Friday DIVE – 23February2024




Which hell?

Four different Greek and Hebrew words were translated by the single word hell in the King James Version of the Bible.  This unfortunate rendering has been the source of considerable confusion through the centuries.  Any attempt to discern the biblical teaching about hell requires a careful analysis of these words in their contexts.  The Bible speaks of not one but three hells:

1. Hebrew Sheol/Greek Hades.

  • The ancient Hebrew name for the abode of the dead was sheol.
  • Sheol literally means “grave” or “pit,” but the word was also applied, in the popular conception, to the dwelling-place of departed spirits.
  • The ancient Israelites believed that the spirit of a dead person separated from the body and took up its abode in this sheol, a dim, shadowy region beneath the earth’s surface.  Some authorities believe that this realm of the dead is referred to in Genesis 37:35 and Job 3:13-19, among other passages.
  • When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint) in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., sheol was rendered as the Greek word Hades, in view of sheol’s  close resemblance to the Greek netherworld.
  • In Greek mythology,  Hades was the place of departed human spirits — a gloomy underworld where the dead have only a shadowy existence.
  • In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16), Jesus pictures Hades as an actual place of torment, not merely the grave.
  • Some scholars believe Hades may be the place where the unsaved dead dwell consciously — and possibly in some measure of torment — awaiting resurrection and the Last Judgment.
  • Hades is never used in Scripture in the context of final punishment.

2. Greek Tartarus. 

  • Tartarus is mentioned only once in scripture, in 2 Peter 2:4, where it refers to a place or condition of restraint for fallen angels.
  • Peter describes it as a “gloomy dungeon” (NIV).
  • It is a hell that applies only to rebellious angels or demons — not to humans.
  • In Greek mythology, Tartarus was located below Hades, and was the place where rebellious supernatural beings were confined — corresponding closely to the apostle Peter’s usage.

3. Greek Gehenna.

  • Only Gehenna shares today’s popular meaning of hell as a fiery place of suffering.
  • The Greek word Gehenna derives from the Hebrew gai-hinnom, or Valley of Hinnom.
  • The rocky Valley of Hinnom is a deep, narrow ravine that runs southwest of Jerusalem.
  • In Old Testament times, it was a place of abominable pagan rites associated with the idolatrous worship of Molech, including child sacrifice in a section of the valley called Tophet (2 Kings 23:10).
  • After the Jews’ return from Babylonian exile, the valley became the cesspool and city dump of Jerusalem.  Fires burned continuously, feeding on a constant supply of garbage — and occasionally the bodies of executed criminals — thus providing imagery for the fiery hell of final judgment, into whose flames the wicked would one day be cast.
  • Gehenna was used by Jesus in Matthew 5:22; 23:33; Luke 12:5 and elsewhere to designate the place of final punishment, later described by John as a “lake of fire” in Revelation 19:20 and 20:10, 14-15.
  • Whether understood literally or figuratively, biblical references to Gehenna have little in common with the exaggerated imagery of medieval theology, such as the tortures of Dante’s Inferno.  


Here, in brief summary, are today’s principal points of view on hell, though within each are variations beyond the scope of this article.

  • A Blazing Underworld.  In this view, as previously described, hell is an actual place of smoke and flames, where the souls of the damned suffer unending fiery torment.  This view is based on a literal reading of scriptures that characterize hell as “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:42), “eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8), “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46) and similar descriptions.
  • A Condition of Eternal Alienation.  This metaphorical view also envisions eternal conscious punishment, but not in actual flames.  Rather, the sufferings of the damned are translated into spiritualized terms.  Hell is not an abode but a condition — a furnace of affliction, so to speak, not a furnace of real flames.  The Bible uses symbolical language.  According to this view of hell, fire is an image that is used figuratively, as a symbol of the pain of deprivation, the agony of hopelessness, the torment and despair of spending eternity without God.

The punishment of the wicked is the pain of knowing that they will never see God.  Advocates of this view explain that the fate of the damned is called outer darkness (Matthew 8:12) because those in that condition will never see the light of God.  They will be trapped in blackness forever, exiled to the private hell of their own thoughts, isolated in a place they have created for themselves in their own darkened minds.  It will be their free choice to live apart from God.

  • A Place of Temporary Punishment.  This view envisions hell as punishment, but not necessarily forever.  Hell is indeed real, but one’s stay in it does not have to be eternal.  Proponents of this concept acknowledge that divine justice requires some sort of punishment for evilBut they argue that infinite punishment would be appropriate only for infinite evilWhat kind of God, they ask, would repay a few decades of sin with an eternity of torture?    

