The Greek Words Translated as "Hell"

This article looks that the Greek words that are translated into statements about "hell" in Christ's words and related concepts.  Reader's may be surprised to learn that many of these references were clearly meant to be humorous. Christ never described someone "going to Hell" in the way that phrase is used today. 

The Words

That word is "gehenna", which is not a Greek word, but the Greek version of the Hebrew name (Hinnom) of the perpetually burning trash dump in a small valley below the walls of Jerusalem.  Christ always uses the term as an analogy. It is difficult to make the case that he uses it to refer to an aspect of the afterlife for reasons we will explain.

Christ uses another term translated as "hell" only three times, hades (Mat 11:23, Matthew 16:18, Luke 16:23). This term clearly does refer to a concept of an afterlife, but it is the Greek and Roman concept of an afterlife. The concept was a twilight existence where memories of a person fade but they persist as a shade. In the first verse, Christ says that this is a potential fate of Capernaum. In this next, he says that this is not the fate of the "church" built on Simon as "the rock".  In neither case can we consider him describing an afterlife.  Christ denied this type of afterlife when he said that God is not a god of the dead, but of the living (Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27). The parable of Lazarus and the "Rich Man" is so interesting and so different from most of Christ's words that it is handled later in this article. 

This article will also look briefly at other descriptions that people take as Christ's references to "hell". Many of these references were also clearly meant to be humorous. If there is any one reason why Christ's use of humor is so seldom recognized by mainstream Christianity, it may be that that fact undermines so many traditional ideas, such as eternal punishment in "hell". 

The Use of "Gehenna"

this is the term that is usually translated as "hell" in the NT (except for three times). Christ first uses this term in the "Sermon on the Mount", which is the best example of Christ as an entertainer. Almost every other line in that sermon was designed to generate a laugh. To see for yourself, read an adaptation of that sermon in the first part of an historical novel on Christ's words. Christ refers to the burning trash heap in that sermon in Matthew 5:22,  Matthew 5:29, and Matthew 5:30, (and parallel verses in Mark). The last two are particularly interesting because they are so clearly meant to be a humorous exaggeration, almost outrageously so. These phrases again also repeated a much later in Matthew 18:8 and Matthew 18:9, again, in a very exaggerated comical vein, but in these verses, gehenna is clearly identified with "fire" for the first time. 

Christ explains this what happens in gehenna a little more in his next sermon in Matthew, the Sending of the Apostles, where he says in Matthew 10:28, (KJV) "And do not fear those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Fear yourselves, however, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." The "hell" here is again gehenna.  The Greek word translated as "soul" is psyche, which has a meaning closer to "self", that is, the part of you that experiences your life and has your memories. Notice this "self" is destroyed, just like your body is destroyed with death.  Going back to the Sermon on the Mount, Christ only describes two paths: one to life (Matthew 7:14 ) and one to destruction (Matthew 7:13). this is consistent with the Biblical view of the OT, "The "soul that sins, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18). Nowhere does the OT suggest eternal torture any more than Christ' does. 

Does this mean you are entirely destroyed? No, because Christ describes people as existing of not just "body and soul" but also "mind", "heart", and "spirit". You can read this article about all of these concepts, but the point is that, just like your body isn't you, neither is your psyche, that is, your memories, all of you either. The most important thing that is left is your anima ("spirit"). The spirit and perhaps the "mind" (the reasoning faculty, though this may be part of the body) and the "heart(the core of personal desires) survives the burning trash heap, but Christ doesn't say how. Perhaps in the "outer darkness" discussed below. 

Hell as Fire

Christ also uses various images of fire, especially in his parables, which obviously related to the idea of gehenna. The other is the "outer darkness." We will discuss the concept of "fire" first, though both concepts are connected. 

We discuss Christ's use of "light" as a metaphor for knowledge in this article. Later in the article, his use of fire is discussed as well, as "light (knowledge) as a destructive force." this is important because it Christ's very last parable, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goat, he describes a separation of the worthy from the unworthy with the unworthy being sent into "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:".  A similar image is used in the Parable of the Weed, where the weeds are thrown in an "oven" at the end. 

In neither of these does Christ describe the fire as punishment. In the first, the fire is described as everlasting, but the word means "perpetual" just like the perpetual fires of the trash heap, Gehenna. This doesn't mean what was tossed into it is eternally suffering.

Fire destroys. It was not seen or described an environment for some types of continued life in torture.  What is destroyed? The Parable of the Sheep and Goats tells us "devils and their angels".  The word translated as "devil" (diabolos) means "slanderous", and "backbiting," and Christ makes it clear that "devils" are basically "liars". (See this article on the Greek words for "demons", "devils", and "satan".) The Greek term for "angels", aggelos, means simply "messengers", so the messengers who carry lies. So what is destroyed by fire? The lies of a worthless life.  

But fire is also productive. The type of oven mentioned in the Parable of the Weeds is specifically a type of bread over that is fueled by the waste foliage in agriculture. In words, the good wheat is actually baked into bread by the heat of false wheat being consumed. 

Notice that both the productive and destructive roles of fire are connected to its role in producing light. The power of light, that is,  knowledge, destroys that which is built on lies.  Truth does not torture untruth, it simply destroys it, as Christ say gehenna destroys the dishonest self, the "self" built on lies. However, the heat of that light, the knowledge also transforms the dough into bread. 

