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Hellfire Myths: Hell, Fire and Damnation

Updated on October 5, 2015
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GetFactsnotHype has been a Biblical scholar for the better part of 17 years, and has dug deeper to explore Christian facts and expose myths.

Christian Myth #5 in a series - Hellfire

In "Hellfire Myths", Sheol (or Hades), Gehenna and the Lake of Fire are discussed with relation to hell, fire, and damnation. Did Jesus preach hellfire? Is the tormenting hell of Plato and Homer a Biblical teaching?

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Hell's Eternal Burning

Fact or myth?

Does or can anything burn forever? Let's use the example of wood in your fireplace. When the fire is almost out, you have embers and a lot of charred wood, but then eventually ashes. Why is that? That is of course a simple answer we all know, which is that you must have 3 things: fuel, friction, and oxygen to continue burning. So if wood does not burn forever, how can people burn in hell forever?

A few more questions to ponder about hell:

#1) In Genesis, God says to Adam and to dust you shall return. So should we believe that the first man committing original sin should simply just return to dust, while the entire human race that was born out of original sin because of him, should suffer an eternal burning? I think not.

#2) The eternal fire that Jesus spoke of and which was recorded at Matthew 25:41 was prepared and I quote, "for the devil and his angels." First point is that it was not prepared for humans, which begs the question, then how can one imagine that a literal fire could burn spirit creatures? It can't.

#3) Revelation 20:10 says that the Devil will be cast into "the lake of fire" and "tormented day and night for ever and ever." IF the Devil were to be tortured for all eternity, would not God then have to preserve him alive in order for eternal torturing to take place? Yet in the book of Hebrews at 2:14, the Bible says Jesus will "destroy him" (KJV), and another version phrases it as "bring to nothing."

#4) In the letters of John at 1Jo 4:8, we know God is love. Is it logicial then for one to think that a crime, even though serious would cause a loving God to torture a person endlessly? No, that would be contradictory.

If some of these questions have left you with doubt - they should. They do not make sense, or at least not in the context in which most people understand hell. First, let me clarify between the words Gehenna and Sheol, and then I'll address the "lake of fire," which might provide some insight.

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Is Hell called Gehenna

History on Gehenna:

What is Gehenna? Ge' en.na, the Greek word for hell, comes from the Hebrew Geh Hinnom', meaning "Valley of Hinnom." It was located on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem, and had 2 uses during biblical times.

The first use of the Valley of Hinnom was in the days of the Israelite kings where they practiced idolatrous worship, which included human sacrifices by fire in honor of a false god, Baal. The child sacrifices were disgusting to God, AND their act of false worship to Baal. The Valley of Hinnom would then be called "the valley of slaughter," where the carcasses would lie unburied. Jeremiah 7:30-34 foretold that the place would become the mass disposal of dead bodies, and that prophecy was fulfilled in the New Testament, specifically during Jesus' day.

Later to prevent such activities there in the future, the place was polluted and became an incinerator for the filth of Jerusalem, and that was the 2nd use for the Valley of Hinnom'. In Jesus' day, it became the city's garbage dump where dead animals were thrown and the bodies of vile criminals which had already been executed. The constantly burning fire was to keep the refuse heap under control, and sulfur or brimstone was added to assist in the burning. That's where one gets the "brimstone" from when trying to explain hell, which is erroneous in the manner in which they otherwise describe it.

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Is Hell Sheol or Hades

Sheol or Hades is often confused with hell

Sheol (with different spellings for different languages) occurs in the Old Testament (properly termed Hebrew Scriptures), 65 times in most translations and some translations 66 times. The derivation of the Hebrew word she'ohl' is uncertain, but according to one derivation it means hollow place, or resting place. Regardless of which derivation, it is always associated with the dead, and basically means the common grave of mankind, which is not to be confused with "qe' ver" meaning an individual grave or burial place. Hades (or the Greek hai'des) occurs ten times in the New Testament (properly termed Greek Scriptures), and is equivalent to the Hebrew "sheol". Gravedom which lies beneath is simply a temporary holding place, where one awaits resurrection.

Christ likened death to sleeping, as though one was asleep in death when speaking of Lazarus at John 11:11-14. An explanation of death also occurs in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Ecclesiastes 9:5 it states "The living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything" (from the NAB version). Also Psalm 146:4 (KJ version) states "He returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish."

This is where the "sheol" confusion comes in ...

