Three Reasons I Don’t Believe In Hell
Before beginning, I would like to acknowledge that discussing this particular topic may appear to be controversial and that you, the reader, may not share the views I express. This article is not intended to be offensive or divisive in nature, but rather to open a channel of respectful conversation about a subject that is deeply important to many people.
I have chosen some time ago to abandon a rigid position on issues or topics which are non-essential to the gospel, from which there is no possible room to move or breathe, and allow my questions and convictions to sit in tension with one another while my Christian life continues to grow and deepen.
What this means, in practical terms, is that I’m genuinely interested to hear from you, that I welcome engagement and even difference on many biblical subjects, including this one, and, while I express this to be my currently held position on this topic, I would hope I am still open to learning new things as scripture speaks to me and as I hear from others.
The following thoughts are expressed in that light:
The subject of hell has popped up in a few different conversations recently, and, while I tend to try to avoid speaking from a position of a negative (‘what I don’t believe…’), this doctrine is one that’s never rung true for me.
I genuinely doubt the validity of the doctrine of hell or that it’s an actual teaching of scripture. For many Christians, a requirement to believe in hell has been a deal breaker in their faith and, I think, for good reason. It’s hard to reconcile the many elements of this doctrine with the picture the Bible paints of a good, good God.
In this article, I’d like to share three compelling reasons why I think the doctrine of hell doesn’t biblically add up and why I think it’s actually in opposition to the truth of the gospel narrative.
But Firstly, What Do I Mean By Hell?
Well, I’m referring to the (assumed to be) biblical teaching about the destination of the soul at the moment of death; either to heaven if you’ve ‘done okay’ or, alternatively, to hell, if you ‘haven’t quite measured up’. Saints go up. Sinners go down.
The parameters for ‘not quite measuring up’ can differ greatly depending on who you might be talking to. Some would say that anyone who hasn’t received Jesus as Lord and Saviour is outside God’s salvation. Therefore, either by ignorance or purposed willfulness, they have rejected God and earned themselves a one-way ticket to hell.
This includes, for example, people living deep within the Amazon jungle (who have had limited contact with the outside world and may never have heard the Christian message of Jesus Christ), those who may have been Christian once but have turned their back on Christ, those who have heard the message of Jesus but decided no thanks, as well as those who have engaged in various horrors such as rape, torture and mass murder during their lifetime.
Others are more uncomfortable with the thought of Adolf Hitler rubbing shoulders with good and sincere people (who, while they might not have been Christian, could hardly be described as having lived a ‘wicked life’). Or those who, through no fault of their own, had never even heard of hell, let alone Jesus. It does seem a little heavy-handed a response towards people who were essentially clueless about the rules but were punished anyway. Hell, they therefore conclude, is only for the truly wicked; surely God makes concessions for nice people?.
The traditional teaching of hell is that it’s a place of both psychological and physical torment; an ‘eternal lake of fire’ where the wicked are perpetually burned for all eternity (decide for yourself who qualifies). This imagery was further elaborated on during medieval times by the artists who graphically displayed vile creatures eating flesh and devouring sinners in the place of torment. (These images, together with fragmented texts of the Scriptures, and the circulation of apocryphal books, led the medieval church into some strange and grotesque doctrines).
The period of history known as The Great Awakening (1730-1740) placed particular emphasis, as a method of conversion, on the horror that awaited the unrepentant sinner. Jonathan Edwards, a famous American congregational preacher of the time, described hell as a place where “God holds men over the flames in the way that one holds a loathsome spider over a candle. He speculated on how it would feel to have the searing agony of a burn drawn out through eternity. He told listeners that the ground beneath their feet was a rotten flooring over a blazing pit, ready to give way in seconds.” (Bruce Shelley, Church History In Plain Language)
What Does Scripture Teach?
Psychologists today would no doubt have a field day with the profoundly damaging psychosocial and spiritual effects of this kind of preaching, dubbed ‘fire-and-brimstone’, but, more particularly, what does the Bible preach? Is this kind of reality really found in scripture?
Here are three reasons why I don’t think scripture teaches this at all:
1. Hell Doesn’t Fit The Gospel Narrative
One of the amazing aspects of the Bible is the consistency of its message and theme, from start to finish. It’s remarkable, given the reality of its varying authorships and the different time periods during which it was written, that the major theme of God’s sovereignty, rule, and purpose remains intact. In fact, affirming God’s sovereignty throughout the biblical record gives shape and purpose to the role for which humanity was created.
The gospel narrative is one that tells the story of Jesus, God’s only Son, and announces that he is both Lord and King. In him, God is saving, rescuing, atoning, justifying, ruling, and reconciling people for the glory of His name, all in pursuit of His purpose (Acts 2:36, Romans 8:19-21).
