Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna

Extract from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

“Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25)

Where the soul goes after death is beyond the reach of scientific investigation. Our only secure knowledge comes from revelation and tradition, sources that, in the main, the modern world has rejected. In the West most people do not believe that anything spiritual happens after death: the sense of being alive comes from the electrical activity of the brain’s neurons, which somehow create the illusion of being a conscious soul, and the illusion ceases when the activity ceases. Others are less sure. Is death really just a return to nothingness? If it is not, what awaits us? Theologians ought to know but are divided. Some hold that ‘hell’ (still a common word in discussion) is a place where the damned are or will be in constant torment, a divinely ordained everlasting Auschwitz, to which at the resurrection even many victims of the earthly Auschwitz will find themselves awaking. Others hold that the torment will eventu¬ally end, and then its occupants will either be annihilated or admitted to heaven. Others find it difficult to believe there is any such place.
Rift at Dabbahu
The rift that opened up in 2006 at Dabbahu, northern Ethiopia.

The Old Testament refers mainly to a place called Sheol, or sometimes just ‘the pit’. The New Testament equivalent is Hades, the Greek name adopted by the Septuagint to translate the name (e.g. Acts 2:27). Sheol is the underworld, a region of darkness under the earth (Nu 16:33, Ps 88:6) where the spirit goes when it leaves the body. Everyone goes there, the righteous and the unrighteous. According to Ecclesiastes, man suffers the same fate as the beasts: all have a spirit, and at death all return to the dust from which the body originated. The spirit returns to God and is unconscious. ‘The living know they will die, but the dead know nothing. … There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol.’ (Ecc 9:5, 10, Ps 6:5) But they can be temporarily roused to consciousness and be summoned by witchcraft (I Sam 28:15). After judgement, some will suffer torment (Lu 16:19ff). The ‘pangs of Sheol’ in Psalm 116 refer to the throes of dying rather than to what is experienced after death.

At the end of the millennium Hades gives up the dead under the land, and the sea gives up the dead that are in the sea (Rev 20:13). The sea is here the equivalent of the terrestrial underworld (Jon 2:2f). Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, likened her conception of a child after years of barrenness to the resur¬rection of the dead (to which there are numerous references in the Old Testament). “Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.”

When Christ tells Peter that he will build his church and the ‘gates of hell will not prevail against it’, the word is Hades, as it is when Paul quotes Hosea: ‘O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ There is no sense that the place of the dead before the resurrection is one of torment, and there is no implicit reference to the Devil. Christ is saying that death will not be able to hold his people in captivity. Death is the penalty of sin, but, being without sin, he conquered death when he died and gave up his life as a ransom, allowing him to enter Hades and rescue many from it.

Those who die believing in Christ are said to ‘sleep’ (I Cor 15:6, 18, Eph 5:14, I Thes 4:13), a meta¬phor for non-consciousness. Their state is the same as that of others who have died, but at the resurrection their sins will have been forgiven and they will pass from death to life (John 5:24, 8:52). They will not go through a second death when they are judged but will receive life in its fullness. The verb ‘die’ is never used.

At the end of the millennium Hades will give up its dead, and the sea give up its dead (Rev 20:13). The sea is here the equivalent of the terrestrial underworld (Jon 2:2f). Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, likened her conception of a child after years of barrenness to the resur¬rection of the dead. “Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.”

‘Hell’, a word of Germanic origin, owes much of its present meaning – its evocation of demons, flames and eternal torment – to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and literary works such as Dante’s Inferno and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The lurid imagery may have its fascination, but as a translation of Hades the word is misleading. According to the New Testament, the Devil rules the earth, not the underworld (John 12:31), and the only tormented souls are those possessed by demons above ground, not under it. Satan is locked up only at the end of the present age.

Abaddon/ Tartarus/ the abyss

Abaddon, mentioned in Job, Psalms and Proverbs, refers to the place that the Greeks called Tartaros (II Pet 2:4). In both Hebrew and Greek it was so named after the angel, or god, who had charge of this deepest region (Rev 9:11). Deeper than Hades, it was where the spirits of those who lived before the Flood were detained, together with the angels who had copulated with women (Gen 6:2, 4, Jude 6). Christ visited both regions and led some of the human captives out (Matt 27:53, Luke 23:43, I Pet 3:19). He thereby demonstrated that he had authority over both heaven and earth (Eph 4:10).

