What is Hell?

by Pastor Matthew Norville, Sr.


“Hell” is a generic word that means “a hot, flamy, place of torment.” It is sometimes used figuratively to describe “an extremely unpleasant place or state of turmoil or anguish (like someone would experience who actually went to Hell).” It is used in the Bible to refer to three different places: Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus.

“Hell” in the Old Testament

Sheol

In the Old Testament, in the King James Version (KJV), we find the word “Hell” 31 times. This is translated from the Hebrew word “Shë'owl” (sheh-OHL). “Shë'owl” is also translated 31 times as “the grave” and 3 times as “the pit” in the KJV. Therefore, the Hebrew word “Shë'owl” is in the Bible a total of 65 times. The literal translation would be to the English word “Sheol” (SHEE-ohl).

“Sheol” is “the place of the dead” in the Old Testament. Before Jesus came and died and rose from the dead, all people who were of an accountable age (see What is “the Age of Accountability?”) and died, went down to Sheol. (People who were not of an accountable age and died, went directly to Heaven—just like they do today.) Sheol included a hot, flamy, place of torment where the wicked dead went (also known as “Hades”), a great gulf or chasm, and a place of paradise called “Abraham's Bosom” where the dead believers went. (Believers who were of an accountable age could not go to Heaven before Jesus came and died and rose from the dead because they couldn't get “born again” to get rid of their “sin nature.” God does not allow people with a “sin nature” in Heaven.)

The reason that the Old Testament word “Sheol” is sometimes translated “Hell” and sometimes translated “the grave” or “the pit,” is because sometimes the Old Testament is specifically talking about the place where the wicked dead went (Hell), and sometimes it is talking about the place where the dead believers went, or where dead people in general went (if the context of the Old Testament does not specifically say whether the people were wicked or believers).

Some examples of the Old Testament word “Sheol” being translated as “Hell” because the Bible is specifically referring to the hot, flamy, tormentuous place that the wicked dead go to, are:

Psalm 9:17  The wicked shall be turned into Hell, and all the nations that forget God.

Psalm 55:3, 15  Because of the voice of the enemy, because of the oppression of the wicked: for they cast iniquity upon me, and in wrath they hate me…Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into Hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.

Proverbs 7:27  Her (The strange woman's, The harlot's, The whore's) house is the way to Hell, going down to the chambers of death.

Proverbs 9:18  But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her (a foolish woman's, a whore's) guests are in the depths of Hell.

Proverbs 15:24  The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from Hell beneath.

Proverbs 23:14  Thou shalt beat (spank) him (your child) with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from Hell.

Some examples of the Old Testament word “Sheol” being translated as “the grave” or “the pit” because the Bible is specifically referring to the place (Abraham's Bosom) that the dead believers go to, are:

Genesis 37:35  And all his (Jacob's) sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son (Joseph) mourning.

Genesis 44:29  And if ye take this also from me (Jacob), and mischief befall him (Benjamin), ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.

Numbers 16:30  But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD.

Numbers 16:33  They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.

(These people that God killed here in Numbers 16 were Israelites, God's people. They were “believers,” but because of their numerous sins, their lives upon earth were cut short by God. They went down into “Abraham's Bosom” in Sheol. They didn't get “damned to Hell” for all eternity.)

Psalm 6:5  For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?

Ecclesiastes 9:10  Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Isaiah 38:10  I (Hezekiah) said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.

Jesus talked about Sheol when He was on earth. In Luke, chapter 16, He tells the story of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus who both died and went down to Sheol. We know that this is not a parable because the beggar has a name, “Lazarus.” Jesus never gave names to people in parables when He was telling parables. He would just say, “a man” or “a woman” or “a king” or “a householder” or “a husbandman” or “a creditor” or “a debtor” or “a priest” or “a Levite” or “a Samaritan” etc. The prophet, Abraham, who is also a real person, is also in the story. Therefore, we know that these are real people and this actually happened and this (former) rich man is in Hades today and this (former) beggar is in Heaven today.

