The English word Hell comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Hel, meaning, simply, a hidden place or a place covered over, although the Bible contains four different words, which, for some reason, have all been rendered using this word. In the Old Testament we find it used in place of the original Hebrew word lwav Sheol, and in the New Testament the same word is used in place of the Greek word geenna Gehenna - an anglicised transliteration of the Hebrew Mnh-ayq Gehinnom. We also find the word Hell used in place of the Greek words adhv Hades and tartarow Tartarus.
The word Sheol more often means "the grave," although in some instances it is also rendered as "the underworld." Its predominant use in the Old Testament is to describe the "place of the dead," nothing more. Hades, often disputed to be the Greek equivalent of Sheol, means unseen, concealed, or invisible, and is also the name of the underworld in Greek mythology. The word Tartarus, likewise, can be found in the classical Greek literature of the Homeric and Hesiodic periods were it was used to describe a place of darkness reserved for the chastening of the Titans. The word cannot be found anywhere in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, though, and appears only once in the New Testament. Tartarus, like Hades, could, therefore, be considered to be of pagan origin and one cannot accept belief in either of these places without also accepting the Greek mythology associated with them. Gehenna is the only word in the Bible which can predominantly be associated with fire, although, the word refers to a place located outside Jerusalem, in the Valley of Hinnom, where fires were kept up for the burning of the city's rubbish. The fires of Gehenna were, then, physical, and actually existed in this world, not the next. That these words are not rendered consistently, though, throughout the Old and New Testaments, is perplexing to say the least, and one can only assume that the translators may well have intended to impose upon their readers a sense different from that of the original Greek and Hebrew. What is often not clear, however, is whether or not such words refer to the physically dead, or the spiritually dead.
Judea had been occupied by many different nations over the years, the effect of which was twofold; not only were the Jewish people often scattered among other nations, they were also subject to the cultural influences of those nations. Cross-fertilisation and integration of religious ideas often took place during such periods, though, and it is well known that some Jews even tried to synthesise Pagan spirituality with their own religious traditions. Later generations of exiled Jews, however, such as the third century BCE 'Diaspora, became so integrated into Greek speaking Alexandria, that they could no longer understand Hebrew, and had to have the Torah translated into Greek. This translation, known as the Septuagint, is the version quoted in almost all New Testament works today, although it is no longer used by Jews.
It is maintained that the Septuagint is 'a reasonably free rendering of the original Hebrew texts which takes into account what Greek speaking readers would understand, and what they would expect to hear.' Unfortunately, though, the actions of the "expert scribes" may well have been very lapse, or even very mischievous, given that they rendered in line with Greek mythology and philosophy, and thus the presence of the word Hades. That this was erroneous can be shown, especially in the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, where it is obvious that the writer meant "grave," not the "House of Hades." For example, when Joseph's brothers return to Canaan, Jacob says to them:
'…My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he is left alone: if mischief befall him by the way in which ye go, then shall ye bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave…' (Genesis 42:38)
The term "…then shall ye bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave…" is a euphemism, meaning that, by taking away his son, Benjamin, they would be the cause of his death in his old age. Although the margins of later Christian revisions often contain a reference to the original Sheol, we are still left with the dilemma of believing that they both mean the same thing, when in fact, they do not.
The problem which now remains, however, is whether the semantic signal generated by the word "Hell," triggers the Sheol concept of "the grave" or rather, the Hades concept of the place of the Hundred-handed and the three headed watchdog named Cerberus? Given that both words developed within two entirely different cultures, it remains somewhat of a quandary as to why the scribes never transliterated Sheol into Greek in the first place, as they did with Gehenna elsewhere. Although it is doubtful whether Hades should ever have been written into the Canon of Jewish, and Christian, religious texts, the sad fact remains that the conceptual link which has developed between Sheol and Hades has become so much of a tradition that it is difficult to break.
A closer look at the likes of "eternal damnation" and "everlasting punishment," etc., also reveal problems for those of a "hell fire" persuasion. For example, in the gospel of Matthew, it states:
'...Then he shall answer them, saying, "Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." (Matthew 25:45,46).
Now in this passage, the words spoken by Jesus are "aionion kolasin," which are, incorrectly, rendered as "everlasting punishment." There are, in fact, a number of Greek words, which, despite having slightly different meanings, have all been rendered as either eternal, everlasting, or for ever. In the Old Testament the most common word used is Mle olam, which means the hidden time, and is derived from the Chaldee alam, to hide. In the New Testament, we find the word aiwniov aionios, or aionian, meaning of, or belonging to, an age. Aionios is the adjective of the Greek noun aion, which means age, but which is also rendered as course or world. Aionion does not mean everlasting or eternal. Had Jesus meant everlasting or eternal he could have used a word like aidion, which does mean eternal; as in aidion timorion, which means "eternal torment," or, eirgmon aidion, which means "eternal imprisonment."
