Different Levels of Hell

Do the different words translated into english as "hell" actually refer to different levels of hell?

I was recently exposed to a doctrine that I had never heard before. The idea is that there are three Greek words for hell interpreted as Gehenna, Hell, and the Lake of Fire - all with different meanings. As explained to me, Gehenna is where apostate believers go for a time (a millennium), Hell is where the unbelievers go until the final judgment when they are thrown into the Lake of Fire.

In addition to Gehenna I understand that there is another place believers in need of punishment will be sent and that place is the outer darkness (Matt 8:12. 22:13, and 25:30). In these accounts the argument is that Jesus is speaking to believers. In Matthew 8 he refers to the "sons of the Kingdom" being cast out into the outer darkness. In Matthew 22 the guests at the wedding are assumed to be saved but one is throw out. He is not condemned eternally but is punished for his sins in the outer darkness. Matthew 25 refers to servants (or believers) but one is throw out into the outer darkness once again, a believer is thrown out but not eternally. This doctrine is backed by verses such as Mark 9:45-48 (where "hell" is actually Gehenna).

The argument is that Christ is speaking to believers and warning them of the punishment that awaits them if they fail to be faithful. The idea of rewards, such as in Matthew 19:27-30, is that those who DO more for the kingdom will receive more rewards than others and those who are saved but live in sin or apart from God will still be saved from eternal damnation but will be punished in Gehenna (or the outer darkness - this speaks to three levels of heaven - the Kingdom of Heaven, the Outer Darkness, and Gehenna - the believer's hell).

Can you shed some light on this for me?
In the Bible, there are a number of different words for the abode(s) of the deceased. In the Hebrew Old Testament we find terms like "new earth," "Sheol," "Abaddon" and various words for "the pit." In the Greek New Testament and in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), we find terms like "new earth," "Heaven," "Gehenna," "Hades," "Tartarus," "abyss" and "Lake of Fire."


All the following terms are spoken of in terms that indicate that the inhabitants of these realms are conscious and aware.

Sheol is usually translated by "Hades" in the Septuagint. It is a very general term referring commonly to the parts of the world that lie beneath the surface of the earth (e.g., Num. 16:30-33; Deut. 32:22; Isa. 7:11), including the grave (Isa. 14:11), and to the abode of both the righteous (e.g., Ps. 30:3; Eccl. 9:10) and the wicked (e.g., Ps. 9:17) after death. Other Old Testament texts equate Sheol with "death," as does Paul (1 Cor. 15:55 with Hos. 13:14).

Abaddon is a place of destruction in the Old Testament, and Revelation indicates that it is also the name of the angel of the abyss (Rev. 9:11). It is frequently associated with Sheol (Job 26:6; Prov. 15:11; 27:20), and sometimes with death (Job 28:22) or a tomb (Ps. 88:11).

"The pit" is usually a hole in the ground, i.e., a grave. However, in some instances it may refer to the collective abode of the dead (Isa. 14:15-19).

The Bible distinguishes heaven as a temporary place of blessing for disembodied believers (2 Cor. 5:6-8).

After the general resurrection, believers will leave heaven and live perpetually on the New Earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1).

Gehenna is a place of punishment, torment and destruction (e.g., Matt. 5:22; 10:28; 23:33; Mark 9:43), and it is characterized by fire (Matt. 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:43; Jam. 3:6). It would seem that the spirits in Gehenna are not disembodied (e.g., Matt. 5:29,30; 10:28), which suggests that it is at least a place of eternal punishment after the general resurrection (John 5:28-29). But Gehenna also appears to exist and to be an active force in the present (Jam. 3:6), before the resurrection, suggesting that it is also a place of disembodied torment prior to the judgment.

The Lake of Fire is mentioned only in Revelation (Rev. 19:20; 20:10,14,15; 21:8), where it is described as the final place of torment for the wicked. Gehenna is not mentioned in Revelation. Judging from the descriptions of Gehenna and the Lake of Fire, they seem to be one and the same.

Hades is used in the New Testament to refer to the abode of the wicked after death (Luke 10:15) and for the grave or tomb of the righteous (Acts 2:27-29). In Revelation, it is closely associated with "death" (Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13,14). It is mentioned in Luke 16 in the context of the story/parable of Lazarus and Dives. Scholars are divided in their opinions as to whether Jesus affirmed this view of Hades or simply borrowed it for the sake of an illustration. Potentially, it affirms that Hades may legitimately be used to refer to a place where unbelievers are tormented before the judgment.

