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What are the meanings of Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, and Tartarus?

Each is a Hebrew or Greek word that was translated “hell” in the King James Version (KJV). Unhappily this can mislead readers about the place of final punishment. Sheol is the common Hebrew word for grave, or the realm of the dead, and hades is its exact equivalent in Greek. Most modern versions retain the word hades or another with “grave” meaning, rather than with a word like hell that implies eternal fi re. Hades is found ten times in the New Testament, and KJV translates “hell” every time. But neither sheol nor hades has strong connection to the destruction of the wicked. Their end, according to Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15, is in a lake of fire. Revelation 20:14, in fact, says that hades itself will be cast into that lake of fire. This makes sense if we assign hades its true meaning of death and the grave, but not if it means hell-fire, as often thought. Jesus went to hell, according to Acts 2:31 (KJV). Everything in this chapter and elsewhere leads us to conclude that hades here means that Christ was merely in the tomb awaiting His resurrection, nowhere else. The word gehenna occurs twelve times in the New Testament; each time the KJV translates “hell.” While gehenna offers a preview of future destruction for the wicked, it does not mean “hell” as that word is usually understood. Gehenna was the fi rst century name for the Valley of Hinnom, or Tophet, in Jerusalem — the city dump where garbage of all kinds was thrown for burning or to rot and be consumed. The fires of gehenna were never extinguished, and items deposited there were soon devoured by the flames or the ever-present worms. Well aware of this local landmark, Jesus used gehenna to represent the fate of those who face fiery judgment at last (Rev. 20:1115). Tartarus is found only once in the Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4. The meaning is near to that of sheol and hades. In the dark pit of Tartarus the angels that sinned await their eternal fate. Tartarus (or “hell,” as often translated) can hardly be a place of fiery, eternal torment, since this verse goes on to say that these angels are in darkness and awaiting judgment, not experiencing it. The meaning and usage of these four Bible words suggests that traditional Christian concepts of hell are largely mythical and in need of revision. — Elder Calvin Burrell

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