The Truth About Hell
OBVIOUSLY, the underlying doctrine behind belief in punishment after death is the belief that the real man does not actually die when the fleshly body dies but that something—often called a soul—survives the death of the body. This belief, as we saw in the preceding article, goes back to the early Sumerians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia. Later, it was adopted by the Greeks, whose philosophers, such as Plato, polished the theory. Their refined dualistic belief in “body and soul” became a part of apostate Jewish belief.
When did professed Christians adopt the belief in such an afterlife? Certainly not during the time of Jesus and his apostles. The French Encyclopædia Universalis states: “The [apocryphal] Apocalypse of Peter (2nd century C.E.) was the first Christian work to describe the punishment and tortures of sinners in hell.”
In fact, it appears that among the early church fathers, there was much disagreement over hell. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Cyprian were for a fiery hell. Origen tried to give hell a remedial twist, claiming that sinners in hell would eventually be saved. He was followed to a greater or lesser degree by Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. But Augustine put an end to such soft views of hell. In his book Early Christian Doctrines, Oxford professor J. N. D. Kelly writes: “By the fifth century the stern doctrine that sinners will have no second chance after this life and that the fire which will devour them will never be extinguished was everywhere paramount.”
As to purgatory, the book Orpheus—A General History of Religions states: “St. Augustine had held that there was an intermediate state of probation between future felicity and damnation, that of the purification of souls by fire. This is the Orphic [pagan Greek] and Virgilian [pagan Roman] doctrine of Purgatory: there is not a word about it in the Gospels. . . . The doctrine of Purgatory . . . was formulated in the sixth century, and proclaimed a dogma of the Church by the Council of Florence (1439).” The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “The Catholic doctrine on purgatory is based on tradition, not Sacred Scripture.” With regard to Limbo, Rome’s Cardinal Ratzinger admits that it is “only a theological hypothesis.”
No Punishment After Death
What, though, about the Bible? Does it say that the soul survives the body at death and can therefore be punished in a fiery hell or purgatory? The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “The notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible. . . . The soul in the O[ld] 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.”
So the underlying premise for punishment after death falls flat. The Bible states: “The soul that sins shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4, Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition) It also declares: “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23, RSV) Therefore, when the Bible speaks of impenitent wicked people ending up in “Gehenna,” “everlasting fire,” or “the lake of fire,” it is merely using symbolic language to speak of their undergoing permanent death, “the second death.”—Matthew 23:33; 25:41, 46; Revelation 20:14; 21:8;* compare 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9.
Hell Emptied by the Resurrection
Is hell hot, then? Not according to the Bible. Indeed, the Hebrew and Greek words translated in some Bibles as “hell” merely designate the common grave of dead humans. It is not a hot place of torment. It is, rather, a place of rest, from which the dead will come forth in the resurrection. (Ecclesiastes 9:10; Acts 24:15) Oscar Cullmann, professor at the Theological Faculty of the University of Basel, Switzerland, and of the Sorbonne, in Paris, speaks of the “radical difference between the Christian expectation of the resurrection of the dead and the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul.” Correctly, he says that “the fact that later Christianity effected a link between the two beliefs . . . is not in fact a link at all but renunciation of one [the Bible doctrine of the resurrection] in favour of the other [the pagan belief in the immortality of the human soul].”—Italics ours.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have not renounced their faith in the resurrection in favor of the idea of the immortality of the soul. They will be delighted to share with you their happy hope and prove to you from the Bible that, of a truth, hell is not hot.
For further information on these and other Bible texts that have been used by some to attempt to bolster the doctrine of a fiery hell, see the book Is This Life All There Is? published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.