The Word Hell
The Word Hell in the Original Bible Languages
Gehenna in the Hebrew Bible
Death, Fire and the Underworld
Hell in the New Testament
Before we can attempt to understand Hell, it is important to understand the word Hell and how it developed examining its various appearances in different languages, religions and cultural traditions and plotting its development over its long history. This section will deal with where the word Hell comes from, what it originally meant, what it has come to mean over time, and how it has been used in texts specifically Biblical texts from which the Western notion of Hell is thought to derive.
The Word Hell
Hell is the word used in English to name the everlasting underworld of torment after death for those who, for a variety of reasons, do not deserve to enter heaven. Many other cultures and religions have a construct similar to our Hell. For instance, Naraka is the name that is often used for this place in the East, although there is a plethora of names for Hell in both Hinduism and Buddhism, since each of the many segments of Hell in those religions has its own name.
The major difference between various notions of this possible afterlife derives from the different ideas of time, as either apocalyptic, as in Christianity and Islam, or as cyclic, as, for instance, in Buddhism and Hinduism. In time that is apocalyptic (from the Greek word for revelation), Hell often continues after the end of time, with those in Hell having no hope of release. However, in some apocalyptic traditions, like Zoroastrianism, the end of time also brings about the end of Hell, and all are released from their suffering there for the rest of eternity.
In cyclic time the Hells are not eternal, but individuals may be consigned to them for periods of time that are described in terms that approach infinity, absent that concept. For instance, one Buddhist sutra describes the length of time in one particular hell out of the 18 that will be endured as “longer than the length of time it takes to remove all the mustard seeds from a mound that equals 10,240 quarts if you remove 1 seed every 100 years.”
The English word Hell itself derives from a Germanic word originally meaning something hidden or concealed, and eventually an underworld. It is also the name of the goddess, Hel, who presided over the dead in this underworld. The word, and the goddess, appeared most prominently in medieval Scandinavian literature, particularly the Eddas: the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, both written down in the thirteenth century, the latter by Snorri Sturlison; and also in the Heimskringla (ninth century), Egils Saga (tenth century) and the Latin Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus (twelfth century).
The Word Hell in the Original Bible Languages
The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and these languages used the words Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus in both the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament) and the New Testament. The meanings of these words, however, do not equate with our notion of an “everlasting underworld of torment after death.” Below we will examine these different terms and their relationship to the English word Hell.
Gehenna in the Hebrew Bible.
The first of these words, Gehenna (ge-hinnom), is the Hebrew name of the valley just southwest of the ancient city of Jerusalem. Through archaeological excavations we know that the southwest shoulder of this valley (Ketef Hinnom) was a burial location with numerous chambers that were reused by generations of families from as early as the seventh until the fifth century BCE. The use of this area for tombs continued into the first centuries BCE and CE. [Gabriel Barkay, “The Riches of Ketef Hinnom,” Biblical Archaeological Review 35:4-5 (2005): 2235, 12226.]
The word ge-hinnom is a compound of ge = “valley” and hinnom = possibly “to sleep” or “to wail” and actually means the Valley of the Son(s) of Hinnom. The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (OT) translates the Hebrew word ge-hinnom as gaí-enna. It is possible to trace the development of the reputation of this location as a place of unlawful, ritual child sacrifice on a burning pyre or topheth. This location has been associated with an unknown god named Molech who may have some connection to the underworld, but there seems to be no substantive evidence for this assumption. Subsequently this valley also became identified as a place of judgment for the people who took part in such sacrifices.
During the time when the Gospels were being written (65100 CE) this area was also used as a cremation site for the Tenth Roman Legion, which was headquartered in Jerusalem from 70 CE. From medieval Talmudic literature, Gehenna has also for some time become identified as the site of a garbage dump, but there is, in fact, no archaeological evidence to support this association, which derives from the commentary on Psalm 27 by Rabbi David Kimhi (11601235) of Narbonne in France. He described it thus: Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and in which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgment of the wicked is called Gehenna.
