Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Photo by Jackson Hayes on Unsplash

This is the second post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

We use words in church life that are familiar to us in English, but some of these words actually come to us from the original Greek. When it’s time to “baptize” someone, we take our name for this practice from the Greek word baptizo. When we speak of a “deacon” in the church, this comes from the Greek word diakonos. While this is true of many of the words we use, it’s not the case when we talk about hell. There are three different words in the original languages that have often been translated as “hell,” and they don’t all mean the same thing. It’s helpful for us to know what these words are, and what they mean.

Sheol

In early translations of the Bible such as the King James Version, the Hebrew word Sheol was often translated as “hell.” But now in most current translations you won’t find the word hell at all in the Old Testament. Instead Sheol is usually translated as “the grave,” but it can also descriptively refer to “the pit” or “the depths.” Sheol was a vague concept. It referred to the state of being physically dead (hence “the grave”), but it’s unclear whether this was meant to be a location or even a conscious state. Whatever it was precisely, everyone went to Sheol after they died; the righteous and the unrighteous alike—it didn’t matter—everyone went to the grave in the Old Testament. This is all very interesting, but the Old Testament concept of Sheol doesn’t tell us anything about the fate of those who fail to place their faith in Christ before they die.

Hades

In the 400 years between the end of the Old Testament period and the birth of Christ (what we refer to as the “intertestamental period”), Jewish understanding of the grave was influenced by other cultures in ways that went beyond the Old Testament Scriptures. These influences on early Jewish culture came from Egyptian, Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife, and it became common for first century Jews to use the Greek word Hades in place of the Hebrew Sheol. Hades had much the same meaning as Sheol, it was the grave or the “place of the dead.” And, as with Sheol, Hades was the fate of everyone who died, righteous or unrighteous (although there was now often the idea of some kind of separation within Hades). 

Hades is used 10 times in the New Testament: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. Notice that neither of these words (Sheol or Hades) refer to what happens to the lost after judgment, or to where someone might spend eternity. So these words in Scripture (and these passages) don’t tell us anything about the eternal fate of the unsaved. These words refer only to the grave—the state of being dead—not to what we think of in Christian theology as hell.

Gehenna

We often hear the observation that Jesus mentioned hell more than anyone else in the Bible. Of course, as we saw above, Hades is more accurately translated “the grave” or “the place of the dead” rather than “hell,” so none of these verses should be considered as references to hell. Another word Jesus used that is often translated “hell” is Gehenna. What do we know about Gehenna?

The first thing we should be aware of is that Gehenna was, and still is, a literal place. It’s a valley just southwest of the old city of Jerusalem. The Greek word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew ge Hinnom. We see this place in the Old Testament as the “Valley of Hinnom” or sometimes the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” So what significance do we see in the Old Testament and in history for the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna? There were four events that Gehenna was known for, all having to do with fire:

  1. Gehenna was the valley outside Jerusalem where the people of Israel sacrificed their children, burning them in fire on altars to the pagan god Molech. (See 2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:6.)
  1. These idolatrous altars were later defiled and broken up, and the valley, Gehenna, was cleansed with fire. (See 2 Kings 23:10-16.)
  1. God spoke through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah of a coming judgment of fire that would be carried out in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). (See Jeremiah 7:28-34; 19:1-15; 32:32-35.)
  1. In AD 70, Titus—responding to the Jewish rebellion—destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killed all the inhabitants and burned their bodies in Gehenna.

The word Gehenna began taking on different connotations with some Jewish teachers prior to the ministry of Jesus. Some merged the fire associated with Gehenna with their developing concept of Hades, with the righteous going to Paradise and the unrighteous to Gehenna, a fiery place of torment. There was widespread disagreement among these Jewish teachers concerning the nature and duration of Gehenna. In fact, it seems they debated just about everything having to do with Gehenna (who would go there, how long they would be there, what would be the final outcome, etc.). 1

As I mentioned earlier, some Christians make the claim that Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. As we’ve seen, the places where he speaks of Hades would be about the grave, not hell. But it’s very true that Jesus used the word Gehenna more than anyone else in Scripture. The word is found 12 times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6), and all but one of these are in the words of Christ in the Gospels (and these only in the synoptic Gospels). So what did Jesus mean by Gehenna? Biblical scholars have different views. (I should note that many of these references are of parallel accounts in the Gospels, and that Jesus actually only spoke of Gehenna on 4 different occasions.)

