Is “Hell” a Translation Error?

Hell: the wicked dead go there to roast forever, tormented by horned bipeds with forked tails and armed with pitchforks. Unbelievers go there too. So do those who fail to show up for church regularly or say their evening prayers. At least, I thought these things when I was little. I was duly intimidated; these thoughts made me a better person for a while. As a tool for making small children behave, this image of Hell can be quite effective. It also worked on superstitious heathens, people long used to dealing with capricious and malevolent gods.

But does it work on adults today? In this age of peace, abundance and higher education, this vision of the damned reads like an archaic fairy tale. The sheer monstrousness of it defies belief. It contradicts the concept of a just and loving God. And so, the educated masses fall away from Belief by the million. The wealthy nations of the West drift towards a new Post-Christian Era. This vision of Hell no longer works.

More importantly, is the traditional picture of Hell true? Quick answer: no, I have already disproven the simple two-option afterlife model of blissful Heaven and fiery Hell. Jesus described at least least three levels of punishment for the wicked. Furthermore, unbelievers will be judged more lightly than Believers for the same sins. So the simple traditional vision of Hell is out. Perhaps Dante was closer to the truth, with Purgatory and his multi-leveled Hell.

Problem is, Dante’s vision is nowhere found in the Bible. The word Purgatory appears in the Bible zero times. Come to think of it, those horned beings with pitchforks are noticeably absent as well. The Bible does describe the Devil, but not as an ugly red manlike creature with cloven horns. Satan is a much more beautiful being, whose image is celebrated by millions to this day!

The popular vision of Hell is a mix of mistranslation, pagan influence, and intentional myth designed to intimidate the masses. The picture in the Bible is more complex, and closer to common sense notions of justice. Over the course of this chapter we will look at the four words which get translated as “hell” in the King James Bible. We’ll expose some dishonest slight of hand used by the translators to make the Old Testament account match the later vision. We’ll look at many passages which belie the idea that the wicked go straight to Hell and punishment after death, while earnest Believers go straight to the pearly gates above. Indeed, we’ll start with the many passages which state that the dead go nowhere supernatural at all! The Bible says the dead “sleep.”

The Dead Sleep

1 Kings 2:

10. So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.

1 Kings 11:

43. And Solomon slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David his father: and Rehoboam his son reigned in his stead.

Psalms 13:

3. Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;

According to the Old Testament, David did not go to Heaven. David went to sleep. (Or perhaps the verb means more broadly to lay down.) If David, the apple of God’s eye, did not go to heaven, who did? Not the kings of Israel and Judah. Solomon, Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Abijam, Asa, Baasha, Omri, Ahab, Jehoshaphat, Joram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Joash, Jehoash, Azariah, Menahem, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Jehoiakim all went to sleep. See Appendix E for a list of Biblical quotations treating death as sleep.

1 Samuel 28:

13. And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.

14. And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself.

15. And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.

The dead sleep (or lay down) in the ground. Even prophets sleep in the ground. Consider the story of Saul and the witch of Endor. Near the end of his reign, Saul in desperation asked a medium to conjure up the ghost of the prophet Samuel. She did so, and Samuel’s ghost arose out of the ground to curse Saul. Samuel’s spirit did not come down from Heaven. So, was the prophet Samuel in Hell? Or was he merely sleeping underground?

Some may argue that Samuel didn’t actually arise from the ground. Instead, the witch was a mere illusionist who led Saul to merely believe that he was talking to the ghost of Samuel. If so, so what? Saul expected Samuel to rise from the ground. Saul expected a prophet of the Most High to rise from the ground, not come down from Heaven. From this we get a glimpse of Israelite afterlife beliefs of the day, and they did not include going to Heaven.

Then again, perhaps the dead slept then, but today – after the Crucifixion – the dead are now judged, and thus dwell in Heaven or Hell, according to their works/beliefs. I think I was taught this at some point, way back when I was an Episcopalian. I’m not sure; the memory is dim. The idea has some scriptural basis: Jesus became judge of the quick and the dead after being crucified. And we have this mysterious passage:

Matthew 27:

50. Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.

51. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;

52. And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,

53. And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Some saints did wake up upon Jesus’ crucifixion. But did all saints? And did subsequent saints go up to heaven upon dying? In several places the Bible says “No.”

Acts 7:

59. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

60. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 13:

36. For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption:

1 Corinthians 11:

28. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.

29. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.

30. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.

