Hell, Sheol, and other Sufferings: A delve into the Context of words of Damnation

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic
In the Bible things like "Hell" and "outer darkness" are strewn throughout but what exactly do they entail? Are they just there to provide a metaphor for death itself, or is it to be taken literally?

Submitted: July 27, 2013

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Submitted: July 27, 2013




Hell, Sheol, and other Sufferings

A delve into the context of words of Damnation

In the Old Testament, the word Hell is always a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol. It occurs a total of sixty-four times, is rendered as Hell thirty-two times, grave twenty-nine times, and pit three times. Through an examination of the Hebrew Scriptures, its radical and primary meaning is found: The place or state of the dead[1]. Passages such as Job 14:13 “,O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!” and Psalms 88:3 "My life draweth nigh to the grave." both give prime examples of the Hebrew usage of the word Sheol, which is the original word for grave or hell in these cited verses[2]. There is no plain reference to a place of endless torment after death. The patriarch would scarcely say “I will go down to an endless hell to my son morning” if he did not believe his son was in any such place. Job would not very likely pray to God to hide him in a place of endless torment, in order to be delivered from his troubles[3].

There is a figurative sense to the word sheol, which is met in higher frequency in the Old Testament. Used in this manner, it represents a state of calamity or degradation that could arise from any cause, whether sin, misfortune, or God’s judgment. This is a natural transition because the state or place of the dead was regarded as gloomy and solemn, thus the word sheol affords an appropriate name to any miserable or morose state or condition. In Psalm 17:4-6 "The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me." hell is presented as a past event and obviously on this side of death, while Isaiah 57:9 "Thou didst debase thyself even unto hell." signifies a state of utter moral degradation and wickedness, since the Jewish nation actually went into a hell of ceaseless woe.[4]

The best example for the absurdity of supposing sheol or hell to mean the place of punishment after death is in Jonah 2:2, "Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardst me.". The hell in this example is clearly the belly of the fish; or rather the wretched suffering condition that the disobedient prophet experienced. David cried out, "The pains of hell got hold on me: I found trouble and sorrow." (Psalms 116:3). Yet David was a living man, all this while, here on the earth. So he exclaims again, "Great is thy mercy towards me. Thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell." (Psalms 86:13). Now here the Psalmist was in the lowest hell, and was delivered from it, while he was yet in the body before death. Of course the hell here cannot be a place of endless punishment after death. These passages sufficiently illustrate the figurative usage of the word sheol, "hell." They show plainly that it was employed by the Jews as a symbol or figure of extreme degradation or suffering, without reference to the cause. And it is to this condition the Psalmist refers when he says, "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God." (Psalms 9:17). It is plain, then, from these passages, that the word sheol, "hell," makes nothing for the doctrine of future unending punishment as a part of the Law penalties. It is never used by Moses or the Prophets in the sense of a place of torment after death; and in no way conflicts with the statement already proved, that the Law of Moses deals wholly in temporal rewards and punishments.[5]

There are three words translated "Hell" in the New Testament, Hades and Tartarus, which are Greek, and Gehenna, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew words Gee and Hinnom, meaning "the valley of Hinnom."[6] The word Hades occurs eleven times, and is rendered "grave" once, and "hell" ten times. Hades thus replaces the grave or state of the grave. "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption." "He spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption." (Acts 2:27, 31). But the soul of Christ was never in hell, at least not as the orthodox location of eternal torment. But the sacred writer himself explains the word, when he says he is speaking of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, or the grave.

There is no necessary connection between death and a place of endless punishment, as all men die, good or bad; but there is a connection between death and the grave. "And death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them." (Revelation 20:13). This is the reverse of what is usually taught and believed of hell; for the leading idea is that it will not give up those who are in it. Thus the writer does not mean a place of endless torment. This is further confirmed by the next verse, where it is said, "death and hell were cast into the lake of fire," which implies destruction. If this is the case then this hell cannot be a place of endless woe, since it is not itself endless. These passages, which are without point or meaning in the common view of hell, are full of significance when we give to hades, or hell, its true sense. For we know that hades will deliver up its dead, and that death and the grave will be destroyed in the resurrection, when death shall be swallowed up in the victory of immortal life. Then with a meaning it will be said, "O grave, where is thy victory?" for then will be fulfilled the saying, "O grave, I will be thy destruction." (Hosea 12:14)[7].

