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...
NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION STUDY BIBLE,
Study Note to Psalm 6)
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.
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,
The obvious intent of this
passage is much clearer in modern translations, such as this
rendering in the New International Version:
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
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:
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."
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.
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."
articles The Jewish View of Hell
and Jewish Fables for
more information on these sources of aspects of Christian theories on the
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.
links below to go to the next article, previous article, or
in the Reading Guide sequence.
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No single short article can comprehensively cover
any aspect of the topic of Hell. If you have
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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
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Ministries. For more of Pam's inspirational and educational
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