Summary: Jesus warns his followers about "gheenna," often translated Hell. This week we will look at the three words for Hell in the Bible. The terms and their interpretation reflect various schools of thought over time. No matter how you slice it, there is death and judgment. I have rarely encountered a topic where I have had as much trouble wrapping my hands around it. This blog summary does not achieve "Summa", but rather gives one a general map of the territory.
Christians translate three Greek words as "Hell."
αδης ("hades") The first word for Hell is hades (Hebrew: Sheol). Interestingly, only the King James translates this word as Hell; most leave it as Sheol or Hades. It normally refers to the house of souls after death, rather than a place of judgment. Let's be clear, it is not a place you or I want to be, but it is not the home of Satan with fiery demons.
Basically, there are two helpful ways to understand Hades/Sheol. The first is that is a warehouse of souls (a la purgatory). So for example:
Psalm 138:8: If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
The problem with this understanding is that you get a universal soul sleep, without judgment or resurrection.
The other way to understand Hades/Sheol is simply as "the grave." So for example:
Genesis 37:35 "All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort Jacob; but he refused to be comforted, and said, "No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning." Thus his father bewailed him."
Jonah 2:2 "I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice."
In this sense, Hades/Sheol may have nothing to do with souls, simply the place where the body exists after death. The theologian is then free to discuss the judgement and resurrection of souls. This solution creates another dilemma though, in that you have separated bodies and souls, something rather foreign to the Hebrew mind.
So, Hades in the OT remains problematic! It is clear that the Old Testament ideas about the afterlife changed over time. There never emerged in the Old Testament, however, the idea that Hades/Sheol was a place solely of fiery judgment, the location of sinners after death. Everyone went to Sheol. It wasn't until much later (Isaiah 25-27) that you get the idea that God will defeat death and raise the righteous up to life.
The New Testament turns Hades into a darker place, with a bit more judgment associated with it. For example:
Luke 16:23: "In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
In Matthew, Jesus even declares the gates of Hades to be the enemy of the church! (16:18)
Finally, in Revelation, Hades will be consumed, and it will give over the dead for judgment.
To summarize: Hades refers to the place the dead go to await judgment. Besides one brief mention in Luke, it is not a place of judgment, much less fiery judgment. It is not seen as the home of devils and demons. The Bible leaves open the idea that Hades/Sheol might be a two tiered place, of pain but also bliss, awaiting resurrection; the Bible also leaves open the idea that Hades/Sheol might be understood literally and metaphorically as the grave, without much connotation of the soul's current or final destiny. Either one presents a systematics challenge.
γεεννα ("gheenna"). Unlike Hades, gheenna refers to a specific place, in fact, it is a place where a lot of bad stuff happened in Israel's history.
"Gehenna (Greek γέεννα) derives from a place outside ancient Jerusalem known in the Hebrew Bible as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom; one of the two principal valleys surrounding the Old City. In the Hebrew Bible, the site was initially where apostate Israelites and followers of various Ba'als and Caananite gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6; Jer. 7:31, 19:2-6)."
In depth look at citations of gheenna in the Bible, you can read here:
So, gheenna does refer to a hell-like place of judgment. It may have even been a burning trash heap!
An important take away about the OT citations of hell: It was not the place of individual judgment, but of national judgement.
The New Testament continues this idea of judgment, but makes it a place for individual judgment as well. This includes the passages for this week (Mark 9:44-50) but also:
Luke 12:5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.Matthew 23:33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?
While Revelation does not use the word gheenna, after Hades has been consumed, there is still a lake of fire to consume those not in the book of life, including the devil. Even John speaks of fire consuming the branches that bear no fruit! I think it is fair to say that association of fire and judgment is Biblical. However, a place where people roast alive slowly under the tridents of demons does not fully comport with the Biblical evidence.
To summarize: The Bible includes real judgment here, including the idea that fires of judgment occur. Yet, this is not the place where the devil and demons live. (If anything, it is where demons go to die, not to live!) Gheenna describes a tomb in the midst of eternal fires. Lastly, this place of judgment becomes more personal in the NT than in the OT.
κατώτατα ("lowest places") This word does not appear directly in the NT, but does so in our Creed (based on Ephesians 4:9, which uses a form of this word). It does, however, occur in the OT:
Psalm 139:15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.Psalm 86:13 For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
Lamentations 3:56 I called on your name, O LORD, from the depths of the pit;
So, what is better? Descended to the dead or to hell? First Peter references (1 Peter 4:6 and 1 Peter 3:16-20) suggest "dead," or place of the dead. I prefer hell because the word in the creed means "lowest of low." By using "hell" we capture the emotional suffering of Christ Jesus, in that he had been emotionally to hell, namely, feeling abandoned by God.
All in all, a complicated topic. The "hell" of popular imagination is not based on one image or word from the Bible, but a compilation, an imaginative blending of these various Scriptural passages. The Bible does not speak of a fiery pit with devils tormenting individuals. However, the Bible speaks of final judgment, including destruction by fire.