But what is He saving people from?
The first book in the Bible, Genesis, tells us something important about our own history, and it sets the stage for the drama that subsequently unfolds throughout the rest of God’s story.
It tells us, firstly, that we were created with purpose, designed to be like God, to image Him throughout His good world and rule wisely and well on His behalf (Genesis 1:26).
Secondly, it tells us that instead of partnering with God in this purpose, we chose our own will, introducing the evil of sin into God’s good world. The terrible consequence for the first humans, Adam and Eve, is that they were banished from the garden and from God’s presence. Furthermore, humans became ‘dying creatures’, subject to disease, aging, and mortality. Dying became hard-coded into our DNA.
“You will sweat all your life to earn a living; you were made out of soil, and you will once again turn into soil.” | Genesis 3:19, CEV
“Adam sinned, and that sin brought death into the world. Now everyone has sinned, and so everyone must die.” | Romans 5:19, CEV
We are subject to mortality. Death is our great enemy; this is the consequence of disobedience, passed on Adam and Eve and received by all those who came after them.
“So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone.” | Romans 5:18
The gospel narrative tells of humanity hopelessly enslaved to sin and at the mercy of mortality (Romans 6:15-23). Far from the spiritual life God intended for us, we’re incapable of saving ourselves or of overcoming death (Acts 4:12). The gospel, however, offers good news! : rescue, redemption and eternal life – God’s own life, by the simple act of giving allegiance to His Son, Jesus, as Lord and Saviour (Romans 10:9-10).
The gospel confirms the biblical reality of a just but loving God who is for His creation, who is not willing that any should perish, and who has actively worked to reconcile and transform us so that we can live the life of purpose for which He created us (2 Peter 3:8-10, John 3:16).
Hell – further punishment after death – simply doesn’t fit the gospel narrative.
2. Hell Doesn’t Fit The Character Of God
God is the God of promise, at whose Word the universe came into being and whose Word will never return to Him void, not accomplishing the purpose for which it was sent (Genesis 1:3, Isaiah 55:11). His loving devotion endures forever. He is faithful, true, just, and all glorious (Psalm 136:3, 1 Timothy 1:17).
The Psalmist declares the wonder and worthiness of this Eternal God, who is clothed in light, who stretches out the heavens like a tent, and who walks on the waves of the sea (Psalm 104:2, Job 9:8). All of creation bows in obeisance to His majesty, for all things, owe their existence to Him (Psalm 104:30, Psalm 6:4, Psalm 96:11, Luke 19:40).
God proclaimed both His Name and character to Moses, the great deliver of Israel during the Exodus, stating:
“The Lord — the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” | Exodus 34:5-9, ESV
The Psalmist also writes often and extensively about the innate goodness of God:
“For the LORD is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” | Psalm 100:5, ESV
“The LORD is good and upright; therefore He shows sinners the way.” Psalm 25:8, CSB
“The LORD is good to all; His compassion rests on all He has made.” | Psalm 145:9, BSB
There’s a lot to unpack in all those verses. Yet perhaps the overwhelming take-home point is this: God is just. He’s not vindictive or biased and He doesn’t show favoritism based on our social status, gender, or nationality. In fact, He is generous-hearted and gracious, even to those who are His enemies.
Jesus demonstrates this in His famous sermon on the mount, where he sets out the characteristics of those who would be children of the kingdom. He shows that choosing to behave in this way is simply imitating the characteristics of their Heavenly Father:
“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” | Matthew 5:45-48, CSB
This aspect of God’s graciousness – His undeserved love and favour to humanity – permeates every aspect of the gospel narrative, giving it weight and power. Because He is just, He wouldn’t overlook the sin of the world. But because He is also gracious and good, God sent His Son into the world, to suffer under the hands of wicked men, so that humanity could be rescued from the curse of sin and death (Matthew 16:21, Isaiah 53:4-6). In His goodness and in His justice, He made arrangement for sin to be absorbed and absolved, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
God is not a vindictive sadist. It simply doesn’t fit the character of a good and gracious God to punish people by “holding them, like a loathsome spider, over a flame for all eternity.” I would have serious concerns about other aspects of God’s character if I truly believed He is capable of sustaining such indefinite torture, even to those I might consider deserving of such a fate.
Interestingly, during the time when kings ruled the nation of Israel (926BCE – 586BCE), Israel engaged in the practice of child sacrifice by fire to the pagan god Molech, a practice they had absorbed from the nations they had previously conquered. God considered this to be a great evil; it was completely abhorrent to Him and something which he had expressly forbidden (2 Chronicles 33:6, Jeremiah 32:35, 2 Kings 21:6).
