Risen from the Dust
Hell is an absolute reality, but probably the biggest mistake that God-fearing Christians make on the subject, is that they don't recognize there's more than one. In fact, there are two clearly distinguishable hell-like places described in the bible. This false tradition of blending these two different hells together is further perpetuated by the reluctance of translators to use different words for them, even when the difference is clear in the original languages. Therefore, in order to correctly understand biblical hell, we need to look at the different words that are used for it in the bible.
In order to understand the true biblical nature of hell, we have to look at the various terms and hell-like places described in the New Testament. In the New Testament, the words that are translated as hell are the Greek words "Hades" and "Tartarus", and the Hebrew word "Gehenna". Additionally, we are informed about a place known as the "Abyss", and the existence of something called the "Lake of Fire". It is these five terms, and their corresponding descriptions, that have influenced and defined the modern Christian conceptions of hell.
The most commonly used word for hell in the New Testament is the Greek word "Hades". While the writers of the New Testament often used Hades to represent hell, their use of the word should not be perceived as an appeal to Greek mythology. Hades was borrowed from the Greek language for the purpose of being a close approximation to the Hebrew word "Sheol". What the two words have in common is that they both describe a shadowy realm of departed spirits, and because Hades was the Greek word for the underworld, it was adopted as a way of conveying the meaning of Sheol to a Greek speaking audience.
The tradition of translating Sheol as Hades predates the New Testament. Sheol was originally translated as Hades in the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament. Later, the practice was continued by the writers of the New Testament.
The Greek Hades is used throughout the New Testament as a substitute for Sheol. This is confirmed in a number of places, including Peter's sermon in the book of Acts. When Peter quotes and translates Psalm 16.8-11 into Greek, he says, "Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [Hades], neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption" (Acts 2.25-27 KJV bible). Peter translates the word "Sheol" from Psalm 16.8-11 as "Hades", locking in that the two words refer to the same place, (see also 1st Corinthians 15.55). By continuing the Septuagint tradition of translating Sheol as Hades, it's clear that the writers of the New Testament intended for the word "Hades" to be understood as a Greek equivalent to Sheol.
The context and usage of Hades in the New Testament is the same as with Sheol in the Old Testament. Hades has a similar negative connotation, being a place of death and destruction that is associated with the depths of the earth, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell [Hades] shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16.18 KJV bible), "And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell [Hades] (Luke 10.15 KJV bible)". As with Sheol, Hades has a purgatorial quality to it, where individuals bear a burden according to their trangressions in life, "And in hell [Hades] he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom" (Luke 16.23 KJV bible). The Greek Hades has the same meaning as Sheol, being a place of departed spirits, where the wicked are afflicted for their sins.
Besides Hades, there are a number of other New Testament words that have been jumbled together to form the traditional Christian view of hell. This is unfortunate because they aren't all the same place, though they are often all translated as hell. This assumption that these different terms all refer to the same place is responsible for much of the confusion about hell.
For example, we have the word "Gehenna", which refers to something entirely different and much worse than Hades. The term Gehenna is likely derived from the Hebrew "ghay Hinnom" or gorge of Hinnom. "Ghay Hinnom" or Gehenna, is a literal site outside of Jerusalem that was of historical significance in the Old Testament. It was first used as a place where the horrid practice of child sacrifice was carried out. It was later defiled under king Josiah (2nd Kings 23.10), and eventually became a festering garbage dump where all kinds of refuse, including dead bodies, were thrown.
In the New Testament, Gehenna is used by Jesus himself to represent a place of final damnation, "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna]" (Matthew 10.28 KJV bible), "...it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna]" (Matthew 5.29 KJV bible). But even if the word Gehenna is used in addition to Hades in the New Testament, how do we identify it as being something separate or distinct from Hades? Maybe Hades itself is intended as place of final damnation, and Gehenna is simply another incarnation or description of it?
To answer that question we need to look at another hellish place in the New Testament called the Lake of Fire. We learn from Revelation that the Lake of Fire is a smoldering and putrid lake of sulfur that burns continually forever and ever. It is the destination of Satan, his angels, and those individuals who on Judgment Day are found unworthy of eternal life, "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death" (Revelation 21.8 KJV bible). After the second resurrection, even Hades will be cast into this Lake of Fire, "And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Hades] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell [Hades] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death" (Revelation 20.13-14 KJV bible). At the time of the end, the Lake of Fire will destroy everything that does not belong in the eternity, including Hades and death.
From these verses we can conclude that Hades is a separate and distinct location from the Lake of Fire. Otherwise, how could it be emptied of its contents and cast into the Lake of Fire? We can also identify Hades as being the first or current hell, and the Lake of Fire as the second hell. This is because the souls are raised out of Hades to be judged, and then the ones found unworthy of eternal life are cast into the Lake of Fire. So Hades precedes the Lake of Fire both chronologically and in severity. Hades must be the first hell, where many departed souls go when they die, and the Lake of Fire must be the second hell, a place of final judgment and damnation.
But then what about Gehenna? How can we identify Gehenna as being a different place from Hades?, "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell [Gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9.43-44 KJV bible). Notice how Jesus says the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. This implies that Gehenna is an eternal place, and therefore must be a reference to the Lake of Fire, and not the temporary abode of Hades.
Gehenna is also prophetically connected to the Lake of Fire in the book of Isaiah. The Hebrew word "topheth" is sometimes used as a synomym for historical Gehenna in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 7.31, 19.6). Isaiah depicts this Topheth as a place of fire and brimstone, where the future judgment of God is carried out, "For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it" (Isaiah 30.33 KJV bible), (see also Isaiah 66.24). Topheth is another word for Gehenna, and here it is described as a future place of fire and brimstone, similar to the Lake of Fire. So we can conclude that just as Hades is equivalent to Sheol, Gehenna is equivalent to the Lake of Fire. So Hades (aka Sheol) is the first or current hell, where many departed souls go when they die, and Gehenna (aka the Lake of Fire) is the second hell, a place of eternal damnation, (see also ch.30 Eternal Torment).
Tartarus is another incarnation of hell in the New Testament, and it only appears once in the scripture, "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [Tartarus], and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment" (2nd Peter 2.4 KJV bible), (see Jude 6 as a parallel verse). The Greeks believed Tartarus to be the deepest and most awful level of Hades, often a place of imprisonment. Peter's usage of the word conveys to us a sense of banishment, imprisonment, and complete separation from God's mercy. Thus, Peter most likely employs the Greek word "Tartarus" to refer to the deepest levels, or dungeons, of biblical Hades.
Lastly, from the book of Revelation we learn about the existence of a bottomless pit, or abyss. Specifically we are told that this abyss is restraining a demonic army that in the future will be unleashed to prey upon mankind. We are also told that during the millennium Satan himself will be locked away within it, "And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, And cast him into the bottomless pit (Abyss), and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled" (Revelation 20.2-3 KJV bible). The Abyss' association with containment and imprisonment is similar to Tartarus, and so the two locations could be one and the same. At the very least we know that the Abyss is another deep sub-level of Hades, destined for destruction in Gehenna.
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