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It's Time For a More Biblical Approach!

Have YOU wondered about hell, hellfire, damnation, condemnation or judgment? Read on for a few surprises!

During the last few years we have experienced Christians making themselves 'laughing stocks' by arguing over Bible translations (a spectacle much appreciated by our enemies), now we have a new argument which a few are unwisely determined to pursue: arguing over the exact nature of hell!

A few years ago Bible-believing Christians came to a sort of loose (but generally recognized) agreement:
Let's quit arguing over denominational distinctions and concentrate purely on fulfilling the Great Commission of Preaching the Gospel to every creature! - the new mood and attitude grew up in the wake of a widespread realization that the older sort of fundamentalists had occasionally not done themselves too many favours by appearing completely disdainful of all scholarship and learning, to say nothing of their apparent eagerness to pursue 'in-house' arguments over some finer points of biblical interpretation.

Impression of hellish flames

The New Testament symbolically compares the utter despair of the eternal separation from God with the flames of the valley of Hinnom, where refuse was burnt up.

Finally, certain men of biblical wisdom perceived that we Bible-believing Christians appeared to the general public to be more interested in pursuing arguments between each other, than in harmoniously joining forces in order to preach the gospel. The result of this honest reappraisal was that Methodists, Anglicans and Baptists (and sometimes even Pentecostals) were able to join forces for evangelistic meetings and crusades, as long as liberalism was rejected and the authority of the Bible upheld. Here in the UK, much of this unspoken evangelistic agreement still holds, but in certain other countries, especially parts of the United States, a new rigid fundamentalism has reasserted itself. As with the older fundamentalism, the new trend has quickly proven to be divisive! The first battleground was Bible translations - some claimed not only that the KJV was the most accurate, but that it was the only English language translation which had been inspired by God! It is extremely easy to disprove this argument, but - very soon - anger, fire and indignation became involved: congregations split - even families split! and, I am told, continue to split over this issue.
Certainly, the Bible translations issue appears to have been especially avoidable and it really is desperately disappointing to note how much division it has caused where there had been great harmony.

Mostly (but not entirely) UK-based and European-based evangelical Christians have not become too embroiled in the translations debate; but now a new debate seems to have come along and, once again, those who just appear to love to court controversy, accusation, and division have quickly jumped onto the 'bandwagon.' As in the case of Bible translations the argument epicenter does not affect anyones walk with God, it does not usually affect one's Statement of Beliefs, it does not affect the need to preach the gospel, and yet (for a few) the approach seems to be 'why let those things hold us back when we have the chance of a really good 'in-house' Christian argument??!!'

The new argument concerns the precise nature of Hell! Let us be clear: the new argument does not concern hell itself - every single one of us knows that the Holy Bible warns about the possibility of judgment and damnation for those who do evil and reject God. But how much are we ever really told about the precise nature of Hell and exactly what it will be like there, within the pages of Scripture?

LET US BE CLEAR ABOUT THIS: we are told almost nothing! Yes, we know that those finally condemned to Hell (I personally believe that it will be few, but some of my fellow evangelicals believe that it will be the overwhelming majority of Mankind), will be eternally separated from God and His love, we know that the Bible appears to depict a sense of ongoing torment with its picture of fire and flames, but we know virtually nothing else! By the way, almost all Bible interpreters have believed that the pictures of flame and fire are purely symbolic, but I came across a fundamentalist website the other day which screamed damnation at anybody who believed that the fire was not 100% literal!! The interesting thing is that this website strongly believes in 'eternal torment' yet cannot see that the insistence on literal fire is a self-defeating argument (if the fire is truly literal, it must eventually burn up everything within it and everything within it will eventually cease to exist).

Since some are determined to take their eyes off the main goal and focus on a subject about which the Bible says so little, perhaps it's time to make a few points about exactly how much the Bible really tells us about Hell:

Since many have the picture that the Bible continually screams out warnings about Hell, one might expect to find the word 'Hell' occurring a few hundred times in such a huge book, one might also expect that Hell would occur more than the word 'Heaven' (since many of those who are most vocal on this subject believe that a huge majority of the human race are headed there unless they repent), well here is a shock (perhaps 'hellfire' enthusiasts should make sure they are sitting down before reading the following!!)

