Let me say right from the outset of this study that I believe in hell. Jesus often spoke on this topic, so it can never be dismissed by any responsible student of Scripture. Yet there are many different views on what the Bible teaches about hell. The reasons for that are because some interpretations of Scripture seem to contradict each other, some interpretations of hell seem to paint God as a sadist, and some interpreters simply ignore any verses of the Bible which contradict their own interpretation, such as the verses we looked at in the introduction which seem to speak of degrees of punishment.
I have a well researched book entitled Two Views of Hell written by competent Biblical scholars, Edward Fudge and Robert Peterson. In this book both scholars use a multitude of Scriptures to make their case. Fudge argues for what is called the conditionalist perspective, that after a period of suffering unbelievers will be completely annihilated, whereas Peterson argues for the more traditional view, that unbelievers will be tortured and tormented for all eternity. They cannot both be right, or can they?
In these first three studies we are going to explain the incredibly important differences between words like Hades and Gehenna, both words which are translated as hell, so that we can understand verses which teach about suffering and torment in hell, and verses which speak about perishing or being destroyed in hell. Jesus used both of these words, and if we follow His teachings closely, perhaps we can answer many of the incredibly difficult questions, and important objections, to the doctrines of hell which are taught, and even those which seem to contradict the character of God in Christ.
Why is there such a difference in opinions about hell? Perhaps one of the main reasons is that theologians, like all people, approach the Bible with certain presumptions, like wearing a pair of specifically colored glasses in which we interpret verses through a particular lens. For example. If we believe that the human soul is naturally immortal, that it cannot be destroyed, then when we read a verse which uses the term 'eternal punishment', we will be certain that the soul is being tortured and tormented forever. On the other hand, if we use as our foundation the verses which use the word perish, 'apollumi' in Greek, a word which means absolute destruction, then when we get to the words 'eternal punishment', we will interpret this verse to mean a final destruction which lasts forever.
With this in mind, I believe that before we can begin to understand the Scriptures regarding eternal destinies, we need to first ask if the human soul is naturally immortal, and exactly what immortality means.
Why should we start a Bible study on hell with a discussion on the concept of immortality? Simply because the word immortality means something which cannot be destroyed. If our souls are naturally immortal, then they can never be destroyed.
Our western understanding of immortality has its roots in the Greek philosopher Plato, and especially his dialogue called 'Phaedo'. In this dialogue Plato argues extensively for the pre-existence of souls using the concept of opposites. His arguments are quite complicated and long, and beyond the scope of this study, but the bottom line is a theory very similar to reincarnation. Like Hinduism and Buddhism, Plato believed that life was cyclic, it went through cycles of death and rebirth. But unlike Buddhism, Plato was not suggesting that we are gods, but rather that the soul may be a part of the essence of God, or a little piece of God, and if God is immortal, then so is the soul; if it is impossible to destroy God, and the soul is a part of God, then it is impossible to destroy the soul.
Obviously, Plato did not teach about God in the same way as Judaism or Christianity, rather, he taught that there was a pyramid of gods and at the top was what he called the Logos. The Apostle John used this concept of the Logos to describe Jesus Christ as the Creator in the first verses of his gospel.
So firstly, then, what is the soul? I think C.S Lewis said it well. 'You do not have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body'. The soul is the essence of who we are. We might say that the soul looks out through the eyes, it hears with our ears, it is within the body and leaves the body at death, however, it is reunited with the body before the Day of Judgment for Acts 24:15 tells us 'that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked'.
Now, back to Plato and immortality.
In brief then, Plato taught that the soul could not be destroyed because it was a piece of the Logos, of God, and God can never be destroyed. Understanding this is essential to understanding how certain ideas about hell developed, and how these ideas were placed on top of Bible verses. If we view the verses in Scripture with the pre-conceived idea that the soul is immortal, then we may end up making extremely different conclusions about what those verses mean, as I mentioned in the introduction.
Early Church theologians like Origen and Augustine were deeply influenced by Plato's ideas, interpreted Scripture through those assumptions, and handed them down to us. The issue is this: If the soul cannot be destroyed, then there must be a place where the souls who reject salvation can exist for eternity, a place opposite to paradise. Remember that Plato used opposites to try to prove his theory, and theologians who were influenced by him, used the same methods. That place, according to these theologians, was of course hell, not a place of destruction, but a place where the soul experiences torment consciously for all eternity.
Therefore, the first thing we need to determine is this: Does the Bible, without adding Plato's ideas, teach that the human soul is immortal?
Not according to Jesus, Paul or Peter.
