One of the bedrock foundations upon which the Christian faith is built is that the Bible was written through the "inspiration of God" and was given to us for the purpose of explaining "doctrine, for [giving us Godly] reproof, for correction [and] for instruction in righteousness." As such, it is believed by nearly all Christians that the Bible was specifically designed by God to be our sole source of knowledge when it comes to understanding what He expects of us. In ancient times God spoke to man through the use of prophets, but today nearly all Christian churches agree that God no longer uses that medium of communication because He has given us His written word to go by. Therefore, it is said that all we need in order to learn what God wants us to know is to read the Bible.
If this is true, then it must likewise be true that the teachings contained in the Bible need to be clear and easy to understand by anyone, regardless of their education level or worldly position. In other words, if the Bible is to be our only source of knowledge about God's will for mankind then it has to be sufficiently clear so that anyone who reads it will know precisely and exactly what God wants us to know. If this is not true then we have no other choice than to rely on someone else to interpret God's word for us. And if that is the case, then it cannot be said that the Bible is our only source of knowledge about God.
Yet, when we look at the teachings of Christianity as a whole, what we see is that the Bible is anything but clear, even to those who devote their life to studying it. And one reason for this confusion comes from trying to determine what is to be taken literally and what is to be understood figuratively. Although all Christian faiths believe that the Bible contains symbolic language, there is no unified agreement on what verses are to be interpreted symbolically or even what the symbolism means.
Even fundamentalist Christians who teach that we should take God's word literally admit there is symbolic language in the Bible. For example, when the Bible talks about "the windows of heaven," or the "pillars of the earth" or God having a face, eyes, hands, feet, and other human parts, they say these are just expressions of speech which are meant to be understood in a figurative sense rather than to be taken literally. They also admit that many things contained in the Book of Revelation are symbolic in nature and should likewise not be taken literally. Even so, they teach that these instances are the exception and that the majority of the Bible should be understood exactly as it is written.
However, there are other scholars of the Bible who say there is much more symbolic language found in God's word than what fundamentalist Christians are willing to admit. Yet, even among these men, there is no agreement on what is symbolic and what isn't. To add to the confusion, there are those who believe that everything in the Bible can be understood on both a literal level as well as a symbolic level. Therefore, when we look more closely at Christianity as a whole, what we see is widespread disagreement among even the most devoted studiers of God's word.
One such area of disagreement concerns the doctrine of hell. There is one group of scholars who believe that there is a literal place where the wicked will be cast out "to be punished with unspeakable torments, both body and soul, with the devil and his angels forever." And they base their beliefs on the words of the Bible. Here is how one person understands this doctrine:
"Hell was created by God for those who are unfit to dwell in His presence. [The Bible says] 'God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment' (2 Peter. 2:4). 'The angles who did not keep their proper domain but left their own habitation, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day' (Jude 6)." And from this the author concludes, "Hell is an eternal prison of darkness for the angles who rebelled against God... Hell is a pit of darkness for those who reject Jesus Christ and His gospel... Those who try to enter heaven on the basis of their own works-righteousness, rather than Christ's perfect righteousness, will go to hell (Mt. 22:11-14)."
He continues by saying, "What kind of prison is hell? Hell is called the 'bottomless pit' (literally in Greek, 'the pit of the abyss'). 'And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace.' (Rev. 9:2). Hell is a 'pit of darkness.' The picture of hell that the Bible presents is not a clean, modern prison but rather a dark, subterranean dungeon. The word translated pit in the language of the New Testament [phrear] was also used to describe a well or cistern. The Bible presents hell as an immeasurably deep pit, very large on the bottom and possibly narrow at the top like a cistern.
"Those who are not saved by Jesus Christ will suffer eternal torment. 'And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said... I am tormented in this flame' (Luke 16:23-23). The Greek word for torment (basanos) often describes hideous instruments of torture used in extracting information from prisoners. The word also depicted the severe pain caused by disease... The torments of hell help us to understand how much God hates sin...
