Where and What is Hell?

In our world of movies, mythology, and poor theology, the thought of a place called hell brings images of fire and pitchfork wielding, horned entities, torturing those unfortunate enough to find themselves in this underworld dungeon. Is this what the Bible tells us, or has our theology been intertwined with mythology once again?

The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature defines hell as such: “a term which originally corresponded more exactly to HADES, being derived from the Saxon helan, to cover, and signifying merely the covered, or invisible place-the habitation of those who have gone from this visible terrestrial region to the world of spirits. But it has been so long appropriated in common usage to the place of future punishment for the wicked, that its earlier meaning has been lost sight of. In the English Bible it is used in the wider sense.”

There are three separate Hebrew or Greek words that are translated to the word hell, and they are all referring to very different places. None of which have a pitchfork wielding devil waiting for lost souls. The first place hell is used, is to describe the grave; the place everyone who dies goes. It is underground, usually six feet, but could be under water, in a large animal’s stomach, or perhaps through the digestive system of a lobster or some other unclean sea creature. These methods of death all result in becoming part of the earth and eventually buried. For example, here it is used in the book of Job from the King James translation:

Job 11:8 It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?

The Hebrew word being translated to hell in this passage is Strong’s H7585. This is the meaning for the word hell in the Old Testament scriptures. In ancient Hebrew, the letters shin lamed, של, project a sense of quietness.

שְׁאֹל שְׁאוֹל
she’ôl she’ôl
sheh-ole’, sheh-ole’
From H7592; hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranian retreat), including its accessories and inmates: – grave, hell, pit.

Moving into the New Testament, there are three Greek words that get translated to Hell. The first is like the Hebrew word Sheol and it is Hades, meaning grave. The next is found in the passage where Jesus talks about hell fire.

Mat 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
Mat 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Mat 5:19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Mat 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Mat 5:21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
Mat 5:22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Here the word is Strong’s G1067 is speaking of a place called Gehenna.

Thayer Definition:
1) Hell is the place of the future punishment call “Gehenna” or “Gehenna of fire”. This was originally the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction.

The last place we will speak of where the word hell is used, is found in one of Peter’s letters.

2Pe 2:4 For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;

Here, hell is used for the Greek word Tartarus. It is Strong’s G5020. These angels that sinned, whom Peter is referring to, are the sons of God from Genesis six. They are the angels that Jude said left their first estate. These references come from the book of Enoch, which explains the place of Tartarus fully. Please read my blog post Mixing Iron and Clay for more about this subject.

Thayer Definition:
1) the name of the subterranean region, doleful and dark, regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead, where they suffer punishment for their evil deeds; it answers to Gehenna of the Jews
2) to thrust down to Tartarus, to hold captive in Tartarus

Jude’s reference to these angels that are reserved for the fire:

Jud 1:6 And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.
Jud 1:7 Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.

These references include the grave, where everyone goes, a dark pit where the angels that sinned are held until judgement, and Gehenna, a place of future fire. Revelation best describes this place of future fire being utilized after the resurrection of the dead and judgement. This is the closest thing you will see to a “zombie apocalypse”.

Rev 20:11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
Rev 20:12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
Rev 20:13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
Rev 20:14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
Rev 20:15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

With the word hell used for all of these places in this version, it gets confusing and sounds like it is one place. Here is how the English Standard version translates the same verses in Revelation:

Rev 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.
Rev 20:12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.
Rev 20:13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
Rev 20:14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
Rev 20:15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Jesus gives us some interesting language in a parable talking about separate compartments in the underworld.

Luk 16:19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
Luk 16:20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
Luk 16:21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.
Luk 16:22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried,
Luk 16:23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
Luk 16:24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’
Luk 16:25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.
Luk 16:26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’

Luk 16:27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—
Luk 16:28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’
Luk 16:29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’
Luk 16:30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
Luk 16:31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

Some claim this is simply a parable and is not intending to describe the underworld. It is a great parable pointing out that those who won’t listen to the law and prophets, will not repent from their ways upon hearing of the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. However, this type of underworld is one that is described in books that the first century audience would be familiar with, but were removed from the standard sixty-six book people limit themselves to today. For example, Enoch 22:1-12:

From there I proceeded to another spot, where I saw on the west a great and lofty mountain, a strong rock, and four delightful places. Internally it was deep, capacious, and very smooth; as smooth as if it had been rolled over: it was both deep and dark to behold. Then Rapha’el, one of the holy angels who were with me, answered and said, These are the delightful places where the ruachoth, the souls of the dead, will be collected; for them were they formed; and here will be collected all the souls of the sons of men. These places, in which they dwell, shall they occupy until the day of judgment, and until their appointed period. Their appointed period will be long, even until the great judgment. And I saw the ruachoth of the sons of men who were dead; and their voices reached to heaven, while they were accusing. Then I inquired of Rapha’el, an angel who was with me, and said, Whose ruach is that, the voice of which reaches to heaven, and accuses? CHANOK (ENOCH) 22:1-6 את CEPHER

