What is Hell?
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, into the unquenchable fire. (Mark 9:43)
This is certainly one of the verses that is commonly used to support the popular notions about God (or the devil) burning people and torturing them in hell for all of eternity because they failed to align themselves properly with the offers of God for salvation in this life. There are all kinds of versions of this popular theology, but pretty much all of them have one thing in common – they all paint God as a severe deity waiting to inflict unspeakable horrors and pain as punishment against anyone refusing to love or obey Him.
The idea that has taken hold in this world across many religions that God is a sadistic, two-faced being who on one hand is longing to love and accept His children into a heaven of bliss but equally ready to consign lost sinners to a fate of eternal torture. This is one of the most diabolical lies about God that has ever been foisted on humankind. This belief about God was birthed in the perverted mind of Satan himself and has caused millions of people to turn away from any belief in God at all because of their disgust at such a confused notion. And they have every reason to do so, for God has implanted into every heart a sense of justice and fairness that is totally violated by such monstrous teachings about our Father in heaven.
I am very glad that I was not raised with such extreme beliefs about God or I might have long ago turned completely away from ever even wanting to know Him at all. My own sense of fairness and justice was very keen while growing up and I struggled enough as it was with the distorted views of God and religion as it was. The teachings I was given about hell were not quite as sadistic, at least time-wise, as those usually taught by other denominations. But many of the elements that conveys God as a two-faced entity using a carrot and stick approach to dealing with His children were still in place which caused far more dissonance in my heart than I realized. I became conscious of this only after the real truth about hell became evident to me only a few years ago.
I have to confess that I did not arrive at my understandings about the real truth of hell until only a short time ago, nor did I get these ideas from listening to any preacher or religious instructor or adopt them from someone else's belief system. God took me on a personal journey for over two years of personal tutoring and a thorough research of the Scriptures largely on my own until my own heart and mind were convicted that what I had believed all of my life was not valid or supportable from the Bible. The new picture that I saw emerging directly from the Word of God was so incredibly better than anything I had ever heard from anyone else before that I wondered if it could even be true. If this Biblical truth about hell as I was now seeing it were actually so, then why didn't I hear more people around the world teaching it and sharing it openly?
But it was very soon after I had embraced it for myself, irregardless of whether anyone else chose to believe it or not, that God allowed me to come across others who were indeed teaching the very same things I had just discovered myself. I say that last phrase rather loosely, for I cannot take the credit for really discovering it for myself; it was something that was quite clearly pressed upon me by the Holy Spirit, not something I set out to prove to justify preconceived opinions. I felt a conviction and a compulsion over that two year period to pursue after the real truth about God and about hell and the punishment of the wicked and discover for myself what the Bible has to say instead of relying on what others taught. As a result, the beliefs I now hold about these things are not dependent on any human teaching but on what I have learned myself from the Word and through the impressions of the Holy Spirit. I did not invent these ideas, they are simply revelations I was graciously offered based on a fresh reading of the Word of God itself.
Given that it took me a two-year journey to reexamine all of the concepts and words and meanings of all the related passages concerning hell and justice and fire and God's character, it would be impossible for me to unpack all of that satisfactorily in this one post. I have dedicated an entire blog to unpacking what I learned during that time and even there it is largely still in rough form and needs a great deal better organization and clearer explanation. But it is mainly the notes that I compiled during that two-year journey through the entire Bible and the convictions and beliefs that emerged from that period of time. Ever since then my understandings of these concepts has been expanding and deepening and during that time my appreciation and responses of love toward God have been growing richer and more spontaneous.
But I will try to summarize very briefly what my current understanding of this verse is based on my research and study and listening to things of the Spirit – and now additionally from others that have helped enhance my initial findings.
First of all, it is helpful to appreciate that the word used for hell in many of these passages is the word that referred to the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where fires continually burned day and night. As people took out their trash and garbage and dumped it on the smoldering heap, the fires there never went out because of the fact that fuel was constantly being added each day to keep them burning. Like the garbage dumps we know today, the area around that dump also had quite a stench to it. As people generally put anything and everything onto the dump, and there were no environmental restrictions like many places have today, the smell emanating from that dump included rotting, burning flesh, rotting food garbage and anything else being discarded by people from the surrounding areas.
In addition to all that, and even though horrifying to us today, this was also a place where criminals who had been crucified were sometimes tossed. These victims may or may not have been dead yet, but they were tossed onto the smoldering garbage heap to let them die slowly or be consumed by the fire or the rats or whatever else might finish them off in that place. That is one of the reasons that the two thieves had their legs broken on the Friday that Jesus was crucified; it was because they had not died yet and the Romans did not want them to be able to escape after they tossed them onto the garbage heap in gehenna. Gehenna was the Hebrew name for this garbage dump and is the same word that is today translated as 'hell' in our English Bibles.
