Does the Bible Really Teach That Hell is Eternal Conscious Torment? part 1

 photo inferno1_zps4fba85df.jpg
from Gustave Doré's (1832-1883) illustrations of Dante's Inferno

I do not believe that the Bible actually teaches that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. By that I mean, hell is not a place where people who sin and disbelieve are sent to be punished and tortured. I don't believe that God would torture anyone. I certainly don't believe that hell is a place where one is conscious eternally. While I do think that hell is judgment I don't think it's a place where people are conscous eternally of being punished.  I think first of all "going to hell" Is a symbol of spiritual death. That it's a judgement in after life, but rather than leading to eternal conscious torment it leads to the total annihilation of existence. I don't believe that everyone is automatically saved.

My thesis is this: (1) The Bible uses the conept of hell as a symbol of judgment and spiritual death.

(2) It is clearly talking about something, some negative consequence from "hell," but that is not a place of literal fire and brimstone, rather, the "place" of torment is a symbol of spiritual death that comes from being judged.

(3) Judgment comes from rejecting God and closing the heart to truth, it is not something God ordained to befall the rebellious, but an automatic separation that we initiate and we have the power to change while we live, by responding to God's love. The more we turn our backs on God and pout the deeper we get into sepeartion and God cannot do anything about it if we are determined to separate ourselves.

(4) When I say "God can't do anything about it," yes could have made the original set up different, but only by sacrificing other things, such as free will, which very important.

thus I am saying God is limited to logical necessity. He cannot make two contradictory states of affairs that truly contradict logically. Thus to have the valuable aspects of free will and moral decision making there must be consequences which we initiate through our rebellion and which God cannot change given the facts. Specifically I believe that those who reject God and die in separation from God cease to exist. That is fair and humane since that's what they expect anyway. The atheist chooses to cease to exist but in disbelieving he expects this anyway. One must agree it is certainly more compassionate than eteranl conscious torment. The talk we find of flames and darkness is symbolic. It is symbolic of the dread of being judged and condemned, and symbolic of spiritual death. I believe the Bible teaches this and we can examine the passages and see for ourselves.

First, there is no such set up in the OT. There is situation such that good go to heaven to paradise to be rewarded and the bad go to hell to be tormented. This concept was unknown to the Hebrews. It is common knowledge that the Hebrews believed that everyone went to "the pit" or Sheol, which is translated "the grave." This is the idea of the realm of the dead. Everyone went there, not as punishment but that's just the way it was. There were exceptions such as prophets who were taken up to heaven to be with God, but basically no one expected the reward from heaven or the punishment of hell. All that came in this life. The concept of hell came from the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks, imposed upon the Hebrew world in the intertestamental period, though the conquest of the Selucids who succeeded Alexander the Great. But the Hebrews found a corresponding symbol for "tortarus" the Greek Hell, in the valley of Gehenna where they burned trash outside Jerusalem. We know this was a symbol and symbolic use since it was a literal physical place in history. Secondly, I believe that hell is unjust and counter productive. Unjust because eternal torment as punishment for finite sin is just not fair. No amount of pias sanctimony can make it fair. God would not be unfair. Moreover, counterproductive because no one learns anything form hell. I see atheists all the time expressing the attitude "I'm going to hell anyway so what does it matter?" It's not a good idea and the more I think aobut it the more like the solution of a small child it seems. It is not taught in the bible so let's get to it and look at the scholarship and see. Some scholars understand Paul to teach that the wicked disappear. I find this in accord with views I had already come to before I found this article, and before I saw that in Paul:

from a book review (this review is no located on High beam).

"The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds." - book reviews
Commonweal, May 5, 1995 by Carl L. Bankston, III

Although the Christian message was, from the beginning, concerned primarily with eternal life, the theme of eternal punishment emerged from apocalyptic Judaism in the pages of the New Testament. Bernstein's reading of the New Testament, however, indicates a diversity of understandings of this punishment among the authors of the Scriptures. Saint Paul, emphasizing the positive teachings of the faith, did not express a clear vision of hell and seems to have implied that the wicked would eventually simply disappear. The authors of the synoptic Gospels, by contrast, describe pains of eternal damnation that balance the joys of eternal salvation.

My view is grounded in St. Paul. The main overview of Biblical teaching is one of diversity. There is no standarized set of explicit assumptions about the nature of heaven and hell. The ancinet Hebrews did not have that view.

