What are the first thoughts that come into your mind when you hear or read the word ‘hell’? Do you conjure up a macabre scene like that depicted in a painting of hell by *Hieronymus Bosch? Do you believe such a place exists? Well, the Bible speaks of it as being a place of torment.
‘So it was that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
“Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame (Luke 16:22-24).’”
Hades is the word used here, and it is found in the Greek of the New Testament. It is the equivalent of Sheol in the Old Testament – the place or state were the departed spirits of the lost are held captive until the final White Throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). Immediately after that judgment, Death and Hades will be ‘cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).’
Sheol is the Hebrew word for hell, which can also be interpreted as grave or state of death: ‘For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks? (Psalm 6:5).’ They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave (Job 21:13)’ and, ‘The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forgot God (Psalm 9:17)’
Another word used in the New Testament for hell is Gehenna, and it is a figurative representation of it spoken by Jesus in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33: Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:15). James used it once in his Epistle (3:6). Gehenna was the valley of the sons of Hinnom, a glen to the south of Jerusalem where idolatrous Jews once offered their children in sacrifice to Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2-6). In the course of time it became a dumping ground for the city’s waste, where all sorts of rubbish was continuously burnt, and it became a symbol of hell, the place of everlasting destruction.
One of the most frightening descriptions of Gehenna is in Mark 9:43-45: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched – where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”
There is another word in the New Testament used for hell, and that is Tartarus, which can only be found in 2 Peter 2:4: ‘For God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.’ This is a separate, secure abyss of Hades where the angels who rebelled (Jude 6) are incarcerated.
* Hieronymus Bosch