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Q. Is there a difference between Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Tarturus? Does it matter if there is?
It's fascinating that the New Testament does list several words commonly translated "hell." But, just as heaven is progressive - an intermediate state followed by the new earth and heavens - so is hell.
One word translated "hell" is the "Abyss" or the bottomless pit. The term "abussos" is mentioned nine times in the New Testament.
From its description it seems to be a place where certain groups of demons are held. It is probably located at the center of a planet because it is only from this vantage point that all directions point "up." That makes it "bottomless."
Demons Terrified of Abyss
For example, when Jesus healed the demoniac and sent his demons into the herd of pigs, those evil spirits begged Jesus not to send them into the abyss (see Luke 8:28). They were terrified of this place of confinement.
Certain demons from the abyss will be released for five months during the Tribulation period (Revelation 9:1-5). This is also the same place where Satan will be confined during the millennial kingdom on earth (see Revelation 20:1-3).
There is only one referral to "Tartarus" in the New Testament. Second Peter 2:4-8 refers to a dark pit where angels who sinned in Noah's day are confined. It may be a dark, cold, dank moon or planet somewhere in the universe or it could exist in another dimension.
These particular angels are held in Tarturus until the final judgment at the great White throne judgment mentioned in Revelation 20:11-15. In other words, Tarturus seems to be the holding cell before the angels are cast into the penitentiary for good.
This Greek word shows up ten times in the New Testament. It could mean just the "grave" as it appears to in Acts 2:7 and verse 31. It also appears to mean grave from its Hebrew counterpart, "Sheol."
"One enters Sheol by "the gates of Sheol" (Isa. 38:10) or "the gates of death" (Job 38:17, Ps. 9:14, 107:18). (Morgan 2004, 46). But, Hades could also be a temporary confinement until final sentence to Gehenna.
This is the most common word for "hell." It occurs twelve times in the New Testament. We find it in places like Matthew 5:22, Luke 12:5 and James 3:6. Check your Bibles for other references to hell from these passages.
This is the final place for Satan, the sinning angels in Noah's time, the demons found in the abyss, and for unrepentant mankind. (See Revelation 20:10, 14-15).
Roots of Gehenna
The word comes from a place west of the city of Jerusalem where child sacrifices were once practiced. Then it turned into a city dump where the fires were kept stoked and burning. It was filled with worms and maggots and produced a terrible stench.
County Jail to the Penitentiary
Gehenna is also called the "lake of fire and brimstone" and is the place of the second death where all those who were in the "county jail" are now sentenced to eternal life in the fiery "penitentiary."
Gehenna could be a literal place in the universe - perhaps a star or a burning dungeon as sometimes portrayed in vivid science fiction movies. Or it could exist in another dimension. Whatever it is we don't want to go there.
Let's sum up these areas:
The Abyss is the bottomless pit (center of a planetary sphere) where certain demons await final judgment.
Tarturus holds sinful angels of Noah's time.
Hades is the underworld of temporary confinement for souls prior to final judgment at the Great White Throne judgment. Its Hebrew counterpart, Sheol, may just refer to the grave.
Gehenna is the final penitentiary for all demons, sinning angels, and unrepentant man.
These are the distinctions between the four words commonly translated "hell" in our Bibles. They matter in so far as they described in Scripture. They must be there for us to learn about and understand. Jesus referred to "hell" more than any other person in the Bible, and He referred to "hell" more than he referenced "heaven." So it must matter.
His Personhood&Redemptive Work
But, the final question is who do you think Jesus is? Is he who he said he was? Or is he just a great teacher and prophet? What you decide about the Lord Jesus determines your future. What you decide about Messiah's personhood, lordship and redemptive work is precisely relevant. Forever. That's what really counts in the end:
"The end of the matter - all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13014, ESV).
Who judges all men in this passage from Ecclesiastes?
Lord Yeshua - Jesus the Messiah (Revelation 20:11-15).
Please…Get to know Him.
Alcorn, Randy. 2004. Heaven. Carol Stream, ILL: Tyndale.
Hitchcock, Mark. 2005. 55 Answers to questions about life after death. Sisters, OR: Multnomah.
Morgan, Chris and Robert Peterson. 2004. Hell under fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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