A friend asked me what I thought about “hell,” as in “Is there a hell?” So I thought I’d limit myself to 500 words and put it here:
There are three words in the Bible that some translators have converted to the word “hell” (Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna).
Sheol and Hades refer to (1) death, the place where people go when they die, or (2) in poetic language, as metaphors for places of darkness, despair, and pain. David implies he’s been to Sheol.
For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul (also translated as “life”) from the depths of Sheol Ps. 86:13.
David says he has a choice to go to Sheol.
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there Ps. 139:8.
If God is in heaven and in Sheol it would negate the explanation that hell is the absence of God or that God is turning His back and not watching people burn.
“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Is. 48:10).
“For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation” (Sirach 2:5).
“The vapor and smoke of the furnace precede the fire; so insults precede bloodshed” (Sirach 22:24).
Gehenna is the New Testament’s image for the furnace of fire, i.e., pain and sorrow. Gehenna was literally a dump outside Jerusalem where garbage and refuse was burned, among other things.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell (Gehenna) fire. Matt. 18:9
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell (Gehenna) as yourselves. Matt. 23:15.
“and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping (sorrow) and gnashing of teeth (anger)” Matt. 13:42.
Death itself is also a metaphor in the Bible for the absence of true life, not merely the soul leaving its body. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full (true life).”
The bottom line is this. The Bible is packed with multi-leveled metaphors and images. When we interpret the words literally, we are as the children (of Israel) who were unable to see below the surface of the literal word. The essential teachings lie in the metaphors, if we would only take the time to meditate upon them for what they can teach us that will bring peace and harmony into our lives today.
Therefore, we create hell (pain and sorrow) for ourselves when we sin because every action has its own karma or consequence (wages). What you sow is what you’ll reap.