Is “hell” in the Bible? In this post, I will seek to answer that question by doing a keyword search for the word hell. I know word searches have their limitations because concepts can be conveyed with more than one word. But word searches still have value, especially as a starting point for further research. Think of this study as one piece of a puzzle.
But before we begin, which Bible should we use? There are dozens of English Bible translations. I will be using the NIV, which is the most popular modern English Bible version, but my results hold true for the other widely used modern English Bible versions: ESV and NRSV.
Let’s begin. (To perform this keyword search I’m using the keyword feature on biblegateway.com.)
How many times do you think the word hell appears in the Bible? The results may surprise you.
If you search the NIV you will find a grand total of 0 references to hell in the Old Testament. (Yes, if you use the King James Version you will find a few dozen references to hell in the OT, but scholars have concluded that “hell” is a poor translation of the ancient Hebrew word Sheol.)
Let’s turn to the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek. There are 13 references to “hell” in the NT (NIV). And the Greek word behind all but one of the uses is gehenna. (The exception is 2 Peter 2:4 which has the Greek word tartarus for the place where rebellious angels are being kept in chains until judgment. Since the focus is on angels and not humans in that passage we will exclude it from consideration.)
That leaves us with 12 NT references to “hell”, all of which come from the same Greek word—gehenna. In order to properly understand hell, then, we must consider the meaning of the Greek word gehenna.
The first thing we need to know about gehenna is that it is the Greek way of saying “Valley of Hinnom” or “Valley of Ben Hinnom,” (meaning “Valley of the son of Hinnom”), so we will begin by searching for references to the Valley of (Ben) Hinnom in the English OT.
Valley of Hinnom in OT
Reference 1: “The boundary then went up to Debir from the Valley of Achor and turned north to Gilgal, which faces the Pass of Adummim south of the gorge. It continued along to the waters of En Shemesh and came out at En Rogel. Then it ran up the Valley of Ben Hinnom along the southern slope of the Jebusite city (that is, Jerusalem). From there it climbed to the top of the hill west of the Hinnom Valley at the northern end of the Valley of Rephaim.” (Josh. 15:7-8; cf. 18:16)
Reference 2: “He [Ahaz] burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.” (2 Chr. 28:3)
Reference 3: “They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.” (Jer. 32:35)
Reference 4: “The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away.” (Jer. 7:30-32; cf. 19:1-6)
Reference 5: “He [Josiah] desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek.” (2 K. 23:10)
Conclusion from OT data: The Valley of Hinnom was a valley south of Jerusalem where idolatry and child sacrifice were practiced. Through Jeremiah, God promised to turn the Valley of Hinnom into a Valley of Slaughter where birds and animals would eat human carcasses. Finally, King Josiah demolished the part of the Valley of Hinnom that was used for idolatry and child sacrifice.
During the intertestamental time (the time between the OT and NT), some Jewish writings linked the Valley of Hinnom to the afterlife. For instance, read 2 Esdras below.
Reference: “The Most High shall be revealed on the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn. Only judgment shall remain, truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong. Recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell [gehenna] shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight.” (2 Esdras 7:33-42, NRSV).
Conclusion: The passage begins with final judgment where recompense and reward will be given. And then the “pit of torment” or the “furnace of hell” are revealed. Juxtaposed with the pit and furnace are “the place of rest” and “the paradise of delight.” Gehenna is clearly used to refer to a place beyond this world because it is revealed after the Most High administers judgment.
Rabbis began to use gehenna to refer to a postmortem location, but they held a variety of views about the nature and duration of punishment in gehenna. For example, some affirmed a temporary punishment for the purpose of refining, others held to complete destruction of the wicked, and still others believed the wicked would suffer forever. And sometimes more than one view was affirmed simultaneously. For example, while some are sealed in hell, others cry and howl for a time while being refined, and then they ascend. For more info. read here.
While we see development in the way gehenna was used during the intertestamental period, the question we must consider is, how does the New Testament use gehenna? Do the NT authors use gehenna to refer to the valley outside of Jerusalem or do they clearly use gehenna in relation to the afterlife?