In the Hebrew thinking, gehenna was another name for not just the garbage dump but for the grave itself. The concept all wrapped up in this word was generally all about death, whether it was the final destination of the useless leftovers from everyday life or whether it was the final destination of the body after someone died. Gehenna was the term that people used whenever they referred to anything of this nature and that term was very commonly understood in the culture of that day.
However, in the intervening years and with the preeminence of the growing falsehoods about hell that have come to dominate most people's thinking, the term has taken on all sorts of new dimensions that are not supported by Scripture and certainly do not align with the real truth about God's character. But in this verse, Jesus uses the term gehenna in the way that people had done for centuries which included the connected concept of the final destination of anyone who would miss out on eternal life. The opposite of life is death and so it is appropriate that anyone who does not embrace God's offer of eternal life with Him is going to face eternal death.
Of course, this truth begins to expose the fallacy of the lies about hell that make them quickly fall apart upon closer examination. One of these lies was first voiced openly by the serpent in Eden when he insinuated that God wasn't telling the truth about life and death and Eve surely would not really die if she ate of the forbidden fruit. Amazingly, Christians today still echo that same lie of the serpent without even flinching or realizing that they are aligning themselves with the Father of Lies instead of endorsing the Creator who warned Adam and Eve of the consequences of sin. Instead, the serpent – who was being used by Satan – insinuated that it was God Himself who might harm them if they did end up being punished. That lie about God has stuck in our minds ever since and is one of the most effective ways that Satan has kept us in darkness and fear of Him for 6,000 years.
As part of this massive deception that has enveloped the whole world, people have come to believe that not only will sinners not really die as a result of sin but that God is going to sadistically torture those who resist His love and grace for them. This would certainly make sense if the devil were in charge of the universe, but it is the highest blasphemy to believe that our loving Creator is eager to torture some of His children for all of eternity simply because they resisted His offers of grace to them and committed some acts of selfishness and violence and sin for a few short years of their existence. This belief system is one of the worst perversions of justice that has ever been invented and yet it is promoted and embraced by nearly every Christian denomination that claims to teach doctrines from the Bible.
But what about the unquenchable fire? How does that fit into this picture? Doesn't that enforce the beliefs that God is going to torture people for all of eternity without end?
Again, it is due to a catastrophic failure to allow the Word of God to interpret itself and instead depend on the popular notion that 'experts' should be trusted to tell us what it means. It is vital that every individual realize their own responsibility to get into the Word for themselves and to open their minds to be taught by the Spirit of God directly. God is eager and willing to instruct any person, no matter how much or how little formal education they may have, if they are only willing to expose themselves humbly to the presence of God and allow His Word to become the highest authority in their lives.
What I have found in the Word myself is that this unquenchable fire mentioned here and many other places in the Bible is, amazingly, the very description of God's essence. God Himself is the unquenchable fire and that fire is actually a manifestation of the passion of love that He has for all of His created beings. We have such perverted ideas of love that we often tend to think that it is weak and wimpy and ineffective to motivate people into obedience. But real love in all of its enormous passion and power is so dangerous that it can be caustic and even deadly if someone is exposed to it without first being aligned with its purity. It is like powerful currents of electricity that has enormous potential for good if it is respected and channeled properly. But if one disregards the laws of electricity and tries to play with high energy power lines without regard to the rules of safety, they are very likely to end up quite dead as a result.
Does that mean that electricity is bad? Not at all! It simply means that one needs to learn much more about electricity and how to act around it and respect it and relate to it before they approach it up close. The very same is true of God and His enormous power of love and passion. It is the most potent power in all of the universe and God is trying to get our attention and learn how to align ourselves properly with the laws He has given to prepare us to be exposed more closely to that unquenchable fire of His passionate love for us.
Those who refuse to obey God's laws and choose to remain in violation or ignorance of them run the very real risk of being destroyed and suffering enormous pain in the process when they become exposed to God's full power as finally revealed in the day of Judgment. That is precisely what Jesus is referring to here in these verses. He knows that death is one of the last events we will encounter before every person who has ever lived will be resurrected and experience the final showdown between good and evil and the ultimate revelation of God's true character on the day of Judgment. All those who have resisted His efforts to prepare them for that day will be left to suffer the natural results of being out of sync, out of proper alignment with real love, and the consequences of cause and effect will happen just like what happens with the laws of physics and electricity.
"You have conceived chaff, you will give birth to stubble; My breath will consume you like a fire. The peoples will be burned to lime, like cut thorns which are burned in the fire. You who are far away, hear what I have done; and you who are near, acknowledge My might." Sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling has seized the godless. "Who among us can live with the consuming fire? Who among us can live with continual burning?" He who walks righteously and speaks with sincerity, he who rejects unjust gain and shakes his hands so that they hold no bribe; he who stops his ears from hearing about bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil; he will dwell on the heights, his refuge will be the impregnable rock; his bread will be given him, his water will be sure. Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; they will behold a far-distant land. (Isaiah 33:11-17)