In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hell

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Antecedents to Biblical Concepts of the Abode of Dead

Biblical Studies Hell
Meghan Henning, Carol Newsom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0180


The mention of hell usually invokes imagery of a fiery place, below the earth, in which the wicked are tortured for eternity. Although this dominant model of hell owes much to the history of interpretation of Jewish and Christian scriptures, the reader of the Bible is hard-pressed to locate this specific depiction of hell in the Bible itself. There are a number of reasons for this apparent paucity of references to hell in the Bible. To begin, the concepts of the abode of the dead in ancient Judaism (e.g., Sheol, the Pit, Abaddon) did not refer to a lively afterlife per se, and these were not places in which a person received rewards or punishments. Instead, many of the ideas about the abode of the dead in the Hebrew Bible depict it as a generally unpleasant place in which all departed persons reside in a kind of shadowy existence. During the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, new ideas about the afterlife begin to develop within Judaism and Christianity, for a number of reasons. In particular, Hellenism allowed for greater exposure to ideas from other cultures. The social and political pressures of this period also led to internal developments within Second Temple Judaism, including the development of new genres of literature that addressed the changing concerns of ancient Judaism. The New Testament documents reflect a time period in which the Judeo-Christian concept of hell was in flux, containing conceptual breadth because of the dynamic cultural climate in which they were written. For instance, the association of eternal punishment with fire and torment emerged within the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature of the Hellenistic period. As a result of this development, the extent to which a New Testament text engages the idea of hell as a fiery place of punishment is often determined by the author’s apocalyptic outlook. Investigations into the study of the topic of “hell” in the bible deal with the constellation of Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as “hell.” Scholars are not only attentive to the way these words are used the biblical texts, but also to the relationship between the ancient Jewish and Christian uses of these terms and the correlative concepts in surrounding cultures. In order to trace the history of the idea of hell within Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, research also considers the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha that discuss eternal punishment.

General Overviews

There are a number of general overviews that treat the topic of hell. The following representative works each offer some discussion of the relevant biblical texts in the course of their historical or theological overviews. Bremmer 2002 and Segal 2004 each treat the topic of hell within a larger conversation about the historical development of the concept of the afterlife. Despite their wide-angle lens, both give detailed treatment to the role of biblical texts within that history. Bernstein 1993 and Minois 1991 provide diachronic historical analysis and are focused more specifically on the topic of hell. Avery-Peck and Neusner 1995 and Nicklas 2010 are collections of essays that include treatments of specific texts or particular historical issues in the study of the afterlife. Vorgrimler 1993 also gives a diachronic historical view of the concept of hell, but it does so from the perspective of a systematic theologian, and is attentive to theological issues. Seymour 2000 deals with philosophical and theological tensions between the concept of eternal punishment and the theistic traditions in which they arise.

  • Avery-Peck, Alan J., and Jacob Neusner, eds. Death, Life-after-Death, Resurrection, and the World-to-Come in the Judaisms of Antiquity. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1995.

    Collection of essays that discuss the topic of “hell” as part of a broader discussion about death and the afterlife within ancient Judaism. Includes essays on the concept of the afterlife in the Psalms, Wisdom literature, Apocalyptic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospels, and rabbinic literature.

  • Bernstein, Alan E. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

    An overview of hell that focuses on the development of the idea in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and early Christian milieux, concluding with the views of Augustine. Since Bernstein is concerned with a relatively shorter period of time, his treatment of the theme within the biblical texts is more expansive than some of the other overviews.

  • Bremmer, Jan N. The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife: The 1995 Read-Tuckwell Lectures at the University of Bristol. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    A collection of essays that were originally delivered as lectures, exploring the topic of human immortality. Provides a more detailed analysis of the cultural exchange of ideas about the afterlife than some of the other overviews, focusing on the historical relationships between each of the distinct conceptions of the afterlife within Antiquity.

  • Minois, Georges. Histoire des Enfers. Paris: Fayard, 1991.

    A broad “history of Hell,” in which Minois traces the development of the idea, focusing less on the historical analysis of each iteration of the theme in its context than on the diachronic history of the idea of hell. Published in German as Die Hölle: Zur Geschichte einer Fiktion (Munich: Dt. Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1996).

  • Nicklas, Tobias, Joseph Verheyden, Erik Eynikel, and Florentino Garcia Martinez. Other Worlds and Their Relation to This World: Early Jewish and Ancient Christian Traditions. Boston and Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004186262.i-402

    A collection of essays that includes treatment of the concept of “hell” as part of topical essays on “other worlds” within the Jewish and Christian literature of Antiquity. This volume includes essays on “other worlds” in the Enochic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, Virgil, the New Testament, and the early Christian apocalypses.

  • Segal, Alan F. Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

    An overview of the concept of the afterlife as it pertains to Western religious traditions. Includes significant chapters on the concept of afterlife in First Temple Israel, Second Temple Israel, Paul, the Gospels, the Early Church Fathers, and the Rabbis. Segal’s introduction to the topic includes basic historical background for each of the texts he discusses.

  • Seymour, Charles Steven. A Theodicy of Hell. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-0604-9

    An historical study of philosophical and theological problems raised by the concept of hell. Seymour attempts to reconcile the concept of eternal punishment with its roots in theistic traditions that affirm God’s goodness.

  • Vorgrimler, Herbert. Geschichte der Hölle. Munich: W. Fink, 1993.

    A very broad overview of the concept of hell, beginning with Sumerian ideas and continuing chronologically to the present day. Working from the tradition of systematic theology, Vorgrimler is primarily concerned with hell as a theological concept.

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