If the dead no longer know anything and their "thoughts perish", how could they sense any torment in hell? But that is exactly what the Douay-Rheims Version has translated. In that version, the book of Job at 14:13 renders "sheol" to mean hell. Job was suffering a severe illness and begged, (and I quote) "protect me in hell [Hebrew, Sheol]". What meaning could his statement possibly have if Sheol was a place of eternal torment, to then beg to be protected there? He couldn't be protected. You ask anyone that speaks Hebrew, and they will tell you that "sheol" does not equate with the words, burn in hell, hellfire or damnation.

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Hell and Lake of Fire

Is the "Lake of Fire" figurative or real?

Using a previous verse (above) in respects to the book of Revelation, I will briefly mention the "lake of fire." I say briefly, because this really is a meatier subject that deserves an entire page devoted to it, so for space and time constraints I will be brief. The Bible never mentions that the fiery lake would release those in it, but instead is an irreversible death without hope of a resurrection. Symbolically speaking, this abyss or everlasting restraint is permanent, but not permanently burning as in constantly, but permanent meaning total destruction, with no way to escape.

Some say Jesus preached hellfire (misunderstood)

Although at first glance, it appears that Jesus is promoting a hellfire teaching, which can be confusing for many IF taken out of context. However, his teachings are not contradictory and do back up the other Holy Scriptures. Let's explore 2 scriptures to see what Jesus had to say about hell.

At Matthew 25:41 and 46, Jesus says "go off to eternal punishment," when speaking of the wicked. (The New American Bible) This eternal punishment (or eternal fire used by some translations) that Jesus spoke of was not literal but symbolic. It was used figuratively to mean the wicked would be completely burned up or cut off from society and life, which would be an everlasting destruction. Hell is the eternal separation from God.

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Applying Scriptures on Hellfire

Putting it all together

If you have already read the previous sections on Gehenna, Sheol, and Lake of Fire, this segment will now be more clear.

Now applying the Holy Scriptures on hellfire, take a look at Mark 9:47 and 48 (the latter part), which says "The worms there never die, and the fire never stops burning" (Contemporary English Version). Depending on the verson used, some may want to read Mark 9:44 and 46 because these verses read similarly. Either way this pertains to the Valley of Hinnom in the sense that not all bodies thrown into this pit were consumed by fire immediately, for IF it landed on a ledge of the deep ravine, the flesh became infested with the ever-present worms and maggots. The remark Jesus made at the Gospel of Mark was reminding us what Isaiah 66:24 had stated regarding "the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against God," AND "their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched." (KJ version)

Jesus' listeners knew that these words from Isaiah referred to the treatment of the carcasses of those not deserving a burial. Therefore Jesus' words was a fitting symbol of a final death liking to that of Gehenna both for the ongoings that occurred at the Valley of Hinnom ( a metaphor) and the root meaning of the Greek word "gehenna," (or ge'en.na translated from the word y'eevva).

In conclusion:

Myth or fact? Answer: Myth. The original Hebrew word she'ohl (or sheol) and the Greek word hai'des or (hades) refers to the common grave of dead mankind, while the Greek word ge'en.na (or gehenna) and the Hebrew equivalent Geh Hinnom' mean eternal destruction. Gehenna therefore parallels with the Lake of Fire, and that is what some people refer to as hell, although they don't know what it is or why it is called that. Gehenna is not an ever burning place with everlasting torment, any more than the lake of fire is, AND "fire" is simply a symbol of annihilation, and is tantamount to final death, whereas the grave of mankind is not final death.

Related Reading:

If you liked this article on Hell, you might also like the related page on Satan.

Article is my own work for all sections, Copyright retained

Hell Translations and Teachings

Some final notes on fiery torment:

Note #1: Scare Tactics

I do not have a problem with most of the scriptures on this page, and they make perfect sense. It is true that there have been some scriptures that were misleading based on translation, (one was already mentioned above), but mostly people just take things out of context, OR do not understand what they are reading. My biggest problem lies with those that actually teach the hellfire doctrine, which is nothing more than a scare tactic of churches. Church leaders know that some may feel that IF they do not go to church they may go to a fiery hell, or if they don't give enough they will burn in hell, hence pass the money plate around a second time, which is tithing.

Note #2 Translations

That has not stopped many translators (and I use that term loosely) from confusing or intermingling these words. In some places the King James Version uses sheol when referring to hell, and at other times uses it when referring to the grave. The Today's English Version transliterates hades as hell AND the world of the dead. The Jerusalem Bible translates hades correctly at times, but also transliterates it as hell AND the underworld. Keep in mind, transliteration and transcribing are not the same as translating, which can net a different result. It is important to use the original texts when undergoing such practices in order for an accurate Bible translation. Obviously some of them have missed the mark.