The doctrine of hell, in its many terrifying forms, perhaps tells us more about the capability and cruelty of human imagination than the reality of what occurs at death.
Hell – as a place of fiery, eternal torture for the wicked – simply doesn’t fit the character of God.
3. Hell Isn’t Found In The Bible
Well, it is. But not in the way you think.
While the word hell is certainly found in some of our English translations, it’s usually a translation of the original Hebrew word she’ol (שְׁאוֹל), and on the remaining occasions, three other Greek words (hades (ᾅδης), gehenna (γέεννα) and tartarus (ταρταρόω).
It’s translated by the King James version as hell 54 times, however more accurate translations like the NASB or NIV show the word hell only occurring between 13–14 times, all of which are found in the New Testament. The Hebrew word she’ol is translated in other places as ‘grave’ and ‘the pit’ and the more accurate translations tend to translate it in this way (Genesis 37:35, 1 Kings 2:6, Job 17:16, Isaiah 14:11, Ecclesiastes 9:10)
The English word hell, comes from ‘helan’, meaning ‘to conceal’. It conveyed no thought of heat or torment but simply of a ‘covered over or concealed place.’ In the old English dialect, the expression “helling potatoes” meant, not to roast them, but simply to place the potatoes in the ground or in a cellar (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged).
Here’s a brief overview of the original words:
She’ol was understood, by Jewish writers, as a place of stillness and darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life. In she’ol, one is cut off from life and from God.
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” | Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, ESV
“Humans and animals come to the same end—humans die, animals die. We all breathe the same air. So there’s really no advantage in being human. None. Everything’s smoke. We all end up in the same place—we all came from dust, we all end up as dust.” | Ecclesiastes 3:19–20, The Message
She’ol is used throughout the Old Testament and is derived from a word meaning hollow, the place under the earth where all previously living things rest in eternal, silent repose, without knowledge, consciousness, or reward.
“Since she’ol in the Old Testament times referred simply to the abode of the dead and suggested no moral distinctions, the word ‘hell,’ as understood today, is not a happy translation.” – Collier’s Encyclopedia (1986, Vol 12, p.28)
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and throughout the New Testament, the translators used the Greek word hades (ᾅδης) in place of the Hebrew word she’ol, translating with the Jewish concepts of she’ol in mind – a place where there is no activity – rather than the mythology of Greek concepts. This can be shown to be the case as they expressly use hades as an equivalent for she’ol, both in the Greek translation and also where they are quoting passages from the Old Testament (Hebrew text). One example appears below comparing Psalm 16:10 with Acts 2:27 (where the former is being quoted by Peter the Apostle):
“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” – Psalm 16:10, ESV
“For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” – Acts 2:27, ESV
With one exception, mentioned further below, the word hades, in all appearances in the New Testament has little, if any, connection to afterlife rewards or punishments.
The best equivalent understanding, which most modern translations use is ‘the grave‘. The context of the verses in which this word is used support the Jewish understanding of she’ol as a place of silence and inactivity to which all those who die are consigned.
The exception, as noted above, is Luke’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), in which the rich man finds himself, after death, in hades, and “in anguish in this flame”, while in contrast the angels take Lazarus to “the bosom of Abraham”, described as a state of comfort.
A parable is a type of analogy – a succinct, didactic story written in prose or verse, designed to illustrate one or more instructive lessons or principles, and is never intended to be interpreted literally. Additionally, it would be problematic for an entire theology to be built around one specifically non-literal section of scripture; or even from several parables put together. “Parables should never be used as sources of doctrine, but rather we take doctrine as a norm for interpreting the parables” (Tertullian).
This passage, in my opinion, therefore shouldn’t be considered to be literally describing aspects of an afterlife, including hell: that is, a place of eternal fiery torment because this is not what scripture teaches elsewhere Nevertheless, it is certainly an fascinating passage, intended to illustrate some lesson or principle and therefore requires an interpretation of some sort.
Another Greek word that has been translated as hell in some translations is ‘Gehenna’. It appears twelve times in the New Testament and is actually a Greek compound, derived from the Hebrew words ge and hinnom or the “valley of Hinnom”; a proper name which literally means valley of the son of Hinnom. Gehenna is actually the word that Jesus uses in the New Testament and you can read more about what Jesus really said about heaven and hell here.
The valley of Hinnom is a deep narrow slice of earth just outside the city of Jerusalem. Also called Tophet, or ‘the valley of dead bones’, it already had a long and disturbing history by Jesus’ time. Firstly, as mentioned earlier in this article, in the early days of Israel’s kingdom, it was the place of idolatry and child sacrifice, by burning alive with fire to the pagan god Molech (2 Kings 23:10).
