1. The Bible is Ambiguous About Hell
The first thing that needs to be noted is that the Bible is actually quite ambiguous about the idea of hell. In the Old Testament, there was little thought about an afterlife in some paradisiacal state or heaven. When people died, they simply went to Sheol, the place of the dead, where deceased souls remain in a kind of whispering state (Psalm 6:5; 9:17; 49:14; 139:8). Therefore, God’s blessings pertained mainly to life here on earth (but see Psalm 16:10): Abraham looked for offspring and a promised land here on earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
In the New Testament, the Greek notion of Hades pops up here and there (Revelation 1:18; 20:14). Hades is similar to Sheol. It’s a place of no return for the dead. The idea of Hades is tied to that of Greek mythology. Jesus, however, preferred to use the term Gehenna a term that referred to the Valley of Hinom (cf. Matthew 10:28). Then, in Revelation, there is also a pool of fire in which Hades, unbelievers, devil and Antichrist are thrown (Revelation 20). All in all, too many terms and definitions to be able to speak of a clear definition of hell as a clear concept or real tangible place for the dead.
2. The Idea of Eternal Conscious Torment is At Odds With a God of Love
It has almost become a cliche: a good God cannot possibly tolerate the eternal punishment of sinful beings. While there are all sorts of discussions that can be had around this argument in order to nuance it, such as the concept of time and eternity or the nature of hell, it is at least true that the argument is quite valid. Can you imagine being in heaven and then wake up on day 6,984,561,884 of your time in heaven and say to yourself: “I wonder how my former non-Christian colleague who was an atheist is doing in hell?” This is ridiculous.
Yet, this is the kind of concept of eternity as eternal time that those who favor hell as an eternal place of conscious torment use conceive of hell. So those who oppose this with the argument of a loving God, have a point: such kind of hellish eternal torment is not compatible with a God of pure love. It is a too simplistic thinking about God (cf. Isaiah 55:8). That is not to say that God cannot be angry, or that there cannot be any punishment. It just means that eternal conscious punishment is an unbearable thought, not just to the love of God, but even our simple human love.
3. Jesus Spoke Metaphorically About Judgment
It is very important to understand that Jesus’ talk about hell was metaphorical. A great problem for those who take the Bible literally is that they don’t get it when the Bible employs metaphorical, symbolical or imaginative language. Jesus’ talk about hell is a good point in case. When talking about hell, he spoke about Gehenna (Mark 9:45; Matthew 10:28). Gehenna was common parlance among the Jewish people in that day. Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom which, in Jesus’ time, was the garbage dump in Jerusalem where you could always see smoke from the never-ending fires as well as maggots and worms in whatever was rotting there. So when Jesus warns against ending up in the place where the fires always burn and the worm doesn’t die, he is talking metaphorically about the state of punishment and regret that people will find themselves in if they reject the Son of man. Jesus is not giving some supernatural information about what hell is really like, but he is warning us of punishment and regret that will be the fate of willful wrongdoers.
This is a very controversial statement of course. But when you look at the teaching of Jesus, who spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible, it becomes quickly clear that his audience consisted of believers, not unbelievers. Jesus was evidently concerned that his audience would not take his message all too seriously, that the people who listened to him thought they were okay since they belonged to the people of Israel, or, like the Pharisees, to a sect that observed the priestly laws, or, like the priests and the Sadducees, to the group that was actually in power in Israel (cf. Matthew 23:33). But as soon as non-Jews (Romans, Gentiles, Greeks, let’s say “nonbelievers”) came into the picture any talk of hell immediately stops. The Roman centurion’s faith is praised, the Samaritan women by the well
One could wonder therefore why evangelists today would tempt nonbelievers to make a decision for Jesus by threatening them with hell. Hell is for believers, i.e. for hypocritical believers. Apparently, the danger for believers to become hypocritical is ever so great that hell needs to come into the picture.
5. Revelation Speaks Metaphorically
In the Bible, Jesus’ metaphorical language concerning hell is continued in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation. We know that basically everything said in this book needs to be taken as imagery, metaphor, and/or symbol. We know this because Revelation belongs to a certain genre of literature, Apocalyptic literature, that was in vogue during those days. In Apocalyptic literature all sorts of weird beings appear and the barrier between heaven and earth is obliterated. Numbers take on symbolical significance and places, events, and characters take on a metaphorical function.
The metaphor stretches our mind because it connects things we don’t typically connect. Now, in Revelation, it says that the pool of fire will devour death and Hades (Revelation 20:14). Of course we can’t take this literally. It’s metaphorical. If anything, it might as well mean that the pool of fire will end it all, even eternal torment in hell, since Hades (hell) is thrown into it. In the end we can only guess. Most important lesson: even in an inerrant Bible the metaphor doesn’t give us infallible knowledge but stretches our imagination and confronts us with mystery without solving it for us.
6. Belief In Hell is Believing More than Is Revealed
Those who reject the notion of eternal torment
Rather, God is a God of Hope for the broken-hearted (Matthew 5:3). There are already enough people who have absolutely no need of hell since they already live in it their entire lives. Think of the Yezidi girls in ISIS territory. They are not Christians and are sold and abused as sex slaves by ISIS. Do you really think that God can’t wait to throw them in the actual hell so many Christians believe is prepared for unbelievers once their miserable lives are over? Isn’t it much more likely that the God who cares for widows and orphans is dying (pun intended) to extend his love and comfort to these suffering beings whose lives have been ruined by an evil that has no need of a hell?
This article is part of our 'Explainer' series. The aim is to inform you of the prevalent arguments from both sides, relating to a specific hot topic. We are not explicitly supporting one side of the argument. This is a purely informative piece. You can find the counter-argument article '6 Reasons Why Hell Is Real,' here.