Stewart D.F. Salmond, “Hell,” in A Dictionary of the Bible, Dealing with its Language, Literature, and Contents, Including the Biblical Theology, edited by James Hastings, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1898), pp. 343-46.


by Stewart D.F. Salmond

HELL — The term used in Old English to designate the world of the dead generally, with all the sad and painful associations of the dark region into which the living disappear. In modern English it has the specific sense of the place and condition of penalty destined for the finally impenitent among the dead. With this it expresses also the abode of evil spirits. It is cognate or connected with the German hehlen = hide, hüllen = cover, A.S. helan, Lat. celare, etc. It appears in much the same form in many of the European languages: Ger. hölle, Sw. helvete, Go. halja, Da. helvede, Du. hel, Ice. hel, O.H.G. hella, A.S. hel, hella, M.E. helle (cf. Chaucer, CT 1202). The Teutonic base, hal = hide, akin to kal, kar (in the older form), is supposed by Skeat to be a ‘development from a root skar, of which the meaning was to cover.’ Etymologically, therefore, the term denotes the covered, hidden, unseen place.

In our Authorized Version the word ‘hell’ is unfortunately used as the rendering of three distinct words with different ideas. It represents (1) the שְׁאוֹל of the Hebrew Old Testament, and the ᾅδης of the LXX and the New Testament, which have the general sense of the ‘realm of the dead.’ In this employment of the word the AV translators were justified so far by the sense which it had in their day, and by the fact that it was applied to the world of the departed generally in the Creeds, in Spenser, in Chaucer, in mediæval miracle and mystery plays, and in Old English religious poetry. It is not the only word which the translators of 1611 used as an equivalent for שְׁאוֹל and ᾅδης. At times they used ‘the pit’ (Numbers 16:30, 33), and in a number of cases ‘the grave’ (Genesis 37:35, 1 Samuel 2:6, Job 7:9, 14:13, Psalm 30:3, 49:14, 15, etc.). But ‘hell’ is their most usual rendering in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 32:22, 2 Samuel 22:6, Psalm 16:10, 18:5, 116:3, 139:8, Proverbs 5:5, 7:27, 9:18, etc.), and the rendering to which they adhered in all the New Testament passages, however different in their shades of meaning, in which they found some form of ᾅδης (Matthew 11:23, 16:18, Luke 12:5, 16:23, Acts 2:27, 31, 1 Corinthians 15:55, Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13, 14). It is now an entirely misleading rendering, especially in the New Testament passages. The English Revisers, therefore, have substituted ‘Hades’ for ‘hell’ in the New Testament. In the Old Testament they allow the word ‘hell’ to remain in the text of Isaiah 14, and give Sheol in the margin. In the poetical books they usually give Sheol in the text; while in the historical books they place Sheol in the margin, and allow the renderings ‘the grave’ and ‘the pit’ to stand in the text. In the American Revision the word ‘hell’ is entirely discarded in this connection (as are also the terms ‘the grave,’ ‘the pit’), and with a wise consistency Sheol is substituted all through the text of the Old Testament, as Hades is in the text of the New Testament. (See also the article on HADES).

The word ‘hell’ is used (2) as equivalent to τάρταρος in the verbal form ταρταρώσας in 2 Peter 2:4 (cf. Jude 6). In that passage it is retained by the Revised Version, though it might be better rendered ‘cast them down to Tartarus.’ The particular case in view there is that of the punishment of fallen angels, and the word is applied to the intermediate scene and condition of penalty in which those offenders are detained, held in chains of darkness, in reserve for the final judgment. In this one instance the New Testament adopts the heathen term for ‘hell’—the word which in Plato (Phæd. 113 E) designates the place into which the incurably corrupt are hurled with a view to their endless imprisonment; and which in Homer (Iliad, viii. 13, etc.) is the name given to the murky abyss, lying as deep beneath Hades as earth is beneath the sun, in which the sins of insurgent and defeated immortals, Kronos, Iapetos, and the Titans, are punished.