Later it was used as a place where rubbish, filth, and the carcasses of beast and men alike were disposed of. Fires were kept constantly burning to consume the valley’s refuse and to prevent contamination. In the days of Jesus, the highest mark of ignominy that could be inflicted upon a person was a criminal’s burial in the fires of Gehenna.
Gehenna is a literal place of perpetual burning; but it was in Israel, not in a subterranean underworld. Therefore Jesus’ meaning when warning of Gehenna was quite different to what might be understood by hell today. The theological implication of Jesus’ words is likely this: that the consequences of unrepented sin in our life will lead to the finality of death and, by inference, the complete and utter annihilation of existence.
Just as the fire of Gehenna burned indefinitely, completely obliterating any trace of whatever was cast into it, so is our existence in death, without the salvation that is to be found in Jesus. Extinction of not just of our physical body, but of our life, our soul, our spirit, the very thing that makes us us. All of us.
Again, the theological implications point to the need for and provision of a saviour, the hope of the world; the very core of the gospel narrative.
The translation of Gehenna to hell is actually a mistranslation. More correctly, it should have been transliterated into English (ie it should read ‘Gehenna’ on every occasion) and left in its proper form for the reader to interpret.
Used in 2 Peter 2:4, this Greek word actually occurs nowhere else in scripture.
“For if God did not spare messengers having sinned, but having cast [them] down to Tartarus with chains of deepest gloom, delivered [them], having been reserved to judgment…” 2 Peter 2:4, LSV
Tartarus was considered in Greek mythology to be the great abyss, situated far below hades (the grave). Together with the context of this verse, the use of this word suggests a particular and specific meaning. Some kind of imprisonment is implied, certainly, but no sense at all of fiery torment or torture. In fact, the verse suggests that judgment (of who and what kind isn’t stated) is still yet to come.
Certainly, there are questions raised by these passages – the parable of Lazarus for example. What does it mean? What lesson are we intended to take from it?
And what is Peter referring to in his letter? Who are the messengers He refers to? What was their crime? And why is this Greek word found here, yet used nowhere else in scripture?
It’s not my intention to discuss these at any length in this particular article, only to comment that I don’t believe these single instances are compelling enough evidence for the doctrine of hell, particularly when compared alongside all of scripture as discussed earlier in this article.
Again, as with Gehenna, Tartarus should have been transliterated into English and left in its proper form for the reader to interpret.
What I’ve Concluded
While scripture certainly has much to say about what happens after life and why, it’s a markedly different story than perhaps we’ve been led to believe.
Scripture tells us that we’re all bound by mortality, a one-way, downhill journey from cradle to grave, where life – all aspects of living – cease. This situation is permanent and final (Genesis 3:19, 2 Samuel 14:14, Psalm 103:15-16, Romans 5:12, Romans 8:20-28).
Death is not just the enemy of life itself, but also thwarts the purpose for which humanity was created. Even the noblest of men or women soon pass from the world’s stage, their personalities and achievements more often than not fading from memory. “No wisdom of man or rebellion can deliver new life out of death.“
But the perfect human was promised to come, one who would bear the sin of the world and who would wage war against sin and death in his own body (John 1:29). Through his perfect life, his willing sacrifice, his dishonorable and painful death, and his glorious resurrection, all of humanity were promised that rescue would come and that death would be overturned. Jesus was going to build his church and not even the gates of the grave would prevail against it (Romans 8:3, Matthew 16:18).
“He [God] has revealed this grace through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the gospel” | 2 Timothy 1:10, BSB
The gospel narrative is the story of God, in Jesus, saving, rescuing, atoning, justifying, ruling, and reconciling people for the glory of His name, all in pursuit of His purpose. Those who believe in Jesus will live, even if they die, for Jesus promises that he is not just the light and life of humanity but the resurrection itself (John 11:25, John 3:16).
The traditional doctrine of hell finds no place in this narrative, nor does it fit the character of a good and gracious God, nor can it actually be found in scripture.
Instead, the final pages of the Bible close with the great conclusion promised as part of Jesus’s reign, once He has put all His enemies under His feet, that the last enemy to be destroyed will be death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26): “Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more because the previous things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4, CSB)
“The angel showed me a river that was crystal clear, and its waters gave life. The river came from the throne where God and the Lamb were seated. Then it flowed down the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river are trees that grow a different kind of fruit each month of the year. The fruit gives life, and the leaves are used as medicine to heal the nations.
God’s curse will no longer be on the people of that city. He and the Lamb will be seated there on their thrones, and its people will worship God and will see Him face to face. God’s name will be written on the foreheads of the people. Never again will night appear, and no one who lives there will ever need a lamp or the sun. The Lord God will be their light, and they will rule forever.” (Revelation 22:1-5, CEV)