This was why mankind was not immediately terminated with the first couple. They were allowed to live and bear offspring under the same sentence of death that they were under until the earth was filled. Although announced at the end of the ages, the gospel had retrospective effect: forgiveness of sins through Christ’s substitutionary atonement was preached even to the dead. Despite their former failure to repent, tens of thousands of years later they were granted a second chance (I Pet 4:6). Those who responded to his message were liberated and became the first-fruits of his victory, ‘the firstborn enrolled in heaven’ (Heb 12:23). Israel’s festival of first-fruits was a celebratory foreshadowing of that spiritual harvest (I Cor 15:20). It was held on the day after the weekly sabbath following the Passover. In AD 30 Passover occurred on the Thursday and the following weekly Sabbath was the day of Christ’s resurrection.

Passage to the underworld at Tel Mozan
The passage to the underworld excavated at Tel Mozan, Syria. The bones of dozens of sacrificed animals were found in the pit. Texts show that they were used to purify the supplicant (often the king) before he summoned up the spirits from below.

In Revelation Tartarus is called ‘the abyss’ (abussos means ‘bottomless’), the word used in the Septuagint for the subterranean deep, tehom, that watered the original earth from below. It was a physical place. After the Flood the abyss became the dwelling place of demons, connected to the world of the living by a volcanic shaft (Rev 9:1). Demons were depicted in the art of many ancient peoples, from Mesopotamia to South Amer¬ica, which represented them as part human, part animal. Babylonia’s ‘scorpion men’, for instance, had a human head, the talons and hindquarters of a bird and a scorpion tail. They can be understood as unfettered spirits of the antediluvian world come up from Tartarus. Having once had bodies, they look to take over the minds and bodies of the living. Even possession of a pig’s body is preferable to returning to the abyss. In the age to come they will suffer torment, as they are aware (Matt 8:29).

According to the Greeks, the supreme god in the beginning was Ouranos (Uranus), a name that simply meant ‘Heaven’. He was married to Gaia (‘Earth’), at a time when the God of heaven lived on earth and there was no divorce between the two domains. However, as in other traditions, men became wicked and rebellious. Many of Ouranos’s sons, called Titans, were involved in the rebellion. Eventually a Titan named Kronos emasculated Ouranos with a knife and reigned on earth in his place, but he could not rest. Haunted by a prophecy that one of his sons would overthrow him, Kronos swallowed his own sons as soon as they were born – including Poseidon and Hades – and imprisoned them in his stomach. It was to no avail. Unbeknown to Kronos, there was another son, Zeus, and when he reached manhood Zeus forced his father to vomit up his children. War broke out between the Titans headed by Kronos and the younger gods headed by Zeus. Great boulders (i.e. asteroids) crashed down from the heights of heaven and crushed the Titans. Sea and earth resounded with the clamour, the firmament groaned, torrential rain flooded the earth. Some men tried to escape to the hilltops but were overwhelmed by the waters. Only one couple, righteous and God-fearing, survived, floating in a wooden ark or chest, and eventually they came to land on Mount Parnassus. The defeated Titans were chained up in Tartarus, Poseidon was allotted the dominion of the ocean, and Hades the dominion of the underworld.

The parallels between the two traditions, Greek and Hebrew, are striking. Since the Greeks and Israelites were too remote from each other for borrowing to be plausible and culturally too disparate, it must be that both traditions had the same root. Ouranos was the God of heaven, Kronos one of his sons. In the Hebrew tradition the son assumed the form of a legged serpent (a dragon or lizard) and rebelled against his father. In consequence, his offspring (Gen 3:15; John 8:44, Eph 2:2) were destined to be at enmity with the primeval woman’s offspring, though eventually one of her descendants would bruise his head. In the Greek tradition the dragon, called Typhon or Python, was the issue of Gaia mating with Tartarus. Zeus, son of Kronos, assuming the same identity as Ouranos (his name meant ‘shining one’ or ‘god of heaven’), presented himself as having already defeated the dragon, possibly in the Flood itself if the waters represented the dragon. He was the new ruler of the world. The Titans – ‘the former gods’ in Hesiod’s phrase – were brothers of Kronos, fellow sons of Ouranos. In order to have intercourse with women, they also had abandoned their proper places in heaven, and the Cyclopes were the giants born of their union.

