Biblical words for “hell”

In older Bible versions, the word “hell” occurs more often than in modern versions. The reason is simply that the original text uses different words, with at least two distinct meanings.

  • Sheol (OT Hebrew). The cords of Sheol coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. (Ps. 18:5) Sheol is the realm of the dead, often thought of as lying below the earth’s surface (Job 11:8), the exact opposite of heaven (Ps. 139:8). Dying is described as “going down into Sheol.”
    The Old Testament describes salvation as escaping Sheol: “You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (Ps. 86:13); “You will not abandon me to Sheol” (Ps. 16:10).
  • Hades (NT Greek). And you, Capernaum, will be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. (Luke 10:15) In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of death, as well as the name of his realm. In the New Testament, it is used to translate Sheol. That is especially clear from Acts 2:27,31, where Peter quotes Psalm 16.
  • Tartaros (NT Greek). If God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, pulling them in chains of darkness to be held in judgment. (2 Pet. 2:4) In Greek culture, Tartaros is the place in the underworld where criminals were tormented. The New Testament uses the word only once, for the place where fallen angels are punished. It corresponds to “the abyss” (abyssos) in Rev. 9:1, 20:1, etc.
  • Gehenna (NT Greek). … into Gehenna, into the fire that never shall be quenched. (Mark 9:45) The name derives from Hebrew, Ge-(Ben-)Hinnom, “Valley of the Son of Hinnom”, the place near Jerusalem where Israelites once worshiped pagan gods by burning their children (2 Chr. 28:3; Jer. 7:31). Later it was the burning place for dead animals and the bodies of criminals.
    Jesus uses the name of this place to refer to the place of eternal punishment, the great Abyss; he also called it the “lake of fire”. This is the place where all God’s enemies will end up, including Satan and his minions. In Rev. 20:14 we read the promise that even death (Hades) itself will eventually be cast into this lake of fire.

And what about the “descent into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed? The original Latin text says that Jesus descended ad inferna, “to the lower parts”. This word is traditionally used to translate “grave” and “Sheol”; in the Vulgate Bible it is found in Gen. 37:35; Ps. 16:10, and Phil. 2:10. There is little doubt that the Creed’s original meaning is that Jesus, after his burial, “went down into the realm of death.”

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