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Hell is generally considered a place where sinners who are not saved by their religious faith are burned, tormented, tortured, and harmed by fire for eternity. It is also considered as a place ruled by Satan, or the absence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, esp. v. 9: "eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might"). However, some sects of Christianity, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, believe that Hell is simply a place where unrighteous people go to be unconscious forever, i.e. die.
The English word corresponds to the Biblical concept of Gehenna, although Sheol (the world of the dead) is sometimes described as a region of Hell in certain contexts.
The Christian idea of Hell is arguably different from the Sheol of Judaism, though it is generally acknowledged as being the same as the place created by God to punish Satan. The nature of Hell is described in the New Testament on several occasions. In the following chapters and verses, Hell is mentioned (see also the issues with the word "Hell" rendered in the original languages)
- Please note that all citations use the World English Bible.
Issues with the word "Hell"
When the Bible was translated into English, several words are rendered as "Hell".
Jeff Priddy, writing in The Idle Babbler Illustrated (Volume 4, Issue 2), expresses the problem:
The religious and secular man's nightmarish ideas of HELL (that is, of a Christ-managed hothouse where sinners get burned forever) come to them compliments of ... careless translating ... the practice of ignoring separate Greek words.
In 2 Peter 2:4, God chose the Greek word "Tartaros" (ταρταροω; English transliteration, "Tartarus") to identify the temporary abode of sinning angels. Tartarus holds spirit beings, not humans, and there is not a flame on the premises. The KJV and NIV translators (neither of whose versions have any influence in the expression of Eastern Orthodox doctrine) gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell".
In Matthew 5:22 (and in several other places), God chose a different Greek word, "Geenna," (English transliteration: "Gehenna") to name a valley on the southwest corner of Jerusalem where the corpses of criminals will be disposed of during the thousand-year kingdom. There are flames here, yes, but the flames cremate the dead (Isaiah 66:24), they don't torture the living. Most of humanity is not even alive to see Gehenna (Revelation 20:5), let alone be tormented there. The KJV and NIV translators gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell".
In Luke 16:23 (and in other places), God chose the Greek word, "hades", to describe the state of invisibility; in Greek, the word means "unseen". God uses this word often to describe a person's nonexistence in death: unless spoken of figuratively, a dead person doesn't see anything, hear anything, feel anything, know anything, do anything: hades. Flames, screams, pointy tails and pitchforks are conspicuously absent. All the dead "go" here, not just the wicked. The KJV and NIV translators gave this specific Greek word the English equivalent, "hell".
Priddy goes on to point out that if a (Western) Christian says that someone is in "Hell", that "is a terrible lack of information", because many versions of the Bible indiscriminately use the word "Hell" to describe three different places. If you press the point, and the Christian says that person is in Gehenna, then you could take a plane to Jerusalem and look for the person there. If the claim is that the person is in Tartarus, you can point out that they were never a stubborn, sinning angel who surrendered their sovereignty during the days of Noah (1 Peter 3:19-20, 2 Peter 2:4, Jude 6). And if in Hades, you could rejoice that, like Christ (Acts 2:31), David (Psalm 16: 10), and Jacob (Genesis 37:35) before him, the person has ceased from their troubles and sufferings (Job 3:11-19), and now rests, as if asleep (John 11:11,14). However, given the perfectly natural evolution of concepts over a long period of time, examples such as Sheol, provide us with a good example of how ideas can begin with a simple meaning - "the grave" - and morph into a far larger concept - a place of eternal torment.
Catholic theologians distinguish four meanings of the term "Hell":
- Hell in the strict sense, or the place of punishment for the damned, be they demons or men. Hell is the destination for all those who die in mortal sin. This definition is identified with Gehenna.
- the limbo of infants (limbus parvulorum), where those who die in original sin alone, and without personal mortal sin, are confined and undergo some kind of punishment.
- the limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum), identified with Sheol, in which the souls of the just who died before Christ awaited their admission to heaven; for in the meantime heaven was closed against them in punishment for the sin of Adam.
- purgatory, where the just, who die in venial sin or who still owe a debt of temporal punishment for sin, are cleansed by suffering before their admission to heaven.
The pain of loss (separation from God) and the pain of sense (torment by fire) constitute the very essence of Hell, the former being by far the most dreadful part of eternal punishment. But the damned also suffer various "accidental" punishments. Just as the blessed in heaven are free from all pain, so, on the other hand, the damned never experience even the least real pleasure. In Hell separation from the blissful influence of Divine love has reached its consummation. The reprobate must live in the midst of the damned; and their outbursts of hatred or of reproach as they gloat over his sufferings, and their hideous presence, are an ever fresh source of torment. The reunion of soul and body after the Resurrection of the dead will be a special punishment for the reprobate, although there will be no essential change in the pain of sense which they are already suffering.
Dante Alighieri, in The Divine Comedy described seven circles of Hell, each with its own category of sinner. Dante's portrayal of Hell, and the afterlife in general, reflect Medieval Catholic beliefs.
Protestantism generally rejects the view that Hell is an unclear doctrine based on differing translations of Hebrew or Greek words. (Sheol, Tartarus, Hades, etc.) Protestants generally reject Catholic teachings on Limbo and Purgatory, and also reject the temporary Hell of Universalism. For most Protestants, Hell is the place of eternal punishment and torment for all those who die and are not born again, due to man's inherently sinful nature and God's infinitely just nature. In Hell the "worm does not die and the fire is not quenched." Without faith in Jesus to save one from the consequences of sin, most Protestants feel that God must send a sinner to Hell because He cannot abide by sin.
