Is Hell a Literal, Physical Place?

Is There a Literal Hell?

Translating literature between languages has always been a difficult task. Common phrases that have a clear and definite meaning in one culture, can become totally meaningless in another. Hence, if a translator gives the precise literal translation, the meaning may be lost. Yet, if things are translated too loosely, one runs the risk that the meaning is merely the translator’s opinion, and not what was meant by the author of the original material.

As with Every fully legitimate spiritual pursuit, one must approach new revelations and insights with a cautious reverence for reliable foundations in TRUTH. A balance must be maintained between what is deemed to be absolutely reliable by substantiated facts actually declared in scripture with that which one believes through unsubstantiated doctrines vaugely taught to them.  Sincere seekers of truth must be truly objective, willing to forsake prior attitudes and convictions — if and when they are contradicted by scriptural evidence. Scripture must be studied free from interference of preconceptions. The serious student must allow scripture to ‘speak’ to them, NOT merely search for hopeful support of their ideas. Far more important than clinging to the mere doctrines of men is the perpetual abiding in the rightly interpreted scriptural truth.

Most English Bible translations contain the word ‘hell’, but it is nowhere to be found in any of the earliest manuscripts. The original Hebrew texts usually use the word, ‘sheol’ which has been translated in a few places as ‘hell’, but has a completely different transliteration, and in most passages it properly appears as “grave”, ‘tomb’, ‘pit’, or ‘sepulcher’.

In the Greek Old Testament the word ‘Gehenna’ (literally the Valley of Hinnom) has also been translated as ‘hell’, although no such word (hell) existed until the Greek translation.

New Testament authors also refer to the Valley of Hinnom, but the English translators have rendered these references as ‘hell’ instead of ‘Gehenna’, begging for the question, was this by divine inspiration, or merely the translator’s personal opinion?

‘Gehenna’ is not an original Greek word, but it is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that literally means “Hinnom Valley”, which is actually physically located near Jerusalem. The transliterated word is found in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Hebrew Bible, but is NOT found in any of the common Greek literary works. Therefore, its use is uniquely related to the modern translation’s substitution of its original reference to the Valley of Hinnom, to an after-life abode of the dead.

By striking contrast, everywhere it is found in the original Hebrew translations, it always indicates the literal, physical Valley of Hinnom. In fact the word itself is made up of several Hebrew words brought together for the express reference to the actual Valley of Hinnom. It is  NEVER used to indicate anything else in any original Hebrew translation.

In Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, ‘Gehenna’ has been widely considered as a final destination of the wicked. This however, is understood to be significantly different from the more neutral terms ‘Sheol’ or ‘Hades’, which merely indicate the abode of ALL the dead (the wicked and the righteous alike). Most modern English versions of the Bible translate all three words as ‘hell’, omitting the distinctive differences that the original languages indicate.

Research reveals that the earliest Hebrew concept of the afterlife did not include a place of eternal punishment, and many Jews even today do not believe in an eternal hell. In fact, the ancient Hebrew view of the afterlife evolved through the generations, and by the time of Christ it was a mixture of the various cultural influences of surrounding nations and rabbinical oral traditions.

Old Testament theology resounds with repeated warnings by God to His people through His anointed prophets to separate from surrounding cultures and avoid any influence. The contamination of the Israelite’s spirituality came primarily from their acceptance of idolatry, influenced by the pagan beliefs of the cultures to which they were subject (Egyptian, Assyrian-Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greco-Roman).

Accordingly, ‘Hades’ has its origin in Greek mythology 800-900BC, where it is the name of the god of the underworld, the abode of the dead. Although the historical information contained in the Old Testament refers back to “the Beginning” (Creation), the actual written record does NOT. The consensus among experts is that the earliest dates for the actual writing of the scriptures were between 587-332BC. So, original ideas about hell not only predate any Biblical writings, they come from other than divinely inspired scriptural sources. Indeed, their beginnings are traced back to pagan cultures, NOT God’s people or original scriptures.

In older Greek mythology, the realm of Hades is the misty and gloomy abode of the dead where all mortals go after death. Later Greek philosophy introduced the idea that all mortals are judged after death and are either rewarded or cursed.

