Hell in the Bible

Read the Bible

(image courtesy ChristArt)

Spencer D Gear

In this book by Christopher Morgan & Robert Peterson (gen eds) 2007. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Zondervan), you will read how people within the church, some of whom know Greek, are reinventing the doctrine of hell with alternatives such as universalism and annihilationism. I found it to be a commentary on how presuppositions impose on the Greek text (I read and have taught NT Greek) and the text is not allowed to speak for itself.

Morgan & Peterson begin with this story:

A business was opening a new store, and a friend of the owner sent flowers for the occasion. The flowers arrived at the new business site, and the owner read the card, inscribed, “Rest in Peace.”
The angry owner called the florist to complain. After he told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry he was, the florist said, “Sir, I’m really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry, you should imagine this: Somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note that reads, “Congratulations on your new location” (Introduction)

We are in a time when there are major attempts at scholarly and lay levels to redefine hell. Here are a few examples:

clip_image002[1] John Dominic Crossan, historical Jesus’ scholar of the Jesus Seminar: ‘‘What about heaven and hell, what about terminal rewards and punishments, what about eternity and the afterlife?… Let me be very blunt: I refuse to accept heaven from a God who could invent hell’. He continues, ‘The God of hell is a divinity to fear but not to love, to dread but not to worship, and it is morally necessary to say that loudly and clearly’. He is emphatic: ‘Hell is an obscenity…. For such a Supreme Being, Mrs Job had the only proper answer: Curse God, and die’ (Crossan 2000:201).

clip_image002[1] Layman: ‘I don’t believe God has condemned the majority of man to hell. Hell in the bible is described as eternal fire, bottomless pit, outer darkness, but for the most part simply as death’.[1]

clip_image002[1] John Stott, the late evangelical scholar, ‘In Evangelical Essentials, I described as “tentative” my suggestion that “eternal punishment” may mean the ultimate annihilation of the wicked rather than their eternal conscious torment. I would prefer to call myself agnostic on this issue, as are a number of New Testament scholars I know. In my view, the biblical teaching is not plain enough to warrant dogmatism. There are awkward texts on both sides of the debate’ (McCloughry 2006).

clip_image002[3] Mormon view: ‘LDS[2] do not believe in Hell as a place. The reason why is that revelation through Latter-Day prophets have revealed that there exists three levels of glory and then Outer Darkness. Hope that helps’.[3]

clip_image002[4] Layman: ‘Personally, I don’t believe in traditional concepts of either heaven or hell. I believe God is in all and all are in God. We are from God, and to God we will return. What this means, whether we are conscious of it, and what it is like, I don’t know. I honestly think that how we live here and now is more important than how we will live in an afterlife. My philosophy is “God has that covered, so I’m gonna focus on being the best me I can be here and now”’.[4]

clip_image002[4] Liberal theologian, the late Paul Tillich: ‘”Heaven” and “hell” are symbols of ultimate meaning and unconditional significance’ (1968 III:327).

So there are samples of doubt about hell among liberal and evangelical people with some association with the Christian perspective on life.

We run into a problem when it comes to understanding ‘hell’, especially if we have been raised on the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.

The KJV translation of hell

We have a major problem with the King James Version and its translation of various Greek words with the same English word. I was preparing to provide teaching on this to expose the KJV translation weaknesses on this topic when I came across this article by J. Gibbons.

Gibbons has summarised this problem:

ALTHOUGH MANY translations of the Bible have been made into English (some good and some not as good), the King James Version (initially translated in 1611) is still widely used by many people (among them being this writer). When there are possible question marks about words that seem archaic, we try to supply parallel words that would be helpful in getting the meaning across. This term “hell” is one that needs our attention. The KJV scholars used the one word “hell” to represent several different words in the original Scriptures. This can be confusing unless one makes a background study as to which word is behind the word “hell” appearing in our KJV (or check out other translations). Consequently, some have misrepresented the Scriptures and have tried to teach that the grave is the only hell (and that there is no place of fire). What about this? What are the words in the original Scriptures, what do they mean, and why did the KJV translators represent these words by only one word in English? Following are gleanings, impressions and conclusions from our study on this.[5]

Greek words for the KJV’s ‘hell’ in the New Testament

Again, Gibbons provides the summary:

Three Words as “Hell”.

