Hell in the Old Testament

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. Sheol is a Hebrew word which means “a hollow and subterranean place, full of thick darkness”. It appears thirty-one times in the Old Testament. [1]

  • In the Authorised Version ‘Sheol’ is translated ‘hell’
  • In the Revised Standard Version the word ‘Sheol’ is left untranslated
  • in the New International Version ‘Sheol’ is translated ‘grave’, ‘death’ or ‘the depths’

‘Hell’ is the place everyone goes to when they die

Hell in the New Testament

None of the verses where ‘sheol’ appears link it to the idea that it is a place of torment or punishment. But, the verses which do comment on what is experienced in ‘sheol’ indicate that there is a complete lack of conscious thought or deliberate action there. [2]

The New Testament was originally written mostly in Greek. In the original Greek, three different words are used, all of which are translated ‘hell’ in the Authorised Version:

  • gehenna [3]
  • hades [4]
  • tartaroo [5]

In the New International Version hades is translated as ‘hell’ in Luke 16:23, as ‘grave’ in Acts 2:27 and left as ‘Hades’ in Revelation 1:18. In the Revised Standard Version gehenna is always translated ‘hell’, and had¯es is left as ‘Hades’.

The meaning of these Greek words

Gehenna means ‘the valley of (the sons of) Hinnom’.
In the Old Testament it is associated with idolatry, fire rituals and child sacrifices. [6]

In New Testament times ‘gehenna’ was still associated with fire and death because the valley of Hinnom was the place outside Jerusalem where the bodies of convicted criminals were thrown and where waste materials were deposited to be destroyed by the ever-burning fires. Jesus used the word to stress the certainty of annihilation at death if behaviour and attitudes are not changed.“Hell fire” does not mean the punishment for the wicked but it is a picture of what will happen to the unworthy. As the hot and corrosive conditions in the valley of Hinnom utterly destroyed anything left there, so the unworthy will cease to exist.

Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew sheol and usually refers to the grave. It is translated as ‘grave’ in the AV, for example:

“O death, where is thy sting? O grave [hades], where is thy victory?”
(1 Cor. 15:55)

Tartaroo means ‘to cast down to Tartarus’.

Tartarus was “regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead” (Thayer). The Encyclopaedia Britannica informs us that it was “the infernal regions of ancient Greek mythology . . . where the gods locked up their enemies”.So, it is an imaginary, mythological place. The Apostle Peter, using this idea from the culture of his day, used this word to emphasise the certainty of God’s eventual judgement and punishment of the “unjust”. [7]

Conclusion

Everyone goes to ‘hell’ (the grave) when death comes, even Jesus. [8] But it is not a fearful place where those who have not satisfied God’s requirements suffer eternal torment by fire.

References

1 Deut. 32:22; 2 Sam. 22:6; Job 11:8; 26:6; Ps. 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 55:15; 86:13; 116:3; 139:8; Prov. 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11,24; 23:14; 27:20; Isa. 5:14; 14:9,15; 28:15,18; 57:9; Ezek. 31:16,17; 32:21,27; Amos 9:2; Jon. 2:2; Hab. 2:5
2 Ps. 6:5. Eccl. 9:10 Isa. 38:18
3 Mt. 5:22 ,29,30; 10:28 ; 18:9; 23:15 ,33; Mk. 9:43 ,45,47; Lk. 12:5; Jas. 3:6
4 Mt. 11:23 ; 16:18 ; Lk. 10:15 ; 16:23 ; Acts 2:27 ,31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13 ,14
5 2 Pet. 2:4
6 2 Kgs. 23:10 ; Jer. 7:31 ,32; 19:1-6; 32:35
7 2 Pet. 2:4-9
8 Acts 2:25 -31