Friday, January 23, 2009

Hell Defined 1

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© 2009 by Bert Gary adapted from Appendix B in “Heaven forSkeptics” due out this year

What is meant by Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus, four biblical words sometimes translated as “hell” in the Bible? Answering this question is the aim of this blog.

But that question raises another. Is our English word “hell”congruent with these biblical terms? Let me show that the answer to that question is a resounding No.

Hell is Indo-European with Teutonic roots. It was helan in Saxon, and shortened to hel. It meant to hide, cover, or conceal, or as a noun it meant the invisible place. (Encarta World English Dictionary, ISBE Bible Dictionary, and Easton’s Bible Dictionary) It originally referred to the world of the dead generally, but today it’s used almost exclusively to refer to an afterlife place of torment. In our culture and throughout much of the world, hell is where the lost, evildoers, unrepentant, or “unsaved” go after death to be punished forever. It’s usually viewed as an underground place of fiery torture.

There are four biblical words that are sometimes translated into English as hell: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus (or Tartaroo). But our present-day English definition of hell has little in common with biblical Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus. Yes, a few English versions of the Bible translate these four biblical terms as “hell,” but that doesn’t make it right. Let me put it like this: You can call a sheep a cow, but that’s not going to make it moo. Likewise, you can call Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus “hell,” but that doesn’t make them afterlife places of punishment. I’m giving you the conclusion up front. Translating any of these as “hell” makes no sense.


Strange, but the word for the grave—sheol—seems to have originally meant to make hollow, then evolved to mean something like forever hollow (which can mean forever hungry), then took the meaning of to demand, and finally came to mean insatiable.

Sheol is a Hebrew word found only in the Old Testament. [שְׁאוֹל she'owl or שְׁאל sheol {pronounced sheh-ole'}] Here is a great example of biblical Sheol:

NET Proverbs 30:15-16 There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say,"Enough" -- 16the grave (sheol), the barren womb, land that is not satisfied with water, and fire that never says, "Enough!"

See how the word has evolved again? Sheol, that which is hollow, hungry, demanding, and insatiable, became a biblical nickname for the grave. The poetic genius who wrote Proverbs 30:16 endowed the grave with poetic qualities. The grave (Sheol) is like the utter poverty of a barren womb.It’s like the starkness and sterility of a land without water. It’s like afire forever insatiable for fuel. Obviously Sheol, the Old Testament grave, is not literally a barren womb, or a waterless land, or an insatiable fire. Yet, neither is it a literal afterlife place. To the Hebrew poet, to die meant to be buried, Amen. And he pictured the grave (Sheol) as being like these things: a barren womb, a desolate land, and a ravenous flame. He’s conveying how the grave feels to his inspired imagination.

What do you see in your mind’s eye when you read that the earth/ground eats and never gets full? Insatiable.A word that originally had nothing to do with death and the grave—sheol—became at some point in the history of the Hebrew people a synonym for death and the insatiable grave. The tomb is the earth’s mouth, and the grave is the earth’s stomach, eating and swallowing men generation after generation yet never ceasing to be hungry.

To translate Sheol as hell,therefore, is more than misleading; it’s flat wrong. Our English word hell is defined as an afterlife place of punishment. Old Testament Sheol is no such thing. Biblical Sheol never meant the afterlife place of punishment. Any verse in which Sheol is translated as hell does not sound right. But if you translate Sheol as the grave, it always sounds right. For example:

Job 21:13 They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.

 Substitute hell for Sheol and this reads “. . . and in peace they go down to hell.” How can you go to hell in peace? It doesn’t make sense. Now translate Sheol as the grave. “. . . and in peace they go down to the grave.” Now it makes sense. And it works that way every time.

I examined every instance of the word Sheol in the Old Testament, just to see for myself. I found no references to Sheol as an afterlife place in the Bible. None. They do not exist. I found that, in every case, Sheol is a poetic nickname for the grave (or sometimes death).

