The Bible describes hell as a place of eternal punishment and torment, designed for Satan and his demons (see 2 Peter 2:4 and Revelation 20:10) as well as those who reject God Revelation 20:15. Within the Bible there are various pictorial descriptions of hell, including: pit, burning dump, darkness, lake of fire, all of which are used to convey the idea of divine punishment.

Hebrew and Greek words for hell

The idea of hell is conveyed by different terms in the Bible:
  • Hades is found in old Greek myths, where it is described as the misty and gloomy place all mortals go to, but in the New Testament (written in Greek) hades can be either a ‘realm of the dead’ (see Revelation 20:13), or a place of punishment (Luke 16:23)
  • Sheol is a Hebrew term often translated as ‘hades’ in modern versions of the Bible. It means pit, death or grave, which the Bible uses in this context (see examples in Genesis 37:35 and 2 Samuel 22:5-6), as well as sometimes more specifically referencing hell 
  • The Hebrew term Gehenna always refers to a place of condemnation. It is derived from the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of old Jerusalem where children were sacrificed by fire to appease the ancient god Molech (see Jeremiah 7:30-33 and 2 Chronicles 28:3). The valley was deemed cursed and associated with torment. It was later used as a rubbish dump, where refuse was continually being burnt, leading to the association of hell with perpetual fire.

Medieval illustration of hellEternal destination

According to Christian belief, after their physical life on earth, everyone’s souls will exist eternally, either in heaven or hell. Their destination depends on whether, during their earthly life, they have trusted in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 25:46; Revelation 20:15). 
Hell means eternal separation from God (see Matthew 7:23 and 2 Thessalonians 1:9). It is therefore a place from which all goodness and love is absent. Hell is a place of constant, conscious torment (see Matthew 13:50, Revelation 20:10). This was graphically depicted during medieval times in doom paintings, where demons relished the torture of human figures and the entrance to hell was depicted as a huge set of sharp-toothed jaws, waiting to devour sinners (an image developed from 1 Peter 5:8). 

God’s authority over hell

Although hell is depicted as the realm of the devil, it is ultimately subject to God’s authority. According to Revelation, having defeated death, Christ possesses the ‘keys of death and Hades’ (Revelation 1:18
More on the Harrowing of hell’...: This idea, plus a couple of references in a New Testament letter (1 Peter 3:19; 1 Peter 4:6) led to the belief that, while Christ's body rested in the tomb between his death and resurrection, his spirit descended into the realms of the dead, possibly preaching to them and freeing the faithful souls of those who had died before his earthly ministry. He then returned to earth and later ascended into heaven. The story was further developed in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemas, with which Catholics would have been familiar in the middles ages. According to the resurrected people, Jesus had appeared in a great light and demanded that the gates be opened. Satan had tried in vain to retain them but the dead were released.
Known as the ‘Harrowing of Hell', this idea was portrayed in the mediaeval mystery plays and much Christian art. The Easter icon of the Orthodox Church depicts Jesus rising from the underworld on the broken doors of hell, reaching to bring up Adam.      
Ultimately, Revelation states that God will wind up the current heaven, earth and hell. Although he will establish ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1), ‘death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:4). This suggests that there will no longer be new ‘fuel’ for hell, and that death and Satan will be powerless, contained forever in ‘the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.’ (Revelation 21:8).

Other cultural references

  • Texts: John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost covers the fall of man but includes descriptions of hell, called Tartarus; Dante’s Inferno, the first part of his Divina Commedia; Aeneid by Virgil, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, Piers Plowman by William Langland, The Place of the Damned by Jonathan Swift, Eric by Terry Pratchett, The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.
  • Art: Dante and Virgil in Hell by Adolphe Bouguereau, The Last Judgement by Fra Angelico, A Vision of the Last Judgement by William Blake, The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgement by Michaelangelo.
  • Films: Constantine. In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer hell is seen not as a destination for humans once they die, but as the home for evil beings that prey upon humans.

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