The word used in the Authorized Version (as well as in the Catholic Douay Version and most older translations) to translate the Hebrew sheʼohl’ and the Greek haiʹdes. In the Authorized Version the word “hell” is rendered from sheʼohlʹ thirty-one times and from haiʹdes ten times. This version is not consistent, however, since sheʼohlʹ is also translated thirty-one times “grave” and three times “pit.” In the Douay Version sheʼohlʹ is rendered “hell” sixty-three times, “pit” once and “death” once.
In 1885, with the publication of the complete English Revised Version, the original word sheʼohlʹ was in many places transliterated into the English text of the Hebrew Scriptures, though, in most occurrences, “grave” and “pit” were used, and “hell” is found some fourteen times. This was a point on which the American committee disagreed with the British revisers, and, so, when producing the American Standard Version (1901) they transliterated sheʼohlʹ in all sixty-five of its appearances. Both versions transliterated haiʹdes in the Christian Greek Scriptures in all ten of its occurrences, though the Greek word Geʹen·na (English, “Gehenna”) is rendered “hell” throughout, as is true of many other modern translations.
Concerning this use of “hell” to translate these original words in the Hebrew and Greek, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine (Vol. II, p. 187) says: “HADES . . . It corresponds to ‘Sheol’ in the O.T. [Old Testament]. In the A.V. of the O.T.[Old Testament] and N.T. [New Testament], it has been unhappily rendered ‘Hell.’”
Collier’s Encyclopedia (1965 ed., Vol. 12, p. 27) says concerning “Hell”: “First it stands for the Hebrew Sheol of the Old Testament and the Greek Hades of the Septuagint and New Testament. Since Sheol in Old Testament times referred simply to the abode of the dead and suggested no moral distinctions, the word ‘hell,’ as understood today, is not a happy translation.”
It is, in fact, because of the way that the word “hell” is understood today that it provides such an ‘unhappy’ medium for translating these original Bible words. Basically, the original meaning of the word “hell” is quite similar to the meaning of these Scriptural words, but that meaning has been lost from sight and replaced by another meaning in great contrast to the original. Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, under “Hell” says: “from helan, to cover, conceal.” The word “hell” thus originally conveyed no thought of heat or torment but simply of a ‘covered over or concealed place’ and hence was very similar to the meaning of the Hebrew sheʼohlʹ. In the old English dialect the expression “helling potatoes” meant, not to roast them, but simply to place the potatoes in the ground or in a cellar.
The meaning given today to the word “hell” is that portrayed in Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which meaning is completely foreign to the original definition of the word. The idea of a “hell” of fiery torment, however, dates back long before Dante or Milton. The Grolier Universal Encyclopedia (1965 ed., Vol. 5, p. 205) under “Hell” says: “Hindus and Buddhists regard hell as a place of spiritual cleansing and final restoration. Islamic tradition considers it a place of everlasting punishment.” It is also found among the pagan religious teachings of ancient peoples in Babylon, Persia and Phoenicia. The Encyclopedia Americana (1956 ed., Vol. 14, p. 82) says: “While there are many and significant variations of detail the main features of hell as conceived by Hindu, Persian, Egyptian, Grecian, Hebrew and Christian theologians are essentially the same.”
Since this concept of “hell” has been a basic teaching in Christendom for many centuries, it is understandable why the foregoing authority says (on p. 81): “Much confusion and misunderstanding has been caused through the early translators of the Bible persistently rendering the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades and Gehenna by the word hell. The simple transliteration of these words by the translators of the revised editions of the Bible has not sufficed to appreciably clear up this confusion and misconception.” Nevertheless, such transliteration and consistent rendering does enable the Bible student to make an accurate comparison of the texts in which these original words appear and, with open mind, thereby to arrive at a correct understanding of their true significance.—See GEHENNA; GRAVE; HADES; SHEOL; TARTARUS.