Is Hell a real abode? – an historical survey.

jason_familyC.T Russell, Watchtower founder and his philosophical view of hell;

A God that would use his power to create human beings whom he foreknew and predestined should be eternally tormented, could neither be wise, just nor loving. His standard would be lower than that of many men” (WT. 1993:43).

Is this the correct biblical interpretation?In order to find out I will survey the OT concept of Sheol relative to the afterlife,[1] then examine the development of individual eschatology during the intertestamental period, concluding with definitions of Gehenna as described in the NT. Where possible I will allow for the plain reading of the text, confining exegesis to the historical-grammatical method relevant to the sitz-im-leben of the audience. Thus my attempt is to avoid the often subjective existential, philosophic and moral considerations sometimes imbued upon the text.


Et qui bona egerunt, ibunt in vitam aeternam: qui vero mala, in ignem aeternum.” “Those who have done good deeds will go into eternal life; those who have done evil will go into the everlasting fire”.[2]

Many people (including Jehovahs Witnesses) cannot reconcile the disturbing imagery of Hell with the character of an all loving God; so attempts have been made to re-interpret the traditional view.


Let us look at the concept of death in the OT. Firstly a question; is physical death the cessation of existence? Some would argue that humans cease to exist at death.[3] It is important to understand the nature of man within OT teaching as the conclusions will impinge on our understanding of the NT revelation concerning Hell.

Death[4] is seen as the natural end of life (Num. 16:29), even a welcome relief (Job 14:2 2). In other cases, death is personified as an enemy (Ps. 18:4f) or separation from the community/Yahweh (2 Sam. 12:23). This begs the question: how did the Israelites understand their own nature in relation to life and death? Was there anything beyond the grave, good or bad?

OT writers used the word “Sheol” to describe not just the grave but an actual abode ‘the[5] place of the dead’. The nature of Sheol is ambiguous, it is a place void of happiness or meaningful interaction. It is simply the underworld; the abode of the dead, the place of disembodied spirits (Is.14:9).[6] It is important to understand this embryonic perspective of existence in Sheol. [7]

Proverbs 21:16 “The man who wanders out of the way of understanding shall rest in the assembly of departed spirits” MKJV.

Death is likened to resting with the disembodied souls. Psalmists and wisdom writers also touch on afterlife concepts.

Psalm 89:48 asks; “Who can live and not see death? (mâveth; place or state) Who can save himself (his nephesh; soul) from the power of the grave?” (Sheol; the place of the dead)CJB

What can we conclude? First physical death was separation from this life. In death a person (nephesh/shade/rephaim) went into Sheol. (Job 14:13, Psalm 88:10). The exact understanding of death and the afterlife was not codified in the OT; much is illusion (Is. 14:9f). However, enough evidence permeates the OT to understand the formulations of further post-mortem concepts, such as resurrection,[8] heaven and eternal punishment (Psalm 16:10,[9]Job 14:13, Dan. 12:2).


Johnston concludes his analysis of Sheol this way:

Sheol is used to describe human fate…this is a destiny the righteous wish to avoid…a divine punishment…the underworld in Israel’s canonical literature can be summarized as an infrequent theme and an unwelcome fate” (Johnston 2002:83-85).


During the Hellenistic period, apocryphal Jewish literature[10] took these embryonic OT concepts and enlarged them to include moral retribution beyond the grave (Bernstein 1993:161).[11]

The Maccabean period solidified the idea that the wicked must receive post-mortem retribution.

The Book of watchers (1 Enoch) introduces eternal judgment, contrasting and distinguishing Sheol and Gehenna for the first time in Jewish literature. Sheol is portrayed as a holding place for the disembodied spirits, whereas Gehenna is a place of eternal punishment for the wicked (Bernstein 1993:187). Apocryphal material can be understood as drawing on platonic philosophy, but not all.[12]

The idea of punishment after death…stems from logically prior notions firmly established in the Jewish Biblical tradition” (Bernstein 1993:200).


The evidence from Apocryphal literature suggests by the end of the second temple period, the vast majority of Jews, including the Pharisees,[13] believed in eternal post-mortem destinies. The underworld was changing; Sheol as the intermediate state, Gehenna and Tartarus[14] as final punishments.


