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Why Does the Apostle Paul Never Mention Hell?

Question:

Why does the Apostle Paul never mention Hell? Or does he refer to it under some other name? If so how does he refer to it?

Answer:

This is a challenging question because although it is true that Paul never uses the term “hell”, why that is true seems to me to depend on constructing a reasonable explanation. So, I will offer a few thoughts and hopefully, readers who have better ideas will comment on this post.

To make sure we understand the question I want to first clarify some usage of the words for “hell” that one might find in various translations. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol (Strongs #7585) is sometimes translated as “hell.” Sheol is the name of the place of departed spirits. In modern translations, such as ESV and NASB, the word “hell” does not appear in the Old Testament.1 In the New Testament, ESV and NASB use “hell” for two Greek words, Gehenna and TartarusTartarus (Strongs #5020) is only used in 2 Peter 2:4 and the meaning given by Strong is “the deepest abyss of Hades” or “to incarcerate in eternal torment.”2 So, the usual Greek word translated “hell” is Gehenna.3 

It is interesting that the use of Gehenna only appears in the Gospels and is only spoken by the Lord Jesus, with one exception. James (in Jas. 3:6) is the only one to use Gehenna otherwise. But, James uses this word figurative of the kind of damage done by an ill use of the tongue. So, the Lord Jesus is the only one who explicitly refers to hell as an actual place. None of the writers of the New Testament use the word “hell” in this sense.4 

Considering that the word is only used by the Lord Jesus the first thought that comes to mind is the Lord’s words in John 3:11a, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen,” which speak of the fundamental requirement of a faithful and true witness. The Lord Jesus could speak of eternal things because He was from eternity. Paul, in particular, could reveal to us heavenly things concerning the Assembly because they were specially revealed to him (2 Cor. 12:2).

Another possible reason Paul, in particular, did not speak of hell, was that his recorded letters were written primarily to believers. In this regard, he had much to say regarding our blessings as well as our responsibilities, and the responsibilities of all those who heard the gospel. Romans 2: 3 and 4 convey well his ministry.

Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Romans 2:3–4.

So, Paul’s ministry contains many warnings of various types,5 just not explicitly of the type reserved, it would seem, to the Lord Jesus Himself. Above all, he presses the gospel of God’s grace.

One other thought comes to mind. There is a dispensational change to consider. Even more than the other gospels, Matthew reveals the nature of the kingdom of heaven. This entails more ministry that emphasizes responsibility. Most of the references to hell are in this gospel. At the end of the Lord’s ministry while on the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34) Also, Peter reminds us, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Pet. 2:23). Finally, Paul tells us, “ Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom. 12:19) Taken together these verses, and many others, seem to press on us the unique character of this present “age of grace” where the gospel of grace is to be freely preached. As Paul said in the verse quoted above (Rom. 2:4) it is the “kindness” of God that is meant to lead to repentance.

Nevertheless, judgment will come. However, it is John, not Paul, who speaks of the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14) which is the nearest image we have in the New Testament to Gehenna.


Endnotes

1.  The word “hell” also does not appear in the Old Testament of the New Translation, by J. N. Darby.

2.  The New Translation, by J. N. Darby renders this use as “the deepest pit of gloom.”

3.  Gehenna is the “valley of (the son of ) Hinnom; a valley of Jerusalem, used (figuratively) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment” (Strong #1067).

4.  The ESV uses “hell” in Matthew 16:18 for Hades (Gk.) while NASB uses “Hades”. Using “hell” in this case gives the wrong thought. The point is that the Church will not disappear by losing all of it members on earth through death (i.e., by being consigned to the “unseeen world”).

5.  See Heb. 6:2,8; 10:26–31; 12:29; Phil 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:9.


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