Note #3: Revised definition by some churches

Some denominations in recent years have revised their teaching about hell, such as the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England. In 1995 they said "Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being." (Kudos, bravo.)

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Origin and History of Hell

The origin of hell has Pagan roots

Plato was not the first to discuss a fiery torment, for Hell's history is long and its origin in ancient religious beliefs is rooted in Paganism. Hell's pagan roots began way before the times of Christ and were not part of his teachings.

Catholic churches in Italy whose depictions of hell can be traced to Etruscan roots, could have been as early as 1200 B.C. Although the earliest history of the Etruscans is uncertain, the later history from 700 B.C. is well known.

Babylonian and Assyrian beliefs depicted the "nether world" .... as a place full of horrors, .... presided over by gods and demons of great strength and fierceness. (The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Boston, 1898, Morris Jastrow, Jr. p 581)

The religion of ancient Egypt believed in a fiery hell, although ancient Egyptian religious texts do not teach the burning of any individual would go on forever. They do however portray the "Other World" as featuring "pits of fire" for "the damned." Although there is a book written on this matter titled "The Book of the Dead", written in 1960, there is better evidence of this elsewhere. This actually dates back to at least 1375 B.C as evidenced by "The Book Am-Tuat" written AT THAT TIME. In that book it speaks of those who "shall be cast down headlong into the pits of fire; and ... shall not escape therefrom, and ... shall not be able to flee from the flames."

This link will provide more info on the Egyptian hell and Tuat.

So while many credit Plato for inventing the tormenting hell, he was not the originator of such myth although he certainly perpetuated the idea, and had the greatest influence on the traditional views of Hell.

Other notable people's views on hell:

  • For many, the meaning of hell today is derived from the portrayal in Dante's "Divine Comedy" and Milton's "Paradise Lost", which is incorrect based on Biblical Scriptures.
  • Theophilus of Antioch wrote quoting the Greek prophetess Sibyl, "upon you burning fire shall come, and ever ye shall daily burn in flames."
  • Greek philosopher Plutarch (approx 46 to 120 A.D) wrote about those in the world below "[They] raised a cry of wailing as they underwent fearful torments and ignominious and excruciating chastisements."
  • As you can see there are many writers and philosophers who have similar views on hell, and in the next section Plato and Homer are discussed.

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Plato and Hell

Although the Greek philosopher Plato had long since written about hell hundreds of years earlier, it wasn't until approximately the middle of the 2nd century A.D (properly termed C.E.) that Christians who had some training in Greek philosophy began to adopt the philosophy of Platonism (or the teachings of Plato). "Histoire des enfers" or the History of Hell, by Georges Minois page 50 will gladly provide the views of hell by Plato. However, Plato who lived approximately 428 / 427 B.C. to 348 / 347 B.C. (years counted backward then) was NOT the first to introduce hell to people, and many may not be familiar with Homer's description of hell described as Tartarus. This word was used by the author in his work the "Iliad", which is seen below.

See the link here to read more on Plato's view of tormenting hell.

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Homer's Iliad and Hell

Homer's "Iliad" of the 8th century B.C. discusses hell. Hell existed in pre-Christian mythologies, such as Homer's "Iliad", when speaking about Tartarus. He was not writing about Tartarus, the god of Greek mythology, BUT instead Homer was speaking of a place that was an underground prison. This prison was supposed to be as far below Hades as earth is below heaven, and in it were imprisoned the lesser gods, Cronus and the other Titan spirits. In this case, Homer's Tartarus is liking to that of Biblical Gehenna or the Lake of Fire, which is a state of being or a condition, NOT a place or a particular location, although Homer confuses this based on lack of a Biblical understanding. Sheol or Hades is the opposite, whereas it describes a place and not a condition. Homer's view along with others perpetuated the idea of hell as people know it today, which is not a Bible teaching.

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Tartarus - Homer's Hell

Homer's hell versus the Bible

Although Homer's "Tartarus" is more closely similar to Gehenna or the Lake of Fire, it is not truly the same from a Biblical standpoint. Biblically speaking, Tartarus is an abased condition for sinning angels and disobedient spirits that were thrown into a pit of dense darkness during the days of Noah. This is a precursor to the abyssing that Satan and his demons are to experience in the Lake of Fire. Photo: Photobucket

The word Tartarus appears in the Bible at 2nd Peter 2:4, and a parallel text is found at Jude 6. Additionally, insight can be helpful by reading Ephesians 6:10 -12, and then Revelation 20:1-3 is the final destination of the abyss after Tartarus, and also Luke 8:26-31 states demons entreated Jesus not to order them to go away into the abyss. The Abyss and Tartarus can be confusing terms, so again I would refer you back to the previous sections on Gehenna and The Lake of Fire, which should clear things up a bit.