Luke 16:

19 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's Bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
23 And in Hell (Hades) he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And 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.”
25 But Abraham said, “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”
27 Then he said, “I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.”
29 Abraham saith unto him, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”
30 And he said, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.”
31 And he said unto him, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

Jesus also went down into Sheol after He died on the cross. Because He took on Himself the sins of the world and “became sin for us,” He went down into the “Hades” part of Sheol for three days and three nights.

Psalm 16:8–10 says,

8 I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.
10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in Hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

This passage is talking about Jesus Christ. In verse 10 in the KJV it says that Jesus' soul would not be left in “Hell.” The word translated “Hell” here is the Hebrew word “Shë'owl” (sheh-OHL). In English this would be literally translated as “Sheol” (SHEE-ohl). But the reason the KJV translators translated it as “Hell,” is because when Jesus died, He went into the “Hell” (“Hades”) part of Sheol. We know this because in Acts 2:27 it specifically says that Jesus went to “Hades” (the hot, flamy, tormentuous part of Sheol).

Acts 2:27 Because thou wilt not leave my soul in Hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

The Greek word translated “Hell” here is “Hadēs” (HAH-dayss), which literally translates to the English word “Hades” (HAY-deez). Therefore, the Bible clearly says that Jesus went to “Hades” (the hot, flamy, tormentuous part of Sheol) when He died on the cross.

When Jesus died on the cross at approximately 3:00 P.M. on Wednesday, Nisan 14th in 29 A.D., He descended into Sheol. Because Jesus had “become sin” for us, He went into Hades (the hot, flamy, tormentuous part of Sheol) with the wicked dead. He remained there, “in the flames of Hell,” for three days and three nights (actually, about 75 hours) as He had foretold.

After three days and three nights with the wicked dead in Hades (the hot, flamy, tormentuous part of Sheol), Jesus was “born again.” He then arose to the surface of the earth and entered back into His body which was in a tomb in a garden near the place where He had been crucified. His body was immediately resurrected to a “glorified body.” (A “glorified body” has no blood in it and does not need to eat or drink—among other things.) There was a great earthquake and the stone was rolled away from the door of the tomb by an angel and Jesus walked out. This happened just after sunset (approximately 6:00 P.M.) Saturday evening.

The Bible does not tell us specifically what Jesus did during the next 12 hours, but in the morning (Sunday morning) we know that He appeared first to Mary Magdalene by the tomb (Mark 16:9). John 20:11–16 says,

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulcher weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulcher,
12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
13 And they say unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou?” She saith unto them, “Because they have taken away my LORD, and I know not where they have laid Him.”
14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?” She, supposing Him to be the gardener, saith unto Him, “Sir, if thou have borne Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
16 Jesus saith unto her, “Mary.” She turned herself, and saith unto Him, “Rabboni;” which is to say, “Master.”

We also know that at the time Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, He had not been to Heaven yet. Verse 17 says,

17 Jesus saith unto her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, ‘I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.’”

So, Jesus was saying—among other things—that the reason He could not be touched was because He hadn't been to the Father in Heaven yet.

However, by Sunday evening we know that He had been to Heaven and had come back to earth because it was now O.K. to touch Him. In Luke 24:39 Jesus says,

“Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.”

We also know, that sometime during the day on Sunday He had gone back down into Sheol—into the “Abraham's Bosom” part where the dead believers were—gotten everybody “born again,” and then taken them up to Heaven. Ephesians 4:8–10 says,

8 Wherefore He saith, “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.”
9 (Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?
10 He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.)

After that, since there was no more need for “Abraham's Bosom” and the “great gulf” in Sheol (because under the New Covenant, when believers die, they go directly to Heaven), the hot, flamy, tormentuous part was enlarged to comprise all of Sheol. Therefore, today, “Sheol” and “Hades” are the same.

Some English translations of the Bible translate the Old Testament Hebrew word “Shë'owl” (sheh-OHL), directly to the English word “Sheol” (SHEE-ohl).

