by M. Aiken
(including edits by W.L. Graham)
Did you know that there is a solid scriptural case to be made against the idea of Hell? Many non-Christians have rejected the concept of Hell, but it may come as a surprise to learn that there is a growing number of who also reject the notion, not in spite of Scripture but because of it! This short study is meant only to raise some questions and provide brief answers. An open-minded and unbiased study of the Bible, including many key Greek and Hebrew words, as well as Church history, will reveal some surprising things.
For instance, did you know that Hell is not an Old Testament doctrine?
A Popular myth: Hell is an established Biblical doctrine that is in the Bible from start to finish.
Not true! Two thirds of the Bible (the Old Testament) does not mention Hell at all. Sheol, the Old Testament word that is often translated Hell, simply means grave. By definition, it is where everyone in the Old Testament went when they died, good or evil, Jew or Gentile. The concept of a Hell is not found in the Old Testament!
Think about it.
If Hell is real, why didn't God give a plain warning about Hell right from the very beginning in the Bible? God said the penalty for eating of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was death, not eternal life in Hell.
If Hell is real, why wasn't Cain warned about it? Or, Sodom and Gomorrah? Or, any other of those who committed sins against God?
If Hell is real why didn't Moses warn about it in the Ten Commandments or the Mosaic Law consisting of over 600 laws, ordinances, and diverse warnings? The Mosaic Law simply speaks of blessings and cursings in this lifetime.
If Hell is real, why are its roots in paganism, rather than the Bible? Many nations surrounding Israel in the Old Testament believed in Hell-like punishment in the afterlife, for they served bloodthirsty and evil gods, while Israel simply taught the grave (sheol) and a hope of a resurrection.
If Hell is real, why was the revelation of it first given to pagan nations, instead of God's covenant people? Did God expect Israel to learn about the afterlife from the Pagan Gentile nations? In fact, He repeatedly warned Israel not to learn their ways!
If Hell is real, why did God tell the Jews that burning their children alive in the fire to the false god Molech, (in the valley of Gehenna) was so detestable to Him, a thing that never even entered His mind (Jer. 32:35). How could God say such a thing to Israel, if He had already created a Hell in which He planned to torture and burn people alive?
FACT: The King James Bible erroneously translates the word Sheol as Hell a total of 31 times in the Old Testament, thus setting a foundation for that doctrine in the New Testament as well as the majority of Bible translations to follow the KJV. Even so, most new translations have completely eliminated the English word Hell from the Old Testament, as honest scholarship demands. The Jewish version of the Old Testament (the Tanakh) also has nothing of today's concept of Hell in it. The importance of this fact cannot be over-emphasized: If a doctrine does not appear as seed form in the Hebrew books of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, it cannot be carried over into the New Testament and taught as a traditional biblical concept; nor is it an authentic New Testament doctrine!
A popular myth: Jesus spoke of Hell more than He did of Heaven.
Not true! Jesus warned the Jews many times of impending destruction, both nationally and individually. He used several different terms to refer to punishment and destruction, some of which were erroneously translated as the same word--Hell, by translators. We do not deny that God will indeed judge the whole world, nor do we wish to make light of His judgments. Rather, we are challenging the belief that His judgment on sin and unbelief is eternal torment in Hell. Certainly Jesus spent a lot of his ministry warning people to repent from sin or reap the consequences of Gehenna fire, but He did not present it as the traditional Hellfire and Damnation doctrine that is taught in Christianity today.
If Hell is real, why were most of the warnings pertaining to punishment in Gehenna directed to Israel, particularly the Lord's own disciples, and the Jewish Pharisees? The first references to Gehenna come from the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5:22, 29, 30) to Jesus' followers in which He warned that one was in danger of Gehenna for even calling someone a fool. This is a far cry from our modern Evangelical interpretation that says not accepting Jesus as your Savior is what gets someone damned to Hell. Are we perhaps missing the true symbolism that Jesus originally intended when He used the term Gehenna?
