What is the Jewish concept of hell?

Upon reading this week, I discovered a smattering of words in Matthew Chapter 5 that prompted a serious question. The chapter cites both a “hell of fire” and just plain, ol’ “hell”. I wondered if there was more than one hell, if there was a difference between these hells, or if these separate references were simply the same concept. What is the Jewish concept of hell? Is there a difference between the Jewish hell and the Christian hell? I discovered the answers to my questions via some fascinating research.

Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, and hell are words that are perpetually interchanged but have entirely different meanings, as I have learned reading through various blogs and Jewish doctrine sites. Olam Ha-Ba, Hebrew translation for “The World to Come”, is the name of the Jewish afterlife, a concept entirely non-dogmatic for its practitioners (Judaism 101). The entire concept is a matter of personal belief, to the point of the inclusion of resurrection and reincarnation. Judaism focuses on the life we live currently, rather than what happens after death. Regardless of being either traditional or progressive, it is entirely possible for a Jew to believe in innumerable theories of the afterlife. The concept of hell, in particular, varies in theoretical possibilities.

Firstly, hell can be commonly defined as a place of eternal punishment for the wrongdoings of one’s soul. In Judaism, this entire definition is torn to pieces and redesigned. The Jewish hell can be described as either Sheol or Gehenna; Sheol is a place of punishment while Gehenna is a place of damnation for souls (The Jewish Chronicle). These two places are entirely distinct from each other.

Sheol

Sheol, Hebrew for “pit”, “destruction”, or “abyss” (Jewish Encyclopedia), is the “present” hell, in which the lost souls go to await judgment—resulting in either Gehenna or resurrection (Berean Bible Society). Sheol is merely a temporary place for souls. It is not eternal, and both evil and good souls arrive in this spiritual waiting room post-life (Hell Part 2).  Sheol is unlike the Christian concept of hell, more like a deep, dark, shadowy netherworld, is commonly called the “Land of Forgetfulness” (My Jewish Learning). Sheol is flame-free, therefore not the “hell of fire” reference I found in Matthew. The dead are cut off from the living as well as the grace of the Protagonist, their existence a strange faint stain on the metaphysical plane. Every soul will go to Sheol, despite its bleak description. Another common translation of Sheol is Hades, and can also be described as being within the earth (Matthew 12:40). The geography of Sheol/Hades can be split in two halves. One section is for evil souls, while the other side is for the righteous souls waiting for resurrection.

Gehenna

However, Gehenna, Greek for “lake of fire” (Berean Bible Society), is considered the “final” hell, or the place we most commonly think of when referencing hell. This lake of hell was designed for Satan and the fallen angels to be tormented eternally, and is entirely free of humans at this time. I say “at this time” because according to Revelation, the lake of fire will be filled with evil humans at the time of the true Messiah’s resurrection (Berean Bible Society). In addition to their souls, the actual human bodies will enter Gehenna as well. Gehenna is described as a torturous punishment, full of fire and brimstone, similar to the Christian hell. Another theory suggests that a soul must reexamine his or her life, and then repent for any wrongdoings. This concept of hell is the permanent, here-for-all-eternity, place of punishment.

In conclusion, I discovered that there was a difference between the Christian hell and the Jewish hell, as well as the hell of Judaism being conceptually diverse. Sheol and Gehenna, two separate hells, are distinct and individualistic. The reason for a soul’s existence in shadowy Sheol involves a waiting period for the good, or temporary torment for the evil. The reason for existing in fiery Gehenna is pure, eternal torture after the Messianic age. Either way, hell is a matter of opinion for those prescribed to a Hebrew slant.