In our English translations, three different Greek words are mixed together and translated using the single word “hell.”
“Gehenna” is used 12 times in the New Testament, and is translated “hell” all 12 times in the KJV.
“Tartarus” is used only once in the New Testament, and is translated “hell” in the KJV.
“Hades” is used 11 times in the New Testament, and is translated “hell” 10 times and “grave” once in the King James Version (KJV). We see from Acts 2:27,31 (which makes a direct reference to Psalm 16) that the Old Testament Hebrew “sheol” is the equivalent to the Greek “hades.” “Sheol” is used 65 times in the Old Testament, and is translated “hell” 31 times, “grave” 31 times and “pit” 3 times in the KJV.
This is a very inconsistent treatment of the Hebrew word “sheol.” There is a big difference between “hell” and “grave,” although both are used as translations for the same Hebrew word. If you were to use a concordance to look at every passage where “sheol” is used, you will see why the translators used “grave” in many instances. It is because “hell” as we understand it would not be an appropriate translation.
Some English translators determine that the evil must go to hell, and they translate sheol as “hell” in Psalm 9:17. “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (KJV) Others translate sheol as grave in this passage instead of hell. “The wicked return to the grave, all the nations that forget God.” (NIV)
Consider Job 30:23, where both the KJV and NIV translate sheol as death.
“I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living.” (NIV)
“For I know that thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all the living.” (KJV)
Is this not a major inconsistency? Job 30:23 says that death is the lot for “all the living.” But the very same word, “sheol,” is translated hell in Psalm 9:17. In the Psalm 9 passage the bias of the translators has crept in. They determined in their reasoning that the wicked must be going to hell. But they could not treat the word “sheol” in a consistent manner in the Job passage, since we are told that “sheol” is the place where “all the living” will go.
What is the penalty for sin?
“From every tree of the garden, you are to eat, yea, eat. Yet from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you are not to be eating from it, for in the day you eat from it, to die shall you be dying.” (Genesis 2:17 – Concordant Version)
In Chapter 3 of Genesis we see the sin of Adam and Eve, and the penalty for sin is administered. They were expelled from the garden, expelled from the presence of God, and prohibited to eat any longer from the tree of life. The process of dying has begun, in accordance with the penalty for sin, “Dying, thou dost die.”
Is the penalty for sin death, or is it an eternity of tormenting in hell?
To be our Saviour, Jesus Christ suffered the penalty for sin on our behalf. Did he suffer death, or did he suffer an eternity in hell in order to pay our debt? The resurrection is proof that every claim of righteousness was fulfilled by Christ.
Where did the notion of “hell” come from?
Our present day notion of “hell” as a place where the wicked and unsaved will be tormented in fire for eternity comes not from the Word of God, but from pagan philosophy and myth. The Greeks saw Hades as the spirit world, or an intermediate state. Their myths developed images of Hades that have been preserved to the present day.
The well known “Dante’s Inferno,” by Dante Alighiere (1265-1321 A.D.) comes from “Divine Comedy,” the story of a fictitious trip through heaven, hell and purgatory. Dante was a great poet, and he exerted a strong influence on society in his day.
We have allowed these pagan ideas of “hell” to taint our understanding of the Word of God. Dante, and those creating the myths of old, misused the Greek “hades.” Whereas “hades” simply refers to “the unseen place,” the myths painted a fictitious picture as to this place. They have described in detail this place that no living person has ever seen, and much of our thinking about death, what happens to us after death, and the “after-life” has come from these writers, not from the Word of God.
As used in the Word of God, “sheol” and “hades” are not describing the same thing as Dante or the myth writers of old, as we can clearly see when examining every occurrence of these words in the Bible.
Many great preachers have proclaimed a message of a fiery, eternal hell. Jonathan Edwards and C. H. Spurgeon are two of the greatest preachers in history, but their eloquence does not make them right. Certainly they preached the truth in many areas, but when it comes to the subject of hell they were clearly basing their beliefs on the incorrect English translations and the incorrect “orthodox” doctrines available to them. Unbeknownst to them, they preached of a hell based upon the pagan images they had inherited, and not upon the truth of God’s Word.
Let us look to God’s Word to understand the destiny of mankind, and not to images created by pagan writers which taint God’s character.
What happens to us when we die?
