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Is Hell the Grave?

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Is Hell the Grave?

Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #21
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Summary: The Watchtower Society teaches that “hell” is just the common grave of humanity. The only punishment for unrepentant wicked people will be annihilation—simply ceasing to exist.

This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.

What the Watchtower Teaches

Opposition to the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal punishment has been at the core of the Watchtower religious movement’s doctrine from its very beginning. Charles Taze Russell, the religion’s founder, had passed through a period of skepticism as a Protestant because he could not accept the doctrine of hell, which he understood at the time to be taught in the Bible. Russell gained a new faith through his exposure to Adventism, which argued that the Bible did not really teach eternal punishment.1 The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ views on the subject to this day are in the same general line as the Adventists.

The foundational assumption of the Watchtower view of eternal punishment is that human persons cease to exist when they die. In their doctrine, there is no such thing as a soul or spirit that can exist as a person once the body has died.2 If death means nonexistence, they reason, hell must also mean nonexistence.

Jehovah’s Witnesses marshal a number of arguments in support of this position, especially regarding the meaning of various biblical words such as “soul.” A key point is their insistence that the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades did not refer to a realm of punishment for the departed, but rather in biblical usage meant a state of nonexistence for the dead. They conclude, “Hell, in the Biblical sense, is simply the common grave of mankind, where all activity has ceased.”3

The Watchtower Society also presents various responses to New Testament passages traditionally understood to teach the doctrine of eternal punishment. Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that Gehenna, the term that Jesus used for the realm of that eternal punishment, actually was a metaphor representing God’s decision not to grant resurrection to those he judges to be incorrigibly wicked.4

A key text is Jesus’ warning that the wicked would go away “to eternal punishment” while the righteous would enjoy “eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). The Society interprets the “punishment” here as merely the wicked being “cut off” from living any longer:

The Greek word koʹla·sis is used of “pruning” or “lopping off” needless branches from trees. This “cutting-off” would be “everlasting,” since the person would be cut off from life with no hope of a resurrection.5

One of the main sources that the Watchtower uses to support this explanation is the 19th-century NT version called The Emphatic Diaglott. Its interpretation of the word is based on its derivation from kolazō (“to punish”), which it claimed meant “to cut off” or “to restrain.”6

The Watchtower offers similar explanations for the texts in Revelation that warn about “the lake of fire” (Rev. 14:9-11; 20:10):

In what sense are those in “the lake of fire” tormented eternally? At times, “to torment” can mean “to restrain” someone. Once when Jesus confronted the demons, they cried out: “Art thou come hither to torment us [restrain us in the abyss] before the time?” (Matthew 8:29; Luke 8:30, 31; KJ) So all of those in “the lake” will suffer the “torment” of everlasting restraint, or “the second death.”7

To augment its use of the Bible to critique the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment, the Watchtower argues that the doctrine originated from paganism (as it claims all the doctrines it opposes did). For example, one article documented that the idea was held in ancient Egypt, affirmed by the Greek historian Plutarch, and attributed by Josephus to the Jewish movement known as the Essenes.8

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ overriding objection to the doctrine is that it is incompatible with the idea that God is a God of love. Thus, the Watchtower argues:

What would you think of a parent who held his child’s hand over a fire to punish the child for wrongdoing? “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Would he do what no right-minded human parent would do? Certainly not!9

Biblical Response

God’s Love and God’s Wrath

Let us start by responding to the argument that eternal punishment is inconsistent with God’s attribute of love. There is a danger that any response to this objection will be viewed as somehow denying or diminishing God’s love. We certainly do not want to do that. Rather, we want to understand God’s love. While John says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), he also states that God is light (1:5), righteous (2:29; 3:7), pure (3:3), and true (5:20). God is good (Ps. 136:1; 1 Peter 2:3), holy (Lev. 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15-16), and perfect (Matt. 5:48). Moses could tell the Israelites in the same context that “the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” and that “the LORD your God is a merciful God” (Deut. 4:24, 31; see also Heb. 12:29). A biblical, sound understanding of God’s character must take fully into account both his holiness and righteousness and his love and mercy.

The Gospel of John warns, “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). The apostle Paul warned about “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5, see 2:8-9; Col. 3:6). One reason why Jesus is so important to us is that he “delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10; see also Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 5:9). God’s holy wrath or anger is just as much an aspect of the Bible’s teaching as God’s love and mercy. Indeed, biblically God’s mercy is God acting to spare us from the wrath that we deserve (see especially Eph. 2:1-10). The one attribute cannot be rightly understood apart from the other. All of these passages make it quite clear that while God in his love will mercifully save many people, he will not save everyone. At least some people will be the objects of God’s righteous, proper wrath.

