Differing Beliefs About What "Hell" Is


The Bible indicates, when all Scripture is taken into account, that the life of man is represented as falling into three stages.  1. The period from birth to death, obviously.  Even nonbelievers know that one.  This would be life in the physical body, spent on this physical earth.  2. Second, is life in what would appear to be an intermediate state, falling between the time of a person's death and his or her resurrection.  As the Bible says "It is appointed for all men to die, and then the resurrection."  The Bible says there are two, and only two major resurrections, one to eternal life (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:49-56) and the other is a massive physical resurrection back to life, mentioned in John 5:28-29, Daniel 12:1-3 and Revelation 20:5,11-13, where this resurrection is called the great white throne judgment.  But what happens between the time of person's death and their resurrection into one of those two major resurrections?  The Bible is not totally clear on this one.  "The Bible does not have a great deal to say regarding this intermediate state.  Rather, it focuses attention on the second coming of Christ and the glories of heaven that will follow.  For this reason, while such a state is generally acknowledged by Christians everywhere, there are differences of opinion [belief] regarding its nature: whether the soul is conscious or asleep, whether those who die unsaved have another chance in the next life, whether the wicked will be annihilated" (Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, p. 381).  In that short quote you will find the key disagreements of belief about what happens after the physical death of an individual.  We'll be looking at these differing beliefs, and I will try to remain as neutral as I possibly can.  


The intermediate state


"spirit in man" or "the soul"


This is where there are a myriad of beliefs amongst the differing parts of the body of Christ.  This intermediate state is life without the body.  The Bible says every human being born has a "spirit-in-man", or "spirit-of-man".  Many refer to this as "the soul".  Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9-13 made reference to this spirit essence in man, indicating it is the human spirit God places within all humans, and that this "spirit" is what imparts human intellect and intelligence to that individual.  There are also many nebulous teachings about what the soul is, but I'll stick to Paul's Biblical explanation.  The Bible doesn't say much more than that.  It mentions the "spirit in man", "spirit of man" or "man's spirit" several times, both in the New Testament and Old Testament. 


Soul sleep verses a conscious soul


There are two major beliefs within the body of Christ about what happens to this "soul" or "spirit in man" upon death.  1. The soul or spirit in man is conscious upon death and is conscious up until it is reunited with the body in the resurrection.  2. The soul or spirit in man is unconscious upon death, and remains so until the resurrection of that person's body.  (There are also differing beliefs as to whether those who die unsaved have another opportunity for salvation in the next life, and whether the wicked will be annihilated, burned up, dead forever, or suffer in some ever-burning hell-fire.)  The New Testament sometimes represents the intermediate state as a sleeping.  Soul-sleep is the term coined by believers to describe this belief.  Paul often refers to the dying of a saint as "falling asleep".  Jesus first used the term in Matthew 9:24 when talking of the girl who had died, before he resurrected her back to life.  He said, "Give place, for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth."  The girl had clearly died just before Jesus' arrival, the mourners were already wailing in grief.  But the way Jesus viewed it, is since he is the resurrection and the life, she was merely sleeping.  John 11:11. "These things said he: and after that he saith to them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep."  1 Thessalonians 4:13, 15, "But I would not have you be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope…For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.  For the Lord himself shall descend [time of his 2nd coming] from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead [i.e. those that are "asleep"] shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."  2 Peter 3:3-4, "Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of his coming?  for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation."  Some denominations, not wanting to believe the "soul" or "spirit in man" is totally unconscious, say this is like a sleep where a person is not aware of his or her surroundings, but is like in a dream state, not wanting to appear to be going against these just mentioned passages.  Others say the "soul" or "spirit in man" is totally conscious.  The souls' of believers are in heaven, they teach, while the souls of the unsaved dead are on earth in some kind of spiritual torment as a result of being separate from God.  i.e. they are on earth with all the demons that are on earth, and they are in a conscious state.  We will look at all these beliefs and critical passages, which if taken one way prove the soul is conscious upon death, and if taken another way, the soul is unconscious upon death.  Since there is so much divergence of belief on these matters, soul sleep verses being conscious, what hell is, and isn't, these beliefs most definitely fall into the secondary area of Bible doctrine, not effecting one's chances for eternal life one bit, no matter what you believe.  So read this, and you decide for yourself what you want to believe.  Obviously, use caution, what you decide to believe may not be what your denomination teaches or believes.  Just a word to the wise, should you change what you believe, and it goes against what your denomination teaches and believes, keep it to yourself.  God hates divisiveness.  If you feel really uncomfortable about hearing from the pulpit what you no longer believe, then it is time for you to find a new denomination that teaches what you now believe.  But remember, this stuff is all secondary doctrine.


The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man--- Now there are two ways we can look at this parable---literally or figuratively.


The parable of Lazarus is one of the key passages of Scripture on which differing denominations base their teachings about whether the soul is conscious or unconscious, as well as what Hell is going to be like for those thrown into it (Luke 16:19-31).  Those that take soul sleep to mean straightforward unconsciousness would interpret this passage about Lazarus as being purely figurative, where Jesus used the Hellenized false teaching about Hades being the place where the spirits of the dead were kept, which came out of pagan Greek mythology, and that Jesus was making his point using the Greek mythological interpretation of Hades before his Hellenized Jewish audience.  First we'll try to objectively analyze this parable from both perspectives.


Scriptural evidence for the soul is unconscious upon death, until the resurrection of the body


