I was asked to retool this post some time ago for this site, but haven’t been free to do so until now. My hope is that this writing helps clear up some possible misconceptions of what the Bible originally stated about hell. Through translation and otherwise bad interpretation, the concept has been severely skewed and held so adamantly as a core belief that it can cause discomfort when questioned (aka cognitive dissonance). Generally, anyone challenging the belief is excommunicated by mainstream Christianity and upheld as a heretic, false prophet/teacher, etc… Knowing this, I humbly and hesitantly present my findings as I journey with God. As I’ve stated in other writings, please research these things for yourself with the Holy Spirit.
The traditional meaning of hell I was taught centered around: a place of everlasting, conscious fiery torment where any human that dies without becoming a Christian will end up. The exact methodology of this “becoming” was always a shifting target though. Even after the initial salvation experience, there’s a host of other mandates to follow to increase the coverage of the fire insurance policy. The very word hell became associated with fire and brimstone and feelings of absolute dread and despair. This led to all kinds of confusion for me growing up as I struggled to reconcile a God of unlimited love with a God whose love suddenly runs out when our heart stops beating. Or an infinitely powerful God who doesn’t have the power or authority to succeed in his plan (Col 1:20).
In other words, if this infinitely loving and infinitely powerful God loves everyone and wishes to reconcile everyone to himself, how can any single part of his plan fail in the end? Why would a system be created that allows the majority of his plan to fail? Who really wins in that scenario?
How does “hell,” as we’ve been taught to know it, fit into this picture?
So, first, the Old Testament. In translations such as the KJV, the word hell appears in several places. However, this concept mainly refers to Sheol, a Hebrew term for the grave or place of the dead. Everyone—good, bad, or indifferent—ended up here. We see an instance of a prophet being contacted in Sheol within the Old Testament—Saul consults a medium to contact Samuel (1 Samuel 28). This raises the question—why would a prophet be in Sheol instead of Heaven?
In addition, there was no burning or torment in Sheol, and David even stated that God would be there! Compare the below verses from Psalms 139:8 (emphasis mine for clarity):
KJV: If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
NIV: If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
WEB: If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!
Which translation is most accurate here? Is God in hell like the KJV states? Was the prophet Samuel in hell though he served God all his life?
Note here in the Old Testament, even King David seemed to be confused as to what the afterlife might hold, but he knew that God had a plan! Based on the prophecies, David having a touch of the prophetic himself, a Messiah was to come to release the prisoners from the grave (Sheol) (Psalm 68:18).
What did “hell” originally mean?
Searching for the origin of the word hell (ref), I found it was neither a Hebrew or Greek word. It comes from the Germanic and means “to cover or hide” in Old English. So, we can see that the original meaning of the word through the Old Testament syncs up well with the KJV translation. The dirt of the grave covers us when we die. So technically, hell (the covering of dirt) has frozen over many, many times all over the world. If anyone has ever said “when hell freezes over,” well….then they may have an outstanding debt to someone.
What could have happened?
This brings about the next big question: How did burning and torment come to be associated with Sheol between the Old and New Testament?
It would seem between the end of the Old and the beginning of the New, the idea came about of “bad” people going to a torturous, burning afterlife while the “good” people went to a place of peace and joy. Sheol was the major afterlife belief of the Jewish society up until ~200 BC when the Hades theology began to become more dominant (ref). This is the most probable difference in the Sanhedrin—the Sadducees purportedly believing in Sheol (but not it being overcome) and the Pharisees’ belief in Hades. It seems as the Pharisees’ became more dominant, the Greek view of a burning afterlife (Hades) got incorporated into the Jewish culture, which brings us to the next point:
Jesus never talked about hell as we know it today, he spoke about Gehenna and Hades. These were universally translated to say hell in the KJV. This is probably the biggest pitfall to that translation as they are different, distinct places. In short:
Hades is the Greek version of a conscious, burning afterlife. Keep in mind this originated as a “pagan” concept and not as a Hebrew one.
