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Is There Fire in Hell?
By: David Deschesne,
Editor/Publisher, Fort Fairfield Journal
The very mention of the word “Hell” conjures up images of punished souls burning in a furious fire, being pelted with brimstone for all of eternity. But, do the original manuscripts of the Bible really portray that image?
Our modern-day image of Hell seems to have been adopted from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy was a fictional account by Dante of what he perceived Heaven, Purgatory and Hell to be. Hell was depicted in the Divine Comedy’s Inferno. The Inferno had nine levels, according to Dante’s vivid imagination. Hence the term “Ninth level of hell.” In his prose on Hell, Dante describes various levels reserved for varying degrees of sin. Our modern-day image of fire and brimstone comes from Dante’s “seventh circle” which is further sub-divided into three “rounds.” It is in the third round of the seventh circle where an eternal rain of fire, and burning plains are found.
However, Dante never limited the Inferno to fire and torment alone. In the third circle, he described a putrefied, stinking snow and freezing rain; and the ninth circle - the deepest level of hell, where he placed Satan’s abode - was a frozen lake of ice. Satan was trapped in this ninth circle lake of ice from the legs down and incessantly flaps his wings, creating a great wind-chill that further freezes him and the unfortunate souls more firm. Truly, in Dante’s Inferno, hell has “frozen over” at the ninth circle.
But after all, Dante’s was just a cute story. Why did such imagery get adopted by the church and does the Bible really support it?
It has been suggested that the early church, a few hundred years after Christ, adopted these pagan images of hell in order to scare a hard-headed populace into conversion, or else face an endless torture in a fiery eternity. With that said, this is not a thesis on the doctrine of eternal punishment, but rather an examination of what the Bible has to say about the attributes of this word called hell.
Hell is from the Old English Hel(l) and is Germanic in origin. It is related to Dutch hel and German Hölle, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to cover or hide.’ Old Norse Hel was the proper name of the goddess of the infernal regions.1
There are four words in the original Bible manuscripts used by the KJV translators to render the word ‘hell.’ They are: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus.
The word hell is used 31 times in the entire Old Testament. In every case, it is translated from the Hebrew word, sheol, which means: a grave, pit, subterranean retreat. Sheol has shades of the Indo-European root (to cover or hide) contained in its meaning. It’s not surprising to find the German Hölle (hell) appears to be derived from its near cousin Höhle, which means: a cave, or den.
“[Sheol] really means the place of the dead, the unseen world, without deciding whether it be the place of misery or of happiness. It is clear that in many passages of the Old Testament Sheol can only mean ‘the grave,’ and is so rendered in the Authorized Version; see, for example, Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 1 Sam. 2:6; Job 14:13. In other passages, however, it seems to involve a notion of punishment, and is therefore rendered in the Authorized Version by the word ‘hell.’ But in many cases this translation misleads the reader...In the New Testament ‘hell’ is the translation of two words, Hades and Gehenna. The word Hades, like Sheol, sometimes means merely ‘the grave,’ or ‘the unseen world.’”2
The most likely view of Sheol is that it “does not describe the place where souls of men go, but the place where their bodies go, the grave. Where their souls go is learned from other Scriptures (Ex 3:6; Matt 22:32)...It does not favor soul sleep or annihilation of the wicked, for it speaks only of the destination of bodies. The condition of the souls of men until the resurrection is not in view.... All but eight of the [Old Testament] passages concerned are poetic, and it may be that sheol is just a poetic synonym for qeber which is used seventy-one times for ‘grave.’”3
Early biblical tradition assumes that when people die they go to sheol, the grave, an unclear designation which may mean no more than the burial plot.4
In the Old Testament, the KJV renders sheol as ‘hell’ 31 times; as ‘grave’ 31 times and ‘pit’ 3 times.
The first time the word ‘hell’ is used in the Bible is in Deuteronomy 32:22 where it poetically describes God’s anger being kindled as a “fire” (sometimes typified as ‘jealousy’) and burning to the lowest hell (pit or grave) signifying His Omnipotence and Omnipresence. Even still, this verse does not indicate endless torture of sinful souls in a fiery place for all eternity.
