What Is Hell?

After our recent meeting a friend of mine and I had a discussion on hell and whether or not it was a place of eternal suffering without end. Many of our Evangelical brothers would believe that it is a place of eternal suffering. However other Christians would say that all who are cast into hell will be consumed and cease to exist. Still others would insist that hell is a purifying process after which a person going through it would then be made pure to enter heaven. They would believe that in the end all men will be saved. So who is right? What does the Bible actually teach? The following is a study I have put together on the subject after prayer, research, thinking, and meditating.


The first place where we encounter the idea of hell is in the Old Testament. It is called Sheol and is mentioned over 60 times. However it was not seen as a place of punishment. Instead it was seen as the common grave of all mankind. It didn't matter whether you were rich, poor, good, evil, master or slave you still went to Sheol. Job speaks of this idea when he says

11 "Why did I not die at birth?
Why did I not perish when I came from the womb?

12 Why did the knees receive me?
Or why the breasts, that I should nurse?

13 For now I would have lain still and been quiet,
I would have been asleep;
Then I would have been at rest

14 With kings and counselors of the earth,
Who built ruins for themselves,

15 Or with princes who had gold,
Who filled their houses with silver;

16 Or why was I not hidden like a stillborn child,
Like infants who never saw light?

17 There the wicked cease from troubling,
And there the weary are at rest.

18 There the prisoners rest together;
They do not hear the voice of the oppressor.

19 The small and great are there,
And the servant is free from his master (Job 3:11-19 (New King James Version)

To the ancient Hebrews Sheol was also seen as a deep dark region, a pit where all was forgotten. Those there were cut off from God and from the living above them. The idea was that the dead were abandoned forever. Sheol was also seen as a bleak subterranean region where the dead both bad and good, subsisted as impotent shadows. It was also seen as a dark underground realm in which all the dead, regardless of indiviual merit, were housed indiscriminately. There was no concept of eternal punishment. Neither was there any belief before the second century BC of an immortal soul living beyond death, nor of any resurrection or return from death. Human beings like animals were made from dust and at death went back to the dust. If one suffered extreme circumstances in life it could actually be seen as a relief to go to Sheol as there would be a relief from the pain and sufferings of this life as he would enter a land of forgetfulness. After the second century BC there is a concept by some that the righteous were waiting in Abraham's Bosom for the resurrection. Sheol equate to Hades in the Greek of which I will have more to say when I look at the New Testament teaching on hell. So Sheol then was the original idea of hell. How does that differ from Jesus and the New Testament views of hell?


In the Gospels Jesus introduces several concepts of hell. The first is Gehenna. Originally it was a valley outside Jerusalem in which fires were kept burning 24 hours a day and never went out. It was where all the cities trash was taken to be burned. It was also where the dead bodies of animals and criminals were taken to be consumed by the constant fire. It was also where the worshippers of Baal sacrificed their children by fire to their God Molech. Jewish tradition suggests that there was a gate leading down to a molten lake of fire. As time progressed Gehenna came to be seen as the place of everlasting destruction in Jewish tradition. The Rabbis taught that the most time a person could spend in Gehenna was one year. However they also taught that five people would be exmpted from that and would be in Gehenna for all of eternity. They also saw Gehenna as a Purgatory like place where the wicked go to suffer until they have atoned for their sins.

The first reference Jesus makes to Gehenna is found in Matthew 5:22 which says

22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ¡®Raca!¡¯ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ¡®You fool!¡¯ shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22 (New King James Version)

Here Jesus describes Gehenna as being a place of fire. In the scriptures there are at least two purposes for fire. It is to either refine something to make it pure or to completely destroy something. Jesus elaborates more on Gehenna later in the chapter in verses 29-30 in which he indicates it is a place to be avoided at all costs. He says if would be better to enter eternal life maimed than to be cast into Gehenna.

The next reference of Jesus to Gehenna is found in Matthew 10:28. There He says

"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." Matthew 10:28 (New King James Version)

What is Jesus talking about here. As used in the Greek the word is apollumi meaning to destroy fully. This then would seem to infer that Jesus thought of Gehenna as a place where one would be fully des troyed if one were to go there. So therefore a place to be avoided if at all possible.

Jesus adds another interesting concept to the idea of Gehenna in Matthew 23:33. Here He is talking to the religious leaders of His day and tells them

33 Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? (Matthew 23:33 (New King James Version)

The word used here for condemnation can mean damnation. It also refers to being sentenced by a tribunal either for or against someone. It can mean to bring an accusation, judgment, or justice to someone. One of the meanings for justice found in the Bible means to restore one to a place where they would have been had they never fallen. It can also mean to restore them to even a better place than they were before. In the New Testament it can mean to render a decision of justice or innocence. This could then seem to infer that Gehenna is a place of justice where one can be purified and justified. A person could thus be restored at some point to a better place (heaven?) than they were before.