The Greek word kolasiv kolasin, likewise, may be defined more as a form of chastisement, as in pruning or checking for the purposes of discipline or correction. Thus, he who seeks to punish does so, not for past wrongs, but for the sake of the future. Thus, the act of pruning or correcting the person is so that they benefit from it, and there is no retribution involved. The word "damnation," comes from the Greek word krisiv krisis, which, more accurately, means a judgement, or a separating, although, the word has also been rendered as condemnation and accusation. Subsequently, the words translated into the term "eternal damnation" may equally, be translated as just "a period of judgement," or even "a period of correction."
The valley of Hinnom
It is often suggested that Jesus himself spent a large part of his ministery warning people about Hell, the eveidence for which, comes from the New Testament synoptics, where the word appears about 15 times. In the Greek of these gospels, however, the actual words used by Jesus were Hades and Gehenna, which, as we have seen, offer slim evidence indeed for a place of eternal damnation. Now even if Jesus was fluent in Greek, and well versed in their mythology, the fact remains, that he was a Jew, who came to fulfil Jewish Messianic prophecy, not Greek mythology. To this end, it can usually be shown that, far from warning people about punishment in the afterlife, Jesus is, more often, talking about punishment in this life. For example, in the gospel of Matthew Jesus is quoted as saying:
'...Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, 'Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement.' But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgement: and whosoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca' shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, 'Thou fool,' shall be in danger of hell fire.' (Matthew 5:21,22).
An exegesis of this verse will, however, disclose that it conceals far more than it reveals to the unsuspecting eye. For, in using the word "judgement," Jesus is referring to the lower ecclesiastical court of 3 judges who presided in the Synagogue, and in using the word "council," he is referring to the Supreme, or Great Council of the seventy, also known as the Sanhedrin. Moreover, in using "Gehenna," Jesus is referring to the well-known geographical location, south of the city, the place where the bodies of the "wicked" were, allegedly, disposed of by burning. Gehenna, incidentally, became the object of utmost loathing to many Jews, and, more importantly, was often employed as a symbol of any great woe or judgement. In rendering the verse as it is above, the translators disguise the fact that Gehenna was in this world, as were both the Judges and the Sanhedrin. The verse may, therefore, be translated just as accurately as:
'...Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, 'Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the [judges].' But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, without a cause, shall be in danger of the [judges]: and whosoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca' shall be in danger of the [Sanhedrin]: but whosoever shall say [to his brother], 'Thou fool,' shall be in danger of [an even greater woe].'
When the verse is translated thus, and taken in context with verses 16 to 26, it becomes clear that Jesus is talking figuratively and not literally, or even metaphorically, as many have supposed. The verse is about anger and the law of murder, and how exacting and demanding the kingdom of God is in this life, not the next. And the moral of the story is, of course, that the greater the anger, the greater the potential consequences of that anger.
The offending eye
Jesus uses the word Gehenna again further on down in the same chapter, the full account of which reads:
"…Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell…" (Matthew 5:27-30).
Jesus is talking about transgressing the law of adultery here, which was regarded as a great social wrong, as well as a great sin. However, no one should suppose that he is speaking literally about the removal of body parts. Hypocatastasis is the nature of the vocabulary here, and the right-eye should be seen, only as an implied representation of something which is a stumbling block, as should the hand, which was often the symbol of human action.
The word offend in this verse is rendered from the Greek word skandalizw skandalizo, which means; to cause one to stumble, or even to entice one to sin. However, in reality it is seldom the eye, or the hand, which leads a person into mischief, for these are only outward actions which result from that which is within - the mind, or the heart, etc. Given this, the same verses may be translated, just as accurately, as:
"…And if [a married woman is the object of your desire, then remove this stumbling block] from thee: for it is profitable for thee that [this part of thee] should perish, and not that thy whole body [be subject to even greater woe because of it]…"
It is clear, then, that the stumbling block, in this instance, is adultery, and rather than Jesus warning people about a literal Hell, he is in fact, giving sound advice on the consequences of it, in this life. It is likely that such 'stumbling blocks,' were so much a part of the nation at the time, that removing them, or giving them up, was so difficult, that it was like giving up a body part, and hence the symbolism of the allegory. The reader should be reminded, however, that as with most allegories of this nature, there is often another meaning concealed within, as we shall see later.
