The topic of hell is one that often comes up when discussing Christianity and the afterlife. What exactly does the Bible say about hell? Does it even exist? In this approximately 9,000 word article, we will dive into these questions and lay out what the Bible has to say about hell.
To start, it’s important to understand that there are a few different words in the original Hebrew and Greek that are sometimes translated as “hell” in English translations of the Bible. The Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew, uses the word “sheol” to refer to the place of the dead. In the New Testament, written in Greek, the words “hades,” “gehenna,” and “tartarus” are all translated as “hell” in some English Bible versions.
Sheol in the Old Testament refers to the place of the dead, both the righteous and the unrighteous. It is sometimes translated as “the grave” or “the pit.” Sheol was not seen as a place of punishment, but rather the destination for all souls after death, a shadowy existence removed from the land of the living.
Hades is the Greek equivalent of sheol and also refers to the place of the dead. Like sheol, hades is not presented as a place of torment. It is simply the abode of the deceased, the underworld.
Gehenna, on the other hand, carries more overtly negative connotations. The word refers literally to the Valley of Hinnom located just outside Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, this valley was seen as accursed and associated with idol worship. Garbage was dumped and burned there. The flames and stench gave rise to the idea that Gehenna could be a metaphor for a place of purification and punishment after death. When Jesus speaks about being thrown into “hell,” the word used is often gehenna.
Finally, tartarus appears only once in the Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4. It refers to a prison-like abyss where rebellious angels are bound and held for judgment.
So when we talk about “hell” in the Bible, we are really talking about a few different terms and ideas. With that background in mind, let’s look at some key biblical teachings about the afterlife and judgment.
First, the Bible affirms that there is an afterlife. Human beings have an immortal soul or spirit that lives on after the death of the body. The ancient Hebrews believed that deceased souls went to sheol, while Greek thinking proposed hades as the realm of the dead. Jesus’ teachings assume an afterlife existence as well, using imagery like that of gehenna to warn about postmortem judgment.
While the exact nature of the afterlife is not spelled out fully, the Bible clearly teaches that there are consequences after death based on how one lived one’s earthly life. Some form of judgment and separation between the righteous and the unrighteous is described, though opinions vary on the literal versus symbolic meaning of these teachings.
Jesus’ strongest statements about hell come from the Gospels. He warns listeners against sin and unbelief by mentioning being thrown into gehenna or hell (Matthew 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33). He tells parables using imagery of punishment like outer darkness, furnaces, and flame (Matthew 13:40-42; 25:41). Overall, Jesus presents hell as a disastrous consequence and outcome to avoid, urging people to repent.
The Apostle Paul adds to the idea of judgment after death, teaching that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). The fate of the wicked is destruction, exclusion from God’s presence, punishment, and torment. But nowhere does Paul mention “hell” specifically.
When Revelation describes visions of the end times, it speaks of a lake of fire where the devil, beast, and false prophet are thrown (Revelation 20:10). Death and Hades are also thrown into the lake of fire in the final judgment (Revelation 20:14). Whether this lake of fire is symbolic of complete destruction and separation from God or a literal place of eternal torment is debated.
In general, the Bible seems to teach that there are ongoing consequences after death that are related to a person’s moral and spiritual state when alive. Traditionally, many Christians have understood passages about judgment and fire to mean that those who reject God suffer eternally in a place called hell. At the same time, there are also interpretations of these passages as metaphors for separation from God or complete destruction of body and soul. Views differ within Christianity on whether hell involves literal fire, whether it is eternal, and whether it is an absolute choice (no postmortem chances for redemption).
Looking specifically at whether hell exists, the Bible clearly assumes an afterlife that involves some form of judgment and differing outcomes for the righteous and the wicked. Differing terms like sheol, hades, gehenna, the lake of fire, or tartarus point to dimensions of the afterlife that are not identical for all. However, the Bible does not contain elaborate descriptions of the precise nature of hell or how judgment is experienced. Many details are simply not supplied.
This means that the existence of a literal place called hell occupied by damned souls and demons, as envisioned in later Christian tradition, isdebateable based on the biblical text alone. The language used is frequently symbolic, metaphorical, and steeped in cultural context. While the reality of postmortem judgment seems clear, the exact “geography” of the afterlife is not. There is also some ambiguity around whether terms like “eternal fire” or “everlasting punishment” imply an eternal place and state called hell or simply point to eternal consequences and irreversible destruction.
