The nature of Hell

Close to where I grew up is a small but very old church containing a remarkable wall mural depicting the “ladder of souls”. As men and women climb up the ladder towards heaven, they run the gauntlet of demons who try to pluck them off and imprison them in Hell – where their sufferings are graphically depicted, including one group being boiled in a cauldron.

This is probably what most people have in mind when they think about Hell (if they ever do). It’s basically a dungeon, presided over by the devil, where the souls of ‘bad’ people are tortured for eternity.

The curious thing is, that this picture is almost entirely derived from Greek myth (in which Hades, the god of the underworld, ruled over the land of the dead – including a special region where the souls of the wicked were punished for their sins), and not from the Bible!

Admittedly, the Bible doesn’t give us a very clear picture of Hell. It also doesn’t help that older translations use the word ‘hell’ indiscriminately, to translate both ‘Hades’ and ‘Gehenna’ – although they are actually quite distinct ideas. In the Old Testament, all the dead (both the righteous and the wicked) end up in a shadowy place called Sheol. By the time of Jesus the idea of Sheol had been refined somewhat: it was divided into “Abraham’s side” (where the righteous were) and a place of torment for the wicked (Luke 16:19-31). Sheol was roughly equivalent to the Greek Hades (which actually is the word used in the New Testament to describe the place of the dead).

But the Old Testament also speaks in many places of the final destruction of the wicked (e.g. Psalm 1:6; Isaiah 11:4; Malachi 4:1). Jesus gave this concept a name: Gehenna. Gehenna was an unclean place outside Jerusalem where rubbish was incinerated, and a very apt picture conveying both disgrace and destruction. The ‘lake of fire’ in Revelation (Revelation 20:10,14) appears to be the same thing. This is what we now call ‘Hell’.

So Hell is not Satan’s domain; Satan is going to be tormented there himself, for ever (Revelation 20:10)! But what about the people who follow him and refuse to return to God? Will they also suffer for eternity? Christians are divided on this question, but personally I think not. Jesus describes Gehenna as a place where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:48) This is a quote from Isaiah 66:24, which describes the ultimate fate of those who rebel against God: their dead bodies will be left unburied (as a sign of utter disgrace) and will be slowly consumed, like the rubbish they are, by maggots and by fire. Although often said to be a description of eternal torment, these people are clearly not suffering (they are already dead and beyond suffering); all that is happening is that their remains are being destroyed. The picture is one of rejection and destruction, rather than of conscious punishment; in other words, Hell is a place of disposal, not a torture chamber.

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