In the New Testament, the KJV translators used the word “hell” somewhat generically to represent three different Greek words. The Greek words are (1) gehenna, (2) hades and (3) tartaros (sic). Gehenna is found 12 times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:22,29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6). Hades is found 11 times (Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13,14) and tartaros (sic) 1 time (2 Peter 2:4).

Gehenna, Hell Proper.

(1) Gehenna had its origin in association with the valley of Hinnom, actually meaning this. In the Old Testament times, when Israel went into idolatry, human sacrifices took place in this valley next to Jerusalem in the worship of Molech as they would “burn their sons and daughters in the fire” (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31). The valley was looked upon as being polluted and unclean, and in New Testament times was used somewhat as a city dump with continual burning, we understand. It was with that backdrop the term gehenna was adopted and applied to the place of eternal punishment. Such is its coinage and use. This is hell in what the modern usage of the term “hell” conveys.

Hades, The Unseen World.

(2) We are told that Hades, in its etymology, properly means unseen. The basic stem of the word means seen, but it has the little a privative before it, thus making it signify unseen. All behind and beyond the veil of death is unseen. Thus, it is fittingly called Hades. At death the spirit enters into the unseen world of the dead. The word itself does not necessarily specify whether this state is bad or good. By itself it is generic, but it can be more specific, according to the context and other Scripture. Interestingly, in the account of the rich man and Lazarus, it is said that in “hell” (Hades, KJV) the rich man lifted up his eyes being in torment. With his death, Jesus is said to have gone to Hades (Acts 2:27,31). (This is the word behind the KJV’s translation of “hell” here). Jesus had earlier said to the thief on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Evidently, the story of the rich man and Lazarus unveils the situation as it was (and perhaps is). The good and the bad are partitioned by a great gulf, it would seem, one being in comfort and the other in discomfort. All of this anticipates the Day of Judgment when eternal heaven and hell will begin.

Tartarus, The Abyss.

(3) Tartarus is only referred to in one place in the New Testament, 2 Peter 2:4. It is found in the words “cast them down to hell” (to send into Tartarus). It is the bottomless abyss, the confinement place of the wicked, fallen angels.

The English Word “Hell”

But what is the actual and literal meaning of the English word “hell” used repeatedly in the KJV of the Bible? This may come as a surprise to many, but the English word “hell” back in 1611 meant about the same as hades, that being covered or unseen. The Cyclopedia of Biblical Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (John McClintock and James Strong) that first came out in 1867, says this of the term, “Hell, a term which originally corresponded more exactly to Hades, being derived from the Saxon helan, to cover, and signifying merely the covered, or invisible place—the habitation of those who have gone from the visible terrestrial region to the world of spirits. But it has been so long appropriated in common usage to the place of future punishment for the wicked, that its earlier meaning has been lost sight of.” This does not negate the teaching of a place of future punishment and fire as seen in the word Gehenna and the umbrella word, Hades. It just throws more light on the use of the word “hell” in the King James Version.[6]

I’m grateful for this excellent summary and refer you to Gibbons’ article.

These brief definitions

Here is a brief summary of the meaning of these Greek words.