After Deuteronomy, none of the verses containing the word hell (sheol) make any mention of a place of endless torture and suffering or any of the other attributes of hell in today’s vernacular. Sheol would have been more properly rendered as ‘grave,’ ‘pit’ or ‘hole.’
Hades is used only 10 times in the New Testament. Like its Hebrew counterpart, Sheol, it means a deep grave or pit. Derived from the root word εϊδω (to be aware, see, to know, perceive) and the negative particle α, Hades also contains the imagery of the Indo-European (to cover or hide) within its extended meaning: ‘unseen’ and ‘unknown.’
The first appearance of Hades is in Matthew 11:23 where Christ is explaining how the city of Capernaum will be brought down to hell (Hades - the depths) for its unwillingness to repent. There is no mention of fire and brimstone in this context.
Christ also tells Peter that when he builds the church, the gates of hell (Hades - the grave, the pit, signifying death) will not prevail against it. Still, no mention of fire or eternal punishment.
In Luke 10:15, the KJV translates Hades as ‘hell’ but is merely repeating Matthew 11:23.
In Luke 16:23, Christ is describing in parable, where Lazarus dies and is looking up from Hades - the grave - where his eyes are in torment. Since the concept of Hades is so far removed from punishment and torment in every other verse it is used, this is likely a figurative “torment” of the eyes meaning he is seeing things that bother him immensely, not a literal pain.
Peter refers to Sheol/Hades in Acts 2:27 as he quotes David from Psalm 16 by stating God will not leave his soul in hell (the grave). Here is where Sheol of the Old Testament’s Psalm is used synonymously with Hades of the New Testament’s Acts.
Of the four times hell is used in Revelation, the word Hades is its original Greek root. “In each of these references to Hades, there is no insinuation of ‘torments or punishments by fire’ as the orthodox churches would have you believe...If the lake of fire comes the nearest to the idea of hell, and if Hades is also hell, then is hell cast into hell? On the other hand, do we cast a lake of fire into the lake of fire? Keeping that in mind, if you think of Hades and Sheol in terms of the grave, which receives the dead and is therefore coupled with death, then the Apostle Paul’s prophecy regarding death would also destroy the grave (Sheol and Hades) when he wrote: The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). If death is destroyed, then the grave is destroyed, also.”5
“The lake of fire and brimstone signifies a fire burning with brimstone. The word ‘brimstone,’ or sulfur, defines the character of the fire. The word ‘therion’ (Greek), translated brimstone is exactly the same word ‘therion’ which means divine. Sulfur, or brimstone, was sacred to the deity among the ancient Greeks and was used to fumigate, to purify, and to cleanse and to consecrate to the deity: for this purpose they burned it in their incense...The verb derived from ‘theion’ is ‘theioo,’ which means to hallow, to make divine, or to dedicate to a god.”6
“To any Greek, or to any trained in the Greek language, a ‘lake of fire and brimstone’ would mean a ‘lake of divine purification.’ Divine Purification and Divine Consecration are the plain meaning in ancient Greek. In the ordinary explanation, this fundamental meaning of the word is entirely left out., and nothing but ‘eternal torment’ is associated with it.”7
(tartaroo / tartarus)
Tartarus, also translated hell, occurs only once in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:4). “This verse shows that Tartarus is a reserved place of confinement especially for the fallen angels and is temporary, holding them until after judgment. It says not a word about torment and suggests nothing that we usually associate with hell.”8
However, the apocryphal Book of Enoch seems to describe, though not by name, a place of fiery punishment for fallen angels. The punishment is said to last for 10,000 years for some angels and eternity for others.9 The Book of Enoch comes from many writers of different periods with a Babylonian influence and advances conflicting views on Sheol.10
Of all the words translated as ‘hell’ in the Bible, Gehenna comes the closest to today’s attributes of continuous fire and torment.
