WHAT IS HELL?
It is obvious that the view that most of humanity are destined to spend eternity in misery in hell cannot be reconciled with those scriptures which predict God shall be all in all: yet the word 'hell' occurs thirty-one times in the Old Testament and twenty-two times in the New Testament in the Authorized Version. This one English term has been made to represent the Hebrew 'sheol' and the three Greek words 'hades', 'gehenna' and 'tartarus'.
We must now enquire whether these four terms mean the same, and whether 'hell' in its modern fits any of them.
'Hell' is the noun form of the old Anglo-Saxon verb 'hele' which meant to hide, conceal, or bury something. In one of his poems Chaucer wrote: 'To hide and hele things', meaning to conceal them. In its old English significance 'hell' was an appropriate rendering of the Greek 'hades' which means the unseen or imperceptible and since the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament books produced by seventy two Hellenists (Greek speaking Jews) about two centuries B.C., consistently translates 'sheol' with the word 'hades', we must conclude that these terms are synonymous. Since both invariably refer to the grave or the condition of humans between death and resurrection, or to a state akin to death (Jonah 2:2-5), we can find no more appropriate English term than 'hell' provided we keep to its ORIGINAL MEANING.
The following are a few of the many passages which prove that 'sheol' or 'hades' is the grave or state of he dead, not the living humans in suffering.
Gen.37:35 tells us that Jacob believed Joseph to be there and expected to go there himself. 'I will go down to the grave (sheol) unto my son mourning'. Compare Gen.42:38; 44:29 and 31; I Sam.2:6, 'The Lord bringeth down to the grave (sheol) and bringeth up'. Job longed to go to sheol to rest or sleep till the resurrection, Job 14:12,13. 'So man lieth down and riseth not till the heavens be no more (cf. Rev.20:11); they shall not awake nor be raised out of their sleep. Oh that Thou wouldest hide me in sheol, that Thou wouldest keep me secret until Thy wrath be past'. In chapter three verses eleven to twenty-two Job bewailed his birth claiming that life's troubles made him and others wish for the rest that death would bring. Ecclesiastes 9:10 confirms Job's view. 'There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in sheol'. Neither is God remembered there. Isaiah 38:18: 'For sheol cannot praise Thee, death cannot celebrate Thee'.
The anger of God follows wickedness to the grave. Deut.32:22: 'It bringeth unto the lowest sheol (R.V. pit), devoureth the earth...and setteth on fire the foundations of the mountains'.
The following references indicate that both the wicked and righteous go into the grave and the death state from which only God's power can bring release: Psa.9:17 (The wicked); Psa.16:10 and Acts 2:27 and 31 (Our Lord); Psa.55:15; Psa.139:8; Prov.15:11; Amos 9:2; Rev.1:18 (God is in charge there), Jonah 2:2 (Probably figurative, the fish's interior being like the grave), Rev.20:13 (Recovery from hades), Rev.20:14. When death ceases to operate hell (hades) to is to pass away, I Cor.15:54.
The above passages present convincing evidence that scripture and our own observations agree that with death come the cessation of consciousness (Biblical sleep of death) and the dissolution of the personality in the unseen till resurrection.
The reference to hades in the parable of Luke 16, accord with the scriptures throughout. These teach that no dead person can 'lift up his eyes' apart from resurrection which for the wicked leads on to chastening (basanos verse 23) producing beneficial results - Dives' concern for his brothers (vs 27,28).
It should particularly be noted that there is nothing whatever in the scriptures quoted above to suggest that sheol, hades, or hell is a place or condition of endless pain or torture.
'Tartarus' is mentioned once only, II Pet.2:4 and then in the verbal form - to cast down to the abode of rebellious spirits. Certainly the Authorized Version calls this 'hell', but as no humans are ever said to there and Jude verse 6 indicates that the spirits are there restrained by invisible (aidios) bonds UNTIL the judgment day, to include this term 'tartarus' under the word 'hell' is clearly a mistranslation of the Greek which should be rendered 'cast down to Tartarus'.
Gehenna must now claim our attention. The thirteen references to it in the Hebrew scriptures show it to be a valley on the west and south-west sides of Jerusalem where idolatrous and abominable human sacrifices were offered to Molech the fire god (II Kings 23:10; II Chron.28:3-6; Jer.7:31 and 32:35). In fulfillment of centuries past prophecy (I Kings 13:2) good King Josiah ,made a sweeping reformation, clearing away the altars, groves, images and the high places (II Chron.34:3-5). In Jer.7:32 and 33 we find the prediction of a future defilement of this valley. Secular historians record that the site became the cesspool and repository of the filth of Jerusalem where fires were kept burning incessantly and where worms perpetually bred in the decaying corpses of criminals.
Isaiah 66:20,23,24 predicted a future day of restoration for Israel, when the bodies of transgressors would be deposited in this valley to become a warning of the summary judgment to be meted out to evil doers (cf. Matt.5:29 and 30).
Of the eleven New Testament references to gehenna, all contained in the teaching concerning the predicted kingdom to be restored to Israel, not one makes any reference to endless punishment, nor can one see how fire or worms could affect the soul, or spirit, or anything other than the carcasses of evil doers as Isaiah said it would. Also since our Lord confined His preaching to the land and people of Israel (Matt.10:5) and forbade His apostles to go to others, it is evident that His references to this local spot and its association do not apply to humanity at large. We therefore urge that 'gehenna" should be transliterated into English versions and thus linked up with the Hebrew passages from which the name arose. It certainly is not synonymous with hades or sheol, so should not be included under the term 'hell'.
Some expositors and preachers increase confusion by adding 'the bottomless pit' and 'the lake of fire' though these are not in English versions rendered 'hell'. The result is that while many believers find the theories about endless damnation in hell contradictory to the scripture revelation of our God's character, purpose and activity, they lack the means to check His word in the original languages, so feel obliged to believe what others have taught them about a hell of endless, and therefore purposeless and futile suffering, not realizing that such an idea has no place in the revelation of God's gracious attitude and purpose for mankind.