Possibly Gehenna might have been considered a gateway to the underworld because of its association with cult sacrifices and burial and its connection to a possible underworld deity, Molech. Because of this, the word Gehenna might eventually have become synonymous with the underworld. This is a tantalizing conjecture, and far more based in reality than the garbage dump hypothesis. [See Lloyd R. Bailey, “Gehenna: The Topography of Hell.” The Biblical Archaeologist 49.3 (Sept. 1986): 18791.] However, there is actually no evidence that Gehenna was ever equated with the underworld during the Biblical period.
Below is a synopsis of what we do know from the Hebrew Bible (OT) about Gehenna.
1. Gehenna as a Place.
In Joshua, where we find the first mention of Gehenna (Hinnom), this valley is mentioned twice in defining the borders of the region. [All quotes are from the King James Bible.]
And the border went up by the valley of the son of Hinnom unto the south side of the Jebusite; the same is Jerusalem: and the border went up to the top of the mountain that lieth before the valley of Hinnom westward, which is at the end of the valley of the giants northward. (15.8)
And again in Joshua, Gehenna is mentioned as part of the boundary for the tribe of Benjamin:
And the border came down to the end of the mountain that lieth before the valley of the son of Hinnom, and which is in the valley of the giants on the north, and descended to the valley of Hinnom, to the side of Jebusi on the south, and descended to Enrogel. (18.16)
2. Child Sacrifice in Gehenna.
Unconnected with Gehenna, child sacrifice is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 16:3, 2 Kings 21.6 and Ezekiel 23: 3739). In 2 Chronicles, however, there are two references to child sacrifice specifically in the Valley of Hinnom:
Moreover he [Ahaz] burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel. (28.3)
And he [Manasseh] caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom: also he observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger. (33.6)
3. Child Sacrifice on the Topheth of Gehenna.
The word topheth is derived from Aramaic and means “hearth,” “fireplace” or “pyre.” This topheth has been associated with the Valley of Hinnom, and some textual scholars have pointed out that the word itself is similar to the word “shame.” The Book of Jeremiah uses the word topheth to single out a specific place in the valley where child sacrifice took place and refers to Hinnom as the Valley of Slaughter.
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter: for they shall bury in Tophet, till there be no place. (7:31-32)
Jeremiah 19:56 repeats this identification:
They have built also the high places of Baal [a god, a lord, or a master], to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind: Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that this place shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter.
4. Child Sacrifice to Molech in Gehenna and on the Topheth.
In both 2 Kings and Jeremiah 32 the child sacrifice in Hinnom is associated with the God Molech.
And he [the king of Judah] defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. (2 Kings 23:10)
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jeremiah 32:35)
The god Molech, possibly of Phoenician origin, is unidentified. The name itself may also be a derivative of melek, meaning “king.” Molech is also mentioned in Leviticus (18:21 and 20: 25) with no reference specifically to Gehenna. (Sweeney, 448)
5. Topheth and Punishment.
The topheth, without reference to Gehenna, is identified in Isaiah as a place of punishment in this world but also extends this notion of judgment and punishment in this world, and particularly for idolatry.
There are also other Old Testament references to Gehenna that ominously connote a place of punishment. These, however, speak of future punishment in this life, without reference to an afterlife.
In Isaiah reference is made to a topheth and the punishment of Assyrians.
For through the voice of the LORD shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod. And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the LORD shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it. For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it. (30.3133)
“Assyrian” here is used generically for “enemy,” but “Gehenna” is not specifically mentioned and only assumed with the mention of topheth.
