A Primer on the Vocabulary of 'Hell'

Toward Clearer Translations

Imagine writing a book about nuclear power, in which you repeatedly mention 'Hiroshima', 'Chernobyl', or 'Three Mile Island', though you do so without directly explaining what each of those is. In the course of writing you assumed your readers would understand what you meant by these references. Then, as your book was brought into another language, the translator decided to render all three of those place-names with just one word: 'Radiation'.

Translating all three of those place-names as 'Radiation' would be a disservice to your book, as it could only result in a distorted interpretation of your intended meaning. Chernobyl is not the same thing as Hiroshima is not the same thing as Three Mile Island; they conjure up vastly different pictures of nuclear destruction, because they have their own historical contexts. The reality is that actually identifying 'Hiroshima' or 'Chernobyl' by their own names reveals something much more tangible, real, and nuanced than a vague mistranslation like 'Radiation'.

This is the case with the word 'Hell'.

When reading the book Hell Under Fire, where several conservative Christian scholars defend the concept of Hell as a 'eternal torment', I was flabbergasted that its multiple contributors repeatedly failed to distinguish between the various Hebrew and Greek terms translated as 'Hell'. Personally, I am convinced they knowingly ignored this issue of translation because revealing the multiple Hebrew and Greek words lumped together under the English word 'Hell' be detrimental to their goal of defending eternal torment.

So in the interest of enabling clarity and honesty, I want to provide here a brief summary of the key words and phrases we need to recover from bad translations and misleading apologetics. I wrote a similar article several years ago (currently hosted by my friend Matthew Hartke), but I think it's time I update it by rewriting it from scratch.

Words Translated as 'Hell'

Hell

This word, the one that poses such a problem, comes to modern English from Germanic languages, tracing back to a Proto-Indo-European word meaning 'to cover' or 'to conceal'. Hel was the name of the underworld-afterlife in ancient Germanic culture, as well as the deity that governed it, which is how the word it came to be used in this context. In Norse religion Hel was the destination for anyone who hadn't died in battle, as opposed to Valhalla or Folkvangr.

Sheol

The common term used in the Hebrew bible is 'Sheol', a word of inexact etymological origin, possibly from a Hebrew word meaning 'to ask'. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures Sheol is consistently identified as the fate of all humans upon death, regardless of their moral value. Descriptions of Sheol are rare, but include descriptions of darkness (e.g. Job 17.13), as well as the silence (Psalm 31.17) and inactivity and ignorance (Ecclesiastes 9.10) of the dead therein. Sheol is portrayed as literally 'underworld' (Numbers 16.30,33), and the bodies of the dead are 'consumed' by it (Psalm 49.14).

No one who dies returns from Sheol (Job 7.9), though some believed the dead could be momentarily summoned for dialogue, as the narrator of 1 Samuel 28 depicts the titular prophet being conjured up from Sheol by a medium at the request of King Saul (though it is unclear whether Samuel is physically present, or if it is his 'ghost'). The broad picture of Sheol is vaguely similar to the sort of underworld-afterlife of ancient Israel's neighboring cultures. The description of Sheol in Isaiah 14, for example, is reminiscent of Enkidu's vision of Irkalla in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In contrast to other religions of the time, the bible does not depict Sheol as having a governing power or deity.

Hades

The word Hades simply means 'unseen', describing the hidden nature of the dead. In Greek culture, Hades was the name of both the underworld-afterlife and the deity which governed it. While not all people were destined for Hades upon death, it was the common conclusion to human life, regardless of an individuals' moral worth.

In the late centuries BC, speculation concerning the afterlife started to change. Some believed Hades had different regions within it, with peaceful bliss for good people and torment for bad people. Plato suggested that such rewards and punishment were initially based on people's physical appearances by mistake, so people who were beautiful or extravagantly-dressed but were cruel might be rewarded, while people who were poor and filthy yet kind would be punished. He also speculated that after long ages the dead would be reincarnated, ignorant of their past lives and afterlives.

