What are the four words for hell in the Bible?

Ken asked,

I recently saw a program that discussed the different names for hell and what they meant. The 1st one mentioned is the Hebrew "Sheol" which the program claimed meant "pit or grave". Next came "Hades" which in Greek also meant pit or grave. Followed by "Gehenna" meaning "fire that destroys the soul" also from Greek. Lastly-also from Greek- came "Tartarus" which applied only to fallen angels or confinement of fallen angels. Do you consider this to be accurate all or in part? Thanks

Hi Ken,

The statement is fairly close. Here is what the four words refer to in the Bible:

  • Sheol: Grave, death, realm of the dead, place of punishment. It depends on the context. The Old Testament did not give a lot of detail concerning the afterlife.
  • Hades: Temporary place of punishment for the wicked (definitely more than pit or grave). Greek word used in the Roman world with all kinds of elaborate thoughts concerning the afterlife. In the Bible it refers to a temporary place of punishment until the inhabitants are cast into the lake of fire.
  • Gehenna: Lake of fire, eternal place of punishment for the wicked. Originally this referred to a local garbage dump outside Jerusalem that continuously burned, but it became a symbol of the place where unrepentant sinners will go to experience eternal, conscious torment as punishment for their sins.
  • Tartarus: Temporary place of punishment for wicked angels. It is only used once in the Bible and is fairly vague, but those angels put here will eventually end up in Gehenna. 

The program was close, but you never know the nuances of TV programs concerning religion. They usually try to downplay the seriousness of God’s holiness and judgment. Liberal Christianity emphasizes God’s love to the neglect of His holiness and legalistic Christianity emphasizes God’s holiness to the neglect of His love. Either of these caricatures lead us to a half god rather than the true God. God is both holy and loving, which is especially seen in the cross where both God’s wrath and love meet.