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Hell (in the Bible)


The English word "hell" is derived from the common Teutonic name for the place that was, according to ancient Germanic mythology, the abode of all the dead, like the Hebrew sheol and Greek hades. Nowadays, however, the word is used to signify the place of the damned, corresponding to Hebrew gehenna and Greek Tartarus.

Throughout almost the whole Old Testament period it was commonly believed that the dead, whether good or bad, continued to exist in the nether world, a region of darkness, misery, and futility; they lived on as unreal, half-material shades in a land of silence and oblivion [see dead, the (in the bible)]. The name for this region was rendered as "hell" by the older vernacular versions of the Bible (e.g., the Douay Version) and is still used in this sense in speaking of Christ's descent into hell. Toward the end of the Old Testament period, however, the notions of retribution and final judgment [see judgment, divine (in the bible)] led the Jews to distinguish between the lot of the good and that of the wicked in Sheol; even before the final judgment they were separated by an impassable gulf. In addition to this view of Sheol there developed in postexilic Judaism the idea of an eschatological place of punishment, Gehenna, where apostate Jews and Gentile sinners would be put at the end of the world to suffer everlasting tortures by fire. In time a partial merging of these two originally independent concepts took place; besides the indigenous element of fire in Gehenna, the darkness of Sheol was also present, and ultimately Gehenna becomes a part of Sheol and a place where the wicked suffer even before the resurrection of the dead.

In the New Testament, the abode of all the dead whether good or wicked is called Hades (Mt 11.23; Lk 10.15; 16.23), whereas the place of punishment for the wicked is generally called Gehenna (Mt 5.22, 29; 10.28;18.9; 23.15, 33; Mk 9.43, 45, 47; Lk 12.5). Although Jesus made use of the language of His time, He did not necessarily endorse the rabbinic notions of future punishment as physical torment; yet it is impossible to soften the severity of Jesus' warning against unrepented sin, and the sentimentalism that seeks to do so is a distortion of His teaching and that of the New Testament as a whole. The chief characteristic of hell, as depicted in the New Testament, is its fire that is unquenchable (Mt 3.12; Mk9.43; Lk 3.17) and everlasting (Mt 18.8; 25.41; Jude 7). Whatever may be implied by the terms "unquenchable fire" and "everlasting fire," they should not be explained away as meaningless. In the New Testament, hell is also described as a place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 8.12; 13.50; 22.13; 24.51; 25.30). Its darkness (Mt 8.12; 22.13; 25.30) is borrowed from the older concept of Sheol.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 969970. j. gnilka, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 5:445446. p. antoine, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 2:106376.

[i. h. gorski]

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