The Bible on Hell: You’re Not Going to Hell—There’s a Different Punishment for Sin (Part I)

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This is the first of a 3 part series on the biblical teaching on hell. Read Part II.


“You’re not going to hell!” Rare words found upon the mouths of Christians these days. Instead, it is often espoused and unashamedly proclaimed by many Christians today to “sinners” that “You are going to hell,” with the all so pungent ultimatum “Therefore repent and turn to Jesus lest you burn!” Now while I am diabolically opposed to this flavor of Christianity and “turn-or-burn” approach to Christian evangelism and would rather prefer to say “You’re not going to hell,” I do so not because I don’t hold to a traditional interpretation of hell. Nor do I reject the teaching that Jesus Christ is our Savior. Rather, a much more important and profound reason leads me to this conclusion – one revealed from a close reading of Scripture, namely, because the OT and NT assert that the divine punishment for human sin is death, not hell. Thus, in this brief article, by presenting a New Testament theology of hell and its relationship to sin, I hope to put to rest this unbiblical and flawed assumption that sinners deserve hell and since all humans are sinners that all humans therefore deserve hell.

Defining Sin

To begin, let us briefly define what we mean by the terms “sin” and “hell.” First, the term that we translate into English as “sin” comes from the Greek word hamartia which simply means “a failure, error, or missing of the mark.”[1] The verbal form hamartano – “to sin, commit a wrong” – has this same meaning and can be done “against divinity, custom, or law.”[2] Contrary to popular thought, then, hamartia and hamartano are not super theological words with special spiritual meaning as many theologians throughout church history have suggested. In other words, they do not sometimes mean “original sin” while other times mean “personal sin.” Nor do they have notions of “unintentional” versus “intentional” sin as John Wesley taught. These words in the NT simply mean “a missing of the mark,” like someone failing to hit the bull’s eye on a target – the “mark” or “bull’s eye” being God’s glory and holiness. This then is what Jesus’ death and resurrection are said to forgive and atone for according to the NT writers.[3]

Defining Hell

Now that we have demystified the term “sin,” let us discuss the word for hell. The term that we translate into English “hell” comes from the Greek word Gehenna which is a transliteration of the Aramaic word gehinnam which comes from the Hebrew ge’ ben hinnom or just ge’ hinnom which was a location south of Jerusalem called the Hinnom Valley.[4] Quite literally, these Aramaic and Hebrew phrases translate in English to “the valley of (the son of) Hinnom.” In the OT, “the valley of Ben Hinnom” – being named after the sons of Hinnom – was a place where the people of Israel had offered child sacrifices to Baal and Molech in the fire. Later on, the prophet Jeremiah declares that this place would one day be renamed “the valley of slaughter” which is a reference to God destroying Jerusalem via foreign powers for its sin.[5] Then, during the intertestamental period, as afterlife theologies developed, the Hinnom Valley was seen as an image of eschatological adjudication.[6] Most assuredly, this understanding carries over into the New Testament. However, when coming to the NT, a new caveat is added, namely, that the Hinnom Valley became Jerusalem’s garbage dump. Furthering the concept of judgment, the inhabitants of the city got rid of their waste here by burning it.[7] Therefore, Gehenna in the NT refers to the burning garbage dump of Jerusalem south of the city, an image of God’s eschatological judgment on the wicked.[8]

Now it is important to note that Gehenna should not be confused with the Greek term Hades – the common translation in the LXX for the Hebrew Sheol – which is simply the place of the dead or the underworld – often translated “the grave.”[9] Joachim Jeremias notes that there is a “sharp distinction made by the NT between Hades and Gehenna.”[10] He further clarifies by saying, “This distinction is that Hades receives the ungodly only for the intervening period between death and resurrection, whereas Gehenna is their place of punishment in the last judgment; the judgment of the former is thus provisional but the torment of the latter eternal.”[11] In general, the afterlife theology of many ancient peoples in the first century Greco-Roman world was that when people died, they simply went to Hades/Sheol where their immortal souls would live on forever separate from the body ne’er to return. This clearly is not what the NT writers think of Gehenna. N. T. Wright sums it up this way: whereas Hades/Sheol depicts “life after death,” Gehenna represents life after “life after death” for the ungodly.

