Pagan religions are noted for teaching red-hot hells. The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Persians, Grecians and Hindus taught flaming hells. The Buddhists teach a hell wherein people cook and sizzle in blazing kettles. Is the Bible hell as hot as the pagans paint theirs? Here is the answer.
PEOPLE often forget they have brains when it comes to a topic such as hell. Oh, many persons will ponder on financial or other matters, but when hell is the subject they seem to prefer that someone else do the thinking. They may even push all hope of reasoning aside and declare, as one hell-fire believer did, that if he did not think the Bible taught a literal, red-hot, soul-scorching hell he would throw his Bible into the ash can. That is an extreme case. But it reflects a modern-day tendency to try to make God conform to man’s ideas of how things should be run. These opinionated persons go to the Bible, not to weigh all the evidence, but to pluck out a few texts that seem to support their view of things; and so new religions start. True Christians, however, will “let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.” (Rom. 3:4, NW) That is what we propose to do, appealing, at the same time, to common sense, as we let the Bible answer the question: Is hell hot?
From the frequency of the expression “hot as hell” it is apparent that many people view hell as being red-hot. This view has been fostered by the clergy teaching that hell is a fiery place of eternal torment for human souls. Tons of leaflets teaching a blazing hell have been printed and distributed. If you have read any of these you may have noticed that almost all point to the same four or five “proof” scriptures, such as Jesus’ story of the rich man in hell, the undying worms and unquenchable fire of Mark 9:44, the “everlasting punishment” of Matthew 25:46 and the “lake of fire” five times mentioned in the book of Revelation. We want to examine these texts. But first, to have a thorough look at the subject, let us go to the Hebrew Scriptures.
Turning to the book of Genesis, we read about the creation of the earth, seas, fish, animals and even the sun and the moon. Yet nowhere do we read about God’s creating a special underworld compartment for the broiling torment of man. It seems strange that, if he made one, God did not have recorded in the Bible the creation of such an important place as a burning hell. Yet suppose he did make one. Would not Jehovah’s love and justice have moved him to warn Adam of the full penalty of sin? Jehovah told Adam the consequence of sin was death. Are we really to think that, after Adam sinned, Jehovah changed his mind about the death sentence and decided to give Adam the torture treatment? The Bible answers: “I, Jehovah, change not.”—Mal. 3:6, AS.
But does not “hell” appear in the Hebrew Scriptures? Yes. So let us do the logical thing and pry into the background of that word “hell.” Webster’s unabridged dictionary tells us that hell corresponds to the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades. It also says that hell comes from the English word helan, meaning “to conceal.” So we have found that the early meaning of the word “hell” carried no thought of any kind of heat. It merely meant “concealed.” We have found, too, that the original Hebrew word, usually translated “hell” in English Bibles, is Sheol. Now what does Sheol mean? It simply means “a hollow place.” So the original Hebrew word perfectly corresponds with the original or early meaning of the English word “hell.”
Now that the clergy have put fire into the word “hell,” the vital question is, Did the inspired Hebrew Bible writers say that conscious life and red-hot activity exist in Sheol or hell? No, quite the opposite! Instead of blazing fire it is described as a “land of darkness.” (Job 10:21) Instead of a place of soul-chilling shrieks it is described as a place of “silence.” (Ps. 115:17) The Catholic Douay Bible, at Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, says: “The living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing more. Neither have they a reward any more: for the memory of them is forgotten. Whatsoever thy hand is able to do, do it earnestly: for neither work, nor reason, nor wisdom, nor knowledge, shall be in hell [Sheol, AS], whither thou art hastening.” So, since the “dead know nothing more,” or as the King James Version says, “the dead know not any thing,” it would be impossible for them to know conscious torment. And since there is no work in hell, how can there be activity, red-hot or otherwise?
JACOB, JONAH, JOB AND JESUS
Now let us examine what Jacob said concerning hell. After hearing that his son had seemingly been killed by a beast, Jacob said: “I will go down to my son into hell [Sheol, AS], mourning.” (Gen. 37:35, Dy) Did Jacob visualize his son in a steaming, scorching fire? And did Jacob expect to go to such a place? Clearly, Jacob did not view hell as being red-hot.
