Q. I notice that in some New Testament passages where one Bible translation has the word “hell,” another may use other terms. What’s the difference?
A. Three Greek New Testament words have sometimes been translated in different Bible versions with our English word “hell.” One is the word hades. It usually refers in general to the realm of the dead—not specifically to a place of eternal punishment.
It has this sense, for example, in Acts 2:27 (quoting Psalm 16:10), when St. Peter preaches that an Old Testament prophecy applies to Jesus Christ: “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let your Holy One see corruption.” (Greek hades was used here to translate the Old Testament Hebrew word sheol, which has the same general meaning of “realm of the dead.”) In the original Greek of the Apostles’ Creed, the word we usually translate as “hell” is also hades: “He [Christ] descended into hell [Hades].”
Tartarus is a second Greek word, originating in pagan Greek mythology, with the specific sense of the place of punishment of the wicked after death. It is sometimes translated as “hell” in the one passage where a form of the word appears in a biblical text, 2 Peter 2:4, saying that God cast the demons there in “pits of deepest darkness.”
Finally, we have the Greek word Gehenna. It’s the Greek version of a Hebrew name, Ge-Hinnom, or “the Valley of Hinnom.” Originally, Ge-Hinnom referred to a valley just outside Jerusalem where, in ancient times, children had been sacrificed — burned alive — to the cruel pagan god Moloch. In later times, to show their horror and disgust at such a practice, the Jewish people desecrated the site by making Ge-Hinnom their garbage dump.
Fires continually burned the rubbish there, and the garbage crawled with worms. So you can see why the Jews eventually borrowed the name of that valley to describe hell, the most horrific place of all, where unrepentant sinners suffered eternal punishment. In several places in the Gospels, Jesus speaks of Gehenna in this sense, such as Mark 9:43–47, where He describes it (echoing Isaiah 66:24) as a place “where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched.”