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To Hell and Back

Read here about the true biblical hell — from one who has been there!


ON SUNDAY, July 12, I went to hell. On that day Jerusalem's sun stood directly overhead as I paused to recheck my map. If my bearings were correct, hell's very threshold lay before me!

I had just left the Old City of Jerusalem through the Dung Gate, one of the eight gates in the old Turkish wall. I had headed west on the road paralleling the wall, then around the area known today as Mount Zion. From there I began my descent into the Lower Regions.


The "House of Hades"

The notion that a mortal might actually visit hell — and return — has been a source of fascination to people of almost every age.

Since ancient times, the abode of the dead has been viewed as lying deep underground, with various entrances on the earth's surface — through caverns, volcanoes, underground rivers and the like. Ancient peoples — Greeks and Romans especially — reveled in fanciful accounts of heroes who dared pass through these fearful portals and into the Dark Realm.

One of the earliest accounts of such a journey is found in The Odyssey. It is an ancient epic poem by the Greek poet Homer (8th century B.C). Homer writes of the Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses), the lost king of Ithaca, who wandered the seas in search of his home for 10 years following the fall of Troy. In desperation, Odysseus reputedly found his way into the "abode of departed spirits" to learn from the ghost of a famous seer how he might find his home.

The underworld described by Homer was a shadowy place of dreary darkness lying-beneath the secret places of the earth. Though a place of gloom, it was not pictured as one of punishment and torture as is the traditional Christian or Oriental hell.

Homer called the place of the dead the "House of Hades." Hades (the Romans called him Pluto) was the Greek king of the underworld, god of death. Eventually, Hades became the common name for the underworld itself.

The ancient classicists believed that five rivers flowed through the underworld. The principal one was the Styx, across which the aged boatman Charon ferried the souls of the dead. (The Styx was an actual stream that disappeared underground in Arcadia in Greece)

In the Aeneid, an epic by the Roman poet Virgil, the Trojan hero Aeneas, fleeing the burning ruins of Troy after the Greek victory, successfully besought the ferryman Charon for passage into the infernal region to consult his dead father. (Virgil preferred the name Tartarus to Hades for the fabled infernal region) Aeneas entered the underworld through a cavern at a foul-smelling lake near Naples in Italy. Descending on a road wrapped in shadows, he encountered numerous horrors and frightful terrors.

Tartarus (or Tartaros) was a named used by the later classical writers such as Virgil as another name for Hades. Homer, on the other hand, described Tartarus as a different place, lying as far beneath Hades as Hades is beneath the earth. It was in this bottomless pit of Tartarus, according to classical mythology, that the Greek god Zeus confined those who had resisted him.

Another hero of ancient Greece, the legendary Hercules, also reputedly traveled to the lower world. One of his famous Twelve Labors was to fetch up from Hades the triple-headed, dragon-tailed dog Cerberus, the feared guardian of Hades' gates.

Many other ancients are said to have made the fearsome journey into Hades, including Theseus of Athens, Orpheus the musician, the princess Psyche and the twin Pollux, in search of his dead brother Castor.


The Inferno

Possibly the best-known "journey" of all is that of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the medieval Italian poet. His travels among the damned are recorded in The Inferno. It is the first part of his three-part Divine Comedy, an account of his imaginary journeys through hell, purgatory and heaven.

Dante is conducted through hell by the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil. The trip begins on Good Friday, A.D. 1300, in a wooded area near Jerusalem. Over the gate of hell the two travelers find a fearful and now famous inscription:


Dante then witnesses in his imagination the eternal torments of the wicked. He describes hell as being divided into various levels, descending conically into the earth. Souls suffer punishments appropriate to their sins. Hypocrites, for example, wear gowns brilliant outwardly, but made of heavy lead instead of cloth. They must bear the weight of them forever. Gluttons are doomed to forever lie like pigs in a foul-smelling sty under a cold, eternal rain. Dante's descriptions are vivid — and frightening.

Though Dante's primary purpose in writing the poem was to satirize persons and circumstances of his day, the theology of his work is based firmly on the system of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Italian theologian and philosopher. The Divine Comedy is a relatively accurate dramatization of medieval Christian theology. Some simple-minded of Dante's day actually believed Dante had really visited hell! His work had a tremendous impression and influence on popular Christian thought.


Concentration Camp?

Dante's medieval picture of hell as a gigantic concentration camp — a nightmarish place of eternal torment, horrible beyond imagination, presided over by Satan and his demons — largely represents the thinking of significant groups of professing Christians to this day.

The concept of a "hell" can be found in one form or another among all the world's principal faiths. Multiple billions around the world have lived and died over the millennia believing in — and in fear of — a place of eternal torment and punishment.

Many today continue to wonder, "Is there really a hell?" and "Will I end up there?" Many are curious about just what hell might be like.

It was with questions such as these in mind that I set out to investigate the subject — and to make an attempt to actually visit hell!


Three Hells!

The starting point for such an investigation can be none other than the very book from which Christians profess to derive their doctrine of hell — the Bible! By scrutinizing its pages, one can strip away the theological trappings of ancient and medieval myth and fabrication and discover the true teaching on the subject.

One's first surprise is that the Bible speaks of not one but of three different "hells"! In the widely used King James Version, three totally different Greek words — words with totally different meanings — are translated by the one English word hell. The three words are hades, tartaroo and gehenna.

In biblical usage, the Greek word hades — used only 11 times in the New Testament — is roughly equivalent to the Old Testament Hebrew word sheol, meaning grave or pit (compare Acts 2:27 with Psalm 16:10). Hades may be likened to a hole in the ground. In the Bible it has nothing to do with fire.

Most modern biblical translators admit that the use of the English word hell, to translate hades and sheol is an unfortunate and misleading practice.


Because in seeing the word hell, many readers impute to it the traditional connotation of an ever-burning inferno — when this was never remotely intended in the Greek language or in Old English!

In its true biblical usage, hades does indeed refer to the state or abode of the dead — but not in the sense of spirits walking around in some sort of "shadowy realm." Hades is simply the abode we call the grave. All the dead go to this hell.


The Second Hell

The second hell of the Bible, tartaroo, is mentioned only once in scripture — in II Peter 2:4: "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [tartaroo], and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment."

Following their rebellion to unseat God from His throne (Isa. 14:12-14; Rev. 12:4), the archangel Lucifer (now Satan) and a third of the created angels (demons) were ejected from heaven (Luke 10:18). They were cast down to tartaroo, a place or condition of restraint that God has imposed on the mutinous angels as they await ultimate judgment (Jude 6; I Cor. 6:3).

Tartaroo, then, is a "hell" that applies only to evil, rebellious angels or demons. It is interesting that the ancient Greeks used this word to describe the place in which Zeus confined the rebellious Titans. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of men being put into this particular "hell."


The Third Hell

So far, we have seen that the first hell of the Bible — hades — is simply the grave. The second hell tartaroo — a place or condition of restraint for demons. What, then, is the third hell of the Bible?

Surely it must be the old-fashioned Bible "hell" — the literal ever-burning inferno, the place of eternal torment of the damned!

Or is it?

Did you ever notice that the Greek word used by the writers of the New Testament for this third hell is gehenna? It comes from the Hebrew Gai Hinnom, meaning "valley of Hinnom." Hinnom is a deep, narrow ravine located to the south and west of Jerusalem. It is to this hell that I recently traveled.

But what does this valley have to do with the traditional Christian concept of "hell"? The answer may surprise you!