2 Peter 3:

3. Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts,

4. And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.

We have multiple New Testament references to the dead still sleeping – after the Crucifixion had already taken place. In Acts 13, Paul mentions David sleeping and rotting, but does not mention David waking up. The dead still sleep.

Or do they?

Sheol: Grave or Cave?

Psalms 6:

4. Return, O Lord, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies' sake.

5. For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave [Sheol] who shall give thee thanks?

Psalms 9:

17. The wicked shall be turned into hell [return to Sheol], and all the nations that forget God.

Ecclesiastes 9:

9. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

10. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave [Sheol], whither thou goest.

11. I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The Hebrew word “Sheol” confuses many. Sheol is where the dead go, or at least went, according to the Old Testament. But the precise nature of Sheol is forgotten. Is it the grave, where dead bodies rot? Or is it a cave, an underworld where shades of the dead dwell (dwelt)? The King James Bible translates it two different ways: “the grave” or “hell,” depending on who went there! In other words, translators decided who went to “hell” in the Old Testament!

The New American Standard Bible leaves the word Sheol untranslated, and defines it as “nether world” in the marginal notes. This works better, but we still need to be careful with the precise meaning of “nether world” as we’ll see below.

During the centuries subsequent to Alexander the Great, Jewish scholars translated the Old Testament and Apocryphal books into Greek, a translation knows as the Septuagint. In this translation, the Hebrew word “Sheol” was translated as the Greek “Hades.” This translation indicates that “hell” might be a better translation than “the grave,” but if so, hell is not the lake of fire described in Revelation.

Hades was the god of the underworld in Greek mythology. The word Hades came to mean the underworld itself over time, Hades’ realm, as it were. See Wikipedia entry on Hades. Hades was an underworld to which all mortals went, not just the damned. It was often described as gloomy, but not fiery. In some accounts, the Greek underworld had different regions, with differing comfort levels. Tartarus was either the lowest level of Hades, or the region below. Tartarus was where the gods imprisoned most of the titans. It was also a region of torment for those who angered the gods (Tantalus, Sisyphus, etc.). Tartarus better corresponds to popular Christian notions of hell, but Tartarus (actually tartaroo) appears in the Bible only once [2 Peter 2:4] and refers to an abyss in which to chain fallen angels.

But did the ancient Jews believe in a similar underworld where all spirits go, or was “Hades” simply the word closest in meaning to the Hebrew “Sheol?” Some uses of “Sheol” do appear to match the Greek idea of a gloomy cave of spirits:

Isaiah 38:

9. The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness:

10. I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave [Sheol]: I am deprived of the residue of my years.

11. I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world.

Ezekiel 32:

18. Son of man, wail for the multitude of Egypt, and cast them down, even her, and the daughters of the famous nations, unto the nether parts of the earth, with them that go down into the pit.

19. Whom dost thou pass in beauty? go down, and be thou laid with the uncircumcised.

20. They shall fall in the midst of them that are slain by the sword: she is delivered to the sword: draw her and all her multitudes.

21. The strong among the mighty shall speak to him out of the midst of hell [Sheol] with them that help him: they are gone down, they lie uncircumcised, slain by the sword.

22. Asshur is there and all her company: his graves are about him: all of them slain, fallen by the sword:

But in other contexts, “Sheol” does seem to truly mean “grave:”

Job 17:

11. My days are past, my purposes are broken off, even the thoughts of my heart.

12. They change the night into day: the light is short because of darkness.

13. If I wait, the grave [Sheol] is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness.

14. I have said to corruption, Thou art my father: to the worm, Thou art my mother, and my sister.

Job 24:

19. Drought and heat consume the snow waters: so doth the grave [Sheol] those which have sinned.

20. The womb shall forget him; the worm shall feed sweetly on him; he shall be no more remembered; and wickedness shall be broken as a tree.

The references to worms describe rotting within the grave. Had the Greek word for the underworld come to mean “grave” by the Hellenistic era? Is “grave” the proper translation? I don’t speak Greek so I cannot say. I can only work with context and what I know of Greek mythology. Grave does work in context for many passages as a translation for “Sheol,” but not for all instances. Consider these:

Deuteronomy 32:

21. They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.

22. For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell [Sheol], and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23. I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them.

Amos 9:

1. I saw the Lord standing upon the altar: and he said, Smite the lintel of the door, that the posts may shake: and cut them in the head, all of them; and I will slay the last of them with the sword: he that fleeth of them shall not flee away, and he that escapeth of them shall not be delivered.