A New Testament Theology of Hell

Now that we have defined these terms, let us now turn to the New Testament on hell by paying special attention to its relationship to sin and by examining each major section of the NT: (1) Jesus and the Gospels, (2) Acts, (3) Paul, (4) the Catholic Epistles, and (5) Revelation.

(1) Jesus and Gehenna

It is of no little importance that Gehenna is found on the lips of Jesus more than any other person in the New Testament. However, just because he talks about it the most, does not necessarily mean that he talks about it a great deal.[12] The truth is that the term Gehenna is not mentioned in the New Testament very often – only a dozen times. As pertains to Jesus, 11 out of the 12 occurrences of Gehenna are from his mouth. Moreover, these 11 occurrences are all confined to Matthew, Mark and Luke, and are contained in only 3 different speeches of Jesus and 7 distinct sayings within those speeches. In comparison to the other topics that Jesus addresses in the Gospels – e.g. “the kingdom of God/heaven” which occurs some 87 times respectively or “Son of Man” which occurs 82 times – hell is a rather small emphasis in his teaching. Below maps out all of Jesus’ mentions of Gehenna:

Speech One: The Sermon on the Mount

  • Anger – “You Fool!” (Matt 5:22)
  • Lust – Eyes and Stumbling (Matt 5:29; 18:9; Mark 9:47)
  • Lust – Hands and Stumbling (Matt 5:30; 18:8; Mark 9:43)
  • Little Ones – Feet and Stumbling (Mark 9:45)

Speech Two: The Missionary Discourse

  • Fear the One who can destroy in/throw into hell (Matt 10:28; Luke 12:5)

Speech Three: Woe to the Pharisees and Scribes!

  • The Scribes and Pharisees make children of hell (Matt 23:15)
  • Brood of Vipers cannot escape the judgment of hell (Matt 23:33)

In addition to these, there are also several other descriptions that Jesus uses to depict hell. Of these, Jesus speaks of fire the most (8 times), then of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (7 times), while also of destruction, darkness, judgment, torment, agony, a fixed chasm, wrath, and eternal punishment. Below is a chart demonstrating these diverse descriptions:

Term

Greek

Verse

Times

FIRE:

  • Eternal
  • Furnace of
  • Unquenchable
  • Fire
to pur to aionion*
kaminos tou puros*
to pur ou sbennutai*
pur
Matt 18:8; 25:41
Matt 13:42, 50
Mark 9:43, 48
Matt 5:22; Luke 16:24

8x

(2x)
(2x)
(2x)
(2x)

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth ho klauthmos kai ho brugmos ton odonton Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28

7x

Destruction/Destroy apoleia apollumi Matt 7:13; 10:28; John 17:12

3x

Darkness skotos Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30

3x

Judgment/Condemnation krisis Matt 5:22; 23:33; John 5:29

3x

Torment basanos Luke 16:23, 28

2x

Agony odunaomai Luke 16:24, 25

2x

Fixed Chasm sterizo casma Luke 16:26

1x

Wrath orge John 3:36

1x

Eternal Punishment kolasis aionios Matt 25:46

1x

To summarize Jesus’ use of hell in all of these passages, first, Jesus frequently uses hyperbole when teaching about hell to get the point across that certain actions – e.g. hateful anger, lust, insulting fellow Christians, and causing people to stumble (especially “little ones”) – can incur culpability for hell. Second, the only time and the only people whom Jesus condemns to hell are his opponents, that is, the religious elites of the Pharisees and scribes for being hypocrites. Third, Jesus believes that God alone is the only one with authority to judge and send people to hell and as such deserves to be feared.

So do we find Jesus condemning “sinners” in general to hell? The answer is “No.” While we do find him pronouncing certain sins such as lust, anger, and causing little ones to stumble to be hell-worthy deeds, and find him condemning the Pharisees to hell for their hypocrisy, we do not however find Jesus condemning humans in general to hell for being sinners in general. In fact, what we do find is that Jesus is eating with, drinking with, healing, preaching the kingdom of God to, and teaching “sinners.” In other words, we see Jesus embracing sinners in the Gospels. Is this not the Pharisees’ chief objection to his ministry? “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” (Luke 15:2). And is it not true that after Jesus’ infamous John 3:16 saying that he continues on to say, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17)? And what was Jesus’ first sermon on again? Repent, because you are going to hell? No. “Repent, because the kingdom of God has drawn near,” (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:15).

