Do Evangelical Conditionalists Believe in Hell? That Depends On What You Mean by “Hell”

One of the hot topics in the hell debate is whether or not it is proper to say that evangelical conditionalists believe in the existence of hell. 1Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations I give are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

The Question And Its Answer

The answer is itself quite simple: it depends what you mean by “hell.”

Some people define hell as a place of eternal conscious suffering, and if that is what you mean, then of course evangelical conditionalists deny the existence of “hell.” But if you, more broadly, mean a place or state of final punishment for the unrepentant, then yes, evangelical conditionalists (and most annihilationists broadly) definitely believe in hell. We just disagree with the majority of Christians about what hell ultimately entails.

That’s it. That’s the answer.

But since you probably came here not for a short paragraph but for a meaty Rethinking Hell article on a topic, allow me to elaborate and use this question as an opportunity to discuss some key, related matters. These will include the Greek and Hebrew words typically translated as “hell,” a bit about English theological terms of art vs. the inspired biblical text, and how this ties into the hell debate in general.

What Does The Bible Say Hell Is?

It doesn’t.

What I mean is that “hell” is an English term, and there was no English language when the Bible was written.

This is what makes this all a bit murky. It’s not that murky, but it is less clear than one might initially think. It is not as though the Greek New Testament says the wicked go to helloos (a word I just made up), and there was already a clear understanding of what helloos means, so therefore the English translators just called it “hell” in our translations.

This is something you will find with English words that have substantial theological import, English theological terms of art, when they are in the Bible. The actual text of scripture did not use the term (since it didn’t even exist). Therefore, it is not always clear that all the significance we associate with that English term of art is meant in the text. The underlying Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic in the actual inspired text may not have a 1-to-1 correspondence with our English theological terms. Now, when translators use the term in English translations, it can mean that they believe the text is intending to communicate all that is involved with the English theological term. But there may be some ambiguity even then, since even English words that are used as terms of art in theological studies can have different nuances. 2 It is also worth noting that translations can differ in a given verse, and not all may use an English word with deep theological significance. They might not all agree on the translation to begin with.

An interesting example of this can be with the Greek word epithumeó, translated as “lust” or “lustfully” in Matthew 5:28. Because of the influence of the later, extrabiblical concept of the seven deadly sins, many think of the word “lust” as specifically meaning an unhealthy and sinful sexual desire. For example, people (especially men) say things like “I struggle with lust.” However, epithumeó does not specifically mean sinful or sexual desire. It just means a strong desire. In fact, in some uses, it is a strong desire for good and godly things (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1 and 1 Peter 1:12). Jesus himself (who is obviously sinless) even described his own feelings with epithumeó (Luke 22:15). The fact that it is sexual and in some sense sinful in Matthew 5:28 is due to context, since it is about lusting after a woman and it being adultery in your heart. It is not simply the word used that tells us this.

There are, of course, further debates on what is even in view when Jesus mentioned this in Matthew 5:28, who it applies to, when desire becomes sinful, etc. But for our purposes, the point is just that the underlying text does not have the equivalent of what we think of as the theological weighty concept of lust (even though context in Matthew 5:28 tells us it is about sexual sin). And while they likely wouldn’t see much ambiguity in Jesus’s overall statement, it’s not clear that English translators necessarily had a developed theology in mind when they used the word “lust” here (or that all translators even had the same mindset). After all, in English we can speak of strong (though usually unhealthy) desires for things besides sex as lust, such as saying someone has lust for wealth, lust for power, or blood lust (i.e. desire to commit violence out of vengeance).

The word translated as “hell” has similar implications. It is not clear from the word alone what actually is in view. Context and broader teaching on the subject fill in the gaps.

Multiple Words Translated As “Hell”

Also, to make it even murkier, there isn’t necessarily one word translated as “hell” in the Bible. Depending on the translation, this can be done with one, two, or as many as four different Greek and Hebrew words (which themselves have different meanings).

Of the four, only one – the Greek word gehenna – is generally agreed to be speaking of the final damnation of the wicked. This is what we really think of as hell. The other three refer to intermediate states prior to final judgment. This will be fleshed out below.

However, it should at least be clear that the Bible (in English translations) simply using the word “hell” does not tell us as much as one might have thought.

The Main Passages: Passages That Warn of Going to Gehenna

The one term that is still translated as “hell” virtually across the board is the Greek word gehenna. The term literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. However, in context, it is not referring to the literal valley (more on that below). The term is used 12 times in the New Testament, 11 times by Jesus in the Gospels and once in James 3:6. The fact that it shows up in only these passages makes sense, given that the valley would have been much more familiar to Jewish listeners in Israel than believers in places like modern-day Italy (Rome) or Turkey (e.g. Ephesus, Collosae).