In this the paragraph in question, together with the corresponding passage in the Epsitle of Jude (verse 6), attaches itself to ideas on the subject of the punishment of angels, which have a considerable place in the literature of Judaism, especially the apocalyptic writings. These ideas assumed strange and amorphous forms, unlike anything in the New Testament, as regards both the place and the nature of the penalty. The Book of Jubilees and the Apocalypse of Baruch, e.g., both speak of the fallen angels as ‘tormented in chains,’ and the former represents them as bound in the depths of the earth until the day of the great judgment (Book of Jubilees 5:243, 7:248, 22:21, 24:27, etc., Apocalypse of Baruch 56:10-13). The Book of Enoch dilates at greatest length on these things. Enoch is described as receiving a commission to announce the impending judgment of the fallen angels. Their leader, Azazel, is doomed to be covered with darkness until the great day of judgment. The prison in which they are confined until the day of decision consigns them to the final retribution, as seen by Enoch. It is described as different from the abyss of fire, in the extremest depth of earth, into which they are in the end to be cast, and in certain parts of the book this preliminary place of punishment is represented, as was the case also with the Tartaros of the Greeks, as in the void at the end of heaven and earth (Book of Enoch, 10:6, 13:21, 18:11, 21:7, 54:6, 90:24).

The word ‘hell’ is used (3), and more properly, as the equivalent of γεέννα, the designation of the place and state of the just retribution reserved for the finally impenitent after the judgment. This word γεέννα (less correctly, in view of its derivation from the Aramaic, γέεννα), Gehenna, occurs twelve times in the New Testament, and for the most part only in the Synoptists. It is not found in the Johannine writings, nor in the Book of Acts, nor in any of the Epistles except once in one of the Catholic Epistles (James 3:6). But in the Synoptical Gospels it is found eleven times, and in a variety of phrases—‘in danger of the Gehenna of fire’ (Matthew 5:22), ‘to be cast into Gehenna’ (Matthew 5:29, 30, 18:9, Mark 9:45, 47), to ‘destory ... in Gehenna’ (Matthew 10:28), ‘the child of Gehenna’ (Matthew 23:15), the ‘damnation’ or ‘judgment of Gehenna’ (Matthew 23:33), to ‘go into Gehenna’ (Mark 9:43), to ‘cast into Gehenna’ (Luke 12:5). It is found, therefore, in each of the three Synoptists. In all the instances of its use in the Gospels it is given as a word from Christ’s own lips, and in one case we have the parallel narrative of Matthew and Mark (Matthew 18:9, Mark 9:45). It belongs to the tradition common to the first two evangelists, and there is every reason to believe that it forms part of the primitive report of Christ’s words. Hence the importance of defining with all due care its precise sense, point, and connotation.

This term Gehenna, γεέννα, which is the solemn New Testament designation of hell, represents the Aramaic גֵּיהִנָּם and the Hebrew גֵּיא הִנֹּם ‘the valley of Hinnom’ (Nehemiah 11:30), more fully גֵּי בֶן־הִנֹּם ‘the valley of the son of Hinnom’ (Joshua 15:8, 18:16, 2 Chronicles 28:3, Jeremiah 7:32), and גֵּי בְנֵי הִנֹּם ‘the valley of the children of Hinnom’ (2 Kings 23:10, according to the Kethib). It is taken by some to mean the ‘valley of howling’ or ‘the valley of lamentation,’ גֵּיהִנָּם being supposed to come from an obsolete הָנַן (Arabic hanna, ‘cry’ or ‘wail’). But far more probably the Hinnom is a personal name. The place so named after one unknown was a deep narrow gorge in the vicinity of Jerusalem, understood to be on the south side, forming a continuation of the valley of Gihon and separating the hill of Zion from the ‘hill of Evil Counsel.’ It is usually identified with the modern Wady er-Rebabi, though this is contested by some (see Conder in Encyclopedia Britannica, xiii. 640). It is repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament. The border of Judah is described as going up ‘by the valley of the son of Hinnom unto the south side of the Jebusite ... and to the top of the mountain that lieth before the valley of Hinnom westward’ while the border of Benjamin is said to have ‘descended to the valley of Hinnom to the side of Jebusi on the south’ (Joshua 15:8, 18:16; cf. Nehemiah 11:30). It is described as ‘by the entry of the East gate’ (Jeremiah 19:2), and as having the valley of Tophet or Topheth in it (2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31, 19:6). Jerome speaks of it as having been of old a pleasant place, and as having again in his own time the attraction of gardens. But under Ahaz, Manasseh, and Amon it was made the scene of the gross and cruel rites of heathen worship, idolatrous Jews passing their children through the fire there to Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6, Jeremiah 7:31). Hence king Josiah, when he put down the idolatrous priests who had burned incense to Baal under the apostate kings of Judah, also ‘defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech’ (2 Kings 23:5, 10). It was also declared by Jeremiah that the place should be ‘no more called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter’ (Jeremiah 19:6). After its pollution by the pious son of Amon it became an object of horror to the Jews, and is said to have been made a receptacle for bones, the bodies of beasts and criminals, refuse and all unclean things (so Kimchi). The terrible associations of the place, the recollections of the horrors perpetrated in it and the defilement inflicted on it, the fires said to have been kept burning in it in order to consume the foul and corrupt objects that were thrown into it, made it a natural and unmistakable symbol of dire evil, torment, wasting penalty, absolute ruin. So it came to designate the place of future punishment, and the Talmudic theology spoke of the door of hell as being in the valley of Hinnom (Barclay, City of the Great King, p. 90).

