Do you know the truth about "hell" as described in the Bible? Come along on a journey with someone who's been there and returned!
Scott Ashley standing in the ancient Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem.
Source: Darris McNeely
You've probably heard the expression "a cold day in hell." In my case it was true. It was literally a cold day when I visited hell—a cloudy, occasionally drizzly day for which I found myself not dressed warmly enough.
Traveling light, I had brought only lightweight summer clothes because the weather around Jerusalem had been warm. So putting on an extra shirt and buying a cheap umbrella from a marketplace vendor, I set off to explore hell.
A firsthand look at biblical sites
For years—ever since I'd learned of hell's exact location and how to get there—I'd wanted to visit the spot. Traveling with me was fellow Good News writer and Beyond Today TV host Darris McNeely. Together we were determined to visit hell, regardless of the chilly November weather.
For several days we had been immersing ourselves in biblical history and culture as we visited a number of places associated with Jesus Christ's ministry and the early Church. With our trip drawing to a close, we wanted to see as much as we could of the archaeological remains of Jerusalem dating back 2,000 years to the time of Jesus and the setting of the Gospels.
Starting the morning at the southern end of the Temple Mount—the gigantic platform built by Herod the Great where once stood the magnificent temple that Jesus and His followers visited—we walked up the broad, majestic staircase that thousands of worshippers ascended to enter the temple area in Christ's day. (Darris had actually helped to uncover the steps here at an archaeological excavation many years earlier.)
We explored the remains of some of the numerous pools where 3,000 believers were baptized on the Pentecost Holy Day (seven weeks after Jesus Christ's resurrection) as described in Acts 2. We marveled at the evidence of the Roman destruction of the temple in A.D. 70—the massive limestone blocks that Roman soldiers had dislodged and pushed from the top of the temple platform onto the city streets some 70-80 feet below.
But knowing our time was limited, we left the temple area and started the long walk down the Kidron Valley toward the southern end of the city of Jerusalem. We wanted to learn more about another location Jesus had mentioned repeatedly in the Gospels and to see it firsthand. So, walking a dusty and potholed road that followed a centuries-old path, we steadily descended toward our destination—hell.
Ancient notions of visiting hell
The idea of people actually visiting hell—and returning—has been a subject of fascination for ages. In ancient biblical times, the inhabitants of the land of Canaan thought that caves and springs were entrances to the underground habitation of gods and goddesses who lurked there during the cold winter months before reemerging in springtime.
Across the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, developed elaborate ideas about this unseen underworld. In The Odyssey, the epic work by the Greek poet Homer, his hero Odysseus visits "the abode of departed spirits," a gloomy world of murky darkness where he meets, among others, the disembodied spirits of his dead mother and the heroes Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax.
Achilles, who in the story rules in this realm of the dead, recognizes Odysseus and laments that he would rather have stayed on earth as the most impoverished slave than rule over all the spirits in this dreary and depressing underworld. Homer referred to this place as the "house of Hades."
Later writers expanded on these ideas with their own versions, creating an elaborate mythology about unseen worlds where departed spirits go after death.
Plato's idea of a place of eternal punishing
The famous Greek philosopher Plato popularized several concepts that would greatly impact later ideas about hell. Most notable were the ideas of the immortality of the soul and that at death the soul would go to hell as a place of eternal punishment or to heaven as an eternal reward.
In his well-known work The Republic (written about 400 B.C.), Plato describes an individual who sees what happens to people in the afterlife: "There were two chasms in the earth [and] two other chasms in the heaven above. In the intermediate space there were judges seated, who bade the just, after they had judged them, ascend by the heavenly way on the right hand [to heaven] . . . And in like manner the unjust were commanded by them to descend [to hell] by the lower way on the left hand."
Plato goes on to explain that those sent to the underworld for punishment are to suffer tenfold for each wrong they have done in this life, while those rewarded with a heavenly afterlife similarly receive "the rewards of beneficence and justice and holiness . . . in the same proportion" (quoted in The Masterpieces and the History of Literature, Julian Hawthorne, editor, 1906, Vol. 5, pp. 76-77).
Surprisingly, these ideas about hell, heaven and the immortal soul originated not in the Bible, but with ancient pagan Greek writers! Centuries later, early Catholic thinkers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Augustine—who were enamored with Greek philosophy—incorporated these and other pagan ideas into Catholic theology.
An imaginary trip to hell
Probably the most impactful and far-reaching "journey" to hell took place in the imagination of the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri (ca. A.D. 1265-1321) in his three-part work Divine Comedy ("comedy" in this context meaning a story with a happy ending).In this fanciful work Dantejourneys through hell, purgatory and heaven, guided by the long-dead Roman poet Virgil. The part about hell is titled The Inferno— the Italian word for hell.