The question, of course, arises as to why Jesus (and James once) would use the Valley of Hinnom as symbolic of hell/damnation. Below, I give scriptural reasons as to why the scripture makes clear that gehenna is referring to damnation and not earthly death in the earthly valley. But there isn’t scholarly consensus as to why it is used this way.

Nevertheless, from an evangelical conditionalist standpoint, it makes good sense as to why Jesus would use the Valley of Hinnom this way. This is not to say that the annihilationist interpretation is the only viable one: traditionalists have other explanations and they are worth looking into for further study. But I do believe that the following interpretation works best not only because it is fitting with conditionalism, but because it draws on the meaning that was in the Old Testament – which his Jewish audience would have been very familiar with – and is not reliant on outside doctrine that may or may not have developed by the early 1st century AD.

The use of gehenna in the New Testament serves evangelical conditionalism well because, when the Valley of Hinnom comes up in the Old Testament in the context of God’s judgment, it is a place of mass slaughter in veangeance for Israel’s idolatry (e.g. Jeremiah 7:31-32). God even says it will be called “the valley of slaughter” in Jeremiah 19:6. So if Jesus is simply drawing on the way the Old Testament used the Valley of Hinnom in the context of judgment, but is now applying that to final damnation of both body and soul (e.g. Matthew 10:28), then the simplest explanation would be that he is warning of final death and destruction, not eternal torment.

The Old Testament is, of course, loaded with destruction language when speaking of the enemies of God, which is why many Christian scholars will say it says little about hell – because they believe hell is eternal conscious suffering. And yet, here (and in many other instances), the Old Testament language of destruction seems to be applied quite liberally by Jesus when describing what hell is actually like. 3 For a more thorough treatment of the Old Testament being alluded to by New Testament authors to describe the death and destruction (not eternal conscious anything) of hell, see: Glenn Peoples, “Fire and Flood: Fire and Flood: How the New Testament Uses the First Testament to Teach on Final Punishment,” Afterlife, n.d., https://www.afterlife.co.nz/articles/fire-and-flood/ (accessed November 14, 2022).

Other “Hell” Passages – Tartarus

The one other word that often comes up as “hell” in modern translations (though less so than gehenna) is the Greek tartaroó.

This term is literally a verb, meaning to cast one into tartarus. For our purposes, the focus will therefore be on what tartarus is in this context.

The term comes up in only one passage, 2 Peter 2:4, with little added context, to describe what was done to the fallen angels when they sinned. The NASB (1995) renders it as follows:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, held for judgment…

Here, it is generally believed to be a reference to the underworld of tartarus, which in Greek mythology was believed to be “the lowest point of the universe, below the underworld but separate from it.” 4Kelly Maguire. “Tartarus,” worldhistory.org, January 7, 2021, https://www.worldhistory.org/Tartarus/ (accessed on November 17, 2022). As with much of ancient, pagan mythology, elements developed and changed over time.

Admittedly, in some uses prior to the New Testament era, it would be a place where mortals would be condemned to eternal torment (such as in the myths of Sisyphus and Ixion). 5 Ibid. It should be noted, however, as traditionalist Eldon Woodcock points out, that the fallen angels were “to be held there until the final eschatological judgment (2:9)” (emphasis added) 6 Eldon Woodcock, Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue (WestBow, 2012), 133. This is where they were sent long ago, before judgment, where they are “reserved for judgment.” How could angels be in their eternal abode before eternal judgment anyway? Whatever Peter had in mind for final judgment and the eternal state, this was not it.

Furthermore, we know from other passages that, wherever fallen angels are held, they can escape. We know this because they (as demons) possess other people. We also know that, in at least one instance, a demon feared being sent back to their holding area, known as the abyss (Luke 8:31). It would not be much of an eternal abode if one can escape from it.

Given that demons have some ability to escape their current abode, and given that it is temporary, it seems to appeal more to a broader sense of a netherworld where a deities enemies were banished to than a place of torment. It certainly doesn’t speak of eternal torment, both in light of the specifics of the text and what the Bible says elsewhere. 7 This assumes, of course, that the scriptures are accurate in all they teach and Peter is not contradicting other passages, which I do and which is a strength for my case here. And even if he did intend to imply an element of torment in Tartarus, all it would prove is that fallen angels, who do not naturally die a physical death the way embodied humans do, are tormented for a time before final judgment.

Other “Hell” Passages – Hades/Sheol

Depending on translation, these passages do not even really enter the discussion. Many modern translations just transliterate them or call them something like “the realm of the dead” (like the 2011 NIV in Acts 2:27). However, the King James Version and other older translations will translate them as “hell” (albeit very selectively). Most notably, the KJV translated hades as “hell” in Luke 16:23 (the story of the rich man and Lazarus), which has made the relationship between sheol/hades relevant to the discussion.

