The Spirit World: Chapter Eight (Hell)

This entry is part 10 of 23 in the series The Spirit World


(This is a continuation of The Spirit World book series. This post assumes the prerequisite reading of earlier posts in the series.)

Of all abodes of the dead, perhaps none bring the immediate sense of recognition as does the term, “Hell.”  Hell is an English word from the Saxon “helan,” which means “to cover” or “to hide”.  There is no single underlying Hebrew or Greek term which can be traced biblically to coincide with the use of “Hell” in varying translations.  To that end, Hell must be treated first by its English understanding and then applied to those Hebrew and Greek terms which represent that definition in scripture.

The Norse Goddess “Hel” was the goddess of the dead in mythology, and is likely a contributor to the use of this term to represent an afterlife abode of the spiritual dead.  Hell was adopted originally into English as a generalization for the place of the dead, and would have been a good term to use for the locations of Sheol/Hades for that reason.  Simply put, “Hell” was understood originally as “the unseen place” of the dead, rather than the permanent place of the destruction of the wicked.  However, this original characterization is not what English speakers today understand when they hear and use the term.  A modern English dictionary defines Hell as “the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death; the abode of evil and condemned spirits.”[1] This makes the use of the term “Hell” today necessarily more specific in nature than its formerly understood meaning.  As such, Hell and Hades are not synonymous, as has previously been asserted.

Language evolves within cultures.  The issue with the use of “Hell” today is that its English meaning has gradually transformed, indicating to most not a generalized “place of the dead,” but rather a localized “place of the unrighteous dead.”  More specifically, when one speaks of Hell today, the immediate idea produced from that term is an image of eternal raging fire and punishment, which is inconsistent with scriptural descriptions of Sheol/Hades, which were places of both punishment and peace.  While Hades is now emptied of the righteous dead, still the term Hell is probably not the best term to use to reference that location.  While the unrighteous in Hades do experience agony and punishment in flames, it is evident in scripture that the lake of fire is the permanent abode of the unrighteous dead.  And it is this place most English speakers think of when they hear and use the term “Hell.”

Hell, in its modern definitions, also is understood as an eternal place rather than a temporary one.  As has been observed, Hades is temporary in nature, as it will be cast into the lake of fire at the end of history where it will endure for eternity.  Thus, the eternal burning lake of fire is the best biblical abode of the unrighteous dead to attribute this term to in modern English.

Yet, because language does evolve, many older translations will use the term “Hell” in places where it is not the best term for a modern reader to consider.  The use of Hell as the translational equivalent of Hades, for example, has led to all sorts of misinterpretations in scripture.

Examples of misleading interpretations concerning “Hell”

Today there is a movement which teaches a false doctrine based on the misrepresentation of the term “Hell.”  For example, in the King James Version, Psalm 16:10 reads,

Psalms 16:10 (KJV)
10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (Sheol) [NIV States “abandon me to the grave”]; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

This text is quoted by Peter in Acts 13 as a Messianic prophecy.  If “Hell” is the place of the punishment of the wicked, then Jesus could be understood to have gone to the lake of fire rather than to Sheol/Hades.  This is one of several texts by which numerous false teachers are redefining soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) by their misinterpretations.  These teachers teach that Christ went to Hell to suffer for the sins of man.  In their teachings, they speak of Jesus suffering the torment of the lake of fire, being emaciated in the fires of Hell and even being subjected to demonic torment, a doctrine which scripture never teaches even about the lake of fire.  Psalms 16 certainly teaches nothing of the sort.

Jesus did not go to Hell, but to Hades, the place of the dead; both righteous and unrighteous.  And Jesus did not suffer in Hades, and certainly did not do so at the hand of Satan, who is not currently in Hades nor Hell.  The future destiny of the demonic realm is certainly the lake of fire, but Satan and his angels currently exists in and about the earth, as scripture clearly teaches.[2]  Jesus went instead to Hades, after which the righteous portion of Hades was closed for business.  Jesus released the righteous spirits from that location, prompting his assertion in Revelation 1,

Revelation 1:18 (NIV)
18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

The keys Jesus speaks of are not the keys of death and Hell, but those of death and Hades.  The lake of fire (as will be demonstrated in the next chapter) is eternal, and needs no keys.  Hades, however, was a place of the temporary holding of the righteous saints of God, along with the unrighteous.  Hades was intended to be “unlocked” for the righteous, that they may ascend to Heaven after their salvation had been secured.  Jesus emptied Hades of the righteous, fulfilling the scriptural promise to the righteous that they would be redeemed from their containment there.  Yet, if one chooses to unconditionally use an old translation with outdated English understandings of such terms and applying the same terms to a modern audience, one can only expect to get incorrect results.  Hell simply does not refer to “the hidden place,” or “the place of the dead” to a modern language repertoire. 

As a side note, Word of Faith teachers which propagate such fallacy are intelligent men.  They are fraudulent and apostate theologians, but are sufficiently able to determine the true meaning of such texts from scripture.  Many of them know the Hebrew and Greek languages well.  In the least they all have access to language tools which can assist them in rightly teaching scripture.  Rightly teaching scripture is what sincere preachers do.  There is no excuse for anyone who calls themselves a preacher of God’s word (let alone a “prophet” or “apostle” as many of these teachers call themselves) to misunderstand such simple translational nuances.  They are, or should be, fully aware of the almost 500 year old English which the KJV was translated into.  They should be fully capable of understanding theology even within the constraints of a KJV only usage.  Yet, it is clear to this author that they intentionally use a KJV rendering of such texts because it fits their own purposes to distort God’s word for their own agendas.  They use “Hell” in such texts precisely because their audiences will understand their false doctrines better with such usage; by thinking it was indeed the lake of fire which Jesus descended to after his death. 

