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Hellfire Myths: Hell, Fire and Damnation

GetFactsnotHype has been a Biblical scholar for the better part of 19 years, and has dug deeper to explore Christian facts and expose myths.

Christian Myth #5 in a series - Hellfire

In "Hellfire Myths", Sheol (or Hades), Gehenna and the Lake of Fire are discussed with relation to hell, fire, and damnation. Did Jesus preach hellfire? Is the tormenting hell of Plato and Homer a Biblical teaching?

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Hell's Eternal Burning

Fact or myth?

Does or can anything burn forever? Let's use the example of wood in your fireplace. When the fire is almost out, you have embers and a lot of charred wood, but then eventually ashes. Why is that? That is of course a simple answer we all know, which is that you must have 3 things: fuel, friction, and oxygen to continue burning. So if wood does not burn forever, how can people burn in hell forever?

A few more questions to ponder about hell:

#1) In Genesis, God says to Adam and to dust you shall return. So should we believe that the first man committing original sin should simply just return to dust, while the entire human race that was born out of original sin because of him, should suffer an eternal burning? I think not.

#2) The eternal fire that Jesus spoke of and which was recorded at Matthew 25:41 was prepared and I quote, "for the devil and his angels." First point is that it was not prepared for humans, which begs the question, then how can one imagine that a literal fire could burn spirit creatures? It can't.

#3) Revelation 20:10 says that the Devil will be cast into "the lake of fire" and "tormented day and night for ever and ever." IF the Devil were to be tortured for all eternity, would not God then have to preserve him alive in order for eternal torturing to take place? Yet in the book of Hebrews at 2:14, the Bible says Jesus will "destroy him" (KJV), and another version phrases it as "bring to nothing."

#4) In the letters of John at 1Jo 4:8, we know God is love. Is it logicial then for one to think that a crime, even though serious would cause a loving God to torture a person endlessly? No, that would be contradictory.

If some of these questions have left you with doubt - they should. They do not make sense, or at least not in the context in which most people understand hell. First, let me clarify between the words Gehenna and Sheol, and then I'll address the "lake of fire," which might provide some insight.

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Is Hell called Gehenna

History on Gehenna:

What is Gehenna? Ge' en.na, the Greek word for hell, comes from the Hebrew Geh Hinnom', meaning "Valley of Hinnom." It was located on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem, and had 2 uses during biblical times.

The first use of the Valley of Hinnom was in the days of the Israelite kings where they practiced idolatrous worship, which included human sacrifices by fire in honor of a false god, Baal. The child sacrifices were disgusting to God, AND their act of false worship to Baal. The Valley of Hinnom would then be called "the valley of slaughter," where the carcasses would lie unburied. Jeremiah 7:30-34 foretold that the place would become the mass disposal of dead bodies, and that prophecy was fulfilled in the New Testament, specifically during Jesus' day.

Later to prevent such activities there in the future, the place was polluted and became an incinerator for the filth of Jerusalem, and that was the 2nd use for the Valley of Hinnom'. In Jesus' day, it became the city's garbage dump where dead animals were thrown and the bodies of vile criminals which had already been executed. The constantly burning fire was to keep the refuse heap under control, and sulfur or brimstone was added to assist in the burning. That's where one gets the "brimstone" from when trying to explain hell, which is erroneous in the manner in which they otherwise describe it.

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Is Hell Sheol or Hades

Sheol or Hades is often confused with hell

Sheol (with different spellings for different languages) occurs in the Old Testament (properly termed Hebrew Scriptures), 65 times in most translations and some translations 66 times. The derivation of the Hebrew word she'ohl' is uncertain, but according to one derivation it means hollow place, or resting place. Regardless of which derivation, it is always associated with the dead, and basically means the common grave of mankind, which is not to be confused with "qe' ver" meaning an individual grave or burial place. Hades (or the Greek hai'des) occurs ten times in the New Testament (properly termed Greek Scriptures), and is equivalent to the Hebrew "sheol". Gravedom which lies beneath is simply a temporary holding place, where one awaits resurrection.