"Hell is a place of eternal destruction... Of those people who 'set their minds on earthly things,' who therefore are the 'enemies of the cross of Christ,' God warns that their 'end is destruction' (Phil. 3:18-19). Unbelievers are 'vessels of wrath made for destruction' (Rom. 9:22)."
This author goes on to explain that in the New Testament the word hell is translated from the Greek word Gehenna which he explains "had become a garbage dump for Jerusalem. Gehenna was also used to dispose of the dead bodies of criminals. Fires burned continuously to consume the garbage. The garbage and dead bodies were also consumed by worms (maggots). In the same way, hell is the ash heap - the garbage dump - of all human history.
"Those who believe in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins go to heaven or paradise (Jn 3:18; 6:35, 40). But those who refuse to repent and submit to Jesus Christ become eternal garbage... Jesus used the imagery of Gehenna to warn you to repent: 'If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into that fire that shall never be quenched; where their worn does not die and the fire is not quenched' (Mk. 9:43-49)."
According to this author, what the Bible says about hell is to be taken literally. But then he says, "the fire in hell is probably not a literal fire, for an earthly fire would not torment spiritual creatures. The fire of hell, whatever its nature, is much worse than an earthly fire. The fires on earth will someday burn out. The flaming sun and all the stars of the universe will someday spend their fuel. But the flames in hell will continue 'for ever and ever' (Rev. 20:10).
"Hell is the place of outer darkness... Those who continue in sin and do not submit to Christ are children of darkness (1 Th.5:5). They are full of darkness and they dwell in darkness (Ps. 107:10-11). The wicked walk in darkness (Ps. 82:5); therefore, they shall be 'familiar with the terrors of thick darkness' in the pit of hell (Job 24:17). Imagine a darkness so dark and so thick that 'it may be felt' (cf. Ex. 10:21). Hell is utter darkness. The Bible says it is 'black darkness' (Jude 13)...
"The words used by Christ and the apostles to describe the duration of the suffering in hell clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally teach that the punishment in hell is eternal, unending and everlasting... The apostles totally agree with Christ when they describe hell as: 'a flaming fire' (2 Th. 1:8); 'everlasting chains' (Jude 6); 'eternal fire' (Jude 7); 'the blackness of darkness forever' (Jude 13); 'the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever' (Rev. 14:11); 'the lake of fire and brimstone' (Rev. 20:10).
"If Jesus Christ and the apostles had intended to teach that hell is temporary, or that hell somehow represents the annihilation of the body and soul, then they no doubt would have used different images. Jesus Christ is God and cannot lie. The apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit when they wrote the scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16); therefore, the Bible is infallible and without error in everything it teaches... If hell or the lake of fire represented annihilation, then Jesus could not have made such a statement... People in hell never rest; they suffer day and night. But annihilation is a state of rest. Those who do not exist do not suffer at all... Because of his enmity toward God never ceases and because his sinning never ceases, his punishment cannot cease." (http://www.reformed.com/pub/hell.htm)
Notice how this author takes the words of the Bible literally. To him, hell is a very real place that is similar to a subterranean pit that has smoke and fire belching from it because that is how the Bible describes it. For the same reason he believes hell is a place of total and complete darkness where people continually suffer a never-ending torture. His argument is that if Christ had meant to convey a different meaning, He would have used different words. But, in addition to the Bible, this author further supports his belief with an analysis of the Greek language as well as a study in the background of the culture and history of Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Therefore, his reasoning seems to be well researched and logical.
But consider how another preacher understands the words of the Bible on the doctrine of hell:
"The word hell, in the Old Testament, is always a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol... By examination of the Hebrew scriptures it will be found that its radical or primary meaning is 'the place or state of the dead'... The Hebrew usage of the word sheol, which is the original of the word 'grave' and 'hell' in all the examples cited, it is plain that it has here no reference to a place of endless torment after death... The state of the dead was regarded as solemn and gloomy, and thence the words sheol, the name of this place, came to be applied to any gloomy or miserable state or condition... [The word hell - sheol -] was employed by the Jews as a symbol or figure of extreme degradation or suffering, without reference to the cause... It was never used by Moses or the Prophets in the sense of a place of torment after death...