The Scriptures of the Old Testament, when added to 1st Corinthians 15:49-54 and Revelation 20:5, 11-13, and Revelation 20:14-15 indicate the dead know nothing until they are resurrected back to life.  The righteous dead will be in the first resurrection to immortality.  The unrighteous dead or "unsaved dead" will all come up in the general resurrection at the period of time spoken of in Revelation 20:5, 11-13, which is called there the Great White Throne Judgment.  When Old Testament Scriptures are taken literally that describe "the spirit in man" and death, they point toward the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man should be interpreted figuratively.  Let's see.  According to the following Old Testament Scriptures, when a person dies and is buried in his grave, he knows absolutely nothing.  Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. And they have no more reward.  For the memory of them is forgotten.  Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished…"  This indicates that even conscious thought ceases when one dies, including all their emotions.  This Scripture would indicate that the spirits of the dead are not conscious.  The "spirit in man" gives man his intelligence and mind-power to comprehend the things of man, as well as his intellect [i.e. science, history, languages, the arts.  Things that a cow or dog have no comprehension of].  This verse indicates all conscious thought ceases when life ceases---no wandering spirits of the deceased in mental anguish for all eternity, as some interpret, or until they are resurrected in the Great White Throne Judgment, as others interpret.  Now let's turn to Ecclesiastes 3:19-20, "For what happens to the sons of men also happens to beasts; one thing befalls them; as one dies, so dies the other.  Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over beasts, for all is vanity.  All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust."  Now verse 21 gets interesting.  The spirit of man, and the spirit of or in beasts is mentioned.  "Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward [upon the death of the person], and the spirit of the beast, which goes down to the earth?"  [emphasis mine throughout] What is interesting about this is that this passage indicates that the spirits of all dead people go "upward" (obviously to God for safe-keeping).  Ecclesiastes 12:7, "Then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it."  1 Corinthians 2:11 sheds a little more light on this "spirit in or of man."  "For what man knows the things of a man except [for] the spirit of the man which is in him?..."  The book of Ecclesiastes is part of the Word of God, and it says this "spirit in man" ceases to function upon the death of an individual, and that it goes back to God.  It does not say only the spirits of good people go back to God.  It says this spirit in man for every human being goes back to God upon death, and that all conscious thought ceases.  But again, those that interpret the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man literally have to interpret these Old Testament verses figuratively.  I know of one denomination, when I asked about these verses in Ecclesiastes told me, "We do not use the works of Solomon in Ecclesiastes for determining doctrine."  What about the rest of Old Testament then?  Genesis 3:19, "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."  (signed, God.)  What about David?  Is there any remembrance of God in death?  Psalm 6:5, "For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave who will give you thanks?".  So for those who choose to interpret the parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man literally, they must take these passages in the Old Testament figuratively.  Can you see the doctrinal pendulum the secondary doctrine of soul-sleep verses a conscious soul swings on?  Now going a little further in the soul or spirit in man is unconscious upon death track.  What place does God say man goes when he dies?  Ecclesiastes 9:10, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going."  Now for a New Testament Scripture, Acts 2:29, 34, "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day…For David did not ascend into the heavens"  So, if what these Scriptures indicate is true, the spirit in man, or the spirit of man, or the soul is not a conscious entity upon the death of an individual, but just the spirit software that God places in every person, probably at conception [and yes, that would make abortion murder at any stage of pregnancy].  Yes, as Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes, the human spirit, soul goes back to God, in the third heaven, but no it is not conscious.  It merely holds all the memories and the exact image of what that person was, so that in the resurrection of that person, an exact duplicate body can be reproduced.  How is this article saved?  On the hard drive of my computer.  But I also back it upon on a floppy or CD.  If the computer dies, I can reproduce the article on another computer.  Now I know, analogies break down and can be carried only so far.  Simple and crude as it is, it appears this is what the soul or spirit in man does, it's the brain's software and long-term memory storage medium.  It is not physical, it is composed of spirit.


1.) Taking the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man figuratively:  If this parable is to be taken figuratively, as it is indicated when the related Old Testament Scriptures and Acts 2:29,34 are taken into account, then this is how the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man should be interpreted: "If we are Christ's, we become heirs with Abraham to receive the promises of God made to him (Galatians 3:29).  Through faith we all become spiritual "children of Abraham" (vs. 7).  This is an intimate relationship---a close or bosom relationship, spiritually speaking---with Abraham.  This is the sense in which righteous Lazarus was taken to "Abraham's bosom" if we are taking this parable figuratively and not literally.  When, then, will Abraham and the Lazarus of Jesus' parable actually receive the promises?  The answer given in the Bible is that Abraham and the saints---his spiritual "seed"---will inherit the promises at the resurrection of the just, when Jesus returns to earth (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:49-54; Revelation 19:8-21; Revelation 20:4-6; 11:15-18).  The word "hell" [in the King James Version] used here is translated from the Greek word hades which we know means the "grave."  It is not from the Greek word Gehenna, which represents the future Lake of Fire that will destroy the wicked forever.  The rich man is pictured after he has come out of his grave through a resurrection and some time afterward (if he remains unrepentant—assumed interpretation), enters into the Lake of Fire.  This phrase depicts Abraham and Lazarus having already inherited eternal life in God's kingdom (Matthew 25:34).  They are pictured as having been immortal for more than 1,000 years (cf. Revelation 20:5) before the wicked rich man is resurrected.  Then if he remains unrepentant (many believe he never has another chance) he enters into the Lake of Fire (cf. Revelation 20:14-15).  At this time the rich man will see the flames of the lake of fire beginning to surround him.  If Revelation 20:14-15 is taken literally, he will then die in this lake of fire.  No more eternal torment at all, just merciful death.  The great "gulf" between the two, Lazarus and the Rich Man represents the difference between mortality and immortality.  Those who have been made immortal shall never die.  Abraham and Lazarus are pictured on the immortal side of this gulf---the Rich man on the mortal side, facing imminent eternal death by fire.  The parable graphically illustrates the rich man wanting to have his relatives warned (verses 27-28), not realizing how much time has already elapsed since he died.  For those who choose to interpret (or those denominations that choose to interpret) the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man figuratively, this parable does not prove eternal punishing by God in hell fire if those passages I mentioned are included in the mix, and taken literally.  Remember the pendulum analogy? 


2.) Taking the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man literally.  If taken literally, not allowing for any modification of meaning by the rest of the Bible Scriptures I mentioned, the parable has this meaning: 1) The spirit in man remains conscious after death.  The good 'spirits' go to heaven to be with the Lord, and the unrepentant ones wander on the earth in mental torment until the second resurrection (but God would then resurrect them all at the time of the Great White Throne Judgment, where then they would be judged guilty and thrown into the Lake of Fire [cf. Revelation 20:14-15]).  2.) Hades is a place where the unrepentant spirits of man, souls of men, wander in torment and anguish [even flame, as some believe] (Luke 16:23).  Some may say they're in anguish because they're stuck on earth with Satan and all the demons.  3.) The dead go to this Hades, intermediate state, immediately (Luke 16:27-29).  Notice Jesus never said this was a place of eternal torment in the parable, but just a place of torment (vs. 28).


