It should be noted that I have been an adherent of both of those camps of belief in my life. However, as I've taken a more proactive role in reading the Bible in its original translation, my deduction is that neither are accurate. In fact, the afterlife dimensions I'm aware of consist of:
Ignoring for just a moment that most of us are not familiar with what Gehenna is, it looks like something is missing though, right? Where in the Hell is Hell?
To explain that, we have to go to the biblical text, where our English Bibles reference a place called "Hell". You can find the list here.
Note: I linked to the King James Version entries because it has the most instances of the word that I'm aware of. As such, it's the least flattering to my argument, so I wanted to ensure that that's the standard we're aiming to reach. However, as you'll see by the end of this article, it doesn't matter which version it is. If you'd like, there's a dropdown menu at the top of Bible Gateway, where you can change the version to whatever your preference is.
So, how can I claim that there's no Hell when the Bible has three pages of the word "Hell" being used in both the New Testament and the Old Testament?
Off the bat, it's very telling that Jews do not recognize any place called "Hell". The reason for this is not because we have different documents or anything conspiratorial like that. The sad truth is that translators have done a poor (and biased) job in translating the Bible because the word "Hell", simply, does not appear in the Old Testament.
The reasoning for this is simple. The Hebrew word that has been translated as "Hell" is sheol -- which translates to "grave". Here is where people get divided into two camps; those who believe that sheol is Hell and those who believe it is simply a state of being (or er... not being.)
The notion of the afterlife being a place of eternal torment was very popular during the days of King James and because of this personal incredulity, the word "sheol" has been smeared to suit this idea.
Now, you can make the argument that sheol can refer to an afterlife regardless. Actually, I'd agree. I am neither a part of the camp that believes that sheol is Hell nor am I a part of the camp that believes that it simply refers to death. The objection I raise is that it does not refer to a place of eternal punishment and damnation. Even Strong's concordance renders the word "sheol" as meaning "place to which people descend at death."
All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” So his father wept for him.
Replace the word "grave" with "sheol". If we are to take the meaning of sheol as being Hell, then we presume that Jacob presumed that both he and his son would be damned to Hell.
"But, but, but," you may say. And inform me that that's irrelevant because the word "sheol" can have more than one meaning. True, but why choose the word "sheol" (which apparently has a negative connotation, according to those who believe sheol still means Hell) to describe grave in the instance of Genesis 37:35 when a word already exists and has been used elsewhere to describe a burial place?
Likewise, how can you reconcile sheol referring to death without afterlife -- if another word exists to describe that very thing? And how would Jacob join his son in the grave, if there is no afterlife?
Most instances where you see the word "grave" in the Old Testament is actually the word "qebuwrah", which essentially means a burial place. And to signify death alone, one would use the word "maveth".
Given these facts, I conclude that "sheol" refers to death with a connotation of a neutral afterlife. It's easy to presume that it does not have a positive correlation and as I've already demonstrated, the afterlife tied to it cannot be one of torture and damnation.
It's notable that when sheol is used and the afterlife has a negative connotation, the word "tachtiy" precedes it. This word translates to "lowest" (as it's often translated) or "nether", which I believe is more accurate.
Worth noting: Generally speaking, Jews do not believe in a place called "Hell" either. Rather, they believe in cleansing oneself. And because of this, in Judaism, there are different degrees of atonement based on this. Bare in mind, that this is the same theological construct as the Purgatory talked about in Catholicism.
Now, please. Do me a favor and return to the link that lists all of the instances of the word Hell. Read each verse and tell me which definition of "sheol" seems more accurate; mine or King James'.
The New Testament is where it gets complicated because there are numerous words in the original Greek Koine Bible that is used to indicate the afterlife. These words are Hades, Gehenna, Abraham's Bosom, and Tartarus.
The question you should be thinking as you read this: Why would there be so many words with different origins and implications all to mean the same exact place?
This phrase appears only once throughout the entire scripture, the Story of Lazarus And The Rich Man. In Luke 16:22, the angels carry Lazarus' soul to "Abraham's Bosom".
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that "bosom" means "embrace" in this context, indicating that Lazarus was brought to Heaven.
Hades and sheol have roughly the same definition, wherein Hades is defined as "the unseen world." Which, itself, disqualifies Hades as a possible definition of "Hell". Neither word actually has a connotation of suffering and eternal punishment that we've grown to accept as Hell, yet these are the sources used to verify this teaching. I contend the best definition for Hades is "mortal death" or "afterlife" and you'll see why.
"I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell will not overpower it."
This would seem to imply a struggle between Church and Hell, but this is not necessarily the only plausible read of this verse. It is more plausible to change the word "hell" to "Hades" (or change it back, rather) and for Matthew 16:18 to be saying that a mortal death will not overcome the Church. Indeed, this would make far more sense than Hell not overpowering the Church, considering that there are many instances of the body of Christ acting recklessly, but none where it has died completely.
"I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death."
If we render "Hades" as "Hell" in this instance, then we concede that God does, in fact, send people to Hell. As Christians, we can no longer fall back on the argument that it's us who reject him and are unable to join him in Heaven, which makes our only other destination Hell.
