Some fear the popular view of hell. Others wonder how a loving God could torture people eternally for their misdeeds in this life. What is hell really?
One of the common fears of human beings is what will happen to them after they die. Many religions teach the general concept that people who are “bad” will be sent to a place called hell after they die. Within mainstream Christianity, there are many different ideas as to what hell is and what it is like. Some view hell as a place of “fire and brimstone” where sinners will be burned and tortured forever and never die.
The 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy with the idea that sinners are tortured in ways that represented ultimate justice for their sins. In recent times, many Christian churches have taught a less harsh hell—often described as eternal separation from God. The common understanding among many mainstream Christians is that evil people and nonbelievers will live forever in some state of torment.
What is hell, according to the Bible?
You may be surprised to learn that these ideas about what happens when we die are not what the Bible teaches. The Bible does not say that unbelievers are tormented forever in either a place of fiery torture or a place of dark seclusion from God. These ideas directly contradict one of the plainest statements in the Bible about the result of sin in a human life. At the end of a chapter describing the results of sin versus the results of righteousness, the apostle Paul wrote: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, emphasis added throughout).
Paul makes it clear that the wages—the results—of sin in the life of a human being is eternal death. This directly contradicts the common teaching that the wages of sin is eternal life in hell. Paul’s words harmonize with Revelation 20:14 where the fate of the incorrigibly wicked is called “the second death” in “the lake of fire.”
The “lake of fire” described in the Bible is far from the common conception of hell. It is a place that will utterly destroy and kill the wicked (Matthew 10:28). The prophet Malachi prophesied that “all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up” (Malachi 4:1).
Three Greek words for hell
What about the instances in the Bible when the word hell is used? What is hell, according to the Bible? Many are surprised to learn that there are actually three Greek words translated “hell” in the New Testament. These three words are Hades, Gehenna and tartaroo.
1. Hades refers to “the grave,” “the pit” or “place of the dead.” The Holman Bible Dictionary explains that “Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term ‘Sheol,’ which refers in general to the place of the dead” (1991, “Hades”). Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27 use Sheol and Hades to describe the location of Christ’s body when He was dead for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40).
2. Gehenna refers to the valley of Hinnom, “a valley near Jerusalem … where children were sacrificed by fire in connection with pagan rites” (New Bible Dictionary, 1982, “Hell”). Later garbage and dead bodies were disposed of and burned in this valley. Gehenna represents the “lake of fire” described in Revelation 19:20, the unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43) that will completely destroy the unrepentant (Matthew 10:28).
3. Tartaroo appears once in the Bible in 2 Peter 2:4 and refers to a condition of restraint for demons (fallen angels) until their later judgment.
So, what is hell? The truth of the Bible is that God is ultimately just and merciful. As the above scriptures clearly demonstrate, God will punish the incorrigibly wicked, but He will do so in a merciful way. The wicked will simply be burned up and be dead forever—not tortured for eternity in an ever-burning hellfire.
For further information on this subject, please read the article “What Is the Punishment of the Wicked?” To learn more about what happens when we die, you may be interested in reading other articles in our section about Life After Death.