3.) The Parable stated:   Luke 16:19-31, (New King James Version), "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.  [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, [this is definitely a Greek mythological view of Hades.  Were the Greeks right?  Or was Jesus making a figurative point?  We will have time to examine that thought later, so hold onto it.]  he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.  [24] Then he cried out 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 23:43, "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise"


Those that follow this literal interpretation of Lazarus and the Rich Man also use Luke 23:43 "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise" as a proof that the spirit in man or "soul" is conscious after death.  The whole Scripture passage is "And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise."  In the Greek there is no punctuation, so this could read "Verily I say unto thee today, shalt thou be with me in Paradise" or "Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise."  The whole meaning of timing of when he would be with Jesus Paradise is changed by the location of one comma.  And we don't know where the comma was supposed to be from the Greek manuscripts.  So hanging a conscious spirit in man upon death on this one passage is insufficient to form solid doctrine.  Also the Lazarus passage can be taken either figuratively or literally.  So it would appear the actual truth is not clearly spelled out in Scripture, and one is free to believe what one likes concerning these two choices.  Jesus will tell us later upon his return, which is correct doctrine.  Or some of us will find out at the time of our of our "passing on." 


Three different "Hells"


A Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hastings, has this to say about "hell" in the Old and New Testaments, "In our Authorized Version [King James Version] the word "hell" is unfortunately used as the rendering for three distinct words with different ideas [or meanings].  It represents (1) the 'sheol' of the Hebrew Old Testament, and the 'hades' of…the New Testament….It is now an entirely misleading rendering, especially in the New Testament passages.  The English revisers, therefore, have substituted 'Hades' [going back to the original Greek word] for "hell" in the New Testament…."  "The word "hell" is used (2) as equivalent to [the Greek word] 'tartaros'…in II Peter 2:4…[and] (3)…as the equivalent of [the Greek word] 'gehenna'".  So we see that the real meanings of the three different Greek words---hades (equivalent to the Hebrew sheol of the Old Testament), tartaros and Gehenna---have been confused with each other because translators have attempted to make the one English word "hell" cover the definitions of all three words.

Tataros: The Greek word Tataros, occurs as a verb from in the New Testament.  It is found only in II Peter 2:4, where it has been translated into the English expression "cast…down to hell."  Tataros does not refer to humans, but to the restrained condition of fallen angels (or demons).  It's meaning, translated into English is "darkness of the material universe," "dark abyss" or "prison."

Gehenna:  This Greek word is derived from the name of the narrow, rocky Valley of Hinnon, which is just outside of Jerusalem.  It was a place where refuse, trash and dead bodies of animals and criminals were burned up. Despised criminals were thrown into the fires of Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom.  It was like a garbage dump fire.  Almost everything thrown into this valley was burned up, destroyed by fire, completely burned up.  Jesus Christ used the word Gehenna to picture the fate of unrepentant sinners. 

The Old Testament Sheol, New Testament Hades:  Hebrew sheol and Greek hades essentially mean the same thing, simply the grave.  These words have been correctly translated as "grave" in many places in the Bible.  However, these words have also been translated "hell."

Hell:  "Hell" is an old English word.  More than 350 years ago, when the Authorized Version was translated, the people of England commonly talked about "putting their potatoes in hell for the winter"---a good way of preserving potatoes---for the word meant merely a hole in the ground that was covered up---a dark and silent place---a grave.  Whenever you're in doubt about the intended meaning of the word "hell" in the New Testament, look it up in an exhaustive concordance, such as Strong's or Young's to see which Greek word it was translated from, and hence its true meaning.  [Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, page 478, col. 1 in my old Strong's]  But misconceptions caused people to misapply the old English word "hell" to the lurid imaginations of Dante.




Luke 12:5, "But I will show you whom to fear: Fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear him!"  Greek word for "hell" here is Gehenna. 

Acts 2:31, "he foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, nor did his flesh see corruption."  Greek word for "hell" used here is Hades, which by the usage here obviously means the "grave."  So when we come to the word "hell" in the New Testament (except for in II Peter 2:4), we must keep in mind these two vastly different meanings and carefully determine by the context whether it refers to destruction by fire, or the grave where the dead lie buried.  Now for Dante Alighieri.


Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy

(or "the joke's on us")


Now let's look at someone who in the 1200s AD forever altered our interpretation of the Greek word Hades.  Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote a very popular poem, La Divina Commedia, in thee parts---Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.  "Of all poets of modern times," says a modern author, "Dante Alighieri was, perhaps, the greatest educator.  He possibly had a greater influence on the course of civilization than any other man since his day…[He] wrote…an imaginative and lurid account of a dismal journey through a lurid hell---a long poem containing certain phrases which have caught the attention of the world, such as, 'All hope abandon here, Ye, who enter here'" (Thomas N. Page, Dante and His Influence, pp. 3,7).  But let's look to Dante's sources for his inspiration.  He is reported to have been smitten by the ideas and philosophies of the Greek and Roman philosophers Plato and Virgil, so much so that he personally believed they were divinely inspired.  Who were Plato and Virgil.  "Virgil, pagan Roman poet, 70-19 B.C. belonged to the national school of pagan Roman thought, influenced by the Greek writers.  Plato was a Greek philosopher, born in Athens, 427 B.C., was a student of the renowned Socrates.  Plato's famous literally work Phaedo taught the immortality of the soul---the foundation for other writings on the doctrine of an eternal hell where wicked souls are supposedly punished forever.  Through his 13th century admirer, Dante Alighieri, Plato's pagan concepts became the main source of Christianity's concept of eternal punishment in hell, which the Greeks called Hades.  But Acts 2:29, 34 show hades as a neutral word merely conveying the grave. 




Annihilationism holds to the view that there is no conscious existence, if any existence at all, of the wicked after death:  Now I got that definition from Zondervan's Bible Dictionary, and it is not quite correct.  Annihilationism holds to the view that there is no conscious existence, if any existence at all, of the wicked after the second death.  Those that are annihilationist can believe in a "soul" that is conscious after death, or they can believe in a "soul" that is unconscious after death.  But ultimately, when that soul is reunited with its body in the 2nd resurrection (Revelation 20:11-13), it is thereupon thrown into the lake of fire (cf. Revelation 20:14-15).  Support for annihilationism is found in those passages of Scripture which represent eternal life and immortality as a gift of God to those who believe in Christ.  See John 3:16; 10:27-28; 17:3; Romans 2:7; 6:22-23; Galatians 6:8.  The "death" and "destruction" with which sinners are threatened are interpreted to mean non-existence are found in these Scriptures: Matthew 7:13; 10:28; John 3:16; 8:23; II Thessalonians 1:9, and I might add two very conclusive ones, Revelation 20:6, 14-15.  Revelation 20:6 states, "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power: but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years."  Does Revelation 20 define what the second death is?  Yes, Revelation 20:14, "And death and hell [Strongs #86, Greek "hades", the grave, hell] were cast into the lake of fire.  This is the second death."  Verse 14 clearly defines the second death as the "lake of fire."  It says death and hades were cast into the "lake of fire", and that this is the second death.  Verse 15 states, "And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."  This key passage went unmentioned in Zondervan's Bible Dictionary.  There is something to the annihilationist position, as there is also something to those that chose not to believe in it, but in an everlasting punishment.