Jesus again teaches on the subject of Gehenna in Mark 9:43-48. This time He says

43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched 44 where their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched.

45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched 46 where their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched.

47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire 48 where their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43-48 (New King James Version)

Here we see Jesus comparing Gehenna to an unquenchable fire. Again the idea here is its a place to be avoided at all costs. However please note it does not say what happens to those cast into Gehenna. Do they suffer in tormrnt forever? Do they cease to exist? Are they purified? The word for die Jesus uses here teleuto means to finish life, or be dead. Could it be then that in Gehenna God finishes the work he began in us to bring us to the place of purity and perfection that we can spend eternity with Him? One of the reasons humans were created was to have fellowship with God. So then is God through Gehenna purifying us to where we can do what we were created for to fellowship with Him for all of eternity? Not sure how I feel about it but I think a idea worth considering. It can also refer as we shall see when we get to Revelation that a person ceases to exist anymore.

We also need to note that verses 44 and 46 are not in the original text but were added at a later date. However that still leaves verse 48. The word worm used here means maggot. Maggots live by feeding on dead things. In the original Gehenna if the fire didn't consume all of you then the maggots would or some combination of the two. So here we see maggots feeding on those in Gehenna. What does that mean?

One commentator I read on this passage suggested that the maggots here are the thoughts we have. In this case like maggots they would feed on our minds (especially our bad thoughts). Those in Gehenna would never be able to escape the thoughts. They would constantly be confronted with them, bewailing them and never able to get away from them. Like maggots those thoughts would constantly be feeding on them never leaving them alone. Keep this in mind as I will have more to say on that idea when I look at Jesus teaching on Hades which is another word Jesus uses to describe hell. Jesus makes one last reference to Gehenna in Luke 12:5 where He again stresses its place to avoid at all costs. To balance this off and see what other thoughts Jesus has on hell we need to look at Jesus teaching on Hades/Sheol.


Hades is the equivalent of Sheol in the Old Testament. It was seen as the abode of the dead just like Sheol and about as dreary. As with Gehenna Jesus speaks of Hades/Sheol several times in the scriptures. Remembering what we saw of Sheol earlier Jesus adds a new twist to the meaning of Hades/Sheol.

Jesus first reference to Hades/Sheol is found in Matthew 11:23. There Jesus tells the city of Capernaum that it will be cast down to Hades. It also what he says in Matthew 16:18 when Jesus speaking to Peter says that the gates of hell (Hades in the Greek) would not prevail against His church. As used here it refers to the unseen, to the place of the departed souls, to the grave or to hell in its original sense (which we discussed in our study on Sheol in the Old Testament). In other words death can't defeat His church. Why? Because Jesus is life and has conquered death through His resurrection. Therefore as Paul writes in I Corinthians 15 death has no more power over us who are Christians. It is also possible that when Jesus died he descended into Hades to the part called Abrahams Bosom and took those there back to heaven with Him. (See Ephesians 4:8-10).

In Luke 16 Jesus gives a whole new twist to the idea of Hades/Sheol. Up to this time as I mentioned before had Sheol had been thought to be a place of forgetfulness, sleep, unconsciousness, where you were abandoned both by God and the living. Jesus totally wipes that idea out in his teaching here.

20 But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' 25 But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' 27 Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, 28 for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' 29 Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' 30 And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.' " (Luke 16:20-31 (New King James Version)

The rabbis had taught that Sheol was a place of rest. There was no suffering there, no remembrance of anything, just a place of total abandonment. Jesus explodes that idea here. Here he says a rich man (tradition says his name was Dives Greek for rich man) wakes up in Hades/Sheol and is in torment, He is fully conscious, able to talk, feel, remember. Just blew the Rabbis ideas to smithereens. At first the rich man wants to be comforted. He looks up into Abraham's Bosom and sees Lazarus a beggar who had begged at the rich man's gate. However the rich man could not be bothered. Only the dogs showed any compassion for Lazarus coming and licking his sores. Now the tables are reversed. At first I think the rich man doesn't fully get it. He thinks that just as he always has he can give someone an order and they will rush to obey and meet his need. So he orders Lazarus to put his finger in cold water and come comfort him. When that doesn't work I think he finally gets the message. It says the rich man was in torment. In Greek the work is basnos meaning to go to the bottom or to torture. I believe it dawns on him that this is for real. With that realization he realizes he has struck out and messed up royally. He also realizes there is no hope for him as he can't escape from where he is at. Total dejection. Then he remembers he has five brothers who are headed for this place also. At once he tries to set in motion a plan to keep them from arriving where he is at. Remember the Rabbis said the most a person could spend in Gehenna was one year. However Jesus says here that even one moment in Hades would be uncomfortable and therefore to be avoided. Also we need to note at this time Hades was divided into parts Abraham's Bosom where the righteous were and another place where everyone else was. The rich man is in the latter camp. Also I note it says he was in a flame.

