There are ideas that many people hold which the Bible appears to support, until we take A Closer Look. This is the first in a series of short articles examining some popular misconceptions about Sacred Scripture. We won’t have space here to do a deep dive; there have been entire books written on each of the subjects I intend to handle. Our point is to give food for thought and perhaps inspire the reader to give greater attention to detail.
A cursory look at the Book of the Revelation, chapters 19 and 20, shows us a vision of the Lake of Fire. Skimming the text, what we read reminds us of the descriptions of Hell we were taught as children in Sunday School. This gives us the comforting idea that the doctrine we were taught is supported by the Bible.
But as we keep reading, we come to verse 20:14, which in the King James Version says, “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.” Wait. What? How is Hell going to be thrown into Hell? Something is wrong with this picture.
When the Scripture does not mesh with Scripture, there are a few possibilities of what might be the problem. Either 1) I don’t understand the words used; 2) there is an error in translation; or 3) there is an error in transmission, as where a scribe making a new manuscript makes a mistake.
In this case, the words translated as “hell” are a bit misleading to modern ears. The Greek word hades is the closest equivalent of the Hebrew word sheol. They both refer to the state of the dead. In Hebrew, sheol is where those who “sleep in the dust” await the resurrection at the end of days, followed by judgment.
In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, hades is used to translate sheol. The Greek notion of hades as the dark and gloomy afterlife in the underworld is the closest the translators could get to the Hebrew concept of sleep pending resurrection. Since the New Testament was written by Jewish believers, it seems most likely that they would intend the Hebraic belief rather than the Greek idea. A better rendering for both hades and sheol for our day might be “gravedom,” or something like that.
The English word hell comes from the German Hölle (all nouns are capitalized in German), which can mean a hole in the ground or a covered place. It also comes into English as “hole.” In the archaic language of the King James Version, “hell” as a translation of sheol and hades meaning the grave was more accurate than it would be in modern usage of the term.
Another word commonly translated hell is ge’enna, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Gehenna, which is the Valley of Hinnom. That valley, just outside Jerusalem, was where the garbage dump was. The fires were never quenched because there was a continual stream of trash to be burnt. Death and “gravedom” will be thrown into the Lake of Fire to be destroyed; this is the “second death.” Gehenna is closer to what we moderns mean by “Hell,” but is not an exact translation. Translating from one language to another is never quite precise; we can only give an approximate interpretation.
Each particular bit of trash that was dumped in the Valley of Hinnom was burned and “destroyed forever.” Once it was burnt up, it never came back. The trash was not kept forever in a constant process of being destroyed; it was simply destroyed. Similarly, whatever and whomever is thrown into the Lake of Fire is destroyed forever, beyond restoration in any future resurrection.
When ancient Israel had strayed into terrible idolatry, it was in the Valley of Hinnom where parents would sacrifice their infant children, making them “pass through the fire to Moloch.” The babies died quickly. They were not kept in a state of perpetual torture forever. This is a reference which would have made sense to Yeshua’s Jewish audience when he warns of the danger of “hellfire.” (Mt 5:22; 18:9)
The Greek concept of an “eternal soul” would be foreign to them. On the contrary, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Eze 18:4, 20) Those whose names are not written in the Book of Life are cast into the Lake of Fire to die the second death (Rev 20:14–15), not to be tortured forever. God is merciful.