everlasting punishment


Support for everlasting punishment of the wicked is found, as we've seen, in a literal interpretation of Luke 16, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man, and also in Matthew 18:8; 25:41,46; Mark 9:43-44 [but I might add, the word for "hell" used here in Mark 9:43-44 is Gehenna, i.e. the lake of fire, so this verse could go either way]; Revelation 14:9-11. 


Fate of the "unsaved dead"


At the end of the next article that follows this one, the subject of the unsaved dead will be covered in more detail.


I have tried to present the subject of "hell", "the intermediate state, and  "eternal punishment" in as neutral and unbiased a way as is possible. 
Whether I have succeeded or not remains to be seen.  Comments welcome on my Guestbook.  If you can think of any passages I have missed, tell me and I may revise this piece to include them.  editor.


Here is an article by a member of a Sabbatarian Church of God which has a very interesting take on the subject of the difference between what the soul: is and what the spirit in man: is.  This article, if it is true, may help resolve many doctrinal issues, making the Biblical truth more evident in these areas.  Again, we'll find out what's really true at Jesus' return.  But this is a very interesting take on these words found in the Bible which may resolve a lot of questions.  Enjoy, the editor.


soul vs. spirit:  What is The Difference?


by Duncan MacLeod


Do you know the difference between your human spirit and your soul?  The world's Christianity: has so hopelessly muddled together these two concepts that some even think they are interchangeable.  This has led to the misreading of many Scriptures, so that people can believe that their soul goes to heaven at death: and other false, unbiblical ideas.  The pagan doctrine of the immortal soul: then can be perpetuated among Christians, despite the fact that the Bible teaches the exact opposite.


What is your 'human' spirit?


The Bible consistently distinguishes between your human spirit (or the spirit in man:) and your soul.  "For the word of God is quick, powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit..." (Heb. 4:12).  The fact that God inspires two distinct words---in both the Old and the New Testaments---to be used for these two different entities should tell us that it is pretty important to God that we not confuse the two, as the world tends to do.


Two Hebrew words:  Ruach: verses Nephesh:


The Hebrew word translated spirit: in the Old Testament is ruach (sometimes also spelled ruwach).  The Hebrew word translated soul: is nephesh---a completely different word.  Ruach is also translated breath: and sometimes wind.:  It's helpful to understand these alternate meanings, because they give a clue as to what spirit: means.  Breath and wind are air under force.  When used to denote human spirit, the word implies something dynamic, or having a kind of life-force.  It also denotes consciousness and rational awareness, as well as feelings and attitudes.  When used to denote God's Holy Spirit, it's an entirely different situation, which this article is not covering.


Two Greek words:  "pneuma" verses "pseuche"


As in Hebrew, so in New Testament Greek, God inspired two different words for soul and spirit.  The word spirit: is translated from the Greek pneuma, which means nearly the same thing in Greek as the Hebrew ruach---air under force.  This word also is often translated breath: or wind.:  And the Greek word for soul: is pseuche.  Let us examine some Bible passages where either ruach or pneuma is translated spirit,: meaning human spirit (not divine or Holy Spirit).  In Job 32:8, we read that there is a spirit in man,: which God gives to each person, probably at conception, and which returns to God at the person's death (Ecc. 12:7).  Job 32:8 " But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding."  Ecclesiastes 12:7 "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it."  This human spirit adds the non-physical dimension of rational, conscious awareness and understanding that distinguishes human beings from animals and gives us the ability to understand human: subjects such as history, psychology, mathematics and science (I Cor. 2:11).  It also gives humans the capacity to make choices and decisions, rather than be controlled only by instinct.  Our human spirit also makes us able to imagine, hope, dream and plan---to grasp concepts like future: and past.:  1st Corinthians 2:11 " For what man knows the things of a man except [by] the spirit of the man which is in him?  Even so no one knows the things of God except [by] the Spirit of God."  Finally, the words for spirit are often used to denote emotions and attitudes (see Prov. 11:13; 14:29; 15:13; 16:32; 25:28; Ecc. 7:8; Isa. 66:2 and many others).  Notice, our emotions and attitudes can and should be directed and controlled by us (Prov. 15:13; 25:28); and while God will help us in exercising that control, He will not Himself take control of us (I Cor. 15:32).  Satan and his demons, on the other hand, would love to control anyone they could.  In some unusual circumstances, it seems, God permits a demon to possess a personÖ¹we only know it is possible, because Christ expelled demons from a number of people.


What is a "Soul"?


The Hebrew word translated soul: is nephesh; the Greek word is pseuche.  Both of these denote a combination of physical life, including the living body and brain, and inner consciousness.  Even animal life can have nephesh or pseuche, and these words sometimes are translated that way.  Explaining the Biblical meaning of these words when applied to human beings can be tricky, but if we go back to Genesis 2:7, where the word nephesh (soul) first occurs, we see that God breathed into the man the breath of life (ruach, spirit), and he BECAME a living soul.:  Notice it does NOT say received: a living soul.  The soul is not something you have; the soul is what you ARE---it is the entire package, both physical body and brain and human spirit---your entire being,  your very life.  Occasionally dead souls: are pictured, as in John's vision in Revelation 6:9 of the souls: of the martyrs lying under the altar who were slain for the Word of God.:  What John most likely saw in his vision looked like dead bodies lying under the altar, as if they had been sacrificed.