Some think when Jesus used the word Gehenna he meant hell, much like these other Jewish teachers. Others aren’t so convinced. In the Old Testament ge Hinnom never refers to anything like hell. It’s always speaking of the literal Valley of Hinnom. Was Jesus following these contemporary Jewish teachers in their understanding of Gehenna, or was he using Gehenna in a way that would be consistent with Jeremiah and every other Old Testament reference? This question is especially meaningful when we consider that Jesus was always challenging their common assumptions and understandings regarding what were, to them, familiar concepts such as Messiah, kingdom, etc. Many scholars have concluded that when Jesus used the word Gehenna, he was following the understanding of Jeremiah, and applying this to the coming judgment of Israel, particularly Jerusalem, in AD 70.

There’s another aspect of this we need to consider. If this was their common word for “hell,” it’s curious that—other than one passing reference by James—Jesus is the only one in the New Testament who uses this word. Why is that? Paul never uses this word; Peter never uses this word; John never uses this word (even in his Gospel); the author of Hebrews doesn’t use this word. This word is only used by Jesus when ministering in a distinctly Jewish setting, and by James in a very early letter, also in a predominantly Jewish context (note James 1:1). Paul often uses other Jewish words and concepts in his letters—but not this one. It’s hard not to see this divergence as lending credence to the idea that Jesus is intentionally referring to the judgment of Jerusalem to come, which would be so vividly, literally and historically fulfilled in the actual Gehenna. This would follow the strong pattern of John the Baptist and Jesus warning of this very judgment: Matthew 3:10; 23:37-38; 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 3:9; 19:41-44; 21:5-6, 20-24. If Gehenna was the common word for hell, why didn’t Peter, John or Paul ever use it?

So, when we begin to look to what Scripture tells us about hell, we need to first recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t say anything explicitly about hell per se. (It does have a lot to say about judgment, of course, and we’ll look at this in a future post.) Many of the New Testament passages we may have thought speak of hell (the references to Hades) are actually speaking of death or the grave, not hell. And even the Gehenna passages are likely referring, not to hell, but to the judgment of Israel in AD 70. This still leaves many other passages that are relevant to our study of hell. For instance, the “lake of fire” is referenced in a 2-verse section in Revelation, and Jesus spoke of both “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” We’ll look at these verses in context very soon.

1. Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), “Chapter 3: The Gehenna Tradition(s)”

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

The past year has been very difficult for a lot of people. The past months have been especially so for my family. In the span of six weeks, my wife and I lost my mother, my youngest brother, and then my wife’s mother. None of these deaths were related to COVID, none of them were expected, all of them were a shock. So you can understand why our hope in the resurrection—life after death—has been particularly on our minds lately. Of course, what is not actually true can’t be truly comforting. Fairy tales and empty religious platitudes may be nice, but they don’t have any real power to comfort or give hope because they’re not real. To give meaningful comfort and hope requires something that is grounded in what is substantially factual. The Christian apostle Paul realized this and wrote:

And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless . . . if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.
1 Corinthians 15:17-19

Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

So this makes it necessary for us to consider the question: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? As I (and many others) have written before, Christianity is a historical faith, not just in the sense that it’s historically significant but that it’s based on a historical person and historical events. Without this historical person (Jesus Christ) and historical events (Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection), there is no Christianity. So the question of whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead is of paramount importance. But let me be quick to clarify that what we are not seeking to do is somehow prove that Jesus rose from the dead. No one can absolutely prove that something happened in history. We can’t prove that George Washington was the first U.S. president, or that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. What we can do is examine the historical evidence and determine whether it’s sufficient to warrant acceptance of a particular claim. This is neither absolute proof nor is it blind faith; it’s a weighing of the preponderance of the historical evidence.

