What Does the Old Testament Say About Hell?

By David Kowalski

BibleI have read several critics of the doctrine of hell insist that the concept of hell cannot be found in the Old Testament. After asserting this, they say that we cannot establish the doctrine of hell when the Old Testament “does not teach this concept.”

I would respond first by saying that as Christians we have more than ample teaching in the New Testament to establish the doctrine of a literal, eternal hell (see Matthew 3:7, Matthew 3:12, Matthew 5:29-30, Matthew 18:9-12, Matthew 13:38-42, Matthew 13:49-50, Matthew 25:46, Mark 9:43-47, Luke 12:5, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Jude 7, Revelation 14:11, Revelation 20:13-15, and Revelation 21:8).

This New Testament teaching is quite consistent, though, with the Old Testament. First, the OT contains many references to God’s wrath. He is often said to be angry at wickedness (see, for example, Deuteronomy 32:22, Psalm 2:12, and Psalm 18:7). Psalm 7:11 is one of many verses that indicate this indignation or anger is directed toward those who perpetrate this wickedness (“the wicked”).

The OT prophets repeatedly speak of a time when the Holy One would have His “day” — a day of justice in which He would express His anger toward sin and visit judgment on sinners. They referred to this as “The Day of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:12; 13:6, 9; Ezekiel 13:5, 30:3; Joel 1:15, 2:1,11,31; 3:14; Amos 5:18,20; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7,14; Zechariah 14:1; Malachi. 4:5).

The Psalmist also refers to this day as one of wrath and judgment:

The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath, (Psalm 110:5 ESV)

Daniel describes the duration of this “day” of wrath as eternal:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2 ESV)

One word of caution regarding this topic is that the King James Version often translates the word sheol as “hell.” That these passages are references to the hell taught elsewhere in the OT and fully revealed in the NT is debatable, since the ordinary use of sheol is “death” or “place of the dead.” Nevertheless, it is perhaps noteworthy that many of these passages that speak of sheol do so in terms that bespeak judgment, such as Isaiah 14:15 (KJV), “Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” Still, these passages are ambiguous at best, as being slain and sent to the place of the dead is often a form of judgment in itself within the OT.

Not only is the doctrine of hell fully revealed in the NT, it is entirely in harmony with the revelation in the OT, which teaches that God will have His day in which He eternally expresses His wrath, visiting judgment upon the wicked. The Old Testament teaches the doctrine of a literal and eternal hell, opposing rather than helping those who reject this teaching.


A flood of false doctrine has lately broken in upon us. Men are beginning to tell us “that God is too merciful to punish souls for ever…that all mankind, however wicked and ungodly…will sooner or later be saved.” We are to embrace what is called “kinder theology,” and treat hell as a pagan fable… This question lies at the very foundation of the whole Gospel. The moral attributes of God, His justice, His holiness, His purity, are all involved in it. The Scripture has spoken plainly and fully on the subject of hell… If words mean anything, there is such a place as hell. If texts are to be interpreted fairly, there are those who will be cast into it… The same Bible which teaches that God in mercy and compassion sent Christ to die for sinners, does also teach that God hates sin, and must from His very nature punish all who cleave to sin or refuse the salvation He has provided. — J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), from Holiness.

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

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This post was last updated: Apr. 30, 2013