Section 9B .. The Future
The Problems With The Traditional View of Hell

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What and Where is Hell?
Part V... Symbolism in The New Testament

Because Revelation contains some of the most bizarre imagery found in the Bible, a 'proof text' from these chapters is very suspect. Thus we need to carefully examine the terms 'lake of fire', fire and brimstone, the 'unquenchable fire', and the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" Jesus spoke about.

Carol Brooks

Introduction and Index To All Chapters


The Second Death and The Lake of Fire

Tormented With Fire And Brimstone

‘Unquenchable’ Fire

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth


New Testament Symbolism
When it comes to symbolism the book of Revelation has no peers.

The book is steeped in imagery and uses a bewildering and sometimes weird array of symbols - angels with trumpets and bowls, beasts emerging from the sea, locusts shaped like horses with tails like scorpions, waters turning to blood, a bottomless pit, dragons with seven heads, a woman sitting on a scarlet beast etc.

The language and style of apocalyptic literature in general, and Revelation in particular, was not literal but always highly dramatic in order to present the enormous spiritual realities it was trying to portray. The situations depicted were often deliberately exaggerated and (in some cases) even bizarre, in order that the message was not mistaken or underestimated.

One has to bear in mind that both the language and style of apocalyptic literature were probably quite familiar to the original readers, who would have read and understood the language of myth as easily as the modern reader reads and understands a political cartoon in the newspapers. Revelation was probably not only easy to understand, but extremely meaningful to the people of the day..

So a 'proof text' drawn from these chapters is very suspect.

The Second Death and The Lake of Fire
We tend to think of death as pretty final, but there are four passages in the book of Revelation which speak of the "second death" and also tells us who will die a second time 

    "the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars will see the second death (Gr. thanatos) (Revelation 21:8)

And when does this 'second death' occur?

Remember that, at the Seventh Trumpet, dead believers are reunited with their bodies - what the Bible calls the "first resurrection" in Revelation 20:5. They, together with those believers who are still alive, will be taken off the earth to protect them from the final phase of God's wrath - The Seven Bowls. These Bowls will annihilate man from the face of the earth- their spirits consigned to Hades for a thousand years. Believers, on the other hand, will return to earth with Christ and live in peace for the millennium - the thousand years of Christ's rule on earth.

After the thousand years are completed and a couple of other events take place, the rest of the dead come to life (Revelation 20:5-6). This means their bodies will be temporarily reunited with their spirits and they will be judged at the White Throne according to their deeds . 

    Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death (Gr. thanatos), the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11-14 NASB)

These passages specifically ties death and Hades together and say that both will be cast into the lake of fire. This only makes sense. Since no one will die in God's kingdom, there will be no need of Sheol/Hades. However, it also brings up several questions

Are we to take the statement "death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire" to mean that God physically picks up this place called Hades and chucks it into a fire? Or should we understand that the terminology is a symbolic but vivid illustration of the annihilation of Hades and the unredeemed.

    In any case, if Hades is an eternal fiery hell, how can it possibly be cast into the Lake of Fire? 

    And what happened to Gehenna or is it supposed to be the Lake of Fire?

    Finally if, as many believe, people burn forever in this lake of fire, how can it be termed the second "death".

You do of course realize that someone has to die before you can say there is a death.

And someone does.

If you were paying attention you would have noticed that, in Revelation 20:14 above, John used the Greek word thanatos or total destruction - a word that anyone who has read the previous chapter should be quite familiar with. In fact, thanatos is used in all four verses that speak of the 'second death'. Here are the other three.

    "He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death (Gr. thanatos).' (Revelation 2:11),

    "the second death (Gr. thanatos) has no power" over those who were part of the first resurrection (Revelation 20:6)

    Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death (Gr. thanatos) , the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14 NASB)

Tormented With Fire And Brimstone
One commonly quoted passage in favour of the traditional viewpoint comes from the book of Revelation which says...

    Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." (Revelation 14:9-11 NASB)

This verse, perhaps more than any other, comes the closest to supporting the traditional view of Hell. However, one verse does not a doctrine make, especially when that verse comes from the highly symbolic book of Revelation. To avoid dangerous mistakes, Christians must consider the whole counsel of God when formulating doctrine. Also See Context is Crucial

The imagery of fire and brimstone comes from Genesis 19:24 that says "the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven". Jude 7 tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah served as as example of undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. The problem being that there is no perpetually burning fire on the southern tip of the Dead Sea where these two cites once existed. What actually happened is that they suffered a fiery destruction that had eternal consequences.

In any case, notice that this passage from Revelation does not speak of anyone being eternally tormented. It says "the smoke of their torment" ascends forever that vividly expresses the idea that, just like Edom and Sodom and Gomorrah, the sentence passed on the unrepentant sinner will be permanent.

However, Jesus was not exactly shy about using symbolism.

‘Unquenchable’ Fire

A couple of passages are quoted in support of the unending fire that cannot be quenched. The first one refers to the events at the Seventh Trumpet repeated by both Matthew and Luke.

    "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 NASB)

 Mark 9:43-47 pretty much duplicates the message in Matthew 5:29-30. However, Mark adds some detail, which he often did in his Gospel (either Mark himself, or his source had an extremely good memory and an eye for detail). He speaks about the fire of Gehenna being unquenched which is commonly taken to mean that the sinner is destined to burn forever in a fire that cannot be put out.

    If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell (Gehenna), into the unquenchable (Gr. asbestos) fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched (Gr. sbennumi).  "If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell (Gehenna), [where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched (Gr. sbennumi) "If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell (Gehenna), (Mark 9:43-47 NASB)

John the Baptist, the man chosen to herald the coming of the Saviour, also spoke about an unquenchable fire.

    As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable (Gr. asbestos) fire." (Matthew 3:11-12 NASB)

An ‘Unquenchable Fire’ in The Old Testament
What we really need to do is pay attention to how many times an 'unquenchable fire' is mentioned in the Old Testament and how it is used. Numerous prophets in the Old Testament spoke of the Lord's anger as an unquenchable fire, i.e.

    "Because they have forsaken Me and have burned incense to other gods that they might provoke Me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore My wrath burns against this place, and it shall not be quenched."' (2 Kings 22:17 NASB)

    Therefore thus says the Lord God, "Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched (Heb. kâbâh)." (Jeremiah 7:20 NASB)

    "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Or else My wrath will go forth like fire And burn with none to quench (Heb. kâbâh) it, Because of the evil of your deeds."  (Jeremiah 4:4 NASB)

    O house of David, thus says the Lord : "Administer justice every morning; And deliver the person who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor, That My wrath may not go forth like fire And burn with none to extinguish (Heb. kâbâh) it, Because of the evil of their deeds. (Jeremiah 21:12 NASB)

Perhaps the passages that best clarify this concept are in the book of Isaiah, in which he prophesies that Edom would be permanently turned into a "burning pitch", the smoke from which would ascend for ever, since this fire can never be quenched.

    Edom: Its streams will be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land will become burning pitch. It will not be quenched night or day; Its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; None will pass through it forever and ever. (Isaiah 34:9-10 NASB)

    The Forest Of The Negev: and say to the forest of the Negev (Heb. negeb), 'Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. "All flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched."' (Ezekiel 20:47-48 NASB)

The ancient land of Edom is in, what is now, southwestern Jordan, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba [03]. If there was a place in the area where literal smoke rises up night and day, it would have been a scientific anomaly, which we would have all heard about. There is no literal smoke or burning pitch, anywhere in the south of Jordan. And no blazing flames in the Negev.

So, obviously, God was using metaphoric language, which graphically expressed the idea that the sentence passed on Edom would be permanent.

 So why exactly are the 'unquenchable fires' in the Old Testament symbolic, but the 'unquenchable fires' in the New Testament literal?

Dismember Ourselves?
That this symbolism  is carried over into the New Testament is well demonstrated by the passage in Matthew 5:29-30, in which Jesus instructs us to gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands or feet, if any of these organs cause us to stumble.

    "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. "If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30 NASB)

Christians understand that Jesus was not telling us to literally dismember ourselves, but very graphically emphasizing the seriousness of sin. Once again - 'common sense'.

