There are numerous English translations of the Bible available today for the study of Christianity. Each translation is a scholarly attempt to convey into English what the original transcripts have stated in the two primary Bible languages of Hebrew and Koine Greek.
During the translation work, the translator is confronted with a number of original words that are traditionally rendered as being the word “hell.” Those words, there are more than one of them, in the original language manuscripts are: the Hebrew word “Sheol” in the Old Testament and its New Testament equivalent in the Greek “Hades.” Additionally, the New Testament Greek contains two words, “Gehenna” and “Tartarus” that have also been translated with regularity as “hell.” The purpose of this Learning Activity is to look closely at this group of words in an attempt to establish a working understanding of this place popularly called hell by many Christians.
As we begin our study we might ask, “Why place an emphasis on this topic at all?” The answer to such a question is because it is a prominent topic found discussed and repeatedly mentioned in and out of Christian circles. It has a profound impact on the belief systems of both Christian believers and non-believers alike. The author of this document is of the opinion that there may be a surprising number of people who have been frightened into Christianity by the prospects of a place like hell who are now members of Christian organizations enjoying a false sense of security. These individuals may have joined a particular Christian group not out of a genuine relationship with Christ, but rather, as “insurance” against this place called hell. The opposite side of that coin may also be a large number of people who have over time rejected the claims of Christianity because of an improper understanding and portrayal of this subject by many in the organized church. These reasons are adequate motivation for our study.
It is true that some, but certainly not all, translations of the word of God contain the word “hell.” To begin let us look at the frequency of the use of the word “hell” in a few Bible translations.
TRANSLATION Old Testament New Testament
Old King James Version (KJV) 31 23
New King James Version (NKJV) 19 13
American Standard Version (ASV) 0 13
The Amplified Bible (AMP) 0 13
Darby 0 12
New American Standard Bible (NAS) 0 13
New Century Version (NCV) 0 12
New International Version (NIV) 0 14
New Living Translation 0 13
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 0 12
Revised English Bible 0 13
From the list above it is easy to conclude that the KJV translation appears to be out of alignment with other Bible translations and in particular has a problem with this word in the Old Testament. We also observe that the word hell appears to be valid in the New Testament translations, however, note the following data of some other Bible translation work that has been done on the New Testament.
Westley’s New Testament (1755) Zero uses of the word hell.
Scarlett’s New Testament (1798) Zero uses of the word hell.
Hanson’s New Covenant (1884) Zero uses of the word hell.
Young’s Literal Translation (1891) Zero uses of the word hell.
The Twentieth Century New Testament (1900) Zero uses of the word hell.
Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible (1902) Zero uses of the word hell.
Fenton’s Holy Bible in Modern English (1903) Zero uses of the word hell.
Weymouth’s New Testament in Modern Speech (1903) Zero uses of the word hell.
The People’s New Covenant (1925) Zero uses of the word hell.
And there are others that could be added to this list!
At this point we should be puzzled as to why so many translators have decided to not even use the word “hell” in their translation work when the doctrine and belief of this place is so prevalent in Christianity!
If we refer to common extra-biblical sources we find the following descriptions of hell.
“The abode of the dead; the underworld where departed souls were believed to dwell; specifically, in the Hebrew Scriptures, Sheol, and in Greco-Roman tradition, Hades. The abode of condemned souls and devils; the place or state of torture and punishment for the wicked after death, presided over by Satan. A place or state of great iniquity, misery, discord or destruction.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973.
“The Bible does not give the physical location of hell or anything about its furnishings, but it assures the readers that those whose sins are not atoned for by Jesus Christ will receive perfect justice from God, that they will receive exactly what they deserve for all eternity, which will be a most miserable fate. This ought to be one of the impelling motives making evangelism the urgent business of all Christians.”
The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1976.
The two citations above reflect what is commonly found in secular and Christian theological literature available to the general public. We shall now proceed to see what it is that the Bible has to say about this subject.
In the Old Testament the word “Sheol,” often translated as “hell” appears as follows.
“Then Jacob rent his garments, and put on sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, No, I shall go down to sheol to my son, mourning. Thus his father wept for him” (Genesis 37:34, 35).
Here the Revised Standard Version (RSV) uses the word “Sheol” to describe Jacob’s belief that he would go to this place where his son had gone, as Jacob understood Joseph to be dead. The King James Version (KJV) translates the word “Sheol” in this verse as “the grave.”
The main point here is that Jacob, who is described in Hebrews 11:21 as a man of faith believed he would go to Sheol when he physically died.