A close study of Scripture will show us that individuals do not go immediately to heaven (or to hell) immediately upon death. Some will use a few isolated passages of Scripture -- misinterpreted, used out of context, or mistranslated -- to justify the position that the saved go immediately to heaven. This is a study unto itself, and well worth your serious exploration into God’s Word.
For now, though, let us look at how “death” is described in the Scriptures.
“And the soil (referring to the physical body) returns to the earth just as it was, and the spirit, it returns to the One, Elohim (God), Who gave it.” (Ecclesiates 12:7 – Concordant Version)
Consider the example of Jesus. At the point of death He committed His spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46), His soul was in “hades” (Acts 2:27,31), and His body was buried in the grave (soil). The only difference in Jesus’ case was that God preserved His body from decay (Acts 2:31).
In short, death is a return to the original state of existence before God brought the elements (soil and spirit) together to form a living soul. The body, created from the elements of the earth (soil) return to the earth (soil). The spirit which was “breathed into” the body to form life returns to God. The soul, which did not exist before God created life, returns to the “unseen.”
The soul, in “hades” or the “unseen” place, has no consciousness. (See Ecclesiastes 9:5 and Psalm 6:5). Even the popular KJV and NIV translations tell us that the dead are not in a conscious state. In some cases death is even equated to sleep; a state of unconsciousness. (See Psalm 13:3; Daniel 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:13)
Death is simply a dissolution or dis-assembly of the body and the spirit, and the soul that was created at the union of the body and the spirit. The soul sleeps in the “unseen” place, awaiting the resurrection. As we consider those of our friends who have died, truly they have gone to an “unseen” place. One day they lived in our midst, and the next we no longer see them, or hear them, or touch them. Those who preceded us in death now sleep, totally dependent upon God to one day raise them (as He has promised to do). Their next conscious moment will be in the presence of the Lord.
Let us look more closely at the words “sheol” and “hades.”
“Hades” is a word constructed from the following Greek roots:
“idein” to perceive
The “h” at the beginning of “hades” comes from a breathing mark which affects the pronunciation of the otherwise “ades.”
The word construction would infer a meaning of “unseen” for the Greek “hades.”
“Sheol” in all cases is concerned with the state of death, where all human activities cease. It, too, could be properly translated “unseen.” We have seen in the case of “sheol” that the word could not possibly mean the popular notion of “hell,” since “sheol” is a place where not only the wicked go, but where all will go.
Both “sheol” and the Greek equivalent “hades” would indicate that “unseen place” where all who die go, saved or unsaved, to await the resurrection.
“Gehenna” appears to be the Greek spelling for the Hebrew “Gai Hinnom,” or “Valley of Hinnom.” The “Valley of Hinnom,” or “Gehenna,” is not a spiritual place like our notion of “hell.” It is an actual, physical place.
In 2 Chronicles 28:3 and 33:6 it is a place where the Jews would sacrifice and burn their children in idolatry. King Josiah, when making his reforms, “defiled” the place “so as to lure no one to make his son or his daughter pass through fire to Molech.” (2 Kings 23:10)
Later the place was used as a garbage dump. In Jesus’ day, fires burned in Gehenna to destroy the refuse of Jerusalem.
Much of our problem is that when we hear Jesus talk about the kingdom in the gospels, we think He is talking about heaven. The kingdom and heaven have been confused, just as the translations of “aionian” and “hades/sheol” have been confused.
The Old Testament prophets talked about a return of the physical kingdom, like the one in David’s day, except with the Lord Himself upon the throne. This is often referred to as the “millennial kingdom” or the 1000 year reign. This future millennial kingdom will be a physical kingdom upon the earth. As you read through the New Testament, pay close attention to every detail, and you will see that the description of the kingdom shows us it is a physical place. The “Sermon on the Mount” is the code of laws that will be enforced when the kingdom is set up on the earth.
When Jesus mentions “Gehenna” for the first time (in Matthew), as He is introducing the coming Kingdom upon the earth, His hearers knew He was referring to the Valley of Hinnom, and that casting one into this refuse dump for Kingdom violations was the topic. Had Jesus been introducing, for the first time ever, the concept of an eternal torment, there would have been questions, as this would have been an entirely new concept. Up until now the penalty for sin has been death, and not an eternal torment. This has been the case since death was introduced as the penalty early in Genesis, and it has been the case throughout the entire Old Testament. Now, as Jesus talks about Gehenna, if He is introducing a new punishment, questions would have been raised and a further explanation given.
