Hell (from a Germanic root meaning “to cover”) is the traditional English translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, found sixty‐five times in the Hebrew Bible, and of the Greek word Hades, used twenty‐six times in the Apocrypha and ten times in the New Testament. In the NRSV these words are simply transliterated into English, and the translation “hell” is reserved for Gehenna.

Both Sheol and Hades refer to a general dwelling place of souls after death (Gen. 37.35; Acts 2.27). Since this sphere was mainly supposed to be found in the underworld (Num. 16.30; Matt. 11.23), it was also called “the pit” (Isa. 38.18), “the bottomless place” (Luke 8.31; Rom. 10.7; see Abyss), or “the lower parts” (of the world; Ps. 63.10; Eph 4.9 [Latin inferiores partes, cf. “inferno”]).

Postexilic Judaism reserved a particular section of hell for the punishment of sinners (emphasized in 1 Enoch 22.10–11). In the New Testament, the synoptic Gospels and James in twelve cases name this place of pain Gehenna (Matt. 5.22; James 3.6). Among the New Testament examples of Hades, there are three in which punishment is the point, so that Hades corresponds to Gehenna (Matt. 11.23; Luke 10.15; 16.23). In the other passages where Hades occurs, however, it is used in the neutral sense of a space where all the dead are kept (Matt. 16.18; Acts 2.27, 31; Rev. 1.18, 6.8; 20.13, 14; also the variant reading in 1 Cor. 15.55 [cf. Hos. 13.14]).

Concerning the location of hell, the biblical references are colored by the usual cosmology of antiquity, which divided the universe into heaven, earth, and underworld. The concept of hell, however, did not depend on cosmology, but rather on concern for the destiny of the dead. There was a general conviction that existence continued in some way after its separation from earthly life, an event that implied separation from God, the source of all life. The connection of God with heaven and the burial of the dead in the ground gave reason generally to localize the realm of death in the underworld, and eventually to let the souls of the wicked dwell in a deeper section than those of the righteous. Such spatial aspects of hell were meant to give the distance of the deceased from God or their nearness to God concrete expression.

In the course of time several different perspectives on hell emerge in the Bible. From a neutral viewpoint, Sheol was regarded in Israel as the dwelling place of all the dead, independent of their character. Jacob is reported to have said when he believed his son Joseph dead: “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Gen. 37.35). A similar pessimism is found in various types of literature (e.g., 2 Sam. 12.23; Isa. 14.9–11; Pss. 6.5; 88.5; 115.17; Job 7.9–10). The probable etymology of the word (from the verb šāʾal, “to ask”) reflects this universalism: the underworld is never sated, but keeps asking for more (see Prov. 27.20; 30.16). Postexilic Judaism and the New Testament also presupposed this general place of the dead, but made it provisional because of the belief in a coming resurrection (Dan. 12.2; Acts 2.27; Rom. 10.7; Rev. 20.13).

When ethical viewpoints are involved, however, Sheol is said to be a place of punishment. Korah and his companions were swallowed up by “the earth” (a term that can also mean “the underworld”), while their supporters were burned in fire (Num. 16.31–35). Psalmists and prophets threatened the godless with destruction in hell (Ps. 9.17; 31.17; 55.15; Isa. 5.14; 28.15, 18; 66.24), and wisdom teachers warned the youth to avoid hell (Prov. 7.27; 15.24); originally, this probably meant that untimely death was the deserved fate of the wicked, but many of these texts could also be interpreted to mean punishment after death. As indicated above, Judaism also developed the idea of different sections for righteous and sinful people in hell (1 Enoch 22.1–14), and especially ascribed the punishment of blasphemers to a cursed and flaming gorge (27.1–4), later called Gehenna. In the New Testament, the story of Lazarus illustrates the different places reserved for the righteous and sinners in the realm of death (Luke 16.26; see also Abraham's Bosom). Parenetic concerns of Jesus and his followers dominate other passages in which hell (called Hades, the abyss, Gehenna, and, in 2 Peter also tartaros) is represented as an instrument of divine punishment (Matt. 5.22, 29; 11.23 par.; 18.9 par.; Luke 8.31; Heb. 10.27; 2 Pet. 2.4; Jude 6; Rev. 9.1–2, 11; 17.8; 20.3). Matthew was especially concerned with this negative aspect of hell, but neither John in his Gospel nor Paul in his letters developed it.

Hell was even seen as a power that endeavors to attack life on earth. This found expression in psalms dealing with salvation from mortal danger; for example: “The cords of Sheol entangled me” (2 Sam. 22.6 = Ps. 18.5), or “The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me” (Ps. 116.3). In postexilic Judaism, the topic was further developed by the community of Qumran, which also let the “gates” of hell represent the aggressiveness of the underworld (1QH 3.16–19). According to Matthew 16.18, these gates of hell will not be able to subdue the church. It is Gehenna that inspires false teachers (Matt. 23.15) and inflames evil tongues (James 3.6), and powers of destruction ascend from hell to rage on earth (Rev. 9.3, 11; 11.7).

Ultimately, however, God is the one who controls hell. His own fire is able to destroy it (Deut. 32.22), and hell is never hidden from his eyes (Ps. 139.8; Job 11.8; 26.6). The almighty God of Israel is often praised for his ability to rescue a pious soul from death and hell (e.g., Ps. 16.10; 54.14).

Gradually, the conviction of God's omnipotence led to a belief in the resurrection of the dead. These expectations were prepared for by prophetic sayings like the following: God “will swallow up death” (Isa. 25.7; cf. 1 Cor. 15.54); “Your dead will live, their corpses shall rise” (Isa. 26.19); “He [the Servant] shall prolong his days” (Isa. 53.10); “I will open your graves” (Ezek. 37.12). Influenced to some extent by Persian religion, Judaism then developed various doctrines of a resurrection and judgment implying that hell will deliver the righteous and rearrest the sinful, for example: “Many … shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12.2); “the king of the universe will raise us up … because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc. 7.9); the souls will be kept in hell “until the great judgment” (1 Enoch 22.4).

In the New Testament, a new perspective is opened by the witness of the apostles that God had raised his Christ from death, confirmed by the information that some women had found the tomb empty (Matt. 28.6 par.) and that several disciples had “seen” the risen Lord (1 Cor. 15.3–8). These experiences were understood to indicate that hell and death had already been defeated by the Lord of life, as Peter was reported to have proclaimed at Pentecost (Acts 2.24, 27, 31). Some of the righteous were also reported to have risen together with him (Matt. 28.52). The provisional and the definitive victory of Christ over death and related powers was a central point for Paul (Rom. 6.9; 8.38–39; 1 Cor. 15.4), and he exclaimed with great joy: “O death, where is your victory?” (1 Cor. 15.55 [see Hos. 13.14]). Although he avoided expressions for hell, Paul certainly reserved some place for the dead until their resurrection, describing this as a peaceful sleep (1 Thess. 4.13) or a punishment in fire (1 Cor. 3.15). Christ's final victory over hell is described in more detail by the prophet John (e.g., Rev. 1.18; 9.1; 20.1). Although the destructive powers of hell increase their attacks on humankind before the approaching end (9.2–11; 13.1–8; 20.7–9), the final conflict will lead to the complete disappearance of death and hell (20.14).

See also Afterlife and Immortality; Day of Judgment; Descent into Hell; Resurrection of Christ


Bo Reicke