Saturday, February 9, 2019

The “Hell” of which Jesus Christ Spoke (Part One)


According to the gospel heralded by Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, Christ died on humanity’s behalf as “a correspondent Ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:1-7, CLNT), and thereby procured the salvation of all people from the condemnation of which our sins have made us deserving (which is, I believe, death). This is what it means for Christ to have “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:1-4; cf. 15:17-19, 56). If a single human is not eventually saved from death, then it would mean that Christ didn’t die for their sins. But since Christ died for the sins of all, it follows that there is not a single person who will not ultimately be saved (as is affirmed in passages such as Romans 5:12-19, 1 Corinthians 15:21-28, Philippians 2:9-11 and Colossians 1:20). For more on this important subject, see my three-part study, “A Ransom for All” (

In spite of what I believe to be the clear scriptural evidence for it, the majority of Christians deny the truth summarized above. Even among those who may sincerely want it to be true, the mainstream Christian position is that this truth simply cannot be correct. For, according to the mainstream Christian view, there are certain passages of Scripture which reveal that at least some people (usually believed to be the majority of human beings) are going to be “forever lost,” and will have to spend “all eternity” separated from God in a place of torment called “hell.” For example, in the “statement of faith” of a popular evangelical Christian church, we read the following:

After living one life on earth, unbelievers will be judged by God and sent to Hell where they will be eternally tormented with the Devil and the Fallen Angels (Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:43-48; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:12-15, 21:8).”

For most Christians, the passages referenced in the above quotation are simply incompatible with the doctrine of universal salvation. Now, I believe whole-heartedly in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and do not think that Scripture contradicts itself. Thus, if these passages really do reveal that some people will be “sent to Hell where they will be eternally tormented,” then I would agree with most Christians that it’s impossible (and not just unlikely) that the doctrine of universal salvation is true. However, I’m also convinced that those passages which are commonly thought to be inconsistent with the doctrine of universal salvation have been greatly misunderstood, and are perfectly consistent with those passages of Scripture which reveal that Christ’s sacrifice will be universally efficacious and beneficial.

I’ve already examined a few such passages elsewhere on my blog. In my study on Matthew 25:31-46 (, I argued that this passage has nothing to do with the traditional Christian doctrine of “hell.” The “sheep” referred to in this passage will be comprised of those righteous Gentiles who, along with faithful Israelites, will get to enjoy an allotment in the land of Israel during the eon to come (which will be the geographical territory of the kingdom of God after it’s been established on the earth by Christ). The “goats,” on the other hand, will be comprised of those Gentiles who, because of their unwillingness to bless Israel during the time of their “great affliction,” must live outside of the land of Israel during the eon to come.

The expression translated “eternal punishment” in v. 46 of most English Bibles would better be translated “chastening eonian,” and should be understood as referring to the earthly destiny of the nations during the millennial reign of Christ (as referred to in Revelation 20:4-6 and elsewhere). In Rev. 2:26-27, we’re told that those who will be reigning with Christ during this period of time will, with Christ, have “authority over the nations,” and will be “shepherding them with an iron club, as vessels of pottery are being crushed.” From this verse and others (e.g., Psalm 2:8-9; Rev. 19:15; Zech. 14:16-19), it’s clear that the existence of the nations during this future time will, in fact, involve “chastening.”

I further explained why the “chastening eonian” of the nations is referred to as “fire eonian” in v. 41. Fire - and that which is connected with fire and heat - is sometimes used as a figure for adversity, affliction and trial. In accord with this understanding, I also provided some explanatory remarks on the expression “furnace of fire,” as used by Christ in Matt. 13:49-50 (cf. 40-42). Elsewhere in Scripture, places of adversity, affliction and trial are figuratively referred to as furnaces or crucibles (Deut. 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jeremiah 11:4 [cf. Ex. 3:7]; Isaiah 48:10; Ezekiel 22:18-22). In light of this figurative imagery, I argued that the “furnace of fire” referred to by Christ should be understood as a reference to the territory of the nations during the millennium (which will be outside of the geopolitical territory of the kingdom of God). It is to this territory that unfaithful Israelites will be banished when Christ returns. The same can be said for the “outer darkness” to which Christ said the “sons of the kingdom” will be banished, and from which they will be able to see those in the kingdom of God (Matt. 8:11-12).

