What is the standard concept of hell in our western civilization? Dictionaries call it the abode of the dead, the underworld where departed souls were believed to dwell; the abode of condemned souls and devils; the place or state of torture and punishment for the wicked after death, presided over by Satan; the infernal powers of evil and darkness; a place of torment and anguish.
Where did this concept originate and how did the word “hell” find its way into our Bibles? It stems from the verb helan, of the west Germanic dialect, and was also spelled as hele, helle, hell. This word had an innocent meaning of simply covering up, concealing or hiding something. In England it referred to a hole in the ground which was covered up. Our first English bible translators had good intentions by using the word hell to describe a covered or unseen place. Yet today almost everyone believes “hell” is a fiery place where the wicked and unsaved will be tormented endlessly.
Pagan philosophy had a tremendous impact on the impression of hell. Poets such as Homer and Virgil wrote about spirits lurking deep in the underground world accessible through specific entrances on the earth. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 A.D.) was Italy’s greatest poet. Dante was educated by learned scholars and through extensive reading on his own. In his travels he noticed the works of evil through covetousness, jealousy, chaos and so forth. This encouraged him to write a lengthy poem about evil and through his imagination show how the divinely reconditioned world would appear. Dante believed that he was divinely inspired. His fictitious excursions through heaven, hell and purgatory are presented in his work the Divine Comedy. Many believed he truly had seen hell! Being a brilliant instructor, his influence on society was exceptional. These pagan beliefs, coupled with the English word “hell” has caused a sad misconception of God’s original meanings. Let us turn from poetic hodgepodge and pagan philosophy to the sacred scriptures for enlightenment.
Did you know that there are three hells in scripture? Well, at least according to the teaching of theology. The word “hell” is used to render three different Greek words in the Bible: Hades, (Sheol in the Hebrew), Gehenna and Tartarus. Sheol occurs sixty-five times in the Hebrew scriptures. It has been translated in English thirty-one times as “grave,” thirty-one times as “hell,” and three times as “the pit.” Hades occurs eleven times in the Greek scriptures. It has been translated in English ten times as “hell,” and one time as “grave.” Gehenna occurs twelve times in the Greek Scriptures and has been translated in English as “hell.” Tartarus occurs one time in the scriptures and has been translated in English as “hell.” Listed below are the occurrences taken from the popular Authorized Version. Included is the phrase “Lake of Fire.” It is not translated as “hell,” but gives the impression.
Occurs 65 times
Grave — 31 times: Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; I Samuel 2:6; I Kings 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 14:13; 17:13; 21:13; 24:19; Psalm 6:5; 30:3; 31:17; 49:14-15; 88:3; 89:48; 141:7; Proverbs 1:12; 30:16; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Song of Solomon 8:6; Isaiah 14:11; 38:10, 18; Ezekiel 31:15; Hosea 13:14.
Hell — 31 times: Deuteronomy 32:22; II Samuel 22:6; Job 11:8; 26:6; Psalm 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 55:15; 86:13; 116:3; 139:8; Proverbs 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; Isaiah 5:14; 14:9, 15; 28:15, 18; 57:9; Ezekiel 31:16-17; 32:21, 27; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2; Habakkuk 2:5.
The Pit —3 times: Numbers 16:30, 33; Job 17:16.
Occurs 11 times
Hell — 10 times: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14.
Grave — 1 time: I Corinthians 15:55
Occurs 12 times
Hell — 12 times: Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6.
Occurs 1 time
Hell — 1 time: II Peter 2:4.
Lake of Fire
Occurs 5 times
For the Wild Beast, False Prophet and the Adversary, it is torment (Revelation 19:20; 20:10).
For irreverent mankind — those not found written in the book of life — it is the second death
(Revelation 20:14-15; 21:8).
HADES AND SHEOL
Hades comes from the Greek word a(i)dês. The “a” is a prefix which means the same as our English “Un” or “not.” The stem “id” means to “perceive.” When joined together we have the pure meaning God intended, which is “not to perceive,” “imperceptible,” or the “unseen.” This is in agreement with the divine usage of hades. Hades in the Greek and Sheol in Hebrew are equivalent in meaning. Hades was almost always used to translate sheol in the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures. God, in the Greek language, made hades a synonym for His own word sheol in the Hebrew. This is confirmed by comparing Acts 2:27 and 31 to Psalm 16:10, which is about the interval between our Lord’s death and resurrection. In the next chapter, more will be said about hades (the unseen), when we talk about what happens to the body, soul and spirit at death.
Gehenna is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Ge Hinnom,” or “Valley of Hinnom.” This valley is located on the southwestern side of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:8). In the days of the kings it became a place where Jews would sacrifice and burn their children for idolatrous worship (II Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). The Lord said that this valley would no longer be called the Valley of Hinnom, but the “Valley of Slaughter;” due to the evil committed by the sons of Judah. They will bury in the valley because there is no room elsewhere. Their dead bodies will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth (Jeremiah 7:30-33). King Josiah defiled the Valley of Hinnom and made it unclean (II Kings 23:10). Later, the valley became a garbage and waste dump. Dead animals and unburied bodies were put there also. Fires burned constantly to minimize the foul smelling matter. In the old testament, those deserving death were executed and cast into the Valley of Hinnom.