  • Sheol. OT believers knew that Sheol was visible to God (Job 26:6) and that they were in the presence and protection of God at death (Psalm 139:8).
  • Hades (Morey 1984:81-87). It is the Greek equivalent of Sheol, although it translates other Hebrew words as well. We run into problems with the mistranslation by the KJV of Hades and Sheol. The post-resurrection teaching in the NT is that the believer goes to heaven at death (present with the Lord) to await the resurrection and the final eternal state. But for unbelievers they go to Hades, a temporary place of torment, awaiting their resurrection and the eternal punishment. Regarding 2 Peter 2:9, ‘the grammar of the text irrefutably establishes that the wicked are in torment while they await their final judgment. When the day of judgment arrives, Hades will be emptied of its inhabitants, and the wicked will stand before God for their final sentence (Rev. 20:13-15). Thus, we conclude that Hades will be emptied at the resurrection, and then the wicked will be cast into “hell” (Gehenna)’ (Morey 1984:87).
  • Valley of Hinnom. It is mentioned in Josh 15:8; 18:16 and Neh. 11:30. It was the place where idolatrous Jews gave human sacrifices to pagan deities. In Christ’s day it became Jerusalem’s garbage dump. So, this garbage dump became a Jewish picture of the ultimate fate of idol worshippers (Morey 1984:87).
  • Tartarus. This is used in 2 Peter 2:4 to refer to angels and where they were cast. He was using a word that in Greek literature meant a place of conscious torment in the netherworld. It did not mean non-existence, but referred to their being reserved in the place of mental anguish and terror until the day of judgment (Morey 1984:135).
  • Gehenna. It’s the Greek equivalent of the Valley of Hinnom, so Gehenna is an appropriate description of the final, eternal garbage dump where idolators go after the resurrection. The wicked would suffer there forever. Even Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek lexicon concluded that it means ‘the place of eternal punishment’. Coon and Mills define Gehenna as ‘the place of  eternal punishment’. So Gehenna is the final place of punishment, the ultimate place of torment for the wicked. It will be eternal, conscious torment (Morey 1984:87-90).


The Christian believers go to be with the Lord at death, ‘Away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8 ESV). They await the resurrection and the final state in heaven.

By contrast, all unbelievers at death go to Hades, a temporary place of torment, and await the resurrection, at which time they will be cast by God permanently into Gehenna, the place of eternal, conscious torment.

This is the biblical teaching on hell, in spite of others wanting to change it.

Other articles

See my other articles on this topic:

clip_image004[1] Are there degrees of punishment in hell?

clip_image004[1] What is the nature of death according to the Bible?

clip_image004[1] Hell & Judgment;

clip_image004[2] Should we be punished for our sins?

clip_image004[1] Paul on eternal punishment;

clip_image004[1] Where will unbelievers go at death?

clip_image004[5]Torment in Old Testament hell? The meaning of Sheol in the OT;

clip_image004[6]Eternal torment for unbelievers when they die;

clip_image004[7]Will you be ready when your death comes?

clip_image004[1] What happens at death for believer and unbeliever?

clip_image004[1] Does eternal destruction mean annihilation for unbelievers at death?

clip_image004[10] Refutation of Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine of what happens at death;

clip_image004[11] Near-death experiences are not all light: What about the dark experiences?


Crossan, J D 2000. A long way from Tipperary: A memoir. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

McCloughry, R. 2006, ‘Basic Stott as a precursor to my piece’, Kenyananalyst, 2 May, available at: http://kenyananalyst.blogspot.com/2006/05/basic-stott-as-precursor-to-my-piece.html (Accessed 10 June 2007).

Morey, R A 1984. Death and the afterlife. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.

Morgan, C & Peterson, R (gen eds) 2007. Hell under fire: Modern scholarship reinvents eternal punishment. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Tillich, P 1968. Systematic theology, 3 vols in 1 vol. Welwyn, Herts: James Nisbet & Co Ltd.


[1] Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘Why is hell designed with fire?’ elman #18. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7689415-2/ (Accessed 11 October 2012).

[2] LDS = The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints = The Mormon Church.

[3] Christian Forums, Unorthodox Theology, ‘Why do some people think Hell isn’t real? Ran77#2. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7684573/ (Accessed 11 October 2012).

[4] Christian Forums, Faith groups, Whosoever will may come – liberal, ‘Liberal Hell’, Episcoboi#2. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7692297/ (Accessed 11 October 2012).

[5] J. Gibbons, ‘”Hell” in the King James Version’, available at: http://jgibbons.8m.com/HELL-in-King-James-Version.html (Accessed 11 October 2012).

[6] Ibid.


Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 25 January 2017.