Other words that are mistakenly interpreted as hell
There are two other words that are sometimes mistakenly thought to refer to a “hell” of eternal punishment. One is the Hebrew term Sheol and the other is the Greek term Hades. In fact, in the 1611 version of the King James Bible, both Sheol and Hades were sometimes translated as “hell.” No modern translation, however, adopted this translation, because it is obviously incorrect.
Sheol and Hades were synonymous terms biblically as the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament completed in the second century B.C.) translates Sheol as Hades. This demonstrates that they were viewed to refer to the same place conceptually: the grave or death, which was viewed as an unknown place of some mystery in the ancient Hebrew mindset.
At any rate, there are more detailed descriptions regarding Sheol and Hades. One thorough examination is found here: Sheol Part 1 and in subsequent articles. They are worth the read.
Nevertheless, I will briefly summarize the most important reasons why Sheol and Hades cannot possibly refer to a hell of endless torment:
Reason #1: Everybody goes there, both righteous and wicked. There are many references indicating that the righteous will go to Sheol or the grave. Here are a few:
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is!
For what vanity you have created all the children of man!
What man can live and never see death?
Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?
Sheol refers to the place of the dead, and none of us can avoid it. Interestingly, the psalmist asks who can deliver the soul from Sheol. At the time, he was implying that nobody could because he didn’t know who had the keys to death, but we do: Jesus Christ!
It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice…
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.
Notice that both the righteous and the wicked go to Sheol. We all have this same fate, which is incompatible with Sheol referring to an endless hell.
Oh that You would hide me in Sheol,
That You would conceal me until Your wrath returns to You,
That You would set a limit for me and remember me!
In this passage Job is asking to die and go to Sheol out of his desperation. This clearly makes no sense if he is referring to a place of eternal torment.
O Lord, the God of my salvation,
I have cried out by day and in the night before You.
Let my prayer come before You;
Incline Your ear to my cry!
For my soul has had enough troubles,
And my life has drawn near to Sheol.
I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit;
I have become like a man without strength,
Forsaken among the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more,
And they are cut off from Your hand.
What man can live and not see death?
Can he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?
2. It is clearly indicated that people can be saved from Sheol and that God is there. It is clearly not permanent.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
1 Samuel 2:6 (part of Hannah’s prayer)
The Lord kills and makes alive;
He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.
You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.
Etymology of the word “hell”
One final point to make regarding the word “hell” is that it is an unnecessary and misleading translation of the name of a literal place, the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), physically located outside of Jerusalem. It is less of a translation than a boldfaced replacement of a proper noun with a different, unrelated proper noun, like replacing Los Angeles or New York with “hell” (no offense to either city as I’m just giving examples of places most people have heard of). Perhaps this is why no other books in the New Testament besides those in which Jewish audiences (familiar with Jerusalem’s geography) are being addressed, use the word. Most people in Rome or Corinth would have no idea about the name of Jerusalem’s city dump.
So where does the word “hell” even come from? It is important to note that it is not an Aramaic word (Jesus likely spoke Aramaic to his audiences), nor a Hebrew word (the Old Testament was written in Hebrew), nor a Greek word (the New Testament was written in Greek). So the word “hell” was certainly not used in the original languages.
Instead the word “hell” likely is derived from Norse mythology (think Thor, Loki, and Odin) or earlier pagan concepts of the people groups from which Germanic languages such as English and Old Norse, originated. Here, the etymology of the word is described:
also Hell, Old English hel, helle, "nether world, abode of the dead, infernal regions, place of torment for the wicked after death," from Proto-Germanic *haljo "the underworld" (source also of Old Frisian helle, Old Saxon hellia, Dutchhel, Old Norse hel, German Hölle, Gothichalja "hell"). Literally "concealed place" (compare Old Norse hellir "cave, cavern"), from PIE root *kel- (1) "to cover, conceal, save."
The English word may be in part from Old Norse mythological Hel (from Proto-Germanic *halija "one who covers up or hides something"), in Norse mythology the name of Loki's daughter who rules over the evil dead in Niflheim, the lowest of all worlds (nifl "mist"). A pagan concept and word fitted to a Christian idiom. In Middle English, also of the Limbus Patrum, place where the Patriarchs, Prophets, etc. awaited the Atonement. Used in the KJV for Old Testament Hebrew Sheol and New Testament Greek Hades, Gehenna. Used figuratively for "state of misery, any bad experience" since at least late 14c. As an expression of disgust, etc., first recorded 1670s.
retrieved from: Etymology Online
So the word “hell” is a word derived from Proto-Germanic paganism. It is the hidden or concealed underworld, co-opted by translators to make the Valley of Hinnom a relatable place. Unfortunately, it was relatable but very misleading. There is no reason to translate the Valley of Hinnom to “whatever your pagan underworld happens to be.” This obviously allows for an increased influence of demonstrably false pagan doctrine that is contrary to the Bible. Using known pagan terminology to describe the afterlife would have clearly encouraged the infiltration of associated cultural biases into Christianity. This is, in fact, exactly what appears to have occurred, leading the church to an understanding of God’s judgment that is not supported by the Biblical text.
So now that we have a better understanding of the word "hell", we must consider the contexts in which it is used. In the next chapter, we will examine every use by Jesus of the word Gehenna (which is mistranslated as "hell" in many English versions of the Bible) in its original context. As we do this, it will become quite evident that Jesus never used the term to denote a place of eternal suffering for unbelievers. If you don't believe me, you had better read on.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter