Our Certain Joy: What Is “Hell”?

What is Hell and how can we reconcile this sensitive, controversial doctrine with the truth of the eons and the love of God?

Hell. This one word is perhaps the greatest cause of the divide between the religious and non-religious. It is the biggest stumbling block to be heralded or otherwise shoved under the rug like a kid trying to hide their dirty laundry. “Hell is never discussed” says the atheist who lived in the church environment. “Hell needs to be discussed more!” says the righteously frustrated Christian. “What is Hell?” says the rest of us.

The late R.C. Sproul defined Hell as this,

“There is no biblical concept more grim or terror-invoking than the idea of hell….In hell, God will be present in the fullness of His divine wrath. He will be there to exercise His just punishment of the damned. They will know Him as an all-consuming fire….Hell, then, is an eternity before the righteous, ever-burning wrath of God, a suffering torment from which there is no escape and no relief.”

Sproul concludes his thesis with a mission statement,

“Understanding this is crucial to our drive to appreciate the work of Christ and to preach His gospel.”

Those outside the doors of religion can see the error in Sproul’s words. The divide between the finished work of the cross, where Jesus took every sin humanity has ever and will ever commit, and the doctrine of an eternal Hell and separation because of those sins is so vast, so inconceivable, that the only way to explain it is a case of divine stubbornness. A locking up of the mind in order for the commercial religion to disbelieve in the work of the cross so that He can raise up true believers outside of it (Am I saying that Sproul was an unbeliever? Yes I am). 

Attempts to define “Hell” have ranged from the wrathful, fiery torment perpetuated by Sproul, to the eternal separation of darkness and shame by the majority of Christian apologists, to everything in between. What goes without ever being questioned in the conversation of Hell is the belief of the immortality of the soul. It is because theologians insist on the immortality of the soul that we struggle with the question “What happens when we die?” Some dislike the idea of a wrathful God punishing His creation for eternity in fire and so they spend years upon years of effort trying to account for sin and the immortality of the soul. If people remain conscious (or more so their souls remain conscious) then they have to go somewhere. 

But why must we insist that they live on at all? If God can raise the dead, why insist that death is not really death? What is death, exactly? The key to defining Hell then is to define death and that is exactly what goes unexplored in theological circles. 

Firstly, what does the word “Hell” account for? Surprisingly, there are three Greek words our modern Bibles translate as “Hell.” These are: tartaroo (English transliteration, “tartarus,”), geenna, (English transliteration “gehenna”), and hades(English transliteration, “unseen”). Our modern Bibles translate all of these words, each meaning something completely specific, as the all-encompassing word “Hell.”

The Apostle Peter describes “Tartarus” as the “gloomy caverns” where “Sinning messengers” or demonic, deceptive spirits, are cast into for the eonian torment that is prepared for the “Adversary and his messengers” (Matthew 25:41). 

“Gehenna,” on the other hand, is not so much a spiritual place of damnation as it is a literal valley in Jerusalem that will become filled with the corpses of criminals and law offenders during the fifth eon (i.e. Isaiah 66:24 and Matthew 5:29) (to understand what the eons are refer to my article “The Purpose of the Eons”). It is otherwise known as the “Vale of Hinnom” or ben-Hinnom. Death is once again the focus.

Finally we have the most well-known word among these, Hades, and its Hebrew equivalent Sheol. You might picture Hades in Greek mythology as the realm of demons. A fiery, volcanic dimension full of tortured souls, horned beasts, and eternal pain. It’s important to note that the word hades, in and of itself, does not necessitate this kind of outlandish fantasy. Hades is simply defined as “the unseen” or “the unperceived.” In other words, it is nothingness. This word is used by Peter in Acts 2:27, where the literal concordant translates “decay,” and in the exact same context Peter testifies that Christ had “died” in Acts 2:29. Once again, these verses speak of nothing more than death and the state of decay that death brings.  

There is a key verse in Scripture that practically does the work for us,

“And you, Capernaum! Not to heaven shall you be exalted! To the unseen shall you subside, for, if the powerful deeds which are occurring in you had occurred in Sodom, it might remain unto today…. (Matthew 11:23 CLNT)

Where is Capernaum? It is nonexistent. If you go to Israel you will not find it. It resides where our Lord said it would, the unseen. It is gone and can no longer be perceived (if one can still perceive it, whether on earth or in the afterlife, then it is no longer unseen and thus cannot fit the definition). And this isn’t our only verse. Death is defined by David in Psalm 6:5 and 13:3 as unconscious sleep where no one can give praise. Daniel describes death as “sleeping in the soil” (Daniel 12:1).

At death the body returns to the soil, the soul to the unseen, and the spirit to God. The soul is associated with consciousness or sensation, and without it, one ceases to be. Life happens when God breathes His Spirit into the body and it becomes a living soul. 

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

I can go on, offering examples in Scripture where death is just that: death. It is blunt lifelessness that sees no conscious joy until God, and only God, raises us up. At that time God will raise those He has given faith to to the celestials and those He hasn’t to the Great White Throne to be judged in accord with the written law (Revelation 25:12). 

This brings us to the lake of fire, otherwise known as “the second death.” If the immortality of the soul is true then there can be no second death because there was never a first death. Death of the earthly body is not truly death but merely a transferring from one conscious existence to another. Therefore, if the lake of fire symbolizes the second death for humans (to clarify, it is only a place of torment for Satan, The Beast, and the False Prophet spoken of in Revelation), it is simply that: another period of nonexistence until God raises them up again at the grand consummation where He will be all in all and death, along with the lake of fire which symbolizes that death, is abolished (1 Corinthians 15:26-28). Since there won’t be any perception of time it will seem as if their rousing up is instant.

This is not annihilationism, for death is not the end nor a punishment but rather a temporary (one could say eonian) consequence of our morality. Death will be abolished once and for all and absolutely nothing will remain but life, but that time is not yet. (On a final note, at the snatching away it is the dead in Christ who will rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This only makes sense if the soul can perish and it is not already abiding in Heaven). 

This is the breadth of the difference between each of these Greek words translated “Hell.” Only one of those has to do with conscious torment (“Tartarus”) and that is reserved for spirits whom have the capacity to experience it without dying. You and I, on the other hand, are born into mortality and consequently die if we are not snatched away beforehand (1 Thessalonians 4:17). 

Christianity has wrestled with the afterlife for millennia. How do we define Hell and what happens in Hell are huge questions, but in that we have to ask why such questions are difficult to answer in the first place. The eternal destination of humanity and the reality of death are no minor ideas but are those that have shaped our entire lives. They should not be thrust under the rug or heralded as the fearful fate of humanity. Thankfully, I have good news and this news, this joy, is certain.