There were several sections of the realm of Hades, including Elysium, the Asphodel Meadows, and Tartarus. Five rivers divide the realm of Hades, and their symbolic meanings, are: Acheron (sorrow), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (oblivion), and Styx (hate). The River Styx forms the boundary between the upper and lower worlds, separating the good from the evil. All the dead must start their journey through Hades at the river Styx, and pay to cross; hence the tradition of placing a coin over each closed eye of the departed.

In Babylonian mythology, ‘Irkalla’ is the underworld from which there is no return. Much like ‘Hades’ in Greek mythology, it is both the name of the underworld and the god who ruled it. This netherworld was a place for the bodies of the dead to exist after death. One passed through the ‘seven gates’ on their journey through the portal to the netherworld leaving articles of clothing and adornment at each gate.

As the subterranean destination for all who die, Irkalla is similar to ‘Hades’ of classic Greek mythology. It is however, different from more hopeful visions of the afterlife of the contemporaneous Egyptians, and ideas which later appeared in Platonic philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, popular beliefs regarding an after-life have been built upon a foundation that has emerged from the mythologies and traditions of pagan cultures, NOT divinely inspired scripture.

Historical research indicates that Hebrew belief in the afterlife is a teaching that developed late in Jewish history. The Torah emphasizes immediate, concrete, physical rewards and punishments in this life, rather than abstract future ones. [See, for example, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 11]. However, there is also clear evidence in the Torah of belief in an existence after death, but ONLY for the righteous. The Torah indicates in several places that the righteous will be reunited with their loved ones after death, while the wicked will be excluded from this reunion.

The Torah speaks of several noteworthy people being “gathered to their people.” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and King Josiah are some of whom the Old Testament specifies. This gathering is described as a separate event from the physical death of the body or its burial, so it is reasonable to concur that it is an after-life experience for the righteous, but NOT for the wicked.

According to the earliest Hebrew tradition, certain sins are punished by the sinner being “cut off from his people.” Most theologians trace the origin of this concept to Cain being cut off from his people after killing Abel. Genesis 17:14 further mentions this in the case of the uncircumcised, and in Exodus 31:14, it is the price one pays for working on the Sabbath. Even though the scriptural references clearly indicate an actual, physical application, some Jewish teachers later spiritualized it. This punishment is referred to as ‘kareit’ (literally, “cutting off,”) but it is usually translated as “spiritual excision”, and it means that the soul loses its portion in the World to Come.

Belief in the eventual resurrection of the righteous dead is a fundamental belief of traditional Judaism. It was a belief that distinguished the Pharisees (intellectual ancestors of Rabbinical Judaism) from the Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the concept, because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. The Pharisees found the concept was however, implied in certain verses and therefore, accepted resurrection as the promise of God for the righteous dead.

The Pharisees taught that the resurrection of the dead will occur in the messianic age, a time referred to in Hebrew as the ‘Olam Ha-Ba’, (the world to come). This term is also used to refer to the spiritual afterlife. When the Messiah comes to initiate the perfect world of peace and prosperity, the righteous dead will be brought back to life and given the opportunity to experience the perfected world that their righteousness helped to create. The wicked dead will NOT be resurrected, but shall remain cut off from their people.

The Hebrew concept of resurrection differs some from the Christian view. Mystical rabbinical schools of thought believe resurrection is not a one-time event, but is an ongoing process. The souls of the righteous are reborn to continue the ongoing process of ‘tikkun olam’, the mending of the world. This idea is closely aligned to many Eastern mystical teachings on reincarnation.

Some sources indicate that reincarnation is a routine process, while others indicate that it only occurs in unusual circumstances, where a soul has left unfinished business behind. Belief in reincarnation is also one way to explain the traditional Hebrew belief that every Hebrew soul in history was present at Sinai and agreed to the covenant with God. Another explanation is that the soul exists before the body, and these unborn souls were present in some form at Sinai. Belief in reincarnation is commonly held by many Hasidic sects, as well as other mystically inclined Jews. Most popular among these today is Kabbalah.

