Hell and The Afterlife… According to the Scriptures

Traditionally speaking, when people talk about Hell, they’re talking about a place where all the bad people go when they die. However, most our understanding of Hell comes from tradition and mistranslations of the Christian scriptures. First, let’s define Hell. According to Google, Hell is defined as…

A place regarded in various religions as a spiritual realm of evil and suffering, often traditionally depicted as a place of perpetual fire beneath the earth where the wicked are punished after death.

I spoke a little bit about Hell in my recent post The Second Death, A Permanent Place in Hell?. However, the word Hell does not actually appear in The Book of Revelation (which is what I was writing about). The English word Hell appears 13 times in the New Testament. In all but one case (in the NASB) it is used to translated the Greek word γἑενα (Gehenna), the other time ταρταρόω (Tartaro).

Tartaro

ταρταρόω only occurs once in the Greek New Testament (2 Peter 2:4) and literally means to hold captive in Tartarus (according to BDAG). Tartarus was thought of by the Greeks as a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was handed out. Tartarus (Ταρταρός) occurs three times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, a.k.a the LXX — Proverbs 30:16 – “the barren womb”, Job 40:20 – “the deep” and Job 41:24 – “the deep”. Bare in mind that this is the Greek translation of the original Hebrew text. So the Greeks would be interpreting the Hebrew into something they knew and understood. Either way, I think it’s interesting and relevant to the conversation.

Gehenna

γἑεννα occurs twelve times in the New Testament (the other twelve Hells). Gehenna literally means, “Valley of the sons of Hinnom”. The Valley of Hinnom is mentioned in the Old Testament five times (Joseph 15:8, 18:16, 2 Kings 23:10, Nehemiah 11:30, Jeremiah 7:31,32). The Valley of Hinnom is also named Topheth (or Topheth is in the Valley of Hinnom), which appears in the Old Testament ten times (2 Kings 23:10, Isaiah 30;33, Jeremiah 7:31,32 & 19:6,11,12,13,14).

The Valley of Hinnom and Topheth is described as a giant burning pit…

For Topheth has long been ready, Indeed, it has been prepared for the king. He has made it deep and large, A pyre of fire with plenty of wood; The breath of the LORD, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire. – Isaiah 30:33

But it will not always burn…

“And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind. Therefore, behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the sky, and for the beasts of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. Then I will make to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride; for the land will become a ruin.” – Jeremiah 7:31-34

I am not sure when Gehenna was suppose to stop burning, but this text was surely in the minds of the readers of the letters in the New Testament when they spoke of this Gehenna. The symbolism used here is extremely important, because it does not describe Hell, it does not describe the Lake of Fire from the book of Revelation.

Side note: Did you notice the bit in this text where YHWH says that he “did not command” the burning of their sons and their daughters in the fire, and that “it did not come into [his] mind”? I think this is pretty interesting, given the belief that God will purposely puts his creation in a Lake of Fire for all eternity.

As I said earlier, in the New Testament Gehenna is mentioned 12 times. Go ahead and read these verses and replace the word “Hell” with Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom and think about what Gehenna meant to the Jewish and Greek readers of Jesus’ day.

Matthew 5:22,29,30, 10:28, 18:19, 23:15,33
Mark 9:43,45,47
Luke 12:5
James 3:6

Is Gehenna the same as Hell? No, I don’t think so. Why? Simply because in the book of Revelation, the final/eternal place where people end up in Hell, is the Lake of Fire, which seems to be created/prepared for the Satan, Hades, and Death during the End Times. But Gehenna seems to be something else entirely, probably something more closely related to Hades than to Hell.

Hades & Sheol

ἅ̣δησ (Hades) occurs 10 times in the New Testament and 75 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Every time in the Old Testament, Hades is used to translated the Hebrew word Sheol, except for these 4 verse: Proverbs 2:18, 14:12, 16:25, Isaiah 14:19. But that doesn’t really give us an idea of what Hades is, except that it is how the Greeks understood Sheol. Sheol is basically just an underworld, and seemingly not a good place to go. However, it is not a permanent place.

Now in the New Testament English, Hades is always translated as Hades (which actually makes sense, since it’s a proper name of a place). If you really read what is being said in the New Testament and compare it with Sheol in the Old Testament, they are seemingly have the same idea behind them. But as I said, Hades is not a permanent place. In Revelation 1:18, Jesus talks about having the keys to Hades, in Revelation 20:13, the dead are released from Hades, and in 20:14, Hades is case into the Lake of Fire.

My interpretation of these events and the Old Testament Sheol, is that when some people die, they go into Sheol/Hades… they do not go to Hell. Sheol/Hades does not seem to be a fun place to visit, but it is not a permanent place. At the end, god will create the Lake of Fire (what we see as Hell), releases everyone from Hades and casts Hades into the Lake of Fire.