The word Tarterus occurs only once, and then in a participial form, in 2 Peter 2:4. "If God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell”, hell being replaced with Tartarosas. This is of the same character with the parable just considered, Tartarus being the place of torment in Hades[8], where the rich man was supposed to be. It cannot be supposed that the apostle believed in the heathen hell or Tartarus, otherwise his doctrinal ideas concerning the Jewish and Christian hell take a harsh turn into the Greek mythology. It might as well be argued that he believed the angels or messengers were bound in literal "chains of darkness," as that he believed they were literally cast into Tartarus or the heathen hell.[9] Both expressions are figures to represent the desolation or destruction into which they were brought by their disobedience.[10]

The word Gehenna occurs twelve times in the New Testament, and is always translated "hell." But as the Evangelists repeat the same discourses, the Savior did not really use it more than six or seven times in all His ministry. Some examples are Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; Mark 9: 43, 45, 47; and Luke 12:5. By consulting these passages the reader will see how many of them are simply repetitions, and how very few times this word is used, on which, nevertheless, more reliance is placed than on all others, to prove that "hell" is a place of endless torment. Gehenna, being originally a Hebrew word signifying the valley of Hinnom[11], gives allusions of the horrible events surrounding it. It is in the valley that the idolatrous Jews set up their brazen image of Moloch, and it is held that they not only sacrificed doves, and lambs, but their own children as well. In Jeremiah 7:31 this valley is referred to as Tophat, from Toph, a drum; due to the beat of a drum they would play during the cthonic rites, to drown the sound of shrieking infants who were burned. Following the banishment of these rites by Josiah, and the Jews repentance toward God, the Jews held the place in such abomination that it was only used to store filth, the carcasses of beasts, and the unburied bodies of executed criminals. Only through continual fires was the air disinfected from putrefaction, so it is not that hard to see why the idea of a fire and infamous death would come from this valley and be compared to the punishment of hell.[12]

In Jeremiah 19, it seems to be used as a comparative symbol of the desolation of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans. The Lord says to the prophet, "Go forth into the valley of the Son of Hinnom; and proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee...I will even make this city as Tophet; and the houses of Jerusalem and the kings of Judah shall be defiled as the place of Tophet,". Here Tophet, or Gehenna, is employed in the way of comparison to set forth the utter overthrow of Jerusalem; Isaiah 66:23-24 says, "They shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." Here the unquenchable fire and the undying worm of Gehenna, or hell, are used as figures of judgment to happen on the earth, where there are carcasses, new moons, sabbaths. Gehenna, with its accompaniments, was an object of utmost loathing to the Jew, and came to be employed as a symbol of any great judgment or woe. The Jews described a great desolation by a like use of the word Gehenna - "It was a Gehenna judgment;" that is, a very terrible and destructive judgment.[13]

In Matthew 5:29-30, there is mention of the "whole body cast into hell." No one supposes the body is literally cast into a hell in the future state. The severity of the judgments falling on those who would not give up their sins, is represented by Gehenna. These wicked people should perish in a manner as infamous as that of criminals, whose bodies, after execution, were cast into Gehenna, and burned with the bodies of beasts and the offal of the city. The same thought is expressed in Matthew 22:33, where "the damnation of hell" is a symbol of the tremendous judgments coming upon that guilty nation, when inquisition would be made for "all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, slain between the temple and the altar."[14] Mark 9:33, 45, 47, are repetitions of Matthew 5:29-30, with the addition of "the undying worm and the unquenchable fire," which is a repetition of Isaiah 66:24.[15] There is nothing in the passage to show that the Savior used these phrases in any sense different from that of the prophet; who, as we have seen, employs them to represent judgments on the earth, where, "they shall go forth to look on the carcasses of the men who have transgressed against me...for they shall bury in Tophet till there is no place;...and the days shall come that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter." (Jeremiah 7:19; Isaiah 66:24).