So, it should be understood that Hebrew thoughts regarding the afterlife have been an evolving mixture of oral tradition and the influence of surrounding cultures (Egyptian, Assyrian-Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greco-Roman). They hold to no concrete doctrine regarding the hereafter; even what they do profess is taken from the Talmud (a collection of oral tradition), NOT the Old Testament.

In general though, they believe that only the very righteous go directly to ‘Gan Eden’, literally the Garden of Eden, usually translated ‘paradise’. The average person descends to a place of punishment and/or purification. According to an ancient mystical view, every sin we commit creates an angel of destruction (a demon), and after we die we are punished by the very demons that we created.But this purely from mythological  sources — NOT scripture!

A few modern reformed Judaist views now allude to an after-life place of severe punishment, a bit like the “Christian Hell” of fire and brimstone. Older sources however, merely saw it as a time when we can see the actions of our lives objectively, see the harm that we have done and the many opportunities we missed, and experience remorse for our actions. The period of time in remorse does not exceed 12 months, and then the soul ascends to take his place in ‘Olam Ha-Ba’, whether through resurrection or reincarnation, according to non-scriptural oral traditions.

Only the utterly wicked do not ascend at the end of this period; their souls are punished for the entire 12 months. Sources differ on what happens at the end of those 12 months: some expect that the wicked soul is utterly destroyed and ceases to exist, while others contend that the soul continues to exist in a state of consciousness in remorse. This 12-month limit is repeated in many places in the Talmud, and it is connected to the mourning cycles and the recitation of Kaddish, but is nowhere found in scripture.

So it is, that we have some understanding of what the Hebrew thought was concerning the afterlife at the time of Christ. Remembering that the cultures that surrounded the Jews in those days were Egyptian, Syrian, Roman, and Greek. The earliest New Testament writings were in Greek, the prevailing universal business language. Later second century translations were commissioned in Latin, the language of the then prevalent Roman Empire.

As mentioned earlier, in Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic scriptures, ‘Gehenna’ has been considered as a destination of the dead, even though the literal translation always refers to a specific physical valley near Jerusalem, a perpetual “garbage dump”.

To gain a proper understanding of why this reference is spiritualized in New Testament passages, sincere seekers of truth need to consider the historical significance and how the people of Christ’s time thought about it. Historically, (both secular and liturgical) the Hinnom Valley was where pagans offered child sacrifices to the idol god Molech. “Also he caused his sons to pass through the fire in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (II Chronicles 33:6).

Because of its strong association with those abominations, when Israel finally left their idolatrous practices, the valley became associated with God’s just punishment for sins. “Therefore behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “when it will no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Tophet until there is no room (Jeremiah 7:32, see also Jeremiah 19:6).

These idol worshipers had the perverse notion that their gods would be more inclined to answer petitions if their worshipers gave up something valuable. Since the life of one’s child is very valuable to a parent, this was considered to be the ultimate sacrifice. And they built the high places of Baal which are in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I did NOT command them, nor did it come into My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin” (Jeremiah 32:35).

Eventually, it became a representation of the punishment of the wicked, no longer referring solely to the physical place. “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the LORD, “So shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the LORD. And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:22-24).

NOTE: there is a difference between ‘SIN’ (caps) and ‘s-i-n’. ‘SIN’ is what separates us from God. The other (‘s-i-n’) refers to individual transgressions against the law. It is unfortunate that this distinction is rarely explained and therefore much of what is spoken of in the Epistles of the NT regarding ‘s-i-n’ is confused with ‘SIN’. Also, since born-again believers are no longer under the law, ‘s-i-n’ is easily dealt with by simple ‘confession’, meaning agreeing with God that while it may be lawful, it may not be expedient (useful, wholesome, conducive to perfection).

God had ONE, and only ONE mission when He decided to invade this planet as a flesh & blood member of the human race: to completely remedy ‘SIN’. He accomplished that mission ONCE & FOR ALL. His Incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, His death on the cross, and the shedding of His blood, was for the remission of ‘SIN’, everyone’s ‘SIN’. All who were separated from God (SIN) can now be reconciled to God through Christ.

Christ also fulfilled the Law, making the application of the law obsolete, in terms of requiring punitive judgment in the spiritual realm. While the physical consequences for breaking the law remain within the natural, physical realm (natural law), the eternal ramifications of  the spiritual realm have been decided.

