What Is The Origin Of The Word Hell?

1. Bible Mistranslations of the Word Hell

2. A chapter on the word Hell:

CHAPTER II. SECTION III.
(from The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment by Thomas B. Thayer)

ARGUMENT FROM THE WORD “SHEOL,” OR THE OLD TESTAMENT DOCTRINE OF HELL.

The word Hell, in the Old Testament, is always a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, which occurs sixty-four times, and is rendered “hell” thirty-two times, “grave” twenty-nine times, and “pit” three times.

1. By examination of the Hebrew Scriptures it will be found that its radical or primary meaning is, The place or state of the dead. The following are examples:

“Ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.” Gen. xvii 38.

“I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.” xxxviii 35.

“O that thou wouldst hide me in the grave!” Job xiV 13. “My life draweth nigh to the grave.” Ps. lxxxviiI 3.

“In the grave who shall give thee thanks?” lxxxvi 5.

“Our bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth.” cxlI 7.

“There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” Ecc. ix. 10.

“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.” Ps. cxxxix. 8.

“Hell from beneath is moved to meet thee, at thy coming. It stirreth up the dead for thee,” &c. Isaiah xiV 9-15.

These passages show the Hebrew usage of the word sheol, which is the original of the word “grave” and “hell” in all the examples cited. It is plain that it has here no reference to a place of endless torment after death. The patriarch would scarcely say, “I will go down to an endless hell to my son mourning.” He did not believe his son was in any such place. Job would not very likely pray to God to hide him in a place of endless torment, in order to be delivered from his troubles.If the reader will substitute the word “hell” in the place of “grave” in all these passages, he will be in the way of understanding the Scripture doctrine on this subject.

But there is also a figurative sense to the word sheol, which is frequently met with in the later Scriptures of the Old Testament. Used in this sense, it represents a state of degradation or calamity, arising from any cause, whether misfortune, sin, or the judgment of God.

This is an easy and natural transition. The state or the place of the dead was regarded as solemn and gloomy, and thence the word sheol, the name of this place, came to be applied to any gloomy, or miserable state or condition. The following passages are examples:

“The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me.” Psalm xvii 4-6. This was a past event, and therefore the hell must have been this side of death.

Solomon, speaking of a child, says, “Thou shalt beat him, and deliver his soul from hell;” that is, from the ruin and woe of disobedience. ProV xxiiI 14.

The Lord says to Israel, in reference to their idolatries, “Thou didst debase thyself even unto hell.” Isaiah lvii 9. This, of course, signifies a state of utter moral degradation and wickedness, since the Jewish nation as such certainly never went down into a hell of ceaseless woe.

Jonah says, “Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardst me.” ii 2. Here we see the absurdity of supposing sheol or hell to mean a place of punishment after death. The hell in this case was the belly of the whale; or rather the wretched and suffering condition in which the disobedient prophet found himself.

“The pains of hell got hold on me: I found trouble and sorrow.” Ps. cxvi 3. Yet David was a living man, all this while, here on the earth. So he exclaims again, “Great is thy mercy towards me. Thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell.” Ps. lxxxvi 13. Now here the Psalmist was in the lowest hell, and was delivered from it, while he was yet in the body, before death. Of course the hell here cannot be a place of endless punishment after death.

These passages sufficiently illustrate the figurative usage of the word sheol, “hell.” They show plainly that it was employed by the Jews as a symbol or figure of extreme degradation or suffering, without reference to the cause. And it is to this condition the Psalmist refers when he says, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” Ps. ix. 17. Though Dr. Allen, President of Bowdoin College, thinks “the punishment expressed here is cutting off from life, destroying from earth by some special judgment, and removing to the invisible place of the dead” (sheol).

It is plain, then, from these citations, that the word sheol, “hell,” makes nothing for the doctrine of future unending punishment as a part of the Law penalties. It is never used by Moses or the Prophets in the sense of a place of torment after death; and in no way conflicts with the statement already proved, that the Law of Moses deals wholly in temporal rewards and punishments.

This position, also, I wish to fortify by the testimony of Orthodox critics, men of learning and candor. They know, and therefore they speak.

1. CHAPMAN. “Sheol, in itself considered, has no connection with future punishment.” Cited by Balfour, First Inquiry.

2. DR. ALLEN, quoted above, says: “The term sheol does not seem to mean, with certainty, anything more than the state of the dead in their deep abode.”

3. DR. CAMPBELL. “Sheol signifies the state of the dead without regard to their happiness or misery.”

4. DR. WHITBY. “Sheol throughout the Old Testament signifies not the place of punishment, or of the souls of bad men only, but the grave only, or the place of death.”

5. DR. MUENSCHER. This distinguished author of a Dogmatic History in German, says: “The souls or shades of the dead wander in sheol, the realm or kingdom of death, an abode deep under the earth. Thither go all men, without distinction, and hope for no return. There ceases all pain and anguish; there reigns an unbroken silence; there all is powerless and still; and even the praise of God is heard no more.”

6. VON COELLN. “Sheol itself is described as the house appointed for all living, which receives into its bosom all mankind, without distinction of rank, wealth, or moral character. It is only in the mode of death, and not in the condition after death, that the good are distinguished above the evil. The just, for instance, die in peace, and are gently borne away before the evil comes; while a bitter death breaks the wicked like as a tree.” 2

These witnesses all testify that sheol, or hell, in the Old Testament, has no reference whatever to this doctrine; that it signifies simply the state of the dead, the invisible world, without regard to their goodness or badness, their happiness or misery. The Old Testament doctrine of hell, therefore, is not the doctrine of endless punishment. It is not revealed in the Law of Moses. It is not revealed in the Old Testament. To such result has our inquiry led us; and now what shall we say of it?

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