Like tartaroó/tartarus, the Greek word hades is a reference to the Greek realm of the dead before the final judgment. Based on its limited use in scripture, it is used along the lines of speaking of the realm of the dead quite broadly and generally. It is like how we talk about “the grave” today. While a grave can be a physical hole in the ground for a corpse to be buried, many talk about going to “the grave” as a way of saying they are in the state of being dead that all people will experience. 8 Of course there is the notable exception of believers whoare still alive at Jesus’s physical returns, who will never experience even the first death (e.g 1 Coritthians 15:51, 1 Thessalonains 4:15-17). This is true even for people who are cremated or never go into a literal grave – all still go to “the grave.”

Although a more lengthy treatment would be needed to really demonstrate this meaning of sheol and hades in-depth, this definition as the universal realm of the dead makes sense of all the uses of both of these terms in ways that other views do not. This is because both terms describe the deceased wicked and righteous alike. For example, Peter uses the term hades in Acts 2:27 when quoting Psalm 16:10. There, hades is used in place of the Hebrew sheol, indicating that it has functionally the same meaning (or at least can be used to mean the same thing). Since it is describing Jesus’s state of being dead (where He was but not for long), it is not speaking of a place of fiery torment as we know it. Similarly, the righteous are sometimes said to go to sheol (e.g. Genesis 37:35, Psalm 89:48, Ecclesiastes 9:10). The term is frequently used to describe the fate of the wicked, but this makes sense because the Old Testament uses are typically speaking of the righteous being spared earthly death and not going to the (metaphorical) grave yet (unlike the wicked who are killed).

This does not mean that both saved and unsaved have the same experience in this state. After all, many who use “the grave” figuratively will also believe in some concept of reward or punishment for the dead in the next life. In colloqiual thought, a person who has gone to the good place and a person who has the bad place have both still gone to “the grave.” Likewise, the terms sheol and hades themselves need not necessarily be specific to what experience a person has.

Now with that said, the most significant uses of hades are in Luke 16:23 and Revelation 20:14, which the King James Version translates as “hell.” Because Revelation 20:14 speaks of “hell” going to the lake of fire, it doesn’t really come up in the question of whether eternal torment is true. It serves almost as a novelty, since hell is basically cast into hell. But hades is part of why the story of the rich man and Lazarus is believed to teach eternal torment. After all, the rich man is alive and in flames while in “hell.”

…except he’s not in hell, the place of final punishment, but only the intermediate state between death and resurrection. While there are multiple reasons to not see this story as speaking of anyone in the eternal state, the simplest and most clear cut reason is that the rich man is in the intermediate state of hades. 9For more on this see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-31 (The Rich man and Lazarus)“. See also Chris Date, “Lazarus and the Rich Man: It’s Not About Final Punishment“. The fact that the one other time KJV translates hades as “hell,” Revelation 20:13-14, hows people leaving hades for their final abode of the lake of fire, underscores this point.

Because most translations do not render sheol/hades as “hell,” and most expositors are in agreement that they only speak of the intermediate state, their significance to the hell debate is not as substantial as it would have been in past generations.

Are Gehenna Passages Speaking Merely of Earthly Death In The Valley of Hinnom?

No.

At least a lot of them are not (nor is there any real reason to believe any gehenna references are meant this way).

For example, in Matthew 10:28, Jesus warns that God can destroy both body and soul in gehenna. 10 Some have argued God is not the one in view here, but the arguments for this position are weak. See “###”. This is specifically in contrast to how men can only kill the body. How then could earthly death of the body be in view in this passage, if gehenna is specifically contrasted against the earthly kind of death that men can inflict?

Furthermore, many who take the view that the literal valley is in view believe it is referring to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. I am an orthodox preterist myself, so I do acknowledge that this event was absolutely cataclysmic, both in its carnage and spiritual significance for the Jewish religion. Nevertheless, it makes little sense in this context. Jesus is speaking to his 12 disciples in or around AD 30. At least a few would be dead by AD 70, and unlike final judgment (which everyone will experience), only those alive and present at the time would even have the possibility of being affected by it. So why would Jesus warn them to obey God rather than risk being killed in the events of AD 70 (40 years later) when some would not even live to AD 70 to begin with?