SIN that had separated those who lived and died before His crucifixion; SIN separating the rest of us who have lived since His death; and even the SIN of those yet to live has ALL been completely remedied. Humanity has been fully ransomed!

The really incredible thing, that has been either over-looked, side-stepped, or purposely evaded, and consciously misinterpreted – – – is that because Christ’s ONE TIME sacrifice was so COMPLETE, S-I-N is no longer an issue for those who accept God’s remedy. It has been dealt with, and the conclusion is that there is a remedy, thereby removing its power, influence, or fruit – – – for those who have been concluded as “UNDER THE BLOOD“.

Of course how one gets under the blood continues to be a topic of hot debate among proponents of their pet doctrines, purveyors of the organizations masquerading around the globe as the ‘Body of Christ’. These are “nominal Christians”; professing themselves as followers of Christ, but never really truly knowing Him. “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away” – 2 Tim. 3:5.

Well did Jesus warn against them all, What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees, Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Mt. 23:15

Certainly, you noticed the reference to hell at the close of the verse. Therefore, this is a good opportunity to hopefully meld two errant concepts into one understanding. It may seem that it’s taking a completely unrelated fork in the road, but it’s not.

The word ‘hell’ is actually never used anywhere in the original Greek manuscripts. It is an English word that has become the translation for three words: ‘Gehenna’, ‘Sheol’, and ‘Hades’. As was mentioned before, ‘Gehenna’ (Greek γέεννα), ‘Gehinnom’ (in Hebrew: גהנום/גהנם) is a literal, physical place outside ancient Jerusalem known in the Hebrew Bible as the “Valley of Hinnom”, one of the two principal valleys surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem, where apostate Israelites and followers of various Baal’s and Canaanite gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6). Thereafter, it was deemed to be cursed (Jer. 7:31, 19:2-6).

Because of its strong association with those disgusting practices, when Israel finally left their idolatrous practices, the valley became associated with God’s just punishment for sins. Slowly evolving over many centuries, it became a representation of the punishment of the wicked, no longer referring merely to the specific physical place. So, eventually the idea of some “other-than-physical-location” for this “place-of-punishment” found its way into oral tradition and rabbinical teaching. Because of the original activity associated with this Valley (causing their children to pass through fire) the idea of the ‘under-world’ place of punishment, became a permanent place of torment in fire.

Whether or not this idea can be considered sound doctrine, a careful, anointed and insightful study of all other Scripture references where any of the three Greek words translated as ‘hell’ is found must be prayerfully and systematically conducted.

When we move to the New Testament, we must determine whether the use of the word ‘Gehenna’ is referring to merely the physical valley near Jerusalem, or to the broader idea of a place in the after-life. If the translator uses the phrase “Valley of Hinnom” when the idea of a place of punishment was meant, it is likely that people in other cultures, not knowing the valley’s horrible past, will think ONLY of the physical location, and not the concept of it as a place of torment.

Was it the intention of the original divinely inspired writers to substitute that physical impression with a figurative representation of ‘hell’ as introduced in earlier pagan culture’s mythologies? In thirty-two places in the Old Testament where the word ‘hell’ appears, it is the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ , NOT ‘Gehenna’ –  (literally: the Valley of Hinnom). Also, in all original Hebrew  OT references ‘Sheol’ ALWAYS means a literal ‘grave’, ‘pit’, ‘tomb’, or ‘sepulchre’.

Why then was ‘Gehenna’ transliterated into the Greek as ‘hell’, instead of being translated according to the original Hebrew understanding? Remember, ‘Gehenna’ is peculiar to the Greek Scriptures; it is nowhere found in common Greek literature. Why then is ‘Gehenna’ used where it is, when elsewhere the Greek ‘hades’ is found. Both are essentially translated as ‘the abode of the departed soul’. The only logical explanation is that the original writers wanted the reader to realize the distinction between the Greek source and its concept of the underworld, with the evolution of thought in Hebrew tradition stemming from the actual historical events that occurred at the literal and physical location in the Valley of Hinnom.