Here are the references to “hell” in the New Testament (NIV). (I have placed the word gehenna in brackets in each reference.)
- But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell [gehenna]. (Matt. 5:22)
- If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell [gehenna]. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell [gehenna]. (Matt. 5:29-30)
- Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]. (Matt. 10:28)
- But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell [gehenna]. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Lk. 12:5)
- If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell [gehenna]. (Matt. 18:8-9)
- “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell [gehenna] as you are. (Matt. 23:15)
- “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell [gehenna]? (Matt. 23:33)
- If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell [gehenna], where the fire never goes out.  [b] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell [gehenna].  [c] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell [gehenna], 48 where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’[d] (Mk. 9:43-48)
- The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell [gehenna]. (Jam. 3:6)
- All but one of the uses of gehenna are found in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). James 3:6 is the one non-synoptic use. Of the 11 synoptic uses, 7 are found in Matthew.
- In each of the uses in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is speaking.
- The descriptive words or phrases used in relation to gehenna are fire (Matt. 5:22; 18:9), unquenchable fire (Mk. 9:43), a place where people will be thrown (Matt. 5:29; 18:9) and destroyed (Matt. 10:28). The longest phrase used in connection with gehenna is “where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mk. 9:48) which is a quote from Isaiah 66:24.
- Gehenna is the place where the wicked will experience divine judgment. Jesus warns the Pharisees about being condemned to gehenna; he contrasts entering life/the kingdom of God (Mk. 9:43-48) with being thrown into gehenna, and he says to fear the One who can destroy “soul and body” in gehenna (Matt. 10:28).
Question and Answer
Could Jesus have been using gehenna in the way it was used in the OT? In other words, when Jesus said gehenna was he thinking of a physical location outside of Jerusalem?
To answer that question we must first ponder this question: Did Jesus predict physical destruction like the OT prophets?
Yes. Jesus predicted desolation (Matt. 24:15), including the destruction of the temple (Mk. 13:2), great distress (Matt. 24:21) and vultures gathering around carcasses (24:29). And he commanded his followers to flee to the mountains when they see specific signs of the coming destruction (24:16).
Is it possible, then, that Jesus’ references to gehenna refer to the physical valley outside of Jerusalem where the Roman soldiers would throw dead bodies 40 years later?
Why? First, that’s how it was used in the Old Testament, which was the Bible Jesus used. Second, viewing gehenna this way fits with Jesus’ predictions of physical destruction. Third, it fits with the actual destruction that was carried out by the Romans in AD 70.
We’ve only arrived at a possibility, but it’s a possibility that many people haven’t considered because they have only read the word “hell” in English without any background knowledge of the original language.
But is it also possible that Jesus used gehenna to refer to the place of postmortem punishment? Yes, but we need to see clear examples of Jesus using gehenna in that way. The established OT meaning should hold unless we see clear indications of development.
Let’s reflect again on the NT references looking for clear signs of postmortem ideas.
When is Gehenna?
From the NT uses, does gehenna occur in this life or in the afterlife?
Fire and bodies being thrown into a valley are warfare phenomena so I don’t think the references that include those concepts clearly refer to postmortem punishment. Likewise a phrase like “condemned to gehenna” (Matt. 23:33) cannot help us in our search because it is a general phrase that could mean condemned to being thrown into the valley without proper burial—considered to be a great dishonor. That leaves us with three references to examine: Mark 9:43-48, Matthew 10:28 (and its parallel Luke 12:5), and Matthew 18:8-9.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell [gehenna], where the fire never goes out.  [b] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell [gehenna].  [c] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell [gehenna], 48 where
‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’”[d] (Mk. 9:43-48)
The phrase “where the fire never goes out” sounds like a description of a special kind of fire, perhaps other-worldly fire. However, the Greek does not have the word for “never.” As a result, several of the newer translations simply use the word “unquenchable” (see NET, HCSB) where other translations use the phrase “where the fire never goes out.”
