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What is Hell? Hades and Tartarus in the Bible

Hell is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Bible, in part due to loss of meaning in translation.

The New Testament uses no less than six different terms to describe negative and/or neutral places in the afterlife which people can experience that are clearly not the New Heaven and the New Earth. These six terms often are mistakenly conflated and lumped together as “hell.”

The six terms the New Testament uses to describe these tragic destinations include:

  1. Hades
  2. Tartarus
  3. Gehenna
  4. The Outer Darkness
  5. The Lake of Fire
  6. The Eternal Punishment

This article will explain the first two terms on this list: Hades and Tartarus.

To learn more about Gehenna or the Outer Darkness please read: “What is Hell? Gehenna and the Outer Darkness.”

To learn more about the Lake of Fire, please read: “What is Hell? The Lake of Fire and the Eternal Punishment .”

SUMMARIES

Hades/Sheol is a temporary holding place of the dead until the final judgment. Within Hades are two separated regions: a place of coolness and comfort for the good people which is called, “Abraham’s Bosom”; and a place of agony for the wicked. This region of agony within Hades may be the same place as “Tartarus.”

Tartarus is a dark holding place for the fallen angels and possibly is the region in Hades where the unrighteous are held in agony and torture before their final judgment.

Gehenna and the Outer Darkness are cultural illustrations that describe the shame-filled, bitter, sorrowful experience that a believer in Jesus can experience at his judgment if he is unfaithful. The tragic situations depicted in Gehenna/the Outer Darkness are the worst thing a believer who has the Gift of Eternal Life  can experience. But they do not describe the final end for unfaithful believers. Christ will wipe away their tears and restore them to glory, but the heavenly rewards they could have won on earth (by faith) are lost to them.

The Lake of Fire is the final destination for the devil and his angels. It is where those whose names are not written in the Book of Life shall be cast.

The Eternal Punishment (which is likely the same place as the Lake of Fire) is where unbelievers in Jesus will be condemned to spend eternity away from God.

  1. HADES

Hades is in some respects the simplest of these terms. It means “place of the dead.” Hades is a Greek word that stems directly from Greek mythology. But apparently it was a sufficiently accurate picture for the Jews to use to express biblical thoughts. Acts 2:27 quotes Psalm 16:10 and “Hades” is substituted directly for the Hebrew word “Sheol” which is used throughout the Old Testament to mean “grave,” or “place of the dead.”

Jesus validated this usage of “Hades,” most particularly in His parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In that parable, Jesus depicts the place of the dead as two compartments (one of comfort, the other of agony) that are separated by an impassable gulf. On one side of the gulf is Abraham’s Bosom (paradise, from the description) and on the other side of the gulf is a second compartment containing the rich man, who lives in torment (possibly Tartarus). Abraham’s Bosom is a place of comfort with pleasant coolness and water (Luke 16:24-25). The parable does not name this region, but it is described as a place of agony, flame, and torment (Luke 16:24, 28).

Hades is a real place, as Jesus makes clear. Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). It makes sense that Paradise would be the same place in Hades as Abraham’s Bosom.

Jesus’s descriptions of Abraham’s Bosom (which is a part of Hades) as a place of “comfort” and His promise to the penitent thief on the cross of “Paradise” are the exact opposite of torture and agony. Clearly not everything in Hades is bad or unpleasant. Therefore it does not fit to understand Hades as Gehenna, the Outer Darkness, the Eternal Punishment, or the Lake of Fire because the Bible describes those places in solely negative terms.

However, neither Abraham’s Bosom/Paradise nor the compartment for the wicked in Hades will last forever. This is because Hades is not the ultimate destination for anyone. Neither the saved, nor the damned will remain there forever.

After their judgments, the saved will live forever with God in the New Heaven and on the New Earth (Matthew 25:32-34, 46; Revelation 21:1-3). And after their judgments, the damned will be cast into the eternal Lake of Fire (Matthew 25:31-33, 41, 46; Revelation 20:15). Both Hades and Death are destined to be thrown into the “Lake of Fire” along with the devil and his angels (Revelation 20:10; 14).

Because Hades is only temporary, it cannot be “the Eternal Punishment ” mentioned in Matthew 25:46.

Because Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire, it does not make sense that either it or its agonizing, flame-filled compartment for the wicked could themselves be the Lake of Fire.

As the “place of the dead,” Hades/Sheol was where people’s souls went at death before Christ’s resurrection. Hades appears to be the same place people’s souls go to when they physically die as they await the Day of Judgment and their resurrection.

In the NASB, Hades occurs ten times: Matthew 11:23, Matthew 16:18; Luke 10:15, Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27, Acts 2:31; Revelation 1:18, Revelation 6:8, Revelation 20:13, Revelation 20:14.

In addition to these occurrences, Hades, as a place of the dead, also seems to be what the Apostle Peter may be referring to when he told his readers that Jesus “also went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison” (1 Peter 3:19); and again, when Peter said, that “the gospel has…been preached even to those who are dead” (1 Peter 4:6). These passages indicate that Jesus likely went and preached to those in Abraham’s Bosom and possibly Tartarus also to give the souls in those places the opportunity to be saved.

  1. TARTARUS

As mentioned in the previous section, Tartarus is most likely the bad compartment in the place of the dead. Like Hades, Tartarus comes from Greek mythology. In the Greek mythology, Tartarus was the region of Hades where the wicked people were tortured for their misdeeds in life.

The word Tartarus only appears once in the New Testament—in 2 Peter 2:4. Interestingly, it occurs not as a noun, but a verb, “Tartarosas, from the Greek word “Tartaroo.” It literally means “thrown into Tartarus” or “Tartarus-tossed.”

“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 Peter 2:4)

In this passage, Tartarus is stated to be a holding tank for fallen angels awaiting judgment. This seems to agree with the idea that Tartarus is a type of dark and unpleasant holding compartment for the wicked.

Jude also teaches that God has kept rebellious angels in eternal bonds under darkness until the Day of Judgment (Jude 1:6).

It may be helpful to imagine Abraham’s Bosom and Tartarus as separated regions or different states of being within Hades. Abraham’s Bosom is comforting. Tartarus is agonizing.

Also of interest is the fact that this verse (2 Peter 2:4) is the only place in the NASB where the English word “hell” appears where it is not a translation of Gehenna.” This means that every time users of the NASB encounter the word “hell” in the Bible, that it is actually the term “Gehenna” being used unless it is 2 Peter 2:4.

In summary, the Bible uses Hades/Sheol to describe the place where people go when they die before their final judgment. Hades contains holding compartments for both the righteous (Abraham’s Bosom) where things are pleasant, and the wicked (possibly Tartarus) which is a place of torment and agony. There is a wide gulf in Hades separating the place of paradise from the place of torment.

The Bible explicitly identifies Tartarus as the holding place for fallen angels before they are thrown into the Lake of Fire.

To learn more about Gehenna please read: “What is Hell? Gehenna and the Outer Darkness ”.

To learn more about the Lake of Fire, please read: “What is Hell? The Lake of Fire and the Eternal Punishment




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