Hell by Meghan Henning

Today when we talk about hell we usually think in terms of modern science. We ask if hell it is a real place. Even when a person like Rob Bell tries to think about how hell works within a religious system, religious leaders criticize him for not asserting the scientific existence of hell. But this scientific way of thinking about hell is relatively new. For most of history, religious thinkers have taken for granted that an afterlife existed. When the books of the New Testament were written, for instance, the authors were not primarily concerned with whether Gehenna, Hades, or Tartarus were “real” places. Instead, they were using these words to get the attention of their audience or to debate about who was in these spaces and why they were there.

Is there a hell in the Bible?

This would seem like a simple question. The Bible either talks about hell, or it doesn’t. If we simply want to know whether words like “Hades” get used in the Bible, then the answer is yes. But if we approach the Bible the way that someone in the ancient world might have, then the question is not just about whether the words appear. It’s about the way that each author uses these words.

In the Hebrew Bible we find the words Sheol, the Pit, Abaddon, and Gehenna, sometimes with overlapping meanings. Sheol, the Pit, and Abaddon can all be used to talk about a space that holds all of the dead, both the righteous and unrighteous (see, for instance, Gen 37:35; 1Sam 2:6; Isa 28:15). They are dusty, dark, and undesirable spaces to go, but there is not any kind of torment for the dead there.

Gehenna is used hardly at all in the Hebrew Bible, and it is used to talk about an actual space, the Valley of Hinnom, not a place where everyone went after they died. This place was a site of idolatrous worship and the site of child sacrifice to Molech and Baal (Jer 7:31, Jer 19:4-5; Jer 32:35; 2Kgs 16:3; 2Kgs 21:6; 2Chr 28:32Chr 33:6). In some of the apocalyptic books that were written between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, like 1 Enoch, Gehenna started to become associated with fire, judgment, and punishment. This means that by the time someone like Mark or Matthew sat down to write his gospel, people were already thinking about Gehenna as a fiery place of punishment. Although it was later suggested that this valley was also the site of a burning trash heap, there is no conclusive literary or archeological evidence for this hypothesis.

In the most detailed picture of eternal punishment in the New Testament (Luke 16:19-31), Hades becomes a way to talk about the importance of caring for those who are poor, wounded, or marginalized. In fact, in the places in the New Testament where Jesus is talking about eternal punishment, words that we would read as “hell” are often used to talk about the serious consequences for not caring for the social outcast or minority (Mark 9:42-48; Matt 5:22-30; Matt 18:8-9; Matt 25:30-46; Luke 16:19-31).

Do the book of Revelation or the letters of Paul say that non-Christians are going to hell?

But isn’t hell the place for those who haven’t professed their Christian faith? That depends on who you ask. In later Christian literature this definitely becomes a focus of hell. Hell is used in some New Testament texts to label people or groups as “outsiders” (Rev 19:19-21; Rev 20:7-15). But even in those texts, hell is not primarily mentioned to distinguish between correct and incorrect belief.

For instance, in the book of Revelation it is actually incorrect behavior that is associated with hell or eternal torment. In Rev 19:19-21 the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire because they have led others astray. And those who are released from Hades and thrown into the lake of fire in Rev 20:12-15 are judged “according to their works,” not based upon what they believed.

In Paul’s letters there is no explicit mention of eternal punishment or hell. Paul does talk about the coming day of judgment and wrath (1Thess 1:9-10; Rom 2:5, Rom 5:9; 2Cor 5:10). But here, Paul does not talk about a space of eternal punishment, but instead warns of the consequences for sin, reminding people that “you reap whatever you sow” (Gal 6:7).

Meghan Henning, "Hell", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online:


Meghan Henning

Meghan Henning
Assistant Professor, University of Dayton

Meghan Henning is the Assistant Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Dayton. She is the author of Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell: ‘Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth’ as Paideia in Matthew and the Early Church (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 

The authors of biblical texts did not conceptualize “hell” in the same way that modern individuals do.

Did you know?

  • Although the Septuagint (LXX), or Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates the word “Sheol” as “Hades,” Sheol was used in a lot of different contexts in the Hebrew Bible. Sheol could be used to talk about a shadowy existence after death, to talk about death itself, or poetically as a negative way to talk about death.
  • While Gehenna did refer to a real valley, the idea that it was a trash heap during the time of Jesus cannot be proven and seems to have arisen in the medieval period.
  • The idea of a bifurcated afterlife (heaven above, hell below) is an early Christian invention. This idea is not present in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Judaism was developing similar ideas about the afterlife at roughly the same time as Christians.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

an American author and evangelical pastor

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A biblical name indicating a god associated with child sacrifice.

Gen 37:35

35All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus h ... View more

1Sam 2:6

6The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

Isa 28:15

15Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
it will not come ... View more

Jer 7:31

31And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did ... View more

Jer 19:4-5

4Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings o ... View more

Jer 32:35

35They built the high places of Baal in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did ... View more

2Kgs 16:3

3but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord dro ... View more

2Kgs 21:6

6He made his son pass through fire; he practiced soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, pro ... View more

2Chr 28:3

3and he made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lo ... View more

2Chr 33:6

6He made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He ... View more

Luke 16:19-31

The Rich Man and Lazarus
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.20And at his gate lay a poor man ... View more

Mark 9:42-48

Temptations to Sin
42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone wer ... View more

Matt 5:22-30

22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to ... View more

Matt 18:8-9

8“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two ... View more

Matt 25:30-46

30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’The Judgment of the Nations
31“When the Son ... View more

Luke 16:19-31

The Rich Man and Lazarus
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.20And at his gate lay a poor man ... View more

Rev 19:19-21

19Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army.20And the beast was ... View more

Rev 20:7-15

Satan's Doom
7When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison8and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the eart ... View more

Rev 19:19-21

19Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army.20And the beast was ... View more

Rev 20:12-15

12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judg ... View more

1Thess 1:9-10

9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,10a ... View more

Rom 2:5

5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.

Rom 5:9

9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.

2Cor 5:10

10For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

Gal 6:7

7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Shorthand title for the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures fabled to have been completed by 70 translators (LXX is 70 rendered in roman numerals).

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

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