BibleTexts.com Commentary on
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
In the KJV Old Testament, the English word hell is always a translation of the Hebrew word sheol <Strong's #7585>. (In other verses of the KJV Old Testament, sheol is also translated as "the grave" or "the pit.") Many modern translations do not use the word "hell" in the Old Testament; instead, they use "Sheol" (Goodspeed, JB, NASB, NJB, NRSV, REB) or "the grave" (NIV) or "death" (Moffatt, TEV) or "the world of the dead" (CEV).
In the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, more than 100 times the Hebrew word sheol is translated into the Greek word hades <Strong's #86>, which is translated 12 times in the KJV New Testament as "the grave" or "hell". (The Greek Septuagint was "the Bible" that was most often used by Paul and other early Christians.)
In the KJV New Testament, 12 times the English word hell is a translation of the Greek word gehenna <Strong's #1067>, 10 times it is a translation of the Greek word hades <Strong's #86>, and 1 time it is a translation of the Greek word tartaros <Strong's #5020>. Of these three Greek words, hades is used in the Greek Septuagint more than 100 times, and tartaros is used 3 times. The Greek word gehenna is not used at all in the Septuagint, but pharagga Ennom (Valley of Hinnom), from which gehenna is derived, is used several times.
Gehenna literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom, to which the Hebrew Old Testament refers 13 times -- including 4 times in the book of Joshua (written prior to the Jewish diaspora) and 5 times in the book of Jeremiah (written during the Jewish diaspora). The Valley of Hinnom is translated in Aramaic as Gehinnom, to which the New Testament Greek refers as "gehenna." In the KJV New Testament, gehenna is most often translated as "hell," but some modern translations (Goodspeed, Moffatt, NAB, and Schonfield) use the word "gehenna" in the text instead of "hell," and many others include references to "gehenna" in the footnotes. Harper's Bible Dictionary writes:
Gehenna, hell or hellfire. The word is derived from Hebrew ge-hinnom, meaning 'valley of Hinnom,' also known in the Old Testament as 'the valley of the son(s) of Hinnom.' Located west and south of Jerusalem and running into the Kidron Valley at a point opposite the modern village of Silwan, the valley of Hinnom once formed part of the boundary between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (Josh. 15:8; 18:16; Neh. 11:30). During the monarchical period, it became the site of an infamous high place (called 'Topheth' and derived from an Aramaic word meaning 'fireplace'), where some of the kings of Judah engaged in forbidden religious practices, including human sacrifice by fire (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 32:35). Because of this, Jeremiah spoke of its impending judgment and destruction (Jer. 7:32; 19:6). King Josiah put an end to these practices by destroying and defiling the high place in the valley of Hinnom (2 Kings 23:10).
Probably because of these associations with fiery destruction and judgment, the word Gehenna came to be used metaphorically during the intertestamental period as a designation for hell or eternal damnation. In the New Testament, the word is used only in this way and never as a geographic place name. As such, Gehenna is to be distinguished from Hades, which is either the abode of all the dead in general (Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 20:13-14) or the place where the wicked await the final judgment. By contrast, the righteous enter paradise, or a state of bliss, immediately upon death (Luke 16:19-31; 23:43; 2 Cor. 12:3). Jesus warned his disciples of committing sins that would lead to Gehenna (Matt. 5:22, 29-30; 23:33; Mark 9:45; Luke 12:5). In the New Testament, Gehenna designates the place or state of the final punishment of the wicked. It is variously described as a fiery furnace (Matt. 13:42, 50), an unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43), or an eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41).
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Copyright 1998 Robert Nguyen Cramer