After the prophet Jonah had been swallowed by a big fish, Jonah prayed: “I cried out of the belly of hell [Sheol, AS]: and thou hast heard my voice.” (Jonas 2:3, Dy) Was it red-hot where Jonah was? No, it must have been damp and dark, although warm at fish-body temperature. Jonah spoke the way he did because he understood hell or Sheol to be the grave. For, had not Jehovah delivered him, the fish’s belly would certainly have become Jonah’s grave. If hell were eternal, Jonah would not have gotten out.
Job was a faithful servant of God. Trying to break Job’s integrity, the Devil placed Job in a miserable state of affairs. So the suffering Job prayed to God: “Who will grant me this, that thou mayst protect me in hell [Sheol, AS], and hide me till thy wrath pass, and appoint me a time when thou wilt remember me?” (Job 14:13, Dy) Since Job was already being tormented by the Devil, would he pray to be “protected” in, of all places, a Devil-managed compartment of red-hot coals? Hardly! Job would not pray to go from the frying pan into the fire! Job understood hell to be the common grave of mankind where he would rest until the resurrection.
The prophet Amos records Jehovah’s words to those who would try to escape the Almighty’s wrath: “Though they go down even to hell, thence shall my hand bring them out.” (Amos 9:2, Dy) Would the wicked, trying with all their might to flee from the wrath of God, dig into a place that would bring them only red-hot torture?
It has been said that only the children of the Devil go to hell. But if that is true, why did Job pray that he might rest in hell? And if hell were a place just for the wicked, why would God send his Son to hell? For Jesus went to hell and was there three days. At Psalm 16:10 it was prophetically written of Jesus: “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” Centuries later the apostle Peter showed, at Acts 2:31, that Psalm 16:10 had its fulfillment in Jesus, that he did indeed go to hell but that God raised him up out of that condition. So hell could not be eternal.
TORTURE WITH FIRE REPUGNANT TO GOD
How does Almighty God look upon the idea of roasting men and women in fire? Well, man is made in the image of God. Yet we would not torture a man or a woman, even for one day! Why, the man who would torture a cat is, we say, a fiend. This is natural, since man does not love fiends; he detests them. Fiendishness repels. It is repugnant to God. For when the Israelites religiously burned their children in fire, Jehovah said: “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded not, neither came it into my mind.” (Jer. 7:31, AS) Fiendishness does not even enter the mind of the Creator. And no wonder, for “God is love.”—1 John 4:8.
Thus far we have learned four things: (1) God detests fiendishness, (2) the good as well as the bad go to hell, (3) hell is not eternal, and (4) the Hebrews viewed hell or Sheol, not as a place of red-hot fire, but as the cold, silent grave.
Turning now to the Christian Greek Scriptures, we find that the word translated “hell” and that corresponds to Sheol is the Greek Hades. Does the literal meaning of Hades carry the thought of glowing fire? No, it simply means “the unseen state.” As with Sheol, there are no live people in Hades. “Death and Hades [hell, AV; Dy] gave up those dead in them.” (Rev. 20:13, NW) Since at the resurrection Hades gives up its contents of “dead” people, it is not eternal.
THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
Still does not the account of the rich man in hell put flames in Hades? Jesus said: “The rich man died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, he existing in torments, and he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in the bosom position with him. So he called and said: ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this blazing fire.’” (Luke 16:22-24, NW) Bible dictionaries list Jesus’ story as a parable. But hell-fire teachers say, No, that it is not a parable. So let us read the account, taking it literally as the hell-fire teachers say we must.