"There are three words translated as 'hell' in the New Testament, hades and tartarus, which are Greek, and Gehenna, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew words Gee and Hinnom, meaning, 'the valley of Hinnom.'... [The word hades] is rendered [as] 'grave' once and 'hell' ten times... In the Old Testament the corresponding word [is] sheol... Hades is put for the grave or the state of the dead. Our translators have so rendered it in 2 Co. 15:55 ‘O death where is thy sting? O grave (hades) where is they victory?'... Hades is also used in a figurative sense to represent a state of degradation, calamity or suffering arising from any cause whatsoever (Matt. 11:23)...
"The parable of the rich man and Lazarus furnishes another example: 'and in hell (hades) he lifted up his eyes, being in torment.'... It must be remembered that this is only a parable, and not a real history... The Savior cannot be understood as believing or teaching future torments by using this parable any more than He can be supposed to believe and teach the existence of Beelzebub, the Philistine god of flies (or filth) when He alludes to him as if he were a real being (see Mt. 10:25; 12:24)...
[The word Gehenna] occurs twelve times in the New Testament and is always translated 'hell'... nevertheless, more reliance is placed on [this one word] than on all others to prove that 'hell' is a place of endless torment...[Geheena] was a word in common use to describe any severe punishment, especially an infamous kind of death... Geheena seems to be employed as a figure or symbol of moral corruption. James says of the tongue, 'It defileth the whole body and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell (gehenna).' Here Gehenna is made the fitting emblem of the foul passions set on fire by a foul and seductive tongue, which inflames in turn, to the defilement of the whole body... The word Gehenna, or hell, then in the New Testament is used as a symbol of anything that was foul and repulsive.
"The Savior and James are the only persons in all the New Testament who used this word... Paul wrote fourteen epistles and yet never once mentions it. Peter does not name it, nor Jude; and John, who wrote the gospel and the Book of Revelation never employs it in a single instance... The Book of Acts contains the record of the apostolic preaching... [but] there is no mention of Geheena... All the facts are against the supposition that the term was used by Christ or His disciples in the sense of a future endless punishment." (http://auburn.edu/~allenkc/tbhell.html)
Yet another person explains, "[The] Bible describes hell in symbols... Jesus says hell is a place of unquenchable fire... as a pit of darkness... as a lake of fire... There is no need to try and harmonize hell as a literal pit of darkness that also is composed of fire or to make construe hell as some literal lake of fire. Rather, most Christians have understood these descriptions to capture symbolically that hell is final and utter separation from God's saving grace." (http://www.apologetics.johndepoe.com/hell.html)
According to both of these men, words such as "pit" "fire" and "darkness" as they relate to "hell" are not to be taken literally but rather are to be understood only in a symbolic sense. As they understand the Bible, the garbage dump called Geheena, which was located outside of Jerusalem, was a symbol of being cast out of God's presence and being forever separated from Him. Although these authors believe in the concept of hell as a place of punishment, according to their study of the Bible they see no evidence that the wicked will be tortured there "for ever and ever." Like the author we quoted previously, these men also support their belief with an analysis of the Greek language as well as a study in the background of the culture and history of Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Therefore, their reasoning seems to be just as well researched and logical.
But consider what yet another person has to say on this subject:
"The word 'hell' is an English word sometimes selected by the translators of the English Bible... to suit their own purposes. [Back then it] simply meant 'to conceal, to hide, to cover.' In Old English literature records may be found [speaking of] the 'helling' of potatoes - putting potatoes into pits; or the 'helling' of a house- covering or thatching it...