When Alexander of Macedon swept over the Near East in conquest, he brought Greek language and culture with him, and many Jews began to speak Greek. Though we don't know precisely when it occurred, or who organized the effort, it was eventually decided by Jewish authorities to translate their most important scriptures from Hebrew into Greek. 'Sheol' was translated as 'Hades'.

This is the most likely reason the Germanic word 'Hel' came to be used, since it was conceptually similar to 'Hades'. In that regard, we can't fault the original choice to translate Hades as 'Hel' anymore than we can fault the original choice to translate Sheol as 'Hades'. In their respective languages Sheol, Hades, and Hel were the common words for the idea of an underworld-afterlife, and in none of those three cases was there universal agreement about what the underworld-afterlife consisted of.

Tartarus

In Greek mythology, Tartarus begins as a place of imprisonment for monsters and gods (such as the predecessors of the Olympian deities, the Titans), deep within the earth, further than even Hades. Over time, the worst of humanity might also be sent to Tartarus for punishment. At some point, Tartarus became the lowest region within Hades. In Plato's writings, Tartarus is suggested to be the place of punishment for bad people, prior to their reincarnation after a thousand years of torment.

The core text of 1 Enoch, written sometime in the fourth or early-third century BC, greatly expands on the tiny story of angels found in Genesis 6.1-4. In the Enochian expansion, a group of two hundred angels abandon their home in heaven to marry human women, producing offspring who become giants which terrorize humanity. These angels also teach forbidden knowledge and magic to humanity, corrupting the world even further. In punishment, the angels are imprisoned and the worst of the bunch is chained up and thrown into the shadowy Desert of Dadouel, a location somewhere far beyond the edge of the earth, where he will be punished until the final judgment.

The Enochian version of the story is summarized in the Letter of Judah in the New Testament, and 2 Peter reiterates Judah. Because of the vague similarities between divine entities being imprisoned in a realm of darkness, the author of 2 Peter identifies the Desert of Dadouel as 'Tartarus'. (Specifically, the author turns the place-name into a verb; the angels are Tartarus-ed, 'thrown into Tartarus'.) Notably, neither Judah nor 2 Peter identify Tartarus as a place of punishment for humans.

The Valley of Hinnom

The Valley of the Son of Hinnom is first mentioned in Joshua 15.8 in the narrative of the Hebrew bible. Nehemiah 11.30 indicates that the area's name was trimmed to simply the Valley of Hinnom.

The Book of Joshua identifies the Valley of Hinnom as just outside the gates of Jebus, a city in Canaan. Jebus would eventually be renamed to 'Jerusalem', but the Valley of Hinnom retained its name. The Valley of Hinnom is associated with human sacrifices offered to the Canaanite deity Molech (e.g. Joshua 18.16; Second Kings 23.10).

A common claim in modern literature is that the Valley of Hinnom was used as Jerusalem's trash dump, kept perpetually burning, but the earliest known source for this claim comes from the twelfth century AD. However, the claim does have some circumstantial support in the bible: Jeremiah identifies the Valley as outside the Potsherd Gate (and Jeremiah then smashes a jar in the Valley), and Nehemiah also appears to place the Valley outside the Dung Gate; the Valley had some association with broken pottery and feces, the city's waste.

Our primary interest in the Valley of Hinnom begins with the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet twice uses the Valley as an illustration. Just as the people in Jerusalem had burned their own children as sacrifices in the Valley of Hinnom (7.31; 19.4-5), so God would ignite a fire outside the gates of Jerusalem (17.27) and the people would be 'slaughtered' and buried in the Valley (7.32; 19.6).

After the Babylonian exile, readers of the Book of Isaiah inferred the Valley's presence in verse 66.24 and actually inserted its name into the text in Aramaic translation-paraphrases of the book. The Valley of Hinnom appears further in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud (collections of Rabbinic discussions, rulings, and theological musings), where it is variously identified as a place of remedial punishment or total annihilation.

