The modern concept of hell – an eschatological location where those who reject God experience the consequence of their choice for eternity – does not exist in the OT, nor did it exist in the Jews’ theological paradigms. Rather, it originated in pagan culture; it was brought back from Babylon by rabbis.
There are many words and phrases in the NT that many people think refer to our modern notion of hell, but each were references to well-known geographical locations or literary ideas. The following are brief explanations of each word or phrase.
The Hebrew word translated as “hell” is sheol. It’s meaning is simply the place where all dead people go, regardless of whether they are good or bad or what they believe.
A valley where child sacrifices were performed. It is an actual physical location on earth, not a spiritual destination in the afterlife.
“Where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”
This is an expression in Isaiah 66:24 about the dead corpses of men who were believed to have been judged in this life at Gehenna.
This originally referred to the Greek god of the underworld but eventually came to designate the abode of the dead. This Greek term parallels the Hebrew term sheol.
“The lake of fire”
This is an idiomatic reference to the Dead Sea.
The deep abyss that is used as a dungeon of torment and suffering for the wicked in ancient Greek mythology.
(If you’ve never studied these words before, I encourage you to look them up more deeply than I’ve presented them here.)
The Jews did not have our modern concept of hell. Hence, it makes no sense for us to assume that these words refer to our modern notions of hell when these words are used in bibles; since hell is never explicitly defined in the modern way, it would be impossible for the original hearers/readers to conceive of them in such a way.
“Hell” is therefore an inaccurate translation – it is a concept that did not even exist during the time of the writing of the scriptures. Any word translated as such only refers to the present and never to the immortal world (unless you want to believe in Greek mythology).
These words were translated in bibles into the English word “hell” (or, in the case of phrases, interpreted to refer to the modern conception of hell). Yet as we’ve seen, each word has a unique meaning and cannot be properly understood by grouping them into a single English word (that happens to not have the same definition as any of the words, and often has a very different meaning). This act of poor translation would be like uniformly translating the English words sky, space, and heaven into one other word in another language.
Hell is self-made. Hell is our own rejection of God, not God’s rejection of us. The consequences are experienced now in this life, and perhaps in the next life as well. However, there is no evidence in the scriptures whatsoever for the modern notion of hell.
What the Hell is Heaven?
The Truth About Hell