What About Hell?

By Tom McGovern


QUESTION: How do you define hell? There are lots of scriptures in the Old Testament that talk about hell, like Ps 86:13, 88:3; while Ecc 9:5-6 shows us that the dead are conscious of nothing. Where is there a scripture which says, "if we won't obey God then we will burn in hell"?


On the question of hell, I would start out by saying that I do not consider hell to be an essential doctrine for one's salvation. I think that true believers can differ on the meaning of hell. However, I think that the Bible's position is pretty clear that hell is a place of eternal conscious experience of the wrath of God.

The usage that groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists make of Ecclesiastes 9:5,6 to demonstrate that people are unconscious after they die, is not legitimate. It is pulled out of its context and used as a proof text.

The entire book of Ecclesiastes deals with life as it is experienced "under the sun" (Eccl. 1:3, 1:9, 1:14, 2:17, 3:16, 8:9, 9:3, 9:6, 9:9 and many other verses in the book).

Ecclesiastes is not intended as a treatise on the spiritual aspects of man's existence. Rather, it was written to show the futility of man's existence apart from God. If we are to apply the verses in the absolute and literal way that the Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists do, then we must also conclude from verse 6 that there is no resurrection, since it says, "forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun."

Read the rest of the chapter (the rest of the whole book, in fact) and you will see that many things are stated that are not true from the viewpoint of a servant of God. The writer is describing life from a purely human, earthly viewpoint. The dead certainly know nothing of what is going on in this world and have no part in its activities; that does not mean that they do not exist consciously elsewhere.

The verses you cited from the Psalms don't seem all that relevant to the discussion, since they don't actually speak about the state of those in Sheol, they simply mention someone going there, or being "near" to going there.

However, there are several OT verses that do indicate consciousness on the part of those in Sheol:

Isaiah 14:9, 10 says, "Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations.  All of them will answer and say to you: 'You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!'"

If those in Sheol are "greeting" a new arrival and speaking to such a one, they must not be unconscious. 

Similarly, Ezekiel 32:21-27 speaks of the "mighty chiefs" speaking "out of the midst of Sheol". It also says those in Sheol "bear shame". How does one "speak" and "bear shame" if he is unconscious?

Jonah, too, says "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried." Many commentators believe that Jonah actually died in the belly of the fish, and that he was raised to life again by God. Whether that is the case or not, how does one cry from Sheol, if Sheol simply means non-existence?

The use of sleep as a metaphor for death also does not prove the cessation of consciousness when someone dies. Really, the parallel between sleep and death should be obvious, since the body of a dead person can look very much as if the person were asleep. The fact that the body is sleeping does not mean that the person is sleeping; rather Paul describes the body as "our earthly home", as a "tent" in which we "groan" for "our heavenly dwelling". He says that "while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord ... and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:1-9). Elsewhere, Paul writes to Philippian Christians, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account" (Phil. 1:21-24).

Notice the contrast that Paul is drawing: between living "in the flesh", and departing to "be with Christ". Apparently one can depart the flesh -- go "away from the body" -- and still be conscious of his presence with Christ.

Likewise, when Stephen was being stoned to death, he did not expect to go into unconsciousness; rather he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59).

The Watchtower defines "spirit" as an impersonal life-force, but that is because they must do so in order to make verses like this fit their theology. The Bible never describes the human spirit in such a way.

Jesus was explicit about hell at Matthew 10:28: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Notice that the soul is described as being distinct from the body. The soul is not the whole person, and while humans can kill the body, they cannot harm the soul. Only God can do that.

The nature of the "destruction" of the soul is seen to be eternal in the prophecy about the "sheep and goats" in Matthew 25: 31-46. After describing the separation of the saved from the unsaved, verse 46 says "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." The expression is exactly parallel. The punishment of the unsaved is of the same duration as the reward of the saved.

Earlier in the same chapter (verse 30), Jesus spoke of the "worthless servant" being cast into "outer darkness", which clearly seems to indicate the place of punishment of the wicked, and says, "In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." There is no weeping and gnashing of teeth among persons who have been annihilated. One must be suffering consciously to weep and gnash the teeth.

