Examining the topic of hell in the New Testament is more complicated than in the Old, due to the symbology in Revelation, and four different Greek words used by N.T. writers. In the Old Testament, the only word for ‘hell’ is ‘sheol’, which means grave, hell or pit. As we showed in the last blog, ‘hell’ in the Old Testament is a dark, quiet, peaceful place, where bodies return to dust, thoughts and emotions cease, and those in misery find rest.
Sheol = Hades
In the New Testament, the equivalent Greek word for ‘sheol’ is ‘hades’. However, the English word ‘hell’ can also come from the Greek word ‘Gehenna’ which is used frequently, and the Greek word ‘tartaroo’ which is used only once in 2 Peter. The concept of the ‘lake of fire’, and the abyss generally appear only in Revelation.
The Meaning of Hades
Starting with the Greek word ‘hades’, Strong’s Concordance says, that ‘hades’ means ‘properly, unseen.’ Dr. Strong defines ‘hades’ as ‘the place (state) of departed souls’, and tells us that in the KJV ‘hades’ is translated into the English words ‘grave or hell.’ If you look at all the occurrences of ‘hades’ you will find it is used in a similar way to ‘sheol’.
Jesus was not left in Hades
For instance, in Acts 2:27-31 which uses the Greek word ‘hades’, the writer quotes from Psalm 16:8-11 which uses the Hebrew word ‘sheol’. This is a prophecy about Jesus, saying, “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell <hades>, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell <hades>, neither his flesh did see corruption.” We have already examined the concept of ‘soul’ in the Old and New Testament, and demonstrated that every living, breathing creature is a living soul. A soul without breath is a dead soul (Numbers 9:10; Joshua 11:11) Here in Acts 2, ‘hades’ refers to the dark grave where dead souls decay, and God brought Jesus out from ‘hades’ before decay had opportunity to corrupt his body.
Hades in Revelation
In Revelation, a vision full of signs and symbols, ‘hades’ is thrown into the ‘lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:14). We are told that the sea, death and ‘hades’ give up the dead for judgement (Revelation 20:13) – representing all places that a dead body might have been decaying. We learn that Jesus has been given the keys to death and ‘hades’ (Revelation 1:18) – in other words Jesus is the one with power to unlock the graves and bring us back to life in the resurrection (John 11:23-27).
Hades = hell or the grave
Some passages where ‘hades’ has been translated ‘hell’ rather than ‘grave’ may tend to sound initially like the prevailing fiery view of hell, unless one switches the English word ‘hell’ to ‘grave’. For instance, the following three examples:
“And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell <hades>: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.” (Matthew 11:23)
A city that is ‘exalted unto heaven’ simply means that they have been greatly elevated in privilege or status, much like we would talk about a ‘rising star’ today. To be ‘brought down to hell or the grave’ indicates the opposite – a complete humiliation and loss of privilege or status. Another example using these expressions is the prophecy against the King of Babylon in Isaiah 14.
2. Peter’s confession
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell <hades> shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
Peter’s confession to Jesus that, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” is the rock-solid foundation of the Gospel message. The Gospel hope involving resurrection means that the gates of hell or the grave will have no power to keep believers entombed.
3. No more victory
“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave <hades>, where is thy victory?”( 1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
Both death and hades (hell or the grave), lose their victory when a mortal body is resurrected and puts on immortality. Never again will an immortalized individual succumb to the power of death.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
The only complicated ‘hades’ passage is the parable Jesus told about The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:23-31. Keep in mind that this is a story Jesus made-up and told to demonstrate that life is the time to believe and act charitably, and also that those “who hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell <hades> he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”
From Wikipedia we read that the “Bosom of Abraham” refers to the “place of comfort in the Biblical Sheol (or Hades in the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew scriptures from around 200 BC, and therefore so described in the New Testament) where the righteous dead await Judgment Day.” The article goes on to show that “In First Temple Judaism, Sheol in the Hebrew Old Testament, or Hades in the Septuagint, is primarily a place of “silence” to which all humans go. However, during, or before, the exile in Babylon ideas of activity of the dead in Sheol began to enter Judaism.“
Therefore, in the time of Jesus, this Babylonian concept of the ‘activity of the dead’ led to some strange pagan beliefs, which Jesus uses in this parable to illustrate his point…not to teach a new doctrinal concept. Ironically, after giving this parable, Jesus actually raised a Lazarus from the dead, and just as he foretold in his parable, the leaders of Israel not only wanted to kill Lazarus, they began in earnest to plot Jesus’ death as well. They refused to listen to Old Testament prophecy, relying rather on their own traditions and superstitions, and therefore even the awesome miraculous resurrection of Lazarus failed to have any impact.
Gehenna – the Garbage Dump
The other word often translated ‘hell’, is the Hebrew/Greek word ‘geenna’. This occurs about fifteen times in the New Testament. Strong’s Concordance definition says, “of Hebrew origin (1516 and 2011); valley of (the son of) Hinnom; ge-henna (or Ge-Hinnom), a valley of Jerusalem, used (figuratively) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment:–hell.”
An excellent article on Gehenna (click here) showing pictures of the actual location in Israel, the history of the location as a burning garbage dump, and the intertwining of truth and error surrounding the place, can be found on Wikipedia.
If you were a criminal in Israel at the time of Christ, you didn’t receive a proper burial, but were thrown into this garbage dump which burned perpetually to incinerate the trash. Therefore, when ‘gehenna’ is used in the New Testament, the idea that a criminal would be ‘tossed into’ a place with perpetual fires and ‘immortal’ worms (Mark 9:44,46,48), was all part of the total consuming process.