For example, the American Standard Version (ASV), the Darby Translation (DBY), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) translate all 65 occurrences of the Old Testament Hebrew word “Shë'owl,” to the English word “Sheol.” (The HCSB and the NASB actually add a 66th “Sheol” in Isaiah 7:11 that isn't in the original Hebrew manuscripts. The NASB also adds a 67th “Sheol” in Job 33:18 that isn't in the original Hebrew manuscripts.)

The English Standard Version (ESV) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) both translate 64 of the 65 occurrences of the Old Testament Hebrew word “Shë'owl,” to the English word “Sheol.” The ESV and RSV both translate the 65th “Shë'owl”—in Song of Solomon 8:6—as, “the grave.” (The ESV and the RSV also add a 66th “Sheol” in Isaiah 7:11 that isn't in the original Hebrew manuscripts.)

Young's Literal Translation (YLT) translates 64 of the 65 occurrences of the Old Testament Hebrew word “Shë'owl,” to the English word “Sheol.” However, it leaves the 65th “Sheol” out of Psalm 141:7.

“Hell” in the New Testament

In the New Testament, in the King James Version (KJV), we find the word “Hell” 23 times. This is translated from three different Greek words: “Hadēs” (HAH-dayss), from which we get our English word “Hades” (HAY-deez); “Geenna” (GAY-uh-nuh), from which we get our English words “Gehenna” (geh-HENN-uh) and “Gehinnom” (geh-HINN-uhm), and “Tartaroō” (tar-tah-RAH-oh), from which we get our English word “Tartarus” (TAR-tar-uss).

Hades

The Greek word “Hadēs” (HAH-dayss) is translated ten times as “Hell” and one time as “grave” in the New Testament of the KJV. Therefore, the Greek word “Hadēs” is in the Bible a total of eleven times. The literal translation would be to the English word “Hades” (HAY-deez).

“Hades” is “the place of the wicked dead.” It is a hot, flamy, tormentuous place where the wicked dead are held temporarily until Judgment Day. When a person of accountable age dies, and they are not a Christian, they go directly down to Hades. They then wait there “in the flames of Hell” until the conclusion of the Millennium. At the conclusion of the Millennium, they (the wicked dead) are resurrected and they stand before God in what is called, “The Great White Throne Judgment.” Their lives are then reviewed. They are judged by God, and are cast into Gehenna (the lake of fire) to be tormented for all eternity.

Some English translations of the Bible translate the New Testament Greek word “Hadēs” (HAH-dayss), directly to the English word “Hades” (HAY-deez).

For example, the New King James Version (NKJV) and Young's Literal Translation (YLT) translate all 11 occurrences of the New Testament Greek word “Hadēs” to the English word “Hades.”

The American Standard Version (ASV), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) translate 10 of the 11 occurrences of the New Testament Greek word “Hadēs” to the English word “Hades.” Because the ASV, HCSB, and the NASB are translated from corrupted Greek manuscripts, they do not have the 11th occurrence of the Greek word “Hadēs” in I Corinthians 15:55. Instead, they have the Greek word “thanatos” (THAH-nah-tahs), which is translated “death.” The corrupted Greek manuscripts also invert the two sentences in I Corinthians 15:55, so that the first sentence is the second sentence, and the second sentence is the first sentence.

The Darby Translation (DBY) translates 10 of the 11 occurrences of the New Testament Greek word “Hadēs” to the English word “Hades.” Because the DBY is translated from corrupted Greek manuscripts, it does not have the 11th occurrence of the Greek word “Hadēs” in I Corinthians 15:55. Instead, it has the Greek word “thanatos” (THAH-nah-tahs), which is translated “death.”

The English Standard Version (ESV) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) both translate 9 of the 11 occurrences of the New Testament Greek word “Hadēs” to the English word “Hades.” The ESV translates the 10th “Hadēs”—in Matthew 16:18—as “Hell,” while the RSV translates it as “death.” Because the ESV and RSV are translated from corrupted Greek manuscripts, they do not have the 11th occurrence of the Greek word “Hadēs” in I Corinthians 15:55. Instead, they have the Greek word “thanatos” (THAH-nah-tahs), which is translated “death.” The corrupted Greek manuscripts also invert the two sentences in I Corinthians 15:55, so that the first sentence is the second sentence, and the second sentence is the first sentence.

