I was recently directed to a website belonging to John Lilley, an author of at least three books on Christianity. One of those books is titled “Hell is a Mistranslation”. One article on his website, titled “The Early Christians did not Believe in Hell” served as a sort of prologue to the book, explaining why Lilley believes “hell” to be a mistranslation and explaining that neither Christ nor the early Christian writers from the first several centuries believed in “hell” as we understand it today.
I have attempted several times to re-access his webpage lately, but have been unable. I continue to get a message that the webpage (johnlilley.org) has expired. Whether the page will come up again, I do not know. What I do know is that there are at least a handful of people who have recently read his article and were misled by it, and so I am going to refute it. Actually, I’m going to let Jesus and the early Christians refute it; I’ll just post their words. Christ, Himself, as well as the early Christian writers, believed in “hell” as we understand it today: everlasting and unquenchable fire and/or eternal separation from God.
To start, Lilley says that if we go by the original Greek in which the New Testament letters were written, we will see that the word “hell” is nowhere to be found. Now, I’m not a Greek scholar, but let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that Lilley is correct. The word “hell” is not in the original language of the Bible. Why does that matter? Mr. Lilley, why does it matter what name is given to the “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (Mt 25:41,46) that *is* in the Bible? Are we to assume that, just because it bears a particular name that is recognizable in the common language, that this “eternal fire” no longer exists?
So, if “hell” isn’t actually in the Bible, what is? Since Mr. Lilley prefers the Greek, let’s look at the Greek words for “hell” that *are* in Scripture. The Greek “Hades”, “Tartarus”, and “Gehenna” are used in various ways in the Bible and in the writings of the early Christians. “Gehenna”, which is found multiple times in the Scriptures, is always used to refer to the “eternal separation from God” or “everlasting fire/punishment”. “Hades” can ALSO be used for that place of eternal separation from God which we, today, simply call “Hell” (cf. Lk 16), but it isn't always.
Here are some examples of “Gehenna”, translated in English to “hell”, being used to describe what we call “Hell”, or an eternal separation from God:
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell* of fire” (Mt 5:22). *This refers to Gehenna, and some translations simply use “fires of Gehenna” here.
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5:29-30, cf. Mk 9:43-48). If this “hell” were not eternal, why would it be better to remove a part of your body rather than end up there? If you are going to end up in Heaven anyway (eventually), why not just keep that eye or that hand?
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28, cf. Lk 12:5).
“And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Mt 18:9).
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are… You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? ” (Mt 23:15, 33).
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
Other verses, such as Revelation 19:20, 20:10 and Mt 13:42, continue to describe what is to be understood of “Gehenna”, such as “lake of fire” or “furnace of fire”. Mark 9:48 tells us that Gehenna is a place where “the worm that eats them does not die, and the fire is not quenched”. Mt 25:41, 46 calls this hell “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and “eternal punishment”, and that many people, even among whom called Him “Lord”, will end up there (Mt 25:31-46, cf. Mt 7:21-23).
Mr. Lilley, if Jesus says that this “Gehenna” is eternal, who are you to say that it is not? Should I take your word over Christ’s?
And look at Revelation 14:10-11, which vividly describes “Hell” as we know it, beyond any claim of semantics: “…they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they 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. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
Mr. Lilley, Scripture says that a place of eternal torment and fire is real, and that some people will go there. Is Scripture wrong? Does it matter if I call this place "Hell" or "Gehenna" or whatever...as long as I mean exactly what Scripture conveys here?
Scripture could not be any clearer, and most of these are quoted from Christ, Himself.
We could stop right there, because the Scriptures flatly refute Lilley’s claims. But let’s look at the early Church Fathers, including some of the Greek speaking ones, who Lilley said would have found “an eternal hell” to be a foreign concept. You will find, in their own words, a direct refutation to what Lilley has claimed about them.
Mr. Lilley, did you ever consider the fact that the Christians who still use ancient Greek in their liturgy (the Greek Orthodox) ALSO teach about eternal hell?