The computer analogy seems to fit


An analogy that helps illustrate the difference between the human spirit and the soul is a computer and its softward CDs.  By itself, a computer is nothing more than a device sitting on a desk.  Until you plug it in and turn it on, it does nothing.  When God first created man from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), he was just a body lying there until God breathed into him the breath of life.  But just as a computer turned on still does nothing until software is inserted, so the man even with the breath of life was only a creature---until the human spirit was added, making him human.  With the spirit in man,: he IS (not has:) a soul.:  He now is able to function as a human being, learning the things of a man: (I Cor. 2:11), and having human feelings, emotions, aspirations and concerns.  The entire package of body and brain with the breath of life---plus the spirit in man: IS the soul: as the Bible uses the term.  This is what nephesh and pseuche mean; and in many passages a better translation than soul: might be life: or being.:  Computer software contains information and records;  but it does nothing until it is inserted into a turned-on computer.  The human spirit is also a spiritual record for God of everything there is to know about you---all your thoughts and feelings and every physical detail about you.  From this record, which at death returns to God, who gave it, He will some day resurrect each person to new life.  [Comment: Jesus stated in John 5:28, Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which "all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come forth"  Everyone, holy, good, bad, evil, is slated to come up in one of the two major resurrections spelled out in God's Word.  Those are Jesus' words, not mine.]  In the meantime, the person's spirit once the body is dead has no consciousness, nor does it function in any sense whatsoever---any more than software sitting on a desk does anything outside of the computer.  Some point to this passage in Ecc. 12:7 and say, See, the person's spirit goes to heaven at death.:  True, the spirit in a person returns to God in heaven where God is; but the spirit in man is NOT the soul!  The Bible proves this.  Psalm 146:4 tells us that at death a person's thoughts perish.:  Psalm 146:4, "Do not put your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.  His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish."  Ecc. 3:19 tells us that as the animal dies, so dies the man, and Ecc. 9:5 tells us "The dead do not know anything.'  Ecclesiastes 3:19-21, "For what happens to the sons of men also happens to the animals; one thing befalls them:  as one dies, so dies the other.  Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity.  All go to one place:  all are from the dust, and all return to dust.  Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth?"  So the bodies of dead people and animals decay, while the spirit (spirit software, if you will) of humans goes back to God, and the spirit (software) of animals goes into the ground, i.e. animal spirit-software goes into nothingness.  Ecclesiastes 9:4-5, 10, "But for him who is joined to all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.  For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.  Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going."  Does the New Testament back up these Old Testament verses?  Paul often speaks of death as being like sleep.:  1st Thessalonians 4:14, "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus."  1st Corinthians 11:30, "For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep."  1st Corinthians 15:51, "Behold, I tell you a mystery:  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed---in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet" Death is like sleep in some ways, but not in all ways.  In sleep, we sometimes dream.  In death, there is no dreaming or any other sort of mental activity.  The dead are DEAD; and dead: means dead---totally without any consciousness or awareness of any kind.  The future resurrection(s) then occurs at the next moment of our consciousness, though centuries may actually have gone by.


The LIE of the "Immortal Soul"


Like all lies, Satan is the father of the immortal soul: notion.  In the Garden of Eden---after Eve related how God had told them if they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they would surely die---Satan said, "In dying you shall not surely die" (Gen. 3:4).  The King James translation is not as clear here.  The Hebrew sounds almost like double-talk (maybe because it was).  What do you mean, In dying you shall not surely die:?  Satan meant---to put it in modern vernacular, "When you die, you won't really die."  i.e.: "Your body will die, but your soul won't.  It will live on, because it's immortal."  Nearly every false religion down through history has perpetuated that lie---even many unsuspecting parts of Christianity have bought into this lie, unknowingly, thinking and believing that their souls: go to heaven when they die, fully conscious and all that.  They haven't bothered to make the distinction, like the Bible does, between soul: (Hebrew nephesh:, Greek pseuche:) and spirit: in man (Hebrew ruach: and Greek pneuma:).  It's about time we all started to divide the Word of God properly in these matters, and then a lot of Bible doctrines would start to straighten themselves out.


How do we know the "immortal soul" idea is a lie?


Note what God said a few verses later.  "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to decide good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever---Therefore, the Lord GOD sent him out from the Garden of Eden" (Gen. 3:22, 23).  God did NOT allow Adam and Even to live forever.:  Referring to Jesus Christ, Paul says, "Who alone has immortality" (I Tim. 6:16).  Of all those who ever walked the earth in physical flesh, ONLY JESUS CHRIST has immortality---so far.  Note what Paul tells us, speaking of the future resurrection of the faithful dead in Christ: "This mortal must put on immortality" (I Cor. 15:51).  Why will we have to put on immortality?  Because right now, we DO NOT HAVE IT!  In Matt. 10:28 (KJV), Jesus tells his disciples, "but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna] fire."  God can destroy the soul.  It is not immortal.  It consists of both living flesh and human spirit.  We need to never confuse the human spirit with the soul.  Keeping the two straight will save us from embracing a lot of erroneous beliefs held in the world and also by unsuspecting Christianity early on [see http://www.unityinchrist.com/history2/earlychurch3.htm].



Battle over Hell
The Battle Over Hell

by Keith W. Stump

The Last Judgement 

The words, large and in quotes, were intended as an alternate title for the painting. They were chilling in their impact: "The Case Against Christianity."

It was my first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I was standing before The Last Judgment, a painting by the 15th-century Dutch artist Jan van Eyck.

On the floor, directly in front of the painting, lay a sheet of paper bearing a few hastily written words. An earlier visitor had placed it there, and it had not yet been removed by museum personnel.

The words, large and in quotes, were intended as an alternate title for the painting. They were chilling in their impact: "The Case Against Christianity."

They stopped me cold.

What had prompted the visitor to level such a charge?

I took a closer look at the painting. At the top of the canvas, in heaven, sits an impassive Jesus, surrounded by a host of angels and an adoring multitude of the saved. At the bottom, in hell, is a writhing mass of the damned, suffering brutal torture at the hands of hideous demons.

The contrast between the rather prim majesty of heaven and the harrowing nightmare of hell is striking. And -- as the note-writing visitor had intended -- it poignantly frames an age-old question:

How can the concept of eternal suffering in hell be reconciled with a God of mercy and love?

For many, this is indeed a case against Christianity. They want nothing to do with a Christian God who could sit back and watch his children roast for eternity in a subterranean chamber of horrors. A deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness, they feel, could not be the true God.

Hot Debate

Non-Christians are not the only ones who have problems with the idea of hell. Hell is one of the hottest debates within the Christian community today.

Most Christians believe in hell as the fate of those who reject God. But one Christian's idea of hell may not be another's.

It took the Christian community hundreds of years to come up with a consensus on the issue. The majority view -- that hell is a place of eternal fiery torment -- emerged only after a long debate within the Church.

