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Four different words are translated "hell" in the King James Version of the Bible. Three of the four have nothing to do with the common idea of hell. Many later Bible versions translate these words differently—and more accurately—or simply leave them untranslated.
The ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, developed elaborate ideas about the underworld or hell. In Homer’s The Odyssey Odysseus visits "the abode of departed spirits, a gloomy, dark world where he meets,disembodied spirits. Homer referred to this place as the "house of Hades."
Later writers expanded on these ideas. The Greek philosopher Plato popularized several concepts that would greatly impact later ideas about hell, such as the immortality of the soul and that at death the soul would go to hell as a place of eternal punishment or to heaven as an eternal reward.
In his well-known work The Republic (written about 400 B.C.) Plato describes the afterlife, and explains those sent to the underworld for punishment are to suffer tenfold for each wrong they have done in this life, while those rewarded with a heavenly afterlife similarly receive "the rewards of …justice and holiness…in the same proportion" (quoted in The Masterpieces and the History of Literature, Julian Hawthorne, editor, 1906, Vol. 5, pp. 76-77).
Centuries later, early Catholic thinkers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Augustine, who were enamored with Greek philosophy, incorporated these and other pagan ideas into Catholic theology.
The medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri (ca. A.D. 1265-1321) in his Divine Comedy journeys through hell, purgatory and heaven, guided by the long-dead Roman poet Virgil. The two descend through the various levels or circles of hell where sinners are punished in a manner befitting their sins. Gluttons must live in stinking slime under a continuous icy rain. Heretics are eternally tortured in burning tombs and others are whipped by demons, or submerged in boiling tar. Satan is confined at the very lowest depth of Dante's imaginary hell.
Dante never intended his work to be taken literally, but his descriptions of hell did reflect Catholic theology of the time, and became a kind of template for how many people would view hell. The idea of hell as a place where Satan and his demons torment the damned for all eternity became a central tenet of Catholic belief, and passed into the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches and later into Protestantism. Even Muhammad, founder of Islam, adopted these basic ideas about hell as a place of eternal torture. But what does the Bible say?
As mentioned earlier four different words are translated "hell" in the King James Version of the Bible.
The first "hell"—Hebrew sheol and in Greek hades
Sheol is the Hebrew word translated "hell" throughout the Old Testament. It refers to "the state and abode of the dead; hence the grave in which the body rests" (William Wilson, Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies, "Hell," p. 215). The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains, "Thus there are no references to eternal destiny but simply to the grave as the resting place of the bodies of all people" (Lawrence Richards, 1985, p. 336)
Many modern Bible versions, reflecting the true meaning of sheol, now translate this word as "the grave" or simply leave it untranslated. Godly men of faith such as Jacob (Genesis 37:35), Job (Job 14:13), David (Psalms 88:3) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:10) knew they were going to sheol at death.
The equivalent of sheol in the Greek of the New Testament is hades, which also refers to the grave. The word hades also appears in Greek mythology, referring to an underworld realm of shadowy consciousness after death, but this is not the biblical sense of the word. In the four New Testament verses that quote Old Testament passages containing the Hebrew word sheol, hades is used for sheol (Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15; Acts 2:27 and 2:31). As with sheol, hades is translated "the grave" or "death" or simply left untranslated in newer Bible versions.
The second "hell"—Greek tartaroo
A second Greek word, tartaroo, a form of tartaros, is also translated "hell" in the New Testament. It is used only once in 2 Peter 2:4, where Peter refers to the present restraint or imprisonment of "the angels who sinned"— fallen angels, or demons.
The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains in its entry on "Heaven and Hell" that tartaroo means "to confine in Tartaros" and that "Tartaros” was the Greek name for the mythological abyss in which rebellious gods were confined." Peter used this metaphoric term in the Greek language of the day to show the sinning angels were "delivered…into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment."
He is pointing out these fallen angels are restrained by God awaiting their ultimate judgment for their rebellion against their Creator and destructive influence on humanity. Tartaroo applies only to demons. Nowhere does it refer to a fiery hell in which people are punished after death. As with sheol and hades, some more recent Bible versions leave tartaroo untranslated rather than misleadingly render it as "hell."
The third "hell"— Greek gehenna
The final word translated "hell" in the Bible is the Greek word gehenna, which comes from the Hebrew Gai-Hinnom, meaning "Valley of Hinnom." This deep valley lies immediately to the south of the ridge on which Jerusalem was constructed. It's mentioned as the border between the ancient tribes of Judah and Benjamin in Joshua 15:8 and 18:16. Today gehenna—the ancient Valley of Hinnom—is a park-like setting on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The Bible records the terrible things that happened in this valley. As The Anchor Bible Dictionary states: "The valley was the scene of the idolatrous worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. This worship consisted of sacrificing children by passing them through a fire…and into the hands of the gods (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:4-5 and 32:35). These practices were observed during in the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh who sacrificed their own children (2 Kings 16:3 and 21:6; 2 Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6)" (David Noel Freidman, editor, 1992, Vol. 2, "Gehenna," p. 927).
The righteous King Josiah made the valley ceremonially unclean so such vile practices would not take place there again (2 Kings 23:10). It later became the city garbage dump where garbage and the bodies of dead animals and criminals were dumped and consumed by the fires that burned there continuously.
With this background the significance of gehenna starts to become clear. Gehenna is used 12 times in the Bible, with 11 of those instances recording the words of Jesus Christ (the 12th reference is by His half-brother James). When Jesus spoke of gehenna, His listeners knew He was referring to a fire that consumed everything thrown into it, including human beings. He warned this destroying fire would be the fate of those who stubbornly refuse to repent of their wickedness (Matthew 5:22, 29-30 and 23:15, 33; Luke 12:5).
This future fate awaits the incorrigibly wicked, who will be incinerated in an all-consuming fire, reducing them to ashes (Malachi 4:1-3). The book of Revelation calls this "the lake of fire," with those cast into it experiencing "the second death"— not torment for all eternity (Revelation 19:20; 20:14-15; 21:8).
In the time frame outlined in the Bible, this follows 1,000 years of Christ's reign on the earth (Revelation 20:1-6) and a resurrection to physical life of all those who have never known God and His ways (Revelation 20:5,11-13). Those resurrected at that time will have the opportunity to learn God's ways, repent and receive His gift of eternal life.
Some, regrettably, will reject that gift. The Bible mentions their fate, "And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:15). Those who willfully choose to reject God's way will not be allowed to continue living in the misery their rejection of God and His way of life will bring. Scripture shows they will cease to exist, not live forever in torment.
Our great God, far from being a sadistic being condemning human beings to an eternity of torture, is a God of mercy who, "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth"(I Timothy 2:4).
The Good News magazine (May-Jun 2014)