So what is the evidence we must weigh to determine whether or not we should believe in the resurrection of Christ? [In previous posts, I’ve already presented the case for the historical existence of Jesus, the general historical reliability of the biblical Gospels, etc. See below to find links to these posts.] There’s actually quite a bit of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, focused in four key areas of interest. Some have used acronyms as a helpful way to remember these core factors. I think the easiest one to remember is an acronym I first heard from Abdu Murray that presents the CASE for the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

C — crucifixion
A — appearances
S — skeptics
E — empty tomb

Crucifixion
The overwhelming consensus of scholars who study the historical Jesus—including both Christians and non-Christians—is that Jesus was a real, historical person who gained a following in first century Galilee and Judea, and who was subsequently crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem. Especially when we consider the severity of Roman crucifixion and their expertise at this form of execution, there is little reason to doubt that Jesus died as a result of being crucified.

Appearances
The biblical Gospels include detailed accounts of Jesus appearing to his followers after his crucifixion. These accounts are careful to describe Jesus after his death as having a physical body, and not being merely a disembodied spirit. In a very early letter, Paul also lists these appearances of the resurrected Christ, and notes that most of the large number of people who witnessed these appearances of Jesus (over 500) were still alive at that time. I’ll look at some challenges to the resurrection accounts below, but it may come as a surprise to many to know that most Jesus scholars, even those who aren’t Christians, accept that these disciples of Jesus witnessed something that caused them to believe Jesus had risen from the dead.

Skeptics
The Gospel accounts describe the followers of Jesus as being defeated and fearful prior to witnessing the resurrected Jesus. This kind of characterization of leaders of a new movement is something you just don’t find in writings of that time period. Even more striking are the people who openly opposed Jesus and his followers, who later became devout followers of Jesus and outspoken proponents of the new Christian faith. This would include people such as James, the brother of Jesus who resisted his ministry before his death, and Paul of Tarsus, who actively sought to stamp out this new sect, disrupting church gatherings and imprisoning Christian believers. What could turn these skeptics and opponents into followers and champions of the way of Christ? According to the documented accounts we have from the first century, this radical change was caused by them personally encountering the resurrected Jesus.

Empty Tomb
The bodies of those who were crucified were typically left unburied, but the Gospel accounts specify that Jesus was buried, and they document the name of the person in whose tomb Jesus’ body was placed: Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent national leader at that time. Again, the vast majority of Jesus scholars accept these accounts as historically reliable. Why is this important? Because we now have a historical question we need to resolve: Why was the tomb empty? And this is as good a time as any to discuss some of the challenges presented to the resurrection claim.

Challenges to the empty tomb

(Again, to see reasons for accepting the historical existence of Jesus and the reliability of the biblical accounts, see the links below.)

The disciples hid Jesus’ body and lied about his resurrection.
This is the most direct challenge: “It’s all a lie.” The first problem with this theory is that it goes against all the documented evidence we have regarding the character of these early disciples of Jesus. Even their opponents conceded their moral character. Some say the descriptions of these disciples were also either fictitious or deceptive, manufacturing their good reputations. But these accounts were widely disseminated while most of the people in question were still around. If these disciples of Jesus were presented as sincere, honorable, humble followers of Christ when they were actually manipulative con men, there would have been a very loud outcry from the opponents of Christianity exposing this duplicity. We have no mention of anything like this.

And just what did this alleged deception get these men? Many of them did become leaders in this new movement, this is true. And what did that get them? They became leaders of a persecuted faith, hunted by both Jewish leaders and Roman officials. Their roles as apostles and leaders just made them more of a target. They weren’t rewarded with great wealth, fine estates or comfortable lives. Their “power” wasn’t control of an established institution, but merely moral authority, the respect and admiration of their fellow Christian believers. Most of them led itinerant lives, surviving simply as they moved from town to town—much as Jesus did—sharing this (allegedly manufactured) Good News with anyone who would receive it. And the outcome for most of them was violent death by means of public execution. And through all of this, not one of these “conspirators”—faced with losing their lives allegedly for the sake of a lie—ever recanted and admitted it was all made up. Conspiracies are simply not that foolproof, and the more people who are part of a conspiracy the more porous they become, especially when one’s life is at stake. Of course, people die for causes all the time that may or may not be true. One can be sincerely wrong, after all, and willingly die for a false faith. But people do not willingly die for something they know to be a lie. And it would be even more incredible to think that a large number of people faced persecution and horrible deaths for something they knew to be false without even one of them defecting.

They went to the wrong tomb.
Of course, if this were the case, this mistake would have been easily and quickly rectified by the Jewish leaders or the Roman government.