A complete study of “The Kingdom” would be a book unto itself. I simply ask you to consider what I have just said as you re-study and re-think your way through the New Testament once again.
So “Gehenna,” or the “Valley of Hinnom,” was a physical refuse dump since Old Testament times, and in the days of Jesus. From Jesus’ words we see that it will again play a role in the upcoming millenial kingdom, where immediate judgment will be meted out for transgressions, and where those committing crimes worthy of death will be cast into the “Valley of Hinnom.”
Speaking of the futuristic kingdom, the prophet Isaiah fortells:
“For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:22-24 KJV)
Note that “all flesh” shall see the corpses of these “mortals” burning in the fire as they come to Jerusalem to worship during the reign of Christ. Compare this with the last few chapters of Revelation, where we see the fulfillment of this prophesy. This is not a spiritual “heaven,” but a very physical “kingdom.” And outside this physical “New Jerusalem” will be a place called the “Valley of Hinnom,” or “Gehenna,” which is the physical place Jesus speaks of.
Those hearing Jesus’ words as He spoke would have been quite disturbed about the possibility of being cast into Gehenna. For a Jew to be denied a proper burial would be shameful. To have one’s body cast into Gehenna, this refuse dump outside Jerusalem, would be a disgrace.
The Greek word “Tartarus” is used only once in Scripture (2 Peter 2:4). It is clearly a place where sinning messengers (angels) are kept as they await the judgment. It does not refer to a place where men are sent at all, nor does it speak of a final destination where there is everlasting torment. It is a temporary place reserved for sinning messengers ... period!
Part of the problem, then, is that one Hebrew word and three different Greek words (with three very distinct meanings) have been carelessly combined into a single word “hell,” to create our present-day image of “hell.”
It is interesting to look at our English word “hell” for a moment. This word “helan,” of Anglo Saxon origin, had an original meaning of “to cover up” or “to hide,” much like what we have seen “sheol” and “hades” really mean. The variations “hele”, “helle”, “hell”, “heile” and “helan” can be found. In some parts of England the word is still used to mean something that is covered over.
Some common English words, like “helmet” (to cover one’s head), have come from the root “helle.”
STUDY FOR YOURSELF!!
I am not asking you to believe these things based on my opinions. I have presented some Biblical references, but encourage you to study for yourself. Look at all of the occurrences of these key Hebrew and Greek words. Don’t trust the modern English translators who have built their own biases into the translation. Throw off your previously biased images of “hell” and study these references for yourself.
SHEOL (65 occurrences) - KJV translation precedes each group of references
Grave: Gen 37:35; Gen 42:38; Gen 44:29,31; 1 Sam 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6,9; Job 7:9;
Job 14:13; Job 17:13; Job 21:13; Job 24:19; Psalm 6:5; Psalm 30:3;
Psalm 31:17; Psalm 49:14,15; Psalm 88:3; Psalm 89:48; Psalm 141:7;
Prov 1:12; Prov 30:16; Ecc 9:10; Song of Songs 8:6; Is 14:11;
Is 38:10,18; Ezek 31:15; Hos 13:14.
Hell: Deut 32:22; 2 Sam 22:6; Job 11:8; Job 26:6; Psalm 9:17; Psalm 16:10;
Psalm 18:5; Psalm 55:15; Psalm 86:13; Psalm 116:3; Psalm 139:8;
Prov 5:5; Prov 7:27; Prov 9:18; Prov 15:11,24; Prov 23:14; Prov 27:20;
Is 5:14; Is 14:9,15; Is 28:15,18; Is 57:9; Ezek 31:16,17; Ezek 32:21,27;
Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2; Hab 2:5
The Pit: Num 16:30,33; Job 17:16
HADES (11 occurrences)
Hell: Matt 11:23; Matt 16:18; Luke 10:15; Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27,31; Rev 1:18;
Rev 6:8; Rev 20:13,14.
Grave: 1 Cor 15:55
GEHENNA (12 occurrences)
Hell: Matt 5:22,29,30; Matt 10:28; Mat 18:9; Matt 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45,47;
Luke 12:5; James 3:6
TARTARUS (1 occurrence)
Hell: 2 Peter 2:4
NEXT: What the Bible Says About THE LAKE OF FIRE.