The word “hell” found in the King James and other English versions of the Bible, has its origin in Anglo-Saxon and Nordic words meaning “to cover” or “to conceal.” It is akin to the Nordic word “Hel” which denoted a place for souls of the dead in Norse mythology. “Hel” was said to include Valhalla, an eternal home for warriors, and Niflhel, the place for the souls of the wicked. In the King James Version, “hell” translates the Hebrew word “sheol” 31 times in the Old Testament, and “hell” is used 22 times in the New Testament to translate the Greek words “Gehenna,” “Hades,” and “Tartarus.” In the Old Testament, “sheol” usually denoted merely the grave, and one does not find a precise concept of the afterlife of the soul. The Ecclesiastes passage (Eccl. 12:7) affirms that upon physical death of a person, his or her soul returns to God who gave it. “Sheol” is used many times to indicate a dreary presence and future existence remote from God.
The Greek word, “Gehenna” refers to the Valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem which had been used on Old Testament times as a site for human sacrifice to the pagan god Molech. It later became a burning dump for Jerusalem and, during the intertestamental period, many Jewish people regarded it as a symbol of punishment. “Hades” in Greek mythology was the place where all souls of the dead went, and it was also the name of the god who rules the underworld.
The mythical Hades included a place called “Tartarus” where the souls of the wicked dead were punished. The word “Tartarus” appears only once, in II Peter 2:4. Because there are differences in the meanings of these words, many modern English translation do not encompass them all in the one term “hell,” or they use the word sparingly. Also, many study Bibles have marginal notes or footnotes setting out or explaining the original words. As we have seen, when Jesus wanted to underscore the sorry spiritual state of a person who is in enmity with God, he used very descriptive language, such as, ” thrown in the fire,”(Matt. 7:19;13:49-50; Mk. 9:41-48); “outer darkness,” “eternal punishment,” and condemnation. Many of these expressions are parts of parables; thus, they are symbolisms in human terms to express a spiritual thought.
During the intertestamental period, the Jewish term, “Gehenna” and the Greek mythological terms just mentioned, were popularly used in Palestine to refer to a place of judgment and punishement. Many theologicans have therefore concluded that Jesus was referring to a place in which lost souls will reside and suffer punishment forever. Other scholars are of the opinion that Jesus was indicating more a condition of “lostness” or a status estranged from God, rather than designating a particular place. Both views recognize the principles of judgment, rewards and/or punishement, as previously discussed.