The Wartburg Project

February 21st, 2024

103. Hell in the Old Testament

I have noticed that in older translations like the King James the word “hell” occurs quite often in the Old Testament.  In more recent translations it almost never occurs. Why is this?

There are two reasons for this. One is the different translations of the Hebrew word sheol (שְׁאוֹל). The other is that some scholars think that Old Testament believers did not understand the concept of hell.

The word sheol refers to the condition of death or the place of the dead. It is usually translated “death” or “grave,” but it may occasionally be translated “hell,” that is the place of eternal death. The Greek Septuagint usually translates sheol as ἅδης (hades). Luther usually translated “die Hölle.” The King James Version translates sheol as “the grave” 31 times; “hell” 31 times; and “the pit” 3 times. The New King James translates sheol as “hell” only 19 times. The NIV 84 translates sheol as “the grave” 57 times; “death” 6 times; “the realm of the dead” 1 time; “the depths” 1 time; and “hell” 0 times. The use of “realm of the dead” increases to 28 times in NIV 11. 

We immediately notice a significant reduction in the frequency of the translation “hell” in recent versions. In some versions this was due, at least in part, to changing ideas about the Old Testament concept of sheol. There are several interpretations of the term sheol that we do not accept.

  1. The belief that the Old Testament people thought of sheol as an undifferentiated underworld which became the final home of all of the dead. But the Bible clearly teaches that the destinations of the souls of the godly and of the ungodly after death are very different. It knows of two destinations, and only two, heaven and hell.  Passages which speak of all flesh heading for one destination refer to the sleep of bodies in the grave, not to the place where the souls await resurrection.

  2. The belief that a part of sheol was a temporary home for Old Testament believers until Christ would come for them after his resurrection. This place was called the limbo of the fathers. This belief was common among the Church Fathers, who thought that the purpose of Jesus’ descent into “hell” was to rescue Old Testament believers. Scripture, however, teaches that even before Jesus’ resurrection, the Old Testament saints lived in Paradise which was separated from “hell” by a great gulf (Luke 16:26 and 23:43).

  3. The belief that sheol can’t mean “hell” because the Old Testament people did not yet differentiate between the happy life with God that awaited those who believe in him and the torment that awaited those who reject him.  This idea is based on a false premise concerning the evolution of Israel’s religion.

What then should we say about the disappearance of the translation “hell” from translations like the NIV?

First, it is clear that sheol often refers to the grave, the common destination of all flesh. Even the King James frequently translates this way. It is also clear that sheol is frequently a synonym for death. Eighteen times in the Old Testament it is paralleled by the word “death.”  We should then expect that “the grave” and “death” will be the most common translations for sheol.

Should sheol ever be translated “hell”?  There are certainly passages which would permit that translation, especially those which speak of sheol as a place of torment.

The sorrows of hell compassed me about;
the snares of death prevented me. 
(Ps 116:3, NKJV)

For a fire is kindled by my anger,
And shall burn to the lowest hell;
It shall consume the earth with her increase,
And set on fire the foundations of the mountains.
(Deuteronomy 32:22.NKJV)

It also seems that the passages which contrast the heights of heaven with the depths of sheol justify the translation “hell.”

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
(Psalm 139:8, NKJV) 

It can be argued that none of these passages demand the translation “hell,” but since “hell” is the common English word for the place of fire, which is separated from heaven by the greatest gulf, it seems that “hell” is quite a natural translation in these passages. Although sheol most often will be translated “death” or “the grave,”  “hell” is appropriate in some passages. “Hell” is the required translation for some, but not all, of the New Testament occurrences of hades (e.g., Matthew 11:23, Matthew 16:18, Luke 16:23). Evading the issue by using the transliteration Sheol is not a good solution because the term sheol too easily carries with it the pagan notion of an undifferentiated underworld which is the final destination of all people.

The EHV translated sheol as hell in a few places.

For a fire has been ignited by my anger,
and it burns to the depths of hell.
It devours the earth and its produce.
It sets the foundations of the mountains on fire.
(Deuteronomy 32:22)

They are as high as the heavens. What can you do?
They are deeper than hell. What can you know?
(Job 11:8)

The spirits of the dead writhe in pain underneath the waters,
along with all those who dwell there.
Hell is naked before God,
and there is nowhere to hide in the place of destruction.
(Job 26:5-6)

There is a fire that consumes all the way to hell,
that would completely burn up all my harvest.
(Job 31:12)

For great is your mercy toward me,
and you have delivered my soul from “the lowest hell.”
(Psalm 86:13)

If I go up to heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in hell—there you are!
(Psalm 139:8)

Her feet go down to death.
Her steps lead to hell.
She gives no thought to the path of life.
Her ways wander, but she doesn’t realize it.
(Proverb 5:5-6)

But he does not know that the souls of the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of hell.
(Proverbs 9:18)

The path of life leads upward for a person with insight,
so that he may turn away from hell below.
(Proverbs 15:24)

You traveled to deliver offerings of fragrant oil to the king,
and you made many offerings of incense.
You sent your messengers to a distant land.
You sent them as far as hell.
Because of the length of your journey, you became weary,
but you did not say, “It is hopeless!”
(Isaiah 57:9-10)

Even if they dig down to hell,
from there my hand will seize them.
And even if they ascend to heaven,
from there I will bring them down.
(Amos 9:2)

It can be argued that not all of these passages demand the translation “hell,” but it seems appropriate in these places.