The descent of Dante and Virgil into hell in The Inferno begins outside Jerusalem, where an inscription over the entrance ends with the words "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." The two then descend through the various levels or circles of hell where sinners are punished in a manner befitting their sins.
Gluttons, for example, must live in stinking slime under a continuous icy rain. Heretics are eternally tortured in burning tombs. The violent are consigned to a river of boiling blood and fire, shot at with arrows because of the violence they showed in life.
Others are whipped by demons, submerged in boiling tar, buried head first with flames licking at their feet, and dismembered by a sword-wielding demon only to be healed so they can be hacked apart again. Satan is confined at the very lowest depth of Dante's imaginary hell.
Yet Dante never intended his work to be taken literally. The story even has him encountering a number of contemporary political and religious figures in hell (he placed the then-current pope and two recent predecessors there). However, his descriptions of hell did reflect Catholic theology of the time, and became a kind of template for how many people would view hell from that point forward.
The idea of hell as a place where Satan and his demons torment the damned for all eternity became a central tenet of Catholic belief, and from there it passed on into the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches and still later into Protestantism. Even Muhammad, founder of Islam, adopted these basic ideas about hell as a place of eternal torture in his new religion. Other faiths, too, have some variation of hell among their teachings.
But as we have seen, many of the common concepts about hell came from sources outside the Bible. What does the Bible itself say?
Three different "hells" in Scripture!
To understand the truth about hell—and what prompted my journey that cold day in Jerusalem—we need to peel away the layers of myth and manmade ideas and understand what the Bible writers meant by "hell" in their original context. After all, if we don't understand what the words meant to the original writers, how can we hope to understand what they should mean for us today?
With just a few minutes of research you can learn that four different words are translated "hell" in the widely used King James Version of the Bible. Surprisingly, three of the four have nothing to do with the common idea of hell! For this reason, many later Bible versions translate these words differently—and more accurately—or simply leave them untranslated altogether.
Why do they do this? The translators recognize that many readers will see the word "hell" and automatically assume the common idea of an ever-burning place of eternal torment, when they know this was never the intent or meaning of the original words!
So what are the words translated "hell," and what do they really mean?
The first "hell"—Hebrew sheol and Greek hades
What we commonly call the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (with a small amount of Aramaic). Sheol is the Hebrew word translated "hell" throughout the Old Testament. It refers to "the state and abode of the dead; hence the grave in which the body rests" (William Wilson, Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies, "Hell," p. 215). The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains, "Thus there are no references to eternal destiny but simply to the grave as the resting place of the bodies of all people" (Lawrence Richards, 1985, p. 336).
Many modern Bible versions, reflecting the true meaning of sheol, now translate this word as "the grave" or simply leave it untranslated . Such righteous, godly men of faith as Jacob (Genesis:37:35), Job (Job:14:13), David (Psalm:88:3) and Hezekiah (Isaiah:38:10) knew that they were going to sheol at death. These men of God wouldn't have been going to an ever-burning place of torment. Clearly sheol means the grave, not a place of everlasting torment for the wicked!
The equivalent of sheol in the Greek language of the New Testament is hades, which also refers to the grave. Despite the appearance of the word hades in Greek mythology to refer to an underworld realm of shadowy consciousness after death, this is not the biblical sense of the word.
In the four New Testament verses that quote Old Testament passages containing the Hebrew word sheol, hades is used for sheol (Matthew:11:23; Luke:10:15; Acts:2:27, Acts:2:31). As with sheol, hades is translated "the grave" or "death" or simply left untranslated in newer Bible versions. It in no way means or refers to a place of fiery torment.
The second "hell"—Greek tartaroo
A second Greek word, tartaroo, a form of tartaros, is also translated "hell" in the New Testament. It is used only once in the Bible, in 2 Peter:2:4, where Peter refers to the present restraint or imprisonment of "the angels who sinned"—fallen angels, or demons.
The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains in its entry on "Heaven and Hell" that tartaroo means "to confine in Tartaros" and that "Tartaros was the Greek name for the mythological abyss in which rebellious gods were confined." Peter used this metaphoric term in the Greek language of the day to show that the sinning angels were "delivered . . . into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment."
Peter's point is that these fallen angels are now restrained on earth by God while awaiting their ultimate judgment for their rebellion against their Creator and destructive influence on humanity. Note also that tartaroo applies only to demons. Nowhere does it refer to a fiery hell in which people are punished after death.
