|Topical Bible Study||March 1959|
The Bible versus Tradition—Article III
Death the Penalty—Not Torment
“The Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.” —Isaiah 29:13
ONE of the widespread blights upon the religious thinking of the world is the fear complex. Fear darkens the mind and hinders one from attaining a knowledge of the true God of love revealed to us in the Bible. Almost universally fear is employed by the proponents of religion as a means of making converts and as a motive for belief and righteous living. Our text emphasizes that this is wrong, that fear toward God is induced by the precepts of men, and by those who, in their hearts, come far short of really knowing the true God of the Bible, and of worshiping him in spirit and in truth.
One of the traditions of men which has contributed greatly to this unholy fear in the professed Christian world is the false teaching that the divine penalty for sin is eternal torture, and that those who die without accepting Christ are doomed to this fiery hell of torment, where they will have to suffer excruciating pain throughout the endless ages of eternity. Thinking minds revolt at the very thought of this devilish and blasphemous teaching, yet it is still believed by millions, and they insist that it is taught in the Bible. People who themselves are kind, sympathetic and forgiving, and who would give their lives to prevent their own children from being tortured, regardless of how wayward they might be, do not hesitate to teach that the God of all mercy and love will torture countless millions of his creatures forever in the most excruciating fashion.
The supporters of the eternal torture “precept” seem sincere in their belief that it is taught in the Bible, so let us examine the Word of God in order to ascertain what its testimony really is concerning the divine penalty for sin. Obviously, the proper place to begin this examination is with the Book of Genesis, with its record of the creation, transgression, and fall of man. We can rest assured that whatever God there stated to be the penalty for transgressing his law has never been changed, for God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
The first mention we have in the Bible of punishment for sin is in Genesis 2:16,17. This passage reads, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The marginal translation reads, “dying thou shalt die,” meaning that if Adam disobeyed he would at once begin to die, and finally succumb and return to the dust from which he was taken.
Certainly the Lord explained very clearly just what the penalty for sin would be, and there seems no good reason for misunderstanding his words. But they have been misunderstood, and grossly false teachings have been based upon them. Death, it is claimed, does not mean death as we know it, but separation from God in a hell of fire and torment. By attaching this false meaning to the word death, the entire testimony of the Bible on this subject becomes confused and distorted.
For example, when a person is convinced that death means torment, Paul’s statement, “The wages of sin is death,” means that “the wages of sin is torment.” And when he further wrote that “the gift of God is eternal life,” it means that the gift of God is escape from eternal torture; for according to this distorted tradition there is no actual death—all must live eternally regardless of belief or disbelief, the difference being that the believer lives in heaven and the unbeliever in a hell of torture.
Origin of Error
The question naturally arises as to how such a misconception of plain words came about. The origin of this false tradition was in the Garden of Eden. While God said plainly to father Adam, “Thou shalt surely die,” “that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan,” later said to mother Eve, “Ye shalt not surely die.” (Rev. 20:1; Gen. 3:4) Here was a denial of God’s truth, a falsehood that has been responsible for many of the false teachings in the world from that day until now.
We are not told what Satan may have had in mind when he thus charged God with a falsehood. He may have imagined that he could thwart the divine purpose of inflicting the death penalty. If so, when he discovered that the human race was actually dying he began his campaign of deception, which has induced practically the whole world to believe that death is not what it really is, that actually “there is no death”—“Ye shall not surely die.”
Just as in ordinary human relations one falsehood leads to another, so it is in the realm of religion. Since it was claimed that death was not death, but merely the entrance into another room, a “torture room” had to be conceived for the wicked, and the creed-makers allowed their imaginations to work very freely, deciding that God would surely want to torture unbelievers forever.
But, thank God, this is not the teaching of the Bible! It is a “precept of men” by which those possessing zeal without knowledge have endeavored to frighten unbelievers into repentance. True, the Bible does teach that there is a hell; but the hell of the Bible is not eternal torture, but the state of death, so that the united testimony of the entire Bible is that “the wages of sin is death.”—Rom. 6:23
Hell in the Old Testament
The original manuscripts of the Old Testament were written in the Hebrew language, and in the Old Testament there is only one Hebrew word which is translated “hell.” This is the word sheol. This Hebrew word appears sixty-five times in the Old Testament, but it is not always translated “hell.” Thirty-one times it is translated “grave,” and three times “pit.” In the Revised Version it is left untranslated.
How does the Bible define this Hebrew word sheol? Ecclesiastes 9:10 reads, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in sheol whither thou goest.” Here are the words of the wisest man mentioned in the Old Testament, one who also wrote under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, and he informs us that there is “no work, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in sheol.” If language has any meaning at all, this explanation means that sheol, the only hell of the Old Testament, is a state of complete unconsciousness.