“Oh that thou wouldest hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldest conceal me until thy wrath be past…” (Job 14:13).
Here again the RSV translates the word to be Sheol while the KJV translates it as the grave. Job, a God fearing man (see Job 1:1) looked to Sheol as a “better place” so to speak, than his current condition on earth. It is of note to read Job 14:14 as it alludes to Job’s belief of a resurrection from Sheol!
“The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God” (Psalms 9:17).
Here we have the RSV stating that the wicked people and nations that forget God go to Sheol, but the KJV translates Sheol as “hell.” Notice the theological bias of the KJV translators! People faithful to God go to the “grave,” but wicked people go to “hell” even though both words in the Hebrew are “Sheol!” This is a clear case of translation being driven by the translator’s theology (personal belief bias)!
“Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol” (Proverbs 5:5).
This verse is speaking of what the Bible calls “a loose woman” (see verse 3). Note again that the RSV uses “Sheol” while the KJV uses “hell.” More theological bias.
“Because you have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement…” (Isaiah 28:15). Here we have the rulers in Jerusalem who are referred to as scoffers (see verse 14) going to Sheol in the RSV, but the KJV has them going to hell!
There are many additional citations we could make but you can study them using Sheol in the Old Testament; however, I would now like to move on to the companion word of Sheol in the New Testament, Hades. I can say the two words are equivalent because the Bible itself declares that to be so through the two passages that follow below.
“For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption” (Acts 2:27).
“For thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the Pit” (Psalms 16:10).
Psalms 16 is what is called a Messianic Psalm, which means it speaks of Jesus Christ the Messiah. The Acts 2:27 verse is a parallel to Psalms 16:10. Note that in Acts 2:27 the word “Hades” appears while in Psalms 16:10 the word “Sheol” is used. What the Scripture has done is to show us that the two words are synonymous in meaning. The Koine Greek word “Hades” is the same as the Hebrew word “Sheol” in meaning.
At this juncture we have also established from the Scriptures that as the figure below illustrates ALL who physically died prior to the New Covenant went to a place called Sheol. This encompassed those who believed what God had said as well as those who did NOT believe what God had said.
Left click your mouse on the word Sheol to view the graphic.
No judgment had yet taken place to determine the final destiny of each of the two groupings of people an event that had to wait until Christ’s Parousia in AD 70. In the New Testament this place “Sheol” is described by the Greek word “Hades.” This word “Hades” is derived from the Greek word “hado” signifying “all-receiving” which fits our function of Sheol – to receive ALL of Old Testament and Old Covenant humanity. For the meaning of “hado,” see the Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words by W. E. Vine, 1966, Page 187.
In the same manner as its synonym Sheol, the Scriptures use Hades to portray the destiny after physical death of the Old Testament and Old Covenant people as well as to illustrate the demise of judgment upon nations. We have already seen an example of Sheol being used for national judgment in Psalms 19:7. The verse below will further illustrate the use of Hades for national judgment.
“And you, Capernaum, will be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades…” (Matthew 11:23).
We therefore conclude that both words Sheol and Hades refer to all who died under the Old Testament and Old Covenant as well as language describing national judgment.
The following passage appears in the book of Second Peter.
“For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to parts of the nether gloom to be kept until the judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).
This verse contains the word “Tartarus” which has been translated as “hell.” It is the only occurrence of the word Tartarus in the entire Bible. In this instance both the RSV and the KJV translate the word into “hell.”
This word “Tartarus” has its origin in Greek thinking and refers to the fabled place of punishment in the lower world. Peter appears to have selected this word from the extra-biblical book of Enoch that is replete with the legends of Greek thought. For centuries scholars have pondered why Peter would include this word in the inspired word of God. The best scholarship I have personally found on this question seems to be that of a person who makes a quotation of some fable or cliche in order to make a point. The quotation has nothing to do with validating the truth of the fable or cliche itself, but rather to reinforce the point being made. In this case, it appears that Peter intended to make the point that God is firm and true to His administration and retribution. In a sentence, what Peter is saying is that if God did not spare the angels that sinned, then He will not be slack with mankind who do likewise and expect not to come under God’s judgment!
The final word used in the Scriptures that is commonly translated as “hell” is the Greek word “Gehenna.” The use of this word is perhaps the most interesting part of this study.
“…and whoever says, You fool! Shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).
The word “Gehenna” is translated as “hell” in the verse above. The origin and background of this word is as follows.
