Today when we talk about hell we usually think in terms of modern science. We ask if hell it is a real place. Even when a person like Rob Bell tries to think about how hell works within a religious system, religious leaders criticize him for not asserting the scientific existence of hell. But this scientific way of thinking about hell is relatively new. For most of history, religious thinkers have taken for granted that an afterlife existed. When the books of the New Testament were written, for instance, the authors were not primarily concerned with whether Gehenna, Hades, or Tartarus were “real” places. Instead, they were using these words to get the attention of their audience or to debate about who was in these spaces and why they were there.
Did you know?
- Although the Septuagint (LXX), or Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates the word “Sheol” as “Hades,” Sheol was used in a lot of different contexts in the Hebrew Bible. Sheol could be used to talk about a shadowy existence after death, to talk about death itself, or poetically as a negative way to talk about death.
- While Gehenna did refer to a real valley, the idea that it was a trash heap during the time of Jesus cannot be proven and seems to have arisen in the medieval period.
- The idea of a bifurcated afterlife (heaven above, hell below) is an early Christian invention. This idea is not present in the Hebrew Bible.
- Judaism was developing similar ideas about the afterlife at roughly the same time as Christians.
Is there a hell in the Bible?
This would seem like a simple question. The Bible either talks about hell, or it doesn’t. If we simply want to know whether words like “Hades” get used in the Bible, then the answer is yes. But if we approach the Bible the way that someone in the ancient world might have, then the question is not just about whether the words appear. It’s about the way that each author uses these words.
In the Hebrew Bible we find the words Sheol, the Pit, Abaddon, and Gehenna, sometimes with overlapping meanings. Sheol, the Pit, and Abaddon can all be used to talk about a space that holds all of the dead, both the righteous and unrighteous (see, for instance,
Gehenna is used hardly at all in the Hebrew Bible, and it is used to talk about an actual space, the Valley of Hinnom, not a place where everyone went after they died. This place was a site of idolatrous worship and the site of child sacrifice to Molech and Baal (
In the most detailed picture of eternal punishment in the New Testament (
Do the book of Revelation or the letters of Paul say that non-Christians are going to hell?
But isn’t hell the place for those who haven’t professed their Christian faith? That depends on who you ask. In later Christian literature this definitely becomes a focus of hell. Hell is used in some New Testament texts to label people or groups as “outsiders” (
For instance, in the book of Revelation it is actually incorrect behavior that is associated with hell or eternal torment. In
In Paul’s letters there is no explicit mention of eternal punishment or hell. Paul does talk about the coming day of judgment and wrath (