What is unquenchable fire? It is fire that destroys without being thwarted or stopped in the process. That could relate to fire in this world. In fact, the concept of unquenchable fire is used several times in the OT to refer to divine judgment that resulted in physical destruction in this world (Ezek. 20:47-48; Jer. 4:4; 17:27).
The final phrase “where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’” has been used to support the idea that hell is a place with eternal worms and eternal fire. But this phrase is a quote from Isaiah 66:24, which is clearly a reference to punishment in this life:
“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:5
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna].” (Matt. 10:28)
“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell [gehenna]. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Lk. 12:5)
Matthew 10:28 is often used to support the view known as annihilationism, or the belief that the wicked will ultimately cease to exist—bodies and souls will be destroyed.
The question is, Is this verse referring to two distinct parts of a human being? On the surface the answer seems to be yes. But the phrase “soul and body” is used in Isaiah 10:18 (NASB) to refer to complete destruction. In that reference we are not meant to think of the two as independent entities; the phrase is intended to indicate a totality. For that reason, many modern translations of Isaiah 10:18 don’t even translate the phrase as “soul and body.” They simply say something like “completely destroy” (HCSB).
Furthermore, if the body has already been killed as stated in the first part of Matthew 10:28, how can it be destroyed in gehenna as stated in the second part of the same verse?
Could Jesus, speaking 40 years before the Romans came and destroyed the city and massacred the people, have been referring to divine judgment at the hands of the Romans? In other words, could the meaning of Jesus’ words be something like this, “Fear him who has the power to throw you into the valley of Hinnom without proper burial where your entire life (body and honor) will be burned up”?
“It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell [gehenna].” (Matt. 18:8-9)
The parallel phrases “eternal fire” and “fire of hell” sound like a reference to the afterlife. The problem is that the Greek word (aionios) behind the English word “eternal” is not as precise as it sounds. Aionios is a difficult word to define, but it does not necessarily specify duration. The basic meaning is “age” and in this context it’s probably best understood as “pertaining to the age to come.”
With that understanding in mind, let’s insert the Greek words into the verse: aionios fire and fire of gehenna and imagine Jesus speaking to a first-century audience in Jerusalem whom he knew would be annihilated by the Romans one generation later.
It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into aionios fire. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of gehenna.
What do you think? Is Matthew 18:8-9 a clear reference to postmortem punishment or is there reason to doubt?
Do we have a clear indication that Jesus used gehenna to refer to something beyond this world? There are two references, which I think open the door to that possibility: Matthew 10:28 and 18:8-9. But I think we need more than the possibility to overturn the established OT meaning.
Interpreting Jesus’ use of gehenna as referring to divine judgment in this world, and in particular to the coming judgment in AD 70, makes sense of the following data.
- It fits with the way the OT refers to the Valley of Hinnom.
- It fits as warfare imagery used by Jesus who predicted an impending physical destruction of Jerusalem in other places.
- It fits with what happened in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem.
- It fits with the fact that only Jesus uses gehenna in connection with divine judgment in the New Testament. For example, when the apostles went out and preached in the book of Acts, they didn’t warn people about “gehenna.” Why not? If they had learned from Jesus about a place of eternal punishment called gehenna, why didn’t they tell others about it? Perhaps they didn’t think Jesus was talking about what we think he’s talking about when we read the word hell. In fact, if you study the apostles’ messages in the book of Acts you will notice an intriguing lack of specificity regarding the afterlife. And that doesn’t make sense if Jesus really did use gehenna to refer to punishment in the afterlife. Why didn’t they warn others about gehenna in the way Jesus did? After all, it would apply to everyone if it is the place of punishment in the afterlife. But if Jesus was only using gehenna to warn his audience in Israel about the coming destruction in AD 70, why would the apostles talk about gehenna when they were preaching outside of Israel?
*Remember, these are only my conclusions from a keyword study. To consider whether the concept of hell is in the Bible, a much bigger study must be conducted.
This post has been revised and included in my new book Surprised by Hell: Unexpected Discoveries in the Bible and Church History.
(For further study see All You Want to Know about Hell by Steve Gregg)