You see, Jesus was far more focused upon God’s saving activity in the world and the in-breaking kingdom, both of which included positive afterlife theology. He did this more than talking about judgment and the negative afterlife, though he certainly speaks of these as well. The point is that Jesus places his emphasis upon the former; salvation and the kingdom of God. Even so, regarding his negative afterlife theology, the notion that sinners in general inherently deserve hell was obviously far from his mind. So, from the few extant occurrences of Jesus speaking about hell, we can ascertain that Jesus condemns only particular and extremely sinful behaviors as hell-worthy, and condemns only particular and extremely terrible people to hell. Jesus therefore does not hold to the view that hell is what humans innately deserve for sin. Rather, he assumes the common Hebrew understanding of divine punishment for sin, namely, death; more on this below.

(2) Acts and Final Judgment

Now with regard to the Book of Acts on hell, it is most noteworthy that Acts never uses the term Gehenna. What is more, it lacks any reference to Hades, judgment (krisis), fire (pur), punishment (timoreo/kolasis), torment (basanos), agony (odunaomai), destruction/destroy (apoleia/apollumi), darkness (skotos), or wrath (orge); using absolutely none of these terms in reference to Hell or the negative afterlife. However, there is one possible implicit reference to hell that comes from Paul’s speech in Athens.

In Acts 17:31, Paul uses the verb krino (“to judge”) when speaking to the Athenians. He says, “because [God] has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” This is the closest possible connection with hell in Acts and this brief, unelaborate phrase most likely refers to the final judgment at the eschaton. As such, it is probably not a reference to hell per se or merely the negative afterlife. Rather, it doubtless refers to the appointed time when God will judge both the righteous and unrighteous at the end. Acts then has very little to contribute to the NT discussion of hell.

So does the book of Acts condemn “sinners” in general to hell? The answer is again “No.” Since hell is not really mentioned here, and even if the Acts 17 reference to judgment means hell, there is still no connection there between being a “sinner” and being sentenced to hell. Similar to Jesus, the preachers in Acts are much more focused upon God’s salvation in Christ and the positive afterlife of resurrection from the dead.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2.


[1] LSJ.

[2] BDAG.

[3] Note also that Jesus’ sacrifice atones for “transgression,” that is, the violation of a known law. There was no atonement in the OT for such “transgressions.”

[4] Note however that the LXX never translates the Hebrew ge’ ben hinnom or ge’ hinnom into Greek as Gehenna. In fact, Gehenna is nowhere to be found in the LXX.

[5] Lalleman says, “The Valley of Slaughter” (v. 6) is an appropriate name for what happened there, but it mainly indicates what will happen in the future (see v. 7). God will destroy the plans of Judah and Jerusalem…Passers-by will be so horrified at the site of the ruined city that they will ‘hiss at it’.” Hetty Lalleman, Jeremiah and Lamentations (TOTC; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013), 173-4. J. A. Thompson comments that the “change of name signified a change of function.” J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 450.

For further OT background on the Hinnom Valley, see Joshua 15:8; 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Nehemiah 11:30; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2, 6; 32:35.

[6] Gary A. Lee, “Gehenna,” ISBE 2:423.

[7] A connection between fire and judgment is often recognized in ancient Jewish and Christian writings.

[8] Witherington adds, “It’s a graphic image, and Jesus uses it to describe the eternally stinking, hot place that no one in their right mind would want to visit, much less dwell in.” Ben Witherington III, Revelation and the End Times: Unraveling God’s Message of Hope (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 35.

[9] Joachim Jeremias, “a|[dhj,” TDNT 1:146. He says, “In the LXX a|[dhj is almost always a rendering of lwOav..”

[10] Joachim Jeremias, “geenna,” TDNT 1:658.

[11] Jeremias, “geenna,” TDNT 1:658.

[12] Witherington notes, “Jesus actually has more to say about hell than heaven, although neither topic comes up very frequently.” Witherington, Revelation, 34.

16 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciate the time and thought Timothy has put into this — and I am looking forward to the next installment. HOWEVER, the notion that the meaning of ἁμαρτία can be completely explained by reference to its etymology is a serious error — though often made by preachers and writers. Usage is far more important than etymology. Everyday English has lots of words whose usage does not conform to its history or derivation.