The KJV Uses of 'Hell' Are Often Incorrect

The word 'hell' never occurs in the Old Testament, where the Old Testament is correctly translated. Even the Calvinist Presbyterian scholar Loraine Boettner was quite clear about this,

"The word Hell never occurs in the Old Testament original manuscripts. There are, however, 31 instances in which the King James Version so translates the word Sheol, but in each instance it is a mistranslation."
(Loraine Boettner, Immortality, page 100, Pickering and Inglis, 1958).

How about a comparison with Heaven?

The word 'heaven' occurs in the KJV 568 times (I have not even included or counted the words 'heavens' or 'heavenly'), but the word 'Hell' only occurs in the KJV.......just 54 times!
However, it has for a very long time been recognised that many of those KJV uses of 'Hell' are really mistranslations!! (Not good news for those who believe that the KJV is the only divinely inspired English version). For instance the Hebrew word 'sheol' means, 'grave' or 'pit.' This accounts for 30 of the 54 uses of 'Hell' in the KJV Bible. The Greek word 'gehenna' (the most fearsome form) originally referred to the valley of Hinnom where refuse was burned (hence the association with fire), but came to be seen as the place of 'everlasting punishment,' it only occurs ....(prepare yourselves for a shock)....11 TIMES in the Bible!
The KJV also translates the Greek word 'hades' into 'hell' but hades (like the Hebrew 'sheol') simply refers to the 'grave' or 'pit,' it occurs ten times in the New Testament (admittedly, 'hades' does on a few occasions refer to the place of the commencement of the punishment of the unrighteous, in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, for instance, but nobody remains in hades, all going forward from there to the Final Judgment).
That just leaves the Greek word 'tartaroo' - it occurs just once (in 2 Peter 2:4), it refers to something like 'the lowest part of the abyss' and it does carry something of the sense of eternal torment, but it refers to the place of imprisonment for the angels who rebelled against God. This word is never used in Scripture in connection with the eternal punishment of men and women.

Newer Bible versions have recognised that the KJV certainly erred in its use of the word 'Hell.' But the NKJV decided to only go part of the way in correcting the use of the word Hell; It reduced the use of 'Hell' from the KJV's 54 times to 32 times, but seemed to lack the necessary boldness to really take on the translational problem. But other Bible versions have been bolder: the NIV has reduced the use of 'Hell' to only 14 times (all in the New Testament) and this appears to be about right. The ASV and NASB have both reduced 'Hell' to 13 uses, and the RSV and NRSV reduced it to 12. John Wesley did not use it at all in his New Testament translation, neither did the prodigious scholar Young in Young's Literal Translation (1891).
Indeed, there are now about 40 Bible versions which don't use the word 'Hell' at all! (I am, in this brief analysis, partly indebted to the extensive Bible translation research of Gary Amirault).
Of course, I cannot personally vouch for all of these translations, but this does show that it has been widely recognised that the KJV was often in error in its use of this word, and that the NKJV did not entirely correct the problems of its predecessor.
Of course, many in the 'KJV only' lobby have screamed about the diminishment of the word Hell without getting all the facts first: the plain fact is that many of the KJV uses of 'Hell' are examples of imperfect translation! G.A. Riplinger of the 'KJV only' movement is typical of the flawed approach of this sort, unfortunately her level of knowledge is occasionally highly suspect, for instance, she claims that the Epistle of Barnabas says that "Satan is Lord." It most certainly does not! (for any wanting more in-depth information on the errors of the 'KJV Onlyists' I would recommend 'Will the Real Bible Please Stand Up?).

Other word comparisons are certainly intriguing and do not lead to the results which certain hellfire enthusiasts might expect: For instance, the wonderful word 'salvation' occurs 163 times, but 'damnation' only occurs 10 times and 'damned' occurs three times! Calvinism also came to love that word, 'reprobates' - the "reprobated ones" were those doomed to be forever outside of the grace of God. Reprobate means, 'morally abandoned,' or, 'a reject.' "Reprobation" was the theological term which came to be used for the doctrine concerning those supposedly pre-ordained for hell (even as an admirer of Calvin I must say that this teaching was never biblical. Go Here for a fuller explanation). Yes, 'reprobate' is indeed a KJV word. From the emphasis this word came to enjoy, especially in hyper-Calvinism, one might expect that this KJV word occurs, perhaps, a hundred times in the Scriptures? No. Not a hundred? Well surely it occurs 50, 60 or 70 times? Right? No. Okay, so the word is not that common in the KJV after all, are we looking at just 15 or 20 instances on the word? Nope! In fact, both words 'reprobate' and 'reprobates' occur a grand total of 7 times! The word, 'reprobation' never occurs in Scripture. By the way, if anybody is doubting this information simply use Strong's Concordance to check it all out!

