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Old Testament View of Hell

...The Israelites usually viewed death as they saw it‑ the very opposite of life. And resurrection was not yet a part of their communal experience of God. The grave brought no escape from God (Psalm 139:8), but just how they viewed the condition of the godly dead is not clear. (Non‑Biblical documents from the ancient Near East indicate a general conception that immortality was reserved for the gods but that the dead continued to have some kind of shadowy existence in the dismal netherworld.)... It seems clear that there was even an awareness that death (as observed) was not the end of hope for the righteous, that God had more in store for them...


The scholars who compiled the Study Notes to the NIV Study Bible often take a very strong stand in many of the footnotes of that edition of the Bible in favor of the "eternal torments of Hell" doctrine. But even they were forced to admit that this doctrine cannot be established by passages in the Old Testament.  

The Hebrew word commonly translated in the King James Version of the Bible as "hell" is  sheol. In the passages where this word appears, it is never connected with the idea of an ever-burning fire nor with eternal torturing of souls. The reality is that this word had no connotation for the ancient Israelites of the kind of fiery Hell that most Christians envision. In fact, the King James translators chose to translate that same Hebrew word as "grave" 32 times. Sheol was even considered the resting place of animals:

This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave [Hebrew sheol] (Psalm 49:13‑14 NIV)

The passage in Psalm 6 to which the Study Bible note above was referring was emphasizing the future hope of the righteous. But the Old Testament is equally vague about the state of the wicked dead.

The Old Testament writings do speak of a time when the wicked will be repaid for their wicked deeds, even though they may appear to triumph temporarily. But the ultimate emphasis of almost all passages about the fate of the wicked is destruction. Sometimes fire is mentioned in this context, but always within the theme of destruction, not of unending torture.

You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked. (Psalm 9:5 NIV)

The LORD is at your right hand; he will crush kings on the day of His wrath. He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth. (Psalm 110:5  NIV)

No more will the wicked invade you; they will be completely destroyed. (Nahum 1:15  NIV)

Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD'S wrath. In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth. (Zeph. 1:18  NIV(

It would be even clearer how little the Old Testament has to say about the "place" called Hell if the King James translation had not been so dominant for the past 400 years. The translators of that version appear to have based many of their choices on how to translate sheol on their own preconceived notions about the nature of the Afterlife, not on just the context of the Hebrew passages they were translating. After all, they were barely one generation out of the Roman Catholic Church! Most modern translations far more frequently choose the English words "grave" or "death" when translating sheol, such as in this Psalm 86:13. The KJV translators used hell:

"Thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell (Hebrew: sheol").

With this wording it could seem as if the Psalmist was saying that God had kept him from going to Hell to be tortured forever. But in context, it is obvious that he is, instead, thanking God for preserving his physical life when it was in danger. (The word "soul" is misleading here, also, for it would seem to say that the Psalmist had an immortal soul inside his body, and that was what was rescued, from going to Hell. For an extended discussion on how misleading this can be, see the article Body, Soul, Spirit, Mind.)

The obvious intent of this passage is much clearer in modern translations, such as this rendering in the New International Version:

 …you have delivered me from the depths of the grave.

It was not some sort of "immaterial soul" that was kept from being sent to burn in Hell. It was "me" ... the Psalmist himself ... who was delivered from an untimely death and the grave.

Although the KJV translators often made these kinds of misleading choices, there were times that their underlying theology would force them to avoid the word Hell, and use grave or another word. For instance, here is a passage in which David is asking God to not allow his enemy to go down to a peaceful death in sheol.

1 Kings 2:6, 9—"Let not his hoar head go down to the grave [sheol] in peace  ... his hoary head bring thou down to the grave with blood."

If sheol were a fiery Hell, where the wicked ... including David's enemy ... were going to be punished forever with hideous tortures, why would he care how the enemy's physical death occurred? Such a fiery eternal fate would be far worse than a bloody death! So in this instance the KJV translators chose to word the passage in almost the exact same way as the later NIV translators chose:

Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace. … Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood."

Sheol here seems to describe a place of "peace" for the dead. There are many other instances when the KJV translators were forced by circumstances to avoid the word Hell when translating sheol. This was particularly true when a righteous man, such as Job or Jacob, spoke of going, himself, to sheol. Surely he wasn't speaking of going to an ever-burning place of torture! So in these instances they would substitute the word grave. See the article The King James Version of Hell for an extended examination of this misleading tendency of the King James translators.

When Jesus began His preaching, what was the doctrine of the Afterlife understood by his listeners? According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, first century Jewish Rabbis admitted that the Scriptures were very vague about the after‑life. However, that did not prevent them from having elaborate theories of their own. It may even be these theories, elaborated in extra-biblical writings, that were ultimately one of the primary sources of much of the later Christian speculations about Hell. Strong hints of these sources can be seen in Dante's Inferno and the writings of many early theologians in the Catholic Church. However, if we want to have a truly biblical perspective on the issue, we need to stick to the Scriptures themselves, not on what the New Testament even refers to as "Jewish Fables."

(See the articles The Jewish View of Hell and Jewish Fables for more information on these sources of aspects of Christian theories on the Afterlife.)


This site contains a collection of articles, on the topic of Hell and the Afterlife, that may each be used independently for research purposes. But it also is designed as a systematic, sequential overview of the whole topic, which can be read like a book.

For those who would like to take advantage of this perspective of the content, the articles are arranged in the Reading Guide as they would appear as chapters in a book, along with a few reference chapters at the end such as would appear in a book Appendix. 

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No single short article can comprehensively cover any aspect of the topic of Hell. If you have questions or concerns regarding the material in this article, be sure to first read through the site FAQ before writing to the author. It may already specifically address the very points you are wondering about.

Unless otherwise noted, all biblical references in this and other articles on the
Is It True What They Say About Hell? website are from the New International Version (NIV).


All of the articles on this Is it true what they say about Hell? website were written by Pam Dewey, with the support and sponsorship of Common Ground Christian Ministries. For more of Pam's inspirational and educational writings, visit her Oasis website.

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