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

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This is the second of a 3 part series on the biblical teaching on hell. Read Part I.


(3) Paul and Everlasting Destruction

With regard to Paul on Hell, not once does the Apostle to the Gentiles – arguably the greatest Christian preacher and thinker of all time – mention Gehenna. Seeing that Paul’s writings constitute about 30% of the NT, it is a big deal for him not to use it. At most, this suggests that the doctrine of Hell was not very important to him and at the very least was not something in the forefront of his mind. Actually, Paul speaks very little of the negative afterlife and prefers much more to speak about the positive afterlife, that is, the resurrection of the dead, the new creation, and the redemption of all things. Nevertheless, concerning his theology of Hell, Paul uses some different language to speak about the negative afterlife, particularly “everlasting destruction.” In 2 Thess 1:9, he says, “They will pay the punishment of everlasting destruction away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might.” This “everlasting destruction” language is the most explicit reference to Hell in Paul’s writings. Within the context, Paul is speaking with pastoral aims and is trying to comfort his Thessalonian congregation by assuring them that those people who have persecuted them and harmed (even killed some of) them will be punished for their actions by God in the end. Thus, he encourages them that God’s vindication will surely come and those who harmed them will receive their just due of Hell for persecuting God’s people. In a nutshell, Paul uses Hell to comfort his converts and assure them that God will vindicate them. Furthermore, this passage clarifies Paul’s understanding of the temporality of Hell, namely, that it is perpetual and ongoing forever – “everlasting.” It also illumines his understanding of the nature of Hell, that is, Hell lacks the presence of God.

So does Paul condemn “sinners” in general to Hell? Me genoito [Greek for no way]! What we find in his theology of Hell however is that certain people who do certain actions to other certain people will experience a negative afterlife. That is to say, Paul deems those who persecute and even kill Christians as being liable to “everlasting destruction.” Interestingly these are the same actions that Paul himself did to Christians prior to his conversion as recorded in Acts.

Now someone will ask, “Doesn’t Paul clearly state that there is a recompense for sin?” Absolutely. But contrary to what many assume today, it is not Hell. So what then does Paul say the wages of sin are? In Rom 6:23, does he say the wages of sin is Hell and a negative afterlife? No. He says that the wages of sin is death, and he does not merely mean spiritual death. Here he means actual physical death. But thanks be to God because “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So, then, we find in Romans that Paul thinks that the divine punishment for human sin is death, not Hell. Now it is widely held among scholars that Gen 1-3 is at the forefront of Paul’s mind in Romans 1-8. So what do we hear from God’s mouth in Gen 2:17 about sin? In the day that you eat of the fruit you will surely go to Hell? No. “For in the day that you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Death, then, is viewed by the author of Genesis and Paul to be the divine punishment for human sin, not a negative afterlife of Hell-fire.

So yes there is a recompense for sin, and no it is not Hell, but death. This is probably why Paul focuses so much upon resurrection in his writings, because resurrection is God’s solution to death, the antidote, the reversal of death, and the triumph over the grave. More on this later.

(4) The Catholic Epistles and Hell

With regard to the Catholic or so-called General Epistles, there are only 2 times that Hell is mentioned, one of Gehenna in James and one of Tartarus in 2 Peter.

James and Gehenna

Concerning the epistle of James, he mentions Gehenna once in 3:6 and places a heavy emphasis upon judgment (krima/krisis/krino/krites) throughout the rest of the letter, 13 times to be exact.[1] In James 3:6, the author says that human tongues are “being set on fire by Gehenna” (phlogizomene upo tes Gehenna). While this may be somewhat poetic and hyperbolic, James’ point is that human speech can often be so evil that it is said to come straight from Hell, and thus there is a strong need for Christians to tame their tongues so that they can demonstrate their faith by living uprightly and wisely. Overall, while this is an explicit reference to Gehenna here, James adds precious little to a NT theology of Hell – save that evil human speech can be inspired by it – seeing that he is not talking about the negative afterlife here.[2] So, then, does James condemn “sinners” in general to Hell? The answer again is “No.” There is not even a hint here that Hell is the divine punishment for human sin. Rather, it speaks about how a certain type of dictation comes from Hell. Particularly, he says that Hell sets human tongues (i.e. speech or words) on fire and causes great evil in the world. While this is quite adverse, James 3:6 has absolutely nothing to say about the negative afterlife of Hell and furthermore it comes nowhere even close to condemning humans to Hell for their sin or being “sinners.” Actually, when James discusses sin and temptation in 1:13-15, he says that sin ultimately leads to death, not Hell. He says, “sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). This refers to physical – not merely spiritual – death and further supports the other NT witnesses that seem to agree that death is result of human sin, not Hell.