He answered, saying, This is the ruach of H’avel who was slain by Qayin his brother; and who will accuse that brother, until his seed be destroyed from the face of the earth; Until his seed perish from the seed of mankind. At that time therefore I inquired respecting him, and respecting the general judgment, saying, Why is one separated from another? He answered, Three separations have been made between the ruachoth of the dead, and thus have the ruachoth of the righteous been separated. Namely, by a chasm, by water, and by light above it. And in the same way likewise are sinners separated when they die, and are buried in the earth; judgment not overtaking them in their lifetime. Here their souls are separated. Moreover, abundant is their suffering until the time of the great judgment, the castigation, and the torment of those who eternally execrate, whose souls are punished and bound there forever. CHANOK (ENOCH) 22:7-12 את CEPHER

Many people are uncomfortable with the book of Enoch; however, it is alluded to and quoted many times in the sixty-six book bible. Until it was discovered in the caves of Qumran, it was discounted as a later work due to all of the similarities found in the New Testament. The oldest copy of Enoch we have was found next to the oldest copy of Genesis we currently have. If the reader is still uncomfortable with Enoch, Ezra has similar language in the book of Second Esdras, chapter 7, from the Revised Standard version of the Bible.

78 Now, concerning death, the teaching is: When the decisive decree has gone forth from the Most High that a man shall die, as the spirit leaves the body to return again to him who gave it, first of all it adores the glory of the Most High. 79 And if it is one of those who have shown scorn and have not kept the way of the Most High, and who have despised his law, and who have hated those who fear God — 80 such spirits shall not enter into habitations, but shall immediately wander about in torments, ever grieving and sad, in seven ways. 81 The first way, because they have scorned the law of the Most High. 82 The second way, because they cannot now make a good repentance that they may live. 83 The third way, they shall see the reward laid up for those who have trusted the covenants of the Most High. 84 The fourth way, they shall consider the torment laid up for themselves in the last days. 85 The fifth way, they shall see how the habitations of the others are guarded by angels in profound quiet. 86 The sixth way, they shall see how some of them will pass over into torments. 87 The seventh way, which is worse than all the ways that have been mentioned, because they shall utterly waste away in confusion and be consumed with shame, and shall wither with fear at seeing the glory of the Most High before whom they sinned while they were alive, and before whom they are to be judged in the last times. 88 “Now this is the order of those who have kept the ways of the Most High, when they shall be separated from their mortal body. 89 During the time that they lived in it, they laboriously served the Most High, and withstood danger every hour, that they might keep the law of the Lawgiver perfectly. 90 Therefore this is the teaching concerning them: 91 First of all, they shall see with great joy the glory of him who receives them, for they shall have rest in seven orders. 92 The first order, because they have striven with great effort to overcome the evil thought which was formed with them, that it might not lead them astray from life into death. 93 The second order, because they see the perplexity in which the souls of the ungodly wander, and the punishment that awaits them. 94 The third order, they see the witness which he who formed them bears concerning them, that while they were alive they kept the law which was given them in trust. 95 The fourth order, they understand the rest which they now enjoy, being gathered into their chambers and guarded by angels in profound quiet, and the glory which awaits them in the last days. 96 The fifth order, they rejoice that they have now escaped what is corruptible, and shall inherit what is to come; and besides they see the straits and toil from which they have been delivered, and the spacious liberty which they are to receive and enjoy in immortality. 97 The sixth order, when it is shown to them how their face is to shine like the sun, and how they are to be made like the light of the stars, being incorruptible from then on. 98 The seventh order, which is greater than all that have been mentioned, because they shall rejoice with boldness, and shall be confident without confusion, and shall be glad without fear, for they hasten to behold the face of him whom they served in life and from whom they are to receive their reward when glorified. 99 This is the order of the souls of the righteous, as henceforth is announced; and the aforesaid are the ways of torment which those who would not give heed shall suffer hereafter.” 100 I answered and said, “Will time therefore be given to the souls, after they have been separated from the bodies, to see what you have described to me?” 101 He said to me, “They shall have freedom for seven days, so that during these seven days they may see the things of which you have been told, and afterwards they shall be gathered in their habitations.”