Let's begin with Jesus. In Matthew chapter 10 Jesus is speaking to the disciples before He sent them out to preach and witness. He warns them about the future, that they will be betrayed, hated, persecuted, etc. Then in verse 28 He speaks about hell. The word He uses is Gehenna, a place also referred to as the 'Lake of Fire'. He says this;
'Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell'.
Jesus' words cannot be diluted to fit Plato's philosophy that the soul cannot be destroyed, that the soul is a piece of the Logos and immortal. The word Jesus uses for destroy is the Greek 'apollumi' and it contradicts Plato's idea completely.
The Greek verb 'apollumi', means to destroy utterly, to bring to an end, to put to death, to perish, to cease to exist. In the context of verses on hell, this word can never be diluted to mean that the soul is still alive, that it still exists. But please don't just take my word for it, check it for yourself. For those who use Strongs Greek Dictionary, the reference number is 622. For those who don't have such a dictionary, just write 'Strong's Greek 622' into Google.
On this particular verse we have just read, Matthew 10:28, traditionalists will argue that Jesus was saying that God can destroy the soul, not that He will destroy it. Conditionalists will argue that Jesus was stating categorically that God will eventually destroy the souls of unbelievers.
However we choose to interpret this, we have to admit that Jesus was saying that the soul can be destroyed by God, which contradicts Plato's idea, because if the soul is a little piece of the essence of God, it cannot be destroyed, because surely God cannot destroy Himself or even a small part of Himself!
Did Jesus ever use this same word 'apollumi' in other places that give a similar and even clearer meaning? Yes, many times.
In Matthew 5:29-30 Jesus speaks about plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand if these cause you to sin. He says it is better to lose one of these while you're still alive than your whole body in hell. The word translated as 'lose' is apollumi. Was Jesus suggesting that the plucked eye or severed hand would survive? No, that would be ridiculous. He was saying this. It is better for your hand or eye to be destroyed than your entire body to be destroyed in hell. Does this also mean that Jesus never spoke of suffering in hell? No, and we will discuss such passages later. In this study we are simply establishing the issue of immortality.
There are many other verses in which Jesus uses apollumi. Some refer to losing a reward, the lost sheep and so forth. Apollumi can be used to describe something which is heading for destruction, but whenever He spoke directly about hell or eternal life, Jesus uses both metaphors and analogies which describe absolute destruction, such as the city of Sodom and the Great Flood of Noah's time. We will discuss these more deeply later.
And Jesus uses the same word in the most well-known verse of the Bible, John 3:16:
'For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life'.
Here, the word translated into English as 'perish', is 'apollumi'. How differently people would read this verse if they understood Greek and were not influenced by Platonic philosophy. Imagine if we used a literal translation of apollumi, rather than a word which may seem to soften the verse. A literal translation would read like this: 'That whoever believes in Him shall not be utterly destroyed but have eternal life'.
Is Jesus speaking of the body or the soul here? The answer is very obvious. It is our souls He is speaking of, our souls which through believing have eternal life, albeit in transformed bodies. One soul receives eternal life, and the other perishes. We will discuss the resurrection of bodies and final judgment later, but for now it is enough to see that Jesus is speaking of the final destiny of believers and unbelievers, but let me repeat again, I am not here dismissing verses in which Jesus spoke about suffering and punishment in hell.
In John 10:28, speaking of His sheep, Jesus again uses apollumi: 'I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand'. Again, Jesus is speaking of the final destiny, the destiny of the souls of believers.
If these were the only verses we had about Jesus' teachings on hell, would anyone teach eternal torture and torment? No, because these verses state categorically that believers receive eternal life, whilst unbelievers will be utterly destroyed, but this is only part of the picture. But what do the Apostles have to say about immortality?
The Apostle Paul.
In Romans 2 Paul is speaking about God's judgment on the 'day of God's wrath' (verse 5) when the Lord 'will give to each person according to what he has done' (verse 6). Then in verse 12, he, like Jesus, uses the word apollumi which has been translated as 'perish':
'All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law'. Literally translated this would read, 'all who sin apart from the law will also be utterly destroyed apart from the law'.
And, in 2nd Thessalonians 2:10 Paul is speaking of the coming of the 'lawless one', the Antichrist, and those who will be deceived by this person who is in league with Satan. He tells us that those who are deceived by the lawless one will 'perish because they refused to believe the truth and so be saved'.
But Paul also gives us a another clear insight into his understanding of the immortality of the soul. Keep in mind that Paul was very well trained in Greek philosophy while being raised in Tarsus, as well as Judaism in Jerusalem.
Paul never taught that the human soul is immortal, but rather, that immortality is God's gift to believers, by grace, through faith.
