A hellish confusion

hellOne of the most misunderstood words and concepts in the Bible is that of Hell. This is mainly because the original text uses several different words for two different places and yet the KJV uses only one: Hell. This has resulted in a bit of hellish confusion!

This is compounded in literature by books such as Dantes Inferno which although fiction, have influenced societies perception of what a possible Hell looks like. More modern books, such as ’23 minutes in Hell’   purport to tell of the author’s experiences as a christian taken to Hell and  tormented by demonic creatures as fact. The problem is – I don’t believe that these experiences match the truth of scripture at all!

The Lake of Fire

Anyway, let me explain it simply if I can. Firstly, the Bible describes the final destination and punishment of the lost as a terrible place of destruction called the Lake of Fire which the Bible also tells us was not created for humans but the devil and his angels:

Matthew 25:41 “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:”

Nobody therefore is in the Lake of Fire at the moment. It awaits the final judgement of the Great White Throne in Revelation 20 before which the unsaved dead will stand and be judged.

Sadly, anyone not found in the Book of Life are cast into the Lake of Fire. This is described as the second death – the end of the road!

Revelation 20:15 “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”


Jesus describes this terrible place of final destruction but uses another word translated as Hell: Gehenna.

Matthew 10:28 “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 (Gehena)”

The Jews listening to Jesus, would have understood Gehenna to be a graphic reference to the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem. Only Jesus and James use this word: Jesus 12 times and James once.

James 3:6 “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.(gehena)

Hades and Sheol

Of course there is another word translated Hell and this is Hades which is what the Greeks understood as the place of the dead or the grave. This word is used a total of 11 times in the New Testament and interestingly enough, the Apostle Paul who wrote most of the New Testament, only mentions it once in his writings:

1 Corinthians 15 “ O death, where is thy sting? O grave (Hades) where is thy victory?”  

Similarly, in the Old Testament Hades the place of the dead is called Sheol and this is also translated by the KJV as Hell.

Hades therefore is the temporary abode of the souls of the dead and one day it will cease to exist. How do we know? Because both Death and Hades are cast in the Lake of Fire.

Revelation 20:14 “And death and hell (Hades) were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”

In the teachings of Jesus like Paul, he only uses the word for Hades once: in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16).  If this parable is meant to be taken literally, and there is some doubt to this, the man is already suffering conscious torment in the grave. Could it be that some of the wicked are already being punished in some way? To be honest, I don’t know!

I mean, does this scripture suggest the ungodly suffer punishment now?

2 Peter 2:8 “Then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgement”

Does the devil rule Hell?

A myth perpetuated by unbiblical descriptions of Hell, is that in Hell or Hades the devil rules and that demons torment people depending on their level of sin. The Bible says that the devil is not the prince of Hell; he is the prince and power of the air.

Ephesians 2:2 “Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:”

As an aside, maybe the so-called UFO’s seen in the sky by some are actually demonic manifestations? The fact is, there is nothing to indicate in the Bible that demons torture people in Hades.

There is some evidence however, that there are wicked spirits or angel  bound in Tartarus (the deepest abyss of hell or Hades) at the present moment.

2 Peter 2:4 “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;”

Jude 1:6 “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.”

Jesus, when he died descended into Hades down to its lowest depths to proclaim his victory to these fallen spirits or angels.

Acts 2:31 “He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption” 

Ephesians 4:19 (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?

1 Peter 3:19 “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;”

What happens after death?

So, do we know happens after death? Do the lost go to Hell (Hades) and the believers to Heaven? This isn’t easy to know. Jesus promised the thief on the cross that he would be with him that day in paradise (which sounds like Heaven) and yet of course that very day Jesus descended into Hell (Hades) as we have said.

Importantly though, the New Testament  in several key scriptures, speaks of the dead in Christ as sleeping:

1 Corinthians 15:51 “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed”.

The hope of the believer therefore, is resurrection or remaining alive until the coming of the Lord and receiving immortality – eternal life.

For the unbeliever however, all that awaits is wrath and judgment.

Revelation 20:13 “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.”

Hopefully then, this article although maybe not providing all the answers, has cleared up some of the confusion. Just to recap:

The lake of fire or Gehenna is the place of final punishment and destruction and is at this present time empty.

Hades, the grave or Sheol is where unbelievers are held at the moment for judgement day.

Further reading:

Paul Ellis on hell

Lecture on hell – Edward Fudge (Video)

Let’s talk about Hell

Is the devil in charge of hell

Download my Kindle books on Amazon:

Christ the End of Law
Christ in you the hope of glory
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