Before we think about the words ‘Sheol, Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus’, we need to think about the meaning of the word ‘Hell’ itself, because a little thought will help us to clear up some of those misconceptions and erroneous theories which, for centuries, have been sources of needless confusion and unnecessary anxiety. Unnecessary that is, if one is a Christian!
There are three Biblical words, the meanings of which are often confused because people tend to use them very loosely. The first is an Old Testament Hebrew word and the other two words are New Testament Greek words.
1. ‘Sheol’, found in the Old Testament, and which sometimes is erroneously said to be the word that corresponds to ‘Gehenna’.
You clearly see the confusion that has been created about the meaning of this word when you understand that, in the A.V., out of the 65 instances Sheol occurs, 31 times it has been translated ‘hell’ and 31 times it has been translated ‘the grave’!
2. ‘Gehenna’, which occurs 12 times, and, in the A.V., is always translated as ‘hell’.
3. ‘Hades’, which occurs 10 times, and which is also always translated as ‘hell’.
There is a history behind this inconsistent rendering of the word ‘Sheol’. Whilst the translators of the A.V. believed Hell to be the place of punishment for the wicked, they recoiled from the idea of saying that good people also go to ‘Sheol’, and so in passages that related to the death of good people, they decided to translate ‘Sheol’ as ‘the grave’!
It may come as a surprise to some that the word ‘hell’ doesn’t appear in the Old Testament. Even though the KJV uses the word ‘hell’ in many places in the Old Testament, when we look at the Hebrew word, it is the word ‘Sheol’.
In the Old Testament the word ‘Sheol’ always means the grave, the place of the dead, the realm of the dead. It never means hell as we understand it today.
We need to remember that in Old Testament times, the Hebrews had no clear teaching concerning the future after death, either of good people or bad people. This doesn’t mean that an afterlife didn’t exist, it simply means there was no clear teaching about an afterlife.
They never even considered life after death as a possibility. So far as the early Hebrews understood, it all ended in the grave, at death, Ecclesiastes 9:5.
Now, although the word ‘Sheol’ literally means ‘the realm or place of the dead’, you don’t need much intelligence to recognise that Hell and the Grave are not the same places! When a physical body is placed in the grave, it has not been consigned to Hell!
Sheol is described as the place to which all the dead go, both good and bad in Hebrew theology and in Old Testament teaching. It’s defined as ‘the place of departed souls’.
In the account of King Saul’s visit to the medium at Endor, the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel is recorded as saying to Saul, ‘Tomorrow, you and your sons shall be with me,’ 1 Samuel 28:19.
In early Hebrew times, they never even considered life after death as a possibility. That’s why we hear the inconsolable Jacob say in Genesis 37:35, when he believes that his beloved son Joseph has been killed by wild animals, ‘I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave’.
Even the Oxford Dictionary is close to the truth as far as the meaning of the word is concerned. It says that Sheol is, ‘the abode of the dead’.
Furthermore, in the Old Testament, Sheol is described as a gloomy place, in which an individual is farther away from God than he was during his lifetime.
We are told that ‘For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing,’ Ecclesiastes 9:5 and, according to Psalm 115:17, ‘It is not the dead who praise the LORD, those who go down to the place of silence’. We must remember that it was Old Testament theology.
We must bear in mind the fact that in Old Testament times, the Hebrews had no clear doctrine concerning the future after death, either of good people or bad people, Job 14:7-14. Of course, this is all very different from what the New Testament teaches.
And when we examine the Old Testament, it becomes clear that, even among God’s ancient chosen people, Israel, there was no clear understanding of, or belief in, life after death.
This is quite evident in the commandment which declares that ‘parents were to be honoured, in order, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you’, Exodus 20:12. I’m sure you will have noticed that there is no mention of blessings in a life hereafter and certainly no mention of Heaven.
So far as the early Hebrews knew, it all ended in the grave, at death. It was later that the truths of continued existence after death and a judgment of the righteous and the wicked were gradually revealed through the later prophets.