It has not this sense in the Old Testament. The nearest approach to it is in such a passage as that in which the prophet makes the demand, ‘Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?’ (Isaiah 33:14). But the place is not mentioned there, and the fires in question are not those of a retribution after death, but those of the divine wrath and righteousness which now and on earth search all sinners, those in Sion no less than those in Assyria. The terrible description of judgment with which the Second Isaiah closes his great prophecy of grace might seem even more in point (Isaiah 66:24). It is possible that the horrors of the valley of Hinnom suggested the awful figures in which the prophet there declares of the returning Israelites, that they shall ‘look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed’ against Jehovah, ‘for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh’ (Revised Version). But apart from the fact that here again the place is not named, and from the question whether the passage may not be of too early a date (as Dillmann supposes) for such a colouring, the vengeance which is intimated is not one that is to be looked for in the other world, but one which overtakes the transgressors in this world in the form of miserable overthrow and uttermost dishonour. It assumed this sense, however, in the period between the close of Old Testament prophecy and the Christian era. By the time when Christ taught and the apostles preached, the word Gehenna had a well-understood meaning. We can follow the history of the term, and see how it came to have that sense. The history shows us also the variations in the application of the word, and the different ideas which were connected with it.

The Old Testament itself offered the point of issue for the process of development. As its view of the future became enlarged, and the old notion of a Sheol which was without moral distinctions, and dealt out to all the dead the same joyless inane existence, began to give place to the loftier and more definite conception of a future embracing a resurrection, the foundations of the doctrine of a heaven and a hell were laid. The idea of a final judgment, which went with that of a resurrection (Daniel 12:2), led naturally to the twofold expectation of a special place of reward for the righteous, and a special place of punishment for the unrighteous in a world beyond the grave. The Jewish literature shows us how this belief shaped itself. It makes it plain, too, that Gehenna, as the definite place of future retribution, was originally understood to be something distinct from Sheol or Hades, though other ideas were attached to it now and again or in particular schools. The apocalyptic writings are of special importance in this matter, and the Book of Enoch above all others. It is perhaps in it that we have the first definite occurrence of the word as the designation of the place of just retribution destined for the wicked after the final judgment. In Enoch, however, as in the apocalyptic writings in general, there is much that is fantastic, and the statements which meet us in different parts of the book are by no means uniform. In certain sections, which are probably more deeply affected by Hellenic ways of thinking, Hades appears as a preliminary scene of reward and punishment, and is represented as lying in the remotest tract beyond the ocean. In it the souls of dead men wait the final condition, and have a foretaste of that condition. This moralized Hades is described as having in it intermediate abodes of four distinct kinds for four different orders of men: one for the righteous who died of oppression, and another for the rest of the righteous dead; one for sinners who were not judged by injustice or persecution on earth, and another for those who paid part of the penalty of their offences in their lifetime here (Book of Enoch, 5, 22, 103:7, etc.). More usually these preliminary scenes of weal and woe were spoken of as only two—one for the good, called also Paradise and the Garden of Eden; and one for the evil, separated from the other by a wall or gulf, and called, at least in the later Jewish books, by the name Gehinnom, Gehenna. In the Slavonic Enoch, again, or The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, the second of the seven heavens is the prison-house of the apostate angels who wait the eternal judgment, and the northern region of the third heaven is the place of punishment prepared for those who did not honour God (chapters 7 and 10). In the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs the place in which the spirits of the lawless are confined with a view to their punishment is the second heaven (Testament of Levi, chapter 3). In the literature of Alexandrian Judaism, on the other hand, in which we have the doctrine of an incorporeal immortality, and the idea that the souls of the pious dead are received at once by God into heaven, Hades is the place of punishment for the wicked dead, and is again practically identified with Gehenna (Wisdom 3:10-14, 4:10-19, 5:1, etc.; cf. Josephus, Wars of the Jews II. viii. 11, 14). There is evidence enough, therefore, that opinion varied at different periods and in different sections of Judaism. In the theology of the Talmud and Midrash, Gehinnom, Gehenna meant the scene of penalty, while in certain phases of Jewish belief it appears to have been regarded at once as a place of punishment for the heathen and as a place of purgatorial detention for imperfect Israelites. But with all this there is reason to say that its original sense was that of the final place of retribution, that it was distinguished from Hades and from every form of an intermediate state, and that it had this meaning with the Jewish people generally (however it might be with the speculations of the schools) in Christ’s time. The apocalyptic writings, which speak of a separation of the just from the unjust between death and the resurrection, also speak of a final punishment after the judgment, and describe the place of that retribution in terms which point to Gehenna. Enoch seems to identify it with the local Ge-Hinnom. He comes to the middle of earth, and sees a happy region of hills and valleys. But between the holy hills he sees an accursed valley where ‘shall be gathered together all those who speak with their mouths unseemly words against God, and speak impudently of his majesty’ (Book of Enoch, 27:2, 3). Elsewhere in the same apocalypse this place of final retribution is described as ‘in the midst of the earth’ and ‘full of fire’ (90:24-26). And in express terms the Fourth Book of Ezra speaks of the ‘gulf of torments’ and the ‘furnace of Gehenna’ that shall be revealed (6:1-14, 7:36, Churton). ‘Hell,’ therefore, as expressed by γεέννα in the New Testament, is not the penal side of Hades (so, e.g., Grimm’s Wilkii Clavis, etc.), but the final retributive scene and condition (see Meyer on Matthew 5:22).

It has further to be asked whether the term ‘hell,’ Gehenna, in the New Testament expresses the idea of a penal condition that is permanent. What the common belief of the Jews was on the subject of the nature and the duration of the final retribution at the time to which the New Testament writings belong, is a disputed question, and one by no means easy to answer. The literature, however, that is most pertinent to the question, does not favor the idea that the doctrine of an ultimate restoration of all souls was the prevalent doctrine among the Jews of that period. It leaves us a choice between two views, annihilation and everlasting punishment, and the conclusion to which it points is that the latter was the belief of the great mass of the people. The apocryphal books speak in the most unambiguous terms of the lot of the wicked dead as final and enduring. In the Book of Judith, for example, the vengeance of the day of judgment is described as ‘fire and worms’ in the flesh of those who rise up against Israel, which ‘they shall feel and weep forever’ (16:17). In one of the Books of Maccabees the lot of the tyrant is declared to be ‘eternal torture by fire,’ and ‘interminable torments’ (4 Maccabees 9:8, 9, 10:10). Another of these books speaks of the ‘furnace of hell,’ and of the despisers of the Most High as doomed to be ‘henceforth in torments, always in pain and anguish of seven kinds’ (4 Ezra 7:36, 79, 80). As a general rule, the pseudepigraphic writings are equally explicit. They speak of the penalty of the wicked as an ‘everlasting curse’; of the last day as a ‘day of judgment and punishment and affliction upon the revilers to eternity’; of the ‘abyss of fire’ in which the impious shall be ‘locked up for all eternity’; of a ‘just judgment, in eternity for ever’ (Book of Enoch, 5:5, 6, 22:4-11, 10:11-14, 27:2, 3; cf. Apocalypse of Baruch 44:15, etc.). The testimony of Josephus, too, with all necessary abatements, is to the effect that both Pharisees and Essenes believed in everlating punishment (Wars of the Jews II. viii. 11, 14; Antiquities of the Jews XVIII. i. 3). On the other hand, the final retribution of the impenitent is in not a few cases expressed in terms of a destruction, a perdition, and the like (Psalms of Solomon 3:13, 9:9, 12:8, 13:10, 15:13; Book of Enoch 99:11, etc.); from which it is inferred that the penalty in question was regarded as an ultimate extinction of being. Such expressions have to be read, however, in the light of the general Jewish conception of Sheol. So read they may convey the idea that there is no deliverence for the wicked from Sheol, but do not necessarily mean that the doom in question was absolute extinction of existence. They are also to be measured by other statements of a more definite and unmistakable kind, with which they are accompanied, and by the contrasts in which they are placed with descriptions of the lot of the righteous as an enduring one. In the Rabbinical books there is a wider variety of opinion. Gehenna appears there at times as a purgatory, and statements are found which indicate that at least at certain periods there were those who favoured the doctrine of annihilation, and those who inclined to the hope of a final universal restoration. But these were rather the dogmas or speculations of the schools than the belief of the people, and they belong to a later period. Even in the case of the great Rabbis who spoke of a limited punishment, exception was made of certain classes of sinners. The school of Hillel, e.g., taught that sinners of the heathen and others were punished in Gehinnom for a space of twelve months, and afterwards were consumed. But the Minim (the Christians), the Epicureans, those who deny the divine origin of the Torah and the truth of the resurrection, and those who sin like Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, were said to ‘go down to Gehinnom,’ and to be ‘punished there to ages of ages.’ The same is the statement made, but at greater length and in still more explicit terms, in the Rosh Hashshanah, in a passage which is described as the ‘classical passage of the Talmud’ on the subject (Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison, p. 52). The most probable conclusion appears to be this—that, while there were variations in belief from time to time, especially in the direction of annihilation, and divergent speculations in the Rabbinical schools, the idea generally connected with the term Gehenna, ‘hell,’ in our Lord’s time was that of an irreversible doom for the wholly wicked, and that in His teaching as well as in that of His apostles the word was used in its popular and prevalent sense (see Schürer, History of the Jewish People II. ii. 183; Edersheim’s Jesus the Messiah, ii. pp. 440, 791; Meyer, Commentary on Matthew 5:22; Holtzmann, Hand-Commentary on Matthew 5:22, Mark 3:29, 9:48).