Was Jesus referencing these things found in Esdras and Enoch? I am not going to definitively say yes, but it sure appears that way. The righteous rest in profound quiet (RIP) protected by angels, and the ones who have scorned the law of Yahweh do not get the peaceful rest awaiting judgement. These verses in second Esdras sound similar to the fate of Jacob Marley in Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol.

Before we leave this area of discussion, I would like to point to a couple more items. In Enoch, where H’Aval (Abel) was crying out accusing Cain, it sounds similar to the following passages in Genesis and Revelation.

Gen 4:9 Then Yahweh said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Gen 4:10 And he said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.

Rev 6:9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.
Rev 6:10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
Rev 6:11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

The one scenario that appears to be absent regarding the grave is that of anyone ascending to a place called Heaven. Take note of what both Job and David say:

Job 14:7 “Indeed, there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down, then it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not cease;
Job 14:8 though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the dust,
Job 14:9 at the scent of water it will bud, and it will put forth branches like a young plant.
Job 14:10 “But a man dies, and he dwindles away; thus a human being passes away, and where is he?
Job 14:11 As water disappears from a lake, and a river withers away and dries up,
Job 14:12 so a man lies down, and he does not arise. Until the heavens are no more, they will not awaken, and they will not be roused out of their sleep.
Job 14:13 “O that you would conceal me in Sheol, that you would hide me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint a set time for me and remember me.
Job 14:14 If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my compulsory service I will wait, until the coming of my relief.
Job 14:15 You would call, and I myself would answer you; you would long for the work of your hand.
Job 14:16 For then you would count my steps, but you would not keep watch over my sin.
Job 14:17 My transgression would be sealed in a bag, and you would cover over my guilt.

Psa 16:9 Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices. Yes, my body will dwell in safety,
Psa 16:10 for you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; you will not give your faithful one to see the grave.

A famous verse in the Bible has Jesus and His disciples at the temple of Pan, who was a goat god. This was at the foot of Mount Hermon where the Genesis six debacle of transgressing angels happened.

Mat 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
Mat 16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Mat 16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Mat 16:16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Mat 16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
Mat 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Mat 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Caesarea Philippi as described in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

“Caesarea Philippi (fi-lip´ı̄) (Καισαρεία ἡ Φιλίππου, Kaisareı́a hē Philı́ppou). At the Southwest base of Mt. Hermon, on a rocky terrace, 1,150 ft. above sea-level, between Wādy Khashabeh and Wādy Za‛areh, lie the ruins of the ancient city. It was a center for the worship of Pan: whence the name Paneas, applied not only to the city, but to the whole district”.

At the base of Mount Hermon, in defiance of the goat god Pan, Jesus makes this proclamation that the gates of hell, or more proper to the Greek, hades, will not prevail. There is a lot that could be unpacked there, especially if this goat god is a later manifestation of Azazel, the goat that took all the sin and the angel in Enoch that all sin was attributed to.

Next, I would like to address some of the mythology that has come to be mixed with the idea of hell. We have the Greek god, Hades, as described at greek mythology.com:

As the ruler of the dead, Hades was a grim and ghastly figure, inspiring awe and terror in everybody. Consequently, he was rarely depicted in art. When he was, he was most commonly portrayed with a beard, and a solemn, mournful look. He frequently wears a helmet, named the Helm of Darkness or the Cap of Invisibility. Cerberus, the three-headed dog which guarded the entrance to the Underworld, is usually beside him. Every so often he carries a scepter or holds the key to his kingdom. At a later stage, he became associated with his weapon of choice, the bident, a two-pronged fork modeled after Poseidon’s trident. As Plouton, he was sometimes shown with a cornucopia, the horn of plenty.

This is likely where we get the idea of the pitchfork. The horn and tail of the Christian “keeper of hell” could come from the Urgaritic cult of the dead as discussed in Dr. Michael Heiser’s book, Demons, page 20. We should learn the difference between popular Christian mythology and what is actually taught in scripture.

There is a great amount of speculation of what happens in the after life. The word hell is so generic now that it really does not give us an accurate picture of what is being discussed. The good news is that since Jesus conquered death by having died and then resurrected, if we put our faith in Jesus, we no longer need to fear being left in hades or under the “gates of hell”, which I believe is the six feet of soil placed over our dead flesh. Also, we can escape the second death, which involves the fire of Gehenna. This scripture in Revelation tells us endurance in the faith equates to having faith in Jesus and keeping the commandments, because if a person truly has faith, they will want to be obedient to whom their faith is placed.

Rev 14:8 Another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.”
Rev 14:9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand,
Rev 14:10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
Rev 14:11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Rev 14:12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.
Rev 14:13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”

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