The Word "Hell" in the Bible

Many people do not realize that there are actually four different original words translated "hell" in the Bible. The confusing part is that the four original words do not all have the same meaning. If one attempts to combine the meanings of all four words into one composite concept, he not only emerges with a very confusing picture of the fate of the wicked, but he also does injustice to the Bible's intent.

The word "hell" is used 54 times in the King James Version: 31 times in the Old Testament, and 23 times in the New Testament.

Every time you see the word "hell" in the Old Testament, you can know that the Hebrew word used there is sheol, which means "the grave" (See Jonah 2:2, margin). In half of the instances in which sheol is used, the translators rendered it "hell;" in the other half, they translated it as "grave." Nowhere in Scripture does sheol denote a place of torment in which bodiless beings suffer. The Bible makes it clear that all people, both righteous and wicked, go to sheol when they die. The patriarch Jacob said he would go to sheol when he died, and his son Joseph would go there also (Genesis 37:35). Righteous Job used the word sheol when speaking of his own resting place (Job 17:13). There everyone unconsciously awaits the resurrection.

The New Testament contains three Greek words which are translated "hell." And they each mean something different.

Ten of the 23 New Testament references are translated from the word hades, which is simply the Greek equivalent of sheol, and means "the grave." (Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14.) Hades is not associated with conscious torment anywhere in the Bible except in a parable in Luke 16:23.

In 12 instances the greek word gehenna is translated "hell." (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6.) Gehenna, or "Valley of Hinnom," is mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament (Joshua 15:8; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31). It is a gorge near Jerusalem in which idolatrous kings burned their children as a sacrifice to the heathen god Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:1, 6). Because of this abomination, the Lord declared that He would make it a "valley of slaughter" for His rebellious people where the fowls of heaven would eat the corpses which could not be buried for lack of room (Jeremiah 7:32, 33: 19:6, 7). The same valley was later used as a refuse dump where animal carcasses and rubbish were continually burned. Such places are generally infested with maggots which help decompose the refuse (Mark 9:44). Thus gehenna became associated in Jewish thought with the place of final punishment. Jesus used it as an illustration of the fire which will burn the wicked in the final day of judgment. Nowhere does the Bible say that the sinner is cast into gehenna at the time of his death. The Bible clearly says that the fire that burns the wicked will not touch them until the final day of judgment.

The word "hell" appears in only one other place in Scripture: 2 Peter 2:4. Here the Greek word tartaros is used, which means "the deepest abyss." Peter used this term only when discussing the banishment of the rebellious angels from heaven.

To summarize: Of the four words translated "hell," we have seen that the Bible distinguishes three separate concepts:

  1. Sheol or hades: The grave where all people go at death to unconsciously await either the resurrection of life or the resurrection of damnation.
  2. Gehenna: A place of burning, used as an illustration of the fire which will one day destroy the earth and totally consume the wicked.
  3. Tartaros: Used only one time in Scripture, but never in reference to the destiny of man.