Where is hell?

A Christian friend has been discussing with me the concept of hell. She is convinced of its existence and very fearful of an eternally burning punishment for her sins. What does the Bible teach on this subject?

Over the centuries, Christians have preached about an ever-burning hell, and some have used their vivid imagination to portray horrible descriptions of persons suffering tremendous pain without being granted the mercy of being able to die. The result was that some people were terrified and followed God out of fear, while others completely turned away from God. What does the Bible really teach about hell?

First, Scripture does speak about hell. But when we interpret the Bible, we should not read back into it our own ideas or our cultural bias. We have to listen to Scripture on its own terms. When Jesus spoke about hell, He was positioning it as punishment for unrepentant sinners, a punishment that will end in eternal fire and destruction (John 3:16; Matthew 7:13, 14; 25:31, 32, 41). Destruction/eternal fire is a future event connected to Christ's second coming. Therefore, “hell” still lies in the future.

Second, some Bible translators have rendered various words as hell that in reality have other meanings.

The Hebrew sheol and the related Greek term hades are the realm of the dead who are in the grave. Jacob expected to go down to sheol/the grave, to his son Joseph (Genesis 37:35). He did not expect his godly son to be in hell and go there himself. God brings down to sheol/the grave and raises up (1 Samuel 2:6). This does not fit the common Christian understanding of hell. In sheol/the grave there is no activity, no planning, and no knowledge (Ecclesiastes 9:10). There is no fire, neither is there torment. The righteous and the unrighteous are found there. In hades there is decay. Jesus was the exception (Acts 2:27, 31). Sheol and hades are the place of the dead, but not hell.

“To cast in tartaros” occurs in 2 Peter 2:4 only and is the abode of the fallen angels. It is not used to describe the place of the dead or a hell in which people are cast after their death.

Gehenna is the hell about which Jesus spoke. It is the future place of punishment of the unrighteous. It is associated with fire (Mark 9:43). This fire comes at the end of time as a judgment of God against sin, sinners, and Satan (Matthew 25:41). Until then, people “sleep” in their graves. Revelation 20:9, 10, and 15 talks about the lake of fire in which after the millennium the unrighteous are burned up. Since gehenna is associated with fire and is a future event, associated with judgment, it is best to understand hell in the context of Revelation 20. This is the hell Jesus warned us about.

Third, does the future hell last “for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10, NIV)? The term forever/eternal/everlasting as used in Scripture is broader than the English word. It may describe (a) something or someone existing without beginning and without end (in connection with God); (b) something or someone with beginning but without end (the eternal life of the redeemed, see John 5:24; Revelation 21:3, 4); and (c) something or someone with beginning and with end in the sense of “for some time” (Exodus 21:5, 6; Jonah 1:17; 2:6). In connection with hell, forever must be understood in the third way. Why? Although the unrighteous suffer “hell” for a limited time only, the results are eternal. Fire devours them (Revelation 20:9). This is the second death (Revelation 20:14, 15). The unquenchable fire of Matthew 3:12 cannot be extinguished until its work is done and everything is burned up (Matthew 13:40-42; Jeremiah 17:27).

Finally, eternal life is available only for those who belong to Jesus. It is not granted to those who have made a decision against Jesus and God. Furthermore, Satan also will be destroyed and eliminated completely in the fires of hell (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:10).

So, Scripture speaks about hell, but hell is still future and is limited in time. God is not immoral. On the contrary, He is a God of love and justice and in His kingdom there will be no more sorrow, pain, tears, or death (Revelation 21:3, 4).

Ekkehardt Mueller (Th.D., D.Min., Andrews University) is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. His email: muellere@gc.adventist.org.