Although controversial, I thought we should look at this topic and try to keep an open mind. After all, if it is a true concept then we really need to know about it. If it isn’t true then we certainly want to be sure of that also. So, why is it such a controversial topic? It seems one of the biggest controversies is nomenclature. Remember the Old Testament is predominantly Hebrew and the New Testament Greek. So, if one only looks at these original languages, the word ‘hell’ is not there. The word ‘hell’ came from the translation of these original words into English. In Hebrew the term is Sheol; in Greek it is Hades.
To me, one of the first questions is, if we are to get concerned about the English translation not keeping the original word, why are we not upset that the Greek translation did not do the same? Translators try to find words which people will understand or words that convey the original author’s intent. Hades seemed to be a good analogy of Sheol in a Greek society. They’re not exactly the same but conveyed the concept of an underworld where the dead would reside. Both are spiritual places and are therefore “hidden” from those alive. Some claim that is what the definition of Hades means, i.e., hidden. In that case the word hell may have come from the word ‘hel’ also meaning ‘to hide.’ It is a term sometimes used to describe how potatoes are stored in an underground shed for the winter (to hell potatoes) or to cover a roof (to hell a roof). Hel was also the Norse god of the underworld just as Hades was the Roman god of the underworld. From this perspective, Hades and Hel have more in common than does Sheol and Hades. Yet, we know from New Testament scripture (Ac 2:27 compared to Ps 16:10) Hades was used interchangeably for Sheol.
The second question is, if Sheol and Hades were to be translated as Hell, why were these terms not always translated as Hell? Is there a terminology issue? There are other terms like Gehenna and Tartarus which were also translated as Hell. Why is that? Is that significant? There are also other terms used that seem similar but were not translated as hell, such as Lake of Fire and Abyss. Are they related? Then, there are terms used in place of Sheol and Hades that were not translated as hell, such as depth, grave, pit, and death. Why?
Is there a reason for these seemingly mistranslations? Was this a bias of the translators or were they trying to be helpful? Let’s see if we can tease this out and make some rational sense of it all. These are the questions I would like for us to explore over the next several posts. I hope you join me.
Sheol & Hades