Bible Basics about Hell

These words and verses, both from the Old and New Testaments, reveal the doctrine of hell. It is not as straightforward as many preachers have told us.

Let’s use the question-and-answer format for clarity and conciseness. The first two questions, next, cover the Old Testament, and the remaining ones cover the New Testament.

1.. What is sheol (pronounced shee-ol or shay-ol)?

It is used in Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) 65 times. It can mean “grave” (Job 17:13; Ps. 16:10; Is. 38:10) “pit,” the “netherworld” (the place of the dead) (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num. 16:33; Job 14:13; Ps. 55:15; Prov. 9:18), or just “death” (1 Sam. 2:6; Job. 7:9; Ps. 88:3; Is. 38:10).

It can be personified as an enemy that enlarges its appetite, and nobles and the masses will descend into it (Is. 5:14).

It snatches people away (Job 24:19), sets snares (Ps. 18:5), and entangles victims in chords (Ps. 116:3) (Mounce pp. 306-07).

It is a place of despair and hopelessness (Gen. 42:38: Ps. 18:5; Ps. 49:14-15; 88:3-5).

It is thought to dwell below the surface of the earth (Gen. 37:35; Ezek. 32:27) and a place of dust (Job. 17:16).

The king of Babylon descended to sheol (Is. 14:9-11).

According to Eccl. 9:10, sheol is not a place where life continues in a different state, but a grave, where there is no planning or working, nor knowledge or wisdom.

The good news is that God can deliver his people from sheol (Ps. 16:10, 49:14; 56:13; 86:13). Is. 26:19 promises that the dead will live, and their bodies will rise. We dwell in dust but wake up and shout for glory; the earth will give birth to her dead; in other words, the earth will give up the dead.

The dominant picture in the OT is that sheol is the place where the body goes, not where souls exist. But the New Covenant Scriptures adds to this picture, next.

2.. What is hades (pronounced HAY-dees)?

It is mentioned 10 times in the NT: Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. And Matt. 11:23 // Luke 10:15 are parallels, so the number of distinct times is actually nine. And hades is not elaborated on in detail, and not even in Revelation, except for some symbolic usage. Hades is even thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).

Let’s take a brief look.

In Matt. 11:23 and Luke 10:15, Jesus pronounced judgment on various towns, which will be brought down to hades. No elaboration on what hades is.

In Matt. 16:18, Jesus said the gates of hades will not prevail against the church, again without elaboration on what it is.

Luke 16:23, the term is found in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and hades in this parable expresses the standard Jewish and Greco-Roman view of the afterlife, with only a little description, such as fire and torment. Yet most scholars believe that parables are not a firm foundation on which to build gigantic doctrines about the afterlife. One scholar reasonably concludes that this story about a rich man getting what he deserves is a Jewish religious folktale, which Jesus adopted and adapted for the purpose of telling the earthbound point that one should be kind with money.

For a longer commentary please click on this post:

Rich Man and Lazarus: True Events or Just a Parable?

In Acts 2:27, 31 the word is found in a quotation from the Old Testament (Ps. 16:8-11), and hades translates the Hebrew word sheol, which can mean “the grave,” “the pit,” or “realm of the dead.” So the detailed description of hades is not entirely clear in those two verses.

Rev. 1:18 says Jesus has the keys to death and hades, without explaining what hades is, even basically.

In Rev. 6:8, after the fourth seal was open, death rode on a horse, and hades followed it. So the terms are highly symbolic.

In Rev. 20:13-14, death and hades gave up their dead, the people were judged, and thrown into the lake of fire, and even death and hades were thrown into it.

Despite the ambiguity about hades, many scholars press on and offer this standard or traditional view of it, based on other terms, trying to unify the disparate verses.

It is conceived as an underground prison or city with locked gates to which Christ holds the key (Matt. 16:18; Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18) (Mounce p. 331). It is a temporary place that will give up the dead at the general resurrection (ibid.). It is pictured as a prison in 1 Pet. 3:19 and Rev. 20:7 (NIDNTT, p. 16). However, those verses are far from clear.

