Before we begin to explore Hell we need to explore the words translated as hell in the Old and New Testaments. We also need to look at the context of a few passages.


First let’s look at the Old Testament. King James uses the word “Hell” a total of 31 times but in the Hebrew it occurs 65 times. So what’s the deal? If we look in the RSV or NIV translations the word “Hell” doesn’t occur even once in the Old Testament!


So what’s going on? The word King James translates 31 times as “Hell” is Sheol in the Hebrew and the other 34 times it is translated as “Grave” or “Pit.” Why was King James using Hell when newer translations don’t? Let’s check the origins of the word “Hell.”


Word History: Hell comes to us directly from Old English hel. Because the Roman Church prevailed in England from an early date, the Roman—that is, Mediterranean—belief that hell was hot prevailed there too; in Old English hel is a black and fiery place of eternal torment for the damned. But because the Vikings were converted to Christianity centuries after the Anglo-Saxons, the Old Norse hel, from the same source as Old English hel, retained its earlier pagan senses as both a place and a person. As a place, hel is the abode of oathbreakers, other evil persons, and those unlucky enough not to have died in battle. It contrasts sharply with Valhalla, the hall of slain heroes. Unlike the Mediterranean hell, the Old Norse hel is very cold. Hel is also the name of the goddess or giantess who presides in hel, the half blue-black, half white daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrbotha. The Indo-European root behind these Germanic words is *kel-, "to cover, conceal" (so hell is the "concealed place"); it also gives us hall, hole, hollow, and helmet. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2002, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


OK, let’s look at a sample of Hell as used by King James.

*   (Psa 16:10 KJV)  For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

*   (Psa 86:13 KJV)  For great is thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell.

*   (Psa 139:8 KJV)  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.


Now I ask you, if hell is an eternal place why are these verses saying otherwise? Are there levels of hell? And, what is God doing in hell? Clearly grave or pit would have been a preferred translation. You might ask if I believe in “Hell.”  My answer is that I do not believe in the King James version of Hell as understood when King James had his famous translation made. We have already seen that his version of hell was based on pagan beliefs and not on the word of God. But don’t get ahead of me or assume I don’t believe in an eternal punishment. I will have more to say about this later.


Now let’s look at “Hell” in the New Testament. Here again King James uses “Hell” much more than the other two translations I’ve referenced. Here is a tabulation.

*   KJV, 23 times

*   RSV, 13 times

*   NIV, 14 times

“Hell” isn’t actually a translation but rather a substitute term for Hades and Gehenna, which was thought more appropriate by the translators. Hades was the Greek equivalent of Sheol in the Old Testament and Gehenna was the name of a place near Jerusalem. The two newer translations tended to actually translate Hades or at least let it stand on its own. That is the major reason for the difference in the usage of “Hell” in the three translations. Let’s look more closely at these terms from the Holman Bible Dictionary.


HADES (Hay' dees) the abode of the dead. In the King James Version of the Bible, the Greek word is generally translated "hell." It differs, however, from the term "Gehenna," which more precisely refers to hell. Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term "Sheol," which refers in general to the place of the dead.


GEHENNA (Geh hehn' na) English transliteration of the Greek word that is a transliteration of the Hebrew place name meaning, "valley of whining" or "valley of lamentation" and came to be used in New Testament times as a word for hell.

    The New Testament uses Gehenna to speak of the place of final judgment. Jesus warned that those who called another, "Thou fool," faced the danger of the fire of Gehenna (Matt. 5:22). He taught it is better to destroy a part of one's body than to have one's whole body thrown into Gehenna (Matt. 5:29; 18:9; Mark 9:43,45,47).


Here’s what the Encarta Encyclopedia tells us about Gehenna.

*   Gehenna (Greek Geenna; Hebrew Ge Hinnom), Valley of Hinnom, near Jerusalem. Because some of the Israelites are supposed to have sacrificed their children to Moloch there (see 2 Kings 23:10), the valley came to be regarded as a place of abomination. In a later period it was made a refuse dump, and perpetual fires were maintained there to prevent pestilence. Thus, in the New Testament, Gehenna became synonymous with hell.

© 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


Now let’s look at one of the scriptures mentioned above. They all say pretty much the same thing. Remember the word, “Hell” here is actually a substitute for the place named Gehenna.

*   (Mark 9:47-48 NIV)  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, {48} where "'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'

Now do you suppose the fire is still burning in Gehenna today? And, are those worms still alive? Clearly, the term was used to describe a place of that time as an illustration of an event to come.


Now let’s look at Hades with a little more scrutiny. This is from the same source as above.

*   Hades, in Greek mythology, god of the dead. He was the son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. When the three brothers divided up the universe after they had deposed their father, Cronus, Hades was awarded the underworld. There, with his queen, Persephone, whom he had abducted from the world above, he ruled the kingdom of the dead. Although he was a grim and pitiless god, unappeased by either prayer or sacrifice, he was not evil. In fact, he was known also as Pluto, lord of riches, because both crops and precious metals were believed to come from his kingdom below ground.


The underworld itself was often called Hades. It was divided into two regions: Erebus, where the dead pass as soon as they die, and Tartarus, the deeper region, where the Titans had been imprisoned. It was a dim and unhappy place, inhabited by vague forms and shadows and guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed, dragon-tailed dog. Sinister rivers separated the underworld from the world above, and the aged boatman Charon ferried the souls of the dead across these waters. Somewhere in the darkness of the underworld Hades' palace was located. It was represented as a many-gated, dark and gloomy place, thronged with guests, and set in the midst of shadowy fields and an apparition-haunted landscape. In later legends the underworld is described as the place where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. © 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


Now it becomes clearer as to why the language of the day used one term for the grave or a pit and the other term for the place the condemned would be disposed of. But so far we see nothing of the commonly held belief of “Hell” as a place of eternal torturing. Next week I will talk more about that.