Other terms are also used in the New Testament to express the penalty and the condition indicated by the word Gehenna, ‘hell.’ In the evangelical records of Christ’s own discourses such terms are found employed as ‘eternal fire’; ‘unquenchable fire’; the place where ‘their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched’; the ‘prison’ from which there is no coming out until ‘the last farthing’ is paid; ‘eternal punishment’ as contrasted with ‘eternal life’; exclusion from the kingdom; banishment from Christ; ‘weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth’; the ‘outer darkness,’ etc. (Matthew 18:8-9, Mark 9:43-49, Matthew 5:25-26, Luke 12:58-59, Matthew 25:46, 7:21-23, 13:42, 25:30). Elsewhere the final destiny of the unrighteous is described as ‘the mist of darkness forever’ (2 Peter 2:17); the ‘blackness of darkness for ever’ (Jude 13); the ‘fierceness of fire’ and ‘perdition’ (Hebrews 10:27, 39); ‘great tribulation,’ ‘burning with fire,’ being ‘without,’ the ‘second death,’ being cast into the ‘lake of fire,’ the ‘lake that burneth with brimstone and fire’ (Revelation 2:22-23; 18:8-9; 22:15; 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8; 20:10; 19:20); the ‘wrath to come,’ ‘wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish,’ ‘death,’ ‘punishment,’ ‘destruction,’ ‘eternal destruction from the face of the Lord’ (Romans 2:5, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Romans 2:8, 6:21, Philippians 3:19, 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Beyond these terms of large suggestion, which are as remarkable for their variety as for their figurative force, the New Testament does not carry us. Theologians have gone further, and have ventured on many definitions of things left undefined in the Scriptures. They have distinguished between two forms of the future penalty, the poena sensus and the poena damni. They have spoken sometimes of the ‘fire’ of Gehenna as a material fire (cf. Petavius, De Angel. iii. 5), and sometimes as a figurative (Origen, De. Prin. ii. 4). They have indulged in fruitless questions regarding the locality of hell, the Limbus or ‘fringe’ of hell, and much else. The New Testament is silent on many things on which imagination and speculation have both spent themselves largely and to little profit. It speaks much less of the retribution of the impenitent than of the reward of the righteous. In what it does say of the former it gives no satisfaction to curious inquiry. It limits itself to intimations which address themselves to character and conduct, and which convey the impression of the untold moral issues that depend upon the present life.

LITERATURE.—The great Commentaries, especially Meyer; the great New Testament Dictionaries, especially Thayer and Cremer; the systems of Biblical Theology and Dogmatics, especially Ohler, Riehm, Schultz, Weiss, Beyschlag, Dorner, Rothe, Martensen, Plitt, Philippi, Kuhn, Schweitzer; Alger, Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life; Atzberger, Eschatologie; Kliefoth, Eschatologie; Pusey, What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment? ; Gfrörer, Jahrhundert des Heils; Drummond, Jewish Messiah; Stanton, Jewish and the Christian Messiah; Hamburger, RE; Weber, Jüdische Theologie; Böttcher, De Inferis; Dillmann, Das Buch Henoch; Charles, Book of Enoch; Driver, Sermons on OT, Sermon iv.; Edersheim, Jesus the Messiah; Delitzsch, Bib. Psychol.; Kabisch, Die Eschatol. d. Paulus.

S.D.F. Salmond.

Stewart D.F. Salmond (1838-1905) was Principle and Professor of Systematic Theology in the United Free Church College, Aberdeen. He is best known for his book, The Christian Doctrine of Immortality (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895, 2nd ed. 1896, 3rd ed. 1897, 4th ed. 1901, 5th ed. 1903).