But the Savior is not to be understood as teaching that God will annihilate soul and body simply because He said He was able to. Moreover, in Matthew 2:9-10 He tells them not to fear, because God watched over them, numbering the hairs of their head even, in His special keeping of them, and would surely protect them so long as they were faithful to Him and His truth.

The method of argument seems to be the same as that pursued with the Pharisees, when they complained of His keeping company with publicans and sinners. "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Matthew 9:13) He did not allow that they were in fact righteous. He only admitted their premises for the time, in order to show the absurdity of their reasoning.[16]

So if you are moved by the selfish consideration of fear to abandon the Gospel in order to save your lives, then, to be consistent, you ought to fear the power which can do you most injury. And this surely is God, who can bring destruction and death, not only on the body, but on the soul also, and that amid the most terrible of judgments. To picture the dreadfulness of this destruction more vividly to their minds, He uses the well-known symbol of Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, the synonym of all that was horrible in the mind of a Jew. Then, in the next words, He proceeds to tell them that really they had no cause to fear either God or men. So long as they did their duty, God, who provided for the sparrow (29), and numbered the hairs of their heads, in the watchfulness of His love (30), would surely protect them. And, then, as if to convince them that what He had said was only a supposition, and not a fact, He says: "fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows." (31)[17].

Gehenna seems to also be employed as a figure or symbol of moral corruption. James says of the tongue, "It defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of Gehenna". (James 3:6). Here Gehenna, that place of filth and corruption and perpetual fires, is made a fitting emblem of the foul passions and corrupt appetites, set on fire by a foul and seductive tongue, which inflames in turn, to the defilement of the whole body. So, in Matthew 23:15, 27, Gehenna, "full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness, “is a fearful symbol of the moral foulness of the "Scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites," whom the Savior was addressing. "Two-fold more the child of hell," signifying that they made their converts two-fold more corrupt than themselves.[18] The word Gehenna, or hell, then, in the New Testament is used as a symbol of anything that was foul and repulsive; but especially as a figure of dreadful and destructive judgments. They are the more important because this word is specially relied upon as teaching the doctrine of endless torments, the doctrine of hell, as popularly believed. Whatever other forms of speech may be employed to express the thought; this is surely one of the terms clearly declarative of future endless punishment.[19]


Works Cited


Greene, Oliver B. Hell. Greenville: Gospel Hour, 1969. Print.

Packer, J. I., Merrill C. Tenney, and William White. Nelson's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1995. Print.

Peterson, Robert A. Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 1995. Print.

Shedd, William G. T. The Doctrine of Endless Punishment. Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian, 1980. Print.

Van, Scott Miriam. Encyclopedia of Hell. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. Print.

[1] Hell pg. 20-21

[2] Nelson’s illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts pg. 717 “Hell”

[3] Hell on Trial pg.21-23

[4] Hell pg. 21-26

[5] The Doctrine of Endless Punishment pg. 20-39

[6] Nelson’s illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts pg. 717 “Hell”

[7] Hell on Trial pg.39-56

[8] Nelson’s illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts pg. 717 “Hell”

[9] Encyclopedia of Hell pg. 272-273 “Tatrarus”

[10] The Doctrine of Endless Punishment pg. 42-43

[11] Nelson’s illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts pg. 717 “Hell”

[12] Encyclopedia of Hell pg. 132-133 “Gehenna”

[13] Encyclopedia of Hell pg. 132-133 “Gehenna”

[14] The Doctrine of Endless Punishment pg. 42-47

[15] Hell pg. 25-29

[16] Hell pg. 50-59

[17] Hell on Trial pg. 42-56

[18] Hell pg. 50-52

[19] Encyclopedia of Hell pg. 132-133 “Gehenna”


© Copyright 2020 Allan Reinhard. All rights reserved.

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