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) also indicates the idea of torment in hell (Hades, in this case). I know that the Watchtower teaches that this story is merely a parable, but there are a number of difficulties with that position. The account is not referred to as a parable in the text, as many other parables are. Also, this would be the only parable of Jesus in which a character is given a personal name. But the most difficult thing about the idea of the story being a parable is, if hell is just a pagan teaching that was later absorbed into the church as the JWs claim, why would Jesus use a pagan teaching to illustrate a spiritual truth? Wouldn't He just be setting people up to believe a falsehood?

I've gone on pretty long here, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more texts in the Bible that indicate that the soul does not become unconscious at death, and many others that talk about hell as a place where people are conscious and suffering. ... But as I said at the beginning of this essay, I don't think that understanding the exact nature of hell is essential to our salvation. I think that we can all agree that, whether hell means annihilation or eternal punishment, we don't want to go there. And the answer for that is in the Person of Jesus Christ, who lived a perfect life and died on behalf of men for their sins.

Here is the "Good News" as the Bible expresses it:

"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you -- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures". (1 Cor. 15:1-4)

We are saved by faith, not works, and Jesus Christ Himself must be the object of our faith. We must repent of our sins (repentance = Greek, metanoia, "a change of mind") and place our absolute trust in Him. We must despair of any idea that we can be saved on our own, by our own works or accomplishments. I pray that everyone reading this will experience this great salvation.


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The Hope of a Believer

By Tom McGovern


The day will come for every human being when this physical life will end. For some, it may come after a long and fulfilling life; others will die far too young and after facing much difficulty. The idea of one's own approaching death has been a source of great fear for many. For some, the fear increases as the time draws nearer. For many, the reason for fear is simply that of the unknown. Those who have no hope in Christ have no certainty as to what will follow this life. They may wonder whether there is a future existence at all and, if there is, feel uncertainty as to whether that existence will be pleasant or terrifying.

Those who do trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness of their sins, however, have an assurance of life after death. He said, "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24). To fully appreciate the promise that Jesus has made in this verse, we need to understand what death really is and how He overcomes it for us.

What Death Is

There are three somewhat different uses of the word "death" in the Bible. Each of them deals in some way with a separation. We can describe these three types of death as physical death, present spiritual death and ultimate spiritual death. [1]

Physical death is the death of the body, in which the soul (or spirit) [2] separates from the physical body. This is the usage with which most people are familiar.

Present spiritual death relates to the spiritual condition of those who are not in a present relationship with Jesus Christ. They are separated from God by their sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1-3). This is the natural condition of all humans at birth: biologically alive, but spiritually dead. It is only by God's grace that we are "born again" and given spiritual life by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-7). When this happens, we are no longer separated from God but have become united with Him through Jesus Christ.

Ultimate spiritual death is the continuation of spiritual death in those who never in their lives come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They are ultimately and eternally separated from God, and become subject to what the Bible calls the "second death". They are confined to a place referred to by the Greek word gehenna; this is what the Bible normally refers to as "hell". There they will spend eternity experiencing God's wrath without access to His grace, which they rejected in life.

When Death Comes

When an unbeliever dies, the Bible tells us that he goes to a place called hades. This is a Greek word used in both pagan culture and in Christianity to signify a place to which one goes after death. In Scripture, it is seen to be a horrible place (Luke 16:19-31). Some Christians see the flames of torment as being literal, but others view them as being in some way figurative -- however all agree that hades is not a pleasant place to be. One need only think about all the ways in which God showers common grace upon mankind and then imagine all of it being removed to understand that separation from Him would be torment indeed.

For those who have trusted in Christ, the prospect is much brighter. The souls of believers go immediately upon death into the presence of Christ. Paul looked forward to his own death in a positive way, writing, "We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8).

He also wrote of his desire "to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (Phil. 1:23). It seems evident from Paul's writing that, even though a believer exists without a physical body at this time, he is in a state preferable to man's present existence. He will be conscious and in the presence of the Lord, and thus in a happy condition. This form of existence is referred to by theologians as the "intermediate state", however, because it is not the ultimate state that God intends for man.

