Thursday, October 26, 2023

What is the Meaning of the Word Hell?

By Gerald Cowan
    First, HADES is not hell; heaven and hell are not included in hades. Hades means literally the unseen. It is the immediate condition of the spirit when separated from the body at death, unseen and unseeable for living persons still in the body. Hades accommodates both saved and unsaved, righteous and unrighteous: paradise and blessing (but not heaven) for the saved who died in the faith; torment and punishment (but not hell) for all others. Heaven is the certain irrevocable final destiny for the righteous after hades. Hell is the certain irrevocable final  destiny for the unrighteous after Hades. 
    The English word hell, an ambiguous, non-specific, inaccurate and incorrect term used to translate Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus in both Old and New Testaments of the Bible. We have emphasized before that death is the final separation of the soul-spirit from the body.  The dead body is of no use after death – the physical body will not be resurrected but replaced by a spiritual one (1 Corinthians 15:35-38). Hades is  the condition of the soul-spirit, separated from the body. The body, subject to decay and dissolution, is reabsorbed into the common elements of the earth but the soul-spirit is invisible, unseeable to the eyes of those still alive in the body. Soul-spirits in Hades are segregated and compartmentalized according to the relationship to God:  (1) those saved, righteous, and destined to be in heaven eventually,  (2)  those unsaved, unrighteous, and destined to be in hell eventually.  Hades is temporary; heaven and hell are permanent and eternal – and unchangeable.  Paradise (Abraham’s bosom, fellowship of Christ) contains all the saved; Tartarus (torment) contains all the unsaved (there is no purgatory, no limbo or neutral condition for those with undetermined destiny). The eternal destiny for everyone is set irrevocably at death.  Prayers, service, gifts, promises, or quid pro quo trades, in behalf of the dead are not possible.  God will not negotiate any point about the condition or destiny of the dead whether good or bad.
    What about Gehenna (GEÉNNA), how is it related to hell? There was and is a geographical location called GAIA-BEN-HINNOM (the valley of the son of Hinnom) mentioned frequently in the Old Testament scriptures. It became a place devoted to the pagan god Molech where children were burned as a sacrifice in worship and petition to the idol god.  The name was shortened to GE-HINNOM and transliterated into Greek as GEÉNNA, Gehenna. The place and the practice of child-burning was ended under the reforms of King Josiah (2 Kings 23:10-14). It later served as a garbage dump and cesspool for Jerusalem, not only usual trash and excrement but also dead animals and carcasses of dead criminals to be consumed by a fire kept burning perpetually with sulphur/brimstone. Gehenna meshes perfectly with everything else God’s Word says about the fire of final judgment. John the Baptist warned that Jesus “will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12b). Jesus Himself warned often of the “furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:42), the “eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8), the “unquenchable fire” (Mk. 9:43), and the “fiery Hell” (Matt. 5:22). He likened that fire to Gehenna, where “their worm does not die, the fire is not quenched and never goes out. It was a place especially hated by God because of the people’s evil sinfulness that they practiced there. In His wrath, God promised that Tophet, or the Valley of Hinnom, would be renamed the Valley of Groaning and Slaughter because people would consume their dead in it until there was no further space (Jeremiah 7:31-32 KJV). Eventually, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the Jews began referring to Gehenna as a place where sins are punished.
    When Jesus spoke about hell, he usually used the word Gehenna. For example, when talking to people about avoiding sin, he tells them: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it away from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [Gehenna]. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish than for your whole body to be cast into hell [Gehenna]” (Matthew 5:29-30 NKJV). Jesus also uses Gehenna to refer to the final place of punishment, as seen in Matthew 10:28. Do not fear those who might persecute and kill the body yet have no power over the soul, but rather fear Him (God) who can destroy both body and soul in hell [Gehenna].  In Matthew 25:46 Jesus, speaking to his disciples, helps them understand that the unrighteous would go to a place of great suffering while the righteous would go to an everlasting home where they will enjoy eternal life in joy and happiness. In Revelation 21:8 Jesus speaks to the apostle John in a vision and says that all wrongdoers will end up in the lake of fire from which there will be  no escape.
    Why would Jesus Use Gehenna to let the People know of the Horrors of Hell?  Gehenna is not hell but is a metaphor of hell. Jesus used Gehenna to strengthen His arguments about hell. The constant never-extinguished (unquenchable?) fire of the garbage dump of Gehenna is a sign and symbol of unquenchable fire of hell. Molech can stand as a symbol for Satan. The unquenched fire that used to burn in Gehenna while infants were sacrificed was like no other. Hell is a place where the fire burns and will not cease (Matthew 13:50, Matthew 25:41, and Mark 9:48). No doubt Jesus wanted people to know of hell’s horrors and the importance of living a life holy to God to escape it. The Lord’s message would strike terror and dread into his audience who knew Gehenna’s history and symbolism and the many sacrifices by fire done there. Gehenna-like hell represented a place of torment where the fire would continue burning and where there would be no mercy and no comfort given to the lost who entered that condition. Not only will those in hell be unable to save or protect themselves but nobody else on earth or in the spirit world be able to help either. 
    We repeat: between Hades and Gehenna there is no alternative and no hope – no purgatory, no limbo, no exit and no end. Over the entrance to Inferno/Hellfire in Dante’s monumental but misleading poem are the words Abandon hope, all you who enter here. Dante separates hell into many rings or layers, a downward spiral of ever-increasing horror. Much of what certain religions teach and what many bemused and befuddled religious people think about heaven and heel and what lies between them is learned from Dante, not the Word of God.

- Gerald Cowan, a longtime preacher and missionary, is retired from full-time pulpit preaching. Gerald publishes an e-mail newsletter entitled GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICAL WRITINGS. He is available for Gospel Meetings and he may be contacted at

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