Taking it literally, we have a rich man going to a place of torment for no apparent reason other than the fact that he was rich. Are all rich people bad? Are all rich people going to a red-hot hell? The poor man goes into Abraham’s bosom. Are people going here just because they lack money? Is there enough room for all the poor people in the world to recline on Abraham’s bosom? Obviously, Bible scholars admit, Abraham’s bosom has to be interpreted figuratively. So since the fate of the poor man is symbolic, then, if the story is to be consistent, the fate of the rich man also must be symbolic. Further, if the “blazing fire” were literal, would the rich man ask for just one drop of water? Could even a bucket of water, much less a drop, get near a blazing hell? Taken literally, the account is worse than absurd: it outrages reason! Jesus spoke a parable, a story with symbolic meaning.
The parable showed how the Jewish clergy, pictured by the rich man, were self-righteous. They wore the fine linen and had good things. Lazarus pictured the remnant of Jewish people of faith despised by the clergy and who were spiritually hungry. The death of the two men pictured a change in the two classes. Jesus tormented the clergy by exposing their greed and their false teachings and their hypocrisy. This, as it were, “burned up” the clergy. The heat was on. So they had to get rid of Jesus, which they did by murdering him. So the clergy came out of a luxurious condition into one of torment. But the remnant of faith had a change for the better. Jesus’ preaching brought them spiritual food, an opportunity to come into favorable relationship with the Greater Abraham, Jehovah God. The parable has its major fulfillment today. For details see the book What Has Religion Done for Mankind? pages 246-256.
But does not the Bible speak of “hell-fire”? Yes, but the word “hell-fire” is not a translation of the Greek Hades. “Hell-fire” is translated from the Greek Gehenna. Gehenna occurs twelve times in the Bible. But the average reader does not know this, since Bible translators have rendered Gehenna as “hell” or “hell-fire.” This has caused a lot of confusion. Says the Encyclopedia Americana (1942 ed., v. 14, p. 81): “Much confusion and misunderstanding has been caused through the early translators of the Bible persistently rendering the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades and Gehenna by the word hell. The simple transliteration of these words by the translators of the revised editions of the Bible has not sufficed to appreciably clear up this confusion and misconception.”
Jesus referred to Gehenna at Mark 9:47, 48 (NW): “It is finer for you to enter one-eyed into the kingdom of God, than with two eyes to be pitched into Gehenna [hell fire, AV], where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.” Now Gehenna was a place for dumping refuse, outside the walls of Jerusalem. Its fires were kept burning to prevent pestilence. Sulphur or brimstone was added to help the burning. Bodies of executed criminals, thought to be unworthy of a resurrection, were sometimes thrown into Gehenna. But live persons were never cast there. When bodies or garbage fell upon the edges of Gehenna, the exposed matter would putrefy and breed worms. The worms finally destroyed the matter. So there were always worms and always fire to destroy matter. Jesus used Gehenna as a symbol, not for everlasting torment, but for everlasting destruction.
The “lake of fire” is also a symbolic term for everlasting destruction: “Death and Hades [hell, AV] were hurled into the lake of fire. This means the second death, the lake of fire.” (Rev. 20:14, NW) So the “lake of fire” means “the second death,” a destruction that lasts forever and ever, with no hope of a resurrection.
Note that hell or Hades is eternally destroyed. For hell, says Revelation 20:14, must be hurled into the “lake of fire.” If hell is the lake of fire, as many say, how can it be cast into itself?
As to the “everlasting punishment” of Matthew 25:46, the original Greek word does not carry the idea of torment but of a cutting off from life. Thus the New World Translation renders it correctly as “everlasting cutting-off.”
But what of Revelation 20:10 about the Devil’s being “tormented day and night for ever and ever”? In Jesus’ time jailers were called “tormenters.” So when the Scripture says he will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” in the “lake of fire,” it means that the Devil will be restrained in a never-ending detention of destruction. Indeed, it will be “for ever and ever.”
The Bible has answered our question. It has shown that Hades, Sheol or hell is the common grave of mankind. At the resurrection hell gives up its dead. Jehovah destroys hell, for it is cast into the “lake of fire.” Gehenna represents the state of destruction that lasts forever and ever. There is no hope of a resurrection for those in Gehenna. So the fiery hells are only pagan hells. The Bible hell (Sheol-Hades) is not hot, but is the dark, silent grave.
- February 1st, 1955 Watchtower, WTB&TS