A thought I wonder if that flame is a metaphorical description of the state of the rich mans mind. Could it be that he was tormenting himself. After all he could see up into Abraham's bosom and the glory there. He could see Lazarus in comfort while he was in torment or flame. He could also see what he could have had but missed. Could that revelation weigh down on him heavily, pushing him down to the bottom, to where there is no further hope. Every time he looks up he sees it all again and gets even more condemned and in this case there is no end to it. Can that be what hell is all about. Seeing what might have been and the guilt of missing it comes down heavily upon those in Hades and there is no escape from it?

Jesus in Matthew 25:41-46 Jesus is judging the nations. He has divided them into two groups the sheep on his right and the goats on his left representing righteous and unrighteous people. The former get to go into the joy of their Lord and the place prepared for them. The latter go into everlasting punishment. Be careful how you read this. It does not say they went to Gehenna or the lake of fire (we will look at in a bit) although they could have. The word for punishment here means infliction, punishment, torment.

The goats have just see Jesus, the reward of the righteous and realized they aren't going to get to experience any of it. Instead they get turned away. Again as with the rich man could the guilt, remorse be so much as they condemn themselves. Why didn't they do this, that, or the other thing. Why didn't they listen or whatever. Why oh why? Poor, poor me, On and on it would go the wailing as they realize what they've missed and there is no hope. They can't even die or kill themselves. They can just live with the torment of what they lost. This also seems to be the idea Jesus conveys in Luke 13:28 when he says there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth by some when they see the righteous in the kingdom of God and they themselves thrust out.

There is also the thought that Hades is simply the holding or waiting place for the unrighteousness until judgment day when they will be cast into the lake of fire. As we shall see in a moment that is a good possibility. It could be Jesus is teaching about Hades the waiting place and then finally Gehenna or their ultimate destiny. More on that in moment. This would also mean that God won't let those in Hades suffer with their guilt forever. God will mercifully allow them to be cast into the lake of fire to be destroyed so they no longer suffer anymore. There is one more thing Jesus has to say on hell. In this case He calls it outer darkness. Lets have a look and see what its all about.


Three times Jesus speaks of outer darkness in the Gospel of Matthew. Nowhere else does he mention this concept. So what does Jesus mean when He talks of outer darkness.

Jesus initially broaches this idea of outer darkness in Matthew 8:11-12.

11 And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 8:11-12 (New King James Version)

First we need to define who the sons of the kingdom are who are cast into outer darkness. As used here in the Greek sons refers to a remote son or child. In this case since God is our father then someone who is remote towards Him. The word for kingdom used here refers to royalty, rule, realm, reign or kingdom. So who are these people? In Matthew 7:21-27 Jesus mentions those who claim to know Him, and to have done many things in His name. His response to them is to tell them to depart from Him as He never knew or approved of them. These would be the remote children spoken of I believe in Matthew 8:12. People who thought they knew God, claimed to have a relationship with Him but never allowed themselves to get close enough to really find out what the will of the Father was for them. Instead they did what they thought was right, what looked good perhaps to them. In the end they came up short. So what is this outer darkness they were cast into.

The word used here here for outer means exterior. Darkness refers to shadiness, obscurity or darkness. So then these people are thrown to the ends of shadiness or obscurity. They will no longer count for anything. Be like in Hades, a place of no light but only darkness. It is also a place of torment as there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there. In other words not a place to want to go for a vacation but like Gehenna and Hades a place to be avoided at all costs. Jesus again speaks of outer darkness twice in Matthew 22:13 and Matthew 25:30 where it carries the same connotations.


Having looked at what Jesus says about hell lets have a look at what the apostles teach. There are only two apostles who could have anything to say closely resembling hell. The first is the Apostle Peter. In II Peter 2:4 he writes

4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment. (2 Peter 2:4 (New King James Version)

The word Peter uses here for hell is tartaroo meaning the deepest abyss of Hades, to incarcerate in eternal torment, cast down to hell.

