I recently (within the last few weeks) spoke with some friends about the concept of Hell: what it is, why it is, who it is intended for, and so on. That got me to thinking about Hell in general and how The Bible talks about it.
First off, the word “Hell” is never used in the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. This is because the word is not derived from any of those languages. Hell, properly “Hel“, refers to the Norse goddess who oversees the land of the dead — not Valhalla, the other one. So, if the expression “Go to Hel.” existed in Old Norse, it very likely was a means of telling someone to drop dead — which is more or less what is meant by it in modern parlance. Hel is the Norse equivalent of the Greek Hades, Roman Pluto, and so on. Where some of the confusion, I suspect, came in is that the Ancient Greeks called the place that housed the dead and the god who presided over it by the same name. Not to mention that English speakers are not known for our cultural and linguistic fidelity when we steal words from other languages.
The words used in The Bible are Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus. Sheol is roughly equivalent, thought-wise, to Hades and was the place that housed the dead. Gehenna was a filthy, burning, foul-smelling place and no one in their right mind would ever want to go there. Tartarus was a place of torment. There is a last place mentioned, but we’ll come to that.
Having dispensed with the language lesson, we may proceed. The Bible speaks at rather great length about this cluster of places that roughly equate to our modern concept of Hell. The Bible speaks of Gehenna (Matthew 5:23, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5) as being a place it was better not to go. Jesus commented that it would be better to cut out eyes or remove limbs than to enter Gehenna in one piece. While Jesus was not advocating self-mutilation, He was making a point about how much we should not want to end up in Hell. 2 Peter 2:4 mentions that God condemned angels that sinned to Tartarus and this verse is the only place I could find the word Tartarus used in The Bible. Hades is mentioned about 10 times and all in reference to the place where the dead happen to be. That said, one of the mentions of Hades is in Revelation 20:13-15 and includes a reference to a place called “the lake of fire” which is where Hades ends up. This is also where those who are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life end up. Jesus mentioned in Matthew 13:40-50 that this would happen to people. And when Jesus speaks of the judgment that will take place at the end of the world, He says that the judge (Jesus) will say to those not found in His book, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
I haven’t mentioned Sheol, and with good reason. Sheol is primarily used in the Old Testament — possibly exclusively used in the OT. Sheol, as previously mentioned, is roughly equivalent to Hades and exists as a place for the dead to chill while waiting for what Jesus would do on the cross. Jesus speaks about such a place when He tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) and mentions that even there a distinction is made between those who placed their faith and hope in Christ and those who did not.
Since this has been a bit meandering, how about I tidy my thoughts up a bit?
Hell, as we understand it in the modern world, is not what was meant by the ancients when they spoke of Hel or Sheol or Hades. What we conceive of as “Hell” is more equivalent to Gehenna or Tartarus: a place where the souls of the dead who did not place their faith in Christ are in torment. Devils with pitchforks probably derive from the Greek myths, as deimons helped Hades with his work. There is, however, that lake of fire into which Hades/Sheol/Hel will be tossed. That about covers the whats. Now to the whys.
Sheol/Hades/Hel was, I suspect, not a part of the original creation. God did tell Adam and Eve that the day they ate from that one forbidden tree is the day they would die. Prior to that? No reason for a place to store the dead. No dead to store. But sin brings death (James 1:15), so I think sin brought its own little playground (Sheol). That little corner that Jesus calls Abraham’s Bosom? My guess is that God cleared out a chunk of the dead place that sin brought in its wake so that His dead could be comforted while they waited for better things. So why was/is there a place for the dead to hang out and wait to be judged? I suspect it has to do with there being dead people necessitating a place to store them while they wait. Think of Sheol/Hades/Hel as the lobby of a court house. Everyone’s just waiting for their case to be called. Are the righteous still there? Nope. The Bible says that Jesus descended into Hades and “led captivity captive” (subtitled: took His peeps out of the waiting room since the charges had been dropped). Why Gehenna/Tartarus? Natural outpouring of sin, I think. Let’s just say that there was no effort wasted in air conditioning the lobby of the court house or putting in plush chairs. Those in the lobby are not there to get comfy, they’re awaiting judgment. And that lake of fire place? Refer back to Matthew 25:41 and realize that it wasn’t made for people; it was made for the devil (Satan) and his angels (See Revelation 12:9 if you’re not aware of the whole “devil’s angels” idea). Purpose of Sheol/Hades/Hel: hold the dead. Purpose of Tartarus/Gehenna: uncomfortable waiting room. Purpose of the lake of fire: future residence of the devil and his angels.
So who is all this intended for? Well, Sheol and Hades and Hel and Gehenna and Tartarus all seem to be intended for people. They don’t seem well suited to the purpose—sin tends to do things poorly—but they’re still meant for people. The lake of fire is meant for angels who rebelled (Revelation 12, again). However, since God will eventually judge the dead (Revelation 20), there will no longer be a need for a waiting room. Court is held, sentence handed down, and all cases heard. Court is not adjourned, because there are no more cases to hear. So, God does what is rational when something no longer has a purpose: He tosses it out. If I’m right about the whole “Sheol, etc. was not necessary until sin showed up” thing then God is probably not going to want to keep the place around, especially since He’s tearing down the old heavens and Earth and starting over. No reason to keep reminders of the Earth that was — Jesus’ scars are quite sufficient to that purpose.
And, of course, the question so often asked when Hell (modern context) is brought up: “Why would a God Who loves people send them to Hell?” The answer, briefly, is that He doesn’t. He is, where this whole Hell/Heaven question is concerned, The Judge. He set out His Laws (read the Old Testament, particularly Exodus through Deuteronomy if you want to know what His legal system looks like). Now, most folks who have tried to obey those Laws know that it just ain’t happening (I know. I’ve tried). It’s almost like driving down the highway, that posted number is Just. SO. SLOW. But law is law and doesn’t change for me because I’m in a hurry or because conditions are safe to go 90 or because … fill in the blank. The law is the law is the law and any law enforcement officer is well within her rights to ticket me (or jail me and impound my car, if I’m going the speed some folks are). Laws do not bend or take mitigating circumstances into account. A just judge will enforce all laws equally. So God, being The Just Judge, enforces His Law without partiality. He did leave a little out in His legal framework, though. Someone else can ay the penalty for another’s short-coming. If one person had to sell themselves and their property to pay off a debt then a close relative could pay off the debt and clear the slate. We owe a debt we cannot pay, so Jesus paid it for us. The catch? We can choose not to allow that payment to be applied to our account. Ultimately, we decide whether we go to Heaven or finally land in the lake of fire.
To sum up: There are several places intended for the dead and/or for rebellious angels that serve a variety of purposes. Where a human being finds themselves is a matter of that person’s choice.
Caveat: These are my thoughts. Yes, I reference The Bible, but I am not The Bible‘s Author and cannot conclusively state His intent in anything written or recorded therein. My thoughts are just that: mine. They are only as right or as wrong as I happen to be and only God knows that for sure.