Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

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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)”