Four Words for Hell

By Neil Earle

At the risk of sounding trite, the subject of Hell is “heating up” among Christians.

The overly simple idea that the Good go to Heaven and the Bad go to Hell is being rejected by many today. Knowledge doubles every eighteen months and access to differing opinions escalates with the Internet, Twitter and I-pads. This has led to skepticism and confusion as well as enlightenment. Then, too, newer Bible translations now use different words to refer to “Hell” than just the one-dimensional word the King James Version left us with.

Hell: Five Conclusions

Let’s summarize what we have learned.

First, Hell is a more complicated subject than usually thought, involving matters of misleading translations and extra-Biblical concepts. This alone should call for sober second thought when this subject is addressed.

Second, the Bible uses diverse, seemingly contradictory, word pictures for final judgment. The language is scattered: outer darkness (Matthew 8:12); fire (Matthew 25:41); stripes; separation (Matthew 7:23); the Pit; bottomless pit; lake of fire; chains of darkness (2 Peter 2:4 KJV); blackest darkness (Jude 13); death. This gives us a strong hint that the subject is ultimately beyond our experience and comprehension.

Third, Hades is a more neutral term than Gehenna and if we read Revelation in sequence, the fires of Gehenna are not yet lit.

Fourth, the Bible’s main theme is salvation, not loss. Romans 1:18 speaks to this.

Fifth, in Revelation 22:14-17, at the end, the warnings about punishment are followed by the invitation to eternal life. This is consistent with God’s mercy and where Christian churches should place the emphasis.

The respected scholar, I. Howard Marshall (pictured, right), has boldly designated one such usage “misleading” (The New Bible Commentary, page 1007). Thus simple black and white thinking on this subject has been eroded, and that, we hope to show, is for the good.

Frankly, the Italian poet Dante’s construction of an ever-burning “torture chamber” notion of Hell existing for all eternity as atonement for seventy years of bad behavior has never seemed reasonable. “Where is God’s justice and love/” some have asked. In this sermon today we offer only a brief overview on this subject. Our theme is that a better understanding of three words can shed more light on what has been a controversial subject, one that often hinders our evangelism. We conclude that it is unwise for preachers to threaten people with Hell. There is a more hopeful Christian witness to those worried about the fate of their loved ones.

What is “Tartarus”

This strange word for Hell only appears once in the entire Bible – 2 Peter 2:4. The root word “Tartarus” is borrowed from Greek mythology and underscores how Biblical writers are sometimes drawing on concepts from the surrounding culture of the ancient Near East, just as ministers today often reference movies and novels for their illustrations.

“Tartarus” appears in 2 Peter 2:4 as “tartaroo” meaning “thrown down to Tartarus.” Let’s read: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy judgments to be held for judgment…” Note the context: a series of stern warnings for false teachers attempting to undermine Christian faith in the late first century.

This leads to two noteworthy points for our ‘Hell” subject. First, Second Peter 2:4 refers to sinning angels (usually understood to refer to their overweening activity at the time of the Flood). Second, it is important to keep in mind who is addressed when we read about Hell. This point will loom larger as we go along.

Tartarus was the Greek God of the dead, equivalent to Pluto in the Roman god-lists. Hades was the underworld abode of the dead among the Greeks but Tartarus was even lower still. The worst of the wicked were there according to the Greeks who tended to fear the Afterlife. But no human beings have to worry about the Hell of 2 Peter 2:4.

The Hebrew SHEOL

The Old Testament (OT) word for Hell, “Sheol” means “the unseen world, the abode of the dead” (ISBE, 6:2761). Sheol was usually depicted in negative, gloomy terms. Job 10:20-22 has the patriarch saying, “Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy before I go to the land of no return, to the land of gloom and deep shadows, to the land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness.”

Sheol, the OT Hell, is not a place anyone wanted to go. That it is a symbolic term and not a specific set place is shown in Jonah 2:2 where, in the whale’s belly, Jonah is described as crying “from the depth of the grave” (NIV).The word for Grave here is Sheol also translated as “the Pit.” Sheol in some ways resembles the Greek view of the Afterlife – bare existence lived under grim conditions. In the Odyssey Homer has the dead hero Achilles tell Odysseus that it is “better to break sod as a farmhand than lord it over the exhausted dead.”

OT passages (Ezekiel 32:9-32; Psalm 49:15) confirm this grim analysis except that there are, in God’s loving mercy, scattered hints of a better existence for the righteous after death, though phrased as questionings or musings (Psalm 73:23-25; 88:10-12). There is a low-key resurrection theme in the OT but it usually implies a “resurrection” of the nation Israel, seen clearly in Ezekiel’s famous depiction of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37) i.e. Israel will get back to its homeland. But at least Ezekiel 37 intimates some kind of victory over Death. Later still, the prophet Daniel hints at a personal resurrection (Daniel 12:2), which is important.

BUT…one of the main benefits of studying “Sheol” comes in at Psalm 139:8 which says “if I make my bed in Sheol you are there.” Thus, even Sheol is under God’s jurisdiction. Studying Sheol also sets the all-conquering New Testament (NT) hope in better light. The OT view is brilliantly overshadowed by Jesus who “has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light” (2 Timothy 1:10; Hebrews 2: 14-15).

Now there is good news! What was mildly hinted at in the OT becomes integral to the NT message of resurrection, of hope, of new life through Jesus Christ, a life that actually begins now through accepting the gift of repentance and faith (John 10:10). But we are ahead of ourselves. Let’s cross over to the Greek New Testament for another word for Hell.

Note the diversity of views on this subject today.

Who controls Hades?

