The concept embodied in the contemporary word "hell" was never a part of the original Hebrew scriptures. The idea of a place of eternal burning torment cannot be found in the Old Testament. The word "hell" never occurred in the collected writings we call the Bible until the 1500's and the advent of English translations. There are three Hebrew words in the English Bibles that are translated "hell". One is "Sheol", another is "Gehenna", and the third, which occurs only once in the entire collection of holy writings called "the bible" is "Tartarus". Each of these words has its own particular meaning. None of them is equivalent to the others. Therefore, let's ask the obvious question, "How could three different words be correctly translated into the one word, "hell."
The obvious answer is,"They could not have." Someone might assume that one of them was correctly translated and the other two were not, but the fact is, none of the three words translates correctly into "hell". Hell comes from early Norse mythology and came to England through the invading Danes, Jutes and Vikings. In the mythology of Viking dominated Scandinavia, the goddess Hel ruled the place Hel.
In the King James Version(OT & NT) the word "hell" occurs 54 times. In the New Testament, the word “hell” occurs 23 times in the King James version, 13 times in both the New American Standard and Amplified versions, and 14 times in the New International Version. In Young’s Literal Translation, the word never occurs, because Young was faithful to render the words Gehenna, Sheol, and Tartarus (three words the King James translators did not translate correctly) exactly as they were written. The New American Standard translators translated sheol as “Sheol” or “the grave”, but they translated the word Gehenna as “hell” for some reason. It was no a good reason, because “Gehenna” is a very specific word with a very specific background that should be understood by readers of the scriptures. Gehenna, when accounting for repetitions in the gospels, was really only used four times by Jesus. This word Gehenna, from the Greek ge hinnom or the valley of hinnom refers to a historical and geological place in ancient Israel that the Pharisees were very familiar with. We will look at that, and what exactly Jesus was alluding to in a later chapter. The primary use of the word "hell" was in translation of "sheol"(over 60 times OT + NT). It was an entirely inappropriate translation. Let's examine why.
When Hebrew was translated into Greek, in the Septuagint(70BC), the Hebrew word "sheol" was translated into the Greek word "hades". Sheol simply means "the unseen"; "beyond the horizon"; or "unknowable". Among the Hebrews the word came to mean, "the grave", because no one can see clearly beyond the veil of death. It is misty, "seen through a glass darkly", "beyond the horizon" of man's knowledge, hence "sheol". There is no implication in the roots and etymology of the word, nor in any Old Testament usage of the word that indicates anything to do with "fire" at all, much less everlasting burning or torment. It was simply the place where the dead await the great day of God.
Hades, on the other hand, had clear connotations of torment and it was the place of the dead in Greek mythology. Hades therefore brought all the mystic import of its original Greek meaning to the minds of Greek hearers for hundreds of years. When the Roman translators came along, translating from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, they translated "hades" into "inferno". Inferno was the place of the dead in the Roman mythology. Packaged with the obvious meaning of the word itself, meaning "intense fire" or "roiling flames", was the Roman cosmology of the afterlife. Inferno was a place where the evil payed for the sins of their lives forever. There really was no commonality between the words hades and inferno and the original word they were translated from, "sheol".
In Greek mythology the god Hades ruled the place Hades. In Roman mythology Pluto ruled Inferno. The Norse tribes(Vikings, Danes, Jutes, etc.) that invaded and populated early Britain, brought with them from the mythology of their forebears, "Hel". So, when the time came that the translators of the King James Bible began there work, the fix was already in.
The word "hell" was a natural replacement for "hades/inferno" in the evolution of religious language because it was already a popular word in the common language of the dark ages. The problem is, "hell" is three steps removed from "sheol"(sheol>hades>inferno>hell) and with each step it carried more mythological and philosophical baggage from cultures and religions that had(and continue to have) nothing in common with the original writers of the Hebrew scriptures(Moses and the prophets) and their thoughts. In fact, for the most part, writers(such as Plato or Aristotle) that early translators used to determine the meanings of certain words, were philosophically opposed to the thoughts of the Hebrew prophets.
Really, only a contextual study revealing the overall cosmology, systems of thought and values of the original Hebrew writers can effectively reveal the meaning of their words. We have to know what they thought and why, when they spoke. It doesn't matter what Plato thought when he spoke. The idea that the use of words like "hades"(among ancient Greeks) or "inferno"(among early Roman Catholics) or "hell"(among early Europeans) should somehow reveal the thought in the mind of a Jewish prophet in 2000 B.C. or those of Jesus the Messiah, is not logical.
It is easy to see that the contemporary theological view of "hell" is the sum of periodic popular interpretations of those three mythological words. Theology by morphology. The result is that words used by God to describe spiritual realities lose their original meaning. Our belief system changes as a result.
In addition to this cultural, linguistic and theological devolution from original meanings, there were imperatives placed upon the translators of the King James bible to adhere to certain restrictions when doubtful disputes arose among the translators. These restrictions followed the orthodoxy of Anglican (not far removed from Roman Catholic) theology. Therefore, the bible that has been in the hands of the VAST MAJORITY of Christians since there has been a readable bible in the English world, strongly reflected the errors, assumptions and prejudices of King James court. The only true purpose of translation is this- To reveal what the speaker/writer was thinking in the time he was speaking/writing.
