The first words we read in the Bible are, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Nowhere in the entire account of creation or in the rest of the biblical texts are we told that God created sin or death. Rather, we find out that these two were brought into the world because of human choices and not God’s will (Gen 2:17, 3:19; Rom 5:12). When people died, they were all believed to be in sheol.
Sheol is the Hebrew word for “underworld,” which was perceived to be physically beneath the earth’s surface. The original audiences understood this to be a realm of darkness, silence, inactivity, and physical decomposition. In the New Testament, hades in Greek and gehenna in Aramaic are similar in meaning to sheol, but with the added consideration that the “grave” is a place of judgment and punishment too.
We can confidently conclude this based on depictions of hades and gehenna as a destination (Matt 7:13; Phil 3:19), a landfill (Mark 9:42-48; Matt 10:28), and fire (Matt 18:8; Rev 14:9-11). These vivid images communicate the both consequence and finality of what will happen when we live for ourselves instead of for God. God’s desire is that all would find life (1 Tim 2:4), and that no one would die (2 Pet 3:9).
Jesus was sent because of God’s love for every person (John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 Jn 4:9-10). God’s very nature is love (1 Jn 4:8). Jesus lived and died for everyone (1 Jn 2:2), and his resurrection provides life to those who choose to accept this free gift (Rom 6:23). God has done all he can do to draw people to himself, and has commanded us to urgently do the same (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).
Both death and God’s gift of life are spoken of in terms of eternity (aionios) in the Bible (Matt 25:46). This is referring to the permanency of each, with death itself noted as the last thing to die (Rev 20:14-15). Therefore, we should not think that hell is an ongoing conscious torment or a temporary state of being.
Our modern (mis)understandings regarding the nature of hell are based more on the content from books like Dante’s Inferno, sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and internet memes shared on social media than the biblical texts themselves. Furthermore, there is plenty of other historical evidence that the early Church did not understand hell as we do today.
As such, Madison Church believes that the nature of hell is a permanent death of the body and soul, the result of our sin and not God’s decision. It is the reality in which those who do not have the gift of eternal life provided by Jesus’ atonement are separated from the sustaining life of God in their death, and thus disappear from the cosmos. We share in God’s desire that no one would be separated from him, and this affirms our mission is as urgent as it is important.