The titled question is asked a lot these days. Since the Bible uses the term “hell” with some frequency, it is important that we understand its meaning. Depending on the Bible translation one is using, the term “hell” may represent one of two things: (1) Hades, or (2) Eternal Punishment. For example, the King James Version uses the term for both.
In Matthew 16:18 (KJV) it says, “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Being that the New Testament was written in Greek, we look to the original language – and what we discover is that the word “hell” in Matthew 16:18 is actually “Hades” in Greek. Hades is defined as “the common receptacle of disembodied spirits” (Online Bible Greek Lexicon); “the abode of departed spirits” (New American Standard Greek Lexicon); “the place of departed souls” (Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words). Some occasionally refer to Hades as “the grave of the soul” because that’s where a person’s soul goes when they physically die (Lk. 16:19-31).
Since most English speaking Bibles rely on the Masoretic Text for the Old Testament, the original language of the Old Testament (in those Bibles) is based on Hebrew (with some Aramaic) as the original language. As a result, the word for “the place of departed souls” in the Old Testament is not “Hades” but “Sheol.” Both are a reference to the same exact place (Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27).
Without question the most detail given in the Bible of this “common receptacle of disembodied spirits” is found in Luke 16:19-31. While some believe this is simply a parable, it nonetheless offers insight into what happens to the soul (between now and the Judgment Day) when a person dies physically. In that passage Jesus describes two people who physically die. Both of them (their souls) went to Hades (vv. 23-26). One of them, a beggar named Lazarus, was comforted there, whereas the other one, a rich man, was tormented there (v. 25). The passage reveals that those in torment (the condemned) are separated from those comforted (the saved, Lk. 23:43) by a great impassable gulf so that none can cross from one side to the other (v. 26).
It is worthy to note that when Jesus died on the cross He did not go to heaven – nor did He go to hell (Gr., gehenna), as some suppose; rather, He went to Hades. Peter confirms this in Acts 2:27 when he quotes David’s prophecy concerning Christ: “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” He added, “he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption” (v. 31). Additional proof that Jesus did not go to heaven when He died is seen in His statement to Mary Magdalene in John 20:17 after His resurrection: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father…’”
In a nutshell, this is what the Bible teaches about where souls go when people physically die between now and the Judgment. The Bible mentions nothing of “Purgatory,” “Limbo,” “Nirvana,” etc. (these are all man-made concepts).
Please look for “Part Two” in this small series as we continue to answer the question, “Is there really a Hell?”