If asked, many of us would have a hard time answering the question,
"what is hell"? You might think that the answer to this question
is simple, but not necessarily.
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word "sheol" is commonly
translated as "hell" and "the grave" in the King James
Bible. Sometimes it is translated as "pit". Not all translations
translate "sheol" in this way. For example, the NIV translates
"sheol" as "the grave", not as hell.
Therefore the concept of "sheol" (or hell) that is found in
the Old Testament was a place one goes to at death. This place was
understood to be a place deep within the earth, the farthest place from
Heaven. This was a place where everyone ended up with few exceptions,
Elijah being one.
The idea of punishment for sin in Old Testament times was seen in terms
of being punished in this life, and therefore "sheol" was not a
place for punishment, rather a place for departed souls. Yet in the New
Testament this concept of "sheol" changed. "Sheol"
became a place where evil or lost souls went, and also a place where
demons and evil powers lived.
This brings us to the New Testament concept of hell. There are 2 main
Greek words that are translated as "hell" in the New Testament,
and they are, "hades", and "gehenna".
The Septuagint is the Old Testament that was translated from Hebrew
into Greek Ė what Jesus, Paul and others read. It is interesting to note
that the Hebrew word "sheol" is translated into Greek as "hades".
Thus in the first century people understood "sheol" in terms of
As I have said, the Greek word "hades" is translated as hell
in many English versions of the Bible, but when understood in context was
more than a place where all dead people went. It was a place where the
lost dead went and also a place where evil power lived.
The Greek word "gehenna", is the other word that is often
translated as "hell". "Gehenna" was a real place just
outside of Jerusalem. It was a garbage dump where garbage was burned, thus
when people used this word, they pictured a "place of burning",
thus a place of punishment. You now see that the New Testament shifts hell
from being a place where all dead people go, to a place where the lost
dead people go as a place of punishment.
In Eph. 4:10 Paul says that Jesus "descended into the lower parts
of the earth". It is thought that at this moment in time Jesus
released to good souls from "hades", or "hell" to be
with Him in "paradise". Thus at this point it appears that the
Old Testament concept of hell changed into the New Testament concept.
In Mat. 27:51 Ė 53 we read that when Jesus died the thick curtain in
the temple was ripped in two from the top to the bottom. At the same time
it is said that many holy souls rose from the dead. This could easily
refer to what Paul spoke about in Eph. 4:10 where Jesus went to the lower
parts and released the holy saints of old, most likely from hell.
In conclusion, what is hell? The Old Testament concept of hell was a
place, far from Heaven, where all dead people went. Yet at the cross hellís
definition changed. Jesus released the good saints from this place,
leaving the lost souls with all other evil powers. Hell now is a place
where unbelievers go after death.
You might ask, "is hell and the lake of fire the same thing"?
It appears to me that hell and the lake of fire are 2 separate things. I
say this because in Rev .20:14, "both death and hell were thrown into
the lake of fire". If hell was thrown into the lake of fire, then
hell and the lake of fire canít be the same thing. Whether the lake of
fire is presently in existence, waiting for that day to come, or it is
something that God will creates in the future, I am not certain at this
In closing, unbelievers will go to hell at death, while believers will
go to parades at death, as did one of the men who died with Jesus. At some
future point, all those in hell, along with hell, will be thrown into the
lake of fire, while the believers in paradise will find themselves in the
New Jerusalem, or the new earth.