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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 28:3; 2Chr 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

    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,