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures Volume 5 (2004-2005)

Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002). Pp. 288. Paper, US$22.00. ISBN 0-8308-2687-4.

This volume builds upon Johnston’s 1988 Belfast MTh thesis and his 1993 Cambridge PhD dissertation, but constitutes a substantial reworking and expansion of that material. The result is a comprehensive study that is accessible to non-specialists without sacrificing extensive interaction with scholarly literature on the subject. The material itself is organized under four main categories: Death, The Underworld, The Dead and The Afterlife.

Johnston demonstrates the Hebrew lack of biphercated afterlife:

Finally, Johnston address the question of an Afterlife, a late development in Israelite religious thought. Although Elijah and Elisha bring dead children back to life, Enoch “walked with God” and Elijah ascended in a flaming chariot, none of these were considered normal nor hoped for by others. The only clear references to bodily resurrection occur in Isa 26:19 and Daniel 12:2; extra-biblical references to resurrection (e.g., 2 Macc 7; 14; 1 Enoch 51:1; 61:5; 62:15, 4Q521:12, etc.) date from the 2nd century BCE on, which is consistent with the date of the two biblical texts. Despite afterlife beliefs in the surrounding nations, however, Johnston finds little evidence of direct influence and instead claims that Israel’s eventual belief in an afterlife is rooted in its experience of YHWH’s faithfulness and ongoing presence in their history, eventually understood as extending beyond death itself.
This view is actually pretty standard among scholars.

BNET reprint Comonweal, Ibid

I found Bernstein's close reading of the Hebrew Bible and of the Book of Enoch, the major piece of evidence outside the writings of Josephus of a late antique Jewish belief in punishment after death, more original than his review of Greco-Roman ideas. Much of the latter seems to rest on scholarly interpretations that have long been common currency. This may be a matter of familiarity, however, and Bernstein does bring together a great deal of material in a highly readable style, so that almost anyone will find some new ideas and information in the collection of pre-Christian beliefs assembled here.

That says that punishment in after life was an idea the Jews had in late antiquity.We can see from the use of the termenology for "Hell" that the modern concepts with which fundamentalists are embeaued and atheists are outragged are just no there. The only word used for "hell" in the OT is Sheol, which does not mean hell and does not corrospond to genhena, it means "gave." It's death or the place of the dead, not necessarily a place of torment.

from the same commweal review of Bertstien's article:

The most common term for the Underworld itself is Sheol but even it appears infrequently. The term never appears in third person narrative nor legal material, but only in first person contexts: i.e., an individual encounters Sheol directly and personally. Clear synonyms include bôr, bĕʾēr, and šaḥat (all meaning “pit”) and ʾăbaddôn (“destruction”); Johnston also considers a number of texts in which either earth\ground or water may also be synonyms for Sheol but concludes, “Water, like earth, is associated with the underworld, but is not confused with it.” (p. 124). Descriptions of Sheol are sparse, but it is a place where existence simply continued, without any vital experience for the dead. The term itself may have derived from the god Šu-wa-la, mentioned in texts from Emar, who is either a minor underworld deity or another name for Ereshkigal, the Queen of the underworld, but any divine associations had been lost by the Israelite period. Ibid

Sheol (OT) translated Hell really means "the Grave."

We can see that Sheol means the grave by the use made of Crosswalk software in its Heberw lexicon.Crosswalk takes its Hebrew from Strongs and Vines. Both are inadequate, but cross walk smooths them out and waters them down even more with interprative definitions. Thus we can see what I'm talking about in the use they make of words, but they also add their own effects. Crosswalk defition of Sheol

Sh@'owl TWOT - 2303c
Phonetic Spelling Parts of Speech
sheh-ole' Noun Feminine

1. sheol, underworld, grave, hell, pit
1. the underworld
2. Sheol - the OT designation for the abode of the dead
1. place of no return
2. without praise of God
3. wicked sent there for punishment
4. righteous not abandoned to it
5. of the place of exile (fig)
6. of extreme degradation in sin

It does say the grave and abode of the dead but when everything else it says reflects that it adds, wicked sent there for punishment. But it can't produce one verse to say that. There are no verses in the OT that say wicked are sent to sheol for punishment.

For a list of passages using Sheol in the OT go here.

