Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, the abyss and Tartarus: Images of hell (Psalm 139)

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The Psalmist declared to God “If I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:8). The Hebrew word for “Depths” is Sheol, and many translations simply leave the word untranslated. Sheol in the Old Testament view was essentially the place beneath the earth to which the dead were thought to go. Thus, Sheol can refer both to the literal grave and to the netherworld. As the netherworld, it is similar to the Greek Hades, the dark and sorrowful domain of the dead (as seen in Homer’s Odyssey, book 11); in fact, it is usually translated as “Hades” in the Septuagint. In a single verse, however, Sheol can refer both to the gated kingdom of the netherworld and to the dusty grave (Job 17:16). In Greek mythology Hades was also a god, unlike what we see in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, the Bible sometimes portrays Sheol as a beast with gaping jaws (Isaiah 5:14, 14:9, Habakkuk 2:5; NIV in each case the grave”).

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Visions of Sheol as a fearsome site sometimes appear in prophetic judgements and warnings. Ezekiel 31-32 includes elaborate depictions of the hordes now confined to Sheol, and this vision serves as a warning to Egypt. Similarly, in Luke 16:19-31 Jesus recounted the parable of the rich man in Hades (NIV “hell”) as a warning to His audience to repent.

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Illustration: Lazarus and the rich man

The range of meanings the word Sheol carries explains what seem to be inconsistencies in the text. On the one hand, no one praises God in Sheol (Psalm 6:5); one who is in the grave cannot testify to God’s glory before the assembly of Israel at the temple (cf. Psalm 51:14). On the other hand, God is present even in Sheol (139:8; NIV “depths”); even the dead in the netherworld are not beyond His power. It is significant to note that Sheol in the Old Testament refers simply to the habitation of the dead – not specifically to hell, the location for punishment of the wicked dead.

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Illustration: An artistic version of Sheol

In the New Testament, especially when the reference is citing the Old Testament, Hades refers again to the grave or to the netherworld of the dead (e.g. Acts 2:27, 31, which states that Jesus was not left in Hades; NIV “the grave”). In Revelation 20:13 Hades is the netherworld, which yields up the dead to God’s judgement. Another New Testament term, abyss, can also refer simply to the place of the dead (Romans 10:7, citing the Old Testament; NIV “the deep”). But the word usually describes a locale for the imprisoned demonic powers (Luke 8:31, Revelation 9:1-2, 20:1). In classical Greek abyss connotes unfathomable depths, such as the sources of a spring.

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Illustration: Jesus in Hades

A New Testament term with Jewish roots is Gehenna, named after the Hinnom Valley south of Jerusalem. Because child sacrifice was carried out in this valley (2 Kings 16:3), it was desecrated by king Josiah (2 Kings 23:10). Jeremiah 7:32 declared that God would judge Judah there, and thus, during the intertestamental period, the term came to be used for the domain where the wicked would receive eternal punsishment. Jesus often spoke og Gehenna as a place of punishment (Matthew 5:22, 10:28, 18:9, NIV in each case, “hell”), also indicating that Gehenna’s original purpose was as the site of punishment for demons, although wicked humans would also be consigned there (Matthew 25:41; NIV “eternal fire”). A similar word, a verb they means “to cast into Tartarus”, appears in 2 Peter 2:4 (NIV “sent… to hell”) to describe the place where the wicked angels are punished. Tartarus in Greek literature is the deepest part of Hades and locale of eternal punishment.

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Illustration: The actual place of Gehenna

We are wise not to make too much of the origins of these words. Gehenna has little to do with the historical Valley of Hinnom. Similarly, the Greek words the New Testament incorporates did not, for the apostle, imply that the Greek myths were credible. The word Sheol, we do well to note, is pure Hebrew with no known origin or parallels in any other language.

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Illustration: What is Tartarus? An underground prison?

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