Gehenna, aka The Valley on the Son of Hinnom, is a place outside of Jerusalem. Due to the child sacrifices that took place here (2 Chronicles 28:3), part of it became known as Topheth (2 Kings 23:10), most likely meaning the “place of burning” (ref). Jeremiah also speaks of this valley and Topheth within Jeremiah 7:31-32 and 19:6. The Jewish historian Josephus additionally reports bodies being dumped here during the siege of Jerusalem 69/70 AD (ref1, ref2). This type of environment likely breed an exceptionally hard to kill worm (Mark 9:48) which fed off of the refuse of the corpses.
Sheol, as explained above, is the original Hebrew concept of death or the grave.
When these three are mixed, we get a doctrinal quagmire we refer to today as hell. It would seem the religious leaders adopted the Greek invaders’ version of hell into their afterlife theology to hold it over the Jewish peoples’ heads as the place to avoid by observing the strictest principles of the law.
Gehenna and the Sermon on the Mount
Jesus speaks of Gehenna a few times during the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the audience there that if they are unable to uphold the most strictest interpretation of the Law, thereby surpassing the Pharisees, they would be cast into Gehenna. It would be better if they did things like plucking out their eyes to avoid lustful thoughts. The people would have had a good understanding of what Jesus was referencing when he mentions Gehenna here—a physical location outside of Jerusalem.
So, how could they—and just as important, how do we—uphold this extremely strict view of the Law? Simply, they—and we—can’t. Jesus was stating the inevitable path of attempting to uphold an ever stricter set of laws to be perfect like God. As humans, we can’t. It is impossible for us to be perfect by our human methods of conformance and rule following. It is only through Jesus that we can be perfect. Striving for the goal of perfection without Jesus leads us to a point of comparative righteous. We consider ourselves better than others, thereby justifying our right to impose our superior standards on others in God’s name–which, not surprisingly, riles those “others” we constantly condemn. The religious leaders were setting their standard of righteousness by law and professing destruction and doom to any that couldn’t meet it (Luke 11:46). According to Jesus, no one meets the actual standard! When Jesus asks the Pharisees, “how will you escape the judgment of Gehenna?” (Matt 23:33), he was referring to what was coming as listed from the next verse (34) and onward.
The Hades Parable
Jesus speaks of Hades, specifically referencing the Greek version of where bad people go, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We see Lazarus, the outsider, in Paradise with the Jewish forefather, Abraham, while the evil rich man was being tormented in Hades. What was Jesus’ point here? First, we have to look at who Jesus was talking to—the Pharisees (Luke 16:14). It would seem the Pharisees were one of the groups perpetuating the idea of punishment by burning in hell-fire. In his parable, Jesus places the poor outsider (the gentiles) in Paradise with the Jewish ancestor, Abraham. Meanwhile, he measures those who had thought they were rich in righteousness by their own standard (Matt 7:2), placing them in Hades. He used their own condemnation against them to say, “If you are so adamant about holding the threat of Hades over others, you ‘righteous’ lot will be the ones that end up there while those outsiders receive your inheritance (Matt 21:43).”
Sadly, it seems many Christians today still wield the threat of hell as a weapon of fear the same way the Pharisees did.
Addendum: The Lake of Fire and the Second Death
This brings me to some of the final points in this writing. As I stated in another post, the Old Testament view of fire, in relation to God and prior to the Greek influence, was for purification. Likewise, fire in the New Testament seems to be referencing purification, whether in this life or the next (1 Cor 3:13-15, Mark 9:49). So how about that second death business? This would seem to be the purification process of the lake of fire. This topic and its’ correlations go much deeper and possibly deserve a post of their own, but begin to stride too far outside of the scope of this writing.
I know this is quite long, but I wanted to hit all the major points. These are my viewpoints and I encourage anyone reading this to research for themselves. My overall point in writing this is to help remove the fear and manipulation of the confusing views of hell and punishment that many have been subjugated by for so long so they can live in the freedom of Jesus’ love (1 John 4:18)!
Consider also, the apostle Paul only mentions Hades to the assemblies once, in that Jesus has defeated the very concept of this kind of punishment (1 Cor 15:55). Likewise, scriptures such as this, referring to Death, seem to relay Jesus’ defeat of Sheol—aka being captive to the grave—but not the destruction of physically dying as we know it today.
It seems many Christians have been made too afraid to ask these questions or investigate the concepts listed here. However, is it really a relationship with Father if we can’t bring our deepest questions and concerns to him?