Gehenna and tartaroō in the NET Bible
In this third post about words related to the recent controversy over Rob Bell and his book Love Wins, I examine the words gehenna and tartaroō in the NET Bible. (See the first post on sheol in the NET Bible here and the second one on hades here.) Again, my goal is to get a better sense for what we are doing with these passages so we can be sure the NET Bible is helping the church with our translations of these key passages.
One thing I find interesting at this juncture is the relative infrequency of these words. Sheol occurs a large number of times in the Old Testament (65x) compared to hades (10x), gehenna (12x), and tartaroō (1x) in the New Testament, but even this is not a lot compared to others. Just by way of comparison, the Hebrew word hesed which is often translated “faithfulness, loyal love, lovingkindness,” occurs 249x in the OT, and the Greek word charis, often translated “grace,” occurs 155x in the NT. This is not to say that the words are not important or that the teachings connected to them are insignificant. It is simply an observation that there is not a lot of verses where these words occur, so the exegesis has to take this into account.
The Greek word gehenna has an interesting history. It originally began as a Hebrew place name which meant “Valley of Hinnom.” This valley marked the boundary between the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin (see Joshua 15:8; 18:16). Some Israelites participated in child sacrifice by fire in this valley (see 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:4, 5; 32:35). In the intertestamental period this valley became symbolic for a place of fiery judgment upon the wicked, and the location was often used as a place to incinerate refuse. By the time of the New Testament the name was used almost entirely as a symbol for the ultimate place of fiery judgment that awaits the wicked. In a very real sense, this is equivalent to what the contemporary
English speaker understands by the word “hell” and this is how we translate it in every occurrence. Interesting to note in conjunction with these uses is that the concept of fire is used right alongside gehenna in some key places. See, for example, Matthew 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:43, 47-48. This reinforces the meaning of the term understood from the historical and cultural context. In my opinion, the translation “hell” for gehenna works very well and clearly communicates the meaning of the term.
The word tartaroō only occurs once in the NT (although it occurs fairly often in non-biblical Greek along with the Proper noun Tartaros):
For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but threw them into hell and locked them up in chains in utter darkness, to be kept until the judgment . . .
One of the notes we have on this term explains it well:
This verb, ταρταρόω (tartaroō), occurs only here in the NT, but its meaning is clearly established in both Hellenistic and Jewish literature. “Tartarus [was] thought of by the Greeks as a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was meted out, and so regarded in Israelite apocalyptic as well” (BDAG 991 s.v.).
Essentially, then, the Greek concept of Tartarus matches the Hebrew concept of gehenna. The translation “threw them into hell” is quite accurate and understandable.
I will freely admit that I have not read Bell’s book, but I have read some analysis of it, even in Bell’s own words from interviews he has done. My hunch is that Bell wants to make hell subjective, that is, it is the sum total of the bad choices we make, our refusal to accept God’s love into our lives. Essentially in this line of thinking hell is what we make it. However, the use of these Greek terms in the NT shows that the concept is not subjective. It is an objective reality in which the wicked will find themselves. It is defined by judgment and fire. With the evidence of these words, it is very hard to define hell in any other way and still be biblical.