Most verses that talk about hell in the Old Testament call it Sheol, or the grave, or the pit. It seems to me that it’s just talking about a place that holds the dead. There are a couple of verses, however, that sound like the New Testament hell. Daniel 12:2 says that some will rise to everlasting life, and others to everlasting contempt. Isaiah 66:24 says that the worms that eat the bodies of those who rebelled against God won’t die, and fire that burns them won’t be quenched. Some verses in the New Testament seem to say that the punishment for sin is death or annihilation, and some verses talk about God’s wrath not lasting forever, but others talk about eternal punishment. Eternity is a long time! I can’t imagine God creating people, already knowing some wouldn’t listen to him, just to be sent to hell forever. It’s too disturbing for me to imagine. What’s your take on this?
This is a very important and heartfelt question, and I will take several posts to answer it. Let me reassure you first of all that many people who believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God don’t believe that everlasting conscious torment is the consequence for rejecting God. We’ll see why as we explore the biblical text in the posts ahead. Let me begin here with your observation about the word Sheol in the Old Testament.
You make a very good point about this word. Like other Hebrew and Greek words sometimes translated “hell” in the Bible, it doesn’t actually refer to a place where individuals are tormented forever. Rather, Sheol was for the Hebrews, as you say, simply the place that held the dead. Most modern translations recognize this and use a different word to translate Sheol than the word “hell” found in the King James Version. This gives biblical statements a very different feel.
For example, in Psalm 9:
KJV “The wicked shall be turned into hell.”
This indeed sounds as if everlasting torment after death is the punishment for turning away from God. But listen to the same statement in some contemporary translations:
NIV “The wicked go down to the realm of the dead.”
ESV “The wicked shall return to Sheol.”
NRSV “The wicked shall depart to Sheol.”
In other words, if you’re wicked in this life, you’re likely to die an unfortunate death. But there’s no statement about everlasting torment.
To give another example, in the Song of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy:
KVJ “For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell.”
This sounds as if God is out to get the departed souls of those who have disobeyed him, and he’ll pursue them to the lowest depths of hell to make them burn. But now hear the statement in more modern translations:
NIV “For a fire will be kindled by my wrath, one that burns down to the realm of the dead below.”
ESV and NRSV “For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol.”
In other words, if the people of Israel turn to idols (that’s the context here), God will be so rightfully offended that his anger will not just “scorch the grass,” it will burn all the way down to the underworld. This is a statement about consequences for the ancient nation of Israel in this life, not for individuals in the next life.
Because of the recognition that the Old Testament is talking about Sheol, the abode of the dead, rather than about a place set aside for the punishment of the wicked, most modern translations do not use the word “hell” anywhere in the Old Testament. The major exception is the New King James Version, which retains the word just about everywhere it’s found in the original KJV. Still, most biblical scholars working on translation committees agree with you about the need to make readers understand that Sheol is the place that holds the dead. This discussion illustrates how valuable it is to use and compare different translations of the Bible when investigating important questions like this.
In my next post I’ll take up the passages you cite from Daniel and Isaiah, which don’t use the word Sheol, but rather talk specifically about “everlasting contempt,” worms, and fire. And in the post after that, I’ll consider the New Testament passages that talk about hell.