For ordinary people, the ideas of heaven and hell are fairly simple. Heaven is a wonderful place where good people go when they die. It has blue skies, green fields and lots of lovely flowers and fruit trees. Hell is a horrible place where bad people go. They will be tormented there with fire and brimstone for ever and ever.
For Bible-believing people, teaching on the subject is similar, but more clearly defined. People who have accepted Jesus as saviour go to heaven when they die. Those who have rejected him go to hell. And where they go they will remain for ever and ever. Of course many people throughout history have never heard of Jesus and therefore neither accepted nor rejected him. Opinions differ on what will happen to them.
But surprisingly, neither Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) nor Greek (the language of the New Testament) has any clear word either for heaven or for hell. In this writing we will study the Hebrew words Paradise, Sheol and Gehenna and the Greek word Hades, and come to a new and revolutionary understanding of the whole subject.
The Hebrew word שְׁאֹל (Sheol) occurs many times throughout the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) and the nearest English equivalent of it is the word grave. Most translations render Sheol as grave, but some translations like the KJV translate it as hell, which is very misleading. Hell in most people’s mind is a place of punishment and torment, whereas Sheol is completely neutral. As Job said, “The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master” (Job 3:19). A few translations leave the word Sheol in its Hebrew form.
The earlier part of the Hebrew scriptures has no concept of the afterlife: no punishments for the wicked and no rewards for the good. Later, as in Daniel 12:2,3, we find the concept of resurrection with punishments for the wicked and rewards for the righteous.
The word Sheol comes from the verb שָׁאַל (sha'al) meaning to enquire. Perhaps this is because we ask where the dead are, but we do not know.
Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol. Throughout the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) Sheol is nearly always rendered as Hades. The word Hades comes from a root meaning unseen. Hades is the unseen world of the dead.
Both Sheol and Hades contained all who had died, both good and bad; but in Sheol they were simply dead, whereas in Hades they continued in conscious existence.
For good people, Hades was a place of happiness; for the bad it was a place of misery. In the New Testament, Jesus describes the rich man as being in torment in Hades.
Most older translations and a few modern ones render Hades as hell. As with Sheol, this is very misleading because in most people’s minds hell has the sense of punishment and torment, which is not there in the Greek word Hades. Many modern translations simply leave it as Hades.
In Matt 16:18, Jesus said, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”. Most older Bibles put “Gates of hell” which, I think, is a bad translation. Most modern Bibles put “Gates of Hades”.
Most English translations render γεενα as hell. A few leave it as Gehenna. This word only occurs 12 times in the NT, 11 of which are from the mouth of Jesus himself.
What is Gehenna?
Gehenna is actually the Hebrew phrase גֵּי הִנֹּם (Gei Hinom) transliterated into Greek as γεενα. Gei Hinom means the valley of Hinom which is a valley in Jerusalem. Next time you’re in Israel, type Gei Hinom into your satnav or ask your taxi driver to take you there, and you should end up in Gehenna!
This valley of Hinom was a place where children were sacrificed as burnt offerings to the Canaanite god Moloch. (See 2Kgs 23:10, 2Chr 28:3, 2Chr 33:6, Jer 7:31 and Jer 32:35.) Two wicked kings of Judah, Ahaz and Manasseh, both did this among their many other evil deeds. Later this valley became a burying ground (see Jer 7:31).
Jesus referred to Gehenna in the following passage: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire.And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:43-48).
Very clearly, this passage cannot be taken literally. No way does God want people to cut off their hands or their feet or take out their eyes; and no way will people, who fail to mutilate these offending parts of their bodies, be taken to Jerusalem and thrown physically into the Valley of Hinom (Gehenna)! We must search for a spiritual meaning for these words of Jesus.
Hands speak of our actions; feet speak of the places where we go; eyes speak of what we look at. Any of these can cause us to sin.