In Revelation, the Abyss is mentioned mainly as the abode of demonic forces and curses (Rev. 9:1,2,11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1; 20:3), and the same is true in Luke 8:31. But in Romans 10:7 Paul speaks of the Abyss simply as the abode of the dead, and specifically as where Christ went when he died. Since the Bible indicates that Jesus did not suffer torment after his death (Luke 23:46), the Abyss does not appear to be restricted to the wicked and to demons. The word "abyss" itself refers to a deep or bottomless pit, so that the image is closely associated with "the pit" and perhaps with "Abaddon." Probably, its meaning is as broad as that of "Sheol" and "Hades."

Tartarus is only used once, so we have very little information on it. It is where the fallen angels are temporarily imprisoned (2 Pet. 2:4), prior to the judgment. It is also associated with the idea of a pit. It may have been used exclusively as a description of a place of punishment, but we can't be sure based on its one appearance. It use in reference to the abode of the demons makes it a close match with "Abyss." Since the Abyss is probably not for the wicked exclusively, Tartarus may also be a place for the righteous.

Hell is an English catch-all term that different translations use in different ways. It is not directly related to any of the terms in the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures.

Outer darkness is a term used in Matthew to refer to a place of cursing, cut off from the blessings of God (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). It is fairly equivalent to Gehenna, except that we have no references to it that mention fire. Tartarus is also described as being in darkness (2 Pet. 2:4). It is reserved for those who are not of God's elect (Matt. 22:14), that is, for unbelievers.

The Millennium is the current age, spanning the entire time between the first and second advents of Christ. For further info, see the following Q&A's:
What is the purpose of the millennium?
Rapture, Millennium Wrath

Analysis of the Terms

As you can see, there is quite a bit of overlap between many of the terms listed above. The doctrine of the afterlife is not laid out very clearly in the Old Testament, and in fact most texts that speak of it do so only in the vaguest terms. It is in the New Testament that we find more detailed information. But that does not mean that we should ignore the implications of the Old Testament.

For example, Sheol can mean a wide variety of things, and "Hades" is the Greek word most commonly used to translate Sheol in all its uses in the Septuagint. Therefore, we ought to expect the meaning of "Hades" in the New Testament to be as broad as the meaning of "Sheol" in the Old Testament. And in fact, this expectation seems to be fulfilled.

In general, it would appear that "Sheol" and "Hades," as well as "Abaddon," "the pit" and "Abyss," and perhaps even "Tartarus," largely cover the same semantic ground. They are perhaps nuanced differently, but we probably ought not to make hard and fast theological distinctions between them. These terms do not give us a clear picture of what happens to people when they die, or of what happens to them after the judgment.

On the other hand, there seems to be sufficient data to indicate that Gehenna is the Lake of Fire, and that it is exclusively a place of punishment. "Outer darkness" also seems to refer to this place. By contrast, "heaven" and "new earth" are exclusively places of blessing.

The error we ought to seek to avoid is creating a system of theology based on limited uses of these various words. Each use of each word contains only a little bit of the picture. We ought not to infer from the various uses of the words that words that are not used in precisely the same manner actually refer to different things. Consider, for example, that I describe my car to a variety of people who later compare notes:

  • I tell Joe that I have a silver two-door.
  • I tell Bob that I have a small import.
  • I tell Pete that my car has lots of black trim.

All these reports are correct, all contain different data, none of the data overlaps, but all the descriptions refer to the same vehicle. I might also have many names for my vehicle, such as "my car," "the Nissan," and "Old Faithful." Different names and different descriptions don't necessarily indicate different things.

Now, imagine I want to describe Gehenna. I explain that it is a place where:

  • Unbelievers are disembodied.
  • Unbelievers are not disembodied.
  • Unbelievers are tormented.
  • There is fire.
  • Unbelievers are in darkness.

