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What the Hell?

There’s a long tradition in Christian circles of painting vivid images of hell in order to scare people into acting right, believing the right things and buying books. In fact, some people claim that the popularity of early colonial pastors who gave particularly vivid or gruesome hell and brimstone sermons was due to attendees coming seeking a good scare and some entertainment. The colonial version of horror movies, they say. Believe it or not, to this day those people who stand on street corners telling everyone that they are going to hell occasionally get someone to believe them and pledge their lives to Christ. In fact, so great is the human desire to avoid hell, I’m going to use it as my own excuse for procrastinating this blog post all day long. After all, today is the day that we actually talk about hell.

So, what the hell is hell anyhow? Aside from having your mother in law come to visit, that is. Well, there are 4 words that have been translated as “hell” in the bible. The Hebrew sheol and the Greek hades, Gehenna and tartarus. Going back to the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures used between 200 BC and 300 AD), we see that sheol is always translated as “hades”, so for our purposes we will consider these two words to be synonyms. Both sheol and hades are simply the place of the dead. In Greek mythology, everyone – good and bad – went to hades when they died. Mostly it was thought that the breath of a person continued to exist in hades but had no consciousness.


This idea that in the grave there was no conciousness is also reflected in verses using sheol such as Psalm 6:5 – “For the dead do not remember you. Who can praise you from the grave (sheol)?” and Isaiah 38:18 – “For the grave (sheol) cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.”

Psalm 89:48 speaks of sheol as the destination of all men rather than the domain of the wicked: “Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave (sheol)?” In Genesis 37:35 Jacob refuses to be comforted over the loss of his son Joseph saying, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave (sheol). ” Repeatedly in the Psalms, the psalmist credits God with saving him from the depths of Sheol (ex Ps 18:5, 30:3). In fact, in Psalm 139, the psalmist says that God himself is in sheol: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold,  You are there.”

Modern translations translate sheol either directly – using the word Sheol – or use the word grave. The King James Version translated sheol as hell when it was spoken of in reference to the wicked and as grave in other places. Here’s a list of all the bible verses containing sheol. Since most modern translations do not translate the word sheol as hell, the word and notion of hell have pretty much disappeared from the Old Testament.


In the New Testament, the word hades is used 10 times. Here’s the list of verses. In fact, it is hades that is used in several famous/infamous hell verses in the bible. When Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock upon which the church will be built he says, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18 I can’t help but wonder if that statement ran through Peter’s mind while Jesus was in the grave – “the grave (hades) will not prevail against it.” It is also hades, along with death, which is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation 20. Again, modern translations use the word Hades rather than hell when this word is used. It is the name of a specific mythological realm that would have been known an understood. And both from Greek mythology and from its equivalence with sheol, it is clear that it is not a place of fiery torment such as hell is supposed to be.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Interestingly, the word hades is also used in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Pretty obviously, this story is a parable or allegory. Nothing about the story lends itself to a literal interpretation. For example, what good is heaven if we’re within sight and ear shot of people being tormented in hell? That’s a pretty bogus eternal reward. Unless you’re the sort of depraved lunatic who gets off on watching people suffer. In which case I don’t want you sitting near me in heaven, you sicko.

Anyways, there are several ways to understand the theology of the story. One that the story is Jesus taking a shot against the Pharisees and/or the Sadducees.  The rich man in the story is described as wearing purple and fine linen, the dress of the priestly class. The rich man also asks Abraham to send someone to warn his five brothers. This may have been a reference to  Caiaphas’ father-in-law Annas who, according to Josephus, had five sons who served as high priests. Abraham answers that they had Moses and scripture and that was enough. In fact, he says that even if he were to raise Lazarus from the dead in order to warn them, they would not believe him. This is particularly telling as it is unusual for the characters in Jesus’ story to have names and, of course, Lazarus is also the name of the man who Jesus raised from the dead. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Sadducees did not believe him, but in fact made plans to have him murdered (John 12:10).

Another popular interpretation is that the rich man represents the Jewish people and Lazarus is the gentile world. Rather than offering a picture of the differing fates of the good and the wicked, it is meant as a warning of the fate of the Jews. The Jews have been rich in God’s care and attention. However, they have been so interested in maintaining their own house that they did not care for the Gentiles around them who had not been likewise blessed. They would find themselves cast out while the poor man – Lazarus – aka the gentiles would be carried to Abraham’s bosom. In other words – in the age to come, the Gentiles would be in the place where the Jews had expected themselves to be.


The third word used for hell actually comes from mythology as well. It’s Tartarus. It’s used just once in scripture at 2 Peter 2:4 –

For  if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Tartarus) and  committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but first of all, it’s speaking of angels and not people. In Greek mythology, Tartarus was a place under the underworld (hades) which was a dark, gloomy place of judgement. You can read more about it here, but for now let’s just say it’s a mythical place where really bad mythical creatures like the titans and cyclops were contained. Because they needed extra-tight security. It later became a place where the wicked were sent to suffer. It’s the place where Sisyphus kept having to push a rock up a hill. Its use here is a reference to the extra-biblical Book of Enoch which said that the angel Uriel was put in charge. Presumably to watch the fallen angels.