‘Gehenna’ only appears exactly eleven times in the New Testament (compared to thirty-two times where ‘hell’ is more properly ‘sheol’) and is translated in most modern versions as ‘hell’ in ALL of those entries. It is extremely important to consider the understanding of Gehenna that Christ’s original audience had, NOT attempt comprehension that is influenced by modern interpretations! The following quotes are an exhaustive (11x) representation:

“But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of  judgment. And whoever says to his brother,Racal!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Mt. 5:22.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell“. (literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Mt. 5:29-30.

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – (Mt. 10:28.

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire” (literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Mt. 18:9.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves (literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Mt. 23:15.

“Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Mt.23:33.

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell (literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Mt.5:29.

And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell(literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Mk. 9:45.

And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire” (literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Mk. 9:43, 45, 47.

“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell(literally: the Valley of Hinnom) – Lk. 12:5.

“And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell (literally: the Valley of Hinnom)James 3:6.

Ten of the eleven references are made by Jesus, and when we read through these references, we conclude that each reference is toward the same place. Since all these use the word ‘Gehenna’, and not ‘sheol’, translated into English as ‘hell’, what changes when we read these verses with our understanding of ‘Gehenna’ compared to ‘sheol’ used in the English, rather than the word ‘hell’ (derived from the Greek ‘hades’)?

In Mt. 5:22 the meaning changes fromin danger of hell fire” to “in danger of Gehenna’s fire”. Knowing that this would be a reference to the practice of pagan ritual and the associated denunciation by God, the concept is a warning of judgment for a horrible abomination, but does it infer eternal punishment?

Remember Jeremiah prophesied, “it will no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. Considering this, could the original writer purposely have substituted ‘Gehenna’, to convey the idea that the danger was of one’s reputation (or name) being changed? Also, isn’t eternal punishment rather harsh for merely calling someone a fool?

Does the doctrine of salvation EVER infer that there is NO salvation (eternal life) possible for someone who calls another a fool? Hopefully, a better factual understanding of salvation’s requirements exclude such a notion! A prayerful evaluation of exactly what Christ was inferring is greatly warranted.

In the passages found in Mt. 5, 18, and Mk. 9, there are several problems due to the insertion of ‘Gehenna’ instead of ‘Hades’. First, all of these speak about casting off offending parts of the body, rather than the whole body being cast into ‘Gehenna’.

Again, understanding the references to mean the valley where children were sacrificed by being passed through fire, when read using ‘Gehenna’ instead of ‘hell’ the idea is dramatically changed. It would be better to cut of any offensive parts of one’s body (figuratively: wrong behavior), than to have the whole body sacrificed to false gods.  As a matter of interpretation, the intent is obviously NOT to be taken literally (cutting off parts of one’s body), but figuratively. Since the central idea points to a figurative interpretation, it makes more sense to conclude that references to ‘Gehenna’ would also be figurative rather than to any literal place of eternal physical torment, such as the mis-translated references to ‘hades’ infer instead.

There is another problem that remains if the doctrinal explanation about the differences between ‘Gehenna’, and ‘Sheol’ are to be fully appreciated. The idea that by definition ‘Gehenna’ is different from ‘Sheol’ is because ‘Sheol’ is where the body goes (the grave, sepulcher, tomb) but ‘Gehenna’ (where translated as ‘hell’) is supposedly a place where departed souls go, separated from their bodies. Since these passages indicate that both body and soul go to ‘Gehenna’, either these references (and Mt. 10:28) must be purely figurative, or the doctrine of a literal place of eternal punishment is suspicious, contradictory, and at the very least, in need of further examination.

In Mt. 23:15, being madetwice the son of Gehenna” makes more sense than “twice the son of hell”. The lesson derived by the reference to ‘Gehenna’, is that the sons of the Valley of Hinnom had not understood that their own efforts to gain the approval of God, even the sacrifice of their prized possessions (their children) was a works over grace mentality. We now understand that God accepts us through grace, not works (as with the sacrifice of our sons), but through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ.

This is the correlation and understanding Jesus was conveying in these passages. By the Greek translators substituting ‘hell’ for ‘Gehenna’, the emphasis shifts from redemption to judgment, from an introduction of grace, to an eternal consequence for propagating false doctrine. It’s not that there isn’t any eternal consequence, just that the original intent of these particular verses was NOT to teach it.

