Perhaps for obvious reason,
hell is not high on the list of things most people want to talk about. Some even wonder is hell in the Bible at all. As unpalatable as the subject is, whether or not hell exists has huge consequences. Here’s what the Bible tells us about hell.
Does the Bible Mention Hell?
The short answer is “yes, but perhaps not the way you think.” The Bible talks many times about hell and the fact that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23), and that there will be a Judgment Day where God will judge all humans who have not repented. For example, Matthew 12:36 says that every person will have to give an account of themselves on Judgment Day.
Although English translations of the Bible often use the term Hell throughout the Old and New Testament, there are three basic names used in different places to describe the place where people go after death. Each one has different connotations.
What Is the Difference between Sheol, Hades, and Hell?
Sheol is the term used in the Old Testament to describe where all people go after death. The Old Testament describes it as a place deep in the ground, and sometimes it is translated as “the grave” or “the pit.” Sometimes it is used to describe where people punished by God go, such as in Ezekiel 32 where it’s prophesied God will punish the Egyptians and they shall lie in Sheol with other slaughtered kings (32:29-31). The Psalms use it to describe being in the darkest place: “you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (Psalm 86:13). However, Sheol doesn’t just refer to where people who have rejected God go. It’s also the term used in places like Genesis 15:15 to describe men dying and going to “join their fathers” or going to “the place of their fathers.” When Jesus shares a parable in Luke 16:19-31 about Lazarus and the rich man, he says after Lazarus died he was taken to “Abraham’s bosom,” which may be a term for the section of Sheol where the Hebrews believed the righteous went.
Then there is Hades, the term used in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament) to replace Sheol. For example, in Acts 2:27, Peter preaches to a crowd in Jerusalem and quotes Psalm 16, and “you will not leave my soul to Sheol” (Psalm 16:10) becomes “you will not leave my soul in Hades” (Acts 2:27). If you studied Greek mythology much in school, you know in ancient Greek culture the term refers to the underworld, where everyone goes to either be punished or (in the case of great heroes) to live in paradise. The Gospel writers often use this term to mean the place where sinners go to after death or the power of death. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:55 reads “oh Hades, where is thy sting?” In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter that “the gates of Hades,” apparently a term meaning the forces of death,” will not overcome his church. However, sometimes the New Testament writers use it to just generally just mean where all the dead go. Like with Sheol, Hades is may be translated as “the grave” or “the pit” in your particular Bible translation.
Then we have Gehenna, the term that Jesus uses when he’s talking about judgment after death. For example, he uses the term in Matthew 5:22 when he teaches that “anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Gehenna was the name for The Valley of Hinnom, a location in Israel mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament as a place for pagan rituals. In Jeremiah 7:31, God judges the Israelites for their sins, among them being “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.” 2 Chronicles 28:3 describes how King Ahaz followed idols, and how “he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire.” 2 Kings 23 says that ultimately King Josiah stopped pagan sacrifices across Israel by tearing down altars and sacrifice sites, and burning human bones on those sites so that the areas were defiled and no one could live there again. It specifically says Josiah “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” (1 Kings 23:10). According to archeologists, by the time Jesus was teaching in Israel, Gehenna was being used as a garbage dump. Gehenna is the term most regularly translated as “Hell,” and of the three it is the one that most clearly refers to a place where sinners are sent after death.
What Does the Bible Say About Hell?
Something needs to be made clear before we move into this: the Bible does not give us full details of every single thing we’d like to know. For example, we aren’t told how many total children Adam and Eve had. This is also true of how the Bible talks about Hell. We get many references to it, but we don’t get a whole book of the Bible about someone entering Hell and describing everything he sees. Some of the references to Hell are from Jesus’ parables, which means the imagery may be symbolic. With that context in mind, there are three descriptions that the Bible regularly uses for Hell:
Dark and subterranean. As we’ve established, Sheol and Hades are described as dark, underground places. This is further used to talk about Hell in places like Matthew 8 where Jesus says at Judgment Day many Gentiles will enter heaven, while many “subjects of the kingdom” will be shown to not have faith and be “thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12).
Fiery. We get this in the parable of the weeds that Jesus tells in Matthew 13, and he later describes the parable by saying, “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:40-42). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples that “anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). Revelation also uses this imagery on various occasions to talk about the Last Judgment, which is presumably the final moment where all the damned enter Hell.
Eternally apart from God. Some Christians may argue for the existence of Purgatory, but even assuming it exists, Purgatory is not Hell but a second location. 2 Thessalonians 1 says that when God comes for final judgment with his angels, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (1:8-9). Matthew 25 describes God separating the goats from the sheep, and telling those who did not follow him, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41).
Why Is it Important that Christians Understand Hell?
Scholars like James Spiegel have noted that hell is a “secondary doctrine,” meaning it’s not as important as the primary doctrines like the Trinity or Jesus’ human and divine natures. For some, that may raise the question of why should we care about hell. There are various reasons why we should care about hell, the simplest ones are as follows:
It’s mentioned many times in the Bible. Hell may not be the topic that Jesus talks about most, but he describes it explicitly many times and various major New Testament writers including Paul also reference it clearly. As shown earlier, it’s also heavily implied in the Old Testament with its references to suffering after death. Therefore, hell is something we should know about and try to understand as best as we can in the course of building a systematic understanding of the Bible’s teachings.
It makes it clear that God is just. We may not like the idea of hell, but as we get older, we become more and more aware that we are all broken. We all commit sins, and as the Bible describes it many times, we are all worthy of judgment. Without punishment for sins (big ones created by people like Hitler, small ones we commit every day), God would not be a just ruler of the universe. Therefore, Hell is important to help us understand God’s justice and moral goodness, as well as his sovereignty.