While most Christians agree that the essence of hell is separation from God, the in-house debate is over the specifics -- where hell is, when it is, how hot it is and how long it is.

Why? Because the Bible offers little detail. Hell is a doctrine about which there is no clear and dogmatic teaching in Scripture. The interpretation of biblical statements and the imagery they employ is beset with difficulties.

As hell appears to be a harsh doctrine, many Christians today choose to explain it in ways that soften its impact. The modern trend has been to replace the traditional fire-and-brimstone concept of hell as a place of eternal torture with a more politically correct portrayal of hell as a condition of spiritual anguish caused by separation from God. In other words, hell is not a place but a state.

Polls reveal that while nearly two-thirds of Americans believe there is a hell, the majority of them think of it as a state of existence or a condition rather than a literal blazing underworld.

Likewise, growing numbers of Christian scholars are speaking out against what they regard as the folly of relying on purely literalist readings of scriptural statements about the sufferings of the damned. They object to interpretive methods that fail to recognize the textual context, the literary genre of the passages, their historical setting and the broader theological context of Christ's saving work and God's love for humanity.

Conservatives, on the other hand, denounce as revisionists those who advocate a more figurative view of hell. In watering down the reality of painful retribution in an eternal fiery hell, these liberals are undermining an important biblical doctrine, conservatives believe.

Not a Core Doctrine

Though some portray the issue of hell as central, history tells another story.

The doctrine of hell evolved long after the core doctrines of the historic Christian faith were established. The views of the early Church fathers about hell were far from unanimous. It took the Christian community hundreds of years to come up with a consensus on the issue. The majority view -- that hell is a place of eternal fiery torment -- emerged only after a long debate within the Church.

By the Middle Ages, the concept of a fiery underworld had become a dominant element in people's minds. To the medieval faithful, hell was a place of suffering and despair, of wretchedness and excruciating pain.

The medieval Church used fire-and-brimstone rhetoric to its fullest to keep believers under control. The Church considered hell a useful prod to piety, a strong incentive to refrain from evil.

The Inferno

Though criticism was raised by some churchmen against the overdramatization of hell, the brutal imagery of medieval theology tended toward ever-more-vivid portrayals of hell's horrors. And nowhere were those horrors so dramatically depicted as in The Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy, an epic poem by the Italian author Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

The Inferno records Dante's imaginary travels among the damned. His purpose was to warn his readers that reward or punishment would surely meet them hereafter.

According to Dante, hell is divided into nine rings or circles, descending conically into the earth. Within this multi-leveled chamber of horrors, souls suffer punishments appropriate to their sins. Gluttons, for example, are doomed to forever lie like pigs in a foul-smelling sty under a cold, eternal rain of filth and refuse. The lustful -- driven by their passions during this lifetime -- are forever whirled about in a dark, stormy wind.

Although the fruit of Dante's fertile imagination, The Inferno is generally in keeping with the theology of his age. His picture of hell as a gigantic concentration camp -- a nightmarish place of eternal torment presided over by Satan -- became fixed in the popular imagination. It continues to represent the thinking of some Christians to this day -- and of some critics of Christianity who mistakenly assume that Dante's frightful imagery comes from the Bible.

Differing Views

If Dante's portrayal of the infernal regions is overstated, what do the Scriptures say about hell?

Anyone embarking on a study of the subject is confronted with a library of conflicting literature, daunting in its size. To further complicate matters, many of these diverse works are cogently argued, and seem to present compelling scriptural evidence.

That should tell us something.

In the absence of a fully developed teaching in the New Testament, the fair-minded Christian should regard these competing views as worthy of investigation. Even if one ultimately disagrees with most of them, the study cannot fail to place the issue into clearer perspective.

A willingness to set aside our presuppositions -- our denominational baggage -- and carefully and prayerfully examine the merits of the arguments will add both to our understanding of the Bible and to our confidence in God's justice and mercy.

Here, in brief summary, are today's principal points of view on hell, though within each are variations beyond the scope of this article. (See Recommended Reading, page 14.)

· A Blazing Underworld. In this view, as previously described, hell is an actual place smoke and flames, where the souls of the damned suffer unending fiery torment.

This view is based on a literal reading of scriptures that characterize hell as "unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12), "the fiery furnace" (Matthew 13:42), "eternal fire" (Matthew 18:8), "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46) and similar descriptions.

· A Condition of Eternal Separation. This metaphorical view also envisions eternal conscious punishment, but not in actual flames. Rather, the sufferings of the damned are translated into spiritualized terms. Hell is not an abode but a condition -- a furnace of affliction, so to speak, not a furnace of real flames.

The Bible uses symbolical language. According to this view of hell, fire is an image that is used figuratively, as a symbol of the pain of deprivation, the agony of hopelessness, the torment and despair of spending eternity without God.

The punishment of the wicked is the pain of knowing that they will never see God. Advocates of this view explain that the fate of the damned is called outer darkness (Matthew 8:12) because those in that condition will never see the light of God. They will be trapped in blackness forever, exiled to the private hell of their own thoughts, isolated in a place they have created for themselves in their own darkened minds. It will be their free choice to live apart from God.

· A Place of Temporary Punishment. This view envisions hell as punishment, but not necessarily forever. Hell is indeed real, but one's stay in it does not have to be eternal.

Proponents of this concept acknowledge that divine justice requires some sort of punishment for evil. But they argue that infinite punishment would be appropriate only for infinite evil. What kind of God, they ask, would repay a few decades of sin with an eternity of torture?

The sufferings of hell are therefore remedial, they reason. Even the worst sinners can be rehabilitated and ultimately find their way to heaven, though some few will persist in rebellion and choose to remain forever separate from God.

This view bears a resemblance to the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory, the reputed destination of believers who die in sin, where they are purified by suffering before being admitted to heaven. It differs, however, in that it sees even those who were unbelievers during their lifetimes as eventually making their way into heaven.

· Annihilationism. This view asserts that the fate of sinners is not endless suffering but rather complete and utter destruction.

The souls of the wicked will not endure eternal punishment in hell but will be completely annihilated after the Last Judgment. The period of conscious punishment will thus be brief. They will then simply cease to exist -- a far more merciful fate, say advocates, than everlasting torment.

Annihilationism is also called the doctrine of "conditional immortality," because, in this view, the soul is not by nature immortal. It is immortal only by the grace of God. God gives immortality to the souls of the righteous and annihilates those of the damned.