2. Though they dig into hell [Sheol], thence shall mine hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down:

3. And though they hide themselves in the top of Carmel, I will search and take them out thence; and though they be hid from my sight in the bottom of the sea, thence will I command the serpent, and he shall bite them:

4. And though they go into captivity before their enemies, thence will I command the sword, and it shall slay them: and I will set mine eyes upon them for evil, and not for good.

“Grave” works poorly as a translation of “Sheol” for the above passages. “Sheol” as underworld works much better. But if the Jews believed that spirits dwelt in some underworld cave, how could they also believe that the dead sleep? And how do we account for the worm passages above?

One way out of this dilemma is to recognize that an underworld need not be supernatural. Consider the English word “heaven.” Since this word has become a bit archaic, we usually limit it to a religious context. So “heaven” usually refers to a supernatural realm above. But “heaven” can also mean “sky,” or even outer space. Suppose “Sheol” means the inverse of heaven; that is, “Sheol” simply means the realm below the earth’s surface. Rotting bodies in graves would be part of this realm, as would deeper regions. Such a word could be translated as “Hades” without implying a Greek-like view of the afterlife. It would also fit the Amos quote above as well as this passage from Jonah:

Jonah 2:

1. Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly,

2. And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell [Sheol] cried I, and thou heardest my voice.

In Appendix C, I gathered all the quotes I could find with the word “Sheol” in them when searching through the New American Standard Bible. I then copied these passages from the King James Version and inserted the word “Sheol” in brackets where it occurs in the New American Standard translation. Please read through them yourself and make up your own mind as to which meaning makes the most sense in context.

The non-supernatural underworld interpretation makes sense to me when I read these passages. Combine these passages with the Biblical sleep quotes found in Appendix E and the case seems almost certain. However, a few passages from the New Testament make me wonder still…

Hell in the New Testament

Matthew 5:

29. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna].

30. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna].

Matthew 11:

22. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.

23. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell [Hades] : for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

Acts 2:

29. Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.

30. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne;

31. He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell [Hades], neither his flesh did see corruption.

32. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses.

Three different words get translated as “hell” in the New Testament:

  1. Hades. This the Greek word for an underworld where all go after death in Greek mythology. This word is probably meant to be a translation of the Hebrew “Sheol.”
  2. Gehenna. This was a burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. Animal corpses were burnt there along with other garbage at the time Jesus preached.
  3. Tartaroo. This is a variation of Tartarus, the underside of Hades where many titans are imprisoned, and bad people tormented in Greek mythology. This word appears only once, and refers to casting down fallen angels.

These words have different meanings, and thus most likely refer to different places. Translating them all as “hell” throws out information. It is outright deceptive. Saint and sinner alike go to Sheol in the Old Testament (see the Ecclesiastes quote in the previous section). If “Hades” in the New Testament refers to the same place, then it is quite improper to translate both “Hades” as “hell” unless we seriously reinterpret the meaning of “hell.”

Revelation 20:

13. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Hades] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

14. And death and hell [Hades] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

15. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

Gehenna, on the other hand, is much like the popular Christian vision of hell. There, the damned are described clearly as burning. Whether the damned burn eternally, or burn up is a very interesting question. An old-fashioned garbage dump can be on fire perpetually, even though the individual bits of garbage burn up. When Jesus talked of this garbage dump, he was most likely referring to the lake of fire described at the end of Revelations. This lake of fire is to be outside the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven much as the garbage dump Gehenna was outside the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day.

Gehenna is not the same as Hades. Revelation 20 describes Hades itself being thrown into the lake of fire; i.e., Gehenna. This event has yet to occur. Hades is not yet in Gehenna. The wicked dead do not yet burn. At least, not according to the above passages.

Do the Dead Sleep Soundly?

Luke 16:

19. There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:

20. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,

21. And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

22. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;

23. And in hell [Hades] he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

24. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

25. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

26. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

27. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house:

28. For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.

29. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

30. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.

31. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

I would like to say I have it all figured out: hell as commonly stated is a translation error, the dead rest in the ground awaiting resurrection, and so forth. Then I read this disturbing, nay terrifying, parable in Luke 16. Here, Jesus describes an uncharitable rich man going to Hades to be tormented by fire. The rich man has a dialogue with Abraham, and pleads on behalf of his relatives who are still alive. This parable does match the common conception of Hell – while contradicting much of what I previously covered. Several possible resolutions come to mind:

1. This is just a parable. Maybe Jesus was telling a work of pure fiction to make a point. I have heard this explanation used by those who believe in sleep followed by resurrection, but I find this explanation wanting. I struggle imagining Jesus using such a heavily fictionalized view of the Afterlife as the backdrop of a parable. But it is possible, and Jesus may have given more clues to the scenario being metaphorical than were later written.