The scriptural references to the concept of hell (or eternal judgment) may be summarized to present a unified biblical view:
First and foremost, hell is eternal (Isaiah 66:24; Matthew 18:8; Matthew 25:41,46; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Jude 1:7), everlasting (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:46), and lasts forever and ever (Jude 1:13; Revelation 14:11; Revelation 20:10). There is no other way to state it; hell will never cease to exist. Secondly, hell itself is described as a lake of fire (Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:10,14,15; Revelation 21:8), eternal fire (Revelation 18:8, Matthew 25:41; Jude 1:7), unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), the second death (Revelation 20:14), and darkness (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 25:30; Jude 1:13).
The wicked consigned to hell will never cease to exist and their body will never be consumed (Isaiah 66:24; Mark 9:43,48); they must face eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46), eternal destruction (Matthew 10:28; 2 Thessalonians 1:9), and their torment will last forever and ever (Revelation 14:11; Revelation 20:10). There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 25:30), they will be weak (Isaiah 14:9-10) and lack any interaction with those outside of hell (Ecclesiastes 9:4-6). Upon the unbeliever's death, they will be an abhorrence (Isaiah 66:24), shut out from the fellowship of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9), experiencing God's wrath (Romans 2:8; Hebrews 10:27; Revelation 14:10), anger (Revelation 14:10), indignation (Romans 2:8), retribution (2 Thessalonians 1:8), vengeance (Hebrews 10:30), and judgment (Matthew 25:31-46; Hebrews 9:27; Hebrews 10:27,30; Revelation 20:11-15).
Hell will be dreadful and painful for all, but for some it will be worse than others (Matthew 5:22; Revelation 20:12-14). Finally, there will be no second chance for the unbeliever to change his destiny (Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29; Luke 16:26; Hebrews 9:27). All in all, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
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Eastern Orthodox view on Hell
In Eastern Christianity, Hell is a place of eternal torment for those who of their own free will reject the grace and mercy of God. Damnation will come after the Day of Judgement.
For many ancient Christians, Hell was the same "place" as Heaven: living in the presence of God and directly experiencing God's love. Whether this was experienced as pleasure or torment depended on one's disposition towards God. St. Isaac of Syria wrote in Mystic Treatises: "... those who find themselves in Hell will be chastised by the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love, undergo greater suffering than those produced by the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart, which has sinned against love, is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that the sinners in Hell are deprived of the love of God ... But love acts in two ways, as suffering of the reproved, and as joy in the blessed!" This ancient view is still the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
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Other sects' views on Hell
According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Mormon scriptures describe at least three senses of hell: (1) that condition of misery which may attend a person in mortality due to disobedience to divine law; (2) the miserable, but temporary, state of disobedient spirits in the spirit world awaiting the resurrection (also referred to as spirit prison); (3) the permanent habitation of the sons of perdition, who suffer the second spiritual death and remain in hell even after the resurrection (also referred to as outer darkness). A fourth sense of hell arises from Mormon teachings about 3 degrees of glory described in D&C 76, the Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial. It is generally believed that only those who are judged worthy of the Celestial Kingdom will be blessed with the opportunity of eternal progression. Anyone not receiving this blessing will be damned in the sense of not being able to eternally progress—this damnation is sometimes viewed as a type of hell.
Mormons believe that when John says in (Rev. 20:13) that hell shall deliver up the dead to be judged "according to their works," that he is describing spirit prison, a place where the spirits of those who did wickedness while in mortality reside until the time of the second resurrection at the end of Christ's millennial reign. This resurrection is described in the Bible as the resurrection of the "unjust" (Acts 24:15) and the resurrection of damnation (John 5:29). However, when John the Revelator speaks of the "great white throne" judgment, which follows the second resurrection, and then speaks of a "second death" which some will experience at that time (Rev. 20:11-15), he is describing outer darkness, a concept conforming more closely to other Protestant conceptions of hell.
The Mormon concept of a temporary spirit prison has made Mormon belief in hell somewhat controversial amidst the larger Christian (esp. Protestant) community. One example is Bill McKeever & Eric Johnson an article by Bill McKeever & Eric Johnson. For a Mormon response to this article, see Marc A. Schindler's article.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Hell is a place where the unrighteous people go (here, hell referring to the word "Hades" from the Bible). It is simply where they "rest", or die. They cannot taste, smell or sense anything, and they cannot harm anyone.
Also, they believe that the different words translated into "Hell" have different meanings other than "Hell". For example, the word "Gehenna" (see above) is a south-west corner of Jerusalem, where criminals' corpses are dumped, not a place where people are tortured forever.
Finally, some verses in the Bible are often used to support the above. (some of which are instrumental in Universalists arguments as well.)
"God is love." 1 John 4:8
Never had ideas of torture "...come up into his heart" Jeremiah 19:5
Universalists believe in the doctrine of apocatastasis, in which Hell is merely a place where some people go to be punished for only a little while before every single person in the world goes to heaven, similar to the catholic idea of purgatory, except everybody eventually goes to heaven. Many universalists bring up objections to Hell based on arguments around the word "Sheol" and "Ghenna", and often object to words like "eternal" which Jesus used to describe Hell. This often brings up problems, since the very same word for "eternal" is often used to describe God, and there is no context which supports a temporary Hell in the Bible. Apocatastasis was formally pronounced anathema by the Synod of Constantinople in 543 AD.