Where in Hell is Hell?

Last post, we looked at the ancient Greek picture of Hades, the abode of the dead. We compared it with the Biblical picture which was both similar and very different.

The Old Testament used the word Sheol for the abode of the dead, and it was a place where the dead “shades” went to wait for judgment. But it wasn’t a place of fire and torture like many people think of today.

Now, let’s look at what the New Testament adds to the picture.

Because the New Testament is in Greek, it does not use the word Sheol, but the Greek word, Hades. Jesus himself used the term Hades as the location of condemned spirits in contrast with heaven as the location of redeemed spirits (Matt. 11:23). Jesus referred to the “Gates of Hades” (Matt. 16:18), a well-known underworld concept in ancient Near Eastern and Western Greco-Roman mythology.

This was more than a metaphorical reference to the “power of death,” because the sacred grotto in Caesarea Philippi, where he spoke those words, was considered a gateway to Hades.[1] The location had a cave with a deep chasm believed to lead to the Abyss and Hades.[2] In the book of Revelation, Jesus claims to capture the “keys of Death and Hades,” which is a doublet separating the two words rather than identifying them (Rev. 1:18).

Hades was the location of departed spirits in Christ’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). It was from this parable that the term “Abraham’s Bosom” came, that indicated the separated location of righteous souls in Hades from the eternally thirsty wicked by a large chasm. This parable has been convincingly proven by some scholars to be a subversive polemic against the common motif of Hellenistic pagan journeys to the underworld and communication from the dead, not a literal geography of Hades.[3] But if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Jesus Triumphant in its imaginative depiction of Hades.

In Greek mythology, Tartarus was another term for a location beneath the “roots of the earth” and beneath the waters where the warring giants called “Titans” were bound in chains because of their rebellion against the gods. Peter uses a derivative of that very Greek word Tartarus to describe a similar location and scenario of angels being bound during the time of Noah and the warring Titans called “Nephilim.”[4]

2Pet. 2:4-5
God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.

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From Sheol to Gehenna

Despite this claim of a realm for the dead in both the Old and New Testaments, there is very little specificity of description of its attributes beyond “darkness” (Job 17:13; Lam. 3:6) and “silence” (Psa. 31:17–18; 94:17; 115:17). The one clear certainty about Sheol/Hades is that “he who goes down to Sheol does not come up” (Job 7:9; 10:21; 2Sam. 12:23). As Papaioannou describes:

“First, Sheol/Hades is where everyone goes at death. There is no distinction between the righteous and the wicked… Second, Sheol/Hades is not a place of eschatological punishment, but rather the destiny of all human beings… Third, there is no life or consciousness in Sheol/Hades. In contrast to some cultures that envisioned meaningful existence in the afterlife, the Hebrew Bible portrays Sheol as a place of silence and lifelessness where human existence has come to an end… There is no memory in Hades (Isa 26:14); neither is there any longer a communion with God (Isa 38:18). It is a place of silence, darkness, and oblivion (Job 17:13). Thus, a person who dies in effect ceases to exist (Eccl. 9:6)… With a belief in a bodily resurrection, Sheol/Hades is only a temporary abode—the dead remain there until they are raised.”[5]

Richard Bauckham explains the change in understanding that occurred between the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures regarding the abode of the dead. He points out that the older view did not involve active punishment of souls in Sheol, but merely involved holding the wicked in detention until the last judgment. The newer view, driven by apocalyptic literature included descents to the underworld, where increasingly only the wicked were located:

“The older view allowed for visits to the place of detention in Sheol (1En. 22), visits to the hell which is already prepared for but not yet inhabited by the wicked (lEn. 26:3-27:4; 2En. 10; 40:12; 2Bar. 59:10),  and prophetic visions of the casting of the wicked into Gehenna at the last judgment (1En. 41:2; Bar 59: 11). But only the later view enabled a seer to see and to describe in detail the punishments actually being inflicted on the wicked in hell. The later view therefore spawned a long tradition of ‘tours of hell,’ in which a variety of different punishments appropriate to different categories of sinners is described.”[6]

By the time of the New Testament, some Second Temple Jewish literature began to increasingly evidence the notion of punishment for the wicked and reward for the righteous in Hades before the final judgment.

Bauckham suggests this new notion of immediate recompense upon death in both Jewish and Christian writings may have been the result of Greek influence,”[7] but the fact remains that after the advent of Christ and his spiritual mission, the change took place with the growth of Christianity.

In this sense, Christ’s descent into Hades, and his victorious triumph over spiritual principalities and the powers of Death and Hades marked the inauguration of God’s kingdom that may have included the beginning of rewards and punishment in Sheol/Hades.

The Greek word for “hell” used in New Testament translation is Gehenna. Some have believed that this was the name of a garbage dump outside Jerusalem that burned with perpetual flames, and Jesus used it as a metaphor for the fires of judgment. But recent scholarship tends to disregard this thesis as lacking both exegetical weight and hard archeological evidence.[8]

In fact, Gehenna is Greek for “Valley of Hinnom,” the valley that bordered the south and western sides of Jerusalem.[9] This valley had a dark history in Israel’s past as the location of tophets, or burning places for sacrifice to Molech, the underworld god. Israelites would “pass their children through the fire” as human sacrifice. God became so angry with this abomination that the prophet Jeremiah pronounced a fiery curse on the area destroyed by King Josiah around 632 B.C. (Jer. 7:29–34; 19:1–15). It would become known as the “Valley of Slaughter,” and a synonym for future judgment/destruction of people and nations in this life as well as the next.

Both Second Temple literature and Jesus’ teachings used Gehenna as a reference to the future final judgment (Matt. 13:42, 30; 25:41).[10] So, yes it was a metaphor for fiery punishment, but a far richer meaning than a burning garbage dump. It provided incarnate location for the belief in the eschatological judgment of God upon evil.

For additional Biblical and historical research related to this novel, go to www.ChroniclesoftheNephilim.com under the menu listing, “Links” > Jesus Triumphant.


[1] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm (Bellingham: WA, Lexham, 2005), 267-271; Jimmy R. Watson, The Religious History of Banias and Its Contribution to an Understanding of the Petrine Confession (Hardin-Simmons University, Master’s Thesis, 1989). 87; George W. E. Nicklesburg, “Enoch, Levi, and Peter: Recipients of Revelation in Upper Galilee,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (December 1981): 598.
[2] Wars of the Jews 1:405, Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).
[3] Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 112. Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1998), 101.
[4] 1.25 ταρταρόω [tartaroo] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible societies, 1996. Bauckham, Richard J. Vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary : 2 Peter, Jude. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002, p 248-249.
[5] Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell, 87-88.
[6] Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, 34.
[7] Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, 36.
[8] Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell, 80.
[9] Duane F. Watson, “Gehenna (Place),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 926.
[10] See 1 En. 10:13; 48:8–10; 100:7–9; 108:4–7; Jdt 16:17; 2 Bar. 85:13.

2 comments on “Where in Hell is Hell?

    • Good question, Jonathan.
      “Hell” is an incorrect translation of the word in that sentence. the more accurate one is Hades, which is the underworld holding place of the dead, a metaphor for death itself. “Hell” is the translation for Gehenna, which was a metaphor for final judgment, not a fiery abode below. So he defeated death, not hell.

      Reply

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