Much of what we “know” about hell stems from the imagination of poets and artists. But how much is true? Let’s drill down to the bedrock of biblical fact. Here are 13 things you should know.
1. The closest thing to “hell” in the Old Testament is Sheol, the place where all dead people go. Unlike their neighbors, Israelites knew that the same God who ruled heaven and earth also ruled Sheol (Ps. 139:8).
2. The New Testament calls the place where mortals go before Judgment Day “Hades.” The place of divine punishment for those actually convicted is “Gehenna” (from Old Testament “Ge Hinnom” or “Valley of Hinnom,” Matt. 5:22).
3. Ge ben Hinnom is a cemetery with burial caves where Israelites would go to burn their children as sacrifices to their not-gods (Jer. 19:5)—a fitting image of Godforsaken hell. The worst deal about Gehenna isn’t the cold (“outer darkness”) or the heat (“lake of fire”), but our omnipresent God choosing not to be there (Matt. 25:41)—truly terrifying.
4. So Gehenna is where the devil is and God isn’t, maybe in outer space or another dimension (Rev. 20:14-15). Gehenna is also in this world where Christ’s kingdom is not yet (Eph. 2:1-2). It re-enters our lives when we show God the door and invite the devil in (Eph. 3:17-18). Then we live in a hell of our own making.
5. The Apostles’ Creed confesses that “Jesus descended into hell.” The word used refers to Hades, not Gehenna.
6. Jesus went through hell for us on the cross (Mark 15:33-34). His pain was immeasurably multiplied by the horror of being forsaken by the One with whom he had lived in perfect love and unity for eternity.
7. After suffering Gehenna for us, Jesus passed into Hades, breathing the words of a Jewish child’s bedtime prayer: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
8. Only God knows who will end up in Gehenna. Don’t judge, warns Jesus (Matt. 7:1).
9. Don’t worry, believers are not going there. The Father appointed Jesus, our own Lawyer, to do the judging. God will judge everyone fairly, including animists, Muslims, and agnostics who never had the chance to know about Jesus (2 Cor. 5:10). Those who receive eternal life do so because of Christ’s work, not their own goodness or religious practices: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
10. Jesus and his disciples visited Caesarea Philippi, which boasted a temple built on rock and dedicated to the underworld god Pan. Behind it was a cave widely advertised as “the gate to Hades”—hence Jesus’ declaration there that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail” (Matt. 16:18, ESV) against the church he’s building on the bedrock of his disciple’s confession.
11. Gates are used for defense. Jesus places his church on the offensive to boldly attack and destroy evil all the way to hell (and back).
12. We shouldn’t scare people into heaven by making them fear hell. Through Word and Spirit we are brought into relationship with God, who is love. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
13. Our loved ones who have “fallen asleep” in Christ are fine. Whether they pass through Hades into heaven or remain there until Jesus returns doesn’t matter—they are with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:14): eternally loved, safe, and awaiting Resurrection Day.