(Biblical verses that contain Sheol: Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num.16:30, 33; Deut. 32:22; 1 Sam. 2:6; 2 Sam. 22:6; 1 Kgs 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 11:8;14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6; Psa. 6:5; 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 31:17;49:14f; 55:15; 86:13; 88:3; 89:48; 116:3; 139:8; 141:7; Prov. 1:12; 5:5; 7:27;9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16; Eccl. 9:10; Song 8:6; Isa. 5:14; 14:9,11, 15; 28:15, 18; 38:10, 18; 57:9; Ezek. 31:15ff; 32:21, 27; Hos. 13:14; Amos9:2; Jonah 2:2; Hab. 2:5)

The Hebrew word Sheol occurs sixty-five times in the Bible. All occurrences are in the Old Testament. The Psalms employ the word more than other books of the Bible with fifteen occurrences, followed by Isaiah (ten), Proverbs (nine), and Job (eight). There’s no space here to cover them all, yet covering them all is unnecessary since all references to Sheol mean death or the grave. Nevertheless, here’s one more example.

The patriarch Jacob uses the word Sheol a few times to express his worry that he will go to his grave (Sheol - the ever-hungry earth) mourning the loss of another son. He survived the loss of Joseph (though Joseph wasn’t really dead). But he doesn’t think he can survive the loss of Benjamin too. He’s saying that he will die brokenhearted:

Genesis 42:38  But he (Jacob) said, "My son (Benjamin) shall not go down with you (to Egypt), for his brother (Joseph) is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”

Can you translate Sheol as hell here? Bizarrely the DRA does (Douay-Rheims American Edition). But how can Sheol be hell? Is Sheol an afterlife place of eternal punishment of wicked souls? If so, then the soul of the biblical hero and patriarch Jacob is in hell’s eternal torments. This doesn’t make sense. Look at the context of his words, always a good idea.

To bring down Jacob’s “gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol” means, Even if I die advanced in years,you will bury me grieving for Benjamin. He’s saying the death of Benjamin will result in his grieving for the rest of his life. Moreover, Jacob may be implying that he believes he will die of grief if he loses Benjamin. He may even be saying to his sons that by taking Benjamin with them to Egypt,they risk killing their father with grief. Therefore, I see no justification for reading into Jacob’s use of the word Sheol anything other than what he meant: his grave.


No discussion of Hades would be complete without a look at the ancient Greek’s use of the term. After all, that’s where the word comes from.

Hades was the god of the dead in the mythology of ancient Greece. He was Zeus’ brother, and he was the son of Kronus and Rhea. Hades was given the helmet of invisibility (Hades means “the invisible.”) for aid in a great war with the Titans; the brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades were victorious. Hades’ afterlife realm is named after him, making the god Hades the lord of Hades.

Hades (the underworld) wasn’t a place of fiery torture in Greek mythology.“Punishment for wrongdoing in the old Greek stories . . . was not generally an after-death affair.” (Turner, 28) Hades was just insufferably drab.

What about biblical Hades? As Sheol is strictly an Old Testament word, Hades belongs exclusively to the New Testament. Unlike the word Sheol, however, which appears sixty-five times in the Bible, the term Hades {pronounced hah'-dace} is quite rare. It occurs only ten times.

Most English translations simply keep the word as Hades. For example, look at how our twenty-two English versions of the Bible handle Hades in Revelation 20:14:

NAS Revelation 20:14  And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. (bold italics mine)

the grave 2 (MRD, NLT)

Hades is the correct rendering. The grave works too. In the New Testament, Hades equals the grave. It’s the New Testament’s equivalent of Sheol. But, translating it hell doesn’t work—though eight English versions think so—because the English word hell has afterlife connotation. You can see why it doesn’t work in the verse we just examined. Let’s look at it.

In 20:14 above, John envisions Death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire. (See my blog, The Lake of Fired Defined.) So Hades definitely doesn’t equal the lake of fire. Why? Because Hades is thrown with Death into the lake. If Hades equals the lake, how can you throw something into itself? Likewise, if Hades and the lake of fire equal our modern concept of hell, how can hell be thrown into hell? Therefore Hades can mean nothing more here than the grave.

That’s what John saw in his vision: Death and the Grave being annihilated. John the Revelator is a master of Old Testament images. He knows that Death and the Grave are paired throughout Hebrew Scripture. Following suit, John pairs Thanatos (Death) and Hades (The Grave) repeatedly. (Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13, 20:14) By rising from the dead, Jesus defeated Death and the Grave, says John. But John doesn’t say it straight out like that. He says it visually. The slain yet standing Lamb of God defeated the dragon and his beasts, and the Lamb’s resurrection defeated Thanatos and Hades (Death and the Grave).

