Investigating Hell (Part 1)

Growing up in church I have always believed in “Heaven” and “Hell” has it has been traditionally taught in most Christian denominations. So, for example, if we die in our sins without being saved, we will go to Hell and a lost eternity. However, in recent years as I have delved more into studying the Hebrew and Greek scriptures instead of just my typical English translations like KJV and NLT, etc, several things have stood out for me that have challenged my long held understanding of certain doctrines. The chief question I have is, “Why is the word ‘Hell’ in the Bible?” Or, more specifically, “How did the word ‘Hell’ get into the English Bible?”

My question may seem silly, but as I have searched the Internet to answer my question, I have come across persons who have asked similar questions about Hell, but they usually take it from an point of “A loving God could never…” or some kind of universalism, or something like that. I honestly don’t see it from that perspective. I ask the question because when I look at it, in the OT, there is only one word that is translated as Hell, and that is the Hebrew word “Sheol”, but it is also translated as grave. In the NT, Hell is mentioned 23 times, but is used to translate three different words: hades, gehenna and tartaroo, in addition, the word hades is sometimes translated as Hell and other times translated as the grave. This does not see right to me.

English versus Greek and Hebrew

Hell is an English word, but the English language only came into existence from about 450 AD. How can the English word, “Hell” supersede the Hebrew word Sheol or the Greek word Hades in usage and meaning? What is the true source of the word “Hell” in English? How do we know it means the same thing as “Sheol” in Hebrew? For the Greek it is even worse since the KJV translators use it to mean three different words. If we consider the 65 times that Sheol is used in the OT, we can’t honestly assert that it fits the modern day understanding of what “Hell” is. In the Greek, I can similarly say that our modern concept of “Hell” does not fit all the contexts in which Hades, Gehenna and Tartaroo are used. So, then how could the KJV translators use “Hell” in all those instances, when the context expressed by the original authors did not seem to fit our understanding of Hell? To me, it seems that Hell was indeed added deliberately, but why? In literal translations (like Young’s) the word Hell is never used. So, how did Hell end up in the KJV Bible?

If you were to survey the numerous translations of the Bible into English, you will find that only the King James Version (KJV) and New King James Version (NKJV) use Hell for Sheol in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, only about 13 English translations of the Bible use Hell for Hades, Gehenna and Tartaroo. Most other Bibles, either literal translations or modern translations, do not use Hell at all. This is interesting. Many persons view this as a conspiracy to ‘remove Hell from the Bible’, but the more I look into the differences between English words and Hebrew/Greek words, the more I am considering that it could be about the accuracy of the meaning of words.

There are a lot of direct relations between ancient Hebrew and koine Greek.In the first century, Jesus and his apostles already had access to Greek translations of the Old Testament. Also, they spoke Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. There are many quotations of the Old Testament scriptures that exist in the New Testament writings. So, there is a lot of direct relations between Greek and Hebrew. English, on the other hand, only really came about in the 5th century. In addition to this, the English language has changed drastically from the 5th century to the current 21st century. The English spoken and written in the 5th century is very different from the English spoken and written now. Meanings of some English words have changed a lot in the past 1600 years, and differ even among cultures who all natively speak English. The History of English has been divided into 4 major stages: Old English (450-1100 AD), Middle English (110-1500 AD), Modern English (1500-1800 AD) and Late Modern English (1800 – Present). The first KJV Bible was published in 1611, and the word “Hell” was already in use. It originated from the Old English word “hel”, which had Proto-Germanic origins meaning “the underworld” and literally meant “concealed place”. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it may have had direct associations with the Old Norse mythological “Hel” (the name of Loki’s daughter who ruled the evil dead in Norse mythology). However, it was already associated with “nether world, abode of the dead, infernal regions, place of torment for the wicked after death”. Hell is associated with various meanings according to its etymology. 

From what I have researched so far, no one seems to know how the word ‘Hell’ originated. Some speculate that the modern concept of ‘Hell’ has its origins in the 14th century with Dante’s Inferno. Nonetheless, most persons seem to believe that there are strong associations with Norse mythology through the conversion of Germanic pagans to Christianity in the 10th century. 

Water Analogy

The best way for me to explain the dilemma of using “Hell” in the Bible to represent Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Tartaroo, is to use the analogy of translating water. Every language has a word for water. In Spanish, it is ‘agua’. In French, it is ‘eau’. In Koine Greek, it is ‘ὕδωρ’ (transliterated as hydōr). If you were to try to translate water to another language, it would be easy since regardless of the language barrier, we can all point o what water is. We see it. We refer to it. There is no mistaking what it is because everyone drinks it. Regardless of how old or young a lnague is, all languages have a word for water, because we all use it.

Hell on the other hand is a different story. We know that Sheol and Hades refer to the same place, because Acts 2:27, which refers to Hades in the Greek, quotes Psalm 16:10, which refers to Sheol in the Hebrew.

For Thou dost not leave my soul to Sheol, Nor givest thy saintly one to see corruption. – Psalm 16:10 (YLT)

because Thou wilt not leave my soul to hades, nor wilt Thou give Thy Kind One to see corruption; – Acts 2:17 (YLT)

However, when it comes to Hell, we don’t really know what it refers to. If it really refers to Sheol and Hades, then why are Sheol and Hades sometimes translated to grave, and other times translated to Hell. It is obvious that Hell does not always mean Sheol and Hades. further, to the water analogy, Sheol and Hades are not tangible. It is not something referred to equally in all languages and cultures. And the description of Hell from Early english and Norse cultures do not seem to fit Sheol and Hades exactly. So, why does Hell supersede Sheol and Hades? 

More to come…

This investigation is going to be done in several parts. For now, I am thinking of four parts, but that might change in the future. In part two, I will be discussing Sheol, and what is really means and how it is used in the Old testament and other Jewish texts. in part three, i will be discussing hades, gehenna, tartaroo and the “lake of fire” in the New testament, and how they are used in context in the scriptures. In part four,  I will be exploring the modern concept of Hell a bit further, and attempt to further uncover its origins. I hope you find this investigation interesting. I trust that the Lord will guide me to the truth on this journey.

  1. History of English – English Club
  2. Origin and meaning of Hell – Online Etymology Dictionary
  3. Etymology of Hell Possible link to Norse Mythology – English Language and Usage Stack Exchange

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