© 2011 GetFactsnotHype

Hell Fire Comments

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      Visit 3 years ago

      Hell is defined, in some places, as eternal separation from God. God, in these same situations, is defined as the various "omni" characterstics - including the one that means all present. This means, there is no place where God isn't. For Hell to exist, it would mean to be someplace where God isn't. Not sure that can be given the classic definitions of both. People who make those comments - damning people - do not understand him. He is the one who left the many to go for the 1 who was lost and in need. He spared all costs in going for that one individual. That is, to me, an essential part of his character. This is also something to me that goes beyond a single religion. It isn't about dogma - it's about us.

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      SBPI Inc 4 years ago

      Excellence personified. God is Love and all else stands out as an anomaly. Unconditional Love with guidance for achieving and maintaining that state of Being.

      Life in our form is a constructed way of life built based upon societal perceptions or culturally perceived reality. God desire is for us all to 'enjoy the fullness of life'. We could consider hell as the pain, cruelty and evil (non-love) that we, as humans, create for ourselves here in this form through the unconscious choices we make. May there be Peace on earth and good will to all.

      May God Bless us all with Divine Guidance.

      Dr. Jonathan

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Good Job sister... I hope you are fully active in the minister too (Luke 10:1 & Matt 28:19,20)

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      GetFactsnotHype 5 years ago

      @anonymous: @Tom not sure if this was intended for Tommy or myself, but I will answer. You may have mistaken me for being a Jew because I said these are Christian Myths, however I am of Christian faith.

      Next the Bible states flesh and blood cannot enter heaven. Next ... when you are resurrected you do have a body. Next ... the meek shall inherit the earth states the Bible AND the earth will stand until times indefinate is also in the Bible. Hopefully that helps.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      @Tommy_D: so you mean that after death you will have body? do you mean that in Jesus times there were torments for unjust? why Abraham lies - even if someone fulfils law he/she will not be saved or something has changed? will just Jews go to heaven without Jesus? etc Such questions show that you yourself cannot treat this story as a literal description of life after death.

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      Laraine Sims 5 years ago from Lake Country, B.C.

      I came back to bless this lens. Such an accurate rendering of a very important subject.

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      GetFactsnotHype 5 years ago

      @anonymous: @Vickie Yes that is what I am saying - no tormenting hell. Like you said, a God of love would not create such a place and there would be nothing to gain by doing it. God is loving, kind, just, slow to anger, and none of God's qualities suggest otherwise.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      @GetFactsnotHype: Do you really think there is no hell fire for humans to be tormented from day to day?? I sure hope there is not one..i feel God of love would not create a place like this for anybody..I could see just letting them go to the grave and be done but not to torment forever what would he gain from this cruelty??

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      GetFactsnotHype 6 years ago

      @LaraineRoses: @LaraineRose - absolutely correct! Yes that is what the Bible says, although many do not read it or understand what they have read or take it out of context to make it apply TO THEM. Right on sister!

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      Laraine Sims 6 years ago from Lake Country, B.C.

      I understand perfectly what you are writing about. Hellfire? What does the Bible say?

      âFor the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, . . . for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.â-Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, Revised Standard Version.

      The Hebrew word Sheol, which referred to the âabode of the dead,â is translated âhellâ in some versions of the Bible. What does this passage reveal about the condition of the dead? Do they suffer in Sheol in order to atone for their errors? No, for they âknow nothing.â Hell, in the Biblical sense, is simply the common grave of mankind, where all activity has ceased.

      Is not this definition of hell more logical and in harmony with Scripture? What crime, however horrible, could cause a God of love to torture a person endlessly? (1 John 4:8)

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      Tommy_D 6 years ago

      @GetFactsnotHype: Then why does the rich man request that Lazarus cool his tongue with water if it is not hot there?

      The problem I see is that people can only write what they see from an earthly perspective, whenever a person dies in the Bible it always relates to "as the interpreters say" hell as the grave, they relate grave and hell together because that's all they can see from the earthly point of view, but when Jesus tells the story of "A Certain Rich Man" who actually exsists, Jesus shows us the earthly side of the story first, the rich man died and was buried... Then Jesus being God shows us the other side of the story that we cannot see, ...and in hell he lifted up his eyes being in torments, this rich man said to Abraham that he was tormented in this flame, and requested Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool his tongue... you wouldn't need water to cool your tongue if there was no fire.