Other gehenna uses also do not fit well with a strictly earthly context. Jesus warns of the fires of gehenna in Matthew 5:22, for example. While there had been a long-standing belief that the Valley of Hinnom had been a  place to continually burn refuse, this belief has increasingly been abandoned by scholars due to lack of any contemporary written or archaeological evidence. 11 Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and theThings
We Made Up (David C. Cooke, 2011), 59-60.
12 Mark Galli, God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better Than Love Wins (Tyndale House, 2011), 95. 13 Todd Bolen, “The Fires of Gehenna: Views of Scholars,” Bible Places [blog], posted on April 29, 2011, https://www.bibleplaces.com/blog/2011/04/fires-of-gehenna-views-of-scholars/ (accessed on November 17, 2022. 14 Dr. Charlie Trimm, chair of Old Testament at Biola University, also has made the same point, that there is no evidence for continual burning in the Valley of Hinnom, in a presentation I attended at Redeemer Church in La Mirada, California on August 4, 2022. What fires would Jesus then have been warning about?

What about Matthew 18:8, where Jesus even speaks of “eternal fire” in gehenna? While I have argued elsewhere why the term “eternal fire” does not pose a challenge to annihilationism, I would simply note here that in no sense would an earthly fire kindled by man that burns up bodies qualify as “eternal fire.” 15 For more on “eternal fire” and why it doesn’t necessitate eternal torment, see “What the Bible Actually Says abot Eternal Fire” Part 1 and Part 2.

In Luke 12:5, often seen as at least a soft parallel to Matthew 10:28, Jesus warns to fear not those who can merely kill you, but can kill you and then throw you into gehenna. Now, this makes sense if we are talking about God being able to damn a person rather than men just being able to kill the body (temporarily). But if we are talking about the literal Valley of Hinnom, wouldn’t any man have the power to kill a person and then throw them into the literal Valley of Hinnom?

The idea that gehenna passages only speak of the first death (death of the body) and the literal Valley of Hinnom may sound intriguing from a 10,000 foot level, but it is untenable when we examine the actual relevant texts.

Points to Take Away

Conditionalists believe in hell in the sense that matters. When the Bible says people go to “hell,” we agree. We just think it is, as Jesus put it in Matthew 10:28, where God destroys “both body and soul.”

We don’t believe in hell as a place of eternal torment because that’s not what the Bible means when it uses the underlying Greek and Hebrew terms translated as “hell.” And it is what the underlying language says that matters. I am not saying the translators were wrong to use the term “hell,” since the word itself can have different meanings. But when an English term is a theological term of art, we must be careful not to read that specific term of art into the text just because translators took a word that existed before the English language and used a certain word to translate it.

For this reason, there are some conditionalists (and probably traditionalists and universalists too) who think it would be best for translators to not use the English word “hell” at all since it has become so loaded and can mislead the reader. Whether right or wrong, the spirit of this idea makes sense. The Bible authors had no concept of our term of art “hell.” They taught what they taught, and it is up to us to understand what they taught.

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References
1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations I give are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2 It is also worth noting that translations can differ in a given verse, and not all may use an English word with deep theological significance. They might not all agree on the translation to begin with.
3 For a more thorough treatment of the Old Testament being alluded to by New Testament authors to describe the death and destruction (not eternal conscious anything) of hell, see: Glenn Peoples, “Fire and Flood: Fire and Flood: How the New Testament Uses the First Testament to Teach on Final Punishment,” Afterlife, n.d., https://www.afterlife.co.nz/articles/fire-and-flood/ (accessed November 14, 2022).
4 Kelly Maguire. “Tartarus,” worldhistory.org, January 7, 2021, https://www.worldhistory.org/Tartarus/ (accessed on November 17, 2022).
5 Ibid.
6 Eldon Woodcock, Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue (WestBow, 2012), 133.
7 This assumes, of course, that the scriptures are accurate in all they teach and Peter is not contradicting other passages, which I do and which is a strength for my case here.
8 Of course there is the notable exception of believers whoare still alive at Jesus’s physical returns, who will never experience even the first death (e.g 1 Coritthians 15:51, 1 Thessalonains 4:15-17).
9 For more on this see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-31 (The Rich man and Lazarus)“. See also Chris Date, “Lazarus and the Rich Man: It’s Not About Final Punishment“.
10 Some have argued God is not the one in view here, but the arguments for this position are weak. See “###”.
11 Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and theThings
We Made Up (David C. Cooke, 2011), 59-60.
12 Mark Galli, God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better Than Love Wins (Tyndale House, 2011), 95.
13 Todd Bolen, “The Fires of Gehenna: Views of Scholars,” Bible Places [blog], posted on April 29, 2011, https://www.bibleplaces.com/blog/2011/04/fires-of-gehenna-views-of-scholars/ (accessed on November 17, 2022.
14 Dr. Charlie Trimm, chair of Old Testament at Biola University, also has made the same point, that there is no evidence for continual burning in the Valley of Hinnom, in a presentation I attended at Redeemer Church in La Mirada, California on August 4, 2022.
15 For more on “eternal fire” and why it doesn’t necessitate eternal torment, see “What the Bible Actually Says abot Eternal Fire” Part 1 and Part 2.