"[Gehenna was the place where] garbage, etc. were emptied there and fires were kept continually burning to consume all things deposited therein, brimstone being added to assist combustion and insure complete destruction. But no living thing was ever permitted to be cast into Gehenna. The Jews were not allowed to torture any creature... Gehenna was a type or illustration of the second death-final and complete destruction from which there can be no recovery...
"Notice here that Gehenna which the Jews knew and of which our Lord spoke to them, was not a lake of fire to be kept burning to all eternity... [the] eternal torment theory was unknown to them. It had no place in their theology... Thus, we are taught that any who are condemned to the second death are hopelessly and forever blotted out of existence... [Where it says] the fire was not quenched and the worms died not, this would not imply a never-ending fire nor everlasting worms... the fire: it was not quenched, it burned on until all was consumed. Just so if a house were ablaze and the fire could not be controlled or quenched (extinguished) but burned until the building was destroyed, we might properly call [it] an 'unquenchable fire.'"
This author then cites every verse in the Bible where it talks about hell and gives his interpretation of its meaning. Concerning the story of the rich man and Lazarus he says it is an allegory where "Lazarus represented the outcasts from divine favor under the law, who sin-sick, hungered and thirsted after righteousness... Abraham is represented as the father of the faithful and receives all the children of faith." The "rich man" represents the Jewish nation "in a cast off condition - in tribulation and affliction."
To show that the Bible teaches no such thing as eternal torment he says, "There is no work, nor device nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave and the dead are described as those who "go down to silence" (Eccl. 9:10; Ps. 115:7). But the Lord wished to show that great sufferings or 'torments' would be added to the Jews as a nation after their national dissolution and burial amongst the other peoples dead in trespasses and sins...
"While we do not find one verse of the Bible saying that this class [of sinners] can have life in torment or in any other condition, we do find numerous passages teaching the reverse. Of these we give a few examples - 'The wages of sin is death' (Rom. 6:230). 'The soul that sinneth it shall die' (Ezek. 18:4,20). 'The wicked shall perish' (Ps. 37:20)... There are many other clear statements of God's Word that [says] their punishment is to be death... [The fire] will not be literal fire... fire here as elsewhere, symbolizes destruction and not in any sense preservation... The Greek word kolasin, translated 'punishment' in [Mt. 25:]46 has not the remotest idea of torment. Its primary signification is 'to cut off' or prune or lop off as in the pruning of trees...
"The lake of fire and brimstone is several times mentioned in the book of Revelation, which all Christians admit is a book of symbols... The symbolism of this lake of fire is further shown by the fact that the symbolic 'beast' and the symbolic 'false prophet' and death and hell (hades, the grave) as well as the devil and his followers are destroyed in it (Rev. 19:20; 20:10)... Using the symbol of the 'lake of fire' they are [all] devoured or consumed in fire... The torment of these systems will continue as long as they last, until they are [all] utterly consumed." (htt://www.biblestudents.net/studies/doctrine/biblehell.htm)
Although this person also believes that the concept of hell as being a place of fire and brimstone is to be understood symbolically, he also believes that the concept of punishment is symbolic as well. To him the garbage dump located outside of Jerusalem called Geheena was a symbol of utter destruction not torture. The way he sees God's message as recorded in the Bible is that if the reward of the righteous is eternal life in heaven then hell, which is the punishment of the wicked, must be eternal death in the grave. And, like the others before him, this author supports his belief with an analysis of the Greek language as well as a study in the background of the culture and history of the Jews. Therefore, his reasoning seems to be just as well researched and logical as the others we've quoted.
As we look at the conclusions of those who devote their life to studying the Bible, what we see is that some say the Bible teaches that hell is a literal place of fire and eternal torment, located in a dark subterranean pit, while others claim the Bibles teaches that hell is a literal place of punishment, not of torture but of banishment from God, while still others declared that the Bible teaches that hell is nothing more than a state of annihilation. What all of this illustrates is that the doctrine of hell as God has explained it in His word, the Bible, is anything but clear and easy to understand, even to those who make it their life work to study it.
