have become Jonah’s grave. In fact, Jesus Christ said regarding himself: “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.”—Matthew 12:40.
12. (a) What proof is there that those in hell can get out? (b) What further evidence is there that “hell” means the “grave”?
12 Jesus was dead and in his grave for three days. But the Bible reports: “His soul was not left in hell . . . This Jesus hath God raised up.” (Acts 2:31, 32, King James Version) Similarly, by God’s direction Jonah was raised from hell, that is, from what would have been his grave. This happened when the fish vomited him out onto dry land. Yes, people can get out of hell! In fact, the heartwarming promise is that hell (Hades) is to be emptied of all its dead. This can be seen by reading Revelation 20:13, which says: “The sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Hades] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.”—King James Version.
GEHENNA AND THE LAKE OF FIRE
13. What Greek word that occurs 12 times in the Bible is translated “hell” in the King James Version?
13 Yet someone may object, saying: ‘The Bible does talk about hellfire and the lake of fire. Does this not prove that hell is a place of torment?’ True, some Bible translations, such as the King James Version, speak of “hell fire” and of being “cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched.” (Matthew 5:22; Mark 9:45) All together there are 12 verses in the Christian Greek Scriptures where the King James Version uses “hell” to translate the Greek word Gehenna. Is Gehenna really a place of fiery torment, whereas when Hades is translated “hell” it simply means the grave?
14. What is Gehenna, and what was done there?
14 Clearly, the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades do mean the grave. Well, then, what does Gehenna mean? In the Hebrew Scriptures Gehenna is “the valley Hinnom.” Remember, Hinnom was the name of the valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem where the Israelites sacrificed their children in the fire. In time, good King Josiah had this valley made unfit to be used for such a horrible practice. (2 Kings 23:10) It was turned into a huge garbage, or rubbish, dump.
15. (a) In Jesus’ day, for what purpose was Gehenna used? (b) What was never thrown there?
15 So during the time Jesus was on earth Gehenna was Jerusalem’s garbage dump. Fires were kept burning there by the adding of brimstone (sulfur) to burn up the garbage. Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 1, explains: “It became the common lay-stall [garbage dump] of the city, where the dead bodies of criminals, and the carcasses of animals, and every other kind of filth was cast.” No live creatures, however, were cast there.
16. What evidence is there that Gehenna was used as a symbol of everlasting destruction?
16 Knowing about their city’s garbage dump, Jerusalem’s inhabitants understood what Jesus meant when he told the wicked religious leaders: “Serpents, offspring of vipers, how are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna?” (Matthew 23:33) Jesus plainly did not mean that those religious leaders would be tormented. Why, when the Israelites were burning their children alive in that valley, God said that to do such a horrible thing had never come up into his heart! So it was clear that Jesus was using Gehenna as a fitting symbol of complete and everlasting destruction. He meant that those wicked religious leaders were not worthy of a resurrection. Those listening to Jesus could understand that those going to Gehenna, like so much garbage, would be destroyed forever.
17. What is “the lake of fire,” and what proof is there of this?
17 What, then, is “the lake of fire” mentioned in the Bible book of Revelation? It has a meaning similar to that of Gehenna. It means not conscious torment but everlasting death, or destruction. Notice how the Bible itself says this at Revelation 20:14: “And death and Hades [hell, King James Version and Douay Version] were hurled into the lake of fire. This means the second death, the lake of fire.” Yes, the lake of fire means “second death,” the death from which there is no resurrection. It is evident that this “lake” is a symbol, because death and hell (Hades) are thrown into it. Death and hell cannot literally be burned. But they can, and will, be done away with, or destroyed.
18. What does it mean that the Devil will be tormented forever in “the lake of fire”?
18 ‘Yet the Bible says that the Devil will be tormented forever in the lake of fire,’ someone may point out. (Revelation 20:10) What does this mean? When Jesus was on earth jailers were at times called “tormentors.” As Jesus said of a certain man in one of his illustrations: “And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.” (Matthew 18:34, King James Version) Since those who are thrown into “the lake of fire” go into “second death” from which there is no resurrection, they are, so to speak, jailed forever in death. They remain in death as though in the custody of jailers for all eternity. The wicked, of course, are not literally tormented because, as we have seen, when a person is dead he is completely out of existence. He is not conscious of anything.
THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
19. How do we know that Jesus’ words about the rich man and Lazarus are an illustration?
19 What, then, did Jesus mean when he said in one of his illustrations: “The beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell [Hades] he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom”? (Luke 16:19-31, King James Version) Since, as we have seen, Hades refers to mankind’s grave, and not to a place of torment, it is plain that Jesus was here telling an illustration or a story. As further evidence that this is not a literal account but is an illustration, consider this: Is hell literally within speaking distance of heaven so that such a real conversation could be carried on? Moreover, if the rich man were in a literal burning lake, how could Abraham send Lazarus to cool his tongue with just a drop of water on the tip of his finger? What, then, was Jesus illustrating?
20. What is the meaning of the illustration with regard to (a) the rich man? (b) Lazarus? (c) the death of each? (d) the torments of the rich man?
20 The rich man in the illustration stood for the self-important religious leaders who rejected Jesus and later killed him. Lazarus pictured the common people who accepted God’s Son. The death of the rich man and of Lazarus represented a change in their condition. This change took place when Jesus fed the neglected Lazarus-like people spiritually, so that they thus came into the favor of the Greater Abraham, Jehovah God. At the same time, the false religious leaders “died” with respect to having God’s favor. Being cast off, they suffered torments when Christ’s followers exposed their evil works. (Acts 7:51-57) So this illustration does not teach that some dead persons are tormented in a literal fiery hell.
21. (a) What lies has the Devil spread? (b) Why can we be sure that the teaching of purgatory is false?
21 It was the Devil who told Eve: “You positively will not die.” (Genesis 3:4; Revelation 12:9) But she did die; no part of her lived on. That the soul lives on after death is a lie started by the Devil. And it is also a lie, which the Devil has had spread, that the souls of the wicked are tormented in a hell or a purgatory. Since the Bible clearly shows that the dead are unconscious, these teachings could not be true. Actually, neither the word “purgatory” nor the idea of a purgatory is found in the Bible.
22. (a) What have we learned from this chapter? (b) What effect has this knowledge had upon you?
22 We have seen that hell (Sheol, or Hades) is a place of rest in hope for the dead. Both good and bad persons go there, to await the resurrection. We have also learned that Gehenna does not mean a place of torment, but is used in the Bible as a symbol of everlasting destruction. In the same way, “the lake of fire” is not a literal place of fire, but represents the “second death” from which there will be no resurrection. Hell could not be a place of torment because such an idea never came into the mind or heart of God. Additionally, to torment a person eternally because he did wrong on earth for a few years is contrary to justice. How good it is to know the truth about the dead! It can truly set one free from fear and superstition.—John 8:32.
[Box on page 83]
The Hebrew word “Sheol” and the Greek word “Hades” mean the same thing
American Standard Version
10 For thou wilt not leave my soul
Neither wilt thou suffer thy
holy one to see corruption.
31 he foreseeing this spake of the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he left unto Hāʹdēs, nor did his flesh see corruption.
[Picture on page 84, 85]
After he was swallowed by a fish, why did Jonah say: ‘Out of the belly of hell I cried’?
[Picture on page 86]
Gehenna was a valley outside Jerusalem. It was used as a symbol of everlasting death