There is no mention of Gehenna in the writings of Peter, Paul or John, but we do find something similar to it in the book of Revelation. The following passages all mention a lake which burns with fire and sulphur: Rev 19:20, Rev 20:10, Rev 20:14, Rev 20:15, Rev 21:8.
Rev 21:8 says: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”
Both Gehenna (the Valley of Hinom) and the Lake of Fire speak of places with continually burning fire. Probably both were places of volcanic activity, one being a valley and the other a lake. Both are clearly pictures of spiritual realities, rather than to be understood literally as physical places. A human spirit cannot be burnt in a physical fire, and certainly not for ever.
What is the meaning of the word Paradise? To us it probably means a place of great beauty and happiness; but that is not its original meaning. It was originally a Persian word meaning an enclosed area for growing fruit; in other words, an orchard or a vineyard.
It is used 3 times in the OT in this sense in Neh 2:8, Eccl 2:5 and Song 4:13 and most often translated orchard.
In the New Testament, the Hebrew word פַּרְדֵּס (Pardes) is transliterated into the Greek word παράδεισος (Paradeisos) and then into English and other languages as Paradise.
Paradise is not another name for heaven. It is another name for the Garden of Eden. This is clear from Revelation 2:7: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”. The tree of life was in the Garden of Eden.
In Gen 2:8,9 we read, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, ... and out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. All fruit trees and no mention of flowers! Eden was not a garden with beautiful flowers, as we may have thought, but an orchard full of delicious fruit!
The Greek word παραδεισος appears just 3 times in the NT: Luke 23:43, 2Cor 12:3-4 and Rev 2:7. Jesus said to the criminal crucified beside him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”. The man would have understood this as meaning the Garden (Orchard!) of Eden.
We have considered the literal meanings of Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and the Lake of Fire. We cannot understand their real meanings unless we understand that Jesus spoke in parables; not only did Jesus speak in parables, but many other things also in the Bible are parables that cannot be understood literally.
Jesus spoke in parables, but what does this really mean? It means that he spoke about spiritual realities in earthly terms.
Let’s look at some examples:
We all know the parable of the sower (Matt 13:3-8). Jesus told a simple story about a sower sowing seed into four different types of ground. This story made no mention of God, heaven, hell or anything spiritual or religious. It was a simple everyday story. Even when Jesus explained the parable (Matt 13:18-23) he used almost no spiritual language. He said the seed was the word of the kingdom and the birds that took away the seed were the evil one. Again Jesus did not mention God or the devil or even the gospel. He spoke entirely in natural terms.
Matthew chapter 13 contains seven parables:
All of these parables are simple everyday stories. Not one of them contains the word God. All of them are illustrations of the kingdom of heaven in completely natural terms. Most of them begin with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like ...”. Jesus then gives a familiar earthly picture, but with little or no explanation.
Even the phrase kingdom of heaven or more literally kingdom of the sky is itself a parable. A kingdom is an area on earth ruled by a king. The kingdom of the sky is picture language for the realm of the spirit where God rules.
In John’s gospel, Jesus also spoke in parables:
In each case, Jesus was using ordinary human language and giving it a spiritual meaning. In each case, his hearers failed to understand him. (See Understanding Jesus.)
We must now take a fresh look at the meanings of the words heaven and hell in our English Bibles.
The English language has separate words for heaven and sky. Hebrew has only one word שָׁמַיִם (shamayim) and Greek has only one word οὐρανος (ouranos) for these two English words. In modern English we understand the word heaven to mean the place where God lives and where people "go" after death, but neither shamayim nor οὐρανος had that sense. Both of these words simply meant sky.
In other words, there is no word in the Bible in either Hebrew or Greek that means heaven in the sense that we normally think of it.
Do we go to heaven when we die? Let’s look at some key passages.
The phrase “go to heaven” occurs nowhere in the Bible.
Jesus himself did not come from heaven and go back to heaven. He came from God and went back to God (see John 13:3).