Since the concept of Hell doesn't exist in the Old Testament, how could Jesus and his disciples teach the Jews that salvation was "deliverance from" a place that is not even found in their Scriptures? And if He was introducing the subject for the first time, why did He present it as though His listeners already understood what He was talking about?
If Hell is real, why do English translations use the word Hell for the Greek word "Gehenna" in the New Testament but not where it appears in the Hebrew (i.e., ga ben Hinnom) in the Old Testament? If the Jews understood Gehenna not as a symbol of everlasting torture, but rather as a place of shame, filth, and defilement with a history of the grossest form of human sacrifice to false gods, why does Christian theology ascribe more to the word than the original meaning? While Gehenna has evolved in Jewish tradition to include afterlife punishment, to this day it does not hold a connotation of "eternal damnation".
If Hell is real how could the Apostle Paul, who was specially commissioned by God to preach the gospel to the nations, say that he had declared the entire counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and yet never warned of Hell in any of his letters? Not once! If Hell is real, wouldn't Paul have warned of it?
If Hell is real, the sin/death of Adam has had a far more powerful effect on the world than the resurrection life of Christ! And yet Paul declares in Romans 5 that Christ's victory is far greater than Adam's transgression! Listen to Paul's confidence in the work of Christ! If Paul believed in eternal hell for the majority of men, how could he write the following verses?
"Just as the result of one trespass [Adam's] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [Christ's] was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Christ] the many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:18,19).
"Since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Cor 15:22).If Hell is real, why is it that the only time Paul even mentioned Hell in any of his epistles, was declare the triumph of Christ over it? (1 Corinthians 15:55). But observe, the word "grave" in the passage is the Greek word Hades.
"For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe" (1 Timothy 4;10).
If Hell is real, why is it not mentioned once in the book of Acts in any the evangelistic sermons that were recorded by the early Apostles?
If Hell is real why do some of the most noted bible scholars (e.g. William Barclay, John A.T. Robinson, Lightfoot, Westcott, F.W. Farrar, Marvin Vincent) say that it does not appear in any Greek or Hebrew text?
FACT: The apocryphal books of the intertestament period had a tremendous impact on the Jews in the time of Christ. It is from these books, especially the book of Enoch, that many of the Jewish myths and fables concerning Hell, heaven, demons and angels, and many other fables first became a part of Judaism and from there became a part of Christianity. The underworld myths from such books have Pagan influences such as Zoroastrianism, during and after the Babylonian captivity of Israel. In fact, Christianity has produced more elements in common with Zoroastrianism, in some ways, than with ancient Judaism!
A Popular myth: Jesus came to save the sinner from his destination of everlasting Hell?.
Not exactly! Hell was never a place that the Jews were hoping to be "saved from" since it was unknown to them! But they did recognize their need to be saved from their sins and the consequence of them; namely death. Jesus came as the Anointed One to fulfill all of God's plan for the earth that through Him might come the salvation, deliverance of sin, peace, kingdom of God and all that God had promised through the Old Testament scriptures.
If Hell is real, how can the Scriptures speak of the gathering of all things into Christ? (Eph. 1:10)
If Hell is real, how can all things be subdued unto Christ? (1 Corinthians 15:28, Philippians 3:21, Hebrews 2:8).
If Hell is real, and most of mankind will remain in an eternal state of torment with no chance to repent or escape, how exactly are we to understand and rejoice in the fact that Jesus destroyed death and him who has the power of death, Satan? (Hebrews 2:14-15, 1 John 3:8, Hosea 13:14, 1 Corinthians 15:55, 1 Corinthians 15:26 etc.)
FACT: The term "saved" has evolved in Christianity to mean something different than it did to the original readers and hearers of Scripture. The Greek words, "sozo" and "soteria" embrace the broad meaning of being rescued, delivered, healed and saved from danger. These words were applied in a variety of ways throughout the New Testament. There is much more to the salvation of Christ than most Christians know. Sadly, much of the church is robbed of fullness of their salvation by embracing a limited and futuristic view (like "going to heaven") of what it actually means.