The New International Version (NIV) translates 8 of the 11 occurrences of the New Testament Greek word “Hadēs” to the English word “Hades.” It translates the 9th and 10th occurrences of the New Testament Greek word “Hadēs”—in Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31—as “the realm of the dead.” Because the NIV is translated from corrupted Greek manuscripts, it does not have the 11th occurrence of the Greek word “Hadēs” in I Corinthians 15:55. Instead, it has the Greek word “thanatos” (THAH-nah-tahs), which is translated “death.” The corrupted Greek manuscripts also invert the two sentences in I Corinthians 15:55, so that the first sentence is the second sentence, and the second sentence is the first sentence.

Gehenna

The second of the three Greek words that are translated “Hell” in the New Testament is “Geenna” (GAY-uh-nuh), from which we get our English words “Gehenna” (geh-HENN-uh) and “Gehinnom” (geh-HINN-uhm). The word is used twelve times in the New Testament (eleven times by Jesus and one time by James). In the King James Version (KJV) (and most other translations) it is always translated as “Hell.” The literal meaning of “Gehenna” or “Gehinnom” is “valley of Hinnom.”

The valley of Hinnom is a valley on the southern end of the city of Jerusalem in Israel. It was here, before the Babylonian Captivity (605–535 B.C.), that the idolatrous Israelites of the Old Testament worshiped the false gods Moloch and Baal in various ways, including the burning of their own children to death as sacrifices.

After the Jews returned from the Babylonian Captivity, the valley was used as a garbage dump, including the dumping of the dead bodies of animals and certain people. As a result of this, fire was continually burning there and the valley constantly stunk and was filled with a smoky haze. This was still the case in the time of Jesus.

Jesus used the word “Gehenna” to refer to the place that all sinners would ultimately end up in for all eternity. He described it as a place of “fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43–48). He called it a place of “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46). He also said that it was “everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). The people could relate to this because they had seen and/or heard of the valley of Hinnom all their lives.

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John calls “Gehenna”—the place that all sinners and Satan and the demons will ultimately end up in for all eternity—“the lake of fire.” He refers to being thrown into the lake of fire as “the second death.”

Revelation 20:

10 And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
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.
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.
13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and Death and Hell (Hades) delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
14 And Death and Hell (Hades) were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

This will take place after the “Millennium” (the 1,000 year reign with Christ that is described in Revelation 20:4–7).

Some English translations of the Bible translate the New Testament Greek word “Geenna” (GAY-uh-nuh), directly to the English word “Gehenna” (geh-HENN-uh) or the English word “Gehinnom” (geh-HINN-uhm).

For example, Young's Literal Translation (YLT) translates all 12 occurrences of the New Testament Greek word “Geenna” to the English word “Gehenna.”

The Hebrew Names Version (HNV) translates all 12 occurrences of the New Testament Greek word “Geenna” to the English word “Gehinnom.”

Tartarus

The third Greek word that is translated “Hell” in the New Testament is “Tartaroō” (tar-tah-RAH-oh), from which we get our English word “Tartarus” (TAR-tar-uss).

This word is found only once in the Bible in II Peter 2:4 which reads,

“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.”

This verse is referring to a place that is below Hades where some of the demons (fallen angels) are kept in chains until Judgment Day.

God created the angels some time before He created the universe. (Scientists tell us that the universe was created approximately 4½ billion years ago. The earth, our moon, the sun, Mars, various asteroids, and planets and other moons that we have visited either by man or machine, all test out to the same date—approximately 4½ billion years old.) Some time after God created the universe, He created life on our planet, earth. Over the years, at various times, God created different animals and plants. That is why the fossil records show different animals and plants “appearing” at different times in history. That is when God created them! They did not “evolve” from one plant into another or from one animal into another over the millions of years that life has been on this planet. Aside from that being impossible and unscientific and just plain ridiculous, if evolution actually happened, there would be fossil records of every minute change of the changing of one plant into another or one animal into another over the millions of years that the evolutionists claim it took for the plants and animals to change from one into another. There have been, and are, millions of species of plants and animals, and yet there is not one species of anything that has a fossil record showing the gradual change of one plant into another or one animal changing into another over the millions of years that evolutionists claim allowed the evolution of our present day animals, plants, and of course, man!