Isaiah again refers to the punishment and destruction of those guilty of unclean sacrifice:
He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine’s blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations. (66:3)
And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh. (66.24)
While some scholars have assumed that this would take place in the vicinity of Jerusalem, there is nothing in the text to confirm this conjecture. (Brueggemann, 1: 248)
Death, Fire and the Underworld
Clearly Gehenna refers to a place with evil associations involving fire, death and judgment. It is also associated with although not equated with the notion of an underworld, since sacrifices made in this area were made to the chthonic gods and there were apparently channels to carry the smoke of burnt offerings into these underworld gods.
Both Hades and Tartarus which derive from Greek mythology clearly refer to an underworld. Hades, the land of the dead, similar to the Hebrew Sheol a gray and lifeless place, but one without punishment and Tartarus, the legendary place for the punishment of the Greek chthonic gods, the Titans, who defied the rulers on Olympus. Hades also, however, refers specifically to the god of death, Hades, himself.
In the Hebrew Bible, the use of these specific words Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus is no evidence for any belief in eternal punishment for humanity after death.
Hell in the New Testament
These same Hebrew-Bible words Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus make their way into the New Testament. There they are also joined by words like inferus and infernus, which both mean simply underworld. Four of these words Hades, Tartarus, inferus and infernus have clear and quite definite meanings, derived from either their mythological or linguistic roots.
The word Gehenna, however, is more opaque. Its Hebrew Bible references are delineated above to present the range of notions associated with the physical place outside Jerusalem: fire, sacrifice, child sacrifice, punishment and judgment. In the New Testament most of these same notions continue to be associated with Gehenna: fire, sacrifice, judgment and punishment. The references themselves, however, are usually brief and rather poetic and cryptic, and when this word is used over several generations by a variety of writers it is not certain if they were attempting to communicate some clear and unified concept, or more likely, were relying on the strength of a word with powerful connotations to project an ominous, and yet abstract, warning.
In only on place in the New Testament in the Parable of Dives and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke is there a clear indication that the writer is speaking of a place of torment in an otherworld after death, in this case named Hades (Gk) and infernus (Lat). This is despite the fact that in the King James translation of the New Testament, which uses the word Hell more often than any of the other English-language translations, the word appears twenty-three times. It is used to translate words that appeared in the original Greek version as Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus: fifteen times in the Synoptic Gospels, twice in Acts, twice in the Epistles and four times on Revelation.
Below we’ll examine each of these occurrences to try to understand what the use of these terms actually meant for the followers of Jesus and whether there is any evidence that their notion of Hell was equivalent to notions of Hell that developed subsequent to the first generations of Christians.
MARK: The author of the Gospel of Mark is unknown and was not a witness to the historical Jesus, nor was he a member of the second generation. He relied instead on the historical tradition and created the earliest Gospel, dated to between 65 and 75 CE more than thirty years after the death of Jesus and also at a very tumultuous time in the life of the Christian community with the first persecutions in Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem occurring in rapid succession.
Mark represents Jesus speaking to his Apostles on the nature of discipleship:
And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna), into the fire that never shall be quenched:Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna), into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna) fire where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (9:4348)
Mark describes burning or sacrificing offending parts of the body by casting them into purifying fire. The notion of expiatory sacrifice is important in the New Testament. Sacrificial burning is the way that offending objects are purified and the sacrificer the one who benefits from the sacrifice is redeemed with his or her spiritual state restored. The sacrifice, which often involves fire and punishment and takes place here in the traditional biblical place of sacrifice: Gehenna offers up in this world those things that have become desacralized, possibly destroying those things, in order to gain eternal life and avoid death. If the offending parts are not purified through the fire of Gehenna, the whole individual faces destruction and death.
MATTHEW: While this Gospel is named for the Apostle Matthew, the work has been dated to between 80 and 85 CE, approximately fifty years after the death of Jesus. The work depends heavily on its predecessor, the Gospel of Mark.
Matthew mentions Hell more frequently than does any other New Testament book. In the Sermon on the Mount, which is found only in Matthew, Jesus mentions Hell three times:
But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna) fire. (5:22)
And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than thy whole body be cast into hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna). And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body go into hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna). (5:2930)
These passages again speak of the sacrifice and purification in fire and do not refer to the soul’s destination after death.