The undying worm
To the light bed-time reader, the Gospel of Mark, apparently, provides us with a little more information about Gehenna which is not mentioned elsewhere, although beneath the surface, rather than support the view of a literal Hell, it actually undermines it:
'...And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off. It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. Where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off. It is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast onto hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. Where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. It is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. Where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. For everyone shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good. But if the salt have lost its saltiness, wherewith shall ye season it. Have salt in yourselves and have peace one with another...' (Mark 9:43-50)
Aside of the contingent hypothesis, the term "enter into life," in these verses, surprisingly, has nothing to do with entering into the after-life, or heaven. The word "enter" is rendered from the Greek word eisercomai eiserchomai, which means to come in, or go out, but can also be used metaphorically to denote entrance into a condition, or state. These words, therefore, refer to vitality, and entering into fullness of life whilst in this world, rather than the next. To be maimed, of course, is to be wounded, injured, or hurt, be that physically, or psychologically, and the result of removing a stumbling block from some individuals would have exactly that effect - giving up sin hurts, in other words.
The term "…Where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched…" is repeated three times in this verse, thus, among other things, drawing the attention of the reader to its importance. The "worm" in this verse is rendered from the Greek word skwlhx skolex, the name given to a specific type of worm, which feeds on decaying matter - a detritivore in fact. The equivalent Hebrew word is hmr rimmah, a worm, or maggot, also associated with decay. Now the writer of Mark's Gospel would have us believe that Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, but the problem with this, is that the worm referred to in Isaiah is not associated with decay at all - quite the opposite, in fact:
For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh (Isaiah 66:22-24).
The Hebrew word used here is elwt towla, meaning specifically coccus ilicis, the female worm, or grub, from which, the much sort after, scarlet dye was extracted. In the Old Testament the word is nearly always translated as "scarlet," the colour predominantly associated with wealth and importance, etc., and, not surprisingly, a colour which was a prominent feature of the Tabernacle. Perhaps the most important occurrence of this word, though, is in the book of Job, where it is used in reference to, none other than, "the son of man" himself:
How much less man, that is a worm? [rimmah] and the son of man, which is a worm? [towla]. (Job 25:6)
Job makes it clear that there is a distinction to be made between these two worms, as one is associated with death and decay [rimmah], the other with royalty, the "son of man" [towla]. The life-cycle of the towla was, then, evidently, symbolic of the shedding of Jesus' blood on the cross - or on a tree, as Acts would have it - and, subsequently, the resurrection and the eternal life which was to follow. That this is the sense in which towla is used in Isaiah 66 is evident from other words used in verse 24; the word "abhorring," for example, comes from the Hebrew word Nward dera'own, which can also be translated as aversion or contempt, and to hold someone in contempt is, of course, to despise them. That Jesus was "a reproach of men, and despised of the people" is attested to in Psalm 22:6, where again, we find the word towla translated as worm. The word "unto" is rendered from the Hebrew word la 'el which can also mean by, and the word "flesh" is rendered from the Hebrew word rsb basar which can also mean mankind.
It should also be remembered that the latter portion of the book of Isaiah was, for the most part, written to reassure those in Jerusalem, that God was going to fulfil his promises to the faithful. The fate of the rebellious, however, is also described, especially in chapter 65:1-16, for example, and it is this fate which is aptly summed up in chapter 66:24, in the term "…the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me." This is evident from the fact that the word transgressed is rendered from the Hebrew word evp pasha, which also means to rebel.
What is more important, though, is that the "worm" and the "fire" mentioned here, does not refer to those who have "transgressed" or rebelled against the Lord. The worm here is towla, which was not a symbol of death or decay, but rather, a symbol of wealth, status, and eternal life through the son of man. So it is the faithful who shall "go forth" and it is "their seed" and "their name," that will remain, just as the "new heavens and the new earth," but it is they, also, who will be "despised by all mankind," just as Jesus was. It is their fire which shall not be quenched, not the fire of the carcasses of the rebellious.
It would appear then, that the writer of Mark, either did not know the real significance and symbolism of the undying worm when he constructed his gospel, or he simply could not find a Greek equivalent for it. In the latter case, it remains a mystery why he did not, then, transliterate the Hebrew towla, instead of using the Greek word skolex. That the writer of the Gospel of Mark completely misses the importance of the Old Testament symbology has proved to be totally misleading, for it presents the unwary reader with what appears to be just another allusion to Hell, when in fact, it is not.