According to scientists and archeologists, “man” has been on this earth only approximately 50,000 years. Some say 70,000 or 80,000 years, and some say 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 years, but the average is about 50,000 years. (Obviously, this number is largely a “guess.”) In any event, man has only been on the earth, at the most, in the 10's of thousands of years—no longer.

After the creation of man, and after man had been on the earth for some time, Genesis 6 says,

1 And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,
2 That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
3 And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.”
4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

In the Old Testament, unless the context is some sort of a prophecy or reference to us Christians being “sons of God” under the New Covenant, the phrase “sons of God” means “angels.” This could mean “good angels” (God's angels) or “bad angels” (the fallen angels, the angels that were cast out of Heaven, that are also referred to as “demons” or “evil spirits”). Isaiah 14:12–15, Luke 10:18, and Revelation 12:3–4 talk about the fact that the angel, Lucifer (Satan, the devil), and ⅓ of the angels rebelled against God and were cast out of Heaven.

Angels have some supernatural power. God's angels can appear and disappear and transport themselves from one place to another. They can go back and forth to Heaven in an instant! God's angels sometimes appear to people looking like angels (with their wings) and sometimes appear as full-grown men. God's angels NEVER appear as animals or women or children or babies!

The fallen angels (also known as “demons” or “evil spirits”) also have some supernatural power. They can also appear and disappear and transport themselves from one place to another in an instant. They sometimes appear as angels (with their wings) and sometimes appear as people (including women and children) or animals or some sort of creatures. Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, the Chupacabra, Aliens (including UFOs), and Mary, the mother of Jesus, that some people have claimed to see, are some of the different ways that demons appear to people. “Ghosts” that people sometimes see are these demons appearing in human form. “Ghosts” are always demons. “Ghosts” are never people. All people (meaning their spirits and souls) that have died are either in Heaven or Hell (Hades) so they cannot be on earth to haunt anybody.

In the beginning of Genesis, chapter 6, some of these “fallen angels” appeared on the earth as men and had sexual relations with some women. Their offspring became “mighty men which were of old, men of renown” (Genesis 6:4).

As a result of this, God put these “fallen angels” in chains in a place of darkness called “Tartarus” where they will be until Judgment Day (II Peter 2:4). Most translations of the Bible translate “Tartarus” simply as “Hell.”

Although there are some “fallen angels” (“demons”) in Tartarus, there are no demons (or the devil) in Hades or Gehenna. So the only “Hell” that has some demons in it, is Tartarus—and those demons will not get out until Judgment Day. No demons (or the devil) can go in either.

Aside from Tartarus (which most people do not know about anyway), there are no demons (or the devil) in Hell (either Hades or Gehenna). There are no demons (or the devil) in Hell (either Hades or Gehenna) or going back and forth from Hell (either Hades or Gehenna) to the surface of the earth. As a matter of fact, there are no demons (or the devil) or people in Gehenna, and there won't be until Judgment Day for the sinners and the devil and the demons, which takes place after the Millennium.

And even though Gehenna was created for the devil (Satan) and his angels (demons), sinners also will be cast in on Judgment Day (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 20:15).

Some English translations of the Bible translate the New Testament Greek word “Tartaroō” (tar-tah-RAH-oh), directly to the English word “Tartarus” (TAR-tar-uss).

For example, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), Young's Literal Translation (YLT), and the Hebrew Names Version (HNV) translate the New Testament Greek word “Tartaroō” to the English word “Tartarus.”

The Darby Translation (DBY) translates the New Testament Greek word “Tartaroō” to the English phrase “the deepest pit of gloom.”

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This page last updated June 19, 2016.