The four hells.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 October 2021

C.S. Lewis famously wrote a book called The Four Loves, about four of the five Greek words which tend to be translated “love.” Two, ἀγάπη/agápi and φίλος/fílos, are in the New Testament; two, ἔρος/éros and στοργή/storyí, are in the Septuagint; and Lewis skipped ξενία/xenía, which is also in the Septuagint. Lewis wanted to highlight the first four, talk about the slight differences in meaning, and riff on them about how people love in different ways.

People hear of this book and assume, “Wow, Greek is so precise and exact. It’s got four different words for love!” Yeah but so do we. These five words can just as easily be translated charity, friendship, romance, affection, and courtesy. Check out any thesaurus and you’ll find we have way more than five words for love. English is just as precise as we want it be.

I say this by way of introduction: There are three ancient Greek words we tend to translate “hell.” Problem is, same as with love, translators don’t always bother to distinguish between them. Some bibles do, and good on ’em. But whether our bible translations do or don’t, it’s important Christians know there’s a difference, lest we continue to misinform people about what hell is, and who goes there.

I said three words, right? Why’d I title this piece “The four hells”? Well first I gotta deal with popular culture’s wildly inaccurate idea of hell.

1. Pop culture hell.

Christians don’t always know pop culture hell isn’t actually hell. Frequently that’s because we’ve never investigated what hell actually is… and then get misled by some other Christian with a horribly wrong idea, like fr’instance Jack T. Chick.

So I gotta explain pop culture hell—with its caves of fire, red devils with pitchforks, and ironic forms of torture—is not hell. It comes from a mishmash of Christian mythology and pagan mythology. Because Christians don’t read our bibles and learn what little it has to tell us about hell—often because we deliberately avoid those passages, ’cause we’re afraid of hell—we insert the pop-culture ideas where they don’t belong.

Christian mythology about hell mostly comes from Inferno and Paradise Lost. Those novels in turn borrow a boatload of ideas from Norse and Greco-Roman mythology. And Christians will further mix ’em together with images from popular novels, movies, and TV. Say you’re a big fan of Adam Sandler’s stupid movie Little Nicky, or the Netflix series Lucifer (based on the comic book, where Satan leaves hell and opens a piano bar). I guarantee you some of those shows’ wacky ideas are gonna unconsciously leak into your ideas about Satan and hell. Or worse—from the demented fears of dark Christians. Again, Jack T. Chick.

But the mythology doesn’t come from the scriptures, nor Jewish history. (And Jewish history you gotta take with a grain of salt.)

If ancient pagan religions didn’t believe in reincarnation, they usually believed in an underworld. It wasn’t necessarily underground, in caves; that’s a Greek idea. It could be on another world, like the Norse believed, or the far side of our world, like the Egyptians believed. When you died, you went to that place, and if you were deemed good you’d have a pleasant afterlife… and if not, a lousy afterlife. Or the gods might torture you forever (at least till Herakles rescued you). Or snuff you out.

The Norse afterlife was called Hel, which was either its own world, or a kingdom on the world Niflheim, ruled by Loki’s daughter Hel. (She got changed into Hela, daughter of Odin, in Thor: Ragnarok.) Hel is where the Norse believed people go after they die of old age or disease. It wasn’t torment… but those who died in glorious battle got to go hang out in the best afterlife, with Odin in Valhalla or Freyja in Folkvangr. Hel, in comparison, was gloomy and creepy.

Hel became the English word for the afterlife, and initially we Christians used it to refer to the afterlife in general. Over time, we came to think of it only as the bad afterlife.

2. Ge-Henna.

Yeah, that’s probably the most accurate way to spell it. Most people prefer “Gehenna,” capitalized or not.

The term Jesus used was the Aramaic הִנּם גַּיְא/gai Hinnóm, “Hinnom ravine.” In the Old Testament it was called the הִנּם בֶן גַּיְא/gai ben Hinnóm, “Hinnom’s son’s ravine.” 2Ch 28.3, Jr 7.31 Today it’s called the wadi er-Rababi, “Rababi ravine.” And in the New Testament it got converted into the Greek word γέεννα/ghéhenna.

It’s a ravine just south of Jerusalem, likely named for one of the inhabitants of Yevús (as Jerusalem was called before David conquered it). It marked the boundary line between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Js 15.8 The city’s “dung gate” opened to it, and the “tile gate” Jr 19.2 was either near it or the same gate. The names of the gates should tip you off: Jerusalem’s inhabitants threw their dung and broken tiles into it. Their trash. It was Jerusalem’s landfill.

We don’t know whether ge-Henna was always a landfill. We do know in the 600s and early 500s BC, it was the location of a “killing place” set up to Molékh, or Milkhom, one of Ammon’s gods. Molékh was into human sacrifice. Specifically children. So King Josiah ben Manasseh defiled it, 2Ki 23.10 though whether he defiled it by turning it into a landfill, we don’t know. The details are lost to history.

To keep the pile of trash from growing impossibly large, the Jerusalemites were almost constantly burning trash. It was stinky, and it was hot. Hence Pharisees began to consider ge-Henna a perfect euphemism for the bad afterlife. They believed God was gonna resurrect the righteous, but everyone else was destined for ge-Henna—a dry riverbed of flame and sulfurous feces, where the fires were constantly smoldering, because there was no reason to put them out.

And y’know, a pool of fire and sulfur which burns forever and ever, located just outside New Jerusalem, sounds exactly like ge-Henna outside old Jerusalem. Whatever hell looks like, it likely resembles ge-Henna.

