Posted by: minnow | February 24, 2008

Can Hell Be Found in the Gospels?

I promised a day or two ago to share what I have found as I have looked for hell in the Bible.  First let me say, I am not simply talking semantics.  The word HELL is not the point.  The concept of HELL as a physical place of everlasting torment set aside for all who do not (before they die) have a “saving relationship” with Jesus is what I am talking about.   (Or in other word, if you do not believe: 1). Jesus is the son of God, 2). He walked a sinless life on earth, 3). He was crucified, 4). He rose from the dead, appeared to a bunch of people and then went to heaven, ALL so that our sins could be forgiven then you will be going to a literal, everlasting, place of torment).  In other, other words, I have been looking for the traditional, evangelical doctrine of hell.  For my search I used the NIV translation of the Bible. 

The New Testament of the NIV Bible has fourteen references to hell.  The Old Testament has none.  The Hebrew word that had at one time been translated hell  is Sheol  and actually means “death or grave”.  While we are not talking semantics beginning with the word hell  seems like a good place to start.  12 of the 14 references to hell  found in the NIV actually refer to a physical location–Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom where King Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificed babies to pagan gods.  During Jesus’ day it was a garbage dump just outside of Jerusalem.  It was  continually burning and full of worms because of all the rotten garbage.  It was also the place where outcasts from society could be found trying to subsist on any edible garbage they could scrounge.  The 13th reference to hell   is in Luke 16:23 and comes form the Greek word Hades meaning “the place of the dead”.  The last hell  reference in 2 Peter 2:4.  It literally means “Tartarus” which in Greek mythology was a place lower than Hades where angels awaited judgement.  That does it for the specific references but as I said earlier we are looking for a concept.

One of the most frequently used passages of scripture to defend the concept of hell is Luke 16:19-31, the story (parable) of a rich man and Lazarus. Setting aside the wisdom of using a story to develop a doctrine, three of the main points of the doctrine of hell come from this passage of scripture: 1. that hell is everlasting, 2. it is a place of torment, and 3. an uncrossable chasm separates heaven from hell.  The problem is if this passage presents a doctrine of hell we would also need to believe: 1). one can see and hear from one place to the other since the rich man talks to Abraham, 2). our physical bodies will accompany us one place or the other since Lazarus has a finger he could dip into water and the rich man a tongue that could be cooled, and 3). our economic status and not a confession of faith determines which place we will go. 

Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats is another popular passage used to argue for the doctrine of hell.  Several problems arise when taking it to support a hell doctrine, however.  To begin with the passage refers to nations not individuals.  The poorly translated antecedent “the people” in verse 32 actually means people groups.  In addition this passage, if support for a doctrine of hell, also advocates salvation by works rather than a confession of faith since the sheep and the goats are put on the right or are put on the left because they either did or did not offer care to the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned.  Verse 46: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” seems a little more straight forward until you look up the original Greek and discover eternal or aion can also mean for and age and punishment or kalasis can also mean pruning.   

Mark 9:42-48 is one of the passages of scripture that actually uses the word hell.  Jesus has just finished teaching the disciples about being a servant, not stopping strangers who minister in His name, and the danger of causing someone else to sin when he says, “If your hand causes you to sin cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell (actually Gehenna) where the fire never goes out.”  As the passage progresses Jesus repeats the warning even talking about the worm that does not die.  His listeners knew the place He described–the garbage dump south of Jerusalem.  Some may have even been there.  On a windy day those who lived in Jerusalem might have gotten a whiff of it and in the dark of the night when the rest of the city was quiet they may have heard the groaning of the outcasts who had nowhere else to live.  Those poor souls were already in hell.  Jesus set this admonition in the midst of passages about welcoming children,  accepting all who do “a miracle in my name” and not causing others to stumble because He was teaching his disciples about what it means to be the greatest.  It is not some arbitrary passage about a place they would go after they died if they did not believe is something He had not even done yet.  He is teaching them about servant-hood in the Kingdom of God right then and there and he confirms this when He says in verse 49: “Everyone (not just sinners) will be salted with fire.” 

Next time we will take a look at Revelation.


  1. […] But doesn’t the Bible speak about hell? Well, actually, no it doesn’t. The Old Testament speaks of Sheol, the place of the dead where all go. Jesus speaks of Gehenna, the noxious, ever-burning rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem. He uses it as an example of what being cut off from God is like. There are a few other instances, but let me point you to a series of articles on another site (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and a useful summary here. […]

  2. k just saw the matthew verse I asked about on this post… interesting interpretation. How do you know which interpretation is ‘right’? that’s confusing…. which form of the word to use? gotta read greek or something……look at how those same words are used if at all, in other parts of the text?….

    idk minnow 🙂

  3. Randi–not sure what idk means.
    You ask how I know which interpretation is correct. Some of the time interpretation is really an issue but for this text the problems are very apparent. For example: the antecedent issue. Verse 32 clearly says nations and people is a plural noun saying “people groups” just clarifies the point. Nations are being judged in this parable (A parable by the way is not the same as a prophecy–it’s a made up story to illustrate a point, not a glimpse of future events.) so it cannot possibly refer to the individual judgement we’ve all been told happens when we die. Secondly the text again is very clear about what is being judged–works/behavior, not proper belief (which, incidentially, I also think is works since I have to do (by thinking a certain way) something in order to have it, but that’s another issue). The nations either did or did not take proper care of certain groups of people and will be dealt with accordingly.

  4. hey minnow! IDK = I don’t know.

    you are just way over my head. but I’ll remember this post and come back to it someday when I’m further in my wisdom 🙂 thank u for ur response.

  5. okay actually I just read the entry for the millionth time and I actually DO get what you are saying about the matthew passage —

    but what about John 3:36 ? any interpretation / analysis u can add to support your view in regards to this scripture??

    and also romans 10:9…. what’s the opposite of saved? to me it’s eternal hell away from God…. what would u say the opposite of ‘saved’ is? .. and in that verse it says we will only be saved IF we confess and all that follows in that verse…. so if we don’t… that tells me – we will have eternal wrath / separation from God. I requires an action on our part to be eternally with Him or not, He gives us the choice.

  6. […] the way you do.  If you want to know my full views on hell you can check out the archives (here, here, here, here, here, and here), I will try not to repeat myself in this post but I do have a few […]

  7. […] February and March of 2008  I wrote several posts about the concept of hell.  You can find them here, here, here, and here.   In 2009, 2010, and 2011, I wrote other posts that encourage a loving God […]

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