2 Peter and Tartarus

Concerning 2 Peter, there is one reference to the negative afterlife in 2:4, though it uses untypical language to describe it. Here, instead of the noun Gehenna, the author uses the verb tartaroo which means “to cast into Tartarus.” BDAG explains this verb as such: “Tartarus, thought of by the Greeks as a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was meted out, and so regarded in Israelite apocalyptic as well.”[3] This then most likely means Hell, and considering the Gentile audience, the author of 2 Peter probably spoke of Tartarus because it would have been more familiar to them than Gehenna which was only commonly known to Jews near the holy land. As such, angels here are described as being cast into Tartarus by God for sinning, not humans. Furthermore, 2 Pet 2:4 begins a list of conditional (“if”) clauses and concludes with the apodosis in v. 9 stating that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.” So, the point of these conditional clauses – beginning with the Tartarus casting – is not to expound upon a negative afterlife theology, but rather to serve as examples of encouragement for Christians who were undergoing great trials and persecutions from ungodly people in Peter’s congregation. Peter then is trying to comfort them by saying that if God can do all these things (vv. 4-8), then he can surely be trusted to help Christians in persecution. In sum, then, 2 Peter’s mention of Tartarus illumines that God once sentenced angels to Hell for their sin and that there is assurance in God for Christians that in the end he will judge the ungodly who persecuted them.

So does 2 Peter condemn human “sinners” in general to Hell? The answer is still “No.” While it does speak of angelic sin leading to Tartarus, it does not speak this way of human sin. What is more, Peter is trying to comfort his audience (not condemn them) by saying that if God can do all these things (vv. 4-8), then he can help them as well. To sum up, God is in control and will take care of them just like he took care of all those other things mentioned in 2:4-8. So 2 Peter, like the other NT authors, does not support the claim that the divine punishment for human sin is Hell.

(5) Revelation and the Lake of Fire

With regard to Revelation on Hell, while there is no use of Gehenna, John of Patmos uses the terms “the lake of fire” (he limne tou puros) and “the second death” (ho thanatos ho deuteros) to convey the negative afterlife for the wicked. This is most likely because the genre is that of apocalyptic literature which often employs symbolic or figurative language to reference entities in the real world. As such, it makes perfect sense why John would use the symbolic language of “the lake of fire” to refer to Hell.

Revelation on the whole is largely based upon dualistic concepts; for example, the Lamb vs. the Beast; the Seal vs. the Mark; the Bride vs. the Harlot; and the One seated on the throne vs. the Dragon. In general, this is a dualism of good vs. evil, but more specifically of God vs. the Devil. So, on the one hand, when Revelation describes the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Dragon being thrown into “the lake of fire” throughout Rev 19-20, it is understood that those who join in their rebellion against God will acquire their same fate (Rev 14:9-12). On the other hand, the same is true of those who follow the Lamb; since the Lamb conquers and reigns, so also will his followers (Rev 20:1-10).

Now Rev 14:9-12 is probably the most graphic and comprehensive description of Hell in the NT:

“Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, ‘Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.’”[4]

This passage reveals several facets about Hell. First, it is reserved for those who worship “the beast and its image” instead of the Lamb. Idolatry then is one behavior that merits Hell. Second, it entails God’s “wrath (thumos) and “anger” (orge). Third, Hell involves torment, the likes of which never cease (eis aionas aionon). Fourth, Hell includes “fire” (pur), “sulfur” (theion), and “smoke” (kapnos). Next, this judgment is all in view of the Lamb and the angels.[5] Lastly, those in Hell have no rest and their torment never ceases.

In Rev 19:17-20:15, John tells of his vision of Christ’s return and his violent overthrow of the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Dragon. This is the moment in Revelation where God intervenes to vindicate his people who have been continually martyred by the Beast and his entourage. Thus, here God brings justice, judgment, and vindication for his people. It is said of this unholy trinity (the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Dragon) that they were thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Then after all the dead are judged, both Death and Hades and all those who did not have their names in “the book of life” were cast into the lake of fire (20:14-15). This seems to indicate several things about Hell. First, like Paul’s famous “first for the Jew, then the Greek” in Romans, John here is suggesting that Hell is reserved first for the Beast, False Prophet, and Dragon (Satan – see 20:2), and then for those that followed the Beast (20:15). Second, it reveals that Hell is the just punishment for those who persecute God’s people. Third, Hell again is depicted as full of fire and sulfur. Lastly, it indicates that the punishing torment there lasts forever.[6]