Ignatius of Antioch
"Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him" (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1–2 [A.D. 110]).
"If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment" (Second Clement 5:5 [A.D. 150]).
"But when they see how those who have sinned and who have denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire, the righteous, who have done good, and who have endured tortures and have hated the luxuries of life, will give glory to their God saying, ‘There shall be hope for him that has served God with all his heart!’" (ibid., 17:7).
"No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments" (First Apology 12 [A.D. 151]).
"We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire" (ibid., 21).
"[Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons" (ibid., 52).
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
"Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3 [A.D. 155]).
"When you know what is the true life, that of heaven; when you despise the merely apparent death, which is temporal; when you fear the death which is real, and which is reserved for those who will be condemned to the everlasting fire, the fire which will punish even to the end those who are delivered to it, then you will condemn the deceit and error of the world" (Letter to Diognetus 10:7 [A.D. 160]).
"[W]e [Christians] are persuaded that when we are removed from this present life we shall live another life, better than the present one. . . . Then we shall abide near God and with God, changeless and free from suffering in the soul . . . or if we fall with the rest [of mankind], a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere incidental work, that we should perish and be annihilated" (Plea for the Christians 31 [A.D. 177]).
Theophilus of Antioch
"Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Bible] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God. . . . [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things. . . . For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire" (To Autolycus 1:14 [A.D. 181]).
"[God will] send the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemous among men into everlasting fire" (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).
"The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming. . . . [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,’ they will be damned forever" (ibid., 4:28:2).
"After the present age is ended he will judge his worshipers for a reward of eternal life and the godless for a fire equally perpetual and unending" (Apology 18:3 [A.D. 197]).
"Then will the entire race of men be restored to receive its just deserts according to what it has merited in this period of good and evil, and thereafter to have these paid out in an immeasurable and unending eternity. Then there will be neither death again nor resurrection again, but we shall be always the same as we are now, without changing. The worshipers of God shall always be with God, clothed in the proper substance of eternity. But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility" (ibid., 44:12–13).
"Standing before [Christ’s] judgment, all of them, men, angels, and demons, crying out in one voice, shall say: ‘Just is your judgment!’ And the righteousness of that cry will be apparent in the recompense made to each. To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them" (Against the Greeks 3 [A.D. 212]).
"I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment. . . . Nor is there either measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them" (Octavius 34:12–5:3 [A.D. 226]).
Cyprian of Carthage
"An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life" (To Demetrian 24 [A.D. 252]).
"[T]he sacred writings inform us in what manner the wicked are to undergo punishment. For because they have committed sins in their bodies, they will again be clothed with flesh, that they may make atonement in their bodies; and yet it will not be that flesh with which God clothed man, like this our earthly body, but indestructible, and abiding forever, that it may be able to hold out against tortures and everlasting fire, the nature of which is different from this fire of ours, which we use for the necessary purposes of life, and which is extinguished unless it be sustained by the fuel of some material. But that divine fire always lives by itself, and flourishes without any nourishment. . . . The same divine fire, therefore, with one and the same force and power, will both burn the wicked and will form them again, and will replace as much as it shall consume of their bodies, and will supply itself with eternal nourishment. . . . Thus, without any wasting of bodies, which regain their substance, it will only burn and affect them with a sense of pain. But when [God] shall have judged the righteous, he will also try them with fire" (Divine Institutes 7:21 [A.D. 307]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
"We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past" (Catechetical Lectures 18:19 [A.D. 350]).
The concept of eternal punishment, what we call “Hell” today, was certainly not foreign to the early Christians, as Lilley stated. They believed and taught it, and rebuked those who rejected that teaching. Lilley is wrong in his statements regarding Scripture and regarding the early Christians. Their words, and the words of our Lord, speak for themselves.
Lilley’s book says “hell” is a “mistranslation”. I would say, rather, it is using the common language to convey the message to the common man. Call it what you want to, but “Hell” is real, and it is eternal. Anything less is not a Christian belief.