In this study I want to consider another passage commonly understood to support the traditional Christian doctrine of hell: Mark 9:43-48. As with Matthew 13:47-51 and 25:41-46, I don’t think I’ve ever read an article or book defending the doctrine of hell that doesn’t appeal to this passage (in fact, the reader may recall that this passage is one of the passages referenced in the “statement of faith” from which I quoted above). And it’s not really surprising why this passage would be thought by many Christians to support the doctrine of hell; after all, in the majority of English Bibles, our Lord is recorded as having used the word “hell” a total of three times in this passage alone. For example, here’s Mark 9:43-48 as it appears in the English Standard Version:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”[1]

Significantly (and to its credit), the ESV has a footnote that provides the reader with a more literal translation of the term that is translated “hell” in the main text. In footnote “b” for v. 43 we read, Greek Gehenna; also verse 47.” What I will be arguing in this study is that the term found in the ESV’s footnote (i.e., Gehenna) should have been placed in the main text, and that the word “hell” should never have been used to translate the term that Christ is recorded as having used in this passage. I will be arguing that the fiery place into which Christ said certain people will be thrown is just as earthly in location as the place where Christ was standing when he spoke the words recorded in Mark 9:43-48, and that the fate of those who are to be “thrown into hell” is perfectly consistent with their ultimate and eventual salvation from sin and death.

An earthly kingdom

In my study on Matthew 25:31-46 I argued that the future events which Christ had in view in this passage will involve mortal human beings who will be living on the earth during the millennial reign of Christ in the eon to come. I noted that it is on the earth that the kingdom of God will be established when Christ returns (Matt. 6:10; 13:41, 43; Luke 21:31; cf. Daniel 2:34-35, 44), and that it is on the earth - not in heaven - that believing Israelites expected to live and reign during the reign of the Messiah (Jer. 23:5; 31:1-40; Isa. 61:1-62: 12; Isa. 65:17-24; Ezek. 36:24-38; Mic.2:12-13; Zech. 14:8-20).

Concerning this time period, we read in Rev. 20:4 the resurrected saints will “live and reign with Christ a thousand years,” and in Rev. 5:10 we read that the saints “shall be reigning on the earth.” Not only did Christ himself affirm that his twelve apostles will be sitting on twelve thrones and “judging the twelve tribes of Israel” during the eon to come (Matt. 19:28-29), but John also included himself as being among those who “shall be reigning on the earth” as “a kingdom and priests to [Christ’s] God and Father” (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; cf. 20:4-6). The twelve apostles will, therefore, be among those who, at the time when Satan’s thousand-year imprisonment ends (when we’re told that Satan goes out “to deceive all the nations which are in the four corners of the earth), will be dwelling in “the citadel of the saints and the beloved city” referred to in Rev. 20:9. The “beloved city” referred to in Rev. 20:9 is, of course, Jerusalem, and will be the location of Christ’s throne and the “world capital” during the eon to come (see Jer. 3:17; Zech. 8:22; 14:4-21; cf. Rev. 14:1).

The book of Isaiah contains a number of prophecies concerning the advent of the Messiah, his reign over the earth, and the restoration of the kingdom to Israel that will take place when his reign begins (cf. Acts 1:6). For example, in Isaiah 2:1-4 (Concordant Literal Old Testament) we read the following:

The word which came from Yahweh to Isaiah son of Amoz, concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
And it will come to pass in the latter days,
The Mount of the House of Yahweh shall be established on the summit of the mountains,
And it shall be lifted up above the hills,
And all the nations will stream unto it.
Many peoples will come and say:
Come, and let us ascend to the Mount of Yahweh,
To the house of the [God] of Jacob;
And He shall direct us out of His ways,
So that we may indeed walk in His paths.
For from Zion shall go forth the law,
And the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.

He will judge between the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples.
They will pound their swords into mattocks,
And their spears into pruners;
Nation shall not lift sword against nation,
Nor shall they learn war any more.

House of Jacob, come, And let us walk in the light of Yahweh.

As is the case with many other prophecies (both in Isaiah and elsewhere), the basis of the above prophecy is the “Davidic covenant” – i.e., God’s promises to David, as given through the prophet Nathan (see 2 Samuel 7; cf. 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16). This unconditional covenant with David ultimately points to Jesus Christ himself, who would come from the lineage of David and the tribe of Judah, and for whom God would establish “the throne of his kingdom for the eon” (2 Sam. 7:13-14; cf. Heb. 1:5).

Taking into account its background, there can be no doubt that the prophecy from Isaiah 2 concerns conditions that will characterize the reign of the Messiah. There is also no good reason to reject the literal, straight-forward meaning of the prophecy, or to believe that its fulfillment will not involve literal, physical events that correspond with what’s being said. We’re told in v. 1 that this prophecy concerns “Judah and Jerusalem,” and then we find Jerusalem explicitly referred to again in v. 3. No one seriously doubts that the prophecies of chapter one involve the literal city of Jerusalem and nation of Israel (see Isaiah 1:1). Thus, consistency demands that the fulfillment of what we read at the start of the very next chapter (2:1-5) cannot involve something other than the literal city of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel. To make this prophecy about something other than Jerusalem and the nation of Israel is to fail to take seriously what’s being said. We can’t allegorize or “spiritualize” the meaning of the prophecy simply because it doesn’t fit with our particular “eschatological” position, or because a literal interpretation would run contrary to what we believe concerning the future of Israel and God’s covenant-based purpose involving this nation.