“progressive revelation (is) a gradual unfolding of biblical truths…we cannot base our understanding of death and the afterlife solely on passages found in the OT…each new revelation meant a deeper understanding of some aspect of divine truth” (Morey 1984:23).



“The NT picks up where the old left off…hades should not be limited to the OT meaning of

Sheol…Hades had two sections, one for righteous one for the wicked” (Morey 1984:83-87).[16]

Gehenna; this word, while referring literally to the Valley Hinnom,[17] had become synonymous with the place of eternal punishment of the wicked.[18]


Having established the post-mortem conceptualisations of 1st century Jews, let us see howJesus uses these concepts in relation to the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).

In Luke 16:1-31, Jesus presents a rabbinic parable in which he emphasises the fate of both wicked and righteous. How would the Pharisees have understood Jesus’ use of words such as “hades,” “torment” or “eternal”? Did Jesus reinvent the meaning, or did He draw on established rabbinic tradition? [19]

Note Jesus exegetes within the historical sitz-im-laben of His audience; thus Jesus took intertestamental concepts (outer darkness, gnashing of teeth, furnace of fire) and applied them to the eternal state. Thus He establishes an eschatological Judgment linking personal destiny with either entry or denial into the Kingdom of God; Matthew 8:12, 24:51, 13:42. (Morey 1993:151-152). Jesus’ use of Gehenna:

Matthew 5:22, 18:9 “whoever says ‘Fool!’ incurs the penalty of burning in the fire of Gei-Hinnom!”.[20]

Matthew 5:29-30 “Better that you should lose one part of you than have your whole body thrown into Gei-Hinnom”.[21]

Matthew 23:33 “You snakes! Sons of snakes! How can you escape being condemned[22] to Gei-Hinnom?”.

Mark 9:48 “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”.[23]

Matthew 25:46 “And these will go away into eternal[24] punishment[25], but the righteous

into everlasting life”.

Matthew 25:41,46 “’Get away from me, you who are cursed! Go off into the fire prepared for the Adversary and his angels!… They will go off to eternal punishment, but those who have done what God wants will go to eternal life”. [26]

Matthew 8:29 “They screamed, “What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture[27] us before the appointed time?”.

Rev 20:10 “The Adversary who had deceived them was hurled into the lake of fire andsulfur, …they will be tormented day and night forever and ever”.[28]

Revelation 14:10b-11 “He will be tormented by fire and sulfur before the holy angels and before the Lamb, and the smoke from their tormenting goes up forever and ever[29]. They have no rest, day or night, those who worship the beast”.

Jude and Peter also draw on Apocryphal[30] concepts to establish eschatological[31] judgements upon fallen angels[32] and rebellious humans.[33]


Should we conclude Jesus is simply using post-mortem concepts in metaphorical ways, viz employment of a rhetorical literary device? A plain reading of the text fails to establish such theories.

We must be honest and ask, is there any chance that Jesus’ audience understood His tatements to mean either annihilation or universalism? What does a historical-grammatical survey reveal?

  1. OT Sheol = place of disembodied spirits, ambiguous final state.
  2. Intertestamental = post mortem retribution introduced – resurrection, judgement.
  3. NT Gehenna = confirmed as literal and eternal final state for wicked.

If Jesus’ audience understood Gehenna as literal, why should we revise the meaning? Can we reconcile Jesus’ infallibility and nature[34] with someone using myths as a metaphorical vehicle to teach obscure spiritual truths?

Transcending the Mosaic injunctions and the religious leadership, Jesus draws upon OT idioms and Apocryphal formulations to establish an eschatological judgement. Jesus encourages believers to fear God for He alone can deliver from Gehenna (Matt 10:28) and lead into eternal life (Mark 10:30, Luke 23:43).

Hell may clash with a post-modern worldview, but a Peshat reading of scripture anchored within a historical-grammatical horizon draws only one conclusion: Hell (Gehenna) is presented as a literal abode, which Almighty God is able to establish[35]

“Gehenna refers to the final, irreversible, eschatological judgement, which will last forever and is reserved for all who refuse to submit to Messiahs…rule” (Scharen 1992:470).


Abraham, Cohen 2007. “Everyman’s Talmud: The Major Teachings of the Rabbinic Sages” BN Publishing.

Bernstein, Alan E 1993 “The formation of Hell” UCL.

Bible; Quotes from MKJV, CJB, ESV, KJV.

