Throughout history, the topic of hell has fascinated people of all cultures. As Christians examine what the Bible says about hell, they don’t always agree on the implications and meaning of hell.
One reason for this disagreement is that “hell” doesn’t appear uniformly across different English translations. So how many times is hell mentioned in the Bible?
In English, it depends on which translation you use. In Hebrew, two words combine for up to 35 Old Testament references to hell, and another 12 to 20 references to hell are found across three different New Testament Greek words.
Varying English Translations
Let’s begin our examination of the frequency of “hell” in the Bible with a review of the most widely used English translations:
- King James Version (KJV): 54 times
- New International Version (NIV): 13 times
- English Standard Version (ESV): 14 times
- New Living Translation (NLT): 17 times
At a glance, it is clear that while some differences exist across all translations, the KJV diverges significantly from the 20th and 21st-century translations.
Why the Difference?
There are two main reasons why translations vary. The first is that languages are constantly changing. So we do not speak English the same way that we did 400, 100, or even 30 years ago. As updated translations are issued, some words and phrases are rendered differently in order to best express their ideas in their generation’s language.
Peripheral to this reason is the fact that translators may aim for a target reading level or proficiency, and might choose to simplify vocabulary where the original text allows such latitude.
The second reason translations change is that different original-language manuscripts may be available that were not available (or were not used) during an earlier translation. Much of the difference between the KJV and newer translations owes to the fact that newer translations rely on a wider selection of manuscripts, some of which had not yet been discovered when the KJV was translated.
Also, with the discovery of additional manuscripts comes the discovery of non-Biblical writings and a deeper understanding of the culture and context in which the original scriptures were written.
Five Words for Hell
In the case of “hell,” most of the differences between the KJV and newer translations owe to disparate renderings of the Hebrew word Sheol, and the dynamic uses of the word in ancient Hebrew. Before we unpack Sheol, there is an earlier Hebrew word that we must consider.
Though most English translations render this sparsely used Hebrew word as “destruction,” at least one (NLT) renders it as “hell” (most likely to improve readability).
Abaddon appears only five times in the Old Testament, and only in the wisdom books:
- Psalms x1
- Proverbs x1
- Job x3
It is noteworthy that Abaddon’s most prominent use is in Job, not only because of the theme of suffering that arches across the narrative of Job, but because Job is believed to be the first book of the Old Testament to have been written.
In the Bible and in extra-Biblical literature, Abaddon refers to a place of destruction, and at times is used alongside the Hebrew Sheol, as below:
Hell [Sheol] is naked before him, and destruction [Abaddon] hath no covering.Job 26:6 KJV
In ancient Hebrew, Sheol was used generally to describe the aftermath of death and appears 65 times in the Old Testament. Sheol is used to describe both the physical state of death and the spiritual state.
In the KJV, where the context of a passage is in obvious reference to a physical destination, the KJV renders Sheol as “grave,” or occasionally as “pit.” (1 Samuel 2:6, Numbers 16:33)
In less-literal speech, Sheol embodies the idea of a place of no return, a place of punishment apart from God, and the degradation of sin. In such contexts, the KJV prefers to render Sheol as “hell”:
- The sorrows of hell (2 Samuel 22:6)
- The pains of hell (Psalm 116:3)
- Deliver his soul from hell (Proverbs 23:14)
- We have made a covenant with death and with hell (Isaiah 28:15)
Newer translations have departed from rendering Sheol as “hell,” opting instead to widen the use of “grave” and its synonyms, even in symbolic contexts. Some translations have even chosen to co-opt Sheol into English as a transliteration.
The reason for this divergence from the KJV translations is that the ancient Israelites did not understand death, the afterlife, and hell quite the same way that New Testament writers and early Christians did. In Hebrew thought, the afterlife as a whole was described as Sheol, while Christian thought distinguished separate destinations within the afterlife as heaven and hell.
Written in Greek, the New Testament makes use of the familiar Greek term Hades to describe the Sheol of Jewish thinking.
Hades appears 11 times in the New Testament and is generally used the same way that Sheol is used in the Old Testament to describe a destination in the afterlife (though distinct from heaven- see Luke 10:15) or the power of sin and death (Matthew 16:18, 1 Corinthians 15:55).
In Greek mythology, Hades was the god of the underworld, and so lends his name to the realm of the dead. Though Hades is seen as a place of decay and desolation, the idea of torment and punishment is expressed in two different New Testament words.
Making use of further imagery that would be familiar to a Greek-speaking and educated audience, Peter makes a single reference to a particular level of Hades called Tartarus:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell [Tartarus], putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment;2 Peter 2:4
In Greek lore, Tartarus was among the lowest depths of Hades, designed for punishment and reserved for the worst evildoers. Here, Peter specifies it as the ultimate destination of the fallen angels who followed Satan into rebellion against God.
To the Jews around Jerusalem, this notion of torment was better expressed by a different word.
Making 12 appearances in the New Testament, Gehenna is the word from which we derive our most vivid imagery of the torment, fire, and severity of hell. Apart from one exception (James 3:6), all other utterances of Gehenna come directly from the words of Jesus.
South of Jerusalem, in the valley of Ben Hinnom, the Old Testament records several instances of sacrifices being made to the false gods Baal and Molek (2 Chronicles 28:1-3, 2 Kings 23:10). King Manasseh, one of the most notorious of Judah’s kings, even sacrificed his own children there:
Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord… He sacrificed his children in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom… He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.2 Chronicles 33:1-2, 6
Ben Hinnom (Gehenna in first-century Aramaic) served as Jerusalem’s garbage dump (or ash heap), where refuse—including animal carcasses and human waste—was burned for disposal. It was for this reason that it was a common location for pagan sacrifices in the Old Testament. And as waste was continuously added to the fire, it never ceased to burn, staying aflame for centuries.
The fires of Gehenna served as an assault on all five senses. So it should not surprise us that Jesus chose this location to describe a place of judgment (Matthew 23:23) with unquenchable fire (Mark 9:45).
Though it is never translated as hell in English, our discussion would not be complete if we neglected to mention the Lake of Fire. The Lake of Fire is referenced five times, exclusively in the final chapters of Revelation.
After the beast, the false prophet, and the devil are sentenced to the Lake of Fire (v 19:20, 20:10), death and hell (Hades– all those not permitted to enter heaven) follow:
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.Revelation 20:13-15
This, scripture tells us, is the second death—the final disposition of hell. From this death, there will be no redemption. As Christians, this ought to spurn our urgency to live lives for Christ in a grace-filled way that invites others to receive him and know him, too.