We only understand what we hear by what a word means to us when we hear it. If the meaning we hear is different than the meaning of the speaker at the time he/she spoke- we will not understand what they were saying. The contemporary meaning of "hell" is sealed into popular error by flawed logic, religious presumption and sloppy scholarship. A re-examination of the original words and thoughts of the writers of the scriptures is merited and will reveal a different cosmology than the Greco-Roman model. This is what we will examine on this site, as well as the alternative views that existed "in the minds" of the writers of the scriptures when they wrote "in their times and places".
The true function of translation is to unite the thoughts of the speakers of the original words in their times and places, with words that represent those same thoughts in the time and place of the reader. When the words change over centuries and translators use words that do not mean the same thing the author was thinking when he spoke, translation fails to communicate accurately. Even when translation is done correctly, as words evolve over centuries, readers unfamiliar with the morphology may become confused. When a 16th century speaker uses certain words, they may mean something different than a 20th century hearer perceives. Whole sciences have developed(etymolgy, morphology) around this phenomena and the resolution of such misunderstandings.
In many cases the evolution of a word and its meaning leaves a convoluted trail. In this case(sheol/hell) it is not so difficult. The trail from "sheol" to "hell" is quite clear, Thanks to the fierceness with which the Hebrew nation guarded the words of the scriptures, the relatively recent translations into English can be critically examined. While one could advance various doctrinal positions on exactly what Sheol represents in the Old Testament, there is clearly not one reference to everlasting torment or everlasting flames or everlasting burning connected to the word sheol, anywhere. Sheol never meant(in the minds of the original Hebrew writers) what hades or inferno or hell means to modern hearers of those words. Sheol is the place of departed souls, the place where the dead go. The nature of the state of the dead within sheol is debatable. Whether or not sheol ever referred to something like "hell" or "hades" in the Old Testament is not debatable- there is simply no reference to any such thing. Odd that Moses and the prophets all failed to mention such a thing if it were so.
As previously stated, the trail from "sheol" to "hell" is very direct. It begins with the translation of the word "sheol" into the word "Hades" by the first Greek translators(2nd century BC Septuagint). It received additional baggage when it became "Inferno" in the first Latin(4th centuryAD Vulgate) translation. Although there may have been no appropriate Greek or Latin word for "Sheol", they would have been better off to translate the word directly as a proper name than to convert it to "Hades" or "Inferno" because these words are loaded with meaning in Greco-Roman religion and philosophy. By the time the Bible was translated into English, after a millenium of dominion by the Roman Catholic hegemony over the western world, the meaning of the word "sheol" was virtually lost to the general public. In those times there were no printers and the public view of the scriptures was limited to what they were given by the dominant church(Rome). Therefore, the popular theology that was programmed into a thousand years of European Christianity was that of the Roman Catholic Church.
The departures from that theology that began, really, only 400 years ago still carried deceptions that had been enforced from Rome, sometimes violently and always oppressively, for over one thousand years. The reformers were still so steeped in the overall paradigm of Catholicism that they did not look at many other false teachings of the RCC. Like men identifying particularly poisonous trees in a forest of similarly bad trees, they did not see the "land itself" as poisoned. In addition to this factor, the popularity of Dante Alighieri's 14th century epic poem, The Divine Comedy(including the segment "Inferno" which told of 9 levels of torment in Hades), had greatly inflamed the popular view of "hell" as a eternal torment in a place under the earth ruled by the devil and hordes of demons.
Therefore the word hell, to the English translators, carried all of the mythological baggage of the Greeks, Romans, and Norse- plus the theological baggage of the Roman Catholic church. That these myths have common threads even further back into antiquity (Babylon, Egypt, Sumeria) is well known but we will not pursue that here and now. In the Norse paradigm Hel was a feminine god/entity who ruled hel, a place for the departed souls of the dead. In the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Heimskringla, 13th century Norse writings taken from traditional legends and myths, Hel is referred to as a daughter of Loki, and to "go to Hel" is to die. This is the intersection where the philosophical and mythical baggage of the Greeks, the Romans and the English crash together with the theological dominion of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches mixed with the pop theology and mythology of the day to create a new word with meanings that never really existed in the minds of the original Hebrew writers.
In the New Testament there are a few verses where a person might well interpret, especially under the weight of previous religious prejudices and assumptions, the teaching of a "hell" of eternal torment or annihilation. These verses refer to the corrections of God upon the rebellious and they are important. However, after the examination of translation issues surrounding the words hell, forever and everlasting, along with a contextual study of the meanings in the scriptures of the "fire of God", the popular understanding of a hell of flaming everlasting torment may not be a supportable interpretation. It is certainly not a doctrinal absolute.
In the coming chapters we will look at Gehenna and the lake of fire and delve into whether the fire of God 1)purges, 2)torments, 3)lasts forever or for 4)a period and a purpose. We will look at it through the scriptures and we will see many verses which support an alternative view of God's plan.
Chapter 2: ALL IN ALL- "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be the glory forever" (Romans 11:16)