It’s interesting when we get into the New Testament that the disciples never ask Jesus about heaven and that’s because the Jews were never brought up to believe in heaven.
Even in the days of Jesus, the puzzling question of death and what lies beyond hadn’t been completely resolved and was still fiercely debated among the various religious parties.
The Pharisees firmly believed in both a future life and a Judgment, whilst the Sadducees rejected both, Acts 23:8. But it was the Lord Jesus Himself who ‘brought life and immortality to light, through the Gospel,’ 2 Timothy 1:10.
He brought it to light; He drove away the mists and doubts which had engulfed it for so long. And He did it both by His teaching and His own resurrection from the dead.
To summarise the above and to help us move forward in this study with a proper understanding of the words used for ‘hell’, let’s simply say this, the Old Testament word ‘Sheol’ speaks of the final destination place of our mortal human ‘bodies’, that is, the grave, the place where everyone’s ‘physical body’ ends up. Our physical body remains in the grave, our spirit goes back to God who gave it, Ecclesiastes 12:7.
The word ‘Gehenna’, from which it originates, has a historical origin in the Old Testament we read about a valley on the western side of the city of Jerusalem, which was known as ‘The Valley of Hinnom’, that is, ‘Ge Henna’.
We know nothing about Hinnom, except that he owned that valley and must have lived very early in Old Testament times, probably even before the time of Joshua, because ‘The valley of the SON of HINNON’ is mentioned in Joshua 15:8.
What we can say with certainty is that the ‘Valley of Hinnom’ was the valley in which, by New Testament times, there was a place known as ‘Tophet’, that was used as the refuse dump for the city of Jerusalem. And, not for refuse alone, but also for the bodies of criminals who had been executed and those of beggars who had died.
Jerusalem had its fair share of beggars who lived, and died, on its streets, and, in the early morning, before the city came to life, it was the custom to send a cart around the city to pick up the corpses of any who had died overnight and take them and dump them in the Valley of Hinnom, at Tophet, where they were burned. It was here, in the Valley, that fires burned constantly, to consume corpses and anything else that was thrown there.
Why was the valley used in this way? It was used in this way because, in Old Testament times, during a period when the Israelites were unfaithful to their God, they worshipped the idol, ‘Molech’, and such idolatrous worship involved the offering of human sacrifices, particularly of children, Jeremiah 7:31.
The particular idol involved was a huge, hollow figure of brass or bronze, in which a fire was lit so that the idol became red hot. It had outstretched arms on which the human sacrifice was laid, and the screams of the victim were drowned by the beating of drums.
In the Old Testament, ‘Tophet’, is a word which means ‘tablet’ or ‘drum’. It was the good king Josiah who put an end to this evil practice, by scattering the bones of dead men in the valley, thus defiling it and making it permanently unfit for the purpose of worship, 2 Kings 23.
From that time, Gehenna had been used as a rubbish dump and a place of constant burning. This explains the words of Jesus when He says, hell is where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’. Mark 9:48.
Remember, also, that it is Jesus alone, who speaks of Gehenna in all of the 12 passages where the word occurs, and He uses it symbolically to speak of the punishment and suffering that awaits the wicked, Matthew 5:22 / Matthew 5:29-30 / Matthew 18:9 / Mark 9:43-47 / Matthew 23:15 / Matthew 23:33.
Wherever God is not, has to be what the Bible calls hell, 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9. Whatever hell is like we can safely say that it is the complete opposite of heaven.
‘Hades’ in the New Testament means ‘the realm of disembodied souls’.
The New Testament words ‘Hades’ and ‘Gehenna’ are the final destination of the wicked ‘soul’, the place of punishment, hell. In other words, everyone’s ‘body’ will go to the grave, and their ‘spirit’ will go back to God, Ecclesiastes 12:7, but the ‘soul’, which is the part of man will go on for eternity, either with God in heaven or in Hell with the devil and his angels.