As with sheol and hades, some more recent Bible versions leave it untranslated rather than misleadingly render it as "hell."
The third "hell"—Greek gehenna
We've seen that the first "hell" mentioned in the Bible is simply the grave, referred to by the Hebrew word sheol and the Greek word hades. And the second "hell," referred to only once in Scripture, is tartaroo or tartaros, referring to the restraint of the fallen angels or demons on the earth. The third "hell" of the Bible, then, must surely be the hell in which the wicked will face eternal torment!
Or maybe not.
Remember my journey to hell? This last of the three biblical "hells" was my destination—so I could tell you about it firsthand.
The last of the words translated "hell" in the Bible is the Greek word gehenna. As a number of Bible reference works explain, gehenna comes from the Hebrew Gai-Hinnom, meaning "Valley of Hinnom."
This deep valley lies immediately to the south of the ridge on which Jerusalem was constructed, then curves to the city's southwest and west. It's mentioned as the border between the ancient tribes of Judah and Benjamin in Joshua:15:8 and Joshua:18:16.
But how did this valley come to be connected with the idea of a fiery hell?
A personal exploration of hell
Today gehenna —the ancient Valley of Hinnom—is a park-like setting on the outskirts of Jerusalem, an area of relative peace outside the hustle and bustle of the city. The day we visited, we had the valley mostly to ourselves, except for several Arab women and their children harvesting olives from the olive trees dotting the valley floor.
Scrambling up the steep slopes, we explored a few of the ancient tomb entrances that dotted the hillside to the south.
The Bible records that terrible things had happened in this valley. As The Anchor Bible Dictionary states: "The valley was the scene of the idolatrous worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. This worship consisted of sacrificing children by passing them through a fire . . . and into the hands of the gods (Jeremiah:7:31; Jeremiah:19:4-5; Jeremiah:32:35). These practices were observed during [the period of the kings of Israel and Judah] under the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh who themselves sacrificed their own children (2 Kings:16:3; 2 Kings:21:6; 2 Chronicles:28:3; 2 Chronicles:33:6)" (David Noel Freidman, editor, 1992, Vol. 2, "Gehenna," p. 927).
Putting an end to such abominable idolatry, the righteous King Josiah defiled the valley, making it ceremonially unclean so such vile practices would not take place there again (2 Kings:23:10). Because of its evil reputation, the valley, located downhill from Jerusalem's walls, later became the city garbage dump. Waste and refuse—along with the bodies of dead animals and criminals—were dumped and consumed by the fires that burned there continuously.
Now the meaning and significance of gehenna starts to become clear. Gehenna is used 12 times in the Bible, with 11 of those instances recording the words of Jesus Christ (the 12th is from His half-brother James). When Jesus spoke of gehenna, His listeners (who lived in Jerusalem or traveled there regularly) knew very well what He was referring to—a fire that consumed everything thrown into it, including human beings. He warned that this destroying fire would be the fate of those who stubbornly refuse to repent of their wickedness (Matthew:5:22, Matthew:5:29-30; Matthew:23:15, Matthew:23:33; Luke:12:5).
Gehenna and the lake of fire
But when will this take place?
Gehenna clearly isn't burning up the wicked right now. This fiery fate lies in the future, when the incorrigibly wicked will be incinerated in an all-consuming fire that will reduce them to ashes (Malachi:4:1-3). The book of Revelation calls this "the lake of fire," with those cast into it then experiencing "the second death"—not torment for all eternity (Revelation:19:20; Revelation:20:10, Revelation:20:14-15; Revelation:21:8).
In the time frame outlined in the Bible, this follows 1,000 years of Christ's reign on the earth (Revelation:20:1-6) and a resurrection to physical life of all those who have never known God and His ways (Revelation:20:5, Revelation:20:11-13). Those resurrected at that time will have the opportunity to learn God's ways, repent and receive His gift of eternal life.
Some, regrettably, will reject that gift. Of them the Bible says, "And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation:20:15). Those who willfully choose to reject God's way will not be allowed to continue living in the misery their rejection of God and His way of life will bring. Scripture shows that they will die— they will cease to exist, not live forever in torment.
As we've seen in this article, a closer look at the words translated "hell," coupled with an understanding of what Jesus Christ meant when He spoke of a fiery fate for the wicked, shows that the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment simply isn't found in the Bible. And our great God, far from being a sadistic being who would condemn human beings to an eternity of torture, is instead a God of mercy who, as we read in 1 Timothy:2:4, "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
How thankful we should be to learn and understand the truth!