Sunday, June 15, 2014

Erasing hell - what a good idea

You may have read the book "Erasing Hell" by Francis Chan and friends. (It had some relevant and basic teaching, but lacked in the most important part of the book: the conclusion. I hope to give a bit of a review on that book in the future). When I talk about erasing hell, however, I mean literally. Erase that misleading, myth-laden word out of every Bible - and the sooner the better. That may sound a bit radical to you but please take some time to explore this English word 'hell' with me - I am convinced you will see my point.

So, after erasing 'hell' from all of our Bibles, what would we put in its place? Well, for starters, how about what the original manuscripts have written?  Hell is shockingly translated (in various Bible versions) from five different words! Transliterated, they are the Hebrew words Sheol and Abaddon, plus the Greek words Hades, Gehenna (from Hebrew origins) and Tartarus. No wonder the confusion over the meaning of hell is so prevalent! I submit that ‘hell’ is an erroneous and distracting translation in any Bible! 

What is hell? The word hell certainly conjures up images and ideas in most of us in western culture. Just think in your own mind what you would answer to the question: "What is hell?" But where did this word come from? Why not just transliterate the Hebrew and Greek words? Using the word ‘hell’ then, becomes very misleading. From the Encyclopedia Britannica, please consider the following:

“The Old English hel belongs to a family of Germanic words meaning “to cover” or “to conceal.” Hel is also the name, in Old Norse, of the Scandinavian queen of the underworld. Many English translations of the Bible use hell as an English equivalent of the Hebrew terms Sheʾōl (or Sheol) and Gehinnom, or Gehenna (Hebrew: gê-hinnōm). The term Hell is also used for the Greek Hades and Tartarus, which have markedly different connotations. As this confusion of terms suggests, the idea of hell has a complex history, reflecting changing attitudes toward death and judgment, sin and salvation, and crime and punishment.”

I don’t see the word or idea of the classic idea of hell in the Old Testament (nor do I see it in any of Paul’s writings, but that is a subject for later). ‘Sheol’ may be written as ‘hell’ in some translations, but the meaning is closer to ‘the grave’, not a place of never-ending torment. In the King James version Sheol is translated 31 times as ‘grave’ and 31 times as ‘hell’. Why the inconsistent translation? What do they hope to stir in people using the word ‘hell’ in selected verses? 

Hades appears 11 times in the New Testament. In the KJV it is printed as ‘hell’ ten of those times. It seems very misleading to translate ‘Hades’ as ‘hell’. When we hear ‘hell’ we think of a place of fiery punishment for the wicked. In the following verse we see it was not meant in that context, “He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell [Hades], neither his flesh did see corruption.” (Acts 2:31, KJV) Jesus did not get sent to a place of fiery torture prepared for Satan where His soul could be ‘left’. If I understand, it is saying He was not left in ‘the grave’ – He was not left in death. The first death (physical death) seems to be a state of being that the righteous and wicked alike experience. It can be agony (Psalm 116:3, Acts 2:24, Luke 16:23) or like sleep (John 11:11, 1 Cor. 11:30, 15:51). It is all the more clear when we remember the poignant psalm of David (prophetically applied to Jesus in Acts 2:27): "You will not abandon my soul to Sheol [Hades], nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay." - Psalm 16:10 (see also Ps. 49:15, 89:48. (Yes, this subject needs its own study! We'll address it further in another post.) 

Another example among many from Rev. 20:13 - “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Hades] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” This is clearly a reference to some temporary state or place of the dead ('the grave') not the fiery final destination of the wicked. And what should be the most confusing verse on hell, Rev. 20:14 – “And death and hell [Hades] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” So, hell was cast into hell? This illustrates how misleading these various translations are. I am citing KJV because it is well-known, but the point is we should know the original word for each translated ‘hell’ wherever we find it. Certainly our understanding of final punishment has been shaped by its haphazard and inconsistent use. (By the way, all the ‘hells’ mentioned in Revelation are the word “Hades” and they are always accompanied by the word ‘death’.)

Is Hades a place of eternal punishment as we look at the whole counsel of God’s word? Clearly it is not. Why is it translated ‘hell’ so often? What does the average person think of when they hear ‘hell’? Should this be considered misleading? At the least, it should be considered. 

Another word in the New Testament that is usually translated ‘hell’ is Gehenna. Jesus and James are the only ones in all the New Testament who use the word Gehenna, and that only twelve times, some being repetitions. It is noteworthy that Paul in all his teaching did not use the word – a word that I believe has come to represent the classic hell that most Christians believe exists. However, James uses it this way, “the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell [Gehenna]”  (James 3:6). The tongue being set on fire by hell does not make sense if this ‘hell’ is a literal place – he certainly doesn’t mean the historic, literal, garbage-burning dump outside Jerusalem! Gehenna seems to be representing something, but I don’t believe that it is our traditional hellfire.

Tartarus (found only once in Scripture, usually translated ‘hell’ in various Bibles) – Greek: tartaroo –‘ the name of the subterranean region, doleful and dark, regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead, where they suffer punishment for their evil deeds. (Thayer’s Lexicon) The verse reads “…God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment…”  (2 Pet. 2:4) For this and every verse, I hope time is taken to read the context. What I understand here is that angels that sinned are being held for a future day of judgment. This place sounds temporary, like Hades (Rev. 20:14).

One thing we do know from Scripture: there is a lake of fire (the second death). From my studies through Scripture, I believe that Gehenna represents the lake of fire. It is also clear that Sheol and Hades are synonymous.  As we move towards a biblical understanding of final punishment, it is crucial to understand these very basic names and what they represent in God's truth. To begin with mistranslation and confusion (imagine - this is our heritage!) is no way to study the Word. Please join me in my boycott of the word 'hell' and take the time to find out what word should actually be used in Bible verses using that translation.  For example, we would state Matthew 16:18 as: "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." and Psalm 86:13: "For Your lovingkindness toward me is great, and You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol."

Thank you for considering these things, discomforting as they may be. If we stick close to God's word and its plain meaning, we will not be in such danger of straying down the wrong road.

1 comment:

  1. Seth at writes:

    "'Hell' is neither a Hebrew or a Greek word (both Old and New Testaments were written in those languages), nor did it primarily indicate "a place of torment." Biblical translators actually derived it from a secular German word - spelled hel - meaning nothing more than concealed or covered. The concept of a demon regulated horror-house was indeed derived from that word, but it actually evolved from Teutonic mythology.

    Not only is hell an ancient pagan tradition (not at all unique to Christianity), but the ancient Israelites did not understand death that way according to the Holy Scripture. This is why modern Bible translations are completely evicting that word from the Old Testament! Now, why would any Bible translation seek to remove a word unless it did not belong there in the first place? Because this disgusting fable, originated from a place other than God's Holy Word - yet was craftily slipped in by the dogma motivated church of ages past."


I understand this is a difficult subject and there are different views from folks who all value God's inspired word. I value your feedback, corrections and questions. Please leave a comment!