The meaning of “hell”

The idea of hell is unpopular. Modern people, even many modern Christians, think it rather backward to believe in a place of eternal punishment. It’s medieval fearmongering, they say, but unfitting for the loving God we encounter in the Bible.

It is true that a certain depiction of hell was popularized in the late Middle Ages through Alighieri Dante’s famous Divinde Comedy. In Luther’s time, street preachers would frighten people by vivid depictions of hell and torment. But the idea of hell as the final destination of devils and unbelievers, and a place of punishment and torment—that is in fact a Biblical concept, preached by our Lord Jesus himself.

There has been some confusion around the term “hell” itself. The old King James Bible used it often in the Old Testament, but there the reference is to the realm of the dead; a dark place, certainly, but not a place of punishment and torment. More recent Bible translations read “the grave” or leave the Hebrew word untranslated: “Sheol”. In the New Testament, this realm of the death is called “Hades” or, occasionally, “Tartarus”.*

In contrast, Jesus spoke often of Gehenna. Literally, this Aramaic name refers to the “valley of Hinnom”, an area south of Jerusalem where garbage and dead animals were dumped and burned. (See 2 Kings 23:10 for some history.) For the Jews it had become a metaphor for the spiritual burning place in which God would purge all evil. Jesus affirms this idea, and warns that the wicked and unrepentant will be cast into this fire.

There have been many discussions about the nature of hell. Is it a physical location or a state of being? It is a place of literal torment? Is hell characterized by the absence of God, or by the presence of his wrath? The key point, of course, is that hell is the ultimate destination of all God’s enemies. Anyone and anything that does not fit in the Kingdom of God will be thrown out on the spiritual garbage heap to be burned for good. That is a terrifying concept.

* In the Apostles’ Creed, we speak of Jesus’ “descent into hell”. But the original Latin word (ad inferos) does not mean “hell” in the usual sense; rather, it refers to the realm of the dead. The Westminster Larger Catechism, q&a 50, rightly says: “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” When the Heidelberg Catechism says, in q&a 44, that Christ “by his unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony … has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell,” this is wonderful gospel truth, but it is not the original meaning of the Apostles’ Creed.

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