Is hell a real place or just a pagan notion adopted by early Christianity? Also, does the Bible show that the fallen angels go to hell?
We believe that hell is a real place, but not as most believe. To understand this concept, it’s crucial to understand a few Hebrew and Greek words found in the Old and New testaments.
The Old Testament contains the word “sheol.” It appears 66 times and is rendered in the KJV as, “grave, hell and pit.” It does not refer to a place of ever-burning torment. The Greek equivalent to sheol is “hades.” Even though both words originally referred to the grave or to the place where the righteous and wicked go at death, hades took on a new meaning through Hellenistic influence to include concepts of a place of torture or imprisonment.
Authors Alan F. Johnson and Robert E. Webber explain this transformation in their book, What Christians Believe–A Biblical and Historical Summary: “In the intertestamental period there were significant developments in eschatological themes. The first relates to the development of a compartmental view of sheol. When the righteous and the wicked die, they go to different places. This is to be contrasted with the Old Testament view that sheol is the place where both the righteous and wicked go. Under the growing influence of Greek concepts of a distinct body and soul, some Jews taught that after death ‘the immortal and perishable soul, once detached from the ties of the flesh and thus freed from bondage, flies happily upwards’ [quote from Flavius Josephus, The Jewish Wars, II, VII.2]…On the other hand the wicked go to sheol, which is now identified with the Greek hades. This region of damnation is also called gehenna, a place of eternal fire (originally the old rubbish heap and a place of child sacrifice south of Mount Zion in Jerusalem). It was known as the Valley of Hinnom,” pp. 423-424.
As this source confirms, sheol and hades originally both referred to the grave. However, as Greek influence spread within the early church, these terms took on new meanings, including separate places for the righteous and wicked. In addition, the concept of an immortal soul was introduced, which is also foreign to Scripture. In fact, the term “immortal soul” never appears in the Bible. Many scholars believe this notion of an immortal soul arose through ancient Egypt, which was later adopted by the Greeks and eventually introduced to the Church.
A third word associated with the concept of “hell” is the Greek “gehenna.” This term refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a large valley positioned on the south side of the city of Jerusalem. It was in this valley where Israel would throw their trash. For this reason, this valley was perpetually burning. As a side note, this is also where Israel sacrificed their children to Molech. It is from this valley and practice where the concept of an ever-burning hell-fire arose.
So while the Bible does confirm a place of fiery judgment, it is not a place of perpetual burning or torment. When the Bible speaks about someone suffering hell-fire or gehenna, it’s referring to their complete destruction.
There are a few key passages confirming that hell-fire does not refer to an ever-burning or perpetual place of torment. For instance, Judah 7 states that Sodom and Gomorrah suffered the example of “eternal fire.” Interestingly, Sodom and Gomorrah are no longer burning. In 2016 when we toured the ancient site of Gomorrah, we found only ash and scattered sulfur balls. Nothing else of the ancient city remained.
A similar example in found in Jeremiah 7:20. It states there, “Therefore thus saith my Sovereign Yahweh; Behold, mine anger and my fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the ground; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched.” This passage is referring to Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians. As with Gomorrah, there is no perpetual fire burning today in Jerusalem.
The phrases “eternal fire” and “shall not be quenched” do not refer to a perpetual or ever-burning hell-fire, but to the totality of Yahweh’s destruction. Sodom and Gomorrah suffered complete annihilation by fire from heaven. In like manner, Judah suffered complete destruction by Babylon.
The concept of ever-burning fire is not biblical, but one that crept in through Greek teachings. It’s important to realize that many of today’s church teachings originated through Hellenistic influence within the early church, including other doctrines such as Sunday worship and many of today’s popular holidays.
There is one last word associated with a place of judgment and that is “Tartaros.” This word is mentioned only once in 2Peter 2:4 and is associated with the place of judgment for the angels who rebelled. Greek mythology also refers to this term and believes it resides under hades. It’s important to realize that this definition is not based on Scripture, but Greek mythology. The Bible itself does not provide a location for this term. It is also unclear from the Greek tense whether this is past or future. Even though the KJV shows this is past tense, this judgment is likely future tense.
For additional information, see our booklet: What Happens After This Life?