The Nature of the Resurrection

God did not create man with the intent that he would exist for a short time in a physical body, and then spend eternity as a disembodied spirit. We are informed in Genesis 2:7 that "the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." It was the whole man, body and spirit that was created by God and it is the whole person who will live eternally. For this to happen, God must raise the physical body from the dead at some future point in time.

With reference to believers, Paul writes extensively about the nature of the resurrection body in 1 Cor. 15. We learn that there is continuity between the original body that died and the resurrection body. To illustrate this, Paul uses the example of a seed that grows into a mature plant; the plant is not the seed or vice versa, yet the plant develops from the seed and there is physical continuity between the two. Similarly, the resurrection body in some way has continuity from the original body, but is far superior (1 Cor. 15:35:38). The old body is "sown" perishable, dishonorable, weak, and is raised up imperishable, in honor and power (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

Paul refers to the resurrection body as a "spiritual body", but this does not imply that believers are raised as immaterial, incorporeal spirits. The apostle John writes that "when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). This informs us that our resurrection bodies will be like the body of Jesus, which was raised physically from the dead and glorified. In His post-resurrection appearances, Jesus could be touched (John 20:24-29), could eat food (Luke 24: 42, 43) and, on at least one occasion, specifically assured His disciples that He was not a spirit (Luke 24:39). At the same time, Jesus was able to do many things in His glorified body that would be impossible for a non-glorified physical body. He could enter a room with a closed door (John 20:19, 26). He could disappear before the eyes of onlookers (Luke 24:30, 31). He could ascend through the air in going back to heaven and disappear into the clouds (Acts 1:9). Jesus' post-resurrection body is the sole example that we have of what Paul calls a "spiritual" body, and Christians have the hope of one day having a body like His. As Paul writes, "if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you" (Romans 8:11).

In the case of unbelievers, the Bible is not as specific. It does state that unbelievers as well as believers will be raised from the dead (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15), but gives us little in the way of detail about the nature of their bodies. We may speculate that they will be provided with bodies adequate to the sort of judgment to which God has raised them.

The Time of the Resurrection

The timing of the resurrection is a question about which sincere Christians may disagree. In general terms, we can state that Christians are raised from the dead at the time of Christ's return. Paul tells us, "the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever" (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17). At this time, the souls who have been in the presence of Christ since their deaths will be reunited with their resurrected and glorified bodies, once again becoming as God intended them to be.

Various scholars have attempted to work out differing chronologies for the return of Christ, placing His return for His church before, in the middle of or after the "Tribulation period" spoken of in prophecy. While such matters may be of interest, they are not significant to the foundational hope of the Christian: to be raised in a glorified body at the return of Christ and to be with Him forever. This hope is firm, regardless of which timetable is the correct one.

Blessed Assurance

Because we have this firm hope, there is no need for a Christian to fear death. Death will come to each of us and the Bible rightly refers to it as an enemy, since it represents the result of sin and interrupts our lives as God intended them to be. But it is an enemy that has been conquered (1 Cor. 15:54-57). Jesus gives marvelous assurance to those who are His own: "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand" (John 10:27-29).

In Him, we have an unfailing hope and a sure anchor -- He will never let us down. We have His promise of an eternity with Him in His Father's house, and nothing that can be done by men or demons can undo that promise. What is required is simply that we trust Him: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am" (John 14:1-3).


[1] William H. Baker, Survey of Theology 2 Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 2001, p. 101.

[2] There is some dispute among scholars as to whether the soul and spirit are two distinct entities, or simply different terms for the same thing. Since the question does not impact on the purpose of this discussion, it will not be addressed and the two terms will be used interchangeably.


Baker, William H. Survey of Theology 2 Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 2001.

Barker, Kenneth, Gen. Ed. The NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.

Dorman, Ted M. Faith for all Seasons, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1989.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev.

Thiessen, Henry C. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.

Wood, Leon J. The Bible & Future Events. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973.

Zodhiates, Spiros. Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (NASB). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1990.