Does God really punish people forever for sins committed in a few short years, or was hell an invention over the centuries to scare people into submission and obedience? Fire destroys but God would have to keep humans purposely alive to continue to torturer them. Most humans wouldn’t even persecute their enemies to this extent. Hell as unending suffering is pointless as it doesn’t produce any good. We must reject Hell if it is not true. God’s character is at stake. Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna are the words translated as Hell in the Bible. (Tartarus is used once and not relevant for this discussion) When we understand the biblical use of these three words, we will know what God says about Hell.
The Hebrew word Sheol in the OT is often translated as “Hell.” Sheol was simply a region or place of darkness occupied by the dead regardless of beliefs. Job desired to go there to escape his tremendous suffering (10:21 -22). King David describes Sheol as a place of darkness for those long dead (Ps 143:3). Sheol is never mentioned as a place of punishment. Recent translations simply translate Sheol as “Sheol.” God didn’t warn Adam and Eve about Hell as a consequence for rebellion. Noah failed to warn evildoers about Hell before their death by Flood. The popular understanding of Hell is not found in the OT.
Hades is another word translated as Hell. Hades was used in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the OT, to represent the Hebrew word Sheol. Sheol in the OT never refers to a place where God is involved in torture where the dead go. Hades simply was a place where the dead go. Those who believe in the traditional idea of Hell never argue that Hades represent a fiery, afterlife punishment for those who didn’t believe. Many modern translations no longer translate Hades with the word Hell.
The NT is silent as well about Hell. The word Hell in the NT is translated from two Greek terms – Hades or Gehenna. We have already learned Hades is accepted as a place where the dead reside. Gehenna is found twelve times in the NT. Eleven occurrences are used by Jesus in the gospels. Once we understand what Jesus says about Gehenna, we will understand what the Bible says about our popular notion of Hell. Gehenna is the name of a real, literal, this-world valley nearby Jerusalem that has a history. It was the local city garbage dump where fires were kept burning to dispose of the garbage and symbolized a place of slaughter and judgment. Gehenna was the place of burned Israeli children sacrificed to false gods (Jer 7:30-31; 19:2-5). Josephus indicates this same valley was heaped with dead bodies of the Jews following the Roman siege of Jerusalem around 70 AD. When Jesus warned of others going to Gehenna, this is not a reference of afterlife punishment. Jesus used Gehenna to symbolize the horror of being rejected and abandoned by God to the merciless enemy who would cause their dead carcasses to be thrown into the burning, worm-infested valley.
Jesus never used the world Hell. He used the world Gehenna, which was a real place in the minds of the writers and readers at that time. We have translated it into a word that is not an actual historical place. Hell is a substitution not a translation of the word Gehenna. The best translation of Gehenna in the NT is Gehenna not Hell. The Bible doesn’t teach God created Hell as a place to torture people forever. Paul wrote fourteen epistles and never mentions Hell. He didn’t need to. Jesus had already referred to one’s destination as a grave without any hope of a future destiny with their Creator. Paul spoke about Heaven for those who believed in God
Why does all this matter? Maybe most of us don’t believe in Hell anyway, or we would be crazy, sidewalk, evangelists shouting “you are going to burn in Hell.” Anyway, believers may not be as excited to tell others about their God if in the back of their mind they think Hell may come up. For seekers who the hell wants to get to know a hellish, sadistic torturer who some say predestines some people to an afterlife of eternal conscious punishment. We no longer have to feel obligated to sell fire insurance; instead, we can share the really good news about a better life with God. What kind of God thinks Hell scares people into true righteousness and an intimate relationship? Translators agree when to translate the Hebrew or Greek word into “Heaven.” There is no equivalent Hebrew or Greek word for our current concept of an eternal place of punishment translated as “Hell.” Imagine how it would change your life if you discovered there is no such place as our presently conceived afterlife concept of “Hell.” Make your own conclusions. Hell? Yes! Hell? NO!