If I ascend into heaven, you are there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, you art there” (Psalm 139:8)
“The way of life winds upward for the wise, that he may turn away from hell below” (Proverbs 15:24)
Many assume such passages refer to a place of eternal torment and everlasting punishment. However, other translations use completely different words which puts a different slant on the possible meaning of the word ‘hell’.
Thus in the New International version the above verses read as follows: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:8)
“The path of life leads upward for the prudent to keep them from going down to the realm of the dead” (Proverbs 15:24)
In both passages the “Hell” of the New King James Version have become “depths” and “realm of the dead” respectively. Why? It is because in the original Hebrew text the word is “sheol’ which in Hebrew refers to either the grave or to a covered place in the earth. The passages themselves do not contain any reference to eternal torments in the sense that has been believed by the members of many churches. In fact any notion of an underworld presided over by the devil is not found anywhere in the Bible. What is consistently found however is that “sheol” is a word that often refers to the place where all of mankind goes on death and that is the “grave”.
The following passages from the King James Version in which the word “hell” could be misconstrued as referring to a place of torment. Yet when the interpretation of “sheol’” is understood it becomes clear that they simply refer to the grave, as do other similar passages.
“Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit” (Isaiah 14:15)
‘Her house is the way to hell, (the grave) descending to the chambers of death’ (Proverbs 7:27)
So contrary to centuries of belief in a literal place of torment where some go after death, the Bible word behind the familiar ‘hell’ largely refers simply to the grave or a pit where all go on death. This Old Testament view of hell is the background to the New Testament usage.
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(Quotations from the New King James Version of the Bible)