An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


Eternal death in our rejection of God (BCP, p. 862). This state or place of separation from God is closely related to the concept of human free will. We may choose to accept or reject God. We will not be forced by God to receive God's love. Hell is a permanent state of separation from God that can be freely chosen, not God's angry punishment for misdeeds.

The concept of hell can be traced to the OT belief that the dead continued to live a shadowy life in a nether region of darkness and silence known as Sheol. However, it was not a place of torment or retribution. In later Judaism, at the end of the OT period, concepts of final judgment and retribution led to belief that the righteous were separated from the unrighteous in Sheol. Belief in Gehenna, a blazing hell of punishment, likely reflects the influence of Iranian ideas of punitive judgment by God for the wicked.

In the NT and Apocrypha, Hades is mentioned as the place of all the dead (Lk 10:15; Acts 2:31; Rv 20:13; Bar 2:17). Gehenna, the "hell of fire," is where the wicked are punished (Mt 5:22, 10:28, 18:9; Mk 9:43; Lk 12:5; 2 Esd 2:29). NT concepts of hell reflect the darkness of Sheol (Mt 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), and the fire of Gehenna (Mt 3:12; Mk 9:43; Lk 3:17; Rv 20:14-15). Vivid poetic descriptions of hell are provided by Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Jesus foretold the coming judgment in which the Son of Man will come in glory and separate the righteous from the unrighteous as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The Son of Man will send the unrighteous to eternal punishment and the righteous to eternal life (Mt 25:31-46). In the parable of the talents, the Master commands that the "worthless" servant who buried his talent is to be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 25:14-30).

The traditional language version of the Apostles' Creed affirms that Jesus "descended into hell," and the contemporary version states that Jesus "descended to the dead" (BCP, pp. 53, 96). Canticle 14, A Song Of Penitence, based on The Prayer of Manasseh, prays that God will "not let me perish in my sin, nor condemn me to the depths of the earth" (BCP, pp. 90-91). Belief in the reality of hell or the pain of separation from God should never lead to despair that God's mercy is measured or limited. God's mercy and power to save exceed our understanding. See Harrowing of Hell.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.