“The word derives from the Valley of Hinnom, or more fully, the Valley of the son(s) of Hinnom, situated to the south or southwest of Jerusalem, usually identified with the Wadi-er-Rababi. This valley begins west of the Jaffa gate, turns south for a third of a mile and then gradually curves east to join the Kidron Valley. During the reign of Ahaz and Manasseh human sacrifices were offered to the heathen god Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). In later times the valley seems to have been used for burning refuse, and also the bodies of criminals.”
The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1976, Pages 670-71.
“And they have built the high place of Topeth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topeth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topeth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth; and none will frighten them away” (Jeremiah 7:31-33).
Those days did come shortly after Jeremiah’s prophecy in 598 BC when Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem in 597 BC when he took King Jehoiachin captive to Babylon along with other Jewish residents (2 Kings 24:10-16; 2 Chronicles 36:5-10; Ezekiel 1:1, 2), and finally in 586 BC when the city was burned and the temple destroyed along with the murder of many Jewish people (2 Kings 24 and 25; 2 Chronicles 36). This was the imagery that Jesus brought to mind with His statement in Matthew 23:33.
From this background, the Jewish people came to know Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, as a place of burning, a valley of slaughter and a place of fiery judgment. It is the same place that Jeremiah said would be filled with the bodies of Israelites when God judged Israel for her sins (Jeremiah 19:2-13). The Roman Army fulfilled this prophecy of Jeremiah in AD 67-70 when Jerusalem was destroyed.
When Jesus referred to Gehenna in the Matthew five passage above, His listeners knew He was referring to the Valley of Hinnom just a short distance away. The word would have given them illusions and rememberances of a place of continual burning where rebellious Jews had been slaughtered in the past.
“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell” (Matthew 23:33).
Here again, “hell” is the word “Gehenna.” Jesus has just pronounced a most unfavorable judgment on the scribes and Pharisees (see verse 29) to whom He was speaking. He not only pronounces the judgment, but also gives the timeline for the event if they did not heed the messages of repentance that had been brought to them by Malachi, John the Baptist and Jesus Himself!
“Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation” (Matthew 23:36).
And to their generation it did come in the form of Titus and the Roman Army in AD 70!
There are other Old Testament and New Testament passages that have been translated to include the word “hell” in them. I leave those to your individual study to discover that they are all in no way used to describe a place where all unrepentant sinners go after physical death to be tormented for all eternity by God. That belief is not supported by the Scriptures. Whatever the Bible teaches, it does not tell us that about the final destiny of the wicked. One thing is certain; the wicked do NOT inherit eternal life as the believer does! Eternal life may ONLY be secured by having God, who is Himself eternality, living within us at our physical death. Those who have not believed in Jesus Christ do not have He who is eternal living within them and therefore they return to the nothingness they were before being physically brought into this world (author’s view).
We have seen from our study that Gehenna was the name for a physical place just outside of Jerusalem. There is no reason for translators to assign any other meaning to the word any more than they do for such places as Canaan, Capernaum, or Damascus. There is no biblical evidence in the Scriptures that would lead us to believe that Gehenna is anything other than the valley just outside of the city of Jerusalem. The word should be left untranslated as it is in some translation work, but by no means all translations.
A search of Christian history does reveal to us the probable source of the association of the word Gehenna with hell. That occurred in AD 150 when Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria began to designate Gehenna, or to them hell, as a place of punishment after physical death. The first time we find hell used as a place of endless punishment is in the Jewish writing of Jonathan Ben Uzziel in the third century!
In closing, it seems that God has in other areas of basic beliefs provided adequate biblical support and teaching for us to understand those issues that are of concern to us and that have eternal consequences. In the case of the traditional understanding of hell we do not find this to be the case at all. Examine the following in support of my statement.
In the Garden of Eden God said the penalty for eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was death, not eternal fire and brimstone!
In the case of Abel and Cain, why did God not warn Cain of the eventualities of a hell punishment?
When the flood of Noah’s time came, there was no threat of endless punishment to evildoers even though God said that every thought of man’s heart was only evil continually.
In the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah there was a destruction of the cities and the people, but no mention or warning of an endless future torment.
Under the Mosaic Law numerous consequences of curses on crops, flocks, health and so forth are mentioned, yet not a single word appears that would indicate endless torment in a place called hell for the individual.
If God had planned to use such severe punishment as an eternal endless hell, would He not have been obligated to reveal these criteria to His creation? I can only conclude that the reason that no such clarity was ever given is because there is no such place as hell for humanity!