The traditional meaning of hell is a burning place of torment, where any who are evil (or who simply do not believe in Jesus) go when they die. It is a place of eternal torture. But the character of God is one of grace and mercy. Why would He send the majority of His own creation into this everlasting misery? The question is a logical one and any searching Christian should address it.
First, let’s examine why we even die in the first place. When Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden, they had the opportunity to live forever, provided they did not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Unfortunately, they did eat of it and Genesis 2:19 records the consequence of that sin, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
This means that the punishment for sin is death (Romans 6:23).
The next natural question is, what is meant by “death?” Is it the same as hell? Death is a very common word, but there can be many interpretations. To find a clear answer, we will look in other scriptures.
We will note here that in the original Hebrew and Greek Bible, there are many words that have been translated to “hell.” In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word sheol is used, but is often translated as “the grave,” meaning a state of death. One example of this is in Genesis 37:34-35 when Jacob’s sons told him that Joseph had been killed. Jacob was in such grief that he wished to go to sheol, or hell, to his son Joseph. This narrative gives us several bits of insight into sheol, or hell. First, Jacob says that Joseph is there. Joseph was a righteous man, so this means that sheol, or hell, is not reserved for evil sinners. Next, Jacob wants to go there. This tells us that sheol, or hell, is a place of relief, since he was experiencing such deep grief and was looking to sheol or hell as the only way to relieve it. It is clear from this narrative that sheol, or hell, is not a place of torture for sinners, since the righteous go there and find relief there. A much more logical explanation would be that the word indicates a state of death or nonexistence. The following scriptures support this view:
Ecclesiastes 9:10 explains that there is “no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave
It seems from the above verses that sheol is the nonexistence that occurs when our life ends. It is sometimes translated “the grave,” and sometimes translated “hell,” but whatever term is used, the meaning is the same: a state of nonexistence. It is never indicating a burning place of eternal torture.
Furthermore, we know from various scriptures that Jesus paid the price for our sins. As we noted above, the price for our sins was death. Jesus DIED for our sins. If the punishment for sin were eternal torture in a burning hell, Jesus would have to spend eternity in that burning place of torture in order to pay for our sins. We know this did not happen because he was instead resurrected on the third day.
So if hell is really nonexistence, where did the idea of fire and burning originate? For an answer to this, let us look at the New Testament. There are multiple words translated to hell in the Greek New Testament: Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus. The first, gehenna, was as actual location outside of Jerusalem where a literal fire continually burned. It was used to destroy trash. Sometimes the word gehenna was used as a symbol of death or destruction of life because it was literally a place of destruction. For example, Matt 18:9 and Mark 9:43 both talk about the fires of hell [translated from gehenna]. But with the understanding that this was a literal fire that represented destruction, the verses no longer imply that humans will be tortured in this way forever.
Another common argument for a burning hell is the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, which is found in Luke 16:19-31. Please put the question, Does the statement of our Lord as to the "Rich Man" and "Lazarus" teach that the wicked go to eternal torment at death? into the search bar in Bible FAQ. There is a good explanation of this parable on the website.
Finally, we look at Revelation. There, we see mention of the Lake of Fire, which is commonly thought to illustrate hell. However, Revelation 20:14 tells us plainly that the Lake of Fire represents the second death (dying again, after having already been resurrected). So the lake of fire is also a symbol and does not imply torture through a literal fire.
In conclusion, there is no burning hell. Hell is synonymous with death and means a state or condition of nonexistence after our life ends. The scriptures that link this with fire are either symbolic or refer to a literal burning garbage dump that represents destruction. Ecclesiastes 9:2 says “It is the same for all, since the same event [death] happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil.” This death occurs as a punishment for sins, and we established that this punishment implies a return to a condition of nonexistence, not a place of eternal torture. Thankfully, Jesus paid that price (death) for our sins and secured our resurrection from it so that we can live again forever with our Lord!