Annihilationists view hell -- or gehenna fire (see sidebar) -- as a fire that consumes. The wicked will cease to exist in gehenna fire -- incinerated in the roaring inferno of the divine blast furnace. The fire is unquenchable, in that no one can quench or extinguish it until it burns up all the chaff.

This view is based on the statement that God can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28), and scriptures that speak of "everlasting destruction" (2 Thessalonians. 1:9) and "the second death" (Revelation 20:14; 21:8).

· Universalism. According to this view, everyone will ultimately be saved. No sinner will be consigned to eternal punishment. God will save everyone -- regardless. Universalism postulates the final restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), including the damned.

Hell is purgatorial in character, and, according to universalists, punishment ceases when the sinner has been purified. Ultimately, all human beings will enjoy God's presence.

Thus, if hell exists at all, it is only for a limited duration. Objecting to the notion of eternal affliction in hell, universalists point out that the Greek word aion -- often translated as eternal or forever -- literally means an age, a definite, limited period of time.

Eventually, "every knee" will bow before God; "every tongue" will confess to him (Romans 14:11). Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Through Jesus Christ, God will "reconcile to himself all things" (Colossians 1:20).

This universalist view goes back to the teachings of the 3rd-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria, who regarded the sufferings of hell as remedial, ending when the final restoration is reached.

Critics of this view assert that humans are free to make their own choices. God gives humans free will to trust him or not to trust him. He will not force anyone, and some will refuse his grace.

Whatever the specifics of their views, nearly all Christians share a common belief in some kind of separation from God as the fate of the wicked. Beyond that, the specifics are non-essential. The Christian faith does not make hell a core doctrine, nor is it something that Christians should divide over.

But we can continue talking about it. Speculation is appropriate, as long as we remember that we don't really know, dogmatically and definitively.

The Intermediate State

A further question pertinent to this issue is when the sufferings of hell begin. Is it immediately after physical death, or after the Last Judgment?

The interval between one's physical death and the Last Judgment is often termed "the intermediate state." The Bible says little about the condition of the soul or spirit during this period of time.

Some believe the soul sleeps during this interval -- that it's on hold in the grave, awaiting the resurrection and the Last Judgment, which will fix its eternal destiny. Others believe that at death the soul goes immediately to its eternal reward in heaven or to its punishment in hell.

If the latter view is correct, would it not jump the gun by unwarrantably anticipating the decision of the Last Day? What, then, would be the purpose of the Last Judgment?

Dante put that question to his guide in The Inferno. How, he asked, will the punishments of souls change after the Last Judgment? The reply: Since all will be made perfect at that time, the punishment of the wicked, too, will be perfected -- in other words, be made even more painful!

But an even more intriguing -- and more plausible -- possibility exists with regard to the intermediate state and how it relates to the ultimate fate of the dead!

Who Will Suffer?

One of the main objections to the Christian concept of hell is the undisputed fact that the vast majority of humans have died without ever hearing the gospel and accepting Jesus Christ. Presumably they are -- or will be -- consigned to hell forever as a consequence.

Are the billions who did not accept the gospel before they died eternally lost? Are billions consigned to eternal flames because no missionary reached them before they died?

Putting it another way: Would God establish a salvation methodology that the vast majority of humans could not meet and then condemn them to eternal punishment because of it?

God's plan includes all of his children. Somehow, someway, every person will have a full opportunity to hear the gospel and repent. The justice of God demands it.

Perhaps the entire question of hell can be put into clearer focus by addressing this troublesome issue head-on -- the very issue that many consider to be a strong case against Christianity.

It is instructive to notice the variety of ways in which the damned -- those who will suffer eternal loss (Greek, damnum) of the presence of God -- are described by different theologians. Here are a few:

  • "unbelievers"
  • "the unsaved"
  • "incorrigibly wicked"
  • "enemies of God"
  • "haters of God"
  • "non-Christians"
  • "the unredeemed"
  • "the rebellious"
  • "unrepentant sinners"
  • "those who reject God"
  • "those who have not accepted Jesus"

But, we might ask, are these all in the same class? Are non-Christians synonymous with the incorrigibly wicked? Are those who died without accepting Jesus enemies of God?

The need for a more precise definition of the damned is indicated -- and may well point to a solution to one of the more stinging objections to the concept of hell. The issue would seem to come down to how and when the damned are defined.

A Plan for the Lost?

Such considerations have prompted some theologians to suggest that a dead but unsaved person may yet avoid the final fate of gehenna fire if he never had a full and unhindered opportunity to know and accept Jesus Christ during his physical lifetime. In other words, such an opportunity might yet be provided prior to the final judgment!

Might it be possible that their decision of faith, or non-faith, might take place in the realm of death?

In his novella The Great Divorce (1946), C.S. Lewis observed that God's purpose for humanity is salvation, not damnation, and he suggested that God may have a plan to save even the lost.

"I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish," Lewis wrote, "but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road."

Is God powerless to put people back onto that right road merely because their physical lives have ended? Is it too much to say that God's grace might extend even beyond the grave?

Might it not be possible that God will yet give all an opportunity to believe and repent -- even after death? And that many will then recognize Christ as the deepest longing of their soul, and, at last, know and accept him?

Hell -- whatever its character -- makes considerably more sense if those who end up there are only those who, with full knowledge, willfully and deliberately reject God. And if that's the case, the alleged unfairness and cruelty of hell vanishes! No longer is hell a case against Christianity!

Only willful, continuing refusal to respond to God's grace and mercy can condemn an individual. God will send no one to hell unless they force him. Sadly, it appears that some will not accept the grace of God (Matthew 25:46; Revelation 19:20; 20:10,15). Some will refuse to face the evil of their lives and repent.

As C.S. Lewis summarized: "Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it."

The Happy Alternative

God's plan includes all of his children. Somehow, someway, every person will have a full opportunity to hear the gospel and repent. The justice of God demands it. We may not know the specifics of how or when this will be accomplished, but we do know that a holy, just and loving God will make righteous provision for all.

God sent his own Son to suffer crucifixion and death to save us. Could such a God be other than just and merciful? To all but the closed-minded, the Bible is a book that leaves many issues open. For his own good reasons, God has not revealed all of the specifics of his plan for humanity. Many of his ways are beyond us (Isaiah 55:8). It's a reminder of our need for humility. And in the absence of those specifics, to speak dogmatically and inflexibly about hell is to hinder potential converts from accepting the love of God.

