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What did Jesus Teach about Hell?

"If your eye causes you to sin," said Jesus, "get rid of it. You would be better off to go into God's kingdom with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. The worms there never die, and the fire never stops burning." — Mark 9:47, 48, Contemporary English Version.

On another occasion, Jesus spoke of a judgment period when he would say to the wicked: "Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." He also said that these ones will "go off to eternal punishment." — Matthew 25:41, 46, The New American Bible.

At first glance, the above words of Jesus may seem to promote the teaching of hellfire. Obviously, Jesus did not intend to contradict God's Word, which clearly states: "The dead no longer know anything." — Ecclesiastes 9:5, NAB.

To what, then, was Jesus referring when he spoke of a person's being thrown "into hell"? Is "the eternal fire" Jesus warned of literal or symbolic? In what sense do the wicked "go off to eternal punishment"? Let us examine these questions one at a time.

To what was Jesus referring when he spoke of a person's being thrown "into hell"? The original Greek word translated "hell" at Mark 9:47 is Ge'enna. This word comes from the Hebrew Geh Hinnom', meaning "Valley of Hinnom." The Valley of Hinnom hugged the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem. In the days of the Israelite kings, it was used for child sacrifice — a disgusting practice that God condemned. God said that he would execute those who performed such an act of false worship. The Valley of Hinnom would then be called "the valley of slaughter," where "the carcasses of this people" would lie unburied. (Jeremiah 7:30-34, King James Version) Jehovah thus foretold that the Valley of Hinnom would become a place, not for the torture of live victims, but for the mass disposal of dead bodies.

In Jesus' day, the inhabitants of Jerusalem used the Valley of Hinnom as a garbage dump. They threw the bodies of some vile criminals into this dump and kept a fire constantly burning there to dispose of the refuse and the carcasses.

When Jesus spoke of the undying worms and unquenchable fire, he was apparently alluding to Isaiah 66:24. Regarding "the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against [God]," Isaiah says that "their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched." (KJ) Jesus and his listeners knew that these words in Isaiah referred to the treatment of the carcasses of those not deserving a burial.

Therefore, Jesus used the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, as a fitting symbol of death without hope of a resurrection. He drove this point home when he warned that God "can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna." (Matthew 10:28, NAB) Gehenna is a symbol of eternal death, not eternal torture.

Is "the eternal fire" Jesus warned of literal or symbolic? Note that "the eternal fire" mentioned by Jesus and recorded at Matthew 25:41 was prepared "for the devil and his angels." Do you think that literal fire can burn spirit creatures? Or was Jesus using the term "fire" symbolically? Certainly "the sheep" and "the goats" mentioned in the same discourse are not literal; they are word pictures that represent two types of people. (Matthew 25:32, 33) The eternal fire that Jesus spoke of completely burns up the wicked in a figurative sense.

In what sense do the wicked "go off to eternal punishment"? Although most translations use the word "punishment" at Matthew 25:46, the basic meaning of the Greek word ko'la•sin is "checking the growth of trees," or pruning, cutting off needless branches. So while the sheep-like ones receive everlasting life, the unrepentant goat-like ones suffer "eternal punishment," being forever cut off from life.


What Do You Think?

Jesus never taught that humans have an immortal soul. However, he often did teach about the resurrection of the dead. (Luke 14:13, 14; John 5:25-29; 11:25) Why would Jesus say that the dead would be resurrected if he believed that their souls had not died?

Jesus did not teach that God would maliciously torture the wicked forever. Rather, Jesus said: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." (John 3:16, NAB) Why would Jesus imply that those who did not believe in him would die? If he really meant that they would live forever, suffering misery in a fiery hell, would he not have said so?

The doctrine that hell is a place of torment is not based on the Bible. Rather, it is a pagan belief masquerading as a Christian teaching. (See "A Brief History of Hell") No, God does not torture people eternally in hell. How can learning the truth about hell affect your attitude toward God?