Definition of  Gehenna (hell) in the NT.

on Crosswalk:

Hell is the place of the future punishment call "Gehenna" or "Gehenna of fire". This was originally the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction.
Essentially it says it's a symbol. The literal is a valley where they burn garbage.

The first passage seems to be quite literal, but if we consider it a little more in depth we can see it does not support eternal conscious torment. Mt 5:22
"But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
Hell used figuratively

Jesus is here using hell as a figure of speech, a poetic image, to illustrate the depth of depravity in defaming another human being by calling him "a fool." He builds a progregtion of wrongs and their consequences:

anger with brother: go to court

call brother name: go to supreme court

Call brother a fool: worthy of hell.

Wrong, more wrong, most wrong. Its' a means of illustrating the depth of wickedness in disvaluing others. He does not say in that passage "hell is a real litteral place." doesn't say it's eternal conscious torment.

The next two are in the same context and one is just a reinforcement of the other. They are both symbolic uses and serve to illustrate Jesus' sarcasm toward excuses to sin:

Mt 5:29 "And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Mt 5:30 "And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell.

these are both in the same context. The are clearly figurative and hyperbole. It's totally ridiculous to think that Jesus would really command us to cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting>

The immediate context is about holy living:

17 "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law R135 or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 "For truly I say to you, until R136 heaven and earth pass away, not the F65 smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others F66 to do the same, shall be called least in R137 the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps F67 and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 "For I say to you that unless your righteousness R138 surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

He's talking about righteousness surpassing the pharisees, but the pharisees were super legalistic and built a fence around the law to assure compliance in the most legalistic fashion. How could anyone be more legalistic then they were? He's not talking about being legalistic, or even literalistic. He says heaven and earth shall pass away before the word of God will. Sot he basic premise with which he deals is living out the word of God. He's concerned with actually keeping the spirit of the law. Go further in context:

Now of course atheists are going to say that he really means this. They will say this is just part of the lunatic nature of religious extremism. AT the very least they will ask, as they always do, how I know it's hyperbolic. How does one ever know when a literary device is used? Many atheists have said to me "It's doesn't say it's a literary devise." Of course not, they never do! You are not supposed to say it, then it wouldn't be a device. Clearly it is because it's absurd to say pluck out your eye or cut off your hand. There's an easier way to tell. What do people say when they try to stop sinning and they can't? "I just can't do this, I can't stop lusting that's just the way I am made." Jesus is saying that is an excuse. You can stop it and if you think that's good excuse then surely its important enough that you should pluck out your eye or cut off your hand. But the point of it is of course that you don't have to do that, you can learn to control yourself if you really want to.

Given the high probability that this is figurative then it's obvious the consequence is also figurative, having the whole body cast into hell fire is figurative.

Mt 10:28 "And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
He's using the poetic symbolism of hell as the ultimate drama, the ultiamte negative consequence to drive home the point that spiritual power is more important than physical power, that eteranl life is what's important.

Mt 23:15 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

Using the judgment aspect of hell to drive home the point of the hypocritical nature of the pharisees.

Mt 23:33 "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?

hell is a sentence. That doesn't make it eternal conscious torment. It is the symbol of spiritual death and the cessation of existence. The hypocrites wont escape the judgment aspects of hell. But that doesn't mean they will experience them eternally.

The same figurative ideas pertain. Jesus other uses of hell in parables such as the sheep and goats of Mat 25:33 also are clearly symbols since they are used in parables which by their nature are figures and symbols.

Not one of those passages says hell is eternal conscious torment. No verse actually says that. No verse in the Bible gives an expository description of what hell is or what it's about.

Tartaro One other words used for hell, Tartaro, or Tartarus in English, from Greek Myth.


1. the name of the subterranean region, doleful and dark, regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead, where they suffer punishment for their evil deeds; it answers to Gehenna of the Jews 2. to thrust down to Tartarus, to hold captive in Tartarus

Only verse used: 2Pe 2:4 "For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment;"

2Pete is not authoritative enough to build a whole theology upon. Most scholars believe it is pseudopgraphal, of late origin, and we don't know who wrote it. It either copies a large part fo Jude, or Jude copies it. Neither book shares the weight of the Gospels.

figurative sue in James

Jas 3:6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.

I think this is Gehenna. But It's clearly figurative he's speaking figuratively of the tung and comparing it to hell fire.