Read this carefully. It says the angels which sinned (those who took part with Satan in his rebellion), demons are being reserved for judgment. The word used for reserved means they are being guarded to prevent them from escaping their judgment. They are being held in a fortress to make sure they are there on judgment day. So what is their judgment and what is the judgment for those who don't believe? Who will be tortured for all of eternity and who may be destroyed? To answer those questions I would like to close by looking at what the Apostle John has to say about this.

In the Book of Revelation the Apostle John mentions the lake of fire. It is the only place where it is mentioned. Biblically speaking this is not Gehenna, nor Hades/Sheol but a seperate place all its own. Some Christian scholars have connected the two i.e. Gehenna and the lake of fire as one and the same and that is certainly a good possibility, However there no definite connection there but assumption, Having said that lets look at what John has to say about the lake of fire,

First lets look at who the Bible actually says is tortured in the lake of fire. It lists three people that will be tortured forever in the lake of fire.

10 The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Revelation 20:10 (New King James Version)

Pay careful attention here. The Bible here explicitly clear who will be tortured. They are the devil, the beast and the false prophet. They are the only ones the Bible says will be tormented day and night forever. No one else is mentioned. So what happens to the rest of the unbelievers? Lets have a look and see.

Continuing on in the same chapter we see judgment begin and everyone being judged by the works they have done. In verse 14 it says that death and hell (Hades in the original) are cast into the lake of fire. I touched on this earlier. If Hades it the waiting place for the unrighteous and non believers then we saw how they were under condemnation from realizing they had missed God and under heavy guilt. If that is the case then I believe God has a plan. Rather than let them remain in that state He in His mercy casts them into the lake of fire. Please note it does not say they were tortured let alone tortured forever. Here and in Revelation 21:8 it simply says they were cast or thrown into the lake of fire period. It also says that this fire burns with fire and brimstone. The word used for burn here means to consume or set on fire. This would indicate then that they would simply be consumed or destroyed. They will cease to exist and have no consciousness of sin or anything else. They will become nothing.

I have I know presented a few different view here as I have tried to make sense of what the Bible says on the subject. Not sure where I totally stand at the moment. I believe I would reject the refining fire idea simply because I don't see it in Revelation which seems to say once in the lake of fire that's it there is no coming out again later. As for the idea of sinners and unbelievers suffering forever in hell I reject that on two accounts I think. One because I find no clear biblical support for it and secondly I can't believe God would want to watch any of his creatures suffer for all of eternity. Therefore I guess that leaves me believing that sinners and unbelievers will ultimately be destroyed i.e. cease to exist in any form. That I think best fits in my mind with the notion of a loving and merciful God. One who may let us suffer for awhile but will then bring relief. One who loves even those who reject Him and wont let them suffer indefinitely. Hope I have given you some food for thought and you have enjoyed this. Let me know what you think.

God bless you
John W. Brown

2 thoughts on “What Is Hell?

  1. This is excellent; thank you! Mainly for giving the overview of where and when each word or concept was used. My issue, and probably what made me first reconsider “standard Christianity,” is the concept of the oneness of opposites, that is i learned or realized that light/dark, tall/short etc. and also good/bad can’t be divided in “half” – they generally exist on a continuum (in the form of a bell-shaped curve, with most incidences of each “thing” being in the middle, for example most people are “average” height).

    We are all humans with for example a billion actions or thoughts in our lifetimes. What if one person committed acts and thoughts that are 50% “bad” – where would they go, and how would God separate them from someone who committed 49.999…999% bad acts? Luckily Christianity says that who gets “saved” is not about good or bad, but who “believes in” Jesus. The problem with that is there is no way to cut the scale of “belief” in half either!

    How much do we REALLY trust in what Jesus says, for example how much do each of us actually give to others or go outside of our comfort zone to trust God? The answer can only be expressed on a variable scale. A level of punishment would have to be according to “degree,” for instance a fair punishment for a lifetime of sins lasting approximately 80 years could never last an eternity. Even Hitler could probably pay for all his sins in maybe a trillion years? So then how long would it take to pay for “unbelief” or just not “getting it” during our 80-year chance? That’s why i like that in your article you discussed the concepts of hell possibly having to do with self-guilt or other concepts that go beyond “place.”

    I think it kinda has to be that the degree we are close to God is the degree we are in “heaven” and the degree we are separated is the degree we’re in “hell,” even now as we live. Then there’s the whole issue of whether we will have physical bodies and exist in a “place” but that’s a discussion for another day. Sorry if this was too long as everything is connected!

    Thanks again for the great article!

Leave a comment