Sheol, Hades, Hell and Gehenna: What’s the difference?
"Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames"
Sheol and Hades
“Sheol is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Hades, which means ‘the unseen world.’” (Youngblood, 1053) The Hebrews believed Sheol is an underground, dark and melancholy place where disembodied souls, called shades, live a dull and inactive existence. Both good and evil people were believed to go to Sheol when they die.
God cares for the righteous and the wicked suffer in Sheol. Jesus tells us, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), that Sheol, or Hades, is divided into two separate places, a fiery side, and a side with water, and that the people in each place, though separated by an uncrossable chasm, are aware of each other.
In Hades, where he [the rich man] was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” (Lk 16:23-26)
People on the fairer side of Hades are said to be comfortable in “Abraham’s bosom.”1 Note that the water in Hades recalls baptism, Jesus’ side pierced on the Cross, and the living water symbolism found in other prophetic books like Ezekiel and Revelation (Jn 19:34; Ez 36:25; Rev 21:6, 22:1).
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Rev 22:1)
Hell and Gehenna
Hell is “the place of eternal punishment for the unrighteous ….” (Youngblood, 498) The word translates to Gehenna in Greek which means “the vale of Hinnom” – a valley located southwest of Jerusalem where the Canaanites and some Hebrew kings worshipped demons and sacrificed children.
King Josiah defiled the valley to make it unfit for pagan worship and it was used as a garbage dump during Jesus’ time, where a fire was made to burn continuously.2 The Book of Revelation describes hell as a lake of fire where the devil, the two beasts, death (Hades) and all of those whose names are not written in the Book of Life will be cast at the end of time (Rev 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8).
Hell or Gehenna is different from Hades (Sheol) in that only the wicked will be sent to hell at the end of time, after the final judgment, and it is a place of eternal torment, or enhanced suffering, rather than a dull place where there is an absence of life like there is in Hades.
The New Testament tells us the fallen angels (demons) are chained up in “hell,” but the Greek word used is ταρταρόω (tartaroō or Tartaros), which is different from the word used by Jesus which is γέεννα (geenna or Gehenna).
For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment…. (2 Pt 2:4).
“Thus, Tartaros, like Hades, is a waiting room, but one into which the wicked are cast and, in some sense, punished (darkness, chains).” (Powell, 374)
Sheol (Hades) was understood by ancient Hebrews to be a kind of waiting room where good and evil people wait for the final judgment. Good people are cared for by God in Sheol, while the wicked suffer, but not like the punishment of hell. It seems that punishment in Sheol was more of a state of discomfort and darkness.
After the final judgment, the wicked will be cast into hell (Gehenna) for eternity along with Hades, Satan, his demons, and the two beasts of Revelation. Hell is more horrible than words can describe, but we know from what Jesus told us that it can be compared to the smelly, filthy valley of Hinnom where maggot ridden corpses and putrid garbage burned day and night.
Today, Catholics believe that Jesus descended into hell (Abraham’s bosom in Hades or Sheol) after his crucifixion to release the souls of the righteous and, following that event, those who die face an individual judgment where their souls are purified in purgatory and eventually go to heaven, or go to heaven immediately, or go to hell (where the rich man is) immediately. Then, at the end of time, both the righteous and the wicked will be resurrected, body and soul united once again, and will face the final judgment, at which time they will go to heaven in their glorified bodies, as Jesus Christ did, or they will be cast into the eternal fires of hell.
Most other Christians do not believe in purgatory and some believe that we “sleep” in death until the final day of judgment when we are resurrected, so from the time of death until the final judgment, the bodies and souls of the dead are completely unconscious according to their understanding of the afterlife.
Powell, Mark Allan, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Youngblood, Ronald F., ed. Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary: New and Enhanced Edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.
Though this phrase is not used in the New Revised Standard Version, it is used in the King James, Douay-Rheims, and Revised Standard Version translations.
“During the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BCE–70 CE) the concept of a Bosom of Abraham first occurs in Jewish papyri that refer to the “Bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. This reflects the belief of Jewish martyrs who died expecting that: “after our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers will praise us” (4 Maccabees 13:17). Other early Jewish works adapt the Greek mythical picture of Hades to identify the righteous dead as being separated from unrighteous in the fires by a river or chasm. In the pseudepigraphical Apocalypse of Zephaniah the river has a ferryman equivalent to Charon in Greek myth, but replaced by an angel. On the other side in the Bosom of Abraham: “You have escaped from the Abyss and Hades, now you will cross over the crossing place...to all the righteous ones, namely Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah and David.” In this story Abraham was not idle in the Bosom of Abraham, he acted as intercessor for those in the fiery part of Hades.” (Bosom of Abraham, Wikipedia)
Garbage, dead animals and executed criminals were disposed in the valley of Hinnom making it a filthy and smelly place. Maggots were plentiful there and at night the howling of dogs fighting over scraps of garbage could be heard. Jesus compared hell to the valley of Hinnom (Mk 9:48).