While I was a Christian, there were a few times where I questioned and studied Hell. Is Hell truly eternal? Is it actual fire? I did not have a huge problem with temporal punishment, torture even, but an ever burning lake of fire with no end seemed a bit extreme. Maybe not for Hitler, Mussolini, or Bin Laden, however the thought of someone suffering forever and ever and ever and ever when he never heard the name of Jesus and his most vicious crime was committed in his mind, was not what I would call justice. I know. I am not God. I get that. But I needed to know if this place was real or if it was simply a Catholic invention used to control the masses.
The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost.
I found plenty of verses in the Old Testament to support annihilation. Yet, the New Testament was clear. Hell is forever, it is a lake of fire, and whoever’s name is not found in the Book of Life will be thrown into it (Revelation 20:15). The matter was settled. A few years later, after I lost all trust in the New Testament, I revisited the issue.
In Genesis, when God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the consequences were death. “You will surely die.” He did not tell them, “You will surely be cast into the Lake of Fire prepared for the Devil and His Angels.” Furthermore, when Yahweh lays out the blessings and curses for obeying and disobeying the law, he never mentioned any type of eternal torture.
Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.
The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.
You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey.
And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.
What About is Sheol?
There exists a place in the Hebrew Scriptures called “Sheol”. In today’s King James Bibles, this word is often translated as Hell. The Hebrew word “sheol” actually means “grave” or perhaps “place of the dead.” The Hebrew belief was that everyone went there at their death, whether righteous or unrighteous. The only place in the Hebrew Scriptures that even hints at a punishment after death, is Daniel 12:12 “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Even here the description is very vague and is absence of a lake of fire.
When Jesus spoke of “Hell” the Greek word was Gehenna. Gehenna is the Hebrew equivalent to The Valley of the Son of Hinnom. In the days of the Old Testament it is where the Israelites, upon worshiping the false god Molech, would sacrifice their children. In Jesus’ day, if someone died with no one to carry out a proper burial, his body was thrown into the constant burning trash pile. This geographic, literal, physical place is located in Jerusalem and can still be visited today.
My findings were interesting as well as relieving. And they completely changed the way I viewed people and the world around me. As a Fundamentalist, Bible-believing Christian, there were many times I would be strolling through the mall and wonder if the people around me were on the road to Hell. I would meet someone new and want to ask them if they knew Jesus. I often felt distant to such people and helpless to do anything about it.
Now that I know the truth about Hell, I can look at people and appreciate them as a part of God’s beautiful creation. I no longer see them as potential objects of torture designed to suffer God’s wrath. I now see the beauty in people. Beauty that had formerly been clouded by the illusion of smoke rising forever and ever.