But is that what Jesus meant by ge-Henna?—that people who get tossed there, are going to hell? Or did he merely mean they were gonna be considered the same sort of rubbish you’d throw into ge-Henna—excluded from Christian society, unfit for humanity, left on the ash heap of history?

Well, in this passage it really does look like he’s talking about the second death. Rv 20.13-15

Matthew 18.8-9 KJV
8 Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. 9 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

Kinda gets rid of a lot of the ambiguity right there.

3. Ŝeol or Hades.

The KJV regularly used “hell” to translate the Old Testament word שְׁאוֹל/šeol, “grave.” By šeol, the Hebrews often meant a literal grave, a hole in the ground where you put corpses. But as poets, they often also meant the realm of the dead, the ghosts of everyone who’s dead and gone, waiting to receive you when you die too. Is 14.9 ’Cause everybody dies, and since God hadn’t yet told ’em otherwise, they assumed all the dead went to the same place.

When the Pharisees translated the Old Testament into Greek, they used the word ἅ́δης/ádis, “hades,” the Greek realm of the dead, for sheol. It’s all the same thing, right?

Well… there’s all the baggage of Greek mythology attached to the word hades. Like their god Hades, the myths about him, the myths about the people who went to the underground caverns of Cumae in Greece (seriously, hades had a physical location on the map!) to visit Hades and talk him into letting ’em take the dead back to the land of the living. Maybe the Pharisees knew of it but didn’t care. Regardless, sheol became hades… and the KJV translated both words as “hell.”

The problem? Hades isn’t hell. If by “hell” you’re thinking the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and its angels, Mt 25.41 death and hades actually get thrown into it. Ro 20.11 There will be no more need for a realm of the dead.

So what’s hades? The afterlife. Where the dead await resurrection, some to eternal life, some not. Da 12.2 In Jesus’s Dives and Lazarus Story, he described it thus.

Luke 16.22-31 KJV
22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; 23 and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. 25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. 26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

Jesus’s story jibes with Pharisee mythology, which divided hades into a place of rest and a place of torment. And this story is pretty much our only description of sheol/hades. The rest of our info comes from hints. We know God, who’s everywhere, is just as much there as anywhere. Ps 139.8 We know Jesus has keys to it. Rv 1.18 We know Jesus went there, but didn’t stay. Ac 2.27, 31 We know its gates can’t hold back the church, Mt 16.18 provided we actually storm those gates instead of passively standing outside them.

Anyway, when the Apostles Creed describes Jesus as having “descended into hell,” that’s what it means. Not that he went there to give Satan notice of a new change in dispensations—as if Satan reigns over the underworld like Hel or Hades. Nor even that he went to free the Old Testament saints from the afterlife and take ’em to heaven with him, a popular Christian myth that’s not anywhere in the bible. He simply katelthónta eis ta katótata/“went down to the lower [parts],” i.e. the grave. Ep 4.9, Ps 63.9 Same as everyone who dies.

However, Christians hate the idea that when we die, we won’t be standing directly in God’s physical presence, nor giving Jesus a big weepy hug. So we’ve invented various myths which teach otherwise. I’ll discuss them at another time.

4. Tartarus.

The one other “hell” we find in the bible is at 2 Peter 2.4, and is the Greek word ταρταρώσας/tartarósas, “thrown into Tartarus.” Simon Peter used it to describe when rebellious angels were thrown into the ἀβύσσος/ávyssos, “abyss” (KJV “bottomless pit”), an angelic prison supervised by the angel Avaddón. Rv 9.11 It’s where evil spirits begged Jesus not to send them, Lk 8.31 and where God’s gonna eventually stick the devil for 10 centuries. Rv 20.3

The word Tartarus also comes from Greek mythology. Originally it was a dungeon for the gods. Later myths turned it into a place where the gods sent all sorts of evildoers, and for fun assigned them ironic punishments. Dante Alleghiri borrowed that idea to describe hell in Inferno, and it’s since leaked into popular culture.

Pretty sure Peter wasn’t trying to claim Tartarus was a real place. Just borrowing an interesting word to describe God sentencing angels to the abyss. Since angels don’t die, they can’t really go to any afterlife, good or bad. But in the end, if they don’t repent (and plenty of Christians actually believe God doesn’t do grace when it comes to angels, so they never get such an option), they too are going to hell.

What I mean by “hell.”

Though there are four ideas attached to the word “hell,” lemme sort out for you which of them I mean when I use that word: That’d be the second one, ge-Henna.

Ŝeol and Hades is the afterlife. When Jesus “descended into hell,” as the Apostles Creed puts it, it means he went to the afterlife, same as every dead human does. Just because he’s also God doesn’t mean he got to skip out on this universal human experience. But though the afterlife is what the ancients and medievals meant by hell, I don’t care to use “hell” to describe it.

As for Tartarus, that’s the abyss where fallen angels are sent. It’s not a place we humans are ever gonna go anyway.

Pop culture hell is ridiculous. But sometimes I’m trying to be ridiculous too: “You do that, and Satan’s gonna use you as a Fleshlight in hell.” Context, folks.

Otherwise, whenever I refer to hell, I mean the burning lake of sulfur that’s used as the second death. I mean what Jesus alluded to with “ge-Henna.” And what the apostle John described thisaway:

Revelation 20.10-15 KJV
10 And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. 14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

This is the final punishment for humans and angels who want nothing to do with God, who won’t turn to him and be forgiven. Which means they suffer the consequences of their sins and evil deeds. They go into fire.

That’s hell, despite the King James Version’s various mistranslations, and Christians’ various misinterpretations.