“Hell is used more properly as the translation of Gehenna, as the place or state of the just retribution for the finally impenitent. The term Gehenna is the Hebrew for the “valley of Hinnom,” south of Jerusalem where the unusable refuse of the city was burned. Here also was the scene of gross and cruel rites of heathenism, including the burning of children to Molech.”11
Gehenna derives its name from the infamous valley of Ben Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, in which a pagan cult of child sacrifice was conducted during the time of the Biblical monarchy.” 12
Gehenna appears eight times in the New Testament, translated as hell. In Matthew, it is “literally a reference to the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where rubbish, offal, and carcasses were burned, and thus a graphic metaphor for the place of eternal torment.”13
The valley of Hinnom as the fire burning outside Jerusalem is corroborated by Jeremiah 7:30-32.
“In the first three Gospels, the word Gehenna is often used in the original Greek and there is nothing in its usage to distinguish its meaning from its Judaistic heritage...The general statement still holds good that [Christ] took over the contemporary pattern of thought about hell, and, neither denying it nor seeming interested primarily in teaching it, he rather used it as a basis for redefining the qualities of character that are eternally disapproved by God.”14
Gehenna, then is not a place where unrepentant souls go after death, but a literal, physical place in ancient Jerusalem where garbage was burned.
The Septuagint, which is an older version of the Old Testament than the King James translators worked with, was the scripture used by Christ. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew texts that was completed some time before Christ was even born. The word ‘hell’ does not appear anywhere in the Septuagint’s English translation, which renders sheol/Hades as: mansion of the dead, death, Hades, Lowest pit and womb of Hades.15 When Hades is used in the Septuagint, the context is that of the unseen, or unknown aspects of the anticipation of death. Unseen and unknown do make up the essence of the word Hades, which also can mean a grave, pit, death, or the uncertainty of death.
In his book Counterfeit Christianity, E. Raymond Capt describes today’s concept of hell: “It is interesting to note that the Book of Acts contains the history of the journeys, labors, and preaching of the apostles for over thirty years. Yet in all that time they did not preach or warn their converts about hell! Nor is the word ‘hell’ found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. He was a preacher of the Gospel for thirty years, and he asserts that he did not fail to declare ‘The whole counsel of God.’ Yet he never, in a single instance, used the word ‘hell.’ It is not found in Romans, or in 1st or 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, in 1st or 2nd Thessalonians, in 1st or 2nd Timothy, Titus, Philemon, or Hebrews. Nor is it found in 1st Peter, or in 1st, 2nd or 3rd John.”16
“The current concept of hell as a place of eternal fire and punishment was brought to the world by Greek and Iranian mythology...Our present hell which has gradually undergone changes in its meaning, is not a proper translation of either the Hebrew or Greek.”17
1. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, ©2002 Oxford University Press, p. 252.
2. Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary, ©1925 John C. Winston Co., p. 247.
3. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ©1980 Moody Bible Institute, Vol. II, p. 892.
4. Encyclopedia of Judaism, ©1989 Jerusalem Publishing House, p. 36.
5. Counterfeit Christianity, E. Raymond Capt., ©2006 Artisan Publishers, p. 32
6. Liddell and Scott Greek English Lexicon 1897 ed., cited by E. R. Capt in Counterfeit Christianity, pp. 7-8.
7. Is Hell Eternal, Charles H. Pridgeon, M.A., quoted by G.R. Hawtin, The Restitution of all Things, ©1944 Artisan Publishers, pp. 26-27
8. Counterfeit Christianity, p. 19
9. Enoch 18:11-16; 21:1-10 cited from The Book of Enoch, R.H. Charles translation.
10. ibid, see pages x - xi.
11. Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary, p. 247
12. Encyclopedia of Judaism, p. 37
13. Wycliffe Bible Commentary, ©1962 Moody Press, p. 938.
14. A Guide to Understanding the Bible, Harry E. Fosdick, ©1938 Harper & Brothers, pp. 282-283.
15. The Septuagint Bible, Charles Thomas Translation, updated by C.A. Muses, Ph.D., ©1954 The Falcon’s Wing Press.
16. Counterfeit Christianity, p. 31
17. ibid, pp. 17-18.