Definition(s) of Hell

We love to embrace the cross of Jesus that saves us and forgives us and heals us – but we neglect the cross that Jesus commanded us to pick up and carry daily… We love deciding the eternal fate of people we believe does not deserve God’s Mercy. “You are going to Hell if you do this or that…” & “They are surely going to Hell for doing that or believing this…” I wonder: who made us the judge, jury and executioner of people’s eternal future? How many people, I wonder, will still be Christians if God decides to send no one to Hell?

We are so quick to take mercy for our self, but want justice for everybody else. We are content to ‘suffer’ this side of the grave because we believe that God’s going to punish all those who are the cause of the suffering.

The Bible uses four different words for the one our translations refer to as “Hell“. The word ‘hell’ that is found in our English bible, is derived from the Old English hel, helle (first used around 725 AD to refer to a nether world of the dead) reaching into the Anglo-Saxon pagan period. The word has cognates in all branches of the Germanic languages, including Old Norse hel (which refers to both a location and goddess-like being in Norse mythology), Old Frisian helle, Old Saxon hellia, Old High German hella, and Gothic halja. The concept of Hell as we understand it, is not found in the Hebrew Old Testament where rather the word Sheol (resting place for the dead or the ‘grave‘) is used.

In the Old Testament the word ‘Gehenna’ is used to describe the valley west of Jerusalem where child sacrifice to Molech was practiced and later was used as a rubbish heap. To this day, nothing grows on this piece of cursed earth and it is also here that Judas hanged himself after betraying Jesus. It is also known as: ‘the valley of the sons of Hinnom‘ (2 Kings 23:10), ‘of the son of Hinnom’ (Jer. 19:2), or simply ‘of Hinnom’ (Neh. 11:30), it is “the scene of one of Israel’s most terrible lapses into pagan customs” in the history of Judah. During the reign of King Ahaz, fire worship was instituted, and in this valley children were burned alive in the fire as a sacrifice to the god Molech. We read in 2 Chronicles 28:3 that Ahaz “burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire” (2 Kings 16:3).

Two generations later, Manasseh took the throne, and like his grandfather Ahaz, “he sacrificed his sons in fire, in the Valley of Ben Hinnom” (2 Cron 33:6; 2 Kings 21:6). Jeremiah 32:35 tells us that “they built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, something the Lord “never commanded, nor did it enter [His] mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.” This demonic act of sacrificial slaughter “filled Jerusalem from end to end” with the blood of innocent children, and provoked the Lord to such anger that he said, “I am going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle” (2 Kings 21:12, 16).
Manasseh’s grandson Josiah later took the throne, and we read of his sweeping reforms in 2 Kings 23:1-25 & 2 Cron 34:1-7 – An act of desecration was also an act of purification. (Jeremiah 7:29-34, Jeremiah 19:1-15, Jeremiah 31:1-40, Isaiah 66:1-24 & Isaiah 30:25).

Jesus picks up on the Gehenna-theme and is mentioned by Him a total of eleven times throughout the Gospels and once by James 3:6. Twice he addresses the Pharisees but all else that Jesus says about hell/Gehenna, is directed to his own disciples. Jesus is NOT referring to an eternal destination but rather to a current process. Metaphorically: if action is not taken to get rid of sin in one’s life, it will eventually consume and kill off the whole body – like “Spiritual gangrene”.

In Matthew 5:29-30, 18:9, and Mark 9:43-48, He mentions ‘the unquenchable fire’ – this does not mean ever-burning, but irresistible, because it cannot be thwarted in its intended purpose, or stopped short of accomplishing its goal. It fully consumes (Ezek. 20:47-48), reduces to nothing (Amos 5:5-6) or burns up what is put into it (Matt. 3:12). Similarly, the worms (or maggots) chewing on the flesh of the dead bodies “do not die, at least not until they finish their consumptive task.” (Isa 66:24).

Understandably, to a Gentile who is unfamiliar with the geography and history of Jerusalem, the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures, the term Gehenna is making very little sense.

This is different from the third word ‘Hades‘ (Greek term used for the ‘underworld’) which is similar in meaning than ‘Sheol‘, or the abode of the dead, although the translators of the Bible usually translates both with the Anglo-Saxon word “hell“. Another word translated as hell is: ‘Tartarus‘ and this refers to the ‘deepest region of the underworld’ in Greek Mythology and is used only once in the Bible (2 Peter 2:4-6). It is used to describe the ultimate power God has over even the angels that rebel against Him and does not have ANY association with humans.

In 1320 the well-known Italian poet Dante Alighieri published his poem: “La Divina Commedia” or The Divine Comedy and it is an imaginative vision about the afterlife (Read more). Along with all of the Renaissance Art, nothing has shaped the Church’s concept of eternal punishment of the wicked more than this piece of literary work. (BBC – A tour of Hell, Dante – Catholic philosophy).

Dante and Virgil, by Bouguereau, c. 1850, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris

What about 1 Pet 3:18-19? Does this prove that spirits continue to live in Hell? – If you read the verse it says “by the Spirit, 19 by whom” Thus the “by whom” is the Holy Spirit. So with that in mind the verse says the following that Christ, with/by the Holy Spirit “went and preached to the spirits in prison”. OK that makes it a little clearer. But when? – So Christ by the Holy Spirit preached to the spirits in prison in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared. Thus this happened before Jesus came as a man.

The Bible tells us that “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21) and that “Noah, one of eight people, (was) a preacher of righteousness”. (2 Peter 2:5) Thus 1 Peter 3:18-20 tells us this: that Jesus in His great mercy by the Holy Spirit spoke through Noah, in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared – striving to redeem those humans imprisoned by their own sin (John 8:34, Rom 7:22-23, Acts 8:23, Gal 3:22-23).