When we understand the above prophecy in a natural and straight-forward way, the following picture emerges: at some future time, wars between nations will be done away with completely, and the city of Jerusalem will be the world’s political and religious capital. People from all the surrounding nations will travel to “the house of the God of Jacob” (i.e., the temple) to be instructed concerning God and his law. It is at this time that the temple in Jerusalem will, in fulfillment of the words of Isaiah 55:7, be “called a house of prayer for all peoples” (cf. Jesus’ words in Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46). Not only will the city have political and religious preeminence, but it will come to have a preeminent geographical location as well, with an elevation that is significantly higher than the surrounding territory (such that pilgrims travelling toward the temple will be travelling upwards, while those departing from it will be descending).

But what does all of this have to do with what Jesus had to say about “hell?” Well, a lot, actually. In order to see how, we need to consider the final chapter of Isaiah.

Isaiah’s concluding prophecy

In Isaiah 66 we find another remarkable description of the same general time period prophesied in Isaiah 2:1-4. In Isaiah 66:7-24 (CLOT) we read the following:

Ere she is travailing, she gives birth;
Ere a cramp is coming upon her, she delivers forth a male.
Who has heard such a thing as this?
And who has seen such things as these?
Shall a land be in travail in one day only?
Should a nation be born at one time?
When she travails, already Zion gives birth to her sons.
Shall I bring the breaking and not bring the birth?
saying is Yahweh;
If I am the One bringing the birth, would I restrain it?
says your Elohim.

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and exult in her, all who love her!
Be elated with her with elation, all who mourn over her!
That you may suckle and be satisfied from the breast of her consolations,
That you may drink deeply and find pleasure from the rich bosom of her glory.

For thus says Yahweh:
Behold, I shall stretch out peace over her like a stream,
And the glory of the nations like a watercourse overflowing;
And you will suckle; you shall be carried on her side,
And shall be dandled on her knees.
Like one whom his mother is comforting,
So I Myself shall comfort you,
And in Jerusalem you shall be comforted.
You will see, and your heart will be elated,
And your bones, like verdure shall they bud,
And the hand of Yahweh for His servants will be known,
Yet it will menace His enemies.

The “birth” of the nation of Israel that we find prophesied in verses 7-9 is one that will take place at the time of Christ’s return, when the kingdom is restored to Israel. In Ezekiel, this supernatural event is figuratively referred to as the resurrection of the nation (Ez. 37:1-14). That these verses refer to the restoration of the kingdom to Israel is evident from what we read in the remainder of this chapter (see verse 15-28). See also Ezekiel 38, which reveals what will be taking place near the end of Christ’s reign over the earth (cf. Rev. 20:1-10, where John refers to this same period of time).

Continuing with verses 15-17, we read:

For behold, Yahweh, with fire shall He come,
And His chariots like a sweeping whirlwind,
To bring back His anger with fury,
And His rebuke with blazes of fire.
For with fire Yahweh shall come to judge,
And with His sword upon all flesh;
And Yahweh’s slain will be multitudinous.

Those who sanctify themselves
And who cleansed themselves for the gardens, going after one in their midst,
Eating the flesh of swine and the abominable thing and the rodent,
They shall be swept up together, averring is Yahweh.

As is clear from these verses, the restoration of the kingdom to Israel will be accompanied by a fiery display of indignation against the enemies of Yahweh. It is with these fearful (but necessary) events that the blessing-filled reign of the Messiah will commence. For the remainder of Isaiah 66 (verses 18-24), we read again of how Jerusalem will become the center of worship for the world, with the nations coming to worship before Yahweh:

I know their deeds and their devising;
I shall come to convene all nations and tongues,
And they will come and see My glory.
I will place a sign among them,
And I will send some of their delivered ones to the nations,
To Tarshish, Pul and Lud, Meshech, Quesheth, Tubal and Javan, the coastlands afar, Who have not heard of My fame, and have not seen My glory,
And they will tell of My glory, among the nations.
And they will bring all your brothers from all the nations as an approach present to Yahweh,
On horses, in chariots and in coaches,
On mules and on dromedaries,
To My holy mountain, Jerusalem, says Yahweh,
Just as the sons of Israel bring the approach present
In a clean vessel to the house of Yahweh.
And also I shall take some from them for priests and for Levites, says Yahweh;

For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I shall make shall stand before Me, averring is Yahweh,
So your seed and your name shall stand.
And it will come to be, as often as the new moon comes in its monthly time,
And as often as the Sabbath comes in its Sabbath cycle,
All flesh shall come to worship before Me, says Yahweh.