All these reports are correct, all contain different data, none of the data overlaps, but all the descriptions refer to the same place, albeit at different times regarding "1" and "2." I might also call this place "the Lake of Fire" and "hell," but compounding names doesn't mean I have mentioned more than one place. If each name indicated a different place, we would have to say that as Christians we worship a whole host of Gods, for God has many, many names and titles in Scripture. In summary, we do not need to imagine that each word or description we encounter refers to a different place.

Theological Implications

We can make a number of theological assertions with an extremely high degree of certainty:

  1. Demons are currently imprisoned until the judgment (2 Pet. 2; Jude).
  2. When believers die, their disembodied souls go to heaven until the resurrection and judgment (2 Cor. 5).
  3. When unbelievers die, their disembodied souls are imprisoned and tormented until the judgment (Luke 16; cf. comments on Gehenna above). The other option here is to see them in a shadowy, limited, restricted, hopeless existence like that sometimes associated with Sheol in the Old Testament. Or perhaps these two ideas are actually different perspectives on the same thing.
  4. After the resurrection and judgment, believers live perpetually on the new earth in their resurrected bodies (1 Cor. 15; John 5:28-29; Rev. 21).
  5. After the resurrection and judgment, unbelievers and demons dwell perpetually in Gehenna, a.k.a. the Lake of Fire, (Matt. 5; Rev. 19-21).

In light of assertion "1" above, I should add at this point that the Bible completely refutes the idea that any believer may ever be considered wicked or be subjected to punishment of any sort in the afterlife. All believers are counted as perfectly righteous in Christ (e.g., Rom. 3:21-26; 5:17-18; 8:10-11; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal 2:19-21; Phil. 3:9-11), and therefore all believers go to heaven when they die, and reign on the new earth with Christ after the resurrection. There is no such thing as a "believer's hell," temporary or otherwise that idea is basically the Protestant version of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory (cf. the Q&A on that subject: Purgatory).

Along these lines, the "sons of the kingdom" (Matt. 8:12) who are cast into outer darkness are not believers. A "son of the kingdom" is one who is in covenant with God, not one who is saved. All who are part of the visible people of God are in covenant with him. In our day, the covenant people are the visible church. In Jesus' day, the covenant community was the nation of Israel. All the covenant people are children of the kingdom, regardless of whether or not they are saved. Those who are believers receive the covenant blessings; those who are unbelievers fall under the covenant curses. In Matthew 8:10-12, the "sons of the kingdom" were the Jews. Jesus' point was that many Jews would not believe, and therefore would fall under the covenant curses, whereas many Gentiles would come to faith and receive the covenant blessings that had originally been offered to these same Jews.

Similarly, in Matthew 22, being invited to the dinner is not equivalent to being saved. Rather, it is equivalent to being offered the gospel. The man who was cast out responded to the gospel, but not in a saving manner. When the master of the feast saw that the man's faith was not genuine, he cast him out. The explanation was that the man was not "chosen" or "elected," that is, he was not predestined to salvation, and he never came to faith.

And again, in Matthew 25, we see the same thing. The servant is not a believer, but simply one who is obligated to do what the master says. Since he is unfaithful/disobedient, he is punished. The application Jesus makes of this parable is that during the judgment Jesus will punish the wicked and reward the faithful. Clearly the servant was one of the wicked and not one of the faithful. The parallel to Jesus' audience was that some of the Jews who heard him speak obeyed him and came to faith, while others rejected him. They were all servants in his house, but only some were good servants.

Likewise, in Mark 9:45-48 Jesus was not talking exclusively to believers Judas was there, but he was never a believer. In any event, it is true that if believers fall away, they will perish. What is not true is that the Holy Spirit will allow such a thing to take place. Nevertheless, remaining faithful takes effort. This is why in Reformed circles we deny the doctrine of eternal security, but affirm the doctrine of perseverance of the saints (see Losing Your Salvation). Believers must be encouraged to remain faithful, and must pursue fidelity with energy.

I should also add that there is actually no such thing as an "apostate believer." By definition, an apostate is not a believer. An apostate is one who falsely professes faith, but then abandons that profession. Because the Holy Spirit preserves all believers, no believer may ever fall from grace in this way. For a more extensive treatment of this subject, see the Q&A Losing Your Salvation.

The idea of rewards does not pertain to punishment (cf. Matt. 17:27-30). A reward is a good thing; punishment is a bad thing. All believers will be rewarded in varying degrees, but none will be punished.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.