Some scholars say that hades is used in two different ways. First, it is a place of torment (Matt. 11:23; Luke 10:15; 16:23), where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:4-42); and second it is a state of death, which unbelievers and believers experience (Matt. 16:18; Acts 2:27, 31: Rev. 1:8; 6:8; 20:13-14). However, as noted, it could be translated as “grave” in Acts 2:27, 31.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, done in the third to second century B.C. (abbreviated LXX), often translates the Hebrew sheol or the place of the dead with hades, for both the righteous and unrighteous or just the unrighteous (1 Pet. 3:19; Rev. 20:13-14). But it is not the final resting place before the last judgment. “Thus, it is not an eternal but only a temporary place or state” (ibid.). That eternal place is designated geenna (see below, where some say punishment is not eternal, but has an ending point).

In the intertestamental period (between the Old and New Testaments) a two-compartment theory developed: a place of bliss for the righteous and a place of torment for the unrighteous. Those who believe in the two compartments refer to Luke 16:19-31, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man is seen in hades, a place of fire and torment, while the poor man is in Abraham’s bosom or side, which speaks comfort and peace and bliss (see the link, above). Yet see the critique above about taking elements of a story too doctrinally.

Two other references may teach the two compartments: Eph. 4:9-10 and 1 Peter 3:19. Christ is said to have descended into a place and preached and led captives from some sort of imprisonment.

See my post

10. Do I Really Know Jesus? Did He Descend into Hades to Preach?

3.. What is ge’enna (pronounced guh-EN-na) or gehenna (guh-HEN-na)?

It is used 12 times in the New Testament and comes originally from Aramaic gehinnam, a valley lying to the south of Jerusalem, where child sacrifices were offered (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6). Jeremiah said the Valley of Hinnom would be a place of God’s judgment (Jer. 7:32; 19:6). This valley is where refuse and the dead bodies of animals and criminals were burned. It was a garbage heap. And so this valley was eventually equated with fire and punishment.

Some Bible teachers say that in the New Testament it is a place of everlasting punishment, where both body and soul are judged (Matt. 5:22, 29-30; Mark 9:43; Luke 12:5). It is probably the lake of fire, into which even death and Hades were thrown, which is the second death, and probably also the abyss (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14-15). The term has come to mean the final place of punishment. “It must be distinguished from Hades, which houses the souls of the dead before the last judgment” (NIDNTT, p. 102).

Though it is used 11 times from Jesus’s lips, they occur in parallel passages. He probably used it only on four occasions:

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30)

In warning the disciples not to fear men (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:3)

In the discourse on relationships (Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47)

In his denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:15, 33) (Gregg, p. 88)

In other words, gehenna was not a frequent or major topic in his teachings.

4.. What is tartaroō (pronounced tahr-tahr-oh-oh)?

The verb appears only once (2 Pet. 2:4). In classical mythology it is used as a subterranean cavern or pit where the earlier generations of the gods, Titans, were thrown and punished, after the next generation of gods defeated them in battle. So a war took place in the upper world (see Satan and Demons: Origins). And the war in heaven between the dragon and Michael the archangel may parallel the earlier version (Rev. 12:7-12).

Hellenistic Judaism (intertestamental period and heavily influenced by Greek thought) adopted it for the place of punishment for angels (Enoch 20:2). Apparently Peter adopted the idea and said that God sent angels into the place of Tartarus.

5.. What is the abyss?

It is used 9 times and literally means “no bottom,” but by extension it means the place of the dead. “No bottom” just means no artificially built or constructed bottom. It does not mean a pit that goes down for infinity. It is the prison for demons (Luke 8:31; Rev. 9:1, 2, 11). It will release locusts (demons) upon the earth during the tribulation (Rev. 9:1). At the second coming of Christ, Satan will be bound there for a thousand years (Rev. 20:1-3).

6.. What are other terms or images?

A.. Unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12; Mark 9:43, 48)

B.. Furnace of fire (Matt. 13:43, 50)

C.. Eternal fire (Matt. 25:41)

D.. Lake that burns with fire and brimstone (Rev. 21:8)

E.. Lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14).

Before moving on to other images, let’s ask some questions about the image of fire.

