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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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The abode of the dead especially as a place of eternal punishment for unbelievers. Hell is an Anglo-Saxon word used to translate one Hebrew word and three Greek words in the King James Version of the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word that “hell” translated was Sheol . (Compare NAS). The word Sheol occurs sixty-five times in the Hebrew Bible. The King James Version translates thirty-one of the occurrences as “hell”; another thirty-one occurrences as “grave”; and three occurrences as “pit” ( Numbers 16:30 ,Numbers 16:30,16:33; Job 17:16 ). The Revised Standard Version never uses “hell” to translate Sheol. It does use “grave” one time as a translation of Sheol (Song of Song of Solomon 8:6 ). Sixty-four times it simply transliterates the word as Sheol . NAS always uses Sheol , while NIV intentionally avoids Sheol , using grave.

Sheol is a Hebrew word that has taken on the properties of a proper name. he Old Testament uses the word to refer to a place in the depths of the earth. The expressions “go down” or “brought down” are used twenty times in connection with Sheol. The “depths of Sheol” are mentioned six times ( Deuteronomy 32:22; Psalm 86:13; Proverbs 9:18; Proverbs 15:24; Isaiah 7:11; Isaiah 14:15 ). Four times Sheol is described as the farthest point from heaven (Job 11:8; Psalm 139:8; Isaiah 7:11; Amos 9:2 ). Often Sheol is parallel with the “pit” (Job 17:13-14; Job 33:18; Psalm 30:3; Psalm 88:3-4; Proverbs 1:12; Isaiah 14:15; Isaiah 38:18; Ezekiel 31:14-17 ). Nine times it is parallel with death (2 Samuel 22:6; Psalm 18:4-5; Psalm 49:14; Psalm 89:48; Psalm 116:3; Proverbs 5:5; Isaiah 28:15 ,Isaiah 28:15,28:18; Hosea 13:14; Habakkuk 2:5 ). Sheol is described in terms of overwhelming floods, water, or waves (Jonah 2:2-6 ). Sometimes, Sheol is pictured as a hunter setting snares for its victim, binding them with cords, snatching them from the land of the living (2 Samuel 22:6; Job 24:19; Psalm 116:3 ); Sheol is a prison with bars, a place of no return (Job 7:9; Job 10:21; Job 16:22; Job 21:13; Psalm 49:14; Isaiah 38:10 ). People could go to Sheol alive (Numbers 16:30 ,Numbers 16:30,16:33; Psalm 55:15; Proverbs 1:12 ). With rare exceptions, such as Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12 ), all people were believed to go to Sheol when they die (Job 3:11-19; Psalm 89:48 ).

The three Greek words often translated “hell” are hades , gehenna , and tartaroo . Hades was the name of the Greek god of the underworld and the name of the underworld itself. The Septuagint—the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament—used hades to translate the Hebrew word Sheol . Whereas in the Old Testament, the distinction in the fates of the righteous and the wicked was not always clear, in the New Testament hades refers to a place of torment opposed to heaven as the place of Abraham's bosom ( Luke 16:23; Acts 2:27 ,Acts 2:27,2:31 ). In Matthew 16:18 hades is not simply a place of the dead but represents the power of the underworld. Jesus said the gates of hades would not prevail against His church.

Gehenna is the Greek form of two Hebrew words ge hinnom meaning “valley of Hinnom.” The term originally referred to a ravine on the south side of Jerusalem where pagan deities were worshiped ( 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 7:32; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 2 Chronicles 33:6 ). It became a garbage dump and a place of abomination where fire burned continuously (2Kings 23:1;2 Kings 10:1; compare Matthew 18:9; Mark 9:43 ,Mark 9:43,9:45 ,Mark 9:45,9:47; James 3:6 ). Gehenna became synonymous with “a place of burning.”

One time the Greek word tartaroo “cast into hell” appears in the New Testament ( 2 Peter 2:4 ). The word appears in classical Greek to refer to a subterranean region, doleful and dark, regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead. It was thought of as a place of punishment. In the sole use of the word in the New Testament it refers to the place of punishment for rebellious angels.

Punishment for sin is taught in the Old Testament, but it is mainly punishment in this life. The New Testament teaches the idea of punishment for sin before and after death. The expressions “the lake of fire” and “second death” indicate the awfulness of the fate of the impenitent. Some insist that the fire spoken of must be literal fire, so to interpret the language as figurative means to do away with the reality of future punishment. One can, however, maintain this position only if they see no reality expressed by a figure of speech. Jesus spoke of a place of punishment as “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 25:30 ). Can a place have both literal fire and literal darkness? What reason does one have for taking one expression as literal and not taking the other as literal? Literal fire would destroy a body cast into it.

Language about hell seeks to describe for humans the most awful punishment human language can describe to warn unbelievers before it is too late. Earthly experience would lead us to believe that the nature of punishment will fit the nature of the sin. Certainly, no one wants to suffer the punishment of hell, and through God's grace the way for all is open to avoid hell and know the blessings of eternal life through Christ. See Gehenna; Hades; Heaven; Salvation; Sheol .

Ralph L. Smith

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Hell'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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