Turning to Mt. 23:33, again the substitution of ‘hell’ for ‘Gehenna’ turns this into a passage about an eternal condemnation rather than the original translation that recalls the “condemnation of Gehenna”:when it will no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Tophet until there is no room” (Jeremiah 7:32, 19:6). The literal translation of ‘Tophet’ is ‘cremation’.

Again, the inference is of passing through fire, and therefore the condemnation of being left in the mound with the heathen (sharing a common grave in the ash heap) as opposed to the more dignified burial in a proper grave, sepulcher, or tomb. The condemnation in this sense is how one is remembered or memorialized: cremated like the heathen, or properly buried as a respected Jew.

Since Jesus was addressing ‘hypocrites’ this is perhaps the better rendering. False teachers were also false Jews; apostate in the sense of their understanding and teaching of Scripture. Therefore, the “condemnation of Gehenna” would be a reminder about the end of the apostate Jews who had actually sacrificed in Hinnom.

In Luke 12:5 it is written, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” This verse shares in the meaning of the former one (Mt. 23:33) in the sense of the indictment against the hypocrites. Here, Jesus is again speaking about the Pharisees, calling them ‘hypocrites’, and it is them to which He is referring to when He compares them tothose who can kill the body and after that do no harm (vs.4).

It is the Pharisees that Jesus is speaking to when He says, fear him who after he has killed, has power to cast into Gehenna. Christ’s audience was under oppression to cruel Roman authorities. They could ‘kill the body’, but that would be the extent of their harm. Applied to the Pharisees (or false teachers) however, if a person did not have proper ‘fear’ of them, he was destined to the ‘condemnation of Gehenna’. Following false guides leads one into apostasy.

The final New Testament use of ‘Gehenna’  where it has been translated ‘hell’, is in James 3:6 – “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on
fire by hell
(butoriginally: the Valley of Hinnom).

Clearly, this can’t be expected to be a literal translation. No one’s tongue is a literal fire. No tongue has the power to literally set on fire the course of nature. The intent of this verse must therefore be understood in an allegorical sense, not a literal one. When we make that shift in comprehension, we understand the author’s meaning, that what we say can set in motion a whole course of events. We need to discipline our speech. Say what we mean and mean what we say.

But again, the reference in the original Greek is purposely ‘Gehenna’, NOT ‘hell’, and so it must be the inference to the Valley of Hinnom where by fire, people were literally cast aside. God condemned their actions way back then, and He still condemns similar attempts in our flesh to gain His approval or appease His wrath by meaningless professions of worship or confessions of faith. Such hypocrisy is mere ‘tongue wagging’; hence the warning.

It was mentioned before that the intent of this side-bar  was to meld the two topics (SIN & hell). My point being that since Jesus completely eradicated SIN, satan no longer is allowed to approach the throne (Job 1). Jesus has taken his place; no longer is there an accuser, only an advocate. God Almighty’s wrath has been eternally satisfied – – – by the death of His only begotten Son (God Incarnate)!

Notice the eerie similarity to the ‘sons of Hinnom’ who were sacrificed to appease their gods, and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (THE SON) to appease the wrath of the True Living God. The reason and meaning of this striking similarity is quite deep, in terms of spiritual mysticism. It is indeed part of the ‘hidden things’, the ‘mysteries of God’ referred to by the prophets, the Apostles, and Christ. Hidden to the unregenerate world, but it is revealed unto true ‘babes’ in Christ.

Of course, not many effectively search out these mysteries, and even fewer conduct their own systematic Bible interpretation. So it is, that most merely accept the oral traditions and rabbinical teachings, and after so much time without correction, now are taught that ‘hell’ is a literal place of eternal torment and everlasting fire.

Too bad they have never realized (or been properly taught) that hell was created as the abode of fallen angels awaiting their judgment (according to prophetic writings – also in need of deeper scrutiny). Since they are still now being held awaiting judgment – – – they haven’t been judged, yet! Why would they then be in torment, having yet to be judged? Punishment is pronounced AFTER judgment, NOT in anticipation of it! A proper explanation can be found only through a more thorough and comprehensive study – – – but elsewhere in another article!

