References to "Hell" in the Bible
I would like to know how many references are there in the Old and New Testaments to "Hell".
Concepts of 'hell' in the Bible are varied and complicated.
The answer isn’t as straightforward as we would think.
Remember that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew (the Old Testament) and Greek (the New Testament) with a smattering of Aramaic mixed in. When translators try to bring those ancient languages into English (or whatever modern language) they are often faced with words that don’t have an exact equivalent in the modern language. To deal with that, they try either to use a longer phrase or to bring the original word into the modern language and let us figure it out. The word “Amen” is an example of the latter. The Hebrew word is amen and means “so be it.” But English translators decided that rather than use the longer phrase, they would just import the word, and now the word amen exists on its own in English.
That understanding can help when looking at other words and concepts in the Bible. Like, for instance, “hell.”
In the King James Version of the Bible, the English word “hell” occurs 54 times, 31 in the Old Testament and 23 in the New Testament. However, the underlying words in Hebrew and Greek do not have the same meaning. Those 54 occurrences represent four different words in the original languages and most don’t mean a place of fiery torment for the wicked. Here’s a breakdown.
1. Sheol. All 31 occurrences of the word “hell” used by the KJV in the Old Testament represent the underlying Hebrew word Sheol. That’s a word that doesn’t really have a good English equivalent, since the understanding of death and the afterlife that it represents is an ancient and not a modern idea in Jewish and Christian thought. Some other English translations just pull Sheol right into English (like with the word “amen”) for that reason, especially since the English word “hell” today conjures up a much different meaning.
I talk about the concept of Sheol in another answer on our site, which you can find here: https://www.massbible.org/exploring-the-bible/ask-a-prof/answers/bible-and-afterlife. The bottom line for Sheol is that it literally meant “the grave pit” and to the degree that they thought there was any kind of afterlife at all (many didn’t) it was just a grey, shadowy existence and was the same destination for the wicked and the righteous as well as the animals. The place of fiery torment for the wicked that we conjure up when we hear the word “hell” is totally absent from the concept of Sheol.
2. Gehenna. Twelve of the NT occurrences of the word “hell” in the KJV are a translation of the Greek word, Gehenna. Those twelve places are Matt. 5:22, Matt. 5:29, Matt. 5:30, Matt. 10:28, Matt. 18:9, Matt. 23:15, Matt. 23:33, Mark 9:45, Mark 9:45, Mark 9:47, Luke 12:5, and James 3:6.
Gehenna is a physical place in this world—a valley just outside the city of Jerusalem. Here’s the Wikipedia page about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gehenna. With a history of child sacrifice in that place, it was thought of as a cursed and eventually became the trash pit for the city, which meant it was constantly burning.
As beliefs about the afterlife evolved (the main topic of that previous question I linked), the thought that God would treat the wicked differently than the righteous after death emerged; and when they searched for a way to describe what could happen to the wicked, there was a handy metaphor just outside the city gates. Throw them on the burning trash heap and let them burn just as the wicked in days gone by had burned innocent children. You might think of it as a more dramatic form of "an eye for an eye.”
So, unlike Sheol, Gehenna is only for the wicked and does represent fiery torment, taken right out of their day-to-day experience with the burning trash outside the city—a fire that never went out.
3. Hades. Ten of the NT occurrences of the word “hell” in the KJV are a translation of the Greek word Hades, which is the name of the Greek god of the underworld. Those ten places are: Matt. 11:23, Matt. 16:18, Luke 10:15, Luke 16:23, Acts 2:27, Acts 2:31, Rev. 1:18, Rev. 6:8, Rev. 20:13, Rev. 20:14. It also shows up translated as simply “grave” in 1 Cor. 15:55.
The word Hades is more like Sheol than it is like Gehenna. By New Testament times, the ideas of the afterlife include different outcomes for the righteous and the wicked so, unlike Sheol, the New Testament doesn’t think everyone goes to Hades. But Hades doesn’t contain the idea of either fire or torment. The different outcomes implied by the word Hades are that the wicked die while the righteous have eternal life. No fire involved—upon death of the body, the soul of the wicked dies too while the soul of the righteous lives.
The only passage above where fire comes in is Rev. 20:14 where both death (thanatos—the death of the physical body) and hell (hades—the death of the soul) are cast into a lake of fire—presumably to cleanse the world of all forms of death so that only life remains.
4. Tartarus. The final word translated as “hell” in the KJV is the word Tartaroo. In Greek mythology, Tartarus was both a primordial deity and a place. The only use of the word in the KJV is in 2 Peter 2:4. This is sort of a Greek equivalent to Gehenna, in that it is a place of torment, although the Greeks didn’t have the burning trash pit to reference so fire isn’t a necessary part of the equation.
Tartarus for the Greeks was deep below Hades and was a place of torment for the worst of the worst—especially those who posed a threat to the gods, although the idea of it also changed across time and the Greek and Roman ideas about it differed slightly. Here’s the Wikipedia article where you can get a sense of it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartarushttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartarus.
All of that probably raises more questions than it answers, but it’s helpful to know that the concept of hell in the Bible evolved over time as the Israelites came into contact with (and were conquered by) other empires—especially Greece and Rome.