      I'd like to say in reference to #2), - The Bible also says that God is a consuming fire, He showed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, but the bush was not consumed, God can burn something without consuming it. He has designed the lake of fire and souls so that all that go there will suffer a burning torment without ever being totally consumed. He called it Everlasting fire, that is the punishment He designed for the devil and his angels, and all that will follow the devils ways will end up in the same lake of fire with the same torment.

      Since God is the Creator He can do anything, even these things that sound impossible, this is were we must simply believe His word.

      To #4) - never forget, God made a way for us all to escape the damnation of hell but it is totally mans choice, man chooses to do evil instead of choosing God's way, so man sends himself to hell not God!

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      GetFactsnotHype 6 years ago

      @Tommy_D: @Tommy_D - In the KJV the Greek word Hades is rendered "hell" in each of its 10 occurrences in the NT or (Christian) Greek Scriptures. The rendering at Luke 16:19-31 mentions torment, but the entire account is symbolic in meaning. Just as the "Lake of Fire" is symbolic or used figuratively. See section this page on Lake of Fire again.

      The Hebrew word Sheol (the Greek equivalent to Hades) occurs 65 times in the OT and is rendered "hell," but at other times rendered "grave," and also "pit", as if in different occurrences throughout the Bible that the KJV isn't exactly sure what it is OR as IF buried in the grave is hell. (see section this page on translations)

      Also Luke says in Acts 2:31 "Neither was [Jesus] forsaken in Hades (meaning grave but in KJV is rendered as HELL) nor did his flesh see corruption." As all Christians know, Jesus was NOT in hell, but he WAS buried. Hopefully this scripture in Acts will make this more clear, that Hades is at times translated incorrectly, so I guess we could say as the title of Sofia Coppola's movie - lost in translation.

      But you asked a good question, and I appreciate the comment.

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      Tommy_D 6 years ago

      What about the rich man in hell that Jesus told us about in Luke 16?

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      GetFactsnotHype 6 years ago

      @darciefrench lm: Although I agree with you on some of your statement - not all of it. Yes God is love, but the Old Testament is not full of fallacies, BUT instead man does not understand what he has read and misinterprets and then that is carried through generations as the accepted belief.

      Some of the problem is due to inaccurate translations - see section on translations.

      The Old Testament is not inaccurate, but man's view of it is inaccurate, and books, and philosophers just add to the problem, like Plato, Dante etc.

      The page is designed to show HOW these myths get started in the 1st place, not to poke fun of the Old Testament.

      But again I agree with some things you said, and of course you are entitled to your opinion. I do appreciate your comments though.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      What is the gnashing of teeth represent?

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      darciefrench lm 6 years ago

      This lens points out the fallacies in the old Testament, particularly Revelations, quite well. Remember that the old testament was not the Way, or the Word of Christ. The presence of Christ-like consciousness eradicates any potential for Hell. It is these enlightened masters, like Christ, whose presence on earth keeps us from destroying ourselves out of ignorance. Lensrolling to False Prophets. Anything that states God is anything but love and peace in essence is false. God does not punish the wicked, the wicked, or the ignorant punish themselves. The only sin is ignorance, which is cured by knowing that God is love. Fear is the greatest enemy of mankind- there is nothing to fear in God but letting go of false perception.

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      GetFactsnotHype 6 years ago

      @anonymous: @ChineseKitesforKids - That is found in the NT - once in Luke and five times in Matthew. It talks about .. that's where his/ their gnashing of the teeth and the weeping will be.

      There is one particular scripture in Matthew where it relates to the lawless ones being thrown into the fiery furnace, and perhaps that is what you are referring to.

      Remember the Bible says and the people (paraphrasing) said didn't we do this and didn't we do so-and-so, and the reply was - get away from me, I do not know you. The ones exercising lawlessness will certainly be cut off and not inherit the kingdom and have eternal separation from God. Although your question is not part of the web page - it is indirectly related, so I answered it, but briefly. If you go back to the section on Gehenna and Lake of Fire for clarification - it should parallel your question as it relates to fiery furnace in Matthew (for gnashing of teeth).

      Thanks for commenting.

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      dannystaple 6 years ago

      Thanks for a refreshing view on this subject. The world could do with fewer scare tactics and hate.