A great deal of ink has been spilled on the subject of Hell. Through Christianity’s history, the concept of Hell has changed a great deal — not only its nature, but who ends up in it, and the criteria for them going there. Even now many denominations disagree on this. But here, we’re talking about early Christianity and the origins of Hell theology. This requires a little linguistics and literary allusions.
In the New Testament, there are three words from the original Greek which have been translated into English as “Hell.” These are:
In the Old Testament, there’s only one word which indicated anything close to Hell, and that is (in transliteration) sheol. It appears originally to have been the Hebrews’ version of the Sumerian and Babylonian Irkalla, or Netherworld, also referred to more poetically as “the House of Dust and Darkness.” For all the dead — good, bad, in-between — this was an unpleasant place, one where souls were left to dine only on dust and live in an unrelenting haze of ash. This was the prevailing view of the afterlife in the entire Near Eastern world. Only in Egypt did some few — the pharoahs and the very-highest of aristocrats — escape this fate, and they did so only through elaborate means: by being mummified, through long rituals leading up to and following death, and even then, they were eligible for this only due to divine connections (i.e. the pharaoh was considered a god-on-earth, and his officers and agents were sometimes also deified, or simply treated as if they had special divine favor due to their offices). The ancient Hebrews did not have a developed sense of the afterlife, at least not any more developed than other cultures in their milieux.
Even now, Judaism does not have a well-developed afterlife concept. There is a presumption of life after death, as well as a possible resurrection during the Messianic Age, however, the nature of these is not disclosed in the Christian Old Testament, which is at issue here.
The Septuagint, or Judaic scriptures rendered in Greek, translates sheol as hades. This strongly suggests that in the time when Christianity began, the two words were taken to mean the same thing, or at least, something close.
Going to other ancient translations of scripture, the Targumim (Aramaic translations of Judaic scripture) and Peshitta (Aramaic translation of most New Testament books) renders the the four words for “Hell” almost always as ars’, which had a variety of meanings, but most especially “grave” or “bed,” or metaphorically, “resting-place.”
In Coptic, Hades was translated as ameté, a name of Egyptian derivation which was the equivalent of Greek hades (having been used as such in other literature). Gehenna was translated into Coptic as ti-gehenn; essentially this was a carry-over of the name (the prefix is a grammatical device indicating a place); Tartarus was carried over the same way.
In Latin, St Jerome translated Hades as infernus, the Roman name for the underworld and thus an exact cognate. He left Gehenna and Tartarus untranslated.
Gehenna is found in 12 verses: Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6. Hades is found in 10 verses: Matthew 11:23, 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27; 1 Corinthians 15:55; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. Tartarus is found only in one verse, 2 Peter 2:4.
The verses in which Gehenna is found, speak of it as a punishment for wickedness or misconduct; for instance, the first three Matthew verses are:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, “You good-for-nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.... If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.... If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (Mt 5:22, 29, 30)
The verses using Hades speak of it as an underworld place, and metaphorically to mean destruction; for instance, the Luke 10 verse:
And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will be brought down to Hades! (Lk 10:15)
Tartarus, as noted, is only in one verse, and that is as a place of eternal torment for the “sinful angels”:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment (2 Pt 2:4)
We can safely say, then, that the word Tartarus was not intended to apply to human beings; Tartarus might, for all we know, be some place other than a Hell in which humans may end up.
Revelation uses Hades exclusively, but there, it is clearly used to mean a place of torment for the wicked (as Gehenna is in the other New Testament books). The problem with Revelation, however, is that it’s a highly figurative and stylized work. In many cases it cannot be taken at face value. This is quite obvious from the fact that it’s totally unlike the rest of the New Testament books. We might expect, then, that it would use a word such as Hades in a manner not used with the others.
A complication is presented by Luke 16:23. The entire passage involved, a parable, is as follows:
Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades [the rich man] lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”
What’s interesting about this, is that it introduces a two-tier afterlife or underworld; a pleasant one, the “bosom of Abraham,” and an unpleasant one, Hades, a place of torment. Jesus uses this tale to illustrate the value of compassion and that a lack of compassion will send a person to perdition. While this was an element of the verses in Matthew chapter 5, extolling virtue and condemning the unrighteous, the addition of the bosom of Abraham adds a wrinkle. The “bosom of Abraham” is perhaps the earliest mention of a paradisical (or semi-paradisical) afterlife for the virtuous, and contributed to the notion of “heaven” — along the lines of the older Hellenic “Elysian fields” — in Christianity. The use of Abraham as the sentinel of this pleasant afterlife was likely a way of hooking the the Hellenic Elysian fields in with Judaic tradition.
Hell is mentioned in many of the books of the Apocrypha, in ways similar to the above. For instance, the Ascension of Isaiah, composed in Greek in the late 1st century, uses the word Sheol and speaks of it as an underworld similar to the Judaic view of that time. (Yes, even though it was in Greek, the name Sheol was preserved.) The Book of Enoch (also called 1 Enoch), written in the late 2nd century BCE in Aramaic, also used the word Sheol, but spoke of it not only as an underworld realm but as a place from which forces of destruction emanated. There is a bit of an apocalyptical element in it which compares with the usage in Revelation.
Perhaps the most spectacular early discussion of Hell is in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which was actually a medieval document (from the 6th century or so). It was in Latin, but its first half was in Greek and was an older 2nd century work called the Acts of Pilate (Acta Pilati). Thus, most references to the Gospel of Nicodemus usually mention this work. The second half of this resurrection gospel, in Latin and written in the 6th century, includes a tour of Hell as seen by Christ after his crucifixion but prior to his resurrection. In Hell (called infernus in the original Latin, just as was in the Vulgate), Christ gathered Adam and other righteous souls, taking them to paradise and delivering them to the care of the archangel Michael. (Note that, just as John the Baptist had heralded Jesus’ arrival on earth, after his death, he heralded Jesus’ eventual arrival to deliver them from Hell.) While this gospel was never considered canon, and in fact was known by Church scholars as a late work and never taken as authoritative, it had a tremendous effect on medieval thought about Hell. It painted a vivid picture of Hades (the personification of Hell) as lamenting his own defeat at the moment of Christ’s arrival, and of Jesus gathering up the righteous to take them to paradise. Medieval artworks depict various elements of Jesus’ trip to Hell.
The notion of Hell in early Christianity likely followed the lines of Greco-Roman thought; a very, very few righteous and favored souls came to a pleasant afterlife, similar to the Elysian fields, while the rest, the vast majority, lingered in a non-descript, shadowy, relatively unpleasant afterlife. The stories told of it being a punishment for the wicked, are found in two places: in Jesus’ stories extolling the virtue of compassion and selflessness, in which those who did not follow these rules ended up in torment; and in Revelation, something of an epic in which all of God’s enemies ended up in eternal perdition. Both cases, then, are illustrative in nature. Early Christians did not write extensively on Hell and appear not to have taken these as literally as many do, today.
The theology of Hell actually grew probably starting in the 5th century, or perhaps later, in western Europe. The Gospel of Nicodemus, a grand early advanced vision of Hell, was in Latin and thus likely written in the central or western Empire. Many changes entered Christianity when it expanded westward, such as a greater emphasis on the priesthood and hierarchy. The great eastern Church Fathers, on the other hand, were relatively unconcerned with it. We see mention of Hell in works such as those of Tertullian (especially in De spectaculis), but we must remember he was a Carthaginian, or central-empire Christian, and not from the east as so many others were.
Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible.
Go back to Early Christian History menu.