But to return to 'heaven and hell,' since we have seen that 'heaven' is mentioned several hundred times and 'gehenna' only occurs just 11 times, where does this leave the position of those who infer that 'heaven and hell' are biblically presented in roughly equal tension? To say nothing of those certain fundamentalists who believe that pretty much all will go to hell, save for a tiny group (a misunderstanding of the biblical teaching on Election).

Can we at least all agree that the Bible never says enough about Hell for us to resort to civil war on this topic? Yes, we must warn about the possibility of damnation and eternal exclusion from God's presence, but it is utter and sheer folly for Christians to fight over the precise nature of a Hell we know so little about!

Problems With 'Conditional Immortality' Teaching

Some believe that those who are finally damned will simply be destroyed (the teaching of 'Annihilationism' or 'Conditional Immortality'), a number of leading evangelicals have come to support this position including John Stott and the late John Wenham, others (the majority) insist that there will be ever-present torment in a Hell of great unpleasantness for these people. I have to be honest: both positions can muster biblical support, but I truly think that Annihilationists ultimately lose the argument because of their supporting belief that the Christian dead are currently, indeed, dead; it seems to me more scriptural to say that since Christ has defeated the power of death, the souls of the Christian deceased are currently in heaven awaiting the resurrection. See Luke 16:19-23; Luke 23:43; Acts 7:56; Acts 7:59 (Stephen obviously expected to enter heaven upon his death); 2 Corinthians 5:1-8; 2 Corinthians 12:1-4; Philippians 1:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 4:14 (When Christ returns, He will bring the saints with Him - and where is He coming from? Heaven, of course); Revelation 6:9-11 and Revelation 20:4-6. (By the way, Paul plainly does not refer to the resurrection in Philippians 1: 20-26 because he speaks of being separated from his body in order to be with Christ - verse 24. In the resurrection the saints again have bodies. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 too Paul refers to a state of being '..absent from the body and to be present with the Lord,' so the claim of some that these verses simply refer to the resurrection is defeated).
Yet without doubt there are things in this area which we cannot be sure about, but what I am sure about is that it does not matter - eternal exclusion from God is the thing we have to keep warning about!
Christians who subscribe to Annihilationism have a right to their sincerely-held opinion - they are still able to 'sign-up' to most statements of Christian beliefs, they still believe in Hell, but take issue over its precise nature; they remain card-carrying evangelicals and they have every right to their opinion. Unfortunately however, ultimately this is an emotional position (as John Wenham freely admitted) in which sincere people 'come to the rescue' of a God who intends sending almost all to Hell! Far better to allow a bigger scope for God's mercy! Why be so pessimistic about God? Mercy is the most neglected doctrine in the Holy Bible.

But - for sure - it is sheer folly to argue about the precise nature of a Hell which the Bible tells us next to nothing about!

For our part, UK Apologetics believe that very few will finally go to Hell and we can point to a wealth of Scriptures to back up this position, but we remain New Covenant evangelical Christians. Christians should not go to war against each other in these areas, we need to be working harmoniously together to counter the new insidious post-modernism ('there is no inherent meaning to anything') which will increasingly permeate our societies over the coming years and may well ultimately present an even bigger challenge to our beliefs than a fast receding modernism ('all we need is science, and mankind can solve all his problems through that').
Robin A. Brace
2001, slightly edited 2006.

© This article is Copyright Robin A. Brace 2001, 2006. It is forbidden to excerpt this article without our permission in any article, however, you are very welcome to use and quote any part of the entire article as long as proper accreditation is given, including the URL on which the article appears. But you are very free to use the material freely and without any accreditation as sermon material.




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