Remember ‘Sheol’ in the Old Testament means ‘the realm or place of the dead’. The realm or place of the dead is the grave where our bodies end up, but the realm of disembodied souls is where our soul ends up without our physical bodies.
In the account of the Rich man and Lazarus, we find Jesus using the other word for hell, which is Hades, Luke 16:19-31.
Where were Abraham and Lazarus? When Lazarus the beggar died, he was carried to ‘Abraham’s side’ Luke 16:22. This is the Hebrew way of saying that he was in ‘the paradise of God’, that is heaven.
The word ‘heaven’ simply means ‘the heights or lifted up’ but notice in Genesis 1:1, that God created the heavens, plural. The Bible teaches there are actually three heavens, and this was firmly believed by the Jews.
1. They saw the area of the clouds in the sky as the first heaven. This is the atmosphere and the place where the birds fly. This is physical and is created by God.
2. They saw the area in which the sun, moon, and stars hung as the second heaven. This is physical and is created by God.
3. The third heaven was known as the dwelling place of God. This is God’s spiritual eternal home. This isn’t physical and isn’t created.
This third heaven is also known as ‘paradise’ which is used in connection with ‘the third heaven.’ Paul speaks about being ‘caught up in the third heaven and caught up in paradise’ in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4.
In other words, the third heaven and paradise are the same location. And there’s no need to speculate where Paul was because John tells us that paradise is the heavenly realm of God, Revelation 2:7.
And there’s no need to speculate where Lazarus was located, he was in paradise, the heavenly realm of God. And there’s no need to speculate where Jesus and the thief on the cross were going that very day, Luke 23:43. They were both going to paradise, the heavenly realm of God. The third heaven, paradise, is the place where Paul and all Christians long to go to, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8.
Where was the rich man? The rich man found himself in Hades, which is hell and notice he was in torment, he was in agony in the fire. Don’t those words ‘torment’ and ‘fire’ describe what we now know as hell? Matthew 13:41-43 / Matthew 25:41.
The apostle Paul uses the Greek word ‘Hades’ in 1 Corinthians 15:55, but he never uses the word ‘Gehenna,’ in any of his other letters, which were mainly addressed to Greek-speaking churches. The only place outside of the Gospels where “Gehenna” is used is in James’ letter, which is addressed to Hebrew-speaking Jews, James 3:6.
The Jewish-speaking audiences would understand that ‘Gehenna’ was a reference to hell and the Greek-speaking audiences would understand that ‘Hades’ also referred to hell.
The term ‘death and Hades’ occurs only in the Book of Revelation. Jesus has the keys of death and Hades, Revelation 1:18. The one who sits on the pale horse has the name Death, with Hades following after him, Revelation 6:8.
In Revelation 20:13 death and Hades gave up the dead who are then judged at the final judgment. Then both ‘death and Hades’ are thrown into the lake of fire, Revelation 20:14, along with anyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life, Revelation 20:15. I am sure you would have noticed that ‘death and Hades’ are personified in the later passages.
It’s often thought by many that the ‘lake of fire’ mentioned in Revelation 20:14 refers to hell. However, if Hades is hell, which I believe it is, then how can hell be thrown into hell? That wouldn’t make any sense.
If we carry on reading the next few words in Revelation 20:14, it becomes quite clear what the lake of fire is a reference to, ‘The lake of fire is the second death.’
The first death is physical. When we die, our bodies end up in the grave, ‘the realm of the dead,’ our spirit goes back to God who gave it, Ecclesiastes 12:17, and our soul goes straight to God’s presence, ‘paradise’, that is heaven, if we have obeyed the Gospel, or straight to hell, Hades/Gehenna, ‘the realm of disembodied souls’ if we haven’t obeyed the Gospel.
Upon death, the soul is separated from the body, and the unbelievers who don’t have their names written in the Book of Life, continue to be separated from God. At the second death, their resurrected body is joined to their soul and both are separated from God for all eternity.