So does Revelation condemn “sinners” in general to Hell? The answer again is a resounding “No!” For starters, there is no reference to sin in general or “sinners” in Revelation. The only references to sin (hamartia) are in Rev 1:5 and 18:4-5, the former speaking of Christ’s atoning blood for sin and the latter referring to the specific sins of the Harlot. What is more, there is no indication that sin in general sentences fallen human beings to the fire and brimstone of Hell. On the contrary, Revelation discloses that certain sinful behaviors lead one to Hell. More specifically, it maintains that “the lake of fire” is reserved (1) for idolaters, (2) for those who join in the Satan’s rebellion against God, and (3) for those who persecute God’s people. In this way, then, along with all of the other NT witnesses, Revelation does not hold that God’s punishment for human sin is Hell.


[1] See Jas 2:4, 12, 13; 3:1; 4:11-12; 5:9.

[2] Notice also that James may be using Jesus tradition here. In a nutshell, Jesus said that one’s careless words can send a person to Hell. In Matt 5:22, he says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Thus, Jesus taught that doing certain actions like saying insulting words about fellow Christian brothers can incur culpability, enough even to send to fiery Hell. His point is strikingly similar to what James says here: “And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). Both seem to be saying that one’s words matter, and that if not held in check, then they could sentence a person to Hell. If James, therefore, is in fact pulling from Jesus tradition (highly likely), then he is in fact not really adding to the discussion but reiterating what Jesus already said.

[3] BDAG.

[4] Rev 14:9-11. NRSV.

[5] Keener has an interesting note concerning this: “As often in apocalyptic literature, the wicked get to see what they missed…but Revelation omits a common apocalyptic feature, in which the righteous also get to see and gloat over the fate of the damned.” Keener, IVP, 801. This means that while the Lamb and angels watch their torment, the saints do not which is uncommon in apocalypticism.

[6] Notice that there is not even a hint of annihilationism, conditional immortality, or universalism in Revelation. Only the traditional view of Hell holds true to Revelation’s perspective. This is true of the other NT witnesses as well.

8 COMMENTS

  1. It seems to me that the discussion is aimed primarily at those who are afraid of going to hell. Others have maded comments on the same theme. Forgive the absence of attribution, but those interested can probably track down comments of persons like C. S. Lewis and Karl Barth. I remember reading [in effect] C. S. Lewis commenting that choosing God in preference to Hell is no compliment to God. In another quote, Karl Barth, when asked about his penning such extensive theological writings told of dreaming of being all alone in the far reaches of the universe. The feeling was so lonely that he never wanted to experience such loneliness in this life or the next.

    One question. When Peter said Christ preached to those in prison, was he speaking of hell? Some biblical commentators think so.

    I love you.

    Larry Winebrenner

  2. Since no punctuation was used in the original texts, I don’t think there was a “resounding” anything, let alone a “resounding” “NO!” and, just because this is your opinion, it doesn’t make it so. What are we supposed to do with Christ’s comments about hell, and about the Book of Revelation’s notation that sinners will be cast into the Lake of Fire, etc? These thoughts weren’t written by Paul, but Paul’s not around to state what he’s implying or insinuating, and I for one cannot simply sit by and assume that EVERYONE is going to be with God one day, and we’ve been wrong about Hell and the Lake of Fire for centuries — and the two are mutually exclusive concepts; Hell is cast into the Lake of Fire after Judgment, last time I checked. I am creeping ever closer to believing that intellectuals and scholars have a tendency to over-think the Bible by analyzing it through an electron microscope when the Word was expressed in simplistic terms to a largely illiterate people even in the days of Jesus. With all this confusion being propagated, no wonder the secular world wants nothing to do with Church.

  3. What about Revelation 21:8? The second seems to be for more than just persecutors and idolatrous. And how would you define an idolator? I would think that would be a non-follower of the Lamb. Just wonderin’…

  4. Lacie, after I finished this paper/blog, I did think to myself what about Rev 21:8. You are right. Those need to be included. Thanks for pointing that out. I define idolatry simply as worshiping anything/one other than the Triune God. Thanks for your comment.
    Timothy

  5. Tim, thanks for these articles, they have been very thought provoking! I had a question about something you mentioned in this article in your treatment of Revelation.

    You said, “Idolatry then is one behavior that merits Hell.”

    How do you understand this statement in light of Paul’s exposition in Romans 1 of Gentiles as essentially idolatrous?

  6. The very act of committing sin IS joining in Satan’s rebellion. They may not consciously think it but they’re still accessories to the demonic resistance.

    A pawn that’s kept in the dark is still a pawn.

    And Satan is an excellent chessmaster.

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