In conclusion, since Christ has abolished SIN, and hell is the destination for those concluded under SIN, what would be the logic for such a place of eternal torment? The problem (SIN) has been eliminated; wouldn’t any need for a literal place of ongoing punishing be also eliminated? Scripture declares the FINAL destiny of hell and its occupants: “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death”  – Rev. 20:14. “Second death” in NO way implies eternal existence, but FINAL destruction.

Remember, ‘SIN’ is a word used in Scripture to indicate ‘separation from God’. The cross has fallen across that gulf separating us from God. The cross is the bridge providing access to God. We who are saved, are no longer separated from God, because SIN has been removed and replaced. Where SIN once was, grace now abounds.

But because of thousands of years of false teachers making their converts twice the ‘sons of Hinnom’, many have missed the blessing of knowing that they can now know that they know that they are truly saved to the uttermost, and . . . BECAUSE SIN NO LONGER REIGNS, neither is there any necessity for a literal place of eternal punishing of the infidel.

There is still a designation ‘apart from God’. See my article Eternal Separation from God for more information on that topic.

Eternal Life is a gift bestowed upon those who trust the sacrifice of Christ as complete and sufficient to remedy forever the problem that had separated them from God (SIN). No longer separated from God, they shall spend Eternity with Him.

Those who do not trust this remedy, have NO remedy – – – NOT because SIN still reigns, but because there is only ONE WAY across the gulf that separates them from God.

Is hell literal, physical, in some time-space continuum that will be understood as we do the terms used to describe it? Perhaps the gulf is a valley, and as Hinnom, the valley is full of the dead. Filled with those who died in vain, trusting false gods or false doctrine to reward them for their sacrifices (their works), when the ONE True LIVING  God of Creation has always prepared THE ONLY ACCEPTABLE SACRIFICE – – – HIMSELF! — but they are DEAD  — ETERNALLY (second death).

Did God go to those extremes to remedy SIN, only to fail? Think NOT! So, it comes down to understanding that either Christ succeeded and SIN is abolished ONCE & for ALL, or we still have to deal with SIN, which by the way, are two major FALSE DOCTRINES of the Roman Catholic Church, several Protestant denominations, and several fringe sects claiming allegiance to Christ.

Roman Catholics ceremonially ‘sacrifice’ Christ daily (in their Mass) and teach that forgiveness of SIN comes only through penance and absolution through an ordained Roman priest. Entrance into Heaven comes only by receiving the ‘Last Rites’ from a Roman priest, and even then you’re NOT going directly to Heaven, but a place they call ‘Purgatory’ which is very much like hell as far as torment, except that you can hopefully, eventually get ‘time off for good behavior’.

Remember too, that it was this church (Roman Catholic) that was the only visible organized church on Earth for 1600 years after Christ’s Ascension into Heaven. The true universal spiritual ‘Body of Christ’ was forced ‘underground’ by constant persecution. Small wonder there are so many questionable translations of Scripture and related false doctrines. Compare Catholicism’s preferred ‘Latin Vulgate’ translation  to those translated from copies of original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and a noticable distinction is quite apparent. Which is truly divinely inspired is a matter of sincere personal prayer.

What the world needs today is another Reformation. During the first one (sparked by Martin Luther’s Treatise against Rome’s teaching on works and indulgences) Grace replaced works in most Protestant movements. Sadly there were also incredibly more extreme shifts away from Rome that led to the development of many swazi-christian cults and greater heresies.

But as many of Rome’s doctrines were  scrutinized as common people finally had access to the written Word for the first time, it was increasingly more and more apparent that Scripture did NOT teach much of what oral tradition had handed down as truth.

True believers today must pick up a similar call now to compare Scripture (in its original translations) and conduct a modern scrutinizing in light of all that has been exposed in the past 400 years, since it first was made known that there are many doctrines that were never intended to be taught as Universal Eternal Truth.

It is also blatantly obvious that modern English is a far cry from the Kings English that was the common man’s vernacular in the 17th century. A contemplative reading of the works of Shakespeare demonstrate how different the meaning of many phrases, expressions and concepts have evolved. The Renaissance embraced Marconian ideas of eternal torment and were based more on the artist renditions of the middle ages than on actual Scriptural support. That imagery perpetuated the usual thoughts that too many people conjure up as being rightly associated with ‘hell’.

