BANNED QUESTION: Should a Biblical Hell be Taken Literally?

The following is a passage from the book, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE. Visit Chalice Press, order the BANNED QUESTIONS books online or by phone and use the promotional code “BANNEDMAR” for a 40% discount.

Hell, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus are all labeled as “Hell.” By most Christians. Are they really the same? Are they all places of fiery torment? Are such things to be taken literally, metaphorically, or as myth?

David Lose:

These places aren’t all the same, but they’re similar enough that you can understand why people lump them together. In brief, Sheol and Hades represent the realm of the dead, the place where both good people and bad go after death. Gehenna and Tartarus, on the other hand, are reserved for wicked people and are places of punishment. Hell, a word that comes from Old English, has become a catch-all phrase for the others, but for the last two, especially.

On the whole, the Bible doesn’t talk a whole lot about any of these places, and so I’m a little leery of giving them much significance in our own theology. In fact, I get downright suspicious of folks that seem to like talking about eternal punishment, as that seems out of sync with Jesus’ emphasis on God’s love.

Too often in the Church’s history, hell has been used to scare people into doing what the church wants them to. For this reason, some people think we’ve outgrown the usefulness of concepts like hell and damnation. Others, however, would argue that we wouldn’t appreciate heaven without the threat of hell.

In so far as hell depicts ultimate separation from God, I tend to think that whether it’s an actual physical place or a metaphor, it’s a good place to avoid. On that score, I take hope from the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Sounds good to me.

Gary Peluso-Verdend:

No, the meaning of these words is not the same. Rather, we have different symbols from different symbol systems.

Sheol is a Hebrew word, found in the pre-6th century BCE portions of the Old Testament. Ancient Judaism did not conceive of human beings as part body and part soul. Rather, human beings were understood as flesh animated by the breath of God. Whatever existence a person has after death was thought to be in a place called Sheol, a place of shades, where there is no consciousness. Sheol contains neither pleasures nor torments.

During Israel’s captivity in Babylon, Jews were exposed to Zoroastrianism, a religion that includes a belief in resurrection and a two-place afterlife—the equivalent of heaven and hell. By New Testament times, belief in resurrection, heaven, and hell were widespread—albeit not universal—in Judaism.

Hell as a place of torment and stink became well developed many centuries after the Bible by the Christian writer Dante Alighieri, but sometimes the roots of a mythical or non-physical place are found in real places. Gehenna, as a place of torment for evil people, was associated with the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the city dumped its garbage.

Very important beliefs are associated with hell, such as sin, judgment, consequence, resurrection. Christianity—or any other religion—is like a language; one must understand each symbol within a greater grammar.

Jason Boyett:

No, they are not the same. Four words—the Hebrew word sheol and the Greek words hades, gehenna, and tartaroo—have been translated as the English word hell. We think of hell as a fiery place of torment for sinners, but only gehenna fits that description.

Sheol was an all-purpose term referring to the shadowy realm of the dead (“the grave”), and earlier Old Testament books seem to indicate that everyone goes there—not just the wicked. In the New Testament, the Greek word hades is used interchangeably with sheol—it’s the place of the dead. Tartaroo appears only once in the Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4. It refers to Tartarus, the dungeon-like netherworld in Greek mythology filled with suffering and torment. The context indicates it is where demons reside.

The hell-as-torture-chamber idea comes from gehenna, which Jesus described as a destination for sinners. This word originates with a Hebrew name, Ge-Hinnom, which refers to the Hinnom Valley, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Trash, animal carcasses, and the bodies of criminals were dumped there, and the valley burned continuously—an evocative image of hell.

Do we take the idea of a burning hell literally? Jesus certainly spoke as if it were a real place. But keep in mind that the idea of a dualistic afterlife—a hell for sinners and heaven for the righteous—was a relatively new idea to Judaism, possibly due to the influence of Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian Exile. It was a theological departure from the ancient faith of the Jewish patriarchs.

Craig Detweiler:

While death is a certain fact, it is also prompts an air of mystery. What happens when our hearts stop beating?   Is there something on the other side of life?  Descriptions of hell (and heaven) are all rather speculative, more poetic than precise.

The Hebrew word, “Sheol,” describes the grave that awaits us all.  It is a shadowy place, something we’ve all glimpsed at a funeral, but never experienced from the inside. Our bodies are all bound for Sheol, irrespective of our beliefs or practices.   None escape physical death.

When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into the Greek language, the word “Hades” was chosen to describe the ground or pit our bodies are bound for.  The Greek notion of Hades was more of a shady, mythological place than a physical grave.

Within Greek mythology, Tartarus, is a place of judgment and torment, a pit much farther down than the more benign Hades. Only once does the word Tartarus appear in scripture.  In 2 Peter 2:4, God punishes sinful angels by throwing them into Tarturus, a dark pit reserved for judgment.

When the Bible was translated into English, Hades and Sheol were translated as Hell. Unfortunately, such a reference comes across as much more loaded than “the grave.” It had eternal associations rather than tangible, temporal or physical meaning.

The associations of hell with a fire, torment, and eternal anonymity start coming into play with a term like “Gehenna.”  It is a destination we would all want to avoid.   It is a place where people who lack family, resources, and significance are discarded.   No one wants to feel so unloved, unacknowledged, or unnoticed.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.pennyfletcher.com Penny Fletcher

    I personally believe after years of various Bible studies that the differences your mention used for the names of places in the Old Testament are the basis of the Catholic difference between Purgatory and Heaven- and also of Jesus mentioning “Paradise” as his “immediate” destination when he spoke from the cross. Congratulations on the publication of what is obviously a well researched work!