A friend of mine recently emailed me:
“Is the word hell a mistranslated word from the words hades, gehenna, tartarus and sheol? Why, in your opinion, is there such a gross mistranslation to take even 3 God breathed words and make them one?”
Hades in Greek Mythology was an evolving concept. In Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), Hades is presented as a place where all the dead went to exist in a ghostly form. It didn’t matter if you were good or evil, everyone had the same fate, although there was a place called Tartarus which was a prison-house for the Titans where they were held without any sort of torture.
By the time Jesus was born, this concept of Hades had changed. The Greco-Romans then believed good people went to a paradise in Hades called the Isles of the Blest, while the bad went to Tartarus in Hades where they were tortured by the Furies.
Understanding the Greek concept of Hades is important to because I think it had a significant impact on how Hades, Tartarus and Sheol became known as “hell.” It started off with the Jews being conquered by the Greeks and becoming steeped in Hellenistic culture and thought. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees believed in a similar form of Hades, except paradise was called Abraham’s Bosom. It may seem strange that the Jews would have bought into this Greek home of the dead, except for one significant event.
In the 3rd century BC, the Greek ruler, Ptolemy Philadelphus, requisitioned a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. This was supposedly accomplished by 72 scholars, and so this version was known as the Septuagint. The important thing for us is that the Hebrew home of the dead, Sheol, had been translated as “Hades.”
It is true that Sheol is depicted in the Old Testament as a home of the dead, however, it is, along with five other words (the grave, Abaddon, worms, the pit and darkness), used as a metaphor for death. All the dead end up together in Sheol (the pit, darkness, the grave, destroyed by Abaddon, eaten by worms). There is no bliss for the righteous or punishment for the wicked in Sheol; it a place where the dead rest in death.
The Septuagint was the version of the Old Testament we see quoted in the New Testament; it was used by the early church. Because Sheol had been translated as “Hades” in the Septuagint, I believe there was tremendous confusion. It is no wonder that Sheol, Hades and Tartarus became associated with Gehenna, the place of fiery judgment Jesus preached about. That’s a short answer. Hope that helps.