Someone must have moved the body.
This can sound plausible until we start digging a little deeper. Who would have moved the body? If you think the disciples moved the body, then see the response above. (And don’t forget they would have been lying about not only the empty tomb but also all the appearances of Jesus and time spent with him after the resurrection.) If you think maybe the Jewish leaders or the Romans moved the body, then you have to answer the question: Why? More importantly, when Jesus’ followers began loudly proclaiming his resurrection from the dead, why wouldn’t the Jewish leaders or Romans have simply produced the dead body of Jesus and put an end to such nonsense?

They didn’t actually see Jesus physically, but experienced visions, dreams or hallucinations.
We need to remember that the biblical accounts are not of one or two quick, ethereal appearances. These are reports of numerous encounters over a span of time that included extensive interaction and discussion. Most psychologists deny the possibility of collective hallucination to begin with, but even if this were an option the biblical accounts simply do not fit what we know about hallucinations.

But could the disciples have witnessed a vision or a dream? Again, remember that this wouldn’t be one or two visions or dreams, but a whole bunch of visions or dreams. Still, to answer this we need to take into consideration the outcome of these experiences. If you or I were to suffer the loss of a loved one, and then one night we have a vision or dream of our loved one and speak with them, what would we tell everyone the next day? We’d say that we had a vision or a dream of our loved one! We might draw some comfort from such an experience, a connection with the “other side,” as it were. But what we wouldn’t do is say, “Wow, my mother rose from the dead!”

Some Jewish people in the first century did not accept the idea of the resurrection of the dead, while most others did believe in a resurrection at the end of the age, either of all Jews or all people. But while there was some debate over whether this was true and over specific details, everyone understood the resurrection in question to be a physical resurrection. What they either believed or denied was a resurrection of the body. The clear and consistent message of the earliest Christians (all of whom were Jewish) was that at that time—not at the end of the age—Jesus had been resurrected; he had risen from the dead.

This claim is also the only plausible explanation for the explosion of faith in Jesus among first century Jews after he suffered a Roman execution. Ordinarily, this would have been seen as a crushing defeat and proof positive that he was not the Messiah. [For more on this, see What good is a dead Messiah?] Dreams or visions or appearances of some kind of apparition may have been personally comforting to the disciples, but there’s no way they would have used such experiences as some kind of basis for claiming Jesus had been resurrected or that he truly was the Messiah. Jewish people at that time understood the idea of dreams or visions of people who had died. There would never have been any confusion of these kinds of phenomena with resurrection. One simply had nothing to do with the other, and any claim that it did would have been nonsensical to them. The number of dreams or visions one may have experienced was irrelevant to the question of resurrection.

Yet very quickly after the death of Jesus, a rapidly expanding movement—made up entirely of Jews initially—exploded onto the scene. This distinct group was devoted to faith in Jesus, hailing this man who had been shamefully executed in public by the Romans as their Messiah and Deliverer. And the central tenet at the heart of their movement was that Jesus was not dead, that he had raised from the dead, that he was resurrected. Historians agree there is no explanation for the rapid, explosive birth of Christianity among first century Jews other than the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. That the earliest Christians believed this, and that this is at the heart of the rapid expansion of the Christian faith, is historically incontrovertible. The challenge for us is whether their claim is actually true. How else do we explain the evidence? For some 2,000 years, countless people have considered the alternative theories used to explain the empty tomb and found them to strain credulity. The most plausible conclusion based on the historical evidence is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead as his disciples claimed.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Of course, we can’t emphasize enough the implications of this claim. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, this changes everything. This would be strong confirmation that he is who he said he is, and that he came to do just what he said he came to do. This was God himself coming to us as one of us, revealing himself to us, and taking on himself the consequences of our sin to bring us back into relationship with him. And because he rose from death to life, we also can anticipate our own resurrection and the resurrection of those we love. The grave is real, but it’s a temporary reality. That’s why the Scriptures tell us the last enemy that Christ must defeat is death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26). This is why even though now we grieve, we can grieve with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We look forward to a perfectly renewed existence of life and relationship with no separation, decay or death (Revelation 21:3-5). This is why Jesus’ resurrection from the dead has always been, and remains, at the heart of the Christian faith.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? [see above]