In the Old Testament, there is a vague notion of a shadowy existence in the land of death, but no fire or punishment is involved. The Hebrew word for this state is Sheol, and it simply means ‘death’ or ‘the grave’. For the most part, even evangelical scholars agree that this is so.
The King James Version of the Bible translates the word ‘Sheol’ as ‘hell’. Many recent translations do not use the word ‘hell’ to translate this word. For example, in the 55th Psalm we read,
Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them. (KJV)
In the NIV,
Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the realm of the dead, for evil finds lodging among them.
From Isaiah, chapter 5,
Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it. (KJV)
In the NIV,
Therefore Death expands its jaws, opening wide its mouth; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers.
There are about 30 such references to Sheol in the Old Testament. None of them indicate a place of eternal punishment but rather the domain of death and the grave. The NIV does not translate any of them with the word ‘hell’; neither does the New American Standard Bible. Even if we do read such references as ‘hell’, there is nothing from these Old Testament passages to suggest the concept we have of hell today.
In Greek translations of Jewish writings, the word ‘Sheol’ is translated as ‘Hades’. Jesus used the word Hades and he used it in the same way—as a reference to the realm of the dead. One example is his statement about the city of Capernaum in Matthew 11:23,
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.
Luke 10:15 has a parallel passage. In both passages, where the NIV reads ‘Hades’, the King James reads ‘hell’. The same is true of Matthew 16:18, where Jesus says to Peter,
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
The King James translates Hades as hell, but it still refers only to the realm of the dead.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
Luke, chapter 16 reports the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. At one point, Jesus is reported saying,
In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
Here again, Hades is simply the abode of the dead. However, Jesus supplies a lot of detail to this parable; the rich man was said to be in torment and he begged Abraham to allow Lazarus to bring him a mere drop of water on his finger to cool his tongue because he was in agony in the fire.
Even most evangelicals agree that this is just a parable to make a point and gives us no information about the afterlife, but some insist that the description of the state of the rich man in Hades is accurate because Luke does not SAY it is a parable—therefore it is a true story.
The concept of Hades in the Old Testament and New Testament is a reference, not to a punishment of fire, but to death and the grave. Next time we will examine another term sometimes translated as hell in the New Testament.