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 The view that hell is a “place of eternal torment” has persisted for hundreds of years. Many churches have used this image to frighten their congregations—no-one wants to be damned to eternal fiery torment. In this chapter we look at what the Bible means
by “hell”. You may be surprised!

Acts 2:22–32

This passage is part of Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost. He was quoting from Old Testament prophecies in the Psalms
and using them to show that the death and resurrection of Jesus was predicted about 1000 years earlier.

1. Why was it impossible for “death to keep its hold on him” (v24)?
2. Compare the following three translations of verse 27.

NIV because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
KJV Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
NASB because thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow thy Holy One to undergo decay.

Note that the different translations use “grave”, “hell” and“Hades” for the same Greek word. Compare any other translations you have available. Do you think these words all mean the same thing?
3. Jesus was perfect, yet he went to hell (v27). Is there anything evil about hell?

Hell is the grave
The Scriptures teach that hell is the grave. All people, whether good or bad, go there. If it’s that simple, then why all this confusion and difference of opinion? There are two main reasons—translation differences and the influence of ancient Greek mythology.

Acts 2:27 is an example of translation differences. Why does the NIV use “grave”, the KJV use “hell” and the NASB use“Hades”? To resolve this problem the original language needs to be examined.

The original words
Hebrew sheol or Greek hades = dwelling place of dead. i.e., grave or tomb.
Usually translated as hell, grave, pit, depths, death.

Some Bibles (such as the NASB and NRSV) avoid these problems by leaving the word untranslated as sheol or hades. However, this means the reader has to understand Greek and Hebrew. The best option is to use“grave”— the literal meaning of the words.

Influences of ancient Greek mythology
To the superstitious Greeks, Hades meant much more than the grave. One of the Greek gods was ades; he was thought to rule and torment departed spirits in the fiery underworld which they also called Hades. The Greek poet Homer spoke of Hades in The Iliad written around 700 BC:

Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles, a destroying wrath which brought upon Acheans myriad woes, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes. . . Hades is relentless and unyielding.

During the Greek empire, Greek language and culture became fashionable—it was exciting, different and sophisticated compared
with the simple Jewish culture. By the time of the New Testament, the Greek word hades was used by the Jews in two different ways: first to mean the grave and second to mean the shadowy underworld in Greek mythology. Obviously, the New Testament writers did not intend hades to refer to the underworld ruled by a Greek god. The general biblical meaning of hades (and sheol) is the grave.

Did you know?
The Greeks had a significant impact on the Israelites—they influenced their architecture, their language, their education, their writings and their religion. Today, you can visit several 1600 year old synagogues in Israel and see mosaics with the Greek sun-god Helios and other mythical creatures right beside the Menorah (lampstand) and Ark of the Law. Imagine how disappointed God must have felt to see his people corrupted by the other nations around. He had specifically warned them to keep themselves free of these pagan influences (Deuteronomy 7:1–6).

All people die and go to hell
Death is one of the few certainties in life. David wrote

What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave? (Psalm 89:48)

However, like Jesus, not all people will stay dead. Many people will be raised for judgement, some to everlasting life and others
to everlasting death—the second death.
see Chapter 44. Judgement

. . . death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. (Revelation 20:13)

Hell fire!
Imagine . . . your stomach is turning, round and round—the smell, the smoke, the flies, the heat. You look around this vile
place and continue to throw dead animals onto the smouldering mass. The place reeks of death and destruction. You want to be
sick. . .

This place does exist, although the fires no longer burn there. It is called the Hinnom Valley, a deep valley just south of the Old City walls of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times, the valley was used as a place for child sacrifices to the god Molech (e.g. Jeremiah 32:35). Later, the Jews were disgusted by this evil and used the place as a dump for city refuse, carcasses and
the bodies of criminals.

Fires burned there continuously to incinerate the waste, and so the place became associated with death, destruction and condemnation. The Greek word for the valley was Gehenna. Gehenna is used 12 times in the New Testament. For example, Jesus said

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to
have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47–48)

The Greek word Gehenna is translated “hell” here.

The NIV and NASB provide a footnote explaining that the original word is Gehenna. Jesus is using Gehenna as a vivid symbol
of condemnation and destruction—a common figure of speech at the time.

Sheol or the grave
Genesis 37:35; Numbers 16:30–33; 1 Samuel 2:6; Psalm 6:5; 16:10; 31:17; 89:48; 139:8; Proverbs 9:18; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Isaiah 38:18.
Hades or the grave
Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27,31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13–14.
Gehenna or hell fire
Matthew 5:22,29–30; 23:15,33; James 3:6.
The wicked will perish:
Psalm 145:20, 37:20; Isaiah 26:13–14; 2 Thessalonians 1:8–9.
Believers will be saved:
Psalm 9:17–18; John 3:16; 11:25; Revelation 1:18.

Why does Jesus compare heaven and hell?

And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades . . . (Matthew 11:23 NASB)

As hades is just the Greek word for grave, then why compare it to heaven? Here Jesus is using the words symbolically:

• Heaven represents life, purity and righteousness.
• Hades represents death, impurity and sin.

This is evident in the NIV translation of the same verse:

And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. (Matthew 11:23 NIV)

Because sin leads to death, the grave is associated with sin— where sinners belong. Romans 5:21; 6:23 This explains why Christ could not be held by hades (Acts 2:24). He did not sin and so the grave or hades could not “hold him”.


• “Hell” refers to the grave or tomb or pit—the dwelling place of the dead. This place is not evil. All people eventually go to the grave/hell.
• The Hebrew word sheol and the Greek word hades both mean “grave” and are sometimes translated “hell” in the Bible.
• Hell fire or Gehenna is a name for the Valley of Hinnom. This valley was the rubbish dump of Jerusalem and had fires burning continuously. It became a symbol of death and condemnation.


1. If a friend says “Go to hell”, how could you use this opportunity to talk to him/her about your faith?
2. Read Matthew 10:28–31. Who is “the one” in verse 28? What does this passage mean?
3. When trying to explain to people what hell is, where would you start? How could you do this without a concordance?
4. Read Luke 16:19–31. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is often used to prove that hell is an evil place.
How would you explain this parable?


1. Re-read Acts 2:22–28 and Psalm 16:8–11. In Psalm 16:10, the word translated grave/hell is the Hebrew word sheol. Does this mean that sheol and hades mean the same thing? Use a concordance to prove/disprove this.
2. Write a half-page summary of the three words translated hell and what they mean. Use a concordance and a Bible dictionary. Can you find a fourth word translated “hell”?


• BB Study 4.9
• Studies in the gospels by Harry Whittaker (published by Biblia). Chapter 139: The rich man and Lazarus. 5 pages.
• Wrested scriptures by Ron Abel (published by The Christadelphians, Pasadena). Pages 131–135 deal with passages about hell that are frequently misinterpreted.


18. Death
24. The Devil and Satan: Old Testament
25. The Devil and Satan: New Testament
43. Resurrection
44. Judgement

 
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