One hears a lot about Hell. It’s on everyone’s lips, used as an expletive. They say “O Hell!”,meaning something has happened to upset their plans. So what is Hell? How do we find out? Does the Bible have the answer, or are we to rely on Milton and Dante? Is Hell a figment of our imagination that has caused most people to laugh at it, but others to be scared to death? Finally, is the subject worth looking at all? Aren’t there better things to investigate?
Hell is a most important subject when properly understood, but over the centuries it has become so covered with traditional barnacles that it has lost its real meaning. In these articles, we plan to scrape off those barnacles and reveal the truth. When that has been accomplished, the raucous laughter of the man in the street should disappear, but those who have been terrified out of their wits by the traditional concept will be able to relax and lose their unfounded fears.
Apart from Greek Mythology, (itself based on the Bible) the Bible is the source of everything to do with Hell, so it is there we must turn. And the first thing to do is to find out what the word means in the original Hebrew and Greek. That will provide us with a platform on which to build a correct evaluation of the whole subject. But before tackling this, we should like to make mention of some grisly matters emanating from Christian pulpits around the world, all of which are based on lurid traditional concepts of Hell. Why ministers of religion take this line is beyond comprehension, but it is commonplace, and needs to be shown up in all its gory horror. Take for example the following letter, written in the 1990s to a Pastor of an evangelical church by a man who was a seeker.
Dear Pastor, I feel the need to write about the sermon you gave on the evening of Sunday 21st of June.
In this sermon, you laid your cards on the table and declared your belief that God tortures all people who are not saved, in hell for ever and ever without mercy. The punishment, as I understood from your words, goes on for ever and ever, and literally takes the form of burning people alive in fires. After this horrendous sermon, you grinned, led us in a chorus of praise to the God who (you believe) does this, and then pronounced “The peace of God which passes all understanding … “. [Thereafter, he wrote some 20 pages of careful analysis to help the Pastor see just how he had misrepresented God’s character]
The Missionary group known as “Gospel for Asia” sent a brochure yesterday, in which it said, “With over 2 billion people ‘unreached’ and over 80,000 people dying every day inAsia without knowing about the love of Jesus Christ, the mission field remains a vast challenge.” One elderly lady was mentioned. “Sangeeta waited 100 years to hear the Gospel message from a team of national missionaries visiting her remote village. She joyfully received Jesus as her Saviour and with tears of joy streaming down her face, she also felt a great sadness. Sangeeta remembered her friends and wished they had heard the Gospel message at least once before they had died; they would not have been lost forever.”
Couple this information with the outlook of the Pastor of our friend’s church mentioned above. We then get the almost universal Christian outlook that these 8 billion Asians will be tortured eternally by the “gracious” God who saved Sangeeta. Gracious God? Can’t the Church wake up to what it is saying? This so-called Gospel is about the worst bit of “good news” that anyone can propagate. One cannot imagine even the worst of human beings imposing such a penalty on people for no crime committed. How can Christians imagine their God to be infinitely worse? Where did this obscene teaching come from?
Theologians are apt to shrug their shoulders and say, “I know how you feel, but sorry, theBible says just that. There’s nothing we can do about it.” Does the Bible say “just that”? Let’s investigate.
First of all, about this word HELL. The Hebrew word that receives this translation is SHEOL. Now whether we are language scholars or not, there is no excuse these days for remaining in ignorance. Even if you cannot lay your hands on a Hebrew Lexicon, there is always Google to fall back on. My new Lexicon (a fat volume by Brown, Driver, and Briggs) has the following to say about SHEOL.
By etymology, A place of enquiry, a hollow place. In usage, 1. The Underworld, 2. The condition where the righteous and the wicked are distinguished.
The “Underworld” is clearly the “place of the dead”, and it would be better for us to adopt the word GRAVEDOM to describe it. In addition, because it is a “place of enquiry”, we learn that a separation is carried out, presumably by angels, making “enquiry” of those who die and enter SHEOL. We learn that there is absolutely no mention of torture, fire, torment, or any such thing, other than separation between the righteous and the wicked. If there is a fire or torment of any sort, it is definitely not contained within the meaning of the word SHEOL. Gravedom is where we shall all go when we die. That is why it is referred to as a “hollow” place, and if one were to personalise it, we should say that ‘he’ had an insatiable appetite.
The English word HELL is defined by Nuttall’s Dictionary as The place of the dead, or of souls after death. They have expressed the exact sense of the Hebrew word SHEOL. Furthermore, the Etymological Dictionary tells us that the English word HELL means a hollow place, a hole, an abyss.
So much for Hebrew. What about the Greek word translated Hell in our English Bibles? It is HADES. Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon has this to say.
The Underworld, the Place of the Dead. Also, Proper Name of the god of the Underworld.
Nothing new here. Same truth as for SHEOL. The exception being the personification, which in fact is hinted at in the OT. It is therefore to be noted in Revelation 6:8 “I looked and behold a green horse, and he who sat on it had the name Death, and Hell following with him.” And in Revelation 20:14 “Death and Hell are thrown into the Lakeof Fire.” Thus THANATOS (Death) and HADES (Hell) are presented as angels of darkness.
It is at this juncture we meet the expression “the Lake of Fire”, and see that it is quite distinct from Hades/Sheol. So this will have to be investigated before completing our study. But for the moment we must be certain that this first lesson has been understood, that Hades/Sheol is just the place of the departed, the region where the souls of the dead are stored, and where the angels “enquire” concerning people’s lives, and sort them out into two groups. Once this has been established, it straight way undermines what most people believe about Hell.
Whence came this teaching? Was it not the Catholic Church that confused Hell with theLake of Fire, and made an intolerable doctrine out of it, whereby the Priests were able to sustain their flocks in a state of dread, and at the same time extract money (indulgences) from them in the hope that they might be saved from the pains of purgatorial punishment? It has been a long time, and the tradition is difficult to erase from the minds of people who never hear the truth expressed. The writings of Milton and Dante have greatly aggravated the situation because of the high esteem in which these authors are held. Other writers, surprisingly, have grasped hold of the concept of “everlasting fire” and seemingly enjoyed the thought, and expressed it in their own lurid, and disgustingly vivid terminology, thus to inject fear and terror in the minds of simple souls who have no means of querying their ghastly imaginative essays.
Please do not think that I am countering Scripture about the severity of God’s judgements. If you stay with me you will see that I am trying to be true to the Bible’s teaching and correcting erroneous traditional concepts that have enveloped the whole Church. It is very important for us to investigate Biblical truths to find out what the original text really said and also to find out how the readers of those times would have understood the language.