Their Worm Does Not Die
When Jesus said "their worm does not die", He was quoting Isaiah 66:23-24.

    "Then they will go forth and look On the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm (Heb. tôlâ) will not die and their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind." (Isaiah 66:24 NASB)

I do not think anyone can be sure exactly what either Jesus or Isaiah meant when they spoke of a worm that does not die however, since all worms die it seems that, once again, the language is metaphoric used to graphically illustrate the permanent sentence passed on transgressors.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
One of the things Jesus said was

    but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing (Gr. brugmos) of teeth." (Matthew 8:12 NASB)

Proponents of eternal suffering claim that the weeping and gnashing of teeth signify pain and suffering. In fact, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon gives us a clear example of how they can twist any and everything to conform to their point of view. The lexicon says that is used, and I quote

      to denote extreme anguish and utter despair of men consigned to eternal punishment in hell

So let’s look at other less biased sources including the Bible itself

1) What 'Gnashing' Means.
According to several English dictionaries, the word Gnash means to express a strong emotion, usually rage

    If you say that someone is gnashing their teeth, you mean they are angry or frustrated about something. (English Collins Dictionary)

    to show you are angry or annoyed about something bad that you cannot do anything to stop (thefreedictionary.com)

    "to grind or strike the teeth together, a grinding or grating together of the teeth in rage or anguish." (Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary)

This definition is clearly supported by the Scriptures that provide no evidence of anyone gnashing their teeth in pain as Strong's claims. Much to the contrary, both Testaments consistently use the word in connection with anger In fact, it is used several times in the Old Testament to express the idea of a ferocious enemy. For example,

    "His anger has torn me and hunted me down, He has gnashed at me with His teeth; My adversary glares at me. (Job 16:9 NASB)

    All your enemies Have opened their mouths wide against you; They hiss and gnash their teeth. They say, "We have swallowed her up! Surely this is the day for which we waited; We have reached it, we have seen it." (Lamentations 2:16 NASB)

The Greek word brugmos (gnashing) was only used by the Savior. However, Brugmos is derived from the verb brucho that occurs only once in the New Testament. When Stephen was allowed to answer the trumped up charge of blasphemy, he accused the council of being stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, and of resisting the Holy Spirit. Stephen also said they murdered the prophets who announced the coming of the Righteous One and murdered Him too. Verse 54 goes on to say

    Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing (Gr. brucho) their teeth at him. (Acts 7:54 NASB)

Stephen's persecutors immediately went on to stone him to death so, quite obviously, they were filled with rage not remorse, which completely agrees with the Old Testament portrayal of "gnashing" and the English dictionary's definition of the word.

While there is no question that Jesus also said the people in outer darkness were weeping, people weep for many reasons. When the two emotions are combined, one gets the impression that the damned cry bitter tears, and grind their teeth in fury.

2) The Circumstances.
Jesus said people gnashed their teeth when they were

    Cast into "outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30 )

    Cast into "the furnace of fire". (Matthew 13:42, 50)

    Cut asunder. (Matthew 24:51)  

    Cast without. (Luke 13:28)

Since 1) "outer darkness" and "the furnace of fire" cannot both be the destination of the unsaved and 2) anyone who is "cut in pieces" would have a hard time gnashing their teeth, it should be more that obvious that Jesus was making a point, not literally describing future conditions.

    the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:50-51 NASB)

Which brings us to more of Jesus' words that we have taken literally rather than as a strong warning couched in vivid images. Sadly, most assume that the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus is a literal description of hell.


Continue on To PART VI- The Rich Man and Lazarus
If this parable was meant to be literal how do we explain the numerous anti-Biblical details it contains. Lets see - we do one of two things - either gloss over the difficulties or, based on preconceived ideas, decide which parts of the story are literal and which are not. This is not exactly how the Bible should be interpreted. Because we have not made the effort to grasp the overall message of what Jesus was saying in the section, we have jumped to conclusions that support what we have already decided to believe.  HERE



Chapter 4 - Those Overlooked Greek Words

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