The Many Names of Hell in the Bible

The Bible uses several terms to identify the various purposes and descriptions of hell. First, note that there is a difference between “hell” and the “lake of fire.” When the unsaved die they go immediately to a place called hell. Later, the Bible indicates that those in Hell are given up and cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).

Even though they seem to be different places, the inhabitants are the same and the punishment is the same. The place of judgment for the unsaved is called the Great White Throne and the lake of fire follows it.

Everyone without Christ will enter the first punishment, and no one who enters the first hell can escape entering the second (Rev. 11:15).


The common word for hell in the Old Testament is “Sheol” which means “the grave” where people go when they die. In the King James Version, Sheol is translated “hell” thirty-one times and “pit” three times.

When both saved and unsaved died, they were said to go to Sheol, the place of the departed dead. The Hebrew word “Sheol” was translated into Greek as hadees (hades). Hades or Sheol is the place the Old Testament unsaved went.

Jesus, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, said that Lazarus had gone to a place called “paradise” (Luke 23:43), and “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). Two perm died, the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), but in their afterlife they were treated differently.


The rich man went to hades at death and was tormented in flames (Luke 16:24).

The punishment of hades is:

  1. Burning
  2. Separation/loneliness
  3. Conviction by memory
  4. Thirst
  5. Falling
  6. Stench

The rich man could look across “a great gulf fixed” (Luke 16:26) and see where the saved were located. However, the Scripture is silent whether the saved could see the torment of the unsaved. The one thing the rich man could not do was escape his torment. He could not even send a warning to his family.


This word appears only twelve times in the New Testament and is translated “hell.” The Lord Jesus used this term eleven times. The name is probably related to the Valley of Hinnom. During the reign of Ahaz, Israel participated in the worship of the false god Molech.

In his attempt to please Molech, Ahaz actually engaged in human sacrifice, sacrificing his own son to the fiery god (2 Chron. 28:1-4). Archaeologists have learned that Molech was represented by a golden calf, being the religion of Canaan.

The idol had the head of a bull, with outstretched arms. A fire burned in his hollow stomach and a child was sacrificed on the arms.

This practice was stopped during the reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 23:10), then the valley became a dumping ground for the city of Jerusalem. During the time of Jesus it was used to burn garbage.

Hence, the Lord used the word gehenna to describe the place of eternal punishment because it was a place of filth and stench, a place of smoke and pain, a place of fire and death (Matt. 5:22; 18:8, 9; 23:33; John 5:36).

Lake of Fire

John refers to hell in terms of a “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15). Some have suggested this is nothing more than a metaphor to describe a place of suffering, but since the Bible uses flames to describe its torment, there is no reason to think the cause of suffering will be otherwise.

Also, human language limits a perfect identification of the horrors of hell, as it also does when we seek to describe the glories of heaven. Only in this aspect can the “lake of fire” be considered a metaphor.

It is as if John were saying, “Hell is so horrible I cannot completely describe it. Hell is like a vast sea covered in flames and that is only the beginning of the pain and suffering I saw there.”

Second Death

The lake of fire is also called the “second death” (Rev. 20:14; 21:8). In the Bible, death always speaks of separation, not cessation of existence.

The idea behind death is not annihilation but rather the concept of eternal separation from God. Physical death is the first, where a person suffers because he is separated from his loved ones. The second death is the separation of a person from God.

Eternal Retribution

Hell is also described as a place of eternal retribution or eternal punishment. Speaking of the unsaved, Jesus said, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (Matt. 25:46). The idea of punishment here is one of eternal duration.

Eternity is incomprehensible as it confronts the human mind. We cannot comprehend limitless time, but hell will last as long as heaven, for the Scriptures describe these opposite concepts as “everlasting punishment” and “life eternal” (Matt. 25:46).

“Everlasting punishment” is used throughout the Bible to identify “duration without end.” Eternal retribution would be horrible if we only thought of it as lasting a million years, but because it is eternal, a million years of time could be removed from its duration without in any way affecting the time of its duration. The worst part of hell is that its inhabitants know it will never end.

“Eternal” is described by the Hebrew word olam in the Old Testament and the Greek word anon in the New. Both words are linked to God; he is called the “eternal God.” Therefore hell lasts as long as the duration of God.

Eternity is beginningless and endless; it cannot be measured. It has no past, no future, no parts. Eternity is an infinite circle; we are born in the center of the circle and will die physically in the center of the circle, but remain there forever.

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Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

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