Hebrew Sumerian Greek
Elohim (God) Anu/Ellil Ouranos
Sons of Elohim (angels) Anunnaki (first gods) Titans
Pre-Flood men Igigi Pre-Flood men
Nephilim (giants) Cyclopes
Serpent Tiamat Kronos
Seed of the Serpent Qingu Typhon
Seed of Eve Marduk Zeus
Sons of Elohim Igigi (later gods) Olympians
Angels imprisoned in the abyss Anunnaki imprisoned in the underworld (Kur) Titans imprisoned in Tartarus

There are also striking parallels with the traditions of the Sumerians and the Babylonians, who succeeded them (see table). In their view of the cosmos, heaven and earth each had three levels. The highest level of the earth was the land of the living, the middle level the world of the dead, the lowest level the haunt of the Anunnaki. Before the cataclysmic battle with the dragon Tiamat, the Anunnaki resided in heaven; thereafter they resided in the equivalent of Tartarus. The Sumerian ziggurats were edifices that simulated the different tiers of heaven and earth, with a stairway above ground leading up to the city of God and a shaft at the foot of the ziggurat connecting to the city of the dead. In later designs all six levels of the cosmos were incorporated into the tower, plus a seventh for Marduk, the Zeus-like saviour and king of kings.

The stairway of the ziggurat also had two subsidiary stairways leading at right angles to the main one, so that, seen from above, the stairways formed a cross. In a dream Jacob saw something like a ziggurat when he journeyed to Mesopotamia to find a wife. A stairway led from earth to heaven, and on it angels of God ascended and descended, just as gods were believed to do in the polytheistic system. When Jesus said that his hearers would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on himself, he was saying that his death on the cross would open up the way to heaven (John 1:51). More than that, he himself would descend to the depths and ascend to the heights. Through him God was to effect the reconciliation of earth and heaven, so that all things might be united in him.

Left: ziggurat at Ur, following the typical 3rd millennium design. Right: reconstruction of Nebuchadrezzar’s ziggurat at Babylon, from the 1st millennium BC. The uppermost level was always occupied by the god who owned the city, Suen in the case of Ur, Marduk in the case of Babylon.
Geological history

These understandings may seem unreal from a vantage which limits the cosmos to what is physical and measurable. We see only what our minds are willing to see, whereas the Sumerians, the Hebrews and the Greeks believed that the world of gods and demons was as real as the visible, if not more so, and lived accordingly. They sacrificed to them, invoked them, lived in fear of them. In many parts of Asia, Africa and South America men still do.

Nonetheless, belief in the existence of Hades and Tartarus is not incompatible with what science has discovered about the world. The Deluge of which the traditions bear witness has its geological counterpart in the cataclysm which destroyed the earth in the geological era called the Hadean. Whether the earth was populated then is beyond the reach of science, but we do know that it was eventually pulverised by asteroids (‘boulders from the heights of heaven’) and flooded by water. The original world was subducted under the rims of the impact basins and became an underworld. In its place, magma welled up through the impact basins to form new continents. The fossils later buried in sediments record the progressive recolonisation of the new continents by bacteria, algae, plankton, flora and fauna.

The earth before the cataclysm had three tiers: the land on top, beneath that a vast ocean called the deep, and beneath that, an initially undifferentiated interior. Over time, the energy released by thermonuclear fusion caused the interior to heat up and differentiate into mantle and core, until the temperature and pressure were so great that the waters burst through the land (Gen 7:11). The world was thrown into chaos. Those who perished during the cataclysm joined those who were already buried in the earth, as they entered an abyss largely emptied of water and filled with magma. The Greeks called the reconstituted region Tartarus; modern geologists call it the aesthenosphere, the uppermost mantle beneath the present crust. It is truly bottomless – there is no sharp boundary between it and the mantle lower down. Meanwhile new land formed volcanically and hypabyssally on top of the old. Thus the earth after the cataclysm also had three tiers: the crust, the mantle, and the iron core. Hades lay within the crust, Tartarus underneath it.

Obviously, although both Hades and Tartarus have a physical location, as places of the dead they are non-physical. The dead in Hades and the angels and demons in Tartarus are invisible. The same is true of heaven, which as the dwelling place of God has no physical form. But it is still appropriate to say that heaven is above, Hades and Tartarus below.

