The four hells.

By which I mean the various words translated “hell,” and how only one of ’em is really hell.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote a book called The Four Loves. Not that there are four loves; actually there are more like eight. But there are five words in ancient Greek which tend to be translated “love.” (Two of ’em in the New Testament: Agápi and fílos. The others are found in the Septuagint: Éros in its verb-form eráo, and the nouns storgí and xénios.) Lewis wanted to highlight four of ’em and talk about how people love in these four different ways.

People read, or hear of, The Four Loves and assume, “Wow, Greek is so precise and exact. It’s got four different words for love!” No; it’s the fact translators aren’t precise and exact. Those words can just as easily be translated affection (storgí), friendship (filós), romance (éros), and charity (agápi). Check out any thesaurus and you’ll find we have way more than four words for “love.” English can be just as precise as Greek when English-speakers wanna be.

Today I’m pointing out there are three words in ancient Greek which tend to be translated “hell.” The problem, same as with love, is translators didn’t bother to distinguish between ’em. Some bibles do, and good on them. But whether 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 of all there’s a fourth word; a Hebrew word which is equivalent to one of the Greek words. Four words, but still three hells. What’s the fourth hell? Popular culture’s idea of hell.

1. Pop culture hell.

Christians regularly need to explain pop culture hell—with the caves of fire, devils with pointed sticks, and ironic forms of torture—is not hell. It comes from Christian mythology. And sometimes Christians don’t read their bibles and learn about hell—and sometimes we won’t, ’cause it’s scary!—so we insert the pop-culture ideas where they don’t belong.

Christian mythology about hell mostly comes from Inferno and Paradise Lost. Those novels borrow a boatload of ideas from Norse and Greco-Roman mythology. Often people mix ’em together with images from other novels, movies, and TV. If you’re a big fan of Little Nicky, I guarantee you some of your ideas about hell are gonna unconsciously come from there. Or worse—from the demented fears of dark Christians.

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. This wasn’t necessarily underground; that’s a Greek idea. Could be on another world, like the Norse believed. Could be on the far side of our world, like the Egyptians believed. When you died, that’s where you went as an afterlife. For good people it was usually a pleasant afterlife; for bad people it was either a lousy afterlife, or the gods would simply snuff you out. And if you particularly pissed off the gods, maybe they’d torture you a few thousand years. Or forever. (Or until Herakles rescued you.)

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 went after they died of old age or disease. It wasn’t torment… but those who died in battle got to go hang out in the good afterlife, with Odin in Valhalla or Freyja in Folkvangr. Hel, in comparison, was gloomy and creepy.

Hel became our word for the afterlife. English-speaking Christians began to use it to describe the afterlife… and over time, the bad afterlife alone.

2. Ge-Henna.

Yeah, that’s probably the most accurate way to spell it. Most people prefer “Gehenna,” capitalized or not. Comes from the term Jesus tended to use, the Aramaic gai Hinnóm/“Hinnom ravine,” which is often called gai Ben-Hinnóm/“Hinnom’s son’s ravine” in the Old Testament. 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 gé’enna/“ge-Henna.”

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 šahár ha-gašpót/“dung gate” opened to it, and the šahár ha-kharsút/“[broken] 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 tofét/“killing place” set up to Molékh, or Milkhom, one of Ammon’s gods. (Its name’s a cognate of melekh/“king,” implying it was the king of their 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 KWL
8 “If your hand or foot trips you up, cut it off and throw it from you.
Which is better for you? To enter life crippled or limping?
Or having two hands or two feet—to be thrown into the fire of the age to come?
9 If your eye trips you up, gouge it out and throw it from you.
Which is better for you? To enter life one-eyed?
Or having two eyes—to be thrown into the fire of ge-Henna?”

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

3. Sheol or Hades.

The KJV regularly used “hell” to translate the Old Testament word šeol/“sheol,” or “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 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 story of Lazarus and the rich man, he described it thus.

Luke 16.19-31 KWL
19 “A certain person was wealthy, dressed in purple and fine linen, every day just brilliant.
20 A certain poor person named Lazarus, covered in whip-marks, was thrown at his gate.
21 Lazarus wanted to eat what fell from the wealthy man’s table,
but only the dogs emerged; they licked his wounds.
22 Poor Lazarus died, and was carried off by the angels to Abraham’s fold.
The wealthy man died, was buried… 23 and lifting his eyes in hades, his torture beginning,
he saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his fold.
24 He shouted to him, ‘Father Abraham! Have mercy on me!
Send Lazarus, so he can dip his fingertip in water and cool my tongue.
I’m tortured by this fire!’
25 Abraham said, ‘Child, remember: You received your good in your lifetime. Lazarus, likewise, evil.
Now here, he receives comfort, and you, torture.
26 In any case, there’s a vast chasm fixed between us and you:
Those who want to cross over there to any of you, can’t. Nor can any of you cross over here to us.’
27 The wealthy man said, ‘Then I ask you this, Father.
Send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so he can testify about this,
so they won’t also come to this place of torture.’
29 Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. Listen to them.’
30 The wealthy man said, ‘No, Father Abraham!
When someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’
31 Abraham told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets,
they won’t be persuaded even when someone rises from the dead.’”

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 tartarósas/“thrown into Tartarus.” Simon Peter used it to describe when rebellious angels were thrown into the ávyssos/“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.”

So 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.

Sheol and Hades is simply the afterlife. Tartarus is the abyss, the pit, and not a place we humans are ever gonna go anyway. Pop culture hell is ridiculous, and I may mean that when I’m trying to be ridiculous too: “You do that, and Satan’s gonna use you as a Fleshlight in hell.” But when 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 KWL
10 The devil, their deceiver, was thrown into the pool of fire and sulfur, where the Beast and fake prophet are.
They’ll be tortured there, day and night, age to ages.
11 I saw a great white throne, and the one seated on it:
Earth and heaven fled from his face—and there’s no place for them to go.
12 I saw the dead, the great and small, standing before the throne.
Scrolls were opened. Another scroll was opened, which is Life.
The dead were judged by the writings in the scrolls, and their works.
13 The sea gave up the dead in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead in them.
Each person was judged by their works.
14 Death and Hades were thrown into the fiery lake. (The second death is the fiery lake.)
15 If anyone’s not found written in the Life scroll, they’re thrown into the fiery lake.

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.