Monday, June 20, 2022

What is Hell?

The task of answering the title question, "What is Hell?," is complicated and there are several reasons:

  • English translations of the Bible use the word hell in for the Hebrew word Sheol, and for the Greek word Hades as well as other Greek terms.
  • Some English translations are inconsistent in using the word hell for the same Hebrew or Greek word.
  • Various doctrines about hell that emerged after the writing of the Bible have influenced people’s understanding.
  • Bible dictionaries and other seemingly neutral resources have conflicting, even contradictory explanations of hell.
  • The English word hell has a meaning that does not correspond to the way it is normally used today.

I have chosen to first look at the English word hell. Let’s see what it means and then trace things back. Next week I will focus on what the Bible says about Hell.

In general usage today the word hell refers to an eternal place of fiery torment for unrighteous souls. It is often accepted as the domain or kingdom of Satan. Interestingly, the word did not start out with that meaning.

Our English word hell had Indo-European origins as kel, meaning, to cover or to hide. It descended into German as khal- and khel-. These roots are the sources of the English terms:

  • Hall: a covered (with a roof) place; and
  • Hell: a covered (with earth) place.

The English word helmet comes from the same root. The word hell is also akin to the Old Norse Hel, who, in Norse mythology, was the goddess of death and the underworld (and the daughter of Loki). So, the word hell originally referred to a hidden or covered place. It is descriptive of the underworld, that is the place where ancients believed souls went after death.

The current meaning of hell was greatly influenced by the Divine Comedy, a 12th Century epic poem by Dante Aligheri. In a section called Inferno a character journeys through inferno (hell), to purgatory, and then to paradise. It is heavily influenced by Roman Catholic theology.

The English word inferno is defined as Hell or any place suggesting Hell, usually characterized by great heat or flames. Inferno comes from the Latin infernus, meaning underground, lower, infernal. And the word infernal, from the same root as inferno, indicates the world of the dead, hell, etc. (Webster)

It appears that the English word hell would have been an adequate translation for infernal or inferno as descriptive of the underworld (i.e. the place of the dead). But it became associated with Dante’s Inferno and his description of a place of eternal torture ruled by Satan.

So, based on its origins and derived meaning, the English word hell would have been an excellent translation for the Greek term Hades. Of course, that is just not how we use it today.

Even though the English word hell has had a rather mixed up past, we do know that it is used in English translations of the Bible for the eternal destination of those who are evil. To better understand what God wanted us to know about this place of final judgment against evil, I’ll next look at the Greek term gehenna, which is rendered Hell in most, if not all, modern translations of the Bible. In addition I’ll explore the biblical use of the phrase lake of fire.


Mark Stinnett
June 19, 2022