Concerning ‘gehenna’, Robertsons’ NT Word Pictures says, “Into hell, into the unquenchable fire (eis tên geennan, eis to pûr to asbeston). Not Hades, but Gehenna. Asbeston is alpha privative and sbestos from sbennumi to quench. It occurs often in Homer. Our word asbestos is this very word. Mt 18:8 has “into the eternal fire.” The Valley of Hinnom had been desecrated by the sacrifice of children to Moloch so that as an accursed place it was used for the city garbage where worms gnawed and fires burned. It is thus a vivid picture of eternal punishment.”
The list of passages, using the word ‘gehenna’ are as follows: Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5, James 3:6. In these passages, Jesus warns that those who practice evil may be in danger of ‘hell fire’, referring to the Jewish practice of throwing criminal’s corpses into the perpetual fires burning in the valley of Gehenna, into a fire that ‘shall never be quenched’ (Mark 9:45) For instance in Matthew 5:29, Jesus says, “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell<geenna>.”
So, Jesus uses the word ‘Gehenna’ to represent complete annihilation and destruction – the fate of anyone who is not ‘in Christ’.
The Greek word ‘tartaroo’, is only used ONCE in the New Testament. Strong’s definition is “from Tartaros (the deepest abyss of Hades); to incarcerate in eternal torment:–cast down to hell.” This word is used only in 2 Peter 2:4,
“For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell<tartaroo>, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment.”
This passage in 2 Peter 2 has led many to believe that God’s holy, immortal angels can sin and that those who have sinned are in a fiery hell awaiting judgment.
However, the word for angels<aggelos>, while referring to God’s holy angels 179 times, simply means “a messenger, one who is sent, an envoy”. It is translated as a ‘messenger’ 7 times in the NT, referring to humans. For instance, referring to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:10, “For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger<aggelos> before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (see also Luke 7:27; 9:52; Mark 1:2; James 2:25)
Therefore, if 2 Peter 2:4 is referring to human messengers who sinned and were cast down to the deepest parts of the earth – further down than a regular grave, this incident may refer to the rebellion of the leaders, Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who were swallowed alive by the earth in Numbers 16. This would fit the pattern in 2 Peter 2:4-7, as Peter goes on to list other Old Testament examples – Noah, Sodom and Gormorra, and Lot.
Jude also mentions the “angels<aggelos> who kept not their first estate”, in between his references to the Israelites God delivered from Egypt, and Sodom and Gomorrha. Jude says in verse 7, “Sodom and Gomorrha and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” This is helpful in understanding what ‘eternal fire’ means. If the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha are an example of ‘the vengeance of eternal fire’, they certainly aren’t still burning today, but they have been completely obliterated. The fire consumed until there was nothing left to burn, and the cities were never rebuilt.
The Lake of Fire
Revelation is the only book of the Bible which uses the phrase “lake of fire”. Revelation is also a highly symbolic book mainly composed of visions given to the Apostle John from the Lord Jesus Christ. Generally, the symbols of Revelation are not meant to be taken literally, but are symbolic language. Understanding how symbols are used in the Old Testament provides an understanding for the symbols in Revelation. For example, many beasts are seen in Revelation, often with more than one head, and parts un-related to actual beasts that we know today. The book of Daniel also uses beasts and tells us that beasts represent different nations, heads/horns represent kings, etc. (Daniel 7:15-22).
It’s interesting to note the characters and elements that are ‘thrown into the lake of fire’. In Revelation 19:10, the beast and the false prophet are thrown into this fiery lake. In Revelation 20:10, at the end of the 1000 years of Christ’s reign on earth the devil is also thrown in, as are ‘death and hell’ in verse 14, with the comment, “This is the second death”. In Revelation 20:15, whoever was not found written in the book of life was also cast into the lake of fire, thus terminating the age of mortality and opportunity for eternal life. After the 1000 years, everyone will either have become immortal, or received the punishment of eternal death.
One more term is often confused with the popular idea of hell. The ‘bottomless pit’, or the abyss primarily appears in Revelation. The Greek word “Abussos” has been defined by Strong’s Concordance as, “depthless, i.e. (specially) (infernal) “abyss”:–deep, (bottomless) pit.” The only other two places the word is used, aside from Revelation, is first in Luke 8:31, where the unclean spirits (mental illness) of the crazy man, Legion, begged to not be cast into the deep<abussos>, but Jesus did send them into the deep lake. Secondly, the word is used in Romans 10:7, “Or, Who shall descend into the deep<abussos>? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)” So, wherever this ‘bottomless pit’ is, Jesus was there at his death. We know from Acts 2, that Jesus’ soul/life was not left in hell (the pit, or grave).
Remembering that Revelation is a book of highly symbolic language, we discover in Revelation 9:1-11 and 20:1 that there is a key to the bottomless pit, and if it is opened, a lot of smoke comes out, and a destroying angel named Apollyon. In Revelation 11:7 and 17:8, we learn about a beast that comes out of the bottomless pit who goes into perdition and causes the whole unbelieving world to wonder about him. Finally, in Revelation 20:1-3, the devil is restrained and cast into this bottomless pit during the 1000 years that Jesus reigns over the earth. These symbols all have very important meanings, and will perhaps be the subject of another blog. To link this symbology in a literal way to ‘hades’ or ‘sheol’, greatly alters the meanings of these simple words.
In summary, the Hebrew word ‘sheol’ and the Greek word ‘hades’ are used interchangeably in reference to the grave – a covered place – where all people go when they die. The Christian hope is to be resurrected from the grave when Jesus returns, and to be given eternal life to live forever in God’s Kingdom on earth.