Hell doesn't exist in the 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.
The table below gives an example of each word being used.
|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|
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|
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, so this is probably how all of the authors of the oldest books of the old testament would have viewed Sheol.
However, centuries later, during the Second Temple period (after 516 BCE), 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 later books of the Old Testament would probably 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.
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 the word Hades which would conjure up images of gorgons, harpies, hydras, the ferryman Charon, the rivers Acheron and Styx, gates guarded by Cerberus, and, of course, 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 their books in the academic language, Greek, and. in Greek, established tradition meant using the word Hades instead of the Hebrew Sheol. Thus, it's probably safe to 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.
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.
This raises the question of why the author chose to use the word "Tartarus." Should we interpret just like Hades, the common Greek translation of Sheol, or did the author purposely choose a different word to mean something different? Since the author doesn't explain their word choice, there is no way to be sure, but that doesn't stop commenters from asserting, often with utter confidence, why the author used this particular word. The debate is partially moot since most New Testament scholars now believe II Peter to be fraudulent, so it shouldn't be considered biblical canon.
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. According to multiple old testament books, human sacrifices were made to various gods in gei-Hinnom.
Using only the books found in most bibles, Gehenna would be viewed by Jews and early Christians as a wicked place of blasphemy, however, it would be a real tangible place, not a different realm of existence used for eternal punishment, as most Christians view Hell today. The only real description given about Gehenna, other than hints at its location, is that it is fiery. Gehenna doesn't take on aspects of punishment or the supernatural until the Mishnah in the Jewish Talmud which was written after most old testament books, but before the books of the New Testament. Because of this, the authors of the New Testament probably understood Gehenna as the later more mystical version.
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 that sacrifices involve fire and burning, so a location where many sacrifices took place would thereby involve a lot of fire.
Interestingly, none of the writings attributed to John or Paul, the two most prominent New Testament authors, ever use any of these four words for Hell. 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 or places it's describing.
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. Very little in the bible describes such imagery. Nearly everything the Christians believe about hell comes from poets, artists, authors, and theologians, most of whom lived over a thousand years after the New Testament was written.
So, why didn't the original 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 Germanic 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 Wycliffe's approach 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.