2. The dead do more than sleep in the ground. Maybe Hades is something like the Roman Catholic Purgatory. Maybe such punishment prior to Judgment Day corresponds to the degrees of punishment I referenced earlier. With this view, the chasm between Abraham and the rich man could be a gap between heaven and the underworld, or it could be a fissure in an underground cave. In the latter case Abraham would be in Hades as well (as per Ecclesiastes), albeit in a more pleasant part of Hades. And whereas the rich man is tormented by flame, he still could speak, and he only asked for a bit of water to drink. Perhaps the flame in Sheol is but a taste of the lake of fire that awaits if the rich man does not repent sufficiently before Judgment Day. See the Further Readings below for essays by others building on this theme.

3. There are errors in recording. News accounts from even the best sources have glitches. Not an explanation to be considered lightly, but do note that the gospels differ on when the Last Supper occurred and on Jesus’ geneology. For starters, this parable is a bit strange in that it has a proper name (Lazarus) in it. To my knowledge, all the other parables have only generic characters (cf. a certain rich man). Furthermore, this story does not make sense. A man tormented by flames would receive no significant relief from a drop of water! The sensation of searing flesh would far outweigh thirst. On the other hand, a man tormented by exile to a hot desert would indeed lust for even a drop of water. Perhaps somewhere along the line “hot desert” or some such got transmuted to “flame” by someone who assumed Jesus was talking about the lake of fire here. Or, conversely, “flame” was an ancient colloquialism for the sensation of being out in the desert.

4. I could be just plain wrong. Never rule out this possibility. Always check my work.

Does any of this Matter?

Suppose I am right and the popular picture of Hell is wrong. Suppose the dead do sleep, and punishment is not until Judgment Day. So what?

That is, from a subjective viewpoint, resurrection is soon – for everyone, even for those born 4000 years ago. If the dead sleep a dreamless sleep, then no subjective time passes between death and resurrection. Judgment Day is indeed “soon” for most. So, in many respects it doesn’t matter much whether the dead are already in heaven or hell, or if the dead await the events in Revelations. But note some differences:

  1. If all sleep, then moderns and ancients will experience reward/punishment at the same time.
  2. If the saints sleep, then there is no use appealing to them. Their stint as priests with Jesus is yet to come.
  3. What if some time lapses between resurrection and Judgment Day? If so, might there be time for nonbelievers to repent? To accept Jesus? How else might we resolve the divergence between most not being called and these scriptures:

1 Timothy 2:

3. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;

4. Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

2 Peter 3:

8. But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

9. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Then again, if nonbelievers will be allowed to repent after resurrecting, what is the point of being a Christian now? As I have already pointed out, being a true Christian involves real work, real sacrifices. To answer this question, we must turn to the issue of rewards. And to get there we must first turn to the subject of the resurrection. Scratch that; we must turn to the subject of resurrections. We have two resurrections to look forward to.

Further Reading

I am by no means the first to question the popular notions of Heaven and Hell. Several denominations teach of afterlife options similar to those described here. Many have posted studies of the subject on the web. Here are a few links to get you started. I do not necessarily endorse these studies. But, then again, I cannot declare my own study to be conclusive.

  1. Salvation for the Dead. A Bible study by a Japanese Christian suggesting that the dead in Hades can repent. Quite interesting, though I have some problems with his reasoning. (His site also has some very interesting speculations about the Lost Tribes of Israel
  2. This web site is a portal to many Biblical studies from the tradition to which I belong. Some of the studies are good. Some are rather far out. Many could use some error bars on their conclusions.
  3. Update (2020) More recently, a reader sent me some extensive email making the case that even the Second Death is temporary. Among his citations is the book Hope for ALL. Ten Reasons God's Love Prevails. You can read the book online for free using this link, or order a physical copy for a reasonable price. I am still mulling the arguments therein, but they are compelling. Highly recommended.

You might also look at some other Bible translations. I used the King James Version instead of the Net Bible for this chapter, because the latter treats the words for “sleep” as euphemisms for death in the main text, and only clarifies this in the commentaries (that come with the E-Sword version). When using other translations make sure to use translations with marginal notes. Try the KJV+ tab on E-Sword. It is the King James Version with Strong’s Numbers by each word so you can look at the corresponding original word to each English word with definitions. If you are really serious, you can get Young's Literial Translation, which preserves the original verb tenses.