In six of the ten occurrences of Hades, the New Testament writers obviously mean nothing more than “the grave,” the equivalent of Sheol in the Old Testament: Acts 2:27, 2:31; Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13,20:14. Substitute “The Grave” for Hades all six verses and they make perfect sense. The other four aren’t quite as easy, yet they’re fun:

1. and 2. In these parallel verses from Matthew (11:23) and Luke (10:15), Jesus is talking about the people in the town of Capernaum.

NAS Matthew 11:23 "And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.” (bold italics mine)

NAS Luke 10:15 "And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will be brought down to Hades! (bold italics mine)

Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus is not sending all the inhabitants of Capernaum to hell—an underground afterlife place where you get tortured forever. Yes, Jesus mentions heaven and Hades in these verses. But try reading without wearing your afterlife glasses. The phrase “exalted to heaven” means that Capernaum will not be remembered with high praises to the sky, will not be remembered with fame and applause. The phrase “you shall descend to Hades” or“you will be brought down to Hades” means Capernaum will be debased, laid as low as in Sheol or Hades, symbolizing the gravest possible dishonor. Jesus is not damning the town or the people in the town.They’ve damned themselves. He’s diagnosing them, and the prognosis is grim. The town will die and become a ruin. Jesus is saying that Capernaum will not be celebrated for Jesus living there (Did you remember that Jesus lived in Capernaum? See Matthew 4:13 and 9:1, and Mark 2:1.), but will be remembered for their failure to respond to his ministry, though he did more works of power there than elsewhere. (Luke 4:23) Capernaum’s failure was so grave, Jesus says, that the evil town of Sodom (Genesis 18 and 19) would have responded better than they did.

3. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus is merely saying that death or the grave will have no power over his followers.

NAS Matthew 16:18  "And I also say to you that you are Peter,and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.” (bold italics mine)

 He speaks of the “gates of Hades” (death’s door) while standing before a cave in Caesarea Philippi that was known by the pagans there as the “Gates of Hades.” This is another example of Jesus using everyday sights around him, of his love of parabolic meaning,and of his poetic genius. He’s saying that the subjects in his kingdom will never die.

(For more on the “gates of Hades” in the New Testament see my blog, Five Coincidence?)

4. In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a parable about the failure to love your neighbor. In it he introduces a playful contradiction: torment in Hades.

NAS Luke 16:23  "And in Hades he (the rich man) lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.“(bold italics mine)

 (See my blog, The Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife.)

Here Jesus means Hades as both the grave and the Greek pagan afterlife. As mentioned previously, the dead in mythological Hades are not unhappy because they’re in torment; they’re unhappy because they’re dead! In Greek mythology, life is infinitely better than the afterlife. The twist in Jesus’ parable is that Jesus puts tormenting flames in Greek Hades. (He always used the word Gehenna when he means fire or torment, except in this lively parable.) And the rich man in the parable, though whining about being in torment, isn’t so uncomfortable that he can’t carry on a lucid yet somewhat silly conversation with Abraham who is on the other side of a canyon. But remember, this is a parable. It’s not to betaken literally. It’s a made-up story illustrating the effects of greed here and now. It’s a call instead to love here and now.

The Greek authors of the New Testament didn’t pick the term Hades because it was a mythological afterlife place from ancient Greece. Look at the languages involved. Forget English and the word hell for a moment. If you were translating the Hebrew word Sheol into the Greek language for use in the New Testament, what Greek word would you pick? (Remember sheol means death or the grave.) The New Testament personalities picked the term Hades (a mere ten times) not because of its pagan afterlife connotation, but in spite of it. Why? They had little choice. There wasn’t another word than Hades that had Sheol’s connotations of death, burial, hollow or hidden place, place of the dead, death, or the grave.

We impose our inherited, unbiblical English word “hell”on the unsuspecting Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible. Our definition of hell today cannot rightly be forced on the terms Sheol and Hades, yet that is precisely what is being done.

A discussion of Gehenna and Tartaroo are next in Hell Defined 2.

1 comment:

  1. "Eternal death vs eternal life" rather than "hell vs heaven." God is life, he created everything and breathed life into it. In the total absence of God's influence there's no life. Both spiritual and physical people were created and given free will to choose existence w/ or w/o God or "eternity in life or in death" Just what that existence will be like, well, there are many descriptions of heaven or eternity w/ God, but eternity without Him I can not comprehend. If we could know fully what "death" is then our knowledge will be complete. Gen. 2:9 and Gen 3:3-7 <)))><