The Prophet Job evidently understood the matter in the same way, for when he was suffering physical pain from head to foot, and being mentally tortured by his would-be comforters, who actually were accusing him falsely of gross sin, he asked God to let him die and go to sheol where he could be at rest. Job said to God, “O that thou wouldest hide me in sheol, that thou wouldest keep me in secret, until thy wrath be past.”—Job 14:13
Traditionally, hell is a place where God visits his wrath upon sinners, by means of cruel tortures, but here in the Bible we find a righteous servant of God asking that he be allowed to die and go to the Bible hell—sheol—in order to escape God’s wrath. How terribly the traditions of men have distorted the truth of the Word of God!
The “wrath” of God mentioned here by Job is the penalty of death which rests upon the whole world of mankind. Incident to the carrying out of this penalty there is much suffering, and Job wanted to fall asleep in death until the time came in the plan of God when the penalty would be removed. He knew that in “sheol,” the Bible hell, there would be no pain.
The Hebrew word sheol is again used in Psalm 16:10. This is a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which we are assured that Jesus’ soul would not be left in hell, in sheol. On the Day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter quoted this prophecy, and in his quotation used the Greek word hades to translate the Hebrew word sheol. From this we know that it has the same meaning as sheol. The Greek word hades is the one most frequently translated hell in the New Testament.
It is this word that is used in Revelation 1:18, where Jesus informs us that he has “the keys of hell”—hades. It is also the Greek word used by Jesus when he spoke of “the gates of hell” which would not prevail against the church. (Matt. 16:18) Hades is also the Greek word used in Revelation 20: 13, where we are informed that “hell” will give up its dead. In verse 14 of this same chapter we are assured that “hell”—hades—is to be destroyed, that it will be cast into “the lake of fire, … the second death.” Tradition would have us believe that the lake of fire is hell, but according to this text, hell is destroyed in the “lake of fire,” fire being used here to symbolize destruction.
The Rich Man in Hell
In Luke 16:19-31 we have Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this parable the Greek word hades is again used. We are told that the rich man died, and that in hades he lifted “up his eyes, being in torments.” The advocates of the torment tradition have seized upon this to prove their point. They insist that this is not a parable, but a literal statement of facts. However, the only thing in the parable they actually believe is the word “torment.”
The torture tradition is associated with the belief that the righteous go to heaven when they die and the wicked go to hell. But this is not taught in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It does not say that the rich man was wicked. No advocate of the torment “precept” believes that a person will be tormented forever simply because he was rich when he died, yet the parable says nothing more about this “certain rich man” than that he fared sumptuously every day and allowed beggars to eat the crumbs which fell from his table.
Nor does the parable teach that the righteous go to heaven when they die. The beggar is not said to be righteous. No advocate of eternal torture believes that being a beggar qualifies one for an eternity of bliss in heaven.
Besides, the parable does not say that the beggar went to heaven. Instead, it declares that he was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. We doubt if there has ever been an advocate of the torment theory who believed that at death a person is carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. To our knowledge, no one believes this. Besides, it could not be true, for Abraham’s bosom decayed and returned to the dust thousands of years ago.
Nor has anyone ever believed that throughout the centuries there have been rich men in torment asking beggars in Abraham’s bosom to send them a drop of water to cool their tongues. These details are definitely not believed by even the most ardent teachers of the torment theory. This parable is seized upon to teach this God-dishonoring tradition only because it contains the word “torment.” But in order to make use of it in this way, it is taken completely out of its setting and given a meaning which Jesus himself never intended.
We will not here discuss the meaning of all the details of this wonderful parable, referring the reader instead to our booklet, “The Truth About Hell,” a free copy of which will be sent to anyone who requests it. We understand that the rich man of this parable is symbolic of the Jewish nation, the riches of which consisted of the favors and blessings of God. The beggar, we understand, symbolized the Gentiles, who up until the time of Jesus did not enjoy the favor of God, although many individual Gentiles were glad to partake of some of the “crumbs” of favor that fell from the rich man’s “table.”
Shortly after Jesus uttered this parable, both these symbolic men “died” to the position which they then occupied. Calamity came upon the Jewish nation, and the nation, as such, was destroyed. The position of the Gentiles also changed. No longer were the riches of God’s favor withheld from the Gentiles. Dying to this situation, they were carried to Abraham’s bosom; that is, they had the privilege by faith of becoming the children of Abraham, and of inheriting the promises which God made to him.
And with the change of Israel’s status, these natural descendants of Abraham became a persecuted people. Throughout all the centuries since, until very recent years, the fires of persecution have raged unremittingly around them. While in hades—and therefore dead as a nation—as individuals they have suffered much, and time and again have appealed to the favored Gentiles for help, but with little or no result.
This fire of persecution was foretold by the Lord, through Moses, who said concerning the Israelites, “I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be: for they are a very forward generation, children in whom is no faith. They have moved me to jealousy … and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell [sheol—hades], and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains. I will heap mischief upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them. They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction.”—Deut. 32:20-24
It is clear that the “fire” referred to in this prophecy is symbolic, not literal, for the Lord said, “They shall be burnt with hunger.” When Jesus spoke of the “rich man” in hades, it is quite possible that he had this very prophecy in mind, stating that the troubles coming upon Israel would burn unto the “lowest hell,” completely destroying them as a nation. And within a few years after Jesus uttered this prophetic parable, destructive trouble did come upon the nation. Their city and temple were destroyed, and the people scattered to the far corners of the earth. While, as a nation, Israel has been in the oblivion of hades, as a people they have suffered the torments of persecution.
