Hell doesn't exist in the bible

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The word "hell" in an English translation of a bible.

If you've read a bible translated into English, you may be surprised to learn that hell doesn't exist in the bible. While you will find the word "hell" scattered all throughout English translations of the various books, when you read the books in their original languages, you will find that none of them actually refer to the modern Christian version of hell. Instead, you will find the words sheol, hades, tartarus, and gehenna, each of which means something quite different.

Original Language

The table below gives an example of each word being used.

Example Language Text Transliteration Literal English
Psalms 16:10 Biblical Hebrew שאול‬ sheol underworld
Acts 2:31 Ancient Greek ᾅδου hades unseen
II Peter 2:4 Ancient Greek ταρταρόω tartaroo throw to Tartarus
Matthew 5:29 Ancient Greek γέενναν Gehenna Valley of Hinnom

English Translations

Imagine if an English author used the words "massive," "enormous," "colossal," and "gargantuan," and had their text translated into Swedish where each word became stor, the Swedish word for "big." It's fair to say that the translator lost the author's intent. This is very similar to what has happened in English translations of the bible. The original authors of each of these passages made a distinction when they chose these words, so they probably intended for the reader to see a distinction as well. However, one of the most popular English translations of the bible, the King James Version, simply translates all four words to "hell," losing the original intent. The New International Version at least attempts to show some difference by using "realm of the dead" for sheol and hades. But it is only some of the lesser-known translations, like the World English Bible, where the translators actually kept the words untranslated so readers would see the distinction.

Transliteration Literal English Implied English KJV NIV WEB
Sheol underworld realm of the dead hell realm of the dead Sheol
Hades unseen realm of the dead hell realm of the dead Hades
tartaroo throw to Tartarus place in the underworld hell hell Tartarus
Gehenna Valley of Hinnom cursed valley of Hinnom hell hell Gehenna

Contextual Meanings

Sheol

In ancient Hebrew mythology, Sheol is the underworld located inside the earth where everything is dark and still and cut off from Yahweh. The concept goes back around 3,000 years and borrows from earlier underworld beliefs from Sumerian and Babylonian mythologies. Unlike in Christianity, where only evil unbelievers go to Hell, in Hebrew mythology, everyone goes to Sheol regardless of whether they live a good or evil life. This is how the authors of the oldest books of any old testament would have viewed Sheol.

However, centuries later, during the Second Temple period, while under Persian and then Greek rule, the Hebrew view of Sheol began to adopt aspects of the mythologies of the ruling nations, including the idea that Sheol would have a separation between those people who were good in life from those who were bad in life. The authors of the latest books of the Old Testament would understand Sheol more like this. By the time of the New Testament, some Jews had even begun to believe that souls could be taken from Sheol and brought to a better place.

Hades

Around 250 BCE, before any of the books of the New Testament were written, a version of the old testament was translated into the lingua franca of the time, ancient Greek. During this process, the translators changed all instances of Sheol into the Greek underworld, Hades, thereby greatly changing the understanding of the books. Anyone reading this old testament in Greek would see Hades which would conjure up images of gorgons, harpies, and hydras, the ferryman Charon, the rivers Acheron and Styx, gates guarded by Cerberus, and the god Hades, brother of Zeus.

However, this helps us to make sense of why the authors use the word Hades. Even though most of the people mentioned in the New Testament were Palestinian Jews who would have spoken Aramaic, the New Testament authors wrote there books in Greek, and established tradition meant Hades should be used instead of Sheol. Thus, we can safely assume that the authors actually meant the Hebrew underworld, not the Greek underworld. Of course, by the time these books were written in the late first century CE, Sheol no longer meant what the earliest old testament authors meant, but, regardless, neither is anything like the modern Christian view of Hell.

Tartarus

To complicate matters, the author of II Peter uses Tartarus instead of Hades; or rather, "tartaroo," a shortened form of "kata-tartaroo," which means "thrown into Tartarus." In Greek mythology, Tartarus is a deep abyss in Hades where the Titans are kept for punishment. It may be that the author's use of "Tartarus" was meant to be interpreted like Hades as a Greek translation of Sheol, or it may be the author specifically chose it to mean something different. There is no way to be sure, but several commenters have asserted, often with utter confidence, why the author used this particular word. The debate is partially pointless since most New Testament scholars believe II Peter is fraudulent, so it shouldn't be considered biblical canon.

Gehenna

The most popular word in the New Testament which is translated in English to "hell," is Gehenna. Gehenna is the Greek way of writing the Hebrew "gei-Hinnom," which means "Valley of Hinnom." The Valley of Hinnom is described as an actual valley in Jerusalem (although there are conflicting locations mentioned in antiquity so nobody can be sure where it was) where, according multiple old testament books, human sacrifices were made to various gods.

Using only the books of most bibles, Gehenna appears to be nothing more than a scary physical place rather than a different realm of punishment. The only real description given about Gehenna other than its location, is that it is fiery. It is only by reading the Mishnah in the Jewish Talmud that we see Gehenna as being supernatural and a place of punishment for evil doers. This was written after most old testament books, but before the books of the New Testament. So, even though the New Testament canon doesn't explicitly say Gehenna is supernatural, the authors probably believed it was.

There is a belief that this valley was a burning trash dump and burial ground for the poor, which accounts for the New Testament passages referring to Gehenna as being fiery, but this belief is not based on archeological or literary evidence, but rather an assertion made by Rabbi David Kimhi around 1200 CE. I think a better explanation is that Hebrews understood sacrifices involve fire and burning, so a location where many human sacrifice took place would thereby involve a lot of fire.

Interestingly, none of the writings attributed to John or Paul ever use any of these four words. They do describe an afterlife, but it's always with vague words like "darkness," "torment," and "condemnation," never anything that could rightly be translated to an actual location. Revelation probably gives the most explicit description of the modern Christian view of Hell, but also never once names the place it's describing.

Hell

When Christians think of the modern Christian view of Hell, they usually think of a fiery cavern filled with sinners being tortured forever by cloven-footed demons in manners befitting the sins they committed while alive, all controlled by the fallen-angel, Satan. While some of this imagery is described in scattered passages around the bible, the reality it that most of it comes from poets, authors, and theologians who lived hundreds, even thousands of years after the New Testament was written.

So, why didn't the authors ever use the word "hell?" Because the word "hell" didn't exist when the New Testament was written. The first usage of the word "hell" came about around 725 CE and is Germanic in origin, not Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. Also, like Hades before it, "Hell" has its own non-Christian cultural history. The Old Germanic people of Europe believed in a goddess named Hel who reigns over a realm often named after her. However, unlike the fiery Gehenna or the shadowy Hades, Hel is misty and cold.

But, just like all the aforementioned underworlds, the concept of Hell also evolved and adopted concepts of the dominant religion. By the late-1300s, when the New Testament was first being translated into Middle English, John Wycliffe probably believed "hell" accurately described Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna, because he translated all of them to "hell." William Tyndale, who translated the bible into modern English, followed suit and so did the translators of the KJV who mostly copied directly from Tyndale.

Religious concepts, just like any other aspect of culture, never stop evolving. Even if the ancient Hebrews and early Christians had used the word "hell," the concept behind it, what comes to mind when the word is uttered, would still be different today, and those Christians hundreds of years from now will certainly view it differently as well, and, maybe someday, people will finally realize they don't need a word for it at all.

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