The Concept of Hell

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Biblical Teachings

  • There is no mention of hell in the Old Testament.
  • The Old Testament talks about Sheol, which is a watery underworld where everyone went, whether they were Jew or Gentile, good or bad.
  • When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, he sent them out of the Garden, not to hell.
  • The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire, but they were not sent to hell.
  • None of the cursings for disobedience to the Torah involve eternal damnation.
  • The origins of "hell" can be traced back to paganism, not the Bible.
  • Non-Jews believed that pagan gods could be vindictive enough to punish offenders in the afterlife.
  • The KJV translated the Hebrew word Sheol as "hell" over thirty times in the Old Testament; this is a mistranslation of the word Sheol occurs 64 times – 32 times as "hell," 29 as "grave," and 3 times as "pit."
  • Other translations that relied upon the KJV followed suit in their use of the word "hell."
  • The Jewish version of the Old Testament (the Tanakh) has no concept of hell among its pages, and no place where people would be tormented for eternity.
  • Yet, because Sheol referred to that gloomy, dark place, the word became used as a metaphor for gloomy and dark conditions, for a symbol of suffering.
  • Hades is the New Testament's word for Sheol; it is simply a place for the dead. Everyone ends up in the same place.
  • Hades was the Greek god of the underworld. He was the oldest male child of Cronus and Rhea. When he and his brothers (Zeus and Poseidon) defeated the Titans, they became rulers of the cosmos – the underworld, air, and sea, respectively. There is no moral aspect to being in Hades.
  • Hades probably means something like "invisible" or "unseen," since the dead are not likely to be seen anymore.
  • Another word that appears in the Old Testament is Gehenna (Gehinnom, or Gehinnam). These terms were used for a place outside the city of Jerusalem known as the Valley of the Son of Hinnon. It was the place for wicked people—those who had apostatized or committed suicide.
  • Supposedly, this was the site where King Ahaz sacrificed his sons (See 2 Chron. 28:3).
  • Still, Gehenna was thought of as a temporary place. People would go there to atone for their sins and then move on. Jewish writings maintained that the longest they could stay was for one year (though occasional exceptions could be made). At the end of their stay, people either ascended to "the world to come" or were destroyed. It was, then, in essence, a place of spiritual purification.
  • Somehow Gehenna came to be associated with a burning pit, but its etiology is the topic of considerable dispute.
  • We also find this word in the New Testament. It is most likely the word to be translated as "hell."
  • In the New Testament, Gehenna was the final, more permanent place for the wicked.
  • The Book of Revelation describes this as the Lake of Fire, a permanent place for judgment and punishment.
  • Modern Bibles translate Gehenna as "hell," but the KJV version translates both Hades and Gehenna as "hell."
  • Many of these concepts about hell can be traced back to the intertestamental period. It would be from that time when Judaism was highly influenced by pagan myths and fables.
  • Many Jewish apocalyptic writings emerged during this period.
  • The Apocryphal book, 1 Enoch, was the first to vividly describe how the wicked would be punished.
  • It is not known whether these ideas came in response to the exile or to the Hellenization of Judea.
  • By the 3rd or 2nd centuries BCE, there was a notion of separate places for the wicked/unrighteous ones.
  • The righteous would rest in Abraham's bosom; the unrighteous awaited judgment.
  • It was a short step from this to defining a place where the punishment fit the crime.
  • While many of the apocryphal books were rejected from the canon, their influence persisted and found further development in the early church.
  • The Church Fathers (and many people through the ages) believed that some individuals are simply irredeemable. They must not be given the privilege of being in the presence of God. They have to be cast into hell for all eternity.

Bible Characters