This valley will serve the same purpose in the coming earthly kingdom. In the future kingdom on earth, the Valley of Hinnom will once again be the incinerator for Jerusalem, where garbage and bodies are consumed. The worms (maggots) will prey upon the unburned garbage, animals and human carcasses (Mark 9:43-48). The Sermon on the Mount consists of the code of laws which will be in force when the kingdom is reestablished. Any infringement will be judged, and those sentenced to death will be cast into Gehenna. The following passages show how transgressors against Jehovah’s law will be dealt with. If any part of the body causes one to sin, the whole is liable to death and the Gehenna fire.
You hear that it was declared to the ancients, “You shall not murder.” Yet whoever should be murdering shall be liable to the judging. Yet Jam saying to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to the judging. Yet whoever may be saying to his brother, “Sakai” shall be liable to the Sanhedrin. Yet whoever may be saying, “Stupid,” shall be liable to the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:21-22).
Yet lam saying to you that every man looking at a woman to lust for her already commits adultery with her in his heart. Now, if your right eye is snaring you, wrench it out and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body be cast into Gehenna. And if your right hand is snaring you, strike it off and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body pass away into Gehenna (Matthew 5:28-30).
Gehenna should not be thought of as the “hell” so popularly accepted today. It never contained living bodies walking about the flames in torment, and never will. Those who represent the nations will come to Jerusalem to worship. They will gaze upon the dead bodies in Gehenna where the worms shall not die and the fire shall not be quenched. It will be an abhorrence to all flesh (Isaiah 66:24). God’s purpose for Gehenna is future, confined to the temporal judgments of the earthly kingdom, not eternal torment.
For if God spares not sinning messengers, but thrusting them into the gloomy caverns of Tartarus, gives them up to be kept for chastening judging (II Peter 2:4).
Besides, messengers who keep not their own sovereignty, but leave their own habitation, He has kept in imperceptible bonds under gloom for the judging of the great day (Jude 6).
Tartarus appears only once in scripture. The passages above refer to messengers or angels, and not men. There is no mention of eternal torment. The gloomy caverns are the temporary dungeon of spirits awaiting judgment.
THE LAKE OF FIRE
The word “hell” is not found in place of “the lake of fire.” However, theology ties it into the final destiny of unbelievers who are tormented for eternity. Out of the five occurrences of this phrase, only two make reference to consciousness and torment. The Adversary, wild beast and false prophet are not human. They never stand before the great white throne for judgment and chastisement, thus they are the only ones who are tormented in a lake burning with fire and sulphur for the eons of the eons.
And the wild beast is arrested, and with it the false prophet who does the signs in its sight, by which he deceives those getting the emblem of the wild beast, and those worshiping its image. Living, the two were cast into the lake of fire burning with sulphur (Revelation 19:20).
And the Adversary who is deceiving them was cast into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the wild beast and where the false prophet are also. And they shall be tormented day and night (Revelation 20:10).
The other three occurrences of “the lake of fire” are found in revelation also. It is referred to as the “second death.” All the irreverent who stand before the great white throne will be judged and paid according to their acts. Anyone not found written in the scroll of life were cast into the lake of fire, which is the second death.
And I perceived the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. And the scrolls were opened. And another scroll was opened which is the scroll of life. And the dead were judged by that which is written in the scrolls in accord with their acts. And the sea gives up the dead in it, and death and the unseen give up the dead in them. And they were condemned, each in accord with their acts. And death and the unseen were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death — the lake of fire. And if anyone was not found written in the scroll of life, he was cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12-15).
Yet the timid, and unbelievers, and the abominable, and murderers, and paramours, and enchanters, and idolaters and all the false — their part is in the lake burning with fire and sulphur, which is the second death
More should not be added to what God’s word already says about the lake of fire. With respect to humanity it is a return to the death state. When the lake of fire is mentioned in conjunction with the Adversary, wild beast and false prophet, there is no reference made to death. In Revelation 19:20 the wild beast and false prophet are cast in alive. A thousand years later the Adversary is cast in the lake of fire where the wild beast and false prophet are. Death is not mentioned here either. It says they will be tormented day and night.
Now when the lake of fire is mentioned with respect to the dead, the timid, unbelievers, the abominable, paramours, enchanters, idolaters and all the false, there you will find the words “the second death.” It is written that they were cast into the lake of fire, which is “the second death.” It does not say, “living, they were cast into the lake of fire,” or “they were cast into the lake of fire and shall be tormented day and night.” Only with respect to the three superhuman beings is reference made to living consciousness. Pagan myths, lakes of fire and poetic underworld imaginative journeys have all been linked to hades, gehenna and tartarus.
Gehenna was a valley where garbage, dead animals and bodies were burned. Unburned matter was covered with worms or maggots. According to Christ and Isaiah, it will be in operation once again in the earthly kingdom.
Tartarus is a temporary prison for sinning messengers awaiting judgment. There is a judging of spirit beings. After all, they are part of God’s creation who sinned.
The lake of fire is the conscious torment for the three superhuman beings. They are the Adversary, wild beast and false prophet. It is also the second death for irreverent mankind and those whose names are not written in the scroll of life..
Hades and sheol are the unseen, referring to the death state where there is no awareness.
I hope that this presentation has helped you realize that the pagan view of hell should have never found its way into God’s sacred word. Errors in translation, plus human philosophy has blemished God’s character. His judgment is swift and just. It needs not to be carried out endlessly. He is a loving, gracious and merciful God.
Rightly Divide the Word of truth - 2 Timothy 2:15