    So this passage from Timothy’s article is not correct: “Contrary to popular thought, then, hamartia and hamartano are not super theological words with special spiritual meaning as many theologians throughout church history have suggested. In other words, they do not sometimes mean “original sin” while other times mean “personal sin.” Nor do they have notions of “unintentional” versus “intentional” sin as John Wesley taught. These words in the NT simply mean “a missing of the mark,” like someone failing to hit the bull’s eye on a target – the “mark” or “bull’s eye” being God’s glory and holiness.”

    These issues have to do with the usage of the term ἁμαρτία and its cognates in the contexts in which they appear. In other words, these theological distinctions do not stand or fall by reference to the derivation of the word ἁμαρτία. (1) He has not (to my mind at least) established that ἁμαρτία refers to an act that only “misses the mark” — that would require a word study. (2) He has not established that various traditional theological distinctions in the concept of sin may be swept aside (if that’s what he is saying) because of the derivation of the New Testament vocabulary for “sin” — that would require a deeper look at several individual passages (even super-theological ones) where these terms are used.

    So, while I appreciate what Timothy is doing here — and I think he has a good point to make — I would urge caution about sloppy argumentation.

    Also: I wish the chart had been put into the article formatted as a chart.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. My thought was similar to Craig. In a 7 seven minute seminary video Dr John Oswalt explained that the Law makes a distinction between intentional and unintentional sin. So it seems theologians like Wesley are using the term in ways that would convey its Biblical meaning. I too am looking forwards to the next installment.

  3. I will look forward to reading “the rest of the story” before I make any conclusions, but I will ask this question: Why does the existence of hell trouble you?

  4. I’m in the process of reading Love Wins and Erasing Hell back to back before the Spring semester begins (hopefully), so I welcome this timely discussion and additional perspective, especially since I’m not a Greek scholar.

  5. Craig, thanks for your post but concerning hamartia I am not committing the etymology fallacy here. I am however leaving out other broader dealing with sin in the NT, particularly references such as “transgression” (parabasis) which is a specific type of sin – stepping beyond a known boundary. Matt, this business of “transgression” is what Dr. Oswalt was getting at in his 7-Minute Seminary video. This was also what John Wesley did, that is, he clumped together “sin” (hamartia) with “transgression” (parabasis) which were similar but “transgression” was a very specific type of sin. Overall, thank you for bringing this up. I should have addressed this in the paper/blog, but I’m only allowed so much space. Again thanks for pointing this out.

    Timothy

  6. Susan, the existence of hell does not trouble me and I am NOT arguing neither that (1) hell does not exist nor (2) that no one is there. Rather, I have trouble with Christians going around telling everyone that they are going to hell simply because they are sinners, all the while purporting that this is what the Bible says is true when that is not in fact what the Bible says about those condemned to hell. My point in this blog is that the recompense of sin is not hell, but rather death. Hell, says the various NT writers, was negative afterlife prepared first for the devil and then for those that do very specific and gruesome sins such as idolatry, persecuting God’s people, etc. So I’m not denying Hell’s existence; I’m calling into question the popular belief as to how someone incurs the punishment of hell. The NT writers believed that the recompense for sin was death, not hell; and the recompense for specific sins was hell. So I’m splitting hairs a bit, but it is a very important hair to split. My overall argument is a distinction of the punishment for sin in general vs. the punishment for sin in particular. Thank you for your concern.

    Timothy

  7. Thanks for your comment Kevin. To Rob Bell’s surprise, there is no warrant at all in the NT documents for the doctrine of universalism (i.e. all will be saved in the end). What is more, a NT theology of Hell does not espouse conditional immortality, purgatory, or annihilationism. I talk about this in Part 3. Stay tuned for more. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    Timothy

  8. I’m not sure that being “diabolically opposed” to a doctrine is a good thing. Unless you meant “diametrically opposed.” The latter would mean completely obvious, while the former would mean on behalf of the devil. Are you saying that the devil told you to write this?

  9. Aaroneous, yes, I meant “diametrically” opposed. Thank you for the correction! Though I am also opposed to the devil. In that sense, I have a diabolical opposition. 😉

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