In 1st Timothy 1:17 Paul speaks of God as immortal, and then later, in 6:16 Paul speaks of God as the one 'who alone is immortal'.
In Romans 1:23 he even makes a comparison between humanity and God saying, they 'exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles'. Some might argue that Paul is only referring to the human body as mortal here, however, he is speaking about idols, images worshipped as 'gods', and I think his point is that none of these idols were immortal 'gods', for only the true God is immortal, all of these other so-called gods can be destroyed.
But in the same book of Romans, a little further on, Paul's beliefs on immortality are without question. He writes in Romans 2:7 these words:
'To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life'.
These words come directly after the verse we quoted earlier about God giving to each according to what he has done. Paul is not preaching a gospel of works here, but saying that our hearts and actions end up determining whether or not we become believers, an argument he develops in the next chapters.
But the words I wish to draw our attention to are these, ...'to those who seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life'.
If Paul believed that the human soul was naturally immortal, then why would anyone need to seek it? Paul is saying that the destiny of those who seek eternal life, which is only found in Christ, is the gift of immortality. Paul expounds this belief further in 1st Corinthians 15: 35-58. In these verses he compares the mortal and perishable body with a believer's future spiritual body which is imperishable and immortal. For Paul, immortality is a gift from God to all who put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Did you also know that Paul never uses any of the Greek words that we translate as 'hell' in any of his letters? Rather, he uses an expression, as in 2nd Thessalonians 1:9 namely, 'eternal destruction'. As with apollumi, the word destruction here means destroy, destruction and death. Some English translations render it as eternal death, following the Roman Catholic tradition which was adopted by some theologians at the time of the Reformation.
So what is Paul saying here? Does he mean a death that never ends, or that the soul is destroyed forever? Paul uses two terms for our eternal destiny, 'eternal life, and 'eternal destruction' or 'death'. After examining what he teaches about immortality, we would be doing Paul an injustice to suggest that he was teaching that unbelieving souls have a form of immortality. It is more likely that he is comparing two opposites, eternal life and eternal destruction.
What does Peter have to say?
In 2nd Peter 3:9 the apostle uses a similar word to Paul when he writes 'eternal destruction', and Peter, like Jesus, borrows from the Old Testament to make his point clear. Take the story of the Flood. Genesis 7: 21-23 tells us that everything that had breath perished and was wiped out, and then God started with a fresh, clean world. There was no trace of those who refused to be saved, they were utterly destroyed. In the Flood of Noah's day, and later fire of Sodom, only their bodies were destroyed, but Jesus and Peter use these events to describe what happens to unbelieving souls, to describe the future of people regarding God's final wrath on the Day of Judgment.
In Luke 17:26-27 Jesus uses the word apollumi to describe those destroyed by the Flood, and the fire and sulfur of Sodom. He tells us that the flood and fire at Sodom 'destroyed them all'. The context of this destruction is in what happens to unbelievers when Christ returns to judge, just as the Flood and destruction of Sodom were acts of judgment.
In 2nd Peter 2:6 Peter likewise uses several analogies, including the Flood and Sodom to describe destruction and then writes this:
... he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;...
Could Jesus and Peter be suggesting that those who perished in the Flood or were turned to ashes at Sodom were still alive. If these are 'an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly', then should we conclude that their souls will be utterly destroyed after judgment?
In 2nd Peter 3:7 and 3:16 the apostle again speaks of absolute destruction regarding those who are not saved. Both Jesus and Peter are speaking about what happens at that judgment and predict the same result as the Flood; destruction, total and absolute.
Keep in mind this very important point! Whenever the Bible speaks about hell it uses analogies and symbols. The reason for this is simply because hell is a place outside of our understanding of time and dimensions. Therefore, Jesus and Peter are using physical analogies that we can understand intellectually, analogies like the Flood and Sodom, because we can understand these things. They use them as examples to make their point about destruction clear.
The Bible never teaches that the human soul is naturally immortal, indeed, the exact opposite. In many verses when Jesus speaks about the final judgment of souls He uses the word apollumi which means total and utter destruction, and He uses analogies of the Flood and Sodom to reinforce His point. Jesus told us clearly in Matthew 10:28 that God can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.
Both Paul and Peter use similar words to describe the destruction of the soul. Paul believes that immortality is a gift from God to believers. Peter uses similar words to both Paul and Jesus when writing about eternal destruction, and borrows from the same analogies as Jesus to make his point clear.
Does this mean that there is no suffering in hell. No it does not, for Jesus spoke of more than just Gehenna the place of destruction, He also spoke of Hades, the place of suffering. In our next two studies we will look at these two words and try to determine if Jesus was speaking of different places/dimensions which have different effects on those who are sent there.