Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What is Hell?

Today I am in Adelaide on holiday with our friends, Trevor and Nita Cole.  Scanning the magazine section of The Adelaide Advertiser I came across a review of a new book called "The Big Mo", with the subtitle "Why Momentum Now Rules the World", by Mark Roeder.
This really clicked with me, especially while thinking about writing this post.

The popular concept of 'hell', including the view held by mainstream christianity, has gained its own momentum since Augustine got the ball rolling centuries and centuries ago.

It's a bit like the word 'Jesus'.  If you asked an "unchurched" child (a child uneducated about such things) what the word 'Jesus' means, you would most likely get the answer that it is something you say when you get angry or when things aren't going your way.  This would not have been the answer of a generation or two ago, but the momentum of the last few decades would certainly make it so now.

So what is 'hell'?

The common view is that 'hell' is a place of fiery torment where God sends "bad" people forever to execute His justice on them and to appease His wrath.
Even mainstream christianity agrees with this view, while simultaneously declaring that God is love and unconditionally loves all of His creation.

Most people would say that this is the view of the church, and they would be right.  Most people would also say that this is the view of the Bible, but, in this case, they would be wrong.
So let's find the correct or original meaning of the English word 'hell'.

Dictionaries are designed to give the meanings of words as they are used in society.  They are not definitive authorities on the correct meanings of words, but are reporters of the popular and current use of language.  Some dictionaries also give older and even obsolete meanings and uses of words as well, and many discuss word origins and their histories.
Let's see what says about 'hell'.

–- Used as a Noun
1. the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death; the abode of evil and condemned spirits; Gehenna or Tartarus.
2. any place or state of torment or misery: They made their father's life a hell on earth.
3. something that causes torment or misery: Having that cut stitched without anesthesia was hell.
4. the powers of evil.
5. the abode of the dead; Sheol or Hades.
6. extreme disorder or confusion; chaos: The children let both dogs into the house, and all hell broke loose.
7. heck.
8. a receptacle into which a tailor throws scraps.
9. Also called hellbox. Printing. a box into which a printer throws discarded type.
10. the utterance of 'hell' in swearing or for emphasis.
11. the hell, Informal.
    a. (used as an intensifier to express surprise, anger, impatience, etc.): Why the hell can't the trains run on time?
    b. (used sarcastically or ironically to express the opposite of what is being stated): Are you listening to me? The hell you are!
–- Used as an Interjection
12. (used to express surprise, irritation, disgust, etc.)

-- Used as a Verb Phrase
13. hell around, Slang.  to live or act in a wild or dissolute manner: All they cared about was drinking and helling around. 

-- Used as an Idiom
14. be hell on, Slang.
    a. to be unpleasant to or painful for.
    b. to be harmful to: These country roads are hell on tyres.
15. for the hell of it, Informal.
    a. to see what will happen; for adventure, fun, excitement, etc.: For the hell of it, let's just get on the next bus and see where it takes us.
    b. with no particular purpose; for no special reason: I called him up for the hell of it, and he offered me a job.
16. get/catch hell, Slang. to suffer a scolding; receive a harsh reprimand: We'll get hell from our parents for staying out so late again.
17. give someone hell, Informal.  to reprimand or reproach severely.
18. go to hell in a handbasket. Informal.
19. hell on wheels, Slang.  extremely demanding, fast-paced, aggressive, effective, or the like: The new job is hell on wheels. Our sales staff is hell on wheels when it comes to getting the most out of every account.
20. like hell, Informal.
    a. with great speed, effort, intensity, etc.: We ran like hell to get home before the storm. She tried like hell to get him to change his mind.
    b. (used sarcastically or ironically to express the opposite of what is being stated): He says the motor will never break down? Like hell it won't!
21. play hell with, Slang.  to deal recklessly with; bring injury or harm to: Snowstorms played hell with the flow of city traffic.
22. raise hell, Slang.
    a. to indulge in wild celebration.
    b. to create an uproar; object violently to: She'll raise hell when she sees what your rabbit has done to her garden.
23. the/to hell with, Informal.  (used to express dismissal, rejection, contempt, disappointment, or the like): If we have to walk five miles to see the view, the hell with it! He wouldn't even speak to me, so to hell with him!
24. what the hell, Informal.  (used to express lack of concern or worry, indifference, abandonment, surrender, etc.): As long as you're borrowing $100, what the hell, borrow $200.

Amazingly, in defintion 5, an original meaning of 'hell' is still listed, although I rarely hear it used this way today.
The original meaning of 'hell' means the concealed or covered or invisible place, and therefore the abode of the dead, or the grave, having been derived from the Saxon word 'helan' meaning 'to cover' or 'to hide'. 

Irish potato farmers regularly talked of helling their potatoes, meaning to mount dirt on them, or to dig holes and bury them, so hiding or covering them.  Even today we still use the word 'helmet', which is a perfect example of the use of this meaning to convey a covering or hiding of the head.

