What Really Is Hell?
WHATEVER image the word “hell” brings to your mind, hell is generally thought of as a place of punishment for sin. Concerning sin and its effect, the Bible says: “Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) The Scriptures also state: “The wages sin pays is death.” (Romans 6:23) Since the punishment for sin is death, the fundamental question in determining the true nature of hell is: What happens to us when we die?
Does life of some kind, in some form, continue after death? What is hell, and what kind of people go there? Is there any hope for those in hell? The Bible gives truthful and satisfying answers to these questions.
Life After Death?
Does something inside us, like a soul or a spirit, survive the death of the body? Consider how the first man, Adam, came to have life. The Bible states: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) Though breathing sustained his life, putting “the breath of life” into his nostrils involved much more than simply blowing air into his lungs. It meant that God put into Adam’s lifeless body the spark of life—“the force of life,” which is active in all earthly creatures. (Genesis 6:17; 7:22) The Bible refers to this animating force as “spirit.” (James 2:26) That spirit can be compared to the electric current that activates a machine or an appliance and enables it to perform its function. Just as the current never takes on the features of the equipment it activates, the life-force does not take on any of the characteristics of the creatures it animates. It has no personality and no thinking ability.
What happens to the spirit when a person dies? Psalm 146:4 says: “His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” When a person dies, his impersonal spirit does not go on existing in another realm as a spirit creature. It “returns to the true God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) This means that any hope of future life for that person now rests entirely with God.
The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato held that a soul inside a person survives death and never dies. What does the Bible teach about the soul? Adam “came to be a living soul,” says Genesis 2:7. He did not receive a soul; he was a soul—a whole person. The Scriptures speak of a soul’s doing work, craving food, being kidnapped, experiencing sleeplessness, and so forth. (Leviticus 23:30; Deuteronomy 12:20; 24:7; Psalm 119:28) Yes, man himself is a soul. When a person dies, that soul dies.—Ezekiel 18:4.
What, then, is the condition of the dead? When pronouncing sentence upon Adam, Jehovah stated: “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) Where was Adam before God formed him from the dust of the ground and gave him life? Why, he simply did not exist! When he died, Adam returned to that state of complete absence of life. The condition of the dead is made clear at Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, where we read: “The dead know nothing . . . In the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (New International Version) Scripturally, death is a state of nonexistence. The dead have no awareness, no feelings, no thoughts.
Unending Torment or Common Grave?
Since the dead have no conscious existence, hell cannot be a fiery place of torment where the wicked suffer after death. What, then, is hell? Examining what happened to Jesus after he died helps to answer that question. The Bible writer Luke recounts: “Neither was [Jesus] forsaken in Hades [hell, King James Version] nor did his flesh see corruption.”* (Acts 2:31) Where was the hell to which even Jesus went? The apostle Paul wrote: “I handed on to you . . . that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, yes, that he has been raised up the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4) So Jesus was in hell, the grave, but he was not abandoned there, for he was raised up, or resurrected.
Consider also the case of the righteous man Job, who suffered much. Wishing to escape his plight, he pleaded: “Who will grant me this, that thou mayest protect me in hell [Sheol], and hide me till thy wrath pass?”* (Job 14:13, Douay Version) How unreasonable to think that Job desired to go to a fiery-hot place for protection! To Job, “hell” was simply the grave, where his suffering would end. The Bible hell, then, is the common grave of mankind where good people as well as bad ones go.
Could it be that the fire of hell is symbolic of all-consuming, or thorough, destruction? Separating fire from Hades, or hell, the Scriptures say: “Death and Hades were hurled into the lake of fire.” “The lake” mentioned here is symbolic, since death and hell (Hades) that are thrown into it cannot literally be burned. “This [lake of fire] means the second death”—death from which there is no hope of coming back to life.—Revelation 20:14.
The lake of fire has a meaning similar to that of “the fiery Gehenna [hell fire, King James Version]” that Jesus spoke of. (Matthew 5:22; Mark 9:47, 48) Gehenna occurs 12 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, and it refers to the valley of Hinnom, outside the walls of Jerusalem. When Jesus was on earth, this valley was used as a garbage dump, “where the dead bodies of criminals, and the carcasses of animals, and every other kind of filth was cast.” (Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible) The fires were kept burning by adding sulfur to burn up the refuse. Jesus used that valley as a proper symbol of everlasting destruction.
As does Gehenna, the lake of fire symbolizes eternal destruction. Death and Hades are “hurled into” it in that they will be done away with when mankind is freed from sin and the condemnation of death. Willful, unrepentant sinners will also have their “portion” in that lake. (Revelation 21:8) They too will be annihilated forever. On the other hand, those in God’s memory who are in hell—the common grave of mankind—have a marvelous future.
Revelation 20:13 states: “The sea gave up those dead in it, and death and Hades gave up those dead in them.” Yes, the Bible hell will be emptied. As Jesus promised, “the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear [Jesus’] voice and come out.” (John 5:28, 29) Although no longer presently existing in any form, millions of dead ones who are in Jehovah God’s memory will be resurrected, or brought back to life, in a restored earthly paradise.—Luke 23:43; Acts 24:15.
In the new world of God’s making, resurrected humans who comply with his righteous laws will never need to die again. (Isaiah 25:8) Jehovah “will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.” In fact, “the former things [will] have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) What a blessing is in store for those in hell—“the memorial tombs”! This blessing indeed is reason enough for us to take in more knowledge of Jehovah God and his Son, Jesus Christ.—John 17:3.
In the King James Version, the Greek word Hades is rendered “hell” in each of its ten occurrences in the Christian Greek Scriptures. The rendering at Luke 16:19-31 mentions torment, but the entire account is symbolic in meaning. See chapter 88 of The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Hebrew word Sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and is rendered “hell,” “grave,” and “pit” in the King James Version.
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Job prayed for protection in hell
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Fiery Gehenna—a symbol of eternal destruction
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‘Those in the memorial tombs will come out’