Hell as the Outer Darkness

This brings us to the last and most humorous phrase Christ uses to describe what happens to worthless people: they are cast into "outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." This phrase is used in Matthew 8:12Matthew 22:13Matthew 25:30, and nearly in Matthew 24:51. This phrase, especially in the contexts of the "crimes" involved, seems to again, primarily a humorous exaggeration, but it is an instructive one.

First, because the "outer darkness" seems to be the opposite of "fire", but it is really the opposite of the light of knowledge. The "gnashing of teeth" phrase captures the idea "backbiting" (another meaning of "devil"), but the same words also mean "the chattering of teeth", which indicates cold. In Matthew 24:51, Christ describes this as the place where "actors" go. For Christ, actors are another form of liar. Nowhere does Christ describe this as a permanent state of existence. More likely, it simply describes living a lie, living in darkness, unhappy and resentful. 

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man

With all this as background, we are ready to look at the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:23). First, it is important to note that this story is about hades, not the concept of gehenna.  Hades was the Greek concept of the afterlife, not the concept that Christ teaches, that is, the destruction of gehenna's fire. However, despite this story's poor fit with everything else Christ says about the afterlife, it has become the template for modern concepts of hell. We should also note that Luke offers a number of parables not found in the other Gospels and I have not examined that Gospel's Greek in detail so there may be other parables in Luke that resemble this one. 

There are a number of very odd things about this story. First, it offers views of both "heaven" and "hell". However, just Christ's preferred term for "hell" is not used, neither is the Greek term taken to refer to "heaven" used. The term translated as "heaven" is the Greek ouranos, which means "sky". (See article here about this term), or, more precisely, "the kingdom of heaven" (see article here). Christ discusses these concepts more than any other. However, neither of these ideas are mentioned in this story of "heaven". Instead, the term used for "heaven" is "Abraham's bosom" where "bosom" is the Greek kolpos. How important is the concept in Christ's teaching? So important that not only doesn't he mention "Abraham's bosom" elsewhere, but this is the only time he uses the Greek term kolpos in any context. 

This should raise some doubts about the goal of this story as accurately describing the afterlife as Christ view it. 

There are other very odd things about this parable. In most of Christ's parables, the speaking characters have no names. Christ's parables were about archetypes. In those stories, the man of property or the king is usually not the archetype villain. Usually, he is a symbol for the Father. Not only does this story have names for its characters, but one of the speaking characters, Abraham, is one of the patriarchs. This use of proper names is so odd that some of the believers believe that this parable is not a metaphor but a historical event. Why? Otherwise, Christ would be coming close to lying, but putting words in the mouth of Abraham that he did not say. However, does this tale seem realistic in terms of other things Christ says about the afterlife? It seems less realistic, not more so. Most of his statements are vague generalities that are hard to imagine as the afterlife is hard to imagine.  

We should also point out that this "parable" does not involve an example from people's everyday experiences. Christ usually used our experience in this world to illustrate ideas that area more complex in the "realm of the skies". This story isn't a metaphor at all in that sense. 

What this parable is meant to be is mostly funny. It uses a number of uncommon words not used elsewhere by Christ. One its surface, calling "heaven" the "bosom of Abraham" is funny, not serious. Describing the Greek hades in Jewish terms is funny. Putting words in the mouth of Abraham is funny. All of these ideas would have been funny to the listeners of the time, not taken seriously as they are today. 

However, the biggest give away is the ending. It is a punch line. Abraham says, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

At the time of Christ's life, this joke would not be as funny as it is now. After all, when Christ told this story, he had not yet risen from the dead. However, as we read it, he has. But what does Christ have Abraham saying? That he, Jesus, will not be believed even though he rose from the dead? Then what was the point in rising from the dead? More specifically, he is saying that people who found reasons to distrust the prophets will also distrust Christ. this is clearly true. 

However, did Christ mean for this story to be the basis of our views of heaven and hell? He certainly gives us enough clue to tell us this story is not realistic. If people want to believe in a "hell" of eternal punishment they must do so on the basis of this story alone.  Taken in the larger context of Christ's teaching, it tells us a different story. 

The Life Beyond Life

Christ said that he knows where he came from and where he is going, but that we do not (John 8:14). However, Christ's memory stretched back before the beginning of human society (John 17:5). So Christ was not a limited human in the sense that we are. What did he tell us about our "life after life". 

He says that: 

  • At least some who have lived are alive now because he said the Patriarchs were alive  (Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27 ). Note this was before Christ died on the cross and before any final "resurrection". 
  • After the "resurrection of the dead" people have a different kind of body (Matthew 22:30) like those of the angels. So it is also possible that the Patriarchs lived in this form and Christ was referring to that.   
  • There is also a strong hint that people who lived before can live again in human bodies in this world. Christ refers to John that Baptists as Elijah reborn (Matthew 11:14 , .  Matthew 17:11), but John himself did not make this claim or seem to remember being Elijah. Note, this state is much like the state of people who are "destroyed in the fire". Does this mean that everyone who dies lives again without memory of their past lives?