In Greek literature and mythology Hades, the brother of Zeus, was the ruler of the Underworld. Hades” is the standard word for “Hell” in the NT. In most cases it simply means “the grave” but it can also refer to the place where the unrighteous dead are reserved for Judgment. Note 2 Peter 2:9: “The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment while continuing their punishment.” It is appointed to all to die – the punishment for sin (Hebrews 9:27) but Jesus indicated there were different levels of punishment, (Luke 12:47). He taught that the people of Sodom and Nineveh would have an easier time in the final judgment than the people who rejected him in person (Matthew 10:15) because they had a lesser chance to turn to God.

These are intriguing prospects but Revelation 1:18’s reference to Hades (Hell) is a clear and powerful hope. It strikes unequivocally the NT theme of hope, faith and triumph over Death. It reads: “I am the Living One; I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Note: the word is "Hades" in most new translations. This is pivotal: The Risen Christ has triumphed over death and holds the keys of Hades which implies he has the power to let people out. This squares with Hades as a neutral place of discipline without associations of ever-burning tortures in a fiery furnace (Wayne Grudem, Tyndale Commentary: 1 Peter). Remember, ever burning torture is Dante’s theme.

Revelation 1:18 also echoes Psalm 139 that tells us even SHEOL is under God's jurisdiction (Psalm 139:8). Acts 2:31 says Jesus was not left in HADES. The Rich Man in the Parable of Luke 16 is in Hades (poorly translated “Hell” in the KJV) and is tormented at the thought that he has rejected his future hope. This is why the “flame” here is probably metaphorical. The concept of “fire” equaling severe testing is clearly linked in the NT (1 Peter 4:12).

The “torment” here is a well-known Greek word for psychological torment (Luke 16:20-25). Lazarus, the poor beggar in the parable, is with Abraham. Some Jewish teachers of the First Century taught two compartments for the Afterlife – one for the Unrighteous and one for the weak, the poor and the Righteous. It was called “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). See J.D. Taylor in The New Bible Dictionary, page 9 and Craig Evans’ Luke in the NIV Commentary, page 301. This “different sections of Hell” idea is one reason for the long-held Christian speculation that at his death Jesus released the righteous dwellers in Hades and opened heaven for such as Job who worried so much about Sheol. As William Barclay once mused, if this is true, then “there is no corner of the universe into which God’s grace has not reached” (James and Peter, page 243).

There is a hint of all this in another marvelous passage – Revelation 14:13. “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, Write, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labor for their deeds will follow them.”

Blessed are the dead? How?

Those who are now “in Christ” have that assurance. Paul’s conviction was that since Jesus’ saving work the people of God enter Christ’s presence at their death (Philippians 1:23). Romans 14:9 says that the conquering Christ is Lord both of the living and the dead. That is a thought to cherish. But…it is the fate of non-Christian loved ones we are more concerned with today. Hades (the Grave), Christian commentators now say, is a more neutral concept. It seems evident that there are no ever-burning fires of Hell waiting for people after death but a waiting for judgment. Revelation 20 has a scene near the end of John’s vision where the dead small and great stand before God – the White Throne Judgment. We must remember that judgment does not automatically mean “condemnation.” Indeed not that even Hades meets its end in this passage (Revelation 20:11-15).

So Hades does not go on forever. And that’s better news already. But why the overtones of the traditional ever-burning fire associated with Hell? This brings us to the last Greek word for Hell – Gehenna.

Up from Hell: The Valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem was a garbage dump in Jesus' day which affected one of the four words used for "Hell." (Wikimedia Commons)

Gehenna’s Fire

When Jesus used the word Gehenna as a sober warning to his hearers, (Matthew 5:22) he seemed to be referencing the Rabbinic understanding in the First Century which used the Valley of Hinnom – the Jerusalem garbage dump – as a symbolic picture of final, fiery judgment (Jeremiah 7:21). Jesus knew of an ultimate punishment to befall those who would ultimately choose to reject God. However, in Matthew 23:33 he specifically applied this fate to his implacable enemies among the corrupt religious leaders of his day. “Gehenna fire” looks like a pre-echo of the everlasting (that is, in its effects) fire of Revelation 14:11 and 19:3. But again, note for whom – in both references this fire is specifically reserved for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).

As in the OT with Tartarus, it is important to know who is being addressed when Jesus warns of Gehenna. It is not the weak, the ignorant or the “everyday garden variety sinner” such as you and I. Revelation’s “lake of fire” is for the devil and his allies, the Beast and the False Prophet set at the end of John’s vision. Is the punishment forever and ever? Remember that Revelation uses dire “hyped up” language to encourage a church facing martyrdom. Revelation 5:11 is one example of John’s style in this book. Not everything is to be taken literally.

More intense study of Gehenna these past 100 years or so has led to the growing belief in annihilationism – the view that the hopelessly wicked will be burned up (Malachi 4:1), not punished forever in Hell. Even this is an improvement on the Dante’s Inferno idea of eternal torment. What seems clear is that most references to Gehenna are to the desperately wicked, those who, in the final reckoning, would rather cease to exist than submit to God. As C.S’ Lewis eloquently puts it, Hell is locked from the inside, a mental condition to avoid.

Wise Cautions

Yes, there is a Hell, a fire that will ultimately burn up this earth in a cleansing purge to make way for a New Creation (2 Peter 3:10). But it is this New Creation that is God’s focus and so should it be ours. The mixed language (see box) relating to Hell shows how unwise it is for Christian teachers, preachers, artists and writers to draw too specific a picture of Hell. The good news is clear: the Risen Lord has triumphed over Death and Hell. Hell is indeed a more complex subject than some people (especially preachers) would like us to believe always remember – Jesus, the merciful High Priest, the Christian’s Defence Attorney, he holds the keys to our future. The Church must dwell on God’s Plan of salvation rather than probe the geography of Heaven and the temperature of Hell.

As it was said long ago: “There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off” (Proverbs 23:18).