The following text was a headline on Tuesday March 7, 2007:

"The fires of Hell are real and eternal, Pope warns"

This begs the immediate question: how does he know?

This is a remarkable statement from the leader of a church that has produced the following new catechism which states that Hell is a:

"state of eternal separation from God", to be understood "symbolically rather than physically".

These "fires" are "real" in a symbolic way then?

Let's instead turn to the Bible, rather than a man, for information about hell...

Is Hell a:

  • a place of fiery torment?
  • a place where the wicked go to be punished for ever and ever?
  • a place of fires that can never be extinguished?

It is unfortunate that the prevailing belief of many churches is that when a person dies (although the physical body decays), the "immortal soul" continues to live either in the happiness of heaven or in the fire and torments of hell.

The Bible does not teach this.

Indeed, the Bible never mentions the phrase "immortal soul" and the Bible clearly states that we have no conscious existence after death anywhere.

"His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish."  (Psalm 146:4)
"For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten." (Ecclesiastes 9:5)

In the Old Testament the original Hebrew word for hell, Sheol, occurs 65 times.

  • 31 times it is translated GRAVE
  • 31 times it is translated HELL
  •   3 times it is translated PIT

The original word means unseen or covered place, which describes very much the GRAVE or PIT. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it describe a place of fiery punishment.

When the Old Testament was translated in to Greek, the Hebrew word Sheol was translated to the Greek word Hades. This is the Greek word for GRAVE, the literal place where dead people are put, not a mysterious place of torment.

In the New Testament three Greek words - Hades, Gehenna, Tartaros - are translated HELL.

Hades --- this word occurs 11 times in the New Testament, 10 times translated to HELL and once to GRAVE.

"And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell?" (Matthew 11:23)

"He [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption." (Acts 2:31)

"And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them."  (Revelation 20:13)

As in the Old Testament, there is no suggestion of hell being a place of torment (except perhaps Luke 16:23 - but an explanation of this is given later).

Gehenna --- Gehenna is sometimes called Valley of Hinnom. It is a literal valley on the south of Jerusalem. The word occurs 13 times in the Old Testament - 8 times referring to a place and 5 times connected with God's wrath because human sacrifices were made there.

In New Testament days Gehenna was the place where the city's rubbish was burnt in a continuously burning fire. Jesus uses this scene to show how final and complete God's judgements would be on the wicked.

The word Gehenna is sometimes translated hell fire.

Tartaros --- this word occurs only once, in 2 Peter 2:4. A little Bible investigation will reveal that the angels or messengers, God's servants who rebelled, were Korah, Dathan and Abiram - Numbers 16:30-33. The earth opened and swallowed them up. The pit in verses 30 and 33 is Sheol in Hebrew - the GRAVE - and it is there that they await judgement.

The Rich Man and Lazarus --- Luke 16:19-31

This is the only place in the Bible that appears to teach that man experiences suffering immediately after death. This cannot be correct, however, as it contradicts all the rest of the Bible.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us that the Pharisees believed that at death they were taken into a place called Abraham's bosom, whilst the poor of the population suffered in Hades, which they thought was a place of torment.

Jesus uses the Pharisees' idea, turns it round and sends the rich man to Hades and the beggar to Abraham's bosom. The real purpose of Jesus for relating this parable is to be found in verses 27-31.

The rich man, representing the Pharisees (to whom Jesus was speaking - v.15), wants Abraham to send the beggar to warn his five brothers. Abraham, whom the Pharisees greatly respected, says in verse 29, "They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them." This means that they have the books in the Old Testament, which they should read and believe.

The rich man replies, "but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent." Jesus is relating all this and, in verse 31, makes Abraham condemn the attitude of the Pharisees by him saying, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."

The Pharisees refused to accept Jesus as the Son of God both whilst he was among them and after he had been raised from the dead.

Therefore, as far as the Bible is concerned, there is no evidence to support the idea that unfaithful and wicked people consciously exist in eternal torments after death.

Life after death is only possible through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. When he returns to this earth to set up the Kingdom of God here on earth, he will raise from the dead his faithful servants and give them everlasting life.

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