In Jesus’s Commission to the Twelve (Matt: 10.111.1), he warns his followers to be fearless when the consequences are limited to the body, and only concern themselves when the consequences will involve the soul as well.
And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna). (10:28)
There is not indication here of any notion of an afterlife of punishment. This Gospel, instead, appears to be concerned with death and the destruction of the desacralized.
Further on, Jesus is seen condemning those that refuse the right path and singles out three contemporary cities, comparing them to ancient cities that suffered destruction. His own town of Capernaum, a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee, he compares with Sodom. Here some translations use the word Hell to translate infernum, but others, in this case, use Hades, or even depths signifying an underworld, the opposite of heaven, but not specifically a place of punishment.
And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell (Gk: Hades, Lat: infernus): for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. (11.23)
Matthew reports the incident known as the Confession of Peter, in which the Apostle acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Matthew reports that Jesus said in response:
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell (Gk: Hades, Lat: inferus) shall not prevail against it. (16:18)
Here the Vulgate uses the Latin word inferus, which has the same basic meaning as infernus: underworld. Other English versions translate this as Hades or even death to convey the notion that the new community will not be threatened or contained by death or evil. Hades, or the underworld, is the metaphoric representation of this force opposing life.
Mark and Luke also recount this incident, and although neither constructs it in exactly the same way, Luke quotes Jesus in a similar vein as saying: “But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God” (9:27). Luke thus sets up a dichotomy between the community of Jesus and that of the underworld/death/Hades.
Referring to the same sermon of Jesus discussed above in Mark 8:4348, Matthew also uses the word Gehenna, placing life in opposition to the fire of Gehenna, a place of death and burial:
And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee having one eye to enter into life, than having two eyes to be cast into hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna) fire. (18:9)
Here again, the Gospels repeat the notion of sacrificing the desacralized to expiate the sacrificer.
Both Matthew and Luke report Jesus’s condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees a section of the New Testament known as the Woes of the Scribes and Pharisees. Only Matthew describes Jesus remarks as including references to hell. It is a comment that does not refer to punishment or judgment, but relegates the Pharisees and their followers to a group antithetical to the Christian community, in the same way that Matthew has used underworld and death in other places.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you go round about the sea and the land to make one proselyte. And when he is made, you make him the child of hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna) twofold more than yourselves. (23:15)
Later in the same section, Jesus is reported to have invoked the connection between judgment and then consignment to Gehenna.
You serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna). (23:33)
Neither of these remarks in the Seven Woes indicates a place of punishment, merely a place of separation from the community of Christ. (Albright, 280-82)
It is very important to note, however, that in one instance where Matthew does not sprecifically use any name to designate the location that he is referring to — a place where the evil are consigned at the Last Judgment — he denotes a place that matches later ideas of hell: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. (25.41)
LUKE: The Gospel of Luke, an anonymous work, was written in the second or third Christian generation. It is not a first-hand witness to the events of Jesus’s life. Most likely the work was written toward the end of the first century CE, perhaps in the penultimate decade.
The word Hell occurs three times in this Gospel, and although it is widely acknowledged that this Gospel relied on the Gospel of Mark, the first occurrence of this word is taken almost verbatim from Matthew:
And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell (Gk: Hades, Lat: infernus). (10:15)
Luke also reports Jesus’s warning to his followers about the Pharisees, which is found in Matt 10:28:
But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna); yea, I say unto you, Fear him. (12:5)
This text indicates that associating with the Pharisees will bring death instead of life. In addition, this association will desacralize Jesus’ followers, and they will be fit only for being burned in the sacrificial fire.
Only in the Parable of Dives and Lazarus, which is found solely in the Gospel of Luke, does this Gospel make a significant and unique reference to Hell:
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 (Gk: Hades, Lat: infernus) he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (16:2223)
Codex Aureus Epternacensis, 1035-1040.
