An understanding of post-mortem punishment (hell) must entail an understanding of the character of God, specifically its attributes of justice and love. At the same time, it is useful to consider what the Scriptures teach concerning hell itself as we seek to understand how the motivational characteristics of God result in this specific resultant action of punishment.
There are five distinct terms used to describe hell in the Scriptures:
- Gehenna – Used in the New Testament twelve times, eleven by Jesus and once by James in his epistle. This is the term most closely associated with a conception of hell as a place of post-mortem punishment.
- Sheol – This is the term used widely in the Old Testament and oftentimes translated hell. It is much more generic in conception, being a place where all the dead go.
- Hades – This is the Greek term used in the New Testament that is synonymous with the O.T. sheol. In general, it is a generic holding place for the dead.
- Tartarus – This is a Greek term used sparsely in the N.T. to speak of a special place in hell where disobedient angels are held.
- Lake of Fire – This term is used to speak of a place of punishment to which people are condemned and seems in many ways to be synonymous with the concept of Gehenna.
It is important to note that while these are the five phrases directly associated with our understanding of hell, this is not the entire scope of the discussion upon post-mortem punishment. Other Scriptures speak of punishment without identifying specifics and it will be important for any discussion of hell to understand not only the context of the specific terms relating to post-mortem punishment but also the more general references.
- Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. Note: This is an excellent collection of essays by renowned evangelical theologians on hell. It is essentially a defense of the traditional perspective of hell. Contributors include R. Albert Mohler Jr., Daniel I. Block, Robert W. Yarbrough, Douglas J. Moo, Gregory K. Beale, J.I. Packer, Sinclair B. Ferguson, and (of course) the editors.
- Coran, James. The Gehenna of Fire. Concordant Studies. Note: Discusses from a contemporary universalist position the interpretation of Gehenna.
- I could be wrong, but I think this may have been partially written in response to John Stott’s movement towards annihilationism.↩
- While there is much of interest in this article I must note a few issues I have with the article: (a) by the time Gehenna was used in the N.T. it had come to represent more than a physical location and was also an analogy for the place of post-mortem punishment, the article does not acknowledge the dual manner in which Gehenna was utilized at the time of Christ, resulting in an overstatement of the physical/geographical nature of Gehenna and (b) I have not read the associated article on the nature of the soul and am not familiar with the arguments concerning it alluded to in this article.↩