Many theologians and religious scholars no longer believe that a place of eternal damnation called Hell exists.
There’s a word in theological circles you may not have heard before –annihilationism. It is based on the idea that unrepentant sinners do not go to eternal damnation in Hell, but rather their souls simply cease to exist – annihilated. Those who believe in the concept of annihilationism do not believe a place called Hell exists nor do they believe that sinful go there.
There is much debate about how the Old Testament and the New Testament in the Bible defines Hell. Let’s look at two concepts.
Consider this statement from Jesus and its different translations.
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
– Matthew 10:28 (New King James version)
“And you shall not be afraid of those who kill the body that are not able to kill the soul; rather be afraid of him who can destroy soul and body in Gehenna.”
– Matthew 10:28 (Aramaic Bible in plain English)
Like the word Sheol, many believe the word geenna was incorrectly translated as hell, in many versions of the Bible, particularly the King James Version.
Gehenna or Gehinnom (literally translated as “Valley of Hinnom”) is thought to be a small valley in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire, according to Wikipedia. In the book of Jeremiah, is considered to be cursed. In rabbinic literature, Gehenna is also a destination of the wicked.
Gehinnom is not considered to be Hell, but originally viewed as a grave and, in later times a type, of purgatory where one is judged based on one’s life’s deeds, or rather, where one becomes fully aware of one’s own shortcomings and negative actions during one’s life.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”
– Ecclesiastes 9:10
Sheol is the underworld, a place of darkness where souls descend at death. It is also sometimes defined as a grave. Some scholars argue that a problem with translating the Bible from Hebrew into English is that in many instances incorrectly the word hell was substituted in place of Sheol, particularly in the King James Version. They argue that Sheol was more like the Greek vision of Hades, and abode of the dead also called Erebus.
Other scholars say that while the Hebrew Bible sees Sheol as a permanent place for the dead, during the second Temple period (500 B.C.-70 A.D.), the view shifts to it being a place of the dead who are wicked. In some instances, it is seen as a place of punishment equated with Gehenna. The New Testament sees Sheol as Hades.
The Greeks saw Hades as a place where everyone goes and very few mortals escape once they entered it. Later Greek philosophy introduced the idea of a judgment after death where humans are either rewarded or cursed.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'”
– Matthew 25:41
Eternal fire is a term considered representative of describing Hell. In Jesus comments above, The Pulpit Commentary at Bible Hub points that today’s readers may tend to downplay the term “eternal fire,” viewing it symbolically or otherwise attempt to minimize this attribute. However, the commenter points out that those hearing the Lord at the time understood the meaning fully.
Jesus makes the point shortly thereafter, a few verses later in the parable of the sheep and the goats.
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
– Matthew 25:46
Strong’s Greek Concordance tells us that the Greek word used here is aiōnion, From aion; perpetual.
The Pulpit Commentator tells us that the take away from both of the above passages is Christ’s emphasis that we must believe that the risen life and the second death are equally everlasting. There is a place of eternal fire called Hell and a place of eternal paradise called Heaven.
Bart Ehrman, a Professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a renowned religious scholar turned agnostic and atheist, disagrees that an eternal place of damnation called hell exists. He argues that the concept of heaven or hell as a place where souls go after death is not found anywhere in the Old Testament. He further insists that hell is not what Jesus preached.
Ehrman declares that the Old Testament saw existence entirely as bodily, and that Jesus later picked up the same viewpoint. He says that the Jewish viewpoint was that there was no separation of the soul in the body, and that Jesus viewed this the same way.
Ehrman told NPR that Jesus foresaw a resurrection of the dead at the end of time and that they will enter a new kingdom here on Earth in physical bodies.
He says the confusion came when the Christian church was raised in Greek circles rather than Greek ones. He cites the mistranslation of Sheol in the Greek concept of Hades as an example. The Greeks believed the soul was immortal.
Due to the influence of Paul and the influx of Gentiles, this Greek concept melded with Christians, and the roots of the modern Christian ideas of heaven and hell are born.