Christ likened death to sleeping, as though one was asleep in death when speaking of Lazarus at John 11:11-14. An explanation of death also occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Ecclesiastes 9:5 it states "The living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything" (from the NAB version). Also Psalm 146:4 (KJ version) states "He returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish."

This is where the "sheol" confusion comes in ...

If the dead no longer know anything and their "thoughts perish", how could they sense any torment in hell? But that is exactly what the Douay-Rheims Version has translated. In that version, the book of Job at 14:13 renders "sheol" to mean hell. Job was suffering a severe illness and begged, (and I quote) "protect me in hell [Hebrew, Sheol]". What meaning could his statement possibly have if Sheol was a place of eternal torment, to then beg to be protected there? He couldn't be protected. You ask anyone that speaks Hebrew, and they will tell you that "sheol" does not equate with the words, burn in hell, hellfire or damnation.

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Hell and Lake of Fire

Is the "Lake of Fire" figurative or real?

Using a previous verse (above) in respects to the book of Revelation, I will briefly mention the "lake of fire." I say briefly, because this really is a meatier subject that deserves an entire page devoted to it, so for space and time constraints I will be brief. The Bible never mentions that the fiery lake would release those in it, but instead is an irreversible death without hope of a resurrection. Symbolically speaking, this abyss or everlasting restraint is permanent, but not permanently burning as in constantly, but permanent meaning total destruction, with no way to escape.

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Some say Jesus preached hellfire (misunderstood)

Although at first glance, it appears that Jesus is promoting a hellfire teaching, which can be confusing for many IF taken out of context. However, his teachings are not contradictory and do back up the other Holy Scriptures. Let's explore 2 scriptures to see what Jesus had to say about hell.

At Matthew 25:41 and 46, Jesus says "go off to eternal punishment," when speaking of the wicked. (The New American Bible) This eternal punishment (or eternal fire used by some translations) that Jesus spoke of was not literal but symbolic. It was used figuratively to mean the wicked would be completely burned up or cut off from society and life, which would be an everlasting destruction. Hell is the eternal separation from God.

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Applying Scriptures on Hellfire

Putting it all together

If you have already read the previous sections on Gehenna, Sheol, and Lake of Fire, this segment will now be more clear.

Now applying the Holy Scriptures on hellfire, take a look at Mark 9:47 and 48 (the latter part), which says "The worms there never die, and the fire never stops burning" (Contemporary English Version). Depending on the verson used, some may want to read Mark 9:44 and 46 because these verses read similarly. Either way this pertains to the Valley of Hinnom in the sense that not all bodies thrown into this pit were consumed by fire immediately, for IF it landed on a ledge of the deep ravine, the flesh became infested with the ever-present worms and maggots. The remark Jesus made at the Gospel of Mark was reminding us what Isaiah 66:24 had stated regarding "the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against God," AND "their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched." (KJ version)

Jesus' listeners knew that these words from Isaiah referred to the treatment of the carcasses of those not deserving a burial. Therefore Jesus' words was a fitting symbol of a final death liking to that of Gehenna both for the ongoings that occurred at the Valley of Hinnom ( a metaphor) and the root meaning of the Greek word "gehenna," (or ge'en.na translated from the word y'eevva).

In conclusion:

Myth or fact? Answer: Myth. The original Hebrew word she'ohl (or sheol) and the Greek word hai'des or (hades) refers to the common grave of dead mankind, while the Greek word ge'en.na (or gehenna) and the Hebrew equivalent Geh Hinnom' mean eternal destruction. Gehenna therefore parallels with the Lake of Fire, and that is what some people refer to as hell, although they don't know what it is or why it is called that. Gehenna is not an ever burning place with everlasting torment, any more than the lake of fire is, AND "fire" is simply a symbol of annihilation, and is tantamount to final death, whereas the grave of mankind is not final death.

If you liked this article on Hell, you might also like the related page on Satan.