This parable closely parallels an Egyptian folktale that may indeed have been known in the time of Jesus, but was clearly known by the end of the first century CE. This tale also appears in later Talmudic literature, but there is no way to definitely trace the lines of influence. However, here we do have the only Biblical reference to the punishment of dead humans in the afterlife. Even when fire is evoked in other texts, there is never any description to indicate that souls as opposed to distinct body parts are actually being burned. Here it is explicitly stated that the soul is in tormentis (Greek ). (Fitzmyer, 112436)
ACTS: In the first recorded sermon to the Christian church, Peter speaks of the resurrection of Jesus and quotes David in this regard. In explaining that His soul was saved from death, Peter uses the Greek word Hades, which has been occasionally translated as Hell, but more appropriately as Hades or the netherworld. (Acts 2:2427, 31)
Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death (Gk: Hades, Lat: infernus): because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (Gk: Hades, Lat: infernus), 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 (Gk: Hades, Lat: infernus), neither his flesh did see corruption.
JAMES: James 3:6 presents a discourse warning the Christian community to avoid sins associated with the tongue, “an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” He warns that the tongue is set on fire by Gehenna. Knowing the tradition of Gehenna as a place of fire, there is no reason to associate this reference with hell or punishment in the afterlife, although the Greek Gehenna is generally translated here into English as Hell.
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell (Gk and Lat: Gehenna).
This text is another example of the sacrifice of the desacralized member the tongue in order to expiate its offenses, purify and reconsecrate it, and thus redeem the sacrificer.
PETER: The second epistle of Peter mentions Hell (2:4) in reference to the story in Genesis 6:14, describing the punishment of the sons of God who married with human women. These sons of God, also known as the giants, are described as angels, and the Hell that they are sent to is, in the Greek, Tartarus, the lower level of the mythical underworld of the Greeks, where in Greek mythology sons of the gods were indeed punished. The Latin translates Tartarus as infernus (or underworld), while English translators have used the word Hell. (Reese, 15051)
For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell (Gk: Tartarus, Lat: infernus), and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment...
In this book of the New Testament, also known as the Book of the Apocalypse, readers often expect to find evidence of Hell in the writings of Christ’s followers. Yet here again, when the word Hell is used to translate the original Greek, the meaning is far from what we have come to understand as an afterlife of pain and torment.
There are three occurrences in the King James translation of the Bible. Two (1:18 and 20:1314) refer not to a place of punishment, but to death, the grave, Hades, Sheol, the underworld or the world of the dead. These terms are variously used in other translations. The third occurrence (6:8) refers to the the figure of Hades, Greek god of the underworld, and not to a place. (Ford, 68, 358, 383)
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell (Gk: Hades, Lat: infernus) and of death. (1:18)
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell (Gk: Hades, Lat: inferus) followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (6:8)
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell (Gk: Hades, Lat: inferus) delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell (Gk: Hades, Lat: inferus) were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. (20:1314)
While it is easy to see how references to death, fire, punishment and underworld can be conflated together especially when later translators have used a single word Hell to translate a variety of words it is important to realize that the word Hell did not exist during Biblical times. The Bible used different words that did not mean what we now mean by Hell. In fact, even our own English word Hell originally meant simply an underworld.
Because of the changing nature of words and the vagaries of translation, it is easy to write and speak of Hell in a way that is truly anachronistic. Although translations use words like Hell and fire, the words of Biblical writers cannot necessarily be equated with later concepts of Hell just because later writers happened to use the word Hell when translating Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, inferus and infernus.
Between the late first century, when the Hebrew word ge-hinnom and the Greek word Hades were used in the New Testament, and the time that these words were translated into Latin in the fifth century in the Vulgate Bible, to the seventeenth century when these words were translated into English as Hell in the King James version of the Bible, enormous changes had taken place in the notion of the afterlife and particularly in the place of punishment in that afterlife.