Judging from how terrified some people, even in our day and age, can become about going to hell and how eager others are to be carried to heaven in the rapture, the subject of heaven and hell can still be intense. A close look at the origins of those words in the Bible can lead us to more comforting, practical—and even healing—conclusions.
Let’s start with the meaning of “hell.” The King James Version of the Bible takes two separate words from the original Greek and translates them both into the word hell. They are distinguished from each other in the New Revised Standard Version as Hades and hell.
The Greek word Hades is used in Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar (see Luke 16:19–31). In this story, the rich man enjoyed his riches and paid no attention to the man begging him for help, who was suffering from illness and poverty. When both of them died, the rich man was buried and became tormented in Hades. When he saw Lazarus in the comforting arms of Abraham, he begged for some measure of relief. The description of his agony in Hades indicates his suffering was from the effects of sin. It was the pain of remorse and self-imposed suffering, because he had had the means for offering help to the suffering Lazarus.
Unlike hell, Hades was understood to be a place one goes temporarily after being buried, and where the soul is separated from the body. In New Testament times, it was believed to be a place of probation before the promised resurrection. The rich man illustrates this concept of Hades, as he comes to terms with his great mistakes. He asks what he can do to help others, and he learns that the answers for right living were already available through “Moses and the prophets.”
Hell (or, the Greek Gehenna), on the other hand, is the fire of eternal destruction. Jesus used this term to teach his followers how to avoid the horrors of sinful living. In his famous speech, known as “the Sermon on the Mount,” he taught that whoever even gets angry with or insults a brother or sister would be liable for this kind of hell. He said that if any part of you—a hand or an eye—does something wrong, then it would be better to cut it off than to lose your whole body into this kind of hell (see Matt. 5:29, 30). What I find encouraging about the understanding of this concept of hell (Gehenna) is that any sinful tendency will absolutely be separated from me and destroyed in eternal fire. It need not hold any power over me.
Jesus insists on the influencing power of heaven for all of us here on earth.
Heaven also has two literal meanings in the Bible, as the final verses in the book of Revelation indicate: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1, New Revised Standard Version). The heaven that ultimately passes away is the firmament, or dome over the earth, and the other sense of heaven transcends the limitations of mortality.
It is especially in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that the idea of heaven as a covering dome comes through. In Genesis, God calls the firmament, or dome, “heaven” (1:7, 8), and its function is to separate the things above from the things beneath. An example of this power of separation is Moses stretching his hand toward heaven so that hail, thunder, lightening, and darkness descend over Egypt. This is the heavenly force—or separator—that would force Pharaoh to separate his oppressive power from God’s people and let them go free (Ex. 9:22, 23; 10:21, 22).
In the New Testament, references to “heaven” sound much like God’s sphere, and heaven takes on synonymous meanings. For example, these verses imply the reign of God: “It [heaven] is the throne of God” (Matt. 5:34), and “the angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matt. 28:2, NRSV).
But Jesus mediates these two concepts of heaven—the separating firmament and the realm of Spirit—by enabling people with earthly issues to experience healing and salvation. Through his parables that use everyday experiences, Jesus speaks of heaven with familiarity and authority. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net” (Matt. 13:47, NRSV), which separates the Godly world from the evil world. Other parables describe the kingdom of heaven as “a pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:46), or “leaven” (Matt. 13:33), which enables humans to discern and live the liberating power of heaven.
Although heaven represents a rescue from earthly woes, such as Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11), Jesus also insists on the influencing power of heaven for all of us here on earth. When he taught his disciples to pray, he instructed them to speak to their mutual “Father . . . in heaven.” He asked that God’s will be done on earth, as it is done “in heaven” (Matt. 6:9, 10). His saving and healing work is the revelation of the new heaven and new earth promised in Revelation.
Shirley Paulson is a Christian Science practitioner and has a Master of Theological Studies degree in Christian history from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She’s a member of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship.