I have a meeting coming up with some Witnesses who come to my door occasionally. I've actually been praying for more Witnesses and Mormons to come by to give me more of a chance to practice proclaiming the gospel to people. Anyway, the main Witness really wanted to discuss hell the next time he comes by. I've always shied away from wrangling about details of Hell, wanting to focus on a basic Gospel presentation. But this will be the fourth or fifth time with this particular gentleman, so I figured I'd finally give in and discuss the particular subject he wants to discuss. As the subject leads to a good Gospel presentation (which his partner may never have heard), I'm happy to talk about this.
I'm basing some of my presentation on information presented on the official JW site, including this page that talks about who goes to hell and this page, which incorrectly asserts that hell is "really" Hades/Sheol. The word "hell" is not in the bible, so if we are to use it, we need to define what it means. The JW site is assigning a meaning to the word "hell" just like Christians do, no more supportable from scripture. Both are arbitrary meanings. The difference is that Christians have been using their usage for 2000 years, not 150.
They then go on to deprecate the Christian idea of hell in favor of their annihilation-oriented Gehenna. My first point to the Witnesses when they return will be to ask where they think the traditional Christian idea of hell came from. Let's look at three images of Gehenna that the Bible presents.
(1) Gehenna means "Valley of son of Hinnom," and a reference is given to Jeremiah 7:32 (I use references from the NWT throughout). When you read this (or any Bible passage), don't just read the words: get a picture in your mind like the original author intended. This was the valley which was "prophetically spoken of as a place where dead bodies would be strewn" according to the JW glossary (which then goes on to make a completely unwarranted conclusion that is really just a restatement of their own unique doctrine on hell). Got it? Also, read the very next verse, which the JW site glossary does not mention: verse 33 "And the dead bodies of this people will become food for the birds of the heavens and for the beasts of the earth, with no one to frighten them away."
You can see why the JW web site didn't include the reference to verse 33. Who is speaking here? God. What is the image he's presenting? This place where worthless things are thrown, to be picked apart bit by bit. How does a bird consume something? One little bit at a time. Imagine something with me: imagine your body being picked apart by birds and torn apart piece by piece by wild animals. That is the image of hell that God himself presents - not your body disappearing suddenly and painlessly, but birds picking apart your body bit by bit over a long period of time. It's a very depressing picture, and God himself presents it.
(2) Revelation 21:8: "But as for the cowards and those without faith and those who are disgusting in their filth and murderers and the sexually immoral and those practicing spiritism and idolaters and all the liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. This means the second death." Does it hurt to die? Some die painlessly, but usually, yes. And look at the image again - a lake that burns with fire and sulphur. Burning sulfur - from MSDS "Sulfur dust suspended in air ignites easily... Toxic gases will form upon combustion." Do you know what burning sulfur smells like? Volcanoes. The image God is presenting here in revelation - a lake of fire with the smell of sulfur - is that of a pool of lava. Imagine standing in front of a pool of lava and then having somebody throw you in. What do you think of? Not that you'd be annihilated and go into non-existence if you fell in, but that you'd suffer intense burning pain if you fell in. That's how Jesus's hearers and John's readers would have understood this image.
(3) Mark 9:47 "And if your eye makes you stumble, throw it away. It is better for you to enter one-eyed into the Kingdom of God than to be thrown with two eyes into Ge·hen'na, 48 where the maggot does not die and the fire is not put out." Here is Jesus quoting his father Jehovah in Isaiah 66:24. They are both giving pictures of something eternal. They both make a very clear and repeated point of this eternality, Jesus speaking directly to his hearers. Do you think he chose his words carefully? I think he chose them carefully, knowing exactly what effect they would have in his hearers. If all he meant was that hell would go on forever but his hearers would not be there to suffer, what would be the point? He'd be emphasizing something that really made no difference to his hearers. (Why would I care how long hell goes on, if that duration cannot possibly affect me or my loved ones?) No, Jesus's point (and Jehovah's in Isaiah) is clear: the people they're talking about are going to suffer forever.
SO... Let's put it all together. The pictures that God are presenting are that many people will be thrown into this valley of death, to be painfully picked apart by birds and other animals for years and years. It adds the image of your body being thrown into a fiery volcano, full of incredibly hot molten lava that comprises the lake of fire. Finally, that this will go on forever for those who go there. Sounds a lot like the traditional picture of hell to me, doesn't it?
Question: since the bible presents this picture of hell so clearly, why would you not believe it?
There is a related question: Who goes to hell? In Matthew 5:22 Jesus tells us "I say to you that everyone who continues wrathful with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice; and whoever addresses his brother with an unspeakable word of contempt will be accountable to the Supreme Court; whereas whoever says, ‘You despicable fool!’ will be liable to the fiery Ge·hen'na.'"
Look at that: fiery Gehenna! The JW web site says "The Bible shows that some people become so steeped in wickedness that they are beyond repentance." That sounds nice because you can think to yourself, well that doesn't include me. But look at what the Bible says is enough to get you thrown into Gehenna - lying (Revelation 21:8) or calling somebody a fool. Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever called somebody a fool?
Hebrews 10:26 says "For if we practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, 27 but there is a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a burning indignation that is going to consume those in opposition." I have given you an accurate knowledge of the truth. I'm praying for you right now, that you listen to what I've told you. Don't deceive yourself - don't blame your own sin on Adam. James 1:14 says "But each one is tried by being drawn out and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then the desire, when it has become fertile,* gives birth to sin; in turn sin, when it has been carried out, brings forth death." Where is Adam in here? Nowhere. It's all on you and me. Your sin and my sin have made us worthy of only hell.
Thankfully, God didn't leave us in our sins and trespasses. He gave His only son to pay the penalty you and I deserve. And Christ will take that penalty for any person who turns to Him in repentance and faith. I pray that you have ears to hear.