I am not sure I buy the typical Evangelical concept of hell. Let me rephrase that, I know I do not buy the typical evangelical concept of hell. Let me share why I am not buying the company line on this, and that can best be done in two words “Divina Commedia.”
Dante Alighieri wrote his “Divine comedy” (Divina Commedia) sometime between 1308 and his death in 1321. It is set in the year 1300 and involves Dante and his guide Virgil through the inferno of hell. In this poem, Dante shares three levels of hell – the Inferno, Purgatory and Limbo. It is in this writing that we get most of understanding of the theology that is central to the Evangelical understanding of hell. What does the Bible say about hell?
Putting Dante aside, let us look at what Scripture has to share about the concept of hell. In scripture there are several words that have been translated as “hell” over the centuries.
Sheol: In the Hebrew Scriptures this word appears 65 times. In the KJV, it is translated as “Hell” 31 times, “the grave” 31 times and as “the pit” 3 times. In modern translations it is simply left as “Sheol.” Sheol does not have the same meaning as the hell defined by Christian theology. In Judaism Sheol was a “holding ground” for people who died to work out their sins. It was a place where the soul would go and be “unseen by God.” A soul could stay in Sheol for up to 12 months. After that time a soul would either enter “Olam Habah” or “the world to come.” Hell was not a “forever place” where there would be pain, fire and brimstone.
Gehenna: This word is translated as either hell or hell fire. We must remember that it is an actual place just outside Jerusalem known as the Valley of Hinnom. It is said to be a place where the garbage of the city was burnt. Tradition has it as a place where there was fire all the time. One could see how this place could be seen as a metaphor for hell, but we also need to keep in mind that the KJV was written well after Dante’s poem.
Tartarus: This word appears only once, in II Peter 2:4, and is translated as being “casted down into hell.” But modern translations simply translate the word as “Tartarus.” Tartarus is from classical mythology and is place that can be seen as the deepest abyss. According to Plato it is a place where the dead go after judgment. If any word could be seen as the classical idea of hell, this could be such a word.
Hades: A Greek word that can be seen more like the Hebrew word Sheol, and not “hell.” Around 1200AD the word Hades was translated as “Purgatorium” (Purgatory). The idea was not centered on the idea of eternal punishment. In many of the translations Hades is translated as “to the grave” or “place of the dead” or “among the dead.” In the KJV it is translated 10 times as hell, and once as grave.
I have always been suspicious about translations that translate the same word in different ways. Think of it this way, in Greek the word “Poterion” means “cup.” If, we were to translate poterion as glass in one scripture, barrel in another, pool in another, and plastic bag in another would we be true to the scripture? After all, they all hold liquids. Why not use them interchangeably? Would we be true to the meaning of the word? Would we be true to the ideas the writer wished to convey? Would our doing so affect the meaning of what we read? For example:
Revelation 6:8 – [KJV] “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Could not that same scripture be written as, “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and the grave followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”
In our culture the idea of hell does not frighten many people. But in a culture filled with Face Book profiles, My Space communities and You Tube people want to be seen. The idea of being so separated by God that we are “unseen” by God would carries a deeper meaning to many.