Wayne Holland: The Irrational Universe

Is There a Hell?

... January 27, 2008 ...


In the New International Version of the Bible, the first appearance of the infamous word hell is found in Matthew 5:22:

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fires of hell.

In the King James Version, the first instance of this dread word is in Deuteronomy 32:22:

For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.

As disappointing as it may be for the fire-and-brimstone element in our midst, the English word hell should not appear in either verse—in any translation. As a matter of fact, its use its questionable anywhere in the Bible, little more than an instance of an egregious faux pas in translation.

Of special interest though, is the warning contained in the Gehenna passage, which is little more than a caution from Jesus about the risk of not receiving a proper Jewish burial. Bodies (primarily of criminals) disposed of in Gehenna, a constantly smoldering garbage dump just outside Jerusalem, were literally cremated, a staunchly unacceptable burial practice for both Jews and Muslims.

There are four different words that are translated as the single English word hell:

Sheol (Hebrew)
Hades (Greek)
Gehenna (Greek)
Tartarus (Greek)

A proper translation of these words would give some consideration to cultural distinctions, distinctions (we should keep in mind) separated by thousands of years. The Greeks, for example, did not infer from Hades what we do from hell.

To the Greeks, Hades was a term derived from their acknowledged mythology. To the average citizen of the modern era (at least in the West and Middle East), hell is most definitely not mythological (or metaphorical). To translate Hades, therefore, as hell is to virtually tell a white lie, as if the translators are trying to pull the proverbial wool over our eyes.

The best way to handle the cultural distinctions inherent in these words is to not translate them at all, but to transliterate them. If we were to do that, the first verse above would appear as follows:

But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fires of Gehenna.

The second would read much as the NIV offers it:

For a fire has been kindled by my wrath,
one that burns to Sheol below.
It will devour the earth and its harvests
and set afire the foundations of the mountains.

In the NIV, the word Sheol in this verse is properly translated as realm of death. This is also the correct translation for Hades. In fact, Hades is the New Testament equivalent of Sheol.

If we are translating the words, we should take care to do it properly, and not simply substitute an English word that we merely suspect captures the correct translation. To do so is to step outside the bounds of the translating task and venture into the realm of interpretation, or paraphrase.

Translators should not interpret; they should translate.

If we are somehow reluctant (for whatever reason) about translating Hades as realm of the dead, then we should simply insert the literal word itself - Hades.

How many have been led astray (not to mention utterly terrified) only because of sheer laziness on the part of a translator? If the translation were handled the way it is supposed to be, we would never read the word "hell" in the Bible - not anywhere.

We should view it as of utmost importance to make every effort to completely dispel the myth of hell that is so neurotically embraced in our culture. If such myth were sufficiently discredited, the silliness of Christianity (and Islam) would disappear from the face of the earth. And nothing could more improve the general condition of mankind than to completely discredit these patently absurd (and, truth be told, sister) ideologies.

There is little doubt that Hell (with a capital H) is the only reason that anyone is a Christian or a Muslim in the first place. It is without question the strongest link in the chain that virtually enslaves them to their much-touted (but utterly vile) religions.

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