I read a question somewhere several months ago and have been researching it since. The question was: Is hell a part of the Gospel (Good News)? First, I wanted to define the meaning of hell I’ve been taught most of my life as a reference point, then I’ll state what I’ve found by researching the Bible.
The traditional meaning of hell I was taught centered around: a place of everlasting, conscious fiery torment where any human that dies without becoming a Christian will end up. The exact methodology of this process was always a shifting target though. Even after the initial salvation experience, there was a host of other mandates to follow to increase the coverage of the fire insurance policy. The very word hell became associated with fire and brimstone and feelings of absolute dread and despair. This led to all kinds of confusion for me growing up as I struggled to figure out why God would allow anyone to go to such a place as it was heavily counter intuitive to his love nature that was also being taught. I’ve touched on many of my conclusions in several other posts, but they are not the main point of this writing, though I may repeat a few points I’ve made before.
So, first, the Old Testament. In translations such as the KJV, the word hell appears in several places. However, this concept mainly refers to Sheol, a Hebrew term for the grave or place of the dead. Note, there was no burning or torment here, and David even stated that God would be there! Compare the below verses from Psalms 139:8:
KJV: If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
NIV: If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
WEB: If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!
Which translation is most accurate here? Is God in hell like the KJV states?
This brings me to my next point: What did the term “hell” mean in Old English?
Well, searching for the origin of the word hell, I found it was neither a Hebrew or Greek word. It comes from the Germanic and means “to cover or hide” in Old English. So, we can see that the original meaning of the word through the Old Testament syncs up well with the KJV translation. The dirt of the grave covers us when we die. So technically, hell (the covering of dirt) has frozen over many, many times all over world. If anyone has ever said “when hell freezes over,” well, then they have an outstanding debt to someone.
This brings about the next big question: How did burning and torment come to be associated with Sheol between the Old and New Testament?
It would seem between the end of the Old and the beginning of the New, the idea came about of “bad” people going to a torturous, burning afterlife while the “good” people went to a place of peace and joy. It would seem the Greek views of the afterlife (Hades and Elysium) somehow got incorporated into the Jewish culture. Which brings us to the next two interesting points:
Jesus never talked about hell as we know it today, he spoke about Gehenna and Hades. Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades were all universally translated to say hell in the KJV. This is probably the biggest pitfall to that translation as they are three different, distinct places. In short:
Hades is the Greek version of a conscious, burning afterlife. Keep in mind this originated as a “pagan” concept and not as a Hebrew one.
Gehenna, aka The Valley on Hinnom, is a place outside of Jerusalem that was constantly burning. Corpses were “thrown into the fires of Gehenna” after major wars, and it breed an exceptionally hard to kill worm (Mark 9:48). It also originally hosted child sacrifices by fire to false gods (2 Chronicles 28:3).
Sheol, as explained above, is the original Hebrew concept of death or the grave.
When these three are mixed, we get a doctrinal quagmire we refer to today as hell. While we have scant evidence as to why this happened, it would seem the religious leaders adopted the Greek invader’s version of hell into their afterlife theology and held it over the Jewish people’s heads as the place to avoid by observing the strictest principles of the law.
So, what did Jesus mean when he referenced Gehenna and Hades?
First, Jesus speaks of Gehenna a few times during the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the audience there that if they are unable to uphold the most strictest interpretation of the Law, thereby surpassing the Pharisees, they would be cast into Gehenna. It would be better if they did things like plucking out their eyes to avoid lustful thoughts. The people would have had a good understanding of what Jesus was referencing when he mentions Gehenna here. So how could they—and just as important, how do we—uphold this extremely strict view of the Law? Simply, they—and we—can’t. Jesus was stating the inevitable path of attempting to hold up an ever stricter set of laws to be perfect like God. As humans, we can’t. It is impossible for us to be perfect by our human methods of conformance and rule following. It is only through Jesus that we can be perfect. Striving for the goal of perfection without Jesus leads us to a point of comparative righteous. We consider ourselves better than others, thereby justifying our right to impose our superior standards on others in God’s name. The religious leaders were setting their standard of righteousness by law and professing destruction and doom to any that couldn’t meet it (Luke 11:46). According to Jesus, no one meets the actual standard! This leads to the next point.
Jesus speaks of Hades, specifically referencing the Greek version of where bad people go, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We see Lazarus, the outsider, in Paradise with the Jewish forefather, Abraham, while the evil rich man was being tormented in Hades. What was Jesus’ point here? First, we have to look at who Jesus was talking to—the Pharisees (Luke 16:14). It would seem the Pharisees were one of the groups perpetuating the idea of punishment by burning in hell-fire. In his parable, Jesus places the poor outsider (the gentiles) in Paradise with the Jewish ancestor, Abraham. Meanwhile, he measures those who had thought they were rich in righteousness by their own standard (Matt 7:2), placing them in Hades. He used their own condemnation against them to say, “If you are so adamant about holding the threat of Hades over others, you ‘righteous’ lot will be the ones that end up there while those outsiders receive your inheritance (Matt 21:43).” It seems we still wield the threat of hell today as a weapon of fear the same way the Pharisees did.
This brings me to the final points in this post, the lake of fire and second death. As I stated in a previous post, the Old Testament view of fire, prior to the Greek influence, was for purification. Likewise, fire in the Bible seems to be referencing purification, whether in this life or the next (1 Cor 3:13-15, Mark 9:49). So how about this second death business? This would seem to be the purification process of the lake of fire. In Revelation, death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire and this lake is called the second death—or as the 1st Century audience would have understood it, the second Sheol.
I know this is quite long, but I wanted to hit all the major points. These are my viewpoints and I encourage anyone reading this to research for themselves. My overall point in writing this is to help remove the fear and manipulation of the confusing views of hell and punishment that many have been subjugated by for so long so they can live in the freedom of Jesus’ love (1 John 4:18)! Going back to the original question, I would have to say no, hell, as we’ve defined it is not part of the Gospel. Jesus never told the disciples to go out and teach about everlasting punishment. Likewise, Paul only mentions Hades once, in that Jesus has defeated the very concept of this kind of punishment (1 Cor 15:55).
If we truly believed hell is what we tend to say it is, we would work a whole lot harder to save souls if we love like Jesus. For some reason, our actions don’t reflect our belief in everlasting damnation. Could we really sit passively day after day if we truly felt that friends, family, and the rest of the world are heading to a place of everlasting suffering?