Jesus said to the criminal crucified beside him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Paul wrote, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:22-24). Like Jesus, Paul was not going to a place, but to a person.
What did Jesus say to Nicodemus?
Jesus was not talking about Nicodemus “going to heaven” when he died. He was talking about first seeing the kingdom of God and then entering the kingdom of God, during this life.
The kingdom of God is the spiritual world. We don’t need to wait till we die before we can see it or enter it. We can see it and enter it now, if we are born again.
John 14:1-3 is a favourite Bible passage for reading at funerals: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Was Jesus comforting his disciples by assuring them they would go to heaven when they died? Or when he came again?
Jesus did not mention heaven in this passage or what would happen when his disciples died. Nearly 2000 years have passed and he still hasn’t come again! Or at least he has not come in the way the disciples expected or that most people nowadays expect. If you read all of John chapters 14, 15 and 16, you will see that the whole context of this passage is the coming of the Holy Spirit. Later in this chapter Jesus clarified his words by saying “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). Jesus fulfilled his promise, not by taking the disciples to heaven when they died, but by coming again on the day of Pentecost! On that day, paraphrasing Paul’s words in Eph 2:6, “God raised the disciples up with Jesus and seated them with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”. (I’ve written fully on this subject in The Coming of the Lord).
We must consider in more detail the Greek words οὐρανος (ouranos), which is a noun normally translated heaven or sky and its adjective ἐπουρανιος (epouranios) normally translated heavenly or heavenly places.
Several Bible passages show us that οὐρανος is not simply the place where God lives. It is also a place inhabited by Satan and evil spirits.
Two passages in Ephesians tell us about heavenly places. Eph 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. Eph 6:12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but ... against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”. We have blessings in the heavenly places; we wrestle with spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Rev 12:7 gives us the same message: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back”. Heaven, the heavenly realm, is not all goodness, peace and beauty; it is also a place of conflict.
Eph 2:2 is similar: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience”.
The English word hell comes from a root that means to hide or conceal. The words helmet (which protects the head) and cellar (where things are hidden) come from the same root. The word occult also comes from the same root. Originally, hell meant the hidden world, just as Hades meant the unseen world. Later the word hell took on the meaning of a place of fiery torment for sinners.
In Norse mythology, Hel was the name of the underworld where the dead dwell. A fierce goddess, also called Hel, presided over it. People thought it was located underground.
The word Hell is used in older English translations to translate the words Hades and Gehenna. Most modern translations keep the Greek word Hades but replace the word Gehenna with the word Hell. A few translations keep the words Hades and Gehenna and do not have the word Hell at all.
Is Hell a legitimate translation of Hades? Definitely not! Hades was a place where both the good and the bad went after death, whereas Hell, in everybody’s minds, is a place where bad people go to suffer endless torment.
Is Hell a legitimate translation of Gehenna? Again, the answer is no! In the New Testament, both the Hebrew words Paradise and Gehenna are simply written in the Greek as παραδεισος and γεενα. The Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible which dominated Europe for more than 1000 years) continued the practice and left the words as Paradisus and Gehenna. Many English translations retain the word Paradise, but replace Gehenna with the heathen word Hell. It cannot be right to replace the Hebrew place name Gei Hinom (Gehenna - valley of Hinom) with the heathen word Hell with all its heathen implications.
Surprisingly, the word Gehenna only appears outside the gospels in James 3:6. Throughout the book of Acts, neither Peter nor Paul ever warned people that if they didn’t believe in Jesus they would be tormented in Gehenna or Hell for ever and ever. They had better things to teach than that.
Nowhere are we told that Satan and his angels, the evil spirits, live in hell. Very surprisingly we find (in Rev 14:10) Jesus and his angels supervising the “torment” of unbelievers in the lake of fire (“hell”).
This means that the whole doctrine of Hell, as taught for centuries by the traditional church, has almost no foundation in Scripture. The Bible certainly speaks of judgment and punishment for both believers and unbelievers, but this is never connected with a place called Hell.