While the ungodly doctrines of these teachers is the source of another book,[3] it can clearly be seen that problems can arise from one’s misunderstanding of even an English term in scripture.  May this study compel the biblical student to take the necessary time to look into the original languages when the term “Hell” appears in one’s translation.  It is each person’s responsibility to interpret scripture accurately.  Hell is not synonymous with Hades, and Jesus did not go there upon his death.

Another text which is translated “Hell” from Sheol in the KJV is Jonah 2:2.

Jonah 2:2 (KJV)
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.

The lack of interpretational responsibility could lead the student of this text to believe that Jonah was enduring eternal punishment when he cried out to the Lord, which is not what is being depicted.  He was in the belly of Sheol, the place of the dead, to be certain, but this statement offers no inference about Jonah’s eternal position as being of the judgments of Abbadon or of Hell.  To be saved out of the belly of Sheol does not necessitate Jonah to have been relegated to Abaddon, but to Sheol generally.  Thus, the term Hell, while it may have been better understood in 1611 when the KJV was first published, is not the clearest term for a modern reader to ponder in conjunction with Jonah’s situation.

Yet another frequently misunderstood text because of an older usage of the term Hell is found in Matthew 16.  In this text, Jesus makes a statement to Peter which has a completely different meaning if one misunderstands the use of the term Hades.

Matthew 16:18 (KJV)
18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell (Hades) shall not prevail against it.

This is a highly quoted verse, yet misunderstood by many.  A proper understanding of “Hades” brings an entirely different exegesis to this text.  Some understand that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” is a sign that Satan’s kingdom shall not prevail against the church.  While this is a true sentiment, it is not what is being taught in this text.  Satan’s kingdom is not synonymous with Hell – be that Abbadon or the lake of fire.  Hell, by any common definition, is GOD’S place of judgment.  Some think of Hell as Satan’s front office, however this approach completely miscomprehends scripture.  Hell belongs to the Lord, not Satan.  It is in fact a place of judgment which God created “for Satan and his angels” to be punished in.

Matthew 25:41 (NIV)
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

The NIV translation of this same text rightly states that the “gates of Hades” shall not prevail against the church.  This yields an entirely different, yet proper exegesis.  Hades is the place of the dead.  Thus, the gates to “place of the dead” shall not prevail against the church.  As Jesus was just noted as saying,

Revelation 1:18 (NIV)
18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

The keys of “death and Hades” refer to the physical and spiritual deaths.  Death is the state of the physical body while Hades is the abode of the spiritual dead.  Jesus statement to Peter “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” his church is noting that the church will never be abandoned to Hades, just as the Old Testament promised, for Jesus will conquer it and empty the prisoners from that location.

To be fair, the NIV misappropriates the modern understanding of  the term “Hell” at times as well.  As was examined in earlier chapters, the NIV uses the term “Hell” for “Hades” in Luke 16, concerning the location of the story of Lazarus and the rich man.  Verse 23 renders,

Luke 16:23 (NIV)
23 In hell (Hades), where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.

As has been well established by now, Luke 16 speaks of the container where both Lazarus and the rich man dwelt.  It speaks of Hades, the place of the righteous and unrighteous dead (at least prior to Jesus’ resurrection). 

Another location where the NIV uses the term Hell in a less than perfect manner is found in 2 Peter 2.  That text states,

2 Peter 2:4 (NIV)
4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell (Tartarus), putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment;

In this text, angels are being referred to as having been sent to Tartarus at some previous time.  While Tartarus will be dealt with in chapter thirteen, it is sufficient at this time to simply acknowledge that Tartarus is not the same as the lake of fire.  It is not “Hell” as the modern reader understands it, but another location altogether which is temporary in nature.  Indeed, as has been established, the lake of fire does not yet contain man nor angel.  It is reserved for them, but will not be initiated as the place of eternal punishment until later in history, which this work will examine in due course.

In conclusion, it should be understood that the purpose of this work is not to discredit any translations of scripture, be they modern or old.  The purpose of this work is to prepare the biblical student to rightly interpret scripture by understanding the nature of these underlying terms which describe the spiritual places noted in scripture’s original languages.  To that end, may the reader be advised to always seek to know the underlying Hebrew or Greek term when encountering the term “Hell” in scripture.  In this way, misinterpretation can be avoided and good doctrine can be properly arrived at.

Lastly, one should also wonder when the modern understanding of the term “Hell” is the proper understanding.  As this work continues, these terms will arise.  The next chapter will deal with the lake of fire, which is the essence of the modern English understanding of what Hell is.  Any term which is synonymous with the lake of fire is synonymous with the modern definition of “Hell.”  These names will be demonstrated as this work continues.

[1] hell. (n.d.). Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved April 14, 2009, from website:

[2] Job 1:7; 2:2, Matthew 4:10, John 13:27

[3] The author is preparing a book to be entitled Wolves in Wool which will detail the work of numerous false teachers.

image The Spirit World series will continue weekly until the entire book is published online. If, however, you enjoy this series and do not wish to wait, you can purchase the paperback version of The Spirit World here.

Series Navigation<< The Spirit World: Ch. 7 (The Migration of Paradise)The Spirit World: Chapter Nine (Lake of Fire) >>

Leave a Reply

Locations of visitors to this page Books