“If all this talk about God’s wrath seems intended to scare people, it is.”10 Those who know the truth about God but deliberately live contrary to that truth have before them “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27). Those who “trample underfoot the Son of God” deserve even harsher punishment than those who abrogated the Law of Moses (10:28-29). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). Some people, at least, ought to be afraid.

Hades and Gehenna

In the King James Version (KJV), the English word “hell” is used to translate two different Greek words—Hades and Gehenna. We discussed the meaning of these terms briefly in the previous article in this series, where our focus was on what happens at physical death.11 Here we will focus on the issue of what happens after the Final Judgment.

In the New Testament, Hades sometimes refers to the abode of the dead, specifically when used as a substitute for the Hebrew Old Testament term Sheol. We see this in Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost. Peter quoted Psalm 16 regarding Christ’s death and resurrection, saying that Christ’s soul was not abandoned to Hades (Acts 2:27, 31). Here Hades cannot refer to a place of eternal punishment. Similarly, the Book of Revelation uses Hades to refer to the abode of the dead. This is made clear by statements about those in Hades being given up to stand before God in the Final Judgment, after which “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:13-14; see also 1:18; 6:8).

In the Gospels, on the other hand, Jesus uses the term Hades at least twice in reference to a realm of punishment specifically for the wicked.12 In one saying, Jesus warned the people of Capernaum who had rejected him despite seeing his divine miracles that they would go to Hades:

“And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matt. 11:23-24; see also Luke 10:15).

The contrast between being “exalted to heaven” and being “brought down to Hades” is clearly a contrast between eternal life and eternal condemnation. Here Hades is not merely death but a realm of condemnation for the wicked. Jesus’ warning that the people of Sodom would not be judged as harshly as the people of Capernaum must have shocked his Jewish contemporaries, since they viewed Sodom as the epitome of wickedness.

In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man was consigned to Hades, where he was in “torment” and “anguish” in its “flame” (Luke 16:23-24). This parable explicitly uses the term Hades to refer to a “place of torment” (16:28). As we mentioned in our article on physical death, it is reasonable to think that various elements of this parable should not be taken literally. In Jesus’ story, the rich man is suffering in Hades while his brothers remain alive on earth, suggesting that Jesus was not speaking here of the eternal condemnation to come after the Final Judgment. Nevertheless, the story assumes that Hades was understood to be a realm of the dead especially for the wicked.

In the Gospels, we have more sayings of Jesus using the term Gehenna (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5), which most English versions (not just the KJV) translate as “hell.” These account for all of the uses of the term in the New Testament except James 3:6, where James says that the sinful tongue, which does so much evil, is “set on fire by Gehenna” (translating literally). Gehenna is also associated with fire in several of Jesus’ sayings, in which he refers to “the Gehenna of fire” (Matt. 5:22; 18:9) and warns that Gehenna is a place of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43, 48-49). Similarly, John the Baptist had warned that the wicked would be like chaff burned in “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:10-12; Luke 3:9, 17). Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus warned about the eternal judgment using the imagery of fire. He spoke of the wicked being cast into a “fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:42, 50), “the eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8; 25:41). Suffice it to say that Christians learned the idea of “hell fire” from Jesus himself. The question is how we are to understand it.13

The term Gehenna comes from the Hebrew place name gê-hinnom, “valley of Hinnom,” also known as the “valley of the son of Hinnom,” which was first mentioned in Joshua 15:8; 18:16. During the years prior to the Babylonian exile, this valley (located just south of Jerusalem) became notorious as a site of idolatrous sacrifices of children on altars of fire to false gods (cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 23:10; Jer. 19:6-7). In Judaism in the two centuries before Jesus, Gehenna came to be used as a picture of the final judgment on the wicked. In other words, Jesus didn’t invent this term or its use to refer to the realm of eternal punishment; he took it over from the Judaism of his day.