Let me repeat, the Hebrew language has no clear word for heaven and no word for hell in the senses those words have in modern English. The Greek language is the same: no clear word for heaven and no clear word for hell.
All these words are pictures of the spiritual world; they are not alternative names for heaven and hell.
Bible translators have often translated according to traditional church teachings on heaven and hell and other subjects also. They have not always translated in line with the truth.
The traditional church view is that there are two separate places called Heaven and Hell. At death everyone goes to one or other of these places and stays there for eternity. This view does not come from the Bible, but from centuries of church tradition and originally from heathen religions.
In the Bible, we find Satan and his angels in “Heaven” and Jesus and his angels in “Hell” (the lake of fire), and no clear word for either heaven or hell in the Scriptures in Hebrew or in Greek.
What, then, is the true picture? I believe that these two Greek words, οὐρανος and ἐπουρανιος, normally translated heaven or sky and heavenly, actually refer to the whole spiritual world. This spiritual world contains both good and evil. The words Paradise, Gehenna and Hades are not names of places, but are picture language for different aspects of this spiritual world.
The heaven of heavens or highest heaven, mentioned in 2Chron 2:6, and the bottomless pit, mentioned in Rev 9:2, may be two extremes of this spiritual world.
The idea that all believers go to a single place called heaven and unbelievers all go to a single place called hell makes little sense. Unbelievers have huge variations in their lives. A few of them are utterly wicked people who have lived very evil lives. Many of them have lived upright lives and may have been earnest followers of other religions. Justice demands that, at death, each should pass into an appropriate place in the spiritual world.
Equally, there is huge variation in the spiritual state of believers. Some have lived their lives in deep consecration and fellowship with God. Others have some level of faith, but have lived their lives mainly for the world and for themselves. All of these also should pass into a place in the spiritual world that is appropriate to their development. From there they can progress upwards till their eventual full union with God. Jesus said to the criminal who died beside him, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, walked with God for a further 40 or 50 years and then went to be with Jesus, I believe, in the highest heaven.
The Indian Sadhu Sundar Singh was a man who saw many visions. I recommend his book Visions of the Spiritual World (available from Amazon). In it, he describes some of what he saw. In the preface he writes, “By the Spiritual World is meant all spiritual beings that progress through the stages between the darkness of the bottomless pit and the throne of the Lord in light.” He also saw the Kingdom of God as one vast realm containing both good and evil.
We read in 1Peter 3:18-19 that after death, “Jesus preached to the spirits in prison”. We read in Heb 4:14 that Jesus “passed through the heavens”. We read in Eph 4:10 that Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things”. We see from these three scriptures that Jesus passed from the depth to the height of the whole spiritual world.
The 7 parables of Matthew 13 also point to the huge range of the spiritual world. Look at the parable of the net in Matt 13:47-50: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net. ... So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace.” Clearly this speaks of the wider spiritual world, rather than a pure place where God lives with saints and angels.
The parable of the weeds (Matt 13:24-30) is similar, as is the parable of the leaven (Matt 13:33). In both of these parables, we find “heaven” contains a mixture of good and evil.
Paul wrote the following words to the Colossians: “For everything was created by Him [Jesus], in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things have been created through Him and for Him ... For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile everything to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross - whether things on earth or things in heaven” (see Col 1:16-20). This passage speaks of God’s unimaginably vast plan to create and then redeem and reconcile the whole spiritual world to himself.
We have considered the meanings of the words Paradise, Sheol, Hades and Gehenna. These are not alternative names for Heaven and Hell, as many of us have been led to believe. Rather they are pictorial words in Hebrew and Greek for different aspects of the whole spiritual world.
This spiritual world, though mostly hidden from our sight in this life, is all around us. Its variety and scope is far greater than that of our present world.
At death, we will awake in the place and level in the spiritual world that is appropriate for us. From there we will continue our progress till our eventual full union with God our Father.
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