A hell of infinite suffering and duration makes the God of the Bible into the archetype of all sadists. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that we MUST believe in this doctrine. Why? Because the Bible teaches it, Jesus teaches it, and therefore we have no option but to believe it. Of course, our atheist friends would happily point out that if the Bible really teaches that God is infinitely unjust – so much the worse for the Bible. Yet another reason to confine the Bible to the flames as one of the most evil books in history. And if Jesus endorsed such a doctrine – all the more reason to ignore his claims of love and mercy.
But the Bible doesn’t teach the doctrine at all. The Bible has, in fact, been aggressively mistranslated in an attempt to make it support such a doctrine. Rather than ticking off every single scripture that has been misapplied to this doctrine, I’ll try to give a few general principles that should allow the reader to properly understand what the original text is saying.
First of all, the doctrine of a hell of infinite suffering is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. God did not warn disobedient Adam and Eve about perpetual flames. Moses didn’t threaten the children of Israel with everlasting damnation. The prophets didn’t promise demonic tortures. The punishments threatened were entirely here-and-now. If you sin, you might die. Every time the word “hell” appears in the Old Testament, it is a translation of “Sheol” – which has the character of a shadowy underworld. “Sheol” is simply “the grave”, and no rewards or punishments seem to be associated with it. A hell of torments doesn’t begin to appear until the inter-testamental apocrypha, as I mentioned in my post on Satan and evil.
When Jesus speaks warns of a “hell”, where the “worm doesn’t die, and the fire isn’t quenched”, the word he uses is “gehenna”, the name for a valley behind Jerusalem where garbage was burned, and which was associated with the abominations of sacrifice to Molech. And his phrase makes clear that he is quoting from Isaiah 66:24. If we read Isaiah 66, we see that it refers to the burning and decay of the DEAD BODIES of evil doers who are destroyed in an apocalyptic judgment. It is not referring to the torture of souls in the underworld.
“They shall go forth, and look on the DEAD BODIES of the men who have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (Isaiah 66:24 WEB)
It’s almost certainly NOT a coincidence that Jesus is speaking to a group of people who are about to undergo a devastating national destruction in which huge numbers will be killed by the Romans. Jesus warning is about physical destructions and judgments.
The word “aionios” is very often translated in many Bibles as “eternal” or “everlasting” – for example:
“But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal [aionios] damnation:” (Mark 3:29 KJV)
This is derived from the word “aion” from which we get our English “eon”. In ancient usage – in translating the Old Testament into Greek, and in classical usage – this word doesn’t mean “eternal” or “everlasting”. It means “eon-long” or “age-long”. Here, for example, is how Young’s Literal Translation treats Mark 3:29:
“but whoever may speak evil in regard to the Holy Spirit hath not forgiveness — to the age, but is in danger of age-during judgment;” (Mark 3:29 YLT)
This is particularly true of the words of Jesus, where “aionios” is probably a translation of “olam” from Hebrew or Aramaic. Olam may also refer to periods of time with definite ending – such as:
“then his master shall bring him to God, and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever [olam].” (Exodus 21:6 WEB) Obviously this doesn’t mean for all eternity – only for the period of his life.
The choice of “aionios” is even more significant when we consider that there are other words that could have been chosen which would have been completely unambiguous. For example, when Josephus describes the doctrines of the Pharasees, he says they believed in eirgmos aidios (eternal imprisonment) and timorion adialeipton (endless torment). It’s rather significant, then, that Jesus is described as only preaching aionion kolasin (age-long chastisement). While it may possible that the “age” to come, or God’s “age” are regarded as everlasting or eternal, there is no need to suppose this applies to the punishments of hell.
Interestingly, Paul doesn’t appear to mention hell or eternal punishment at ALL. There is one scripture in 2 Th 1:9 which suggests eternal DESTRUCTION (an entirely different doctrine). But of course, 2 Thessalonians wasn’t written by Paul in the first place. It’s also interesting that the doctrine of eternal suffering doesn’t appear in any of the earliest church councils and creeds, even Nicea, until about 553 – and several prominent early church fathers and teachers were universalists and were not condemned.
If eternal suffering were a doctrine God wanted taught as a fundamental of faith – is it likely that the Old Testament wouldn’t have mentioned it at all – that Jesus would have apparently taken pains to use words to differentiate his doctrine from that of eternal suffering, and that the greatest of the New Testament authors didn’t bother to mention it at all?