It is commonly said that in Jesus’ day, Gehenna was the place where refuse from the city of Jerusalem was dumped and burned—the city dump. Some writers, including the authors of the Watchtower publications, claim that the metaphor of the city dump favors the view that the wicked are simply annihilated.14 However, various scholars have pointed out that the basis for this view of Gehenna as the city dump comes from a medieval source dating to about AD 1200—far too late to be the basis for interpreting Jesus’ use of the term.15

What Jesus Really Taught about Eternal Punishment

The only way to understand what Jesus meant by Gehenna is to read what he said on the subject in the Gospels, including other passages that use other expressions for the final judgment on the wicked. When we do so, we find it extremely difficult to avoid the idea of Gehenna as a realm of actual punishment. The following sayings are especially difficult to explain away:

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:11-12; also Luke 13:28-29).

“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:41-42, 49-50).

“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matt. 22:13).

Jesus did not say that the wicked will weep and gnash their teeth at the thought of being condemned eternally. He said they would weep and gnash their teeth once they were in “the fiery furnace,” in “the outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 13:42; 22:13–14; 24:50; 25:30; Luke 13:28). Some sort of anguished anger will characterize the wicked after they have been cast into the realm of eternal punishment.

This does not mean that Gehenna or the outer darkness will be a place of literal fire. Fire, literally speaking, is a physical phenomenon, the combustion of oxygen that damages or consumes physical objects. Jesus said that the wicked would be consigned to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). The Watchtower argues correctly that the “fire” of Matthew 25:41 must be figurative because literal fire would not harm the devil or his angels, which are spirits and not physical beings.16 Moreover, the language of “outer darkness” suggests that the “fire” (which one would not literally associate with darkness) is not literal.

Shortly after Jesus’ warning that the wicked would be consigned to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), he concluded with the following statement:

“And these will go away into eternal punishment,
but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46).

The Watchtower tries to explain this text away by arguing that the word “punishment” means merely “cutting off”; thus, their New World Translation (NWT) renders the first part of the verse, “These will depart into everlasting cutting-off.” Frankly, this handling of the word is inexcusably wrong. The Watchtower notes correctly that the Greek noun here, kolasis, is related to the verb kolazō, but then claims that kolazō means “to cut off,” and therefore kolasis should be translated “cutting-off.” This explanation assumes a naïve view of the way words work. Specifically, it makes the mistake of assuming that a word’s meaning is to be determined by its supposed “root” origin, instead of by its actual usage in context. This would be akin to arguing that if we call someone “nice” we are saying he is ignorant because the word nice derives from the Latin word nescio, which did mean ignorant!17 In actual usage throughout the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament and Apocrypha), the verb kolazō consistently meant “to punish” and the noun kolasis consistently meant “punishment,” and these meanings also appear routinely in Greek literature outside the Bible.18 “Punishment” is therefore clearly the meaning of kolasis in Matthew 25:46.

The “Lake of Fire” in Revelation

The Book of Revelation uses a different metaphorical description for the realm of eternal punishment, but the idea seems to be equivalent. It warns that those who worship “the beast” will experience “God’s wrath” and “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev. 14:9-11). Later John states that the “beast” and the “false prophet” will be “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (19:20), after which “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Finally, John warns that anyone whose name was not found in the book of life, along with Death and Hades itself, will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (20:14-15).

Granting that the “fire and sulfur” (“fire and brimstone,” KJV) are symbolic imagery and not literal, physical fire and sulfur, the imagery is clearly terrifying. Here the Watchtower plays the same sort of word-study game as it does with the Greek word for “punishment” in Matthew 25:46. As mentioned toward the beginning of this article, they claim that the Greek word translated “tormented” in Revelation 14:10 and 20:10 (basanizō) could mean merely “restrained,” and conclude that the wicked will be eternally “restrained” in the sense of eternally ceasing to exist. There are two problems with this explanation. The first is that the Greek word never means merely to restrain. Throughout Greek literature including the Septuagint and the New Testament, its regular meaning is to be tormented, tortured, harassed, or in agony. We have two rather clear examples in the Book of Revelation itself. In one of these, John says that he saw locusts with the power to “torment” the wicked “like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone” (Rev. 9:5). In another text, John says that he saw a woman “crying out in birth pangs and the agony [a form of basanizō] of giving birth” (Rev. 12:2). The second problem should be obvious: One does not speak of “restraining” what does not exist.

Remaining Questions about Eternal Punishment

The New Testament clearly does teach that unrepentant wicked people will be consigned to a realm of eternal punishment, where they will experience some sort of torment or agony depicted metaphorically as like being in fire. This conclusion leaves some additional questions that go beyond what we can discuss in any detail here, but for which some brief comments may be helpful.

