All You Ever Wanted to Know About Hell

Hell - It's Real
Okay, well, maybe not everything. But here is a detailed listing of the terms used for “hell” in the Bible. Some are harder to grasp than others, but the concept remains the same. It’s the bad place.

Words used in the Bible for the afterlife have changed over time – as have their meanings. None of this diminishes the accuracy of the Bible, it just requires diligence when you study the concept.

Five different words for the idea of “hell” if you count all the ones in the Hebrew, Greek, and English languages. They are: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, and Hell.

Sheol – an Old Testament concept referring to the abode of the dead. Conscious souls face a shadowy existence in this land of oblivion.

Around 150 B.C., there were so many Jews living throughout the world at that time that did not speak Hebrew that a Greek version of the Old Testament was written the Septuagint. In it, the word Hades replaced Sheol. They are essentially the same place.

The inter-testamental period (between the end of the book of Malachi – 400 BC – to Jesus birth in the year 0) also brought changes. Before this time, not much changed. Sheol/Hades was just a place where souls waited until judgment.

After the last book of the Old Testament was written concepts began to change and many “historical” books were written. Books such as IV Ezra, I Enoch, and the Book of the Jubilees offered nuances to the concepts of “hell.” And, interestingly, separated the wicked dead from the just and righteous dead.

Sheol/Hades became a place of annihilation and punishment for some. Also during this intertestamental time came the word Gehenna.

Gehenna is Hebrew for “the Valley of Hinnom.” This was a valley south of Jerusalem where many sacrificed their offerings and children in the worship of Molech.

Gehenna came to mean a final place of punishment. The word eventually wound its way into the Greek New Testament. This valley of Hinnom is often thought of by many theologians to be a burning refuse dump in the first century. They say it was a representation of the earthly “hell” each person goes through, thus negating the actual “hell” that is described in the Bible.

But there is no archaeological evidence that this area was ever a refuse dump and the idea didn’t occur until over 200 years after Jesus was resurrected.

The Hebrew word Gehenna represents a state of fire and judgment and also a place of final judgment. Just as Sheol became Hades in the inter-testamental period, so did Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus become interchangeable.

Tartarus is only found in II Peter 2:4 and it also means “hell.” This was thought by Greeks to be a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was meted out.

To finish with the words for “hell” is the word “hell” itself. “Hell” is not a derivative of Hebrew or Greek and essentially comes from the Old English, making its first appearance around 725 A.D. in Europe.

No matter how the words are used or how they changed, “hell” is a place to be feared.

Believe that Christ was raised from the dead and confess that He is Lord, then this is not an issue you will need to worry about.

7 Comments

  1. Thanks for all the background facts on the word usage! Personally, I think the Bible is clear about hell being an “event” rather than a place- and one that hasn’t happened yet. Keep up the great scholarship!

      1. Jude 6: Hell is “reserved” unto the great judgment day. This means it hasn’t happened yet.

        2 Pet 3:7: The heavens and earth are to be the site of this judgment day of “fire” for the ungodly.

        2 Pet 3:10: Judgment day is also called “the day of the Lord”, in which the heavens and earth will be “burned up.” This must happen before the “new heaven and a new earth” are created. (Rev 21:1)

        Isa 51:6: People on earth will die in this event.

        Jude 7: Hell is not “eternal”, just as the judgment/burning of Sodom and Gomorrah aren’t still burning, but yet called “eternal.”

        Malachi 4:1-3: Judgment day burns as an oven, and all the wicked will be “stubble.” They will be ashes under the feet of the righteous, which will inherit the new earth after the millennium. (Matt 5:5, Rev 20:5, Rev 21:2)

        The wrong idea of hell has led many to have a wrong view of God’s character. People say “how can a loving God allow someone to burn for the ceaseless eternal ages for a single lifetime of sin?”

        God is fair- we’ll all agree on that. So how can God punish an unrepentant sinner from yesteryear longer than the originator of sin, the devil himself, who walks around as a “roaring lion” with us today? That would be unfair. The wicked are punished “according to their works” on a future date, including the devil. (Rom 2:5,6, Rev 20:5,13)

        Rev 20:14: Death itself is symbolically cast into the lake of fire, also called “the second death.”