A Popular Myth: Eternity is a theme that is throughout the entire Bible, including eternal punishment.
Not exactly! We are not denying that the New Testament is full of warnings of judgment, and that the words, everlasting and eternal appear often in most translations. However, a careful study of the words that are translated to mean forever or everlasting, will prove that they have been mistranslated. The question is not whether God will punish sin and rebellion, but rather how He does it, and for what purpose.
If Hell is forever, why is the Hebrew word olam which has been translated to mean eternal or forever, used in so many verses where it clearly does not mean everlasting? A few examples: Everlasting is applied to the priesthood of Aaron; to the statutes of Moses; to the mountains and hills; to the doors of the Jewish temple, and to the length of time that reproach and shame should be upon the Jews. The word forever is applied to the duration of man's earthly existence; to the time a child was to abide in the temple; to the continuance of Gehazi's leprosy; to the to the duration of a king's life; to the time a servant was to abide with his master; to the duration of the Jewish temple; to the time David was to be king over Israel; to the throne of Solomon; to the stones that were set up at Jordan; and to the time Jonah was in the fish's belly. It should be obvious from the context that olam merely refered to an indefinite period of time--not forever!
Aion and related words, aionian and aionios, are the Greek equivalents of olam. Aion, literally means "age," from which we get our English word, "eon." Aion/age/eon, is merely a period of time. "Aionian and Aionios" are words that refer to the ages (plural) or pertaining to the ages--measurable time! As long as time is being measured, it cannot be referring to eternity, which is a realm beyond the measurement of time. If Hell is forever, why is it described by words that pertain to measurable time?
If the Greek word Aion and its derivatives meant eternal, as some bible scholars insist, why did contemporary Greek usage of it at the time the New Testament was written, not carry with it the idea of endless eternity, i.e., works by Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Hippocrates and many others who used the words in a limited, not an eternal sense?
If Hell is forever/unending, how do we explain the fact that aion/olam did not mean eternal/unending to the original writers and hearers of Scripture?
FACT: Some would argue that if aionian and related words do not mean eternal, then God cannot be eternal, for these words also describe Him. To this we say, that just because God is described as the God of the eons, does not mean that He is not the God who also transcends the eons. In the same way, just because He is called the God of Israel, does not also mean that He is not the God of all the other nations. Also, there are other Greek words used to refer to the unending power and life of God. They are, aptharsia/apthartos, which means imperishableness and immortality;
amarantinos/amarantos which mean unfading, without loss of pristine character; and akatalytos, which means indestructable and unstoppable. They are usually translated as immortal, or incorruptible. Please refer to the following verses for reference: Hebrews 7:15-16, 1 Peter 1:3-4, 1 Peter 5:4, 1 Timothy 1:17, Romans 1:23, 1 Corinthians 9:25, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, Romans 2:7, 1 Corinthians 15:42, 2 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Timothy 6:16.
A Popular myth: The justice of God demands a place like Hell in which the wicked shall be eternally punished for their sins.
Not true! The justice of God demanded a perfect sacrifice for sin, and that man was Christ Jesus. The justice of God will certainly come to every person, and God may deal severely with our sins as He subdues and gathers all things to Christ. But to punish people endlessly for crimes committed in a short human lifespan is not reasonable justice.
Think about it, Hell does not reflect the heart of God.
If Hell is real and all things were made for God's pleasure (Rev. 4:11), is it conceivable that God would derive pleasure from seeing those He created endlessly tormented?
If Hell is real, while some people receive many chances to "get saved", others have never had that opportunity--but God is not a respecter of persons. (Acts 10:34, James 3:17). So, are the billions of people who have been born and died on this earth without ever hearing the gospel or receiving Lord Jesus as their Savior doomed to eternal life in Hell?
If Hell is real, and we are all born into sin and destined for the judgment of Hell unless we accept the Lord as our Savior, what is to become of the millions of aborted babies and non-Christian children? Even though most denominations do teach the so-called "age of accountability", it is a doctrine not found anywhere in scripture. Could it simply be a way of making God seem more humane than the Hell-teaching allows for?