It is tempting to be manipulated by our biases and to think that our way is the only appropriate way to understand the afterlife. But God is bigger than our personal or denominational views. God is not willing that any should perish. He does not wish anyone to suffer in hell. He wants all to have eternal life (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). He is ever-ready to receive the repentant sinner who turns toward God and goodness.

None of us wants to be in hell -- whatever and whenever it is. Happily, we need have no fear of it. Salvation is ours as a free gift when we acknowledge our need for God. We can refuse God -- but he will never refuse us.

But God has also made humans free, and has given us the power to decide our own destiny. God will not turn his back on evil and injustice. If we force him, he will deal with evil in absolute, final ways.

The happy alternative is to live for God -- not out of fear, but because we desire a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. And if we make that choice, we'll reap rich benefits -- both in this life, and forever in the life to come.

And that makes a strong case -- for Christianity!

Keith Stump is an author, script writer, historian and archaeologist.

Which Hell?

Four different Greek and Hebrew words were translated by the single word hell in the King James Version of the Bible. This unfortunate rendering has been the source of considerable confusion through the centuries.

Any attempt to discern the biblical teaching about hell requires a careful analysis of these words in their contexts.

The Bible speaks of not one but three hells:

1. Hebrew Sheol/Greek Hades. The ancient Hebrew name for the abode of the dead was sheol. Sheol literally means "grave or pit," but the word was also applied, in the popular conception, to the dwelling-place of departed spirits. The ancient Israelites believed that the spirit of a dead person separated from the body and took up its abode in this sheol, a dim, shadowy region beneath the earth's surface.

Some authorities believe that this realm of the dead is referred to in Genesis 37:35 and Job 3:13-19, among other passages.

When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint) in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., sheol was rendered as the Greek word Hades, in view of sheol's close resemblance to the Greek netherworld. In Greek mythology, Hades was the place of departed human spirits -- a gloomy underworld where the dead have only a shadowy existence.

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16 -- see sidebar), Jesus pictures Hades as an actual place of torment, not merely the grave. Some scholars believe Hades may be the place where the unsaved dead dwell consciously -- and possibly in some measure of torment -- awaiting resurrection and the Last Judgment. Hades is never used in Scripture in the context of final punishment.

2. Greek Tartarus. Tartarus is mentioned only once in scripture, in 2 Peter 2:4, where it refers to a place or condition of restraint for fallen angels. Peter describes it as a "gloomy dungeon" (NIV). It is a hell that applies only to rebellious angels or demons -- not to humans.

In Greek mythology, Tartarus was located below Hades, and was the place where rebellious supernatural beings were confined -- corresponding closely to the apostle Peter's usage.

3. Greek Gehenna. Only Gehenna shares today's popular meaning of hell as a fiery place of suffering. The Greek word Gehenna derives from the Hebrew gai-hinnom, or Valley of Hinnom.

The rocky Valley of Hinnom is a deep, narrow ravine that runs southwest of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times, it was a place of abominable pagan rites associated with the idolatrous worship of Molech, including child sacrifice in a section of the valley called Tophet (2 Kings 23:10).

After the Jews' return from Babylonian exile, the valley became the cesspool and city dump of Jerusalem. Fires burned continuously, feeding on a constant supply of garbage -- and occasionally the bodies of executed criminals -- thus providing imagery for the fiery hell of final judgment, into whose flames the wicked would one day be cast.

Gehenna was used by Jesus in Matthew 5:22; 23:33; Luke 12:5 and elsewhere to designate the place of final punishment, later described by John as a "lake of fire" in Revelation 19:20 and 20:10,14-15.

Whether understood literally or figuratively, biblical references to Gehenna have little in common with the exaggerated imagery of medieval theology, such as the tortures of Dante's Inferno.

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Some regard Jesus' well-known parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16) as solid proof of the reality of eternal fiery punishment in hellfire.

A close reading, however, raises serious doubts about such an interpretation.

In what part of the afterlife is the parable set -- immediately after death, or following the Last Judgment?

Many interpreters believe the parable takes place in the intermediate state -- the interval after physical death but prior to the resurrection and Last Judgment.

Notice: Jesus specified that the rich man was "in hell [Hades], where he was in torment" (Luke 16:23). Hades is widely viewed as the place where the unsaved dead go to await final judgment. Hades is not itself the place of final punishment; the word Gehenna is used for that (see sidebar).

The parable also contains the implication that the rich man's brothers are still physically alive (Luke 16:27-31).

But even this analysis may be pushing the imagery beyond Jesus' intention. Lazarus and the Rich Man is a parable. A parable is a literary device. As such, it is not intended to be a precise blueprint, with all its details corresponding to actual reality.

The point of a parable is not in the specifics, but in the lesson. Behind the outward or obvious meaning lies a deeper spiritual truth.

In Luke 16, that greater truth is a warning against a life of unrestrained avarice. The immediate context is covetousness and greed.

The parable may be telling us that, for some, torment is possible immediately following death. But there is no indication that it is speaking of the final destiny of those who die outside of God's grace. Hell is not the topic of the parable. Jesus' purpose was not to convey information about the afterlife, but to address the broader context of showing concern for one's fellow man in this life.

Recommended Reading:

  • Four Views of Hell, William Crockett (Ed.), Zondervan Publishing.
  • Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue, Edward W. Fudge, Robert A. Peterson, Intervarsity Press.
  • The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis.

"Reprinted by permission of copyright holder Keith Stump, all rights reserved by Keith Stump (c) 2001."

"The Worldwide Church of God prior to 1995 was a Sabbatarian Christian church. This pre-1995 Worldwide Church of God and now presently three or four other Sabbatarian Churches of God, both held and hold basically a Classic Pre-Millennial view of prophecy which includes some very unique interpretations about the "unsaved dead" not currently embraced by most Christian denominations. These beliefs at the end of this link are the beliefs of three major Sabbatarian Churches of God, as well as the past beliefs of the "old" Worldwide Church of God. These and all beliefs about hell and the "unsaved dead" are totally secondary to the vital gospel of Salvation that we have in and through Jesus Christ—i.e. one is totally free to believe or disbelieve what is presented via the following link, without it affecting one's salvation in the least. The study is merely being presented to show another view on the subject of hell and the fate of the "unsaved dead." You will find it most interesting. You don't have to believe it. Click on http://www.unityinchrist.com/destiny/2ndResurrection5.htm to go to the study."

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