Views within Christianity differ on whether passages about hell and judgment should be taken literally or symbolically, whether hell involves physical torture or existential anguish at separation from God, and whether the punishment is everlasting or results in annihilation. Some theologians argue that the concept of eternal torment in hell is incompatible with the loving nature of God and that the Bible’s statements about judgment should be understood as redemptive, not retributive. Others counter that the reality and eternity of hell is clearly taught in Scripture as the destiny for those who die without faith in Christ.
So in summary, the Bible speaks about ideas associated with hell – judgment, fire, darkness, torment, punishment, destruction – but does not contain detailed descriptions of a literal hell as it developed in later Christian teaching and imagination. Some form of afterlife judgment is clearly affirmed, with consequences relating to earthly lifestyles and relationship to God. Exact details about the nature, location, and duration of “hell” go beyond the biblical text, though many traditional Christians throughout history have read passages about judgment and “eternal fire” literally as referring to an actual place of unending conscious torment. Differences persist within Christianity around whether this reading is accurate or whether hell represents a symbolic description of spiritual realities like destruction or exclusion from God’s presence. The question of whether hell exists as an actual place of fiery punishment populated by demons depends greatly on how one interprets these passages in their original context.
Moving beyond what the Bible says about hell specifically, another relevant question is what the Bible teaches about the requirements for salvation. This relates to hell in that one traditional view sees hell as the place where those who fail to meet the requirements for salvation end up.
The Bible teaches that sin separates human beings from God (Isaiah 59:2). Since God is the source of all life, joy, and goodness, separation from him means death and misery. This manifests both in earthly life and beyond. However, God loves humanity and does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9; John 3:16-17). So God has provided a way for people to be reconciled to him and saved from the consequences of sin.
In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices and moral living according to the law were means of atoning for sins and maintaining relationship with God. The Israelites were to teach their children to love and obey God (Deuteronomy 6:4-7). But even in the Old Testament, obedience to the law was not portrayed as the ultimate means of salvation. Abraham was counted righteous because of his faith before the law was given (Romans 4:1-3).
In the New Testament, faith in the person and work of Christ becomes central. Jesus is presented as the long-awaited Savior and the one path to reconciliation with God. Peter proclaimed to the religious leaders, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul wrote that it is by grace we are saved, through faith, not by our own good deeds (Ephesians 2:8-9). Good works are the fruit of genuine faith, not the basis for salvation.
So the Bible teaches that forgiveness of sins and eternal life come through trusting in what Jesus accomplished in his life, death for sins, and resurrection (Romans 10:9). God’s grace is received by putting one’s confidence for salvation in Christ rather than one’s own merits or works. Salvation is presented as a free gift (Romans 6:23). At the same time, there are warnings against willful, unrepentant sin, falling away, and failing to persevere in faith and obedience. But it is faith in Christ, not personal merit, that the Bible emphasizes as the basis for salvation.
Historically, hell has been viewed by many Christians as the destiny of those who die without trusting Christ for their salvation. This is based on passages that speak of destruction, exclusion, and judgment for the wicked combined with the teaching that Christ is the only way to the Father and to eternal life.
However, perspectives differ within Christianity on whether there are any postmortem chances for repentance and whether it is appropriate to visualize God consigning people to eternal torment in hell for not believing or knowing of Christ in their 70-80 years on earth. Some emphasize the availability of salvation only during earthly life, while others argue that nothing limits God’s grace after death. As with the existence of hell, Christian interpretations range from exclusivist to universalist with many variations between.
In conclusion, this overview shows that the Bible clearly teaches consequences after death related to how people have lived, known God, and either trusted or rejected the salvation offered through Christ. Traditionally, rejection of this salvation has been equated with eternal judgment in hell. But details about the nature and duration of “hell” itself, whether as a literal place of torment and fire or a symbolic state of separation from God, remain debated. Within Christianity, views on the requirements for salvation, whether hell exists as an actual location, and whether it is eternal range from extremely literal to more metaphorical interpretations. There is no single consensus that emerges from biblical texts alone without adopting a particular interpretive stance. So the question of hell’s existence as traditionally conceived remains disputed and tied closely to the question of what the Bible teaches about salvation and the afterlife. With various possible understandings of these teachings, Christians differ on whether the reality of hell as an eternal, conscious place of torment for the lost can be definitively derived from Scripture or not. There is no doubt, however, that the Bible presents sobering warnings about living an unrepentant life apart from God and rejects notions that everyone is automatically saved regardless of their actions, beliefs, and relationship or lack thereof with their Creator. The wages of sin is death according to the consistent testimony of the entire biblical narrative.