First, hades and death will be thrown into the lake of fire (v. 14), and the lake is called the second death (v. 15). So does this mean the lake of fire is symbolic of the second death, or is it a real lake?

As for the images of a “garbage pit” (see no. 4, above), “furnace,” “a lake of fire and brimstone,” and “fire,” Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams states the obvious: they are “different figures and therefore cannot be taken literally. This, however, does not detract from what such imagery points to—a condition of vast misery. For ‘fire’ is the constant in all these expressions, and fire signifies burning and torment” (vol. 3, p. 470). But wait until you read what he says below, in the large excerpt.

F.. Outer darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30)

G.. Blackest darkness (2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 13)

Let’s ask some questions about the latter two images:

Is “outer darkness” another compartment or section in the generic term of hell? Is this a place for the ones who were judged to have done numerous good works, but never proclaimed Christ as Lord? And are they now in outer darkness undergoing the punishment of separation and not conscious, everlasting torment and torture in a lake of fire?

Is “outer darkness” and “blackest darkness” another compartment or section in the generic term of hell? How can a lake lit up by fire have a section of outer darkness? Is this a place for the ones who did numerous good works, but never proclaimed Christ as Lord? And are they now in outer darkness undergoing the punishment of separation and not everlasting pain in a lake of fire? Or is outer darkness subsumed in time by the fire (though the Bible never makes this clear)?

Charismatic theologian J. Rodman Williams (d. 2008) says fire and darkness are just metaphors, which cannot be taken literally, for separation from God and punishment:

These two terms, “darkness” and “fire,” that point to the final state of the lost might seem to be opposites, because darkness, even black darkness, suggests nothing like fire or the light of a blazing fire. Thus again we must guard against identifying the particular terms with literal reality, such as a place of black darkness or of blazing fire. Rather, darkness and fire are metaphors that express the profound truth, on the one hand, of terrible estrangement and isolation from God, and on the other, the pain and misery of unrelieved punishment. It is significant that Jesus in His portrayals of darkness and fire often adds the statement “There men will weep and gnash their teeth.” This weeping and gnashing … vividly suggests both suffering and despair. So whether the metaphor is darkness or fire, the picture is indeed a grim one, even beyond the ability of any figure of speech to express.

One further word: both darkness and fire refer to the basic situation of the lost after Last Judgment. However, we have already observed that there will be degrees of punishment; hence in some sense the darkness and fire will not be wholly the same. Some punishment will be more tolerable than other punishment: some people will receive a greater condemnation, while some (to change the figure) will be “beaten with few blows” [Luke 12:48]. Thus we should not understand the overall picture of the state of the lost to exclude differences in degree of punishment. Even as for the righteous in the world to come, there will be varying rewards, so for the unrighteous, the punishment will not be the same. (Renewal Theology, vol. 3, 470-71).

For the record, Williams did not believe in annihilationism (or terminalism or conditionalism) or universal reconciliation (or restorationism) (see the three links, below in a three-part series.

7.. What are some ways to interpret the biblical data?

Christian interpreters who respect the authority and inspiration of Scripture have written bulky books in answering the question, but here are the three main options, which have numerous biblical texts in the support of each (not referenced here, so the post does not get any longer, but click on the three links for the references).

1.. Eternal Punishing: it is called eternal, conscious torment. The unredeemed eternally and relentlessly experience conscious torment in the fires of hell. That is, Hitler and your kind and generous but unredeemed grandmother will bob up and down forever in the lake of hell, next to each other. This is the traditional view. I was shocked, in my own study, to learn how few verses support this theory (click on the first link, below)

What Do Words ‘Eternity,’ ‘Eternal’ Fully Mean in the Bible?

2.. Annihilating or extinguishing: the unredeemed, after they have been sufficiently punished in the fires of hell, will be annihilated or evaporated or caused to no longer exist. This theory is also called terminalism or conditionalism; the eternality of the soul depends only on God or is conditional only on God. The soul is not automatically eternal by virtue of being a soul. People are punished in hell for a time suitable to their good or bad deeds, but then they pass out of existence or their soul is destroyed. The ending may not be a happy one, but this theory eliminates the eternal torment. This view is gaining momentum. In my own study, I was shocked at how many verses support this theory–the most by far.

