When someone mentions hell, most think of a fire and brimstone place of everlasting torment and pain. But the Hebrew word often translated as “hell” is sheol—which simply means “pit” or “grave.” It does not mean a place of ever-burning fire.

The New Testament includes three Greek words that are also translated as “hell”—Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus—yet each has a different meaning.

Gehenna describes the fire that will destroy the unjust, (Matthew 10:28) not a place where souls will forever burn. The Greek word Hades, like the Hebrew sheol, simply means “pit” or “grave.”

In the 1600s, people in England and Ireland commonly spoke of putting their potatoes “in hell” through the winter when they planted their crop. They understood that the word “hell” referred to a dark, cold, quiet place that was a hole in the ground—not a place of burning torment.

The fourth biblical word translated as “hell” is the Greek word “Tartarus”. This word denotes a condition of restraint, and the Bible shows that it applies only to fallen angels. (See 2 Peter 2:4)

The word “sheol” and “hades” occurs 54 times in the King James Version of the Bible. Yet it is translated as “hell” 31 times in the Old Testament and 29 times in the New Testament. You can confirm this by simply using a Strong’s Concordance and search various Bible verses for the word “hell” like I did. Or you can use an online Bible search tool to scan various Bible translations for the word “hell.” According to modern Bible scholars, the word “hell” (As some understand its meaning) did not appear a single time in the original Hebrew or Greek—not even once!

What happens when we die?

There are some who believe that when a person dies, they just remain dead and there is nothing beyond that—no heaven, no hell, nothing. Many attribute this belief to only atheists, but there are other religions that hold similar beliefs as well.

Jehovah Witnesses, for example, believe that only the righteous will be resurrected and that the unrighteous dead will remain in their graves. (Reasoning From The Scriptures; pages 338-339)

Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical Christians have their own version of heaven, hell and the resurrection. Many believe that at the point of death the Christian soul will be immediately ushered into heaven to enjoy an eternity with the Lord. They often misquote 2 Corinthians 5:8 as, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” as proof of natural immortality of the soul. What Paul really said is that he would RATHER be absent from the body and be present with the Lord. I too, would RATHER be absent from my body and be present with the Lord. But that will not occur until the resurrection.

So where will Christians go when they die? To begin to answer that question, we should ask: “If the righteous are ushered immediately into heaven when they die, then certainly King David, whom God called a man after His own heart, (Acts 13:22) must be there—but what does the Bible say?

On the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter preached to a large crowd, telling them of the Messiah’s resurrection from the dead. He further explained: “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” (Acts 2:29) And to make it even more clear he said, “For David did not ascend into the heavens.” (v. 34)

So the Bible makes it clear that when the righteous die they do not immediately go to “a better place”. They go to the same place that King David went when he died—into the grave!

Many Christians also misinterpret Matthew 13:40-42 as proof that the unjust will immediately be cast into a burning hell at the time of their death, because it states, “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But the wailing and gnashing of teeth is the result of the unjust knowing of their coming destruction in the lake of fire (Gehenna)—not from any torment they will endure for all eternity.

Resurrection of the just and unjust

Scripture teaches us that:

  1. There will be a resurrection of the dead, of both of the just and unjust.
  2. The unjust, (Those who refuse God’s gift of salvation) must be punished.
  3. Physical death is not the final judgment of the unjust.
  4. The time of their punishment is not now, but at the day of judgment.
  5. This day of judgment, must take place at the same time as the resurrection of the dead, at the end of this age.

Consider the following Scripture verses:

Daniel 12:2—And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

2 Peter 3:7— But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.

Joel 3:12-14 —  Let the heathen be wakened, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat: For there will I sit to judge all the heathen round about. Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe: Come, get you down; for the press is full, the vats overflow; For their wickedness is great.

Revelation 1:7— Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.

Now, none of these verses are yet fulfilled, neither shall they be, until the Lord’s second coming; for though many of the Jews did see him, when he hung upon the execution stake, yet at that time he was not coming in the clouds of heaven, neither then did all kindreds of the earth wail because of him. No, this is reserved until he comes to judge the world. Therefore, this will be brought to pass at the resurrection of both of the just and unjust.

The danger of false doctrine

An opinion of no resurrection of the unjust may lull men into a false security and impiety, yet when the Lord returns he will rouse them, and cause them to awake; out of their graves and into their doom, that they may receive the recompense for their sins.

There are, says Paul, “in a great house not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth, and some to honor and some to dishonor.“ The body of the unjust must rise again because just as the righteous are vessels of mercy and glory, the unjust are vessels of wrath and destruction. (2 Timothy 2:20,21) They have become vessels of wrath because of their hard and unrepentant heart. (See Romans 2:5)

The Bible teaches that there is not only one death for the unjust, but two: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.  And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:14–15)

Some may ask, “Why would God need to resurrect the unjust only to judge them and destroy them? Why not just leave them in their graves?” Paul explains in Romans 9:22-23, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.”

Although God is all merciful, all powerful and all forgiving, God is also holy, righteous and just. Sin entered the world through one man’s disobedience— Adam, and now all of us are born into this “sin nature.” God’s holiness and justice demand that sin and rebellion be punished. And the only penalty or payment for sin is eternal death. Our physical death is not sufficient to atone for sin because atonement requires a perfect, spotless sacrifice that was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the execution stake. (See Romans 6:23; 1 Peter 1:18-19)

Because the unjust refused God’s free gift of salvation, there remains for them a requirement for payment of their sins. So the unjust will not arise by virtue of any relation they have with the Lord Jesus, as believers do, but because Jesus was made sovereign Lord over them. Therefore by an act of his sovereign power, the ungodly shall arise as vessels of wrath.

Even Jesus, who has sovereignty over all creatures, plainly spoke of a resurrection of the unjust, as well as of the just: Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (See John 5:22-29)

Consider Jesus’ parable of the Sheep & the goats found in Matthew 25:31-46: 

Verse 34: Then the King will say to those on his right, (The just sheep) “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Verse 41: Then he will say to those on his left, (The unjust goats) “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

We must understand that not all who stumble with sin are considered to be unjust, wicked or unsaved: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15) Paul was addressing the believing church in Corinth here, so this passage is directed at only believers—not the unjust.

Whoever takes away the doctrine of the resurrection of the unjust takes away one of the main arguments that God has provided to convince the sinner of the evil of his ways. For how shall a sinner be convinced of the evil of sin if they are not convinced of the certainty of a final judgment beyond the grave? And how will a wicked person who cares nothing for God or this life be convinced to repent and be saved if they are persuaded that when they die they will not rise, but will just remain dead?

God is not some angry, vengeful judge who takes pleasure in destroying those refuse to love him. In fact he will weep over those he has to destroy; just as we would weep over a loved one who suffers from an incurable painful disease whose life is being prolonged by machines. In those cases we often make the difficult decision to end their life. Not out of vengeance or anger, but out of love for the one who is suffering—to end their pain.

God desires that all would accept his free gift of eternal life, but those who reject God will be raised up with corruptible bodies and will forever will be in a state of continual corruption and pain—unless something is done. So in order to end the pain of corrupted bodies, he makes the difficult decision to destroy them—and weeps over them.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) 


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