Some may argue that it doesn't matter what hell is like because that knowledge isn't necessary in order for us to become saved. They claim that the doctrine of salvation is very clear and that's what's really important. But such an argument is flawed in four ways.
The first is that if God's word contains so much information about the doctrine of hell, then it is apparent it's a subject He wants us to know about. And if that's the case, then why would God give us a doctrine that was so confusing and hard to understand?
The second reason is that if the Bible was written by God and the Bible is to be our only source of knowledge about godly matters, then how can we come to know the truth about hell if we have no other source of knowledge to draw from? To say that understanding the doctrine of hell isn't important to our salvation misses the point. God's word is truth, and if we can't comprehend the truth in God's word, whether it pertains to our salvation or not, means we have no other choice than to seek for truth from another source other than the Bible. But that is contrary to what Christians teach. Yet it is hard to imagine why God would give us any kind of truth that leaves us more confused than if He had not given it to us in the first place.
The third reason why this argument is flawed is because the very reason why God gave us the doctrine of hell was to encourage us to repent and accept His offer of salvation. Just as God warned the ancient Israelites in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah what would happen to them if they did not repent, the doctrine of hell is meant to warn the wicked of what will happen to them if they don't repent. Therefore, the doctrine of hell is an important and integral part of the message of salvation, for it is meant to serve as an incentive to accept Christ's atoning gift of eternal life.
And the fourth reason why this argument is flawed is because the doctrine of salvation is just as confusing to scholars of the Bible as is the doctrine of hell, as evidenced by the fact that there are tens of thousands of different Christian beliefs throughout the world on how salvation is obtained. When it comes to understanding the relationship between works and faith there is even more debate among Christians as to what the Bible teaches as there is about hell. And the same is true of the doctrine of baptism, the receiving of the Holy Ghost, the priesthood, church organization, and a long list of other subjects related to salvation.
If God gave us the Bible to be our only source "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" then how can we to understand God's word when even the experts can't seem to agree on what it teaches?
This was the very question a young, fourteen year old boy named Joseph Smith asked himself in 1820. As he attended the different churches in his area, he soon became confused listening to the various doctrines each pastor taught. Concerning his experience he wrote, "for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible" (JSH 1:12).
And that same situation not only continues today but has increased dramatically over the years. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that the Bible in and of itself cannot be our sole source of knowledge about the doctrines of God. And part of the reason is because we lack the key to understanding what is to be taken literally and what is to be understood figuratively. And if something is to be taken figuratively, there is still the problem of how are we to interpret the meaning of the symbolism.
With all of their learning and sincere desire to understand the word of God, what those who seriously study the Bible have done is destroyed all confidence in settling any religious question of doctrine by appealing to what is written in God's word. Even when they cite the same facts pertaining to the Greek language and use historical evidence to support their case, they still can't come to a unified agreement with one another. And if the experts can't agree on what God's message is to mankind then how is it possible for the average person to correctly understand the Bible when they don't have nearly the extensive training, knowledge, and time to study the Bible as the experts have?
While it is important to study God's word, without a proper understanding of how to interpret it we are left to flounder in ignorance. We become like a rudderless ship that is tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine that blows across the sea of religion, or we become like a ship that is on a straight and steady course but is steaming towards the wrong port because they are following the wrong map.
In ancient times, Christians were kept on the correct course of doctrine by the teachings, guidance, and inspiration of living apostles and prophets. They were the ones who taught the proper interpretation of the scriptures so that the saints accurately understood what God had written. And it was their words, both written and oral, that the church cherished as scripture and which the church used to guide their understanding of what God wanted them to know.
Yet today, all but one church denies the need for living apostles and prophets, and the resulting confusion in doctrine among Christians who rely exclusively on the Bible is clearly visible for all to see. But, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that God still does send living prophets to help guide our understanding of the Bible as he did in ages past. It is their message that God has not left man alone to decide for himself what He wants them to know. Instead, He has sent us inspired men to give us the proper understanding of His doctrine, whether it is the doctrine of salvation or the doctrine of hell.