There's an interesting construct here in the King James Version. The original writing places the word "thanatou" (death) before "Hades" (hell/the unseen world.) The reasoning, I suspect, is because it weakens the argument that this verse is not affirmation of Hell. But the original writing clearly places thanatou before Hades. By selectively switching the order that "Hell" and "death" appear, it makes reading "life after death and death" somewhat awkward. But when you place it as it's originally written with the original definitions in place, it seems to all come together.
I ask you, what makes more sense to read?:
"I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death."
"I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of eternal death and mortal death (death and the thereafter)."
I contend the latter.
"And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day."
This is probably the most interpretative piece of the argument. Here, Jesus rejects Capernaum for rejecting his teachings. This instance is interesting because it doesn't openly disqualify the possibility of Hell like the other verses do. That being said, it doesn't openly disqualify Jesus as having meant that Capernaum would simply meet its mortal death to a place other than Heaven (say... Purgatory?)
But the original text reads: "Kai sy Kapharnaoum mē heōs ouranou hypsōthēsē heōs hadou katabēsē hoti ei en Sodomois egenēthēsan hai dynameis hai genomenai en soi emeinen an mechri tēs sēmeron."
A choppy, perfect translation would be:
"And you, Capernaum, who to Heaven have been lifted to -- to Hades will be brought down, for if in Sodom, had taken place the miracles which have taken place in you -- it would have remained anyhow until this day."
This seems to suggest to us something different than we've been presented. That being, that Capernaum had been lifted to Heaven already and due to its behavior, would be be subjected to Hades. As such, I contend this to be the most accurate translation of Matthew 11:23:
"And you, Capernaum, who I've uplifted to Heaven -- you will be brought down to a mortal death, for if I had performed the miracles in Sodom that I did here, it would have remained until this day despite its grievous behavior."
This, of course, would be figurative considering that the citizens of Capernaum would have already died a mortal death. But had they abided his teachings, they would have been granted access to Heaven. Because they did not, they lost the prestige that Jesus would have otherwise placed in them.
"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
The problem with rendering Hades as Hell here is that it implies that there is only definite death and eternal punishment in Hell. Anyone with even a modicum of scriptural knowledge knows that that is not the case.
It is much more scripturally sound (not to mention etymologically accurate) to interpret Hades as meaning judgment for those who will not be cast into Gehenna (more on that in its appropriate section.)
Remember when I mentioned tachtiy sheol (the lowest afterlife)?
In classical Greek mythological, Tartarus referred to a place below even the Underworld. Or, perhaps more fitting, "the place of punishment fitting only for demons." (Remember this when you read the section for Gehenna.) As such, it is intellectually dishonest to render this as anything but the lowest level of afterlife. There is only one instance of Tartarus in the Bible:
2 Peter 2:4
"For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;"
But why use the word "Tartarus" to mean "Hell" if, allegedly, "Hades" and "Gehenna" both mean Hell? Given the very obvious implication of what Tartarus would mean to its contemporary audience, lumping Tartarus in as synonymous with Gehenna, Hades, etc.
It is more reasonable to presume Tartarus as a lower level of Hades. Especially given the mythological connection that between the two words in extrabiblical sources.
Strong defines Gehenna as "Gehenna, and originally the name of a valley or cavity near Jerusalem, a place underneath the earth, a place of punishment for evil." To expound, the name was derived from a place outside ancient Jerusalem known in the Hebrew Bible as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. Originally, it was believed that this was a location where children were sacrificed to Moloch, hence from the perspective of the authors of the Hebrew Bible, it was deemed to be cursed. Abraham refers to this place in Genesis 15:17.
Matthew 25:41 tells us that Gehenna was prepared for Satan:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
Mark 9:43 grants us the image we ascribe to Hell as being an eternal lake of fire:
"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out."
Matthew 10:28 tells us that Gehenna is a place where both body and soul will be destroyed:
"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."
And by far, the most damning evidence that Gehenna and Hades are not one in the same is Revelation 20:13-15, which describes Hades being thrown into Gehenna after the dead are emptied from it:
"The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of lifewas thrown into the lake of fire."
It is presumably a place of secondary atonement, wherein nonbelievers have an access point into the Kingdom of God. I base this on the fact that there are levels of Purgatory and that Ockham's Razor calls into question why the punishment is not simply immediate.
So, what we can deduce from this is that Gehenna is an unquenchable lake of fire designed specifically for Satan that Hades will be cast into on judgment day after the souls within are emptied from it and judged accordingly. This, of course, means that eternal suffering is a non-biblical concept. While the punishment of your soul being destroyed is eternal, the punishing is not.
Heaven is a well established concept from both Abraham's Bosom and Ouranou. Those who accept either the old or new covenant go here.
Sheol and Hades describe a place I dub Purgatory, which is a place everyone else goes when they die, unless they have accepted either the old or new covenants. Tartarus is the lowest level of Purgatory. And ultimately, Purgatory will be cast into Gehenna on Judgment Day after the souls within are removed and judged. Those poorly judged are cast into Gehenna.
Gehenna is the final judgment place for man, angel and demon, wherein Purgatory will be cast into on Judgment Day. The reason I don't use the word "Hell" to describe Gehenna is because the word has evolved to mean eternal suffering, whereas that's simply not the case.