Pauline references to ‘the heavenlies’ (ouranios, the adjective used as a noun and often translated with the implied noun added, ‘heavenly places’) refer to heaven’s different levels. Paul says that there are three (II Cor 12:2f). The highest is ‘paradise’, where God himself dwells. Only after Christ’s victory was the Devil expelled from that garden. To repeat: there is more to the world than what is visible. The struggle in which his followers engage is not with mere blood and flesh, but with the world-powers of the darkness of this age, and these spiritual forces reside in the heavenlies (Eph 6:11f). Some of the sons of God (or ‘angels’) have always wanted power over human beings, even after seeing their brothers thrown into Tartarus. It was in Sumer (geographically, southern Iraq) that men first set up structures of government over their fellow men, and Sumer was where the polytheistic religions of the Near East originated. Babel, later named Babylon, was its capital city and the location of the first ziggurat. Spirits are active wherever there is a concentration of power, in the church as well as outside


The New Testament term Gehenna (sometimes translated ‘hell’) renders the Hebrew place name Ge Hinnom, Valley of (the son of) Hinnom, which ran along the south side of ancient Jerusalem immediately south of Mount Zion. Who Hinnom was, or who his son was, is not known; the name predates Israel’s conquest of Canaan and is introduced without explanation (Jos 15:8). In the 8th century Ahaz, king of Judah, made offerings there to the god Molech (which meant ‘King’) and even burnt his sons as offerings. Possibly Molech’s proper name was Abaddon, ruler of the underworld. Two generations later Manasseh repeated the abomination.

Aerial view of Jerusalem
Aerial view of Jerusalem in the early 20th century.
Apart from where James warns about the power of the tongue to do evil, the only person who spoke of Gehenna in the New Testament was Jesus. Its significance, he said, was yet to come. The valley would be a furnace into which the body of the condemned would be thrown after the final judgement and where the soul would be destroyed (Matt 5:22–30, 10:28). The sentence would be irrevocable: the maggots that destroyed the body in the grave would not die; the fire that destroyed the soul in Gehenna would not be quenched. He himself would pronounce the sentence (Luke 12:5).

After he had returned to Jerusalem in glory, all the world’s inhabitants that had survived the wrath of God would be summoned before his throne (Isa 4:3, 13:12, 24:21-23, Matt 25:31-46, I Pet 4:5). Those who had worked to relieve suffering would be granted everlasting life; those who had cared only for themselves would be condemned to ‘the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels’. The place of fire was the valley south of Jerusalem, blazing like the coal fields of Jharia or the lava fields of Hawaii. They would suffer the torment of regret and physical pain until the debt of wickedness was repaid and what was worthless consumed (Matt 13:42, Heb 6:8, Phil 3:19).

The Apocalypse uses the term ‘lake of fire’. Not yet in existence, the lake will be kindled (Isa 30:33), and burn to the depths of Sheol (Deut 32:22). The foundations of the mountains will melt. On that day, Christ – ‘whose fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem’ (Isa 31:9) – will stand on the Mount of Olives, as the hill is split in two from east to west (Zech 14:4). The fissure will destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock that now occupy Mount Zion, the site of the old temple. The surrounding hills and valleys will sink and Mount Zion rise above them as the highest of the mountains (Isa 2:2, 40:4). Year after year all humanity will come to worship him.

And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.

The flames will be a continual reminder of what will befall those who do not worship him: ‘the drug-merchants, and the fornicators, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practises falsehood’ (Rev 22:15).

Torment, but not for ever
The Apocalypse warns:

If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink from the wine of the fury of God, served unmixed in the cup of his wrath. And he will be tormented with fire and sulphur before the holy angels and before the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, the worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.

What the beast is, and what its image, will be apparent soon enough. The Lamb is Jesus Christ, the fire, sulphur and smoke the burning remains of Babylon the Great, intensified by the fire, smoke and sulphur of the demons that have been let loose from the abyss in order to plague the living (Rev 9:17). Babylon the Great is the civilisation that dominates the world at the end of the age.

The wrath of God is a temporal judgement upon humanity, and takes place at the beginning of the thousand years of Christ’s reign on earth. At the end of that period, the Devil will be released. He will deceive the nations one last time and gather them for battle against Jerusalem. He will be defeated and thrown into the lake, not now for isolation and torment but for destruction. Then the lake itself will be no more, for the present heaven and earth will have passed away. Consequently, the period of torment is not ‘for ever’ as we understand the term.

In Greek, as in Hebrew, the meaning of ‘for ever’ is less absolute than in English. The law of Moses provided for a slave in certain circumstances to be bound to his master ‘for ever’, not meaning to all eternity but until one of them died (Ex 21:6). In Jeremiah Yahweh says that ‘a fire is kindled that shall burn forever’, referring to the day when the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem’s palaces and Temple (15:14, 17:27, 52:13). Habakkuk speaks of the ‘everlasting mountains’ at the same time as prophesying that they will be scattered and levelled, foreseeing a time when Yahweh will shake the nations and every mountain be made low (Isa 40:4, Hab 3:6, Zech 14:10, Heb 12:26, Rev 16:18). Jude speaks of the angels being kept in ‘eternal’ chains, apparently ‘for ever’ (v 13). But it is forever ‘until [eis] the judgement of the great day’. Nor was the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah ‘eternal’, as aionios is usually translated (v 7). It was the effects of the fire that were perpetual: the cities were turned to ashes (II Pet 2:6) and never rebuilt. When the smoke from the burning of Babylon the Great goes up forever and ever (Rev 19:3), the sense is that it too will not be rebuilt.

Everything depends on context. When the context is the everlasting life that comes from God, the meaning is ‘for all eternity’, and we know this because of the assurance that whoever accepts his salvation will never die. Where the context is torment in the lake of fire, the meaning is not necessarily ‘for all eternity’. The wicked servant is given over to the torturers ‘until he should pay all his debt’ (Matt 18:34). Other scriptures categorically state that the penalty of sin is death – ultimately complete destruction.

The condition of being alive is that of a body animated by spirit (Gen 2:7, I Cor 15:45), and the spirit is taken away when one dies. The logical opposite of eternal life is permanent extinction, not eternal life in another place (conceived of, somehow, as a state of being destroyed but never attaining destruction). Death occurs when body and spirit are severed, the one returning to the dust from which it came, the other returning to God (Ecc 12:7, Luke 23:46). That is what the word means. Some commentators draw a distinction between ‘physical death’ and ‘spiritual death’, as if the body could live apart from the spirit, but the Bible knows nothing of such a distinction. Pain may be suffered for a time, but ultimately there is only one kind of death: the loss of life.

The Apocalypse refers to two deaths, in the sense that there is an interval between the first and the second, not that they are different in nature. The paradox is that although ‘the wages of sin is death’ and therefore all must die, because all have sinned, nonetheless death is not necessarily the end. Adam did not immediately die. Nor do we. The judgement that now matters is not the judgement that God pronounced in the garden – on the flesh – but the judgement that follows death (Heb 9:27), relating to what we do in the years allotted to us in our state of reprieve. Death does not have to be the final sentence.

That is the point of the gospel. The judgement is brought forward into the here and now, so that the punishment for sin – torture and eventual extinction – can be anticipated, before it is too late. The penalty has been paid, so that anyone who repents and accepts Christ’s atonement will not be hurt by the second death (Rev 2:11). As John says,

This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light.

For those who reject the offer of eternal life, the second death will merely be a confirmation of the first, of the penalty of Adam. The dead will be raised from Hades and judged according to their works. No one should imagine that he will be acquitted. “Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trust in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in the injustice he has done he shall die.” (Ezek 33:13, Rom 2:4). The soul that sins will die (Ezek 18:4). It will forfeit the life it had on loan.

Thus there are also two resurrections. The first – not counting the resurrection of the first-fruits – will be when the seventh trumpet sounds and the dead in Christ are raised, at the beginning of the thousand years. They are taken up to heaven until civilisation has drained the cup of the wine of the fury of the wrath of God. Then they will return with Christ to Jerusalem, to reign with him in the cities of the world as kings and priests. The second resurrection will be when the rest of the dead are revived, at the end of the thousand years. Those who have done good will come out to the resurrection of life, those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement.

More on these things in the book When the Towers Fall: A prophecy of what must happen soon (Wipf & Stock 2022).