In Hebrew, the Valley of Hinnom is 'Ge-Hinnom', transliterated into Greek as 'Gehenna'. In the New Testament, 'Gehenna' is mentioned just short of a dozen times between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, with its dependents Matthew and Luke), and once in the Letter of James. When, for example, Jesus warns that it would be better to lose one's eye than to suffer in 'Hell', the Greek text uses 'Gehenna', the Valley of Hinnom. The way Jesus describes the Valley of Hinnom shows an affinity with the imagery found in Isaiah and Jeremiah, rather than the afterlife-punishment found in the later Rabbinic sources: Jesus warns of fire in the Valley of Hinnom (Jeremiah 17.27; 19.6), it is where the fire cannot be extinguished and the consuming maggots live on (Isaiah 66.24), and he especially invokes it when talking about the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and its leadership. Jesus also describes the Valley of Hinnom as the place where God can destroy both soul and body, echoing Isaiah 10.18, a prophecy about the downfall of the Assyrian kingdom.

Other Words and Phrases

Abraham's Side

This phrase is found only once in the bible. By the first century AD, immense speculation concerning the afterlife had entered Jewish religion, probably influenced by the Greeks, and the Persians before them. Sheol/Hades was seen as containing certain compartments, for rest, or punishment, or paradise. Some saw paradise as locked away in heaven. The original core text of 1 Enoch saw the various afterlife destinations scattered in remote locations beyond the edges of the earth.

In some of these cases, the place of peace within Sheol/Hades was seen as people coming to rest at the side of the patriarch Abraham. The philosophical work 4 Maccabees 13.17 says that Abraham and the other Israelite patriarchs receive the dead. The idea of 'Abraham's side' being a place of rest in the afterlife is also mentioned in the Mishnah, one of the collections of Rabbinic traditions of the (post-)Second Temple period. In one tradition Abraham is said to stand between covenant-bound Israelites and final punishment in the Valley of Hinnom.

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is presented as a story told by Jesus in rebuke of wealth-loving Pharisees. The poor, sick, homeless Lazarus is received into Abraham's side, while the extravagant 'rich man' is punished in Hades with fire, where he converses with Abraham and Lazarus. The picture is very different from the silent, dark, judgment-less Sheol/Hades of the Hebrew scriptures, but closely aligned with the stories and speculations of various Second Temple literature. There is no talk of 'spirits' or 'souls' here, and the parable implies some sort of bodily existence.

However, it must be noted that any attempt to discern a systematic eschatology of Jesus must then accept that this rich man's punishment in Hades cannot be construed as evidence of 'eternal torment', since the dialogue between the rich man and Abraham indicates that the world as it is continues on; the general resurrection and final judgment seen elsewhere in Jesus' eschatology has not occurred yet.

The identification of the poor man by the name of 'Lazarus' may also add another layer to the story, since 'Lazarus' is only the Greek transliteration of the name 'Eleazar', who was Abraham's servant and intended heir until the birth of Isaac in fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham. By giving the character in the parable this specific name, his reward of rest at Abraham's side in Hades may easily be read as a reunion of the servant with his master, and hence a unification of people outside the covenant (gentiles) with those within the covenant (Jews). Between this and the story's placement at the end of a string of parables rebuking religious authorities, it becomes difficult to point to the story as anything but a lesson on religious corruption told through colorful idioms of ancient Jewish 'pop culture'.

The concept of 'Abraham's side' may also be alluded to in Matthew 8.11, where Jesus speaks instead of God's kingdom, which he sees manifesting in full during the age of the resurrection, throwing off any definite identification that it only referred to a place good people go to in death.

The Bottomless Pit

Numerous references to 'the deep' or 'the pit' are made throughout the bible. These instances sometimes bump into mentions of Sheol/Hades, but just as often 'the deep' and 'the pit' reference the primordial cosmic ocean.

In broader ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the world was created out of a primeval sea, an endless body of waters which represented disorder and uncreation. This concept of the sea as representing chaos was important to the 'Combat Myth' seen throughout the region. In Mesopotamian mythology the primeval sea was embodied in Tiamat (whose name means 'sea'), a monstrous entity which gave birth to the gods. These gods eventually killed Tiamat, split her body apart, and created the world from her remains.

Remnants of the Combat Myth are seen in Genesis 1, where God surveys the waters of 'the deep' and then splits apart 'the waters above' from 'the waters below'. It was the closest conceptual equivalent they had to 'creation ex nihilo'. Other passages in the Hebrew bible show God slaying the sea-monster, sometimes using the scene as a metaphor for the overthrow of some earthly kingdom.