As with what we read in Isaiah 2:1-4, the state of affairs depicted in the above passage involves a large number of people from all the nations regularly travelling to Jerusalem to worship before Yahweh. It’s a beautiful “prophetic snapshot” of the conditions that will characterize the reign of the Messiah during the age to come.

The final “prophetic snapshot” in Isaiah reveals what those among the nations who will be travelling to and from Jerusalem will see (or will be able to see) during their pilgrimage. And I must forewarn the reader that it’s not a pretty sight. In verse 24, we read:

And they will go forth and see the corpses of the mortals who transgressed against Me,
For their worm shall not die,
And their fire shall not be quenched,
And they will become a repulsion to all flesh.

Here is how v. 24 reads in the NET (New English Translation): “They will go out and observe the corpses of those who rebelled against me, for the maggots that eat them will not die, and the fire that consumes them will not die out. All people will find the sight abhorrent.” The NET notes for this verse explain that it “depicts a huge mass burial site where [a] seemingly endless pile of maggot-infested corpses are being burned.”[2]

We have no good reason to deny that this prophecy foretells actual, real-life events that will be occurring at some future time (i.e., during the eon to come), and that the scene being depicted will thus one day be a reality. That is, we have no good reason to deny that actual people from among the nations will, during the eon to come, be travelling to Jerusalem to worship before Yahweh, and that these same people will ”go out and observe the corpses of those who rebelled against [Yahweh].”

According to Albert Barnes in his commentary, the term translated “worm” (towla) is “sometimes applied to the worm from which the crimson or deep scarlet color was obtained…but it more properly denotes that which is produced in putrid substances” (emphasis mine). The word only occurs a few times in Scripture, but in two of its occurrences it is clearly associated with death and decay. In Exodus 16:20 we read that the leftover manna “bred worms (towla) and stank.” It also appears in Isaiah 14:11, where we read the following concerning the demise of the king of Babylon: “All your pomp has been brought down to Sheol, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms (towla) are your covers.” Here, “worms” are clearly associated with death and decay.

The “worm” referred to in Isaiah 66:24 is said to “not die” to emphasize the fact that it will be present as long as there are corpses to be eaten. This is gruesome imagery, to be sure, but it serves to further emphasize the dishonorable status and condition of those who transgressed against Yahweh. But what about the fire that “shall not be quenched” (or “will not die out?)” This expression has nothing to do with a fire that burns absolutely without end. Leviticus 6:12-13 speaks of the fire on the altar as being one that “shall always be burning and which “shall not be quenched.” The same language was used in Jeremiah 17:27 in reference to a fire that has long since gone out: “But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.” See also Ezekiel 20:47-48. [3] No one understands this language to mean that the fire in view would go on burning for “all eternity.”

That the burning and worm-infested corpses being referred to in v. 24 will be a visible sight for those travelling to and from the city of Jerusalem during the eon to come is further evident from the way the verse ends: “And they will become a repulsion to all flesh“ (or, as the NET reads, “All people will find the sight abhorrent.”). Who is the “they” referred to here? Answer: it’s a clear reference to the corpses of those who transgressed against Yahweh. As if the sight of dead bodies wasn’t bad enough, seeing them being eaten by worms and consumed by fire will indeed be a repulsive and abhorrent sight. It certainly won’t be something that anyone will want to spend any great deal of time observing. But it will be a fully visible scene, nonetheless, and will serve as a solemn and sobering warning to would-be transgressors and rebels during this future period of time.

But whose corpses was Isaiah referring to? Well, we know they’ll belong to those who “transgressed” or “rebelled” against Yahweh. And from the context of Isaiah 66, it’s reasonable to infer that the vast majority of the corpses will (at least initially) belong to the enemies of Yahweh that we find referred to in verses 14-16:

And the hand of Yahweh for His servants will be known,
Yet it will menace His enemies.
For behold, Yahweh, with fire shall He come,
And His chariots like a sweeping whirlwind,
To bring back His anger with fury,
And His rebuke with blazes of fire.
For with fire Yahweh shall come to judge,
And with His sword upon all flesh;
And Yahweh’s slain will be multitudinous.

However, it’s also reasonable to believe that any death-penalty-deserving rebels during the eon to come will, after being executed, end up among the corpses referred to in Isaiah 66:24.

I’ll conclude this section with the following two points:

1. The words “their worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched” refer to “the corpses of the mortals who transgressed against [God].”

2. The place where “their worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched” is a place in which corpses will reside.

[3] Interestingly, the famous Greek poet, Homer, said that the Trojans used “unquenchable fire” against the Grecian ships (Iliad 16.123, 194; 1. 599).

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. How could a just God who "remembers that we are flesh" and tells us that our war is "not against flesh and blood" inflict us to not just a lifetime but never ending, eternal torment? To wipe away all tears is to remove all fears.