The Scriptures say very little about what the bodies of those who haven’t obeyed the Gospel will be like when they are resurrected from the dead, and then thrown into ‘the lake of fire’, but it does tell us that the bodies of those who have obeyed the Gospel will be glorious, Philippians 3:20-21 / 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 / 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 / 1 John 3:2.
At this point in time, all sin and evil have been judged and punished, Revelation 20:11-15. The two greatest fears of mankind are death and hell, that is eternal banishment from the presence of God, 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10, but Jesus will have victory over them both, 1 Corinthians 15:24-26.
Please note this isn’t speaking about total annihilation, but separation forever from God and everything which is good, 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10. Therefore, the ‘lake of fire’, the second death is permanent. From that death, there will be no resurrection, 1 Thessalonians 4:16.
What’s being described here in Revelation 20:14-15 is nothing less than the final, complete accomplishment of total victory over sin. The judgment is complete. Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire. Eternal punishment involves spending eternity in the presence of all those who have chosen to reject God’s grace and His love.
In other words, with the unforgiven, this means the immoral, murders, liars, and all the vicious, cruel and evil in the history of the world, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 / Galatians 5:19-21 / Ephesians 5:3-5 / Revelation 21:8.
The New Testament clearly describes the destination of the wicked after the Judgment and their place of punishment, as ‘eternal banishment from the presence of God’. 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10.
The wicked will be denied the fellowship and blessing of ‘everlasting life’, ‘the life of the ages’, and there will be no need for fire and brimstone, for they will know that their banishment is something they have deserved because they rejected God’s offer of forgiveness.
The only example I can find in Scripture concerning a ‘waiting place’ is found in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 where it is referred to as ‘Tartarus’. Please note that neither passage speaks about Tartarus as being a waiting place for unbelievers, Tartarus is used in reference solely to fallen angels.
Who are these angels mentioned in both passages and what did they do?
We don’t know when this angelic rebellion against God took place, but we know that it did because both Jude and Peter tell us so, and God condemned them for it because they ‘didn’t keep their positions of authority’. We know Satan was the leader of these sinning angels, and we know it because of pride that he fell, Isaiah 14:12-15 / 1 Timothy 3:6.
Where is Tartarus? I’m sure you are aware that there are many theories concerning, ‘Tartarus’, but little information about the place is actually known. Both Jude and Peter mention nothing about ‘fire’, they are in darkness but these angels were ‘awaiting their judgment’.
Some believe Tartarus is ‘the deepest part of hell,’ this can’t be right because whether it’s the deepest part of hell or the highest part of hell, it’s still located in hell, it’s still hell.
Others believe that Tartarus is actually describing the condition of the angels and not an actual location. Wherever or whatever Tartarus is, it’s not nice, it’s a place of temporary torment for these rebellious angels until they are judged and thrown into the lake of fire, Revelation 20:10.
Why did Peter use the word ‘Tartarus’? Who knows! Maybe by using Greek mythology, he wanted to help the Greek Christians to understand there’s a place of torment for these rebellious angels until the final judgment comes.
All we know about Tartarus is what Peter writes in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, and we know this much, there are no humans in Tartarus, only fallen angels, those in Tartarus are bound by chains of darkness, there are no flames of fire mentioned, it’s dark there, and finally their restraint in chains isn’t forever, they are ‘being held for judgment’, Leviticus 24:10-12 / Numbers 15:32-36, in other words, they haven’t been judged with the final judgment as yet, but they will be, Revelation 20:10.
Remember Tartarus is the place where certain sinful angels are presently kept bound, awaiting final judgment. It has no reference to the final destination of the wicked, hell. Tartarus isn’t even the final destination of these angels.
It’s unfortunate that some English versions translate the term ‘Tartarus’ as ‘hell’ because it confuses this place with the place of the final judgment of the wicked, Matthew 25:41 / Revelation 20:10.
Some believe in a place called Purgatory which they claim not only refers to the cleansing of remaining sins or impurities in the soul, but it is also a process that leads to a complete detachment from the sins.
They believe it is here that the people who lead a life of sins are offered a chance of repentance if they are genuinely remorseful of their actions. This doctrine is not taught anywhere in the Scriptures, there is ‘no second’ chance after death, Hebrews 9:27.