And it is interesting to note in this connection that Jesus said nothing about the flames of persecution continuing for eternity. The prophecies foretold—and we are now seeing these prophecies fulfilled—that the sunshine of divine favor would again shine upon this historic people of God, and that through agencies of the kingdom of Christ they would be honored and blessed.
In some instances the word hell in the New Testament is a translation of the Greek word Gehenna. Gehenna was a deep ravine outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem where the refuse of the city was burned. In the Old Testament it is referred to as the Valley of Hinnom. Carcasses of dead animals were burned in the fires of Gehenna and at times the human corpse of a criminal considered unworthy of a resurrection.
Jesus used Gehenna as a symbol of the utter and lasting destruction of the willfully wicked. It is this Greek word that is translated hell in Matthew 10:28, which reads, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].” It is clear from this statement by Jesus that Gehenna symbolizes destruction, not torment. All agree to the reality of bodily death, and Jesus speaks of the soul being killed, or destroyed, in the same manner.
The possibility of the soul, or being, living after the body is destroyed is because there is to be a resurrection of the dead. Those who are to be awakened from the sleep of death are spoken of in the Bible as merely being asleep. But those who willfully oppose God and righteousness are utterly destroyed in death, represented by Jesus as the destruction not only of the body, but of the very being, or soul.
The Greek word Gehenna is also used in Mark 9:47,48. This passage reads, “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell [Gehenna] fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” In searching the Scriptures for some proof of the torture “precept,” this statement has been seized upon, even though no mention is made of torture.
Here the “proof” is in Jesus’ reference to worms which do not die, and to unquenchable fire. The “worms,” it is claimed, are in reality the souls of the wicked, forgetting that in Matthew 10:28 Jesus states specifically that souls which are cast into Gehenna are killed, or destroyed. They do not remain alive.
Actually, of course, if it were not for the torture dogma, which darkens the mind and distorts reason, no one would for a moment think that Jesus is teaching here that the wicked will be tormented in Gehenna forever. As elsewhere, he is using Gehenna as a symbol of destruction, the worms being a reference to the maggots which always infest and devour dead carcasses. They are ever present when flesh is exposed to the elements.
Any fire that completely consumes that which it burns is unquenchable. For example, when a building is burning and the fire cannot be extinguished, we could properly speak of it as an unquenchable fire. However, this “unquenchable fire” dies out and ceases to be when there is nothing more to consume. Why should we misuse expressions of this sort to prove that God will mercilessly torment sinners forever?
“The Gift of God”
As we have seen, Paul wrote that “the wages of sin is death,” not torment. To this he added, “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23) Life and death are the two alternatives presented to us in the Word of God, not bliss in heaven and torment in hell. God warned Adam that death would be the penalty for disobedience, so when he disobeyed he was sentenced to death. This plunged the whole race into death, because all have been born in a dying condition. “By man came death,” wrote Paul, and “by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” To this Paul added, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”—I Cor. 15:21,22
The receiving of life through Christ will be by means of a resurrection of the dead. Believers in this age receive life by faith, but it will be in the resurrection that faith will be rewarded with actual life—immortality for those who prove to be faithful followers of the Master in this present Gospel age. These will live and reign with Christ and, during the thousand years of his kingdom, will be associated with him in dispensing the blessings of life to “all families of the earth.”—Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:27-29
The general resurrection of all the dead is described in Revelation 20:13 as a returning from hell, or hades. When Jesus died as the world’s Redeemer he purchased, as it were, the “keys of hell,” and he will use these “keys” to set death’s captives free. After his resurrection Jesus said, “I am he that liveth and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen: and have the keys of hell and of death.”—Rev. 1:18
Jesus told Peter that the “gates of hell [hades]” would not prevail against the church. (Matt. 16:18) Paul explains that the “church”—from the Greek word ekklesia, meaning called out ones—is composed of those who are baptized into Christ, and who accept his headship over them. In Galatians 3:27-29 these are referred to as being “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” The promise to Abraham was that his “seed” would bless all the families, or nations, of the earth.—Gen. 12:3; 22:18
But all the families of the earth are either dead or dying. These can be blessed with life only by being raised from the dead, and Jesus assured us that this would be accomplished, that the “gates of hell” would not forever hold death’s prisoners, that Jesus, who has the “keys,” together with his true followers, will throw open the “gates.” It will be then that hell will give up its dead.
But this does not mean that all mankind is assured of enjoying everlasting life. It means only that all will be released from the sentence of death that was entered against Adam and his children. Released from this, they will be given an opportunity as individuals to obey God’s law and live forever. Those who do not obey will be destroyed from among the people. (Acts 3:23) Then the “precepts” of men which have engendered fear will also be destroyed.