First, who will go to this Gehenna or outer darkness or lake of fire? The short answer is that sinners who have not repented and turned to the true God for his mercy will be judged by their works (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 2:23) and condemned eternally. This does not mean that only those who have consciously responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ in genuine faith will avoid this eternal punishment. The New Testament is clear, for example, that Old Testament believers who trusted in the God of creation but who did not know about Jesus will nevertheless be saved (Matt. 8:11; Rom. 4:1-7; Heb. 11:4-32; etc.). We may also reasonably infer that children who die in the womb or in early childhood, before they have had the opportunity to know and choose good or evil (Rom. 9:11), will not be condemned, because they have no sinful works for which they will be judged (again, see Rom. 2:6). These two categories of people must account for uncounted billions of people who will enjoy eternal life. Beyond these observations we must be cautious about engaging in speculation, but we may be assured that God will be perfectly just in the matter (Gen. 18:25).19

Second, will everyone who goes to the realm of eternal punishment receive exactly the same punishment? Many people answer yes to this question, often citing especially the warnings in Revelation 14:9-11 and 20:10-15. Revelation 20:10 says explicitly that the beast, the false prophet, and the devil will be tormented in the lake of fire forever and ever. When John goes on to say that all of the wicked will be cast into the lake of fire (20:15), it is easy to conclude that they will receive punishment to the same degree or extent as the devil. However, Revelation does not actually say so. Perhaps egregiously wicked beings such as the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41), the “beast” and the “false prophet,” and those who knowingly worship the beast (Rev. 14:9-11), will receive the most severe punishment, while rank-and-file sinners will experience varying degrees of agony and anguish of a more limited nature. We find confirmation for such differences in the punishment meted out to the wicked in an often-overlooked statement by Jesus in the Gospels:

“And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:47-48).20

We do not know precisely what these different degrees of punishment will involve. However, what we can and do know is that God is both holy and just. He will not punish anyone beyond what his or her sin deserves. The New Testament clearly warns that eternal punishment awaits the wicked and that it will be especially severe for those who claim to have the truth but who are unfaithful with it. “Hell” is not just the common grave of humanity. It is not passing quietly into nonexistence after living in whatever way one pleases. The consequences of rejecting God will be severe. The good news is that God has graciously provided a way of escape from the wrath that we all deserve through the sacrificial death of his own Son (John 3:16; Rom. 3:21-26; 5:6-11).



1. M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 14–15. Much of Jehovah’s Witness doctrine derived from the 19th-century Adventists, including their “prophetic” chronological speculations and their belief that the preexistent Christ had been Michael the archangel.

2. See Part 20 of this series, “Is Death Just Passing into Nonexistence?” for documentation of the Society’s teachings on this point.

3. “Myth 2: The Wicked Suffer in Hell,” Watchtower, Nov. 1, 2009, 5.

4. “Soul,” in Insight on the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1988, 2015, 2018), 2:1006; What Does the Bible Really Teach (Watchtower, 2005, 2014), 73, 213.

5. “Matthew Study Notes—Chapter 25,” at Matt. 25:46, in New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition) (2015, 2020); see also “What Did Jesus Teach about Hell?” Watchtower, Nov. 1, 2008, 7.

6. See the quotation from The Emphatic Diaglott in Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1989), 171.

7. “What Is ‘the Lake of Fire’?” Watchtower, Nov. 1, 2008, 8.

8. “A Brief History of Hell,” Watchtower, Nov. 1, 2008, 8.

9. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 174.

10. Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 99.

11. Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #20, “Is Death Just Passing into Nonexistence?”

12. Jesus’ use of the expression “the gates of Hades” (Matt. 16:18) likely uses Hades as an equivalent for Sheol as the realm of the dead.

13. The material in the following two paragraphs is dependent on Boa and Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, 35–36.

14. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 173; “What Did Jesus Teach about Hell,” 6–7.

15. E.g., Peter Head, “The Duration of Divine Judgment in the New Testament,” in Eschatology in the Bible and Theology: Evangelical Essays at the Dawn of a New Millennium, ed. Kent E. Brower and Mark W. Elliott (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 223.

16. “What Did Jesus Teach about Hell,” 7.

17. On this “root fallacy” and the example of the word nice, see D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 28–33.

18. One can verify this point by consulting any of the standard Greek-English lexicons, such as BDAG, Liddell and Scott, or Louw and Nida.

19. See further Boa and Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, 120–49.

20. Jesus may also have been alluding to different degrees of punishment for the wicked in his warnings to the towns in Galilee that rejected him that “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah” than for them (Matt. 10:15; 11:20-24).