Of Monsters And Men…
The images associated with the word ‘hell’ seem more akin to something from a horror story; closer to fiction than fact. Yet, for many Christians, the belief in hell, a place of eternal torment for the damned souls of the wicked, is very real.
The belief in the existence of a place of eternal torment isn’t unique to Christian beliefs – it appears in other mythologies and religions and is often connected with supernatural ideas, such as devils, demons, and the souls of the dead. As with Christianity, it’s believed to be the final destination for those who have committed evil deeds during their mortal lifetime and the place where they will be subjected to endless punishment for their crimes.
One of the most famous depictions of hell is a medieval canvas (pictured), painted in the late 15th century by artist Hieronymus Bosch. His imaginative conception of what hell was like has become ingrained in popular culture, particularly throughout the West. He portrays a place of endless torture, monstrous creatures and eternal suffering in ghastly detail.
Bosch’s hell differs somewhat from the Bible, in that he decided to abandon the Bible’s (supposed) version of hell which seemed to emphasise fiery punishment and destruction, and instead created a fantastical underworld that more closely resembled a battlefield.
Bosch saw hell as a physical world eternally separated from God. The idea was to render hell as a place so unthinkably foul that people would fear God and live according to the Gospels. – The Atlantic
Of Fire And Ice
In many religious cultures, hell is often depicted as a place of eternally burning fires. However, other traditions, such as those found in Buddhism, portray an alternative version of hell; a cold, icy place with multiple realms.
The existence of hell forms part of the belief in an afterlife for many Christians and raises important questions about the immortality of the soul and where the soul goes at the point of death. However, ideas regarding the afterlife existed long before the Bible, or Christianity even – and can be found in many early civilisations such as the Maya, Sumerian, and Ancient Eqyptian.
However, it is interesting to note that early Judaism – where Christianity has its birth – had no concept of hell or even an afterlife. This concept was introduced during the Hellenistic period (323BC-31BC) and absorbed from neighbouring cultures and religions.
What Does The Bible Say About Hell?
The Bible is a translated work from foreign languages into English (for us). Written by various authors, in different time periods and styles, it was originally comprised of three languages – ancient Hebrew, Greek and some Aramaic. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament was written in Greek and Aramaic.
The word translated in English as ‘hell’, and used throughout the Old Testament, is the original Hebrew word she’ol (שְׁאוֹל). It was understood, by Jewish writers, as a place of stillness and darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life. In she’ol, one is cut off from life and from God. The same Hebrew word is translated in other places as ‘grave’ and ‘the pit’ (Genesis 37:35, 1 Kings 2:6, Job 17:16, Isaiah 14:11…)
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” Ecclesiastes 9:10, New American Standard Bible
The English word “hell”, comes from ‘helan’, meaning ‘to conceal’. It originally conveyed no thought of heat or torment but simply of a ‘covered over or concealed place.’ In the old English dialect, the expression “helling potatoes” meant, not to roast them, but simply to place the potatoes in the ground or in a cellar (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged).
“Since she’ol in the Old Testament times referred simply to the abode of the dead and suggested no moral distinctions, the word ‘hell,’ as understood today, is not a happy translation.” – Collier’s Encyclopedia (1986, Vol 12, p.28)
In the Septuagint and New Testament, the translators used the Greek word hades (ᾅδης) for the Hebrew word she’ol but it’s important to note that they were translating with the Jewish concepts of she’ol in mind – a place where there is no activity – rather than the mythology of Greek concepts. This can be shown to be the case as they expressly use hades as an equivalent for she’ol, both in the Greek translation and also where they are quoting passages from the Old Testament (Hebrew text). One example appears below comparing Psalm 16:10 with Acts 2:27 (where the former is being quoted by Peter the Apostle):
“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” – Psalm 16:10, ESV
“For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” – Acts 2:27, ESV
With one exception, the word hades, in all appearances in the New Testament has little, if any, relation to afterlife rewards or punishments. The only exception is Luke’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), in which the rich man finds himself, after death, in hades, and “in anguish in this flame”, while in contrast the angels take Lazarus to “the bosom of Abraham”, described as a state of comfort.