        What do you think?

        P.S. sorry for the delayed response; I’ve been backpacking in the snow all weekend!

      2. Hey no problem! -Cindi
        Here is James’ response. I’m just handing it to you as he emailed it to me as I have no time to edit it at the moment. Enjoy the debate!

        Many of the verses are pulled from the OT. Different focus and intent there.
        He didn’t pull one verse from Jesus’ own words.

        Matthew 25:41 – eternal fire
        Matthew 25:46 – eternal punishment
        Matthew 13:42 – thrown into fire
        Rev 20:10 speaks of hell for the devil and his angels. Matthew 25:41 says man will be thrown into the same place

        If man doesn’t go to hell, then is he saying the devil doesn’t go to hell? Because we are supposed to go to the same place if you don’t know Christ. Or is he saying hell is a place of purification and you can get out?

        An event, sure. Everything is an event. An event doesn’t give a time limit.

        Isaiah 51 is speaking about Salvation for Zion. It isn’t speaking about those who refuse Christ or the lost.

        The Peter passages are speaking about judgment day not what happens after judgment.

        The judgment passages are not talking about hell but the judgment.

        The Jude passage is dealing with apostates and is using the concept that they will not last – just as the ones before didn’t last. In verse 5 it talks of God destroying those against His people. In verse 7, the very verse he speaks of, it talks of punishment and eternal fire for Sodom and Gomorrah and the angels who were in sin.

        None of those verses mean anything about hell and are taken out of context.

        I am concerned he didn’t quote from Jesus because they are the most clear about hell. Matthew 25
        – Dr. Runyon
        So, response? – Cindi

  2. I’d prefer not to enter into “debate” per se, as “those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still” 🙂 I do enjoy Bible study and thoughtful, respectful discussion between Christians. Agree?

    I’d like to point out at the outset that hell is a very real and literal idea in Scripture. I’m not saying that it’s figurative. I am accountable to Scripture, as I know you are. We, as Christians, are faced with 2 mutually exclusive interpretations: 1) hell is never-ending torment or 2) hell is a torment that comes to an end. It cannot be both. So we’re tasked with harmonizing the whole of Scripture, not just taking one or two passages and building our foundation upon traditional ideas of men.

    Paul told Timothy, “the holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:15,16). What are these Scriptures that can make us wise referred to here-the Old Testament or the New?

    Obviously, the New Testament is “Scripture” too. Shouldn’t we then establish doctrine based upon the OT, and verify and clarify it based upon the NT and the clear teachings of Jesus?

    I’d love to get to Jesus’ statements later. Let’s establish this doctrine from His holy Scriptures first. After all, “these are they which testify about me” (John 5:39) What “scriptures”?

    You said, “None of those verses mean anything about hell and are taken out of context.” Really?

    Could you please explain what is meant by:

    1)”the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto ‘fire’ against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men”? (2 Pet 3:7)

    2) “the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall ‘die’ in like manner…”? (Isa 51:6) You said, “isn’t speaking about those who refuse Christ or the lost.” So who is dying “in like manner”?

    3) “the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, an all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day cometh shall burn them up…”? (Mal 4:1)

    Again, there’s no need to get angry or disrespectful toward each other as we’re brothers and sisters in Chris (not that we are, but it’s always nice to agree from the outset)t. We are “iron sharpening iron”! Amen? 😉

    1. Gracious, I should have edited his notes then. No disrespect intended, for heaven’s sake. Out of curiosity, what part of the country do you live in? I’ve seen vast differences in communication everywhere we have lived.

      So, perhaps one or both of us will get back with you soon. Just know that we are always learning as the Holy Spirit reveals his Truth through His Word – and occasionally through brothers and sisters in Christ.

      1. I live in Idaho. Indeed, learning about truth as the Holy Spirit opens the door is so exciting!

        I’ve often thought about the methods that the Spirit gives us truth. He could send angels armed with His Word to reach all of us. He could give us all His Word through a simultaneous vision/dream that would tell us the exact truth on any issue/doctrine. He could use a number of other ways to reach the world…but He doesn’t. He uses His Word through us to reach others. Why?

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