Now, the word in the bible which is most accurately thought of as analogous to hell is actually the name of a place – Gehenna. Here’s the list of the 12 instances it’s used in the NT. Gehenna is a transliteration of the Hebrew name: Ga ben Hinnom ie “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom”. It’s a real place a little bit outside of Jerusalem. You may remember it as Topheth from the Old Testament. It was the place where the Hebrews burnt their children as an offering to the god Molech. It was one of the most abominable acts ever committed by the Hebrew people. It represented the depths of depravity to which they had sunk when they turned away from God and worshipped the gods of this world. This was the low point from which God had to rescue them. Legend has it that in Jesus’ day it was used as the town dump. Fires were kept burning there continually to get rid of the trash and also as a way to prevent diseases from spreading from it.

When Jesus speaks of Gehenna, he always speaks of being cast into it or of the fires therein. Now along with all of the cultural, moral and historical baggage that this place held, referring to Gehenna would have brought to mind the book of Jeremiah. God brings up the abomination which took place there several times, finally telling Jeremiah to take the elders and senior priests to Topheth and to break a clay pot there. He was to tell them, there in that place where they had burnt their own children (an inheritance from the Lord!), that God was going to break Jeruselum and it would never be repaired – just like that pot. (Jeremiah 19). Twice he says to Jeremiah that the valley will be called a place of slaughter. It was closely associated with God’s judgment on the Hebrew people which resulted in the Babylonian Exile. NT Wright (and others) argues that at the time of Jesus, most Hebrew scholars believed the Hebrew people to still be in exile, despite having returned to their historical homeland. Only now it was a spiritual exile epitomized by the Roman occupation.

When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, the filth, and fires and shame and guilt which it evoked wasn’t something abstract. It was real. It was somewhere you could walk to. It was not a place where you would linger. There was A LOT of baggage that went with the name Gehenna. But is it hell? Obviously, given the perspective I am working from, I will argue not. It is often said that by the time of Jesus Gehenna associated with hell in some way. But this isn’t true. In fact, Gehenna isn’t mentioned as a place one went to after death in Jewish texts until the 6th century AD. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, none of his listeners would have thought of hell or the afterlife. They would have thought of the town dump and all of that terrible history of sin and God’s wrath coming down on his people. Which given how much of what Jesus taught was concerned with the coming judgment on Israel is exactly what he would have intended. (N.T. Wright in The Challenge of Jesus does a good job of explaining how central this impending judgment was to Jesus’ ministry.) If Jesus had meant to use Gehenna as an illustration of suffering in the afterlife, it would have been a novel use of the name. It would have required explanation indicating that this is what he means, which he does not provide. Instead, what he says is consistent with the judgment of God on the nation of Israel as recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

Gehenna, Jeremiah and The Good Shepherd

Now, one of the things which people sometimes miss about Jesus is what a phenomenal theologian he was. Everything he said harkened back to something from the Hebrew scriptures. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, as I said before, the book of Jeremiah would have been called to mind. Which is quite significant. So let’s take a closer look at Jeremiah. From Chapter 7, verses 32, 34:

 Therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when it will no longer be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will  bury in Topheth until there is no other place. . . Then I will make to  cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride; for the  land will become a ruin.

The next 16 chapters are an unrelenting diatribe against Israel and detailing all the ways in which God will bring about its destruction. And then in chapter 23:

“Then I Myself will  gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will also raise up  shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will  not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified,  nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

The good shepherd. The one who will not let one go missing. Jesus appears in the middle of the destruction that started in Topheth/Gehenna. The next 7 chapters are devoted to condemnation and warnings about and to false prophets, bad shepherds, bad fruit and faithless leaders. Then in Chapter 30:

‘It shall come about on that day,’ declares the Lord of hosts, ‘that I will  break his yoke from off their neck and will tear off their  bonds; and strangers will no longer  make them their slaves. But they shall serve the Lord their God and  David their king, whom I will raise up for them.

How does the story end?

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a  new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the  covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I  took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My  covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But  this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “ I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and  I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will  not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all  know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will  forgive their iniquity, and their  sin I will remember no more.”

(Paul quotes this passage in Hebrews 8:8-12 and explains that with Jesus’ life death and resurrection, the old covenant was becoming “obsolete” and “ready to disappear” and has been replaced by this new covenant.)

When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, that terrible judgment from God and all the sin would have been what came to mind. But that wasn’t the end. When Jesus said he was the good shepherd, that he would go back for the one who was lost and the forgiveness of sins, he was reminding them of the hopeful promises God had made.

The book goes on for quite a few more chapters and I’m sure that there are lots of interesting things to say about it and Jesus’ mission. But we’re going to leave that for now and return to Gehenna. So, what ever happened to Gehenna? Well, take a look at what it looks like today:

(Click on the picture to see more present day pictures of the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom)

Not such a scary place anymore, huh?

For further reading on this subject, here are some resources:

Jesus’ Teachings on Hell

Hell is Leaving the Bible “Forever”

The Rich Man and Lazarus

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