A parable is never intended to be interpreted literally. A parable is a type of analogy – a succinct, didactic story written in prose or verse, and designed to illustrate one or more instructive lessons or principles. Differing from fables, which employs the use of animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature, parables will contain human characters. This passage, therefore, shouldn’t be considered to be literal nor as proof or evidence of the existence of hell – as understood today: that is, a place of eternal fiery torment where the wicked go after death.
What About Gehenna?
Another Greek word that is translated as hell is ‘Gehenna’. It appears twelve times in the New Testament and is actually a Greek compound, derived from the Hebrew ge and hinnom or the “valley of Hinnom”; a proper name which literally means valley of the son of Hinnom.
The valley of Hinnom is a deep narrow slice of earth just outside the city of Jerusalem. Also called Tophet, or ‘the valley of dead bones’, it already had a long and disturbing history by Jesus’ time; firstly as a place of child sacrifice (by burning alive with fire) and idolatry, in the early days of Israel’s kingdom, and later as a place where rubbish, filth and the carcasses of beast and men alike was disposed of. Fires were kept constantly burning to consume the valley’s refuse and to prevent contamination. In the days of Jesus, the highest mark of ignominy that could be inflicted upon a person was a criminal’s burial in the fires of Gehenna.
The translation of Gehenna to hell is rife with assumption and bias. It should have been transliterated into English (ie it should read ‘Gehenna’ on every occasion) and left in its proper form for the reader to interpret.
Hell And The History Of The English Bible
The history of the Bible itself as a translated work is a fascinating study. While translators have made every effort to find equivalent words and phrases in the English language, sometimes it wasn’t always possible. Sometimes, an equivalent word simply didn’t exist. Sometimes, the overall context determined how they decided to translate a word, from several different options. And sometimes, words were translated with an underlying bias or belief that the translators themselves may have held.
Prior to the fourteenth century, a complete Bible in the English language, for the common people, didn’t exist. Even for modestly educated clergy, the Bible was mostly inaccessible – available only in the Latin language and in large folio copies of two or three volumes. These Bibles were ridiculously expensive, limited in number and difficult to access. For the most part, the clergy had to rely on the small portions of scripture that were included in prayer books, and consequently the flow, context and meaning of the scriptures was often lost.
“These fragmented texts of the Scriptures, along with the circulation of apocryphal books, led the medieval church into strange and grotesque doctrines. English medieval language scholar Geoffrey Shepherd portrays the doctrine of hell: “The medieval hell has very little canonical authority. It was largely and horribly furnished from traditions established in the Apocalypses of Peter and Paul, and elaborated in the versions of men who had fed on such documents. These distortions of biblical teaching were further spread by the artists who graphically displayed vile creatures eating the flesh and devouring sinners in the place of torment.” – A Visual History of the English Bible, Donald L Brake
We can be confident that God was and is still overseeing this process of translation. The Bible is His word and we can trust that He would protect its message and truth for all people, in whatever time they find themselves. But we also have to be honest about what biases we may bring when opening the Bible and ask ourselves whether it really does say what we have been told or long thought it says.
“Much confusion and misunderstanding has been caused by the early translators of the Bible persistently rendering the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades and Gehenna by the word hell. The simple transliteration of these words by the translators of the revised editions of the Bible has not sufficed to appreciably clear up this confusion and misconception. Nevertheless, such transliteration and consistent rendering does enable the Bible student to make an accurate comparison of the texts in which the original words appear and, with open mind, thereby to arrive at an understanding of their true significance.” – The Encyclopedia Americana (1956, Vol XIV,p.81)
One Final Question You Need To Ask
The doctrine of hell – a place of eternal torment for wicked souls – cannot be supported from careful and unbiased Bible study. Furthermore, belief in such a doctrine changes many other aspects of Bible teaching – particularly those relating to the character and goodness of God himself. The pervasive and insidious doctrine of hell, in its many terrifying forms, perhaps tells us more about the capability and cruelty of human imagination than the reality of what may lie beyond death.
Ask yourself this: hell (supposedly) only exists for wicked souls who are trapped in eternal torment, yet, if there’s no immortality of the soul, what’s the real reason for the doctrine of hell…?