The sufferings of hell are therefore remedial, they reason.  Even the worst sinners can be rehabilitated and ultimately find their way to heaven, though some few will persist in rebellion and choose to remain forever separate from God.  This view bears a resemblance to the Roman Catholic concept of purgatory, the reputed destination of believers who die in sin, where they are purified by suffering before being admitted to heaven.  It differs, however, in that it sees even those who were unbelievers during their lifetimes as eventually making their way into heaven.

  • Annihilationism.  This view asserts that the fate of sinners is not endless suffering but rather complete and utter destruction.  The souls of the wicked will not endure eternal punishment in hell but will be completely annihilated after the Last Judgment.  The period of conscious punishment will thus be brief.  They will then simply cease to exist — a far more merciful fate, say advocates, than everlasting torment.

Annihilationism is also called the doctrine of “conditional immortality,” because, in this view, the soul is not by nature immortal.  It is immortal only by the grace of God.  God gives immortality to the souls of the righteous and annihilates those of the damned.

Annihilationists view hell — or gehenna fire (see below) — as a fire that consumes.  The wicked will cease to exist in gehenna fire — incinerated in the roaring inferno of the divine blast furnace.  The fire is unquenchable, in that no one can quench or extinguish it until it burns up all the chaff.  This view is based on the statement that God can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28), and scriptures that speak of “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians. 1:9) and “the second death” (Revelation 20:14; 21:8).

  • Universalism.  According to this view, everyone will ultimately be saved.  No sinner will be consigned to eternal punishment.  God will save everyone — regardless.  Universalism postulates the final restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), including the damned.  Hell is purgatorial in character, and, according to universalists, punishment ceases when the sinner has been purified.  Ultimately, all human beings will enjoy God’s presence.

Thus, if hell exists at all, it is only for a limited duration.  Objecting to the notion of eternal affliction in hell, universalists point out that the Greek word aion — often translated as eternal or forever — literally means an age, a definite, limited period of time.  Eventually, “every knee” will bow before God; “every tongue” will confess to him (Romans 14:11).  Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).  Through Jesus Christ, God will “reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20).

This universalist view goes back to the teachings of the third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria, who regarded the sufferings of hell as remedial, ending when the final restoration is reached.  Critics of this view assert that humans are free to make their own choices.  God gives humans free will to trust him or not to trust him.  He will not force anyone, and some will refuse his grace.

Whatever the specifics of their views, nearly all Christians share a common belief in some kind of alienation from God as the fate of the wicked.  Beyond that, the specifics are non-essential.  The Christian faith does not make hell a core doctrine, nor is it something that Christians should divide over.  But we can continue talking about it.  Speculation is appropriate, as long as we remember that we don’t really know, dogmatically and definitively.


Lazarus and the Rich Man

Some regard Jesus’ well-known parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16) as solid proof of the reality of eternal fiery punishment in hellfire.  A close reading, however, raises serious doubts about such an interpretation.

In what part of the afterlife is the parable set — immediately after death, or following the Last Judgment?  Many interpreters believe the parable takes place in the intermediate state — the interval after physical death but prior to the resurrection and Last Judgment.

Notice: Jesus specified that the rich man was “in hell [Hades], where he was in torment” (Luke 16:23).  Hades is widely viewed as the place where the unsaved dead go to await final judgment.  Hades is not itself the place of final punishment; the word Gehenna is used for that (see above).   The parable also contains the implication that the rich man’s brothers are still physically alive (Luke 16:27-31).

But even this analysis may be pushing the imagery beyond Jesus’ intention.  Lazarus and the Rich Man is a parableA parable is a literary device.  As such, it is not intended to be a precise blueprint, with all its details corresponding to actual reality.   The point of a parable is not in the specifics, but in the lessonBehind the outward or obvious meaning lies a deeper spiritual truthIn Luke 16, that greater truth is a warning against a life of unrestrained avariceThe immediate context is covetousness and greed.

The parable may be telling us that, for some, torment is possible immediately following death.   But there is no indication that it is speaking of the final destiny of those who die outside of God’s grace.  Hell is not the topic of the parable.  Jesus’ purpose was not to convey information about the afterlife, but to address the broader context of showing concern for one’s fellow man in this life.


Recommended Reading:

Four Views of Hell, William Crockett (Ed.), Zondervan Publishing.

Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue, Edward W. Fudge, Robert A. Peterson, Intervarsity Press.

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis.

Copyright Plain Truth Ministries, 2001; used by permission




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