Many Christians believe based solely on the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, that when they die, there is a ‘waiting place’, not Purgatory, that they go to before Judgment Day. They believe that the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ is equivalent to the Greek word ‘Hades’.
If the Greek word Hades is equivalent to the Hebrew word Sheol, where in the Scriptures is Sheol ever described as a ‘waiting place’?
In light of what we noted earlier, if ‘Sheol’ ‘the realm of the dead’, the grave, is where the body ends up and ‘Hades’ ‘the realm of disembodied souls’, is where unbelieving people’s souls end up, and ‘paradise’ ‘God’s dwelling place’, is where believing souls end up, we can clearly see the difference.
As I mentioned earlier, the Jews firmly believed that there were only three heavens.
1. They saw the area of the clouds in the sky as the first heaven.
2. They saw the area in which the sun, moon, and stars hung as the second heaven.
3. The third heaven was known as the dwelling place of God.
They certainly didn’t believe in different compartments in heaven or hell.
The apostle Paul knew exactly where he was going when he died and it wasn’t to a ‘waiting place’, he was going to paradise, to the very presence of God, He was going to heaven, 2 Corinthians 5:5-8 / Philippians 1:23-24.
If there is a waiting place for Christians before Judgment Day, then who are ‘the spirits of the righteous made perfect,’ and where are they now? Hebrews 12:22-24.
If there is a waiting place for Christians before Judgment Day, then who are ‘the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained,’ and where are they now? Revelation 6:9-11.
We value our inheritance with God and are part of the family of God, Hebrews 2:11, and part of this assembly is those who have died. They are also part of the family, and we are joined together. Death separates us, but we are still joined together as God’s saved family.
God’s purpose for Judgment Day will not be to decide whether those who stand before Him are innocent or guilty, righteous or unrighteous, saved or lost, because this was settled for every one of them at the moment of death, having been determined by their response to the offer of forgiveness, made in the Gospel.
Those who die without the assurance of the salvation offered in the Gospel will die in a lost state, whilst those who have accepted Christ as Saviour and have lived according to that faith, will die in a saved state, and, therefore, will have no need to fear when ‘the books are opened’, Revelation 20:12-13, because their names are enrolled in ‘the Lamb’s Book of the Living’.
Having already been judged and acquitted in the person of the Lord Jesus, Christians will not again stand trial for their life, 1 John 5:13. Romans 8:1 quite literally says, ‘There is no sentence to be served, ‘katakrima’, for those who are in Christ Jesus.’
Christians will be judged not concerning their salvation, but for the things they said and did while they were alive, Romans 14:10-12 / 2 Corinthians 5:10.
Most people agree when everyone dies physically their bodies remain in the grave until the resurrection day, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 / 1 Corinthians 15:6-20. Most people agree that when a person dies, their spirit goes back to God who gave it, Ecclesiastes 12:7.
Where the disagreements come in is where the soul goes at death. I personally don’t believe there are different levels of heaven or hell and even if there were, wouldn’t their soul still be in heaven or hell?
What would be the purpose of a ‘waiting place’? What would be the purpose of having different levels in either place?
Please know I don’t want to be dogmatic about this, as I don’t believe it’s what some call ‘a salvation issue’. If there is a ‘waiting place’ that people go to before judgment, it really doesn’t matter, as long as I end up in the Lord’s presence. If people do go straight to heaven or hell, it makes no difference, as long as I end up in the Lord’s presence.
If we learn anything from the story about the Rich Man and Lazarus, we learn that both died and their bodies were still in the grave, it was their soul which lived on. We also learn that death is not the end.
After death, we shall recognise those we have known on earth, but can’t communicate with them, Luke 16:24 / Luke 16:27-28. Our memory is retained, that is, we shall remember our life on Earth, Luke 16:25. We also learn that no change of state is then possible, if we end up in hell, we can’t change our location to heaven, Luke 16:26.