Episode 34: Where is hell?
Paul and Dan spend some time in this episode talking about hell. No doubt all sorts of terrifying images come to mind with that word! By building it up gradually from the Biblical words Sheol, Hades and Gehenna they arrive at what seems to be a coherent picture. But it’s also a hopeful picture which makes sense in the light of a moral God who has shown himself in the face of Jesus as full of grace and truth.
Paul kicks off the discussion by talking about a painting by Pieter Huys called “Descent into Limbo” which graphically depicts one view of hell; torture, fire and pain for the wicked at the hands of devils and fiends in a terrible place far below the earth. There’s a complicated history behind this, however, because the fear of being thrown into hell has often been associated with abuse of political control, and there are also links between the word hell and a pagan conception of the underworld, as author Tom Holland brings out in his book Dominion .
Furthermore, there’s also a moral question mark over the concept of the God of love allowing people to be tormented for eternity for finite sins they committed in a short life-span. All this complexity is why Paul and Dan choose to break down this topic into manageable chunks.
Where is hell in the Old Testament?
The Old Testament Hebrew word translated as hell is Sheol. Dan talks through some examples of how the word Sheol is used and what it’s like there. Whilst the wicked do end up in Sheol, (Psalm 9:17), the faithful are also concerned about going there, (Psalm 16:10). People can’t return from Sheol themselves and the preacher in Ecclesiastes 9:10 helpfully, though morbidly, points out that there is no work or thought or knowledge in Sheol so work hard whilst you’re still alive!
In fact, Sheol is paralleled with death itself in numerous places. Paul and Dan talk about how Sheol isn’t equivalent to the grave, but really conveys the idea of the death state, which is unconscious, like a sleep or a rest. Some exceptions to this come in the prophecy of Ezekiel when an amusing poem imagines Pharaoh being welcomed into Sheol by other slaughtered rulers, but paying attention to the form of the text, it’s clear this is a poetic device, not a literal depiction of what the prophet expected to happen.
Where is hell in the New Testament?
Turning to the Greek New Testament, the first word typically translated hell is Hades. Its meaning can be established quite quickly by looking at Acts 2:27 where Peter quotes Psalm 16:8-11 and substitutes the Hebrew Sheol for the Greek Hades. Peter even applies this to Jesus, which means that Jesus, when he was dead, had entered Hades, sleeping and resting unconsciously until being given life again on the third day when God raised him from the dead.
Paul and Dan talk about how there is more baggage associated with the word Hades because of Greek mythology and epic poems like Orpheus descending into Hades to bring back his dead lover Eurydice. They consider whether this background would have influenced the New Testament authors and whether we ought to read into the term Hades a conception of underworld that included consciousness. However, the Jewish Old Testament background is a much more likely candidate for shaping the worldview of the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself equates Hades with death in Revelation 1:18, just as Sheol was equated with death in the Old Testament.
It’s also striking that Eurydice never actually makes it out of Hades and in the tale Orpheus is overcome by grief – it’s an epic poem that explores the fact that our dead loved ones have gone for good and how hard that is to accept. It was almost certainly not taken by ancient people to mean that we could actually go and release conscious people from Hades.
The unquenchable fire of Gehenna
Moving on to the other main Greek word, Paul and Dan talk about how Gehenna is actually a Hebrew place name – the valley of Hinnom close to Jerusalem. Jesus uses the term Gehenna in a few places, for example Mark 9:43-48 where he talks about unquenchable fire and the threat of being cast into hell, the term Gehenna.
Clearly, this is getting closer to the typical depiction of eternal conscious torment, but there are some important things to consider. Not least to go back to the Old Testament to work out what Gehenna signified. Paul and Dan discover a sinister history of child sacrifice in fire, (2 Chronicles 33:6), and a pronouncement of full and final judgement for the wicked perpetrators. The valley of Hinnom, together with the judgement associated with it, (Isaiah 66:24), becomes a symbol of permanent destruction. Of judgement, absolutely, but there is no mention of torment. The wicked are annihilated, not kept alive to suffer for eternity.
Growing acceptance of this view of hell
Paul and Dan talk about how support for this view of the death state and hell, (sometimes called conditional immortality and annihilation), has been growing rapidly. Scholars and theologians who teach these views are now numerous. They give a few examples:
Death means an end to fellowship with God and to fellowship with other people. It means an end to the activity of God and the activity of other people. Even more obviously, it means an end to my own activity. It means an end to awareness.Goldingay, J. (2006). Old Testament Theology: Israel’s faith (Vol. 2, p. 640). Westmont, IL: IVP Academic.
There is no linguistic basis for interpreting the phrase “unquenchable fire” as fire that “never goes out.” Throughout the Bible, from the first appearance of the phrase until its last, “unquenchable fire” always denotes fire that is not capable of being extinguished, and that is therefore irresistible. The language in this text reinforces and underscores that meaning by saying that Jesus will “burn up” the chaff with “unquenchable” fire. That is precisely what unquenchable fire does.Fudge, E. W. (2011). The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Third Edition, pp. 130–131). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.
He will drink the wine of God’s wrath. He will be tormented in the presence of the Lamb and the angels. The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest for them day or night. I do not myself think that the anxious question whether the nature of hell is an eternal conscious torment or an ultimate eternal annihilation can be settled by a simple appeal to these sentences. For one thing, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the content of Revelation is symbolic vision not literal reality. Further, the essence of hell is separation from God, whereas these sentences speak of torment ‘in the presence of the … Lamb’. What is clear is that hell is an eternal destruction, whatever the precise nature of this destruction may be, and that there will be no respite from it.Stott, J. (2001). The Incomparable Christ (pp. 205–206). Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press.
Paul and Dan conclude by tying together their findings with Episode 23 “Soul” and Episode 33 “Where is heaven?” If Jesus shows to us the grace and truth of a just and loving God, it makes sense that our whole being (or soul) can be rescued from death to live in the new creation and the restored world that God intends for those who trust in Jesus. We don’t have immortal souls that need to head off to either heaven or hell at death. We need Jesus to teach us how to accept the rule of heaven in our lives now so we can sit in heavenly places with him, while waiting for the full coming together of heaven and earth at Jesus’ return.
Hell isn’t a fiery domain to fear. There is judgement and true justice, which will lead to perishing forever for those rejecting Christ, but not an eternal torture. The two extremes of eternal conscious torment and universalism both create moral problems with the character of God, but Paul and Dan conclude that the biblical view is much more consistent with what we know about God and Jesus.
 Holland, T. (2019), Dominion (p188). London: Abacus