There is an interesting parable about Hades in Luke 16:23-31. The Parable of the rich man in Hades, and Lazarus in a better place. Read it without thinking of Hell, instead put in your mind Hades or Sheol.

The Lake of Fire

As I mentioned earlier, the Lake of Fire only occurs in Revelation. But this is what Christians talk about when they talk about Hell (spending an eternity in Hell, burning forever). The Greek used in Revelation is quite literally “The Lake of Fire” — τὴν λίμνην τοῦ πυρὸς. This phrase occurs five times in the book of Revelation, 19:20, 20:10, 20:14×2, 20:15

Paradise

We cannot talk about Hades, Hell, and the afterlife, without also talking about Paradise (παρἁδεισος).

And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:43

Many people equate this verse with Heaven. But I really do not think Jesus is talking about Heaven. παρἁδεισος (Paradise) occurs in the New Testament only three times. Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4, and Revelations 2:7. The first two times it is talking about a place someone goes after death (the man on the cross and Jesus, respectively). In 2 Corinthians 12:2, it does equate Paradise with something called the “third Heaven”. In Revelation 2:7, it talks about Paradise as a place that contains the Tree of Life which is in “the Paradise of God”. If you remember Genesis, the Tree of Life was in the Garden of Eden.

This mention should remind you of Eden from Genesis. Interestingly enough, the word παρἁδεισος (Paradise) in the LXX occurs most often in the Old Testament to refer to the Garden of Eden (where the word “garden” is being translated as παρἁδεισος).

So, when Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would together in Paradise… was he talking about Heaven? I have a hard time interpreting ‘paradise’ as Heaven. But first, we might want to talk a little bit about Heaven.

Heaven

οὐρανός (Heaven) occurs 775 times in the Old and New Testament. Heaven actually has several meanings and can be a bit confusing. It can mean something like the universe or the stars. It can mean the sky or atmosphere. Heaven is the dwelling place of our god and his messengers. There are seemingly different “levels” (or numbers) of Heaven — earlier I mentioned that Paradise was called the “third Heaven”. Here are some interesting examples…

  • Genesis 1:1 – God created the heavens and the earth
  • Genesis 1:30 – every bird of the sky
  • Genesis 21:17 – the messenger of God called to Hagar
  • Genesis 22:17 – the stars of the heavens
  • Deuteronomy 10:14 – Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the highest heavens (actually in the LXX, this is translates the Heaven of Heaven).
  • Deuteronomy 26:15 – Look down from Thy holy habitation, from heaven
  • Joshua 2:11 –  He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. (this is actually kind of interesting, this phrase occurs several times)
  • Psalm 129:8 – If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. (another interesting verse)
  • Matthew 4:17 – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
  • Mark 16:19  – So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.
  • Acts 14:15 – who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them
  • 1 Corinthians 15:47 – The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven
  • Philippians 3:20 – For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ;
  • Colossians 4:1 – knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.
  • Revelation 21:2 – And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God

As you can see, the word Heaven encompasses many different things. And that makes it a very hard word to study, not to mention having to wade through all 775 uses of the word and then trying to figure out how the word is being used in the context of the sentence/paragraph.

With all that said, in today’s vernacular, when we talk about Heaven, we typically means the dwelling place of our god. Which, according to the scriptures, is not the same as Paradise or Sheol. However, many theologians believe that the “third Heaven” is the same as the dwelling place of god (what we typically think of when we talk about Heaven). This may be the case, but in all other cases of the word Paradise, it does not describe the dwelling place of God. And since “third Heaven” is not mentioned anywhere else in scripture, I think it is pretty safe to say that these theologians are just assuming “third” means “highest”. This is actually a very man-centered belief. To many, the “first” Heaven is Earth/Sky, “second” is Universe, and “third” is god’s home. But that’s cannot be defended with scripture (at all). And it is just as reasonable to think of god’s abode as the “first” heaven (it was here first, it is the best, etc). Further, for all we know, we might be the ninth heaven.

Final Thoughts

If you are a protestant, you most likely believe that when people die, they either go to Heaven or to Hell. However, I do not believe this is what the scriptures teach. Catholics believe in something call purgatory. This is where you go after you die to “work off” any sins that weren’t covered by Jesus. I do not believe that this is taught by the scriptures either. So, what do I believe?

I believe that we all go to Sheol or Paradise when we die. This is more like a holding area until the end has come, when death and Hades/Sheol are case into the Lake of Fire and the new Earth is created. This not to say that some people are not in Heaven, I think there is some evidence to suggest that there are dead people in Heaven too (perhaps there is a go-between between Paradise and Heaven). But honestly, it is really hard to say because the word “heaven” encompasses so many things. Regardless, I believe that at the “end”, when Sheol is cast into the Lake of Fire and the New Earth/New Jerusalem has been introduced, we will all live there. Of course, those not being found in the Lamb’s Book of Life not being able to enter the New Jerusalem.

For more on the Lake of Fire and Second death, check out my post — The Second Death, a Permanent Place in Hell?