Some scholars believe that the parable about the rich man & Lazarus reflects the intertestamental Jewish view of ‘Hades’ as containing separate divisions for the wicked and righteous. It has already been exposed as to where their view came from: a mixture of various folklore and rabbinical teachings and oral traditions, derived mostly from ancient mythologies, but NOT from Scripture.

It’s hard to wrench from that parable exact details about the afterlife because Jesus was drawing on images about the afterlife from Jewish and Egyptian folklore (which his listeners would have realized) to show the gulf between arrogant people in this world (the Pharisees typified by the rich man) and those who by humble submission to God come to be in the kingdom of God.

[My articleParable of the Rich Man & Lazarusprovides further commentary]

What separates ALL men from God is their refusal to acknowledge His many attributes revealed by Him through His written Word, spiritual communication, and personal revelation in Jesus Christ. God is not hard to find when sincerely sought after. Humility, not pride is the only proper approach. When a person realizes that God so loves us that He came as one of us (became a man) dwelt among us (for thirty -three years) and ultimately gave His life for us (ransom for SIN) then to deny Him our reciprocal love is the ONLY thing that can eternally separate a man from God. But such separation need NOT be one of eternal consciousness!

That those eternally separated from God will indeed NOT enter into eternal life is indisputable. Whether or not they will experience eternal torment in some literal place called ‘hell’; or if the result of God’s judgement is a final punishment of destruction, equally ETERNAL in consequence, they shall be forever ‘cut-off’, is a matter of sincere and Holy Spirit guided scriptural search.

John describes only two possible destinies: PERISH or Eternal Life (Jn. 3:16). It is NOT necessary for continual punishing to fulfill ‘eternal punishment’. Neither do those cursed by eternal punishment need to necessarily remain conscious in order to rightly declare their punishment eternal. Besides, such a state of perpetual awareness would be eternal life. Once judgment is rendered, it is irreversible, therefore it has effectively become everlasting. Once the sentence has been pronounced, it is forever irreversible!

While this is an appropriate  place to conclude this article regarding the literal application of ‘hell’, I have provided the results of my personal research on the topic of the false teachings regarding the eternal existence of ‘hell’ in another of my articles entitled The After-Life. Please prayerfully consider these things!

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5 thoughts on “Is Hell a Literal, Physical Place?

  1. Pingback: Eternal Separation from God | MJThompson's Theology Blog

  2. Pingback: EXPLORING HELL | first resurrection

  3. good stuff… But what about satan and his angels… As well as the sons of perdition ie antichrist who will probably be injected with some sort of fallen Angel DNA that is cast alive probably after being possessed by the beast and or false prophet spirit(s)?

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    • Anthony – Thanks for responding. As with all questions, the basis upon which the have their credibility must rely on prior substantiated FACT. Of course scriptural interpretations vary widely, but the deeper the effective study, the more precise the evidence becomes and logical conclusions result. As for demons (any and all spirits opposed to God), unlike humanity – who are all temporal beings – they were originally created BEFORE the physical Creation (this present earth, plants and animals, mankind, & the extended universe). Since scripture is clear about the devil living sometime BEFORE, during the ages leading up to Christ’s advent, and throughout the church age even to the present – a reasonable conclusion is that he and his cohorts are NOT mere temporal beings – but immortals. That is why their final punishment is mentioned as ‘tormented forever’. But an important distinction between them and mankind must be understood. Temporal beings have a destiny with death unless covered by the Blood of Christ, thereby admitting them into eternal life. Demonic beings (evil-spirits) do not. Scripture declares a DIFFERENT destiny for them. Understand also that even a human possessed by a demon, is still destined as all humans to death unless under the Blood of Christ – in which case deliverance from demonic possession would be remedied. DNA is a physical gene trait and scripture does not address the mingling of such with ‘demon seed’. The theories about demonized children of women who laid with demons in the OT is speculation for which no concrete evidence is found in scripture sufficient to declare as doctrine.

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  4. Pingback: The After-Life | MJThompson's Theology Blog

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