If Hell is real, does that mean that motherly love is more powerful and enduring than God's love? Do you know of normal loving parents who would desire to endlessly torment any of their children? Why do we believe our heavenly Father, who is millions of times more loving than all of us combined, could do such a thing?
If Hell is real, why do we abhor the horrors of war, prison camps, torture chambers, and unspeakable atrocities, and yet, as Christians, approve of a hellish doctrine that far eclipses any earthly torment as a principle feature of the faith? How is it that we can say God is grieved by man's violence and disregard for life and yet portray Him as one who sponsors the same acts, or worse, throughout eternity?
If Hell is real, would inflicting endless misery benefit the Almighty? Would endless misery benefit the saints, as spectators? Would endless misery benefit the sinner, as the sufferer?
If Hell is real, how does the threat of endlessly torturing us convince us that God loves us and that we should love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength?
The Church has gotten used to thinking of God as Someone who designed a grotesque punishment called Hell and will send the majority of His creation there. It's as if to say, "God did the best He could". This is totally against the scriptural view of a wise and loving God who is sovereign, all-powerful, merciful, and victorious. He doesn't need a plan B or C; Jesus is the Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of the entire world!
Beloved, what is the lens through which you are interpreting the Bible? Tradition teaches us to interpret the victorious scriptures in the light of the judgment scriptures. But what if God wants us to interpret the judgment scriptures in the light of the victorious scriptures? Is not Christ's victory the greatest revelation in the Bible? Standing on the highest peak, the finished work of the cross causes us to see a far more beautiful, panoramic view of God's plan through the ages. We do not throw out an entire body of Holy Scripture in favor of a certain tradition that we've been taught. Rather, we seek to harmonize them, "For man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God".
In the time of Christ most of Israel completely missed the Word of God when He was in their midst. Certainly the masses must have thought, "But none of the teachers, Pharisees, or priests believe that Jesus is the Messiah! And they know the scripture better than me!" That fact alone kept many Jews from daring to believe in Jesus. To do so was heresy and to admit faith in Him was basically asking for scorn and rejection. Christians are quick to point a finger at the Pharisees, and yet most do not realize that the Body of Christ, the Church, has fallen into the same pattern of self-righteous and hypocritical behavior today. Have we become hardened and unteachable?
The facts presented in this article should cause every reader who is truly hungry to know God to search the scripture to see if these things be so. If what we are presenting here is false, it needs to be disproved. And if it is true, it cannot be ignored. It is time to stop ignoring the parts of the Bible that do not fit in with our theology. And if, like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, our theology is not big enough to hold the entire counsel of Scripture, perhaps it is time to expand our thinking!
A Final Trial:
We have scrutinized the doctrine of Hell in light of the entire counsel of Holy Scripture. Now, test this doctrine within your own heart to see how it feels, spiritually, as you ask yourself these questions:
If there is a Hell and according to most denominations of Christianity the majority of mankind will go there, can I really enjoy heaven knowing family and friends who are suffering everlasting tortures the likes of which would surpass the horrors of the Holocaust death camps?
If Hell is real, would I remand my own parents, children, and dear friends to the torments of such a place? As it is written, "Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? Are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life?" (1 Corinthians 6:2-3) If Hell is a real place of terrible, unending pain, would I even wish to send a dog there?
If Hell is real, can I honestly rejoice in the victory, love, and wisdom of God, knowing that somewhere in His beautiful creation there will always be a black and stinking hell-hole crammed full of tortured souls with no chance for forgiveness, not even the mercy of death? Even if there were only a few souls left in such a state of grotesque torment, how could all of Heaven rejoice in eternity knowing that there were those left untouched by the victory of Christ?
Is it good to desire and pray for all of mankind to be saved? Where is the motivation to pray faithfully with a heart of compassion for the salvation of all humankind, even the millions of men, women, and children who have never heard the gospel, if their fate is forever sealed to an eternal life of Hell?
"First of then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men....This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim.2:1,3,4).
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