Fudge, Edward W. 1982 “The fire that consumes” Verdict Pub.

Hick, J., 1977 “Evil and the God of Love” London: Macmillan, 2nd ed. pg

Hick, J., 1977 “God and the Universe of Faiths” London: Collins, 2nd ed.

Johnston, Philip S. 2002 “Shades of Sheol” IVP.

Longenecker, Richard N. 1998 “Life in the face of death” Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Morey Robert A.1984 “Death and the Afterlife” Bethany House.

Scharen Hans 1992 “Gehenna in the Synoptics Part 1 & 2” Journal Bibliotheca Sacra July & Oct.

WT 1993 Annonymous “Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaimers of God’s Kingdom” Pg. 43. W.T.B.T.S New York inc.


[1] Post mortem beliefs.

[2] Quicumque, c.325 CE.

[3] Jehovah’s Witnesse’s, Christadelphians, S.D.A, equate death to non-existence or soul sleep.

[4] Hebrew mâveth.

[5] “definite article occurs sixty-six times in the OT and always means “the realm of the dead” Johnston 2002:70-71.

[6] Levitical law prohibiting necromancy supports the view that Israelites accepted the existence of disembodied spirits (Lev 19:31, Due 18:11, Is. 8:19).

[7] Conditionalist presuppose platonic afterlife concepts are being imposed on the text; cf. Proverbs 30:3.

[8] Gen 5:24, 2 Kings. 2:11 present profound anomalies yet remain without elaboration within the OT canon.

[9] The Hebrew word shachath חַיִּימ and its use in Ugaritic denote ‘eternal life, the relationship with the cognate language suggests a view of immortality.

[10] Viz. Pseudepigrapha, Qumran scrolls.

[11] 1 Enoch 22 portrays the dead in Sheol awaiting a resurrection and day of Judgement.

[12] Human composition in Jewish thought was Holistic, humans were a psychosomatic whole, whereas Platonic tradition viewed man as mortal (body) and immortal (soul). Jewish thought viewed the Soul at death as trapped in Sheol awaiting release into eternal life with a body. (Longenecker 1998:87)

[13] The Saducees rejected these ideas. (Longenecker 1998:82).

[14] 2 Peter 2:4 uses this word to denote the destiny of rebellious angels.

[15] the LXX translates Sheol as Hades

[16] Cf. Eph. 4:8-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, 2 Peter 2:9.

[17] Cf. Jeremiah 7:30-34, 19:1-11.

[18] The schools of Shammai & Hillel taught of eternal punishment in Gehinnom.

[19] Like the Pharasees the early Church Fathers understood these verses to mean eternal punishment and torment. Cf. Morey 1984 163-167.

[20] Utilization of Apocalyptic terminology cf. Isaiah 66:24, Talmudic Mid. Gen. 214.

[21] Perish = Apollumi; to be delivered up to eternal misery. Thayers Greek-English Lexicon P.36.

[22] Rabbinic term “Judgement of Gehenna” (Bab. Talmud ER126)

[23] Conscious experience in Gehenna, cf. Bab. Talmud. Shah. 777-778, also Judith XVI:17.

[24] Does eternal mean eternal? The Greek aiōnios according to Strong’s means perpetual eternal, for ever, everlasting. Note Jesus used the same Greek word for both eternal punishment and eternal life.

[25] Punishment kolasis; Strongs: penal infliction: – punishment, torment; an on-going process.

[26] Jesus links the same eternal punishment of the goats vrs.46 with that prepared for the Devil & Demons, again the word aiōnios is used as an eternal judgment.

[27] basanizō = to torture: – pain, toil, torment, toss, vex. Even the demons acknowledge punishment awaits them.

[28] 1 Enoch 27:2,3 speaks of the eternal station of vengeance, the accused valley.

[29] Eis tous aionan ton aoionon; the strongest forever possible!

[30] Jude 14-15 quotes 1 Enoch 1:9.

[31] ἀΐ́διος aidios = eternal state cf. Romans 1:20.

[32] Cf. 2 Peter 2:4.

[33] Cf. Jude 6, 13; 2 Peter 2:17; Ζόφος Blackness = netherworld.

[34] Psalm 18:20;30.

[35] Cf. Daniel 3:23-28. Exodus 3:2-5.


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