Isn't it amazing how this correct meaning has been almost lost and completely overtaken by an incorrect one, and how this incorrect one has totally infiltrated our language and is used whenever a concept of harm or mayhem is being expressed?

Using the original definition, 'hell', or 'the grave', is then the correct translation of any Hebrew or Greek word used in the Bible that means hidden or concealed or covered, or where these meanings are inferred.  'Sheol' in Hebrew and 'Hades' in Greek should therefore be translated 'hell' (correctly understood) or, better still, 'the grave' while we are trying to rid people of their incorrect understanding of the meaning of 'hell'.

There is no connection with punishment or everlasting torment or fiery judgement.  Even Job said he preferred going to sheol (hell or the grave) rather than staying on earth experiencing God's wrath.

If only you would hide me in the grave (sheol) and conceal me till your anger has passed! If only you would set me a time and then remember me! [Job 14 : 13 NIV]

The more modern translations have corrected the confusion caused by the KJV in translating 'sheol', but have usually allowed the confusion with 'hades' to remain.
As an aside, it's interesting to note that the translators of the King James Version, steeped in the mainstream understanding of 'hell' as a place of never-ending torment, often translated 'sheol' as 'the grave' when referring to good people and 'hell' when referring to bad people. 

The translation of 'sheol' and 'hades' is easy to sort out with a good Bible dictionary.  The real problems arise when 'hell' is used to translate two other Greek New Testament words.  We'll look at these words and their English translations in another post.

In the meantime, 'hell' is correctly a place of concealment, a place hidden or invisible to others, the abode of the dead in relation to those still on the planet. So whenever we notice the word 'hell' or 'the grave' in our English Bibles, if it is a translation of 'sheol' or 'hades', we can be assured they are correct translations, provided we have the correct definition of 'hell' in mind.  


  1. Good summary Barry. The story is never complete till Gehenna and Tartarus are discussed, which you intend to do anyway, so I look forward to that. I saw a brilliant post on Facebook on the subject, so should dig it up and post it. He covered details I'd never seen before, and they were quite fascinating.
    Cheers, Roger

  2. Hi Rog
    You are correct. A note on Tartarus will be short as it is only mentioned once, but a post on Gehenna will take some time. Both are planned, but are on the back burner until I finish ministry in Cairns. Nevertheless, the Gehenna one is already over half done and if I get a break while I'm away I will finish and post it. The facebook post sounds most interesting. Please see if you can find it again. Barry

  3. I promised this a couple of months back, but forgot it until I arrived at this topic in my book-writing.
    So ......

    Since we have established that 'hell' (using its original old English definition) is a suitable translation of 'sheol' in Hebrew and 'hades' in Greek, it is unlikely to be a suitable translation of any other Hebrew or Greek words.

    However, two other Greek words do have "a place of concealment, a place hidden or invisible to others" or "grave" connotation to them, although their meaning is much more specific than that.
    They are "Tartarus" and "Gehenna".

    Tartarus is described in 2 Peter 2 : 4 as the specific location where sinning angels are being held in primitive conditions awaiting their judgement. However, I feel it would be better left as "Tartarus" in our English translations to convey that specificity.

    Gehenna was the name of the rubbish dump outside the south-west wall of Jerusalem in the days of Jesus. It had a more ancient history than that, but it no longer exists today, except as a scenic park in a valley.

    But in Jesus' day it was a public spot where the city's garbage, including the dead bodies of criminals, was incinerated. It was a filthy place that continued to burn day and night, and so was always available to perform its cremation duties.

    Jesus referred to this place on about four occasions when speaking to the Jews living in Jerusalem and, because most of our popular English Bibles use the word 'hell' to translate the Greek "Gehenna" when translating these conversations, 'hell' has became known as a place of perpetual fire and destruction.

    But Jesus was speaking to the Jews of His day advising them to shape up and obey the law of God they had been given, else they would risk being thrown into the rubbish dump and miss being part of the kingdom age He was trying to prepare them for.

    He was no more telling them to literally pluck out an eye or literally cut off a hand as He was literally telling them that they would be tormented by fire for eternity.

    But that didn't deter many of our best selling translations from using Gehenna to help them support their belief that hell is a place of eternal torment where most of God's creation will end up at the end of the ages.

    So poor and biased translations supporting a traditional church doctrine have the institutional church giving God a bad name and making it guilty of character assassination of the Creator of the Universe. Who is the God of love who torments His wayward children with fire for eternity? Ugh!

    Just as other place names are translated correctly in the Bible - Bethlehem as Bethlehem, Nazareth as Nazareth, etc., maybe our translators ought to do the same with Gehenna, Tartarus and Hades.

    But if they really must use the word 'hell' somewhere, which is not really a place name in the Bible, then use it exclusively for Hades and hope their readers know its original Old English meaning.


All relevant comments are most welcome. However, please express any disagreement you might have without being disagreeable and with grace towards those who might not hold your point of view.