3.. Restoring or saving: the unredeemed, after they have been sufficiently punished in the fires of hell for a duration suitable to their good or bad deeds, are brought into God’s presence and restored and reconciled to him. This view is called universalism, but it has fewer verses to support it. And the verses that do seem to support it can be interpreted in better ways.

The issue of the afterlife and hell is more complicated than standard preachers believe. If you believe in eternal conscious torment, then do not call the people who believe in the other two options ‘heretics’ or ‘unorthodox.’ There is plenty of Scriptural support for the latter two theories.

Please click on the three-part series for more information:

1. Hell and Punishment: Eternal, Conscious Torment

2. Hell and Punishment: Terminal Punishment

3. Hell and Punishment: Universalism

Yes, the second two options really have plenty of Scriptural support. The second theory has the most scriptural support, by far.

Therefore, tell people to whom you witness and who object to the first option as awful and unjust for a loving God that there are other biblical options about hell, but we must prepare for the worst-case scenario (the first one).

Better still, tell them that maybe God in his providence has not made the hellish afterlife perfectly clear in its details, as evidenced by the fact that reasonable interpreters can disagree on it, but God did make it clear how to get there—faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

I consider the topic of hell and punishment to be a secondary issue. Therefore, I like this wise statement: “in essentials, unity. in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity (love).”

One last time, don’t call people ‘heterodox’ or a ‘heretic’ for believing in the latter two theories.

8.. How does the wrath of God apply to the doctrine of hell?

Let’s answer that question with these images of God’s judgment and wrath, one inaccurate, the other accurate:

God’s judgment / wrath is not like this:


But like this:


This picture of an English judge in full regalia is an (imperfect) representation of God in judgment, showing his protective wrath and love over his people.

The Wrath of God in the Old Testament

The Wrath of God in the New Testament

Do I Really Know God? He Shows Wrath

How does this post help me grow closer to Jesus?

Jesus taught the hellish afterlife with various images and terms, like fire and darkness, which have evolved over time, from the Old Testament to the New. And sometimes they were borrowed from the surrounding Greek and Jewish cultures. And it is not true that he talked more about hell than other topics (as some fire-and-brimstone preachers claim he did). Rather, he talked about the kingdom of God, for example, much more often. Therefore, we need to be careful about rigid fundamentalism on the topic of hell.

More and more theologians and Bible scholars, who respect the authority and inspiration of Scripture, marshalling many biblical texts, are moving away from the notion of eternal, conscious torment merely for a brief lifetime of unbelief, even though unbelievers lived kindly and graciously.

It is sufficient (for me at least) to know that there is a place of punishment because one of God’s attribute is justice. It is not fair that really bad people, like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, just exist forever in some sort of a neutral place or the soul disintegrates with the body, without punishment, with everyone else, though annihilationism after a time of punishment is possible. For justice to have real meaning, punishment of evil has to exist.

It is sufficient (for me) to know that the Bible is not perfectly clear about eternal, conscious torment and torture, when many Christian, Bible-respecting interpreters see other options, all based on Scripture

So In light of these three options let’s conclude with this from the passage on God judging Sodom and Gomorrah. Gen. 18:25: “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

The judge of all the world is God, and the obvious answer is yes.

Let’s trust God that he will sort out hell and punishments and rewards, based on good and bad works, for the unredeemed.

And let us, the redeemed, remain in Christ, so we can spend eternal life with him and escape painful separation away from him. God’s wrath is judicial, not irrational fury.


Bible Basics about the Final Judgment

Bible Basics about Heaven

Everyone Shall Be Judged by Their Works and Words

Are There Degrees of Punishment, Rewards after Final Judgment?

Are All Sins Equal?

1. Hell and Punishment: Eternal, Conscious Torment

2. Hell and Punishment: Terminal Punishment

3. Hell and Punishment: Universalism

What Do Words ‘Eternity,’ ‘Eternal’ Fully Mean in the Bible?


Works Cited

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