John the Revelator envisions the enemy of humanity, the satan, as a seven-headed dragon that raises up a vicious monsters from 'the sea', which is also called 'the bottomless pit', a hyperbolic version of 'the deep'. This dragon is eventually thrown back into the bottomless pit. While John's symbolism primarily comes from the Combat Myth of the Near East, he may also have had the Greek idea of Tartarus in mind when he described the chief enemy of humanity, the dragon (symbolizing the satan) bound in chains and thrown into 'the bottomless pit' for a thousand years.

The Lake of Fire

In the Revelation, John identifies the final punishment of sinners by two terms, the first being 'the lake of fire'. Initially, in Revelation 4-5, John describes a 'sea of glass' stretching out from the throne-room in heaven. Later in chapter 15, as his visions of divine judgment multiply, he sees the sea of glass 'mixed with fire'. This finally yields the 'lake of fire' in chapters 19, where first the book's secondary villains, two monstrous beasts, are sent for punishment. One chapter later, the book's primary antagonist, the dragon, joins them. There, 'they will be tormented day and night forever and ever'.

To most readers, this seems pretty cut and dry. In relaying his visions, however, John draws on a plethora of texts in the Hebrew scriptures. The 'lake of fire' appears to be a modification of Daniel 7's 'river of fire', where the monstrous beast is slain first, then its body 'destroyed' in the fire. John's language of suffering torment 'day and night', 'forever and ever', is used earlier in his book to describe the destruction of a city and punishment on the beast's followers. The wording is borrowed directly from Isaiah 34, yet another hyperbolic prophecy about an earthly kingdom falling to conquest.

John's two beasts are widely agreed to represent the Roman Empire and its emperor cult. John also states that 'Death and Hades' are thrown into the lake of fire. These four things — an empire, a cult, and two personifications of the state of death — are not persons which can suffer torment 'day and night forever and ever'. There seems to be some sort of transposition occurring here, where the unending torment of four symbolic abstractions represent the total and complete collapse of the things to which they refer: the downfall of the Roman Empire, the dissolution of its emperor cult, and the permanent nullification of death itself.

The Second Death

The second death is a phrase that seems to have entered Jewish theology in the last couple centuries BC. It is found in Aramaic paraphrase-translations of the Hebrew scriptures: specifically, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Psalms. In those texts the phrase is usually understood to imply 'annihilationism', though this is no certain and debate over how the ancient rabbis understood the phrase continue even today, and at least one such passage in Isaiah seems to suggest that forgiveness for sins may occur after sinners have 'died the second death'.

In the case of the Book of Revelation, the only place where the phrase appears in the Christian bible, it is used to describe the punishment found in the 'lake of fire'. Some argue that John uses the phrase specifically as a contrast against 'the first resurrection' (new life extended solely to those martyred by the beast/Roman Empire). It is also suggested that John undermines any sense of absolute permanence regarding this 'second death' in the final two chapters of the book, in that he stresses that the gates of the new Jerusalem are always open, that the condemned are outside it, and that anyone who 'washes' of their sins may enter the city.

Concluding Remarks

Hopefully it can be seen just how misleading Christian translators, teachers, and writers can be when they fail to distinguish 'Sheol' from 'the Valley of Hinnom' or from 'Tartarus'. There is a very loose overlap from one word to the next in the above, but it never goes very far, and it is never systematic (with the exception of 'Sheol = Hades', and even that not universally).

While it may be fair for speakers to desire a single word to encapsulate the ideas under discussion even if that word never actually appears in the bible, the issue is whether a word should continue to be used in that discussion if its very definition is objected to. If the very nature of what 'Hell' is is the thing being debated, that term should be set aside because it has so much baggage that favors a particular interpretation of the biblical texts, an interpretation which may have far less support than previously thought.

If we want to talk about Hell, we should not be talking about 'Hell', but about Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, the Valley of Hinnom, Abraham's side, the bottomless pit, the lake of fire, the second death, and if/how all those relate to each other.