Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Origin Of "Hell": History & Mythology Explains

It is no shock, within the Christian community, that in the original Greek manuscripts of the Holy Bible--Old Testament and New Testament--that the word “hell” does not appears anywhere in it; so…

What is the origin of the word “hell”?

Why the change in translation to “hell” in the first place?

There is much truth that can be applied when one simply takes the time to investigate historical accounts on the “What…?” and “Why…?” certain things as we know them today came about. However, sometimes history does not offer the full conclusions or answers that we are looking for; and with that, it can be helpful to look to other resources that, perhaps, are deemed as mere fiction; but if you looked closely, meaning can sometimes be found to hints of truths.

Mythology: the study of myths

Myth: a story of great but unknown age which originally embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personalized; an anceint legand of a god, a hero, the origin of a race; a wonder story of prehistoric origin; a popular fable which is, or has been received as historical.

The Myth

Most of us are familiar with the Scandinavian Vikings of Northern-Europe; and indeed they were very barbarian like, as most of us perceive; and in realm of religion, very pagan in their beliefs. Their main form of religion and religious rituals varied in geographic areas; however, the foundation of their pagan religion was seen through the mythological stories of Norse; and the god, Thor (god of lighting and thunder powered by his mystical belt and hammer), was the pride of their gods when it came to worship and sacrifice.

Furthermore, as with many other classic mythologies, such as the Greeks; and various established religions, such as Christianity, one major commonality seems to stand out in all them--life after death; a place of paradise and a place of torment--and the Norse mythology was no different. Within the Norse, paradise or the dwelling place of the gods was known as Asgard; and their place of torment or the dwelling place of the evil giants was known as Hel. Their belief in their pagan god/hero Thor was strong, but it was not strong enough; and due to the overwhelming coalitions of the Christian Crusaders to abolish pagan religions in Europe to establish Christianity, the Norse followers symbol the Hammer of Thor was replaced by the Cross of Jesus (1100-1200 AD); however, not all of the Norse mythology would be stripped away, but rather one aspect would remain even till today, which we will later see.

“Hell” Translated

The word “hell” is not found in the original Greek text of the Bible; and likewise, the same is known of the first Latin translation in 4th century AD. The first English translation of the Bible is credited to Oxford professor, John Wycliffe, around 1380AD; and it is here when the first use of the word “hell” first comes on the seen. The origin of the word “hell” actually derived from the old English words “hel” or “helle”, which often referred to as a “nether world for the dead.” The words that were subsequently replaced by “hell” in the English translation from the original Greek Bible were “Gehenna” and “Hades” (some translations today do in fact keep “Hades”). However, this change in translations brings the question--“Why the change to ‘hell’ in the first place?”

This question, unfortunately, has led many over the centuries to theorize various conspiracies on the Christian origin of “hell” and although, entertaining these “hell” conspiracies maybe, all are speculative at best and simply imaginary tales created to discredit Christianity. But if a person is willing to take the time and look into history--the fog of speculations will be made clear in the historic facts.

The History

If you are familiar with the New Testament and the history around that region (first century AD), you will know that the controlling influence was Rome; however, Rome’s influence was not solely their own. Before Rome came into power, a gentleman by the name of Philip II of Macedon (Southeast Europe-Northern Greece) set out to conquer the Greece region (336BC), which he succeeded; and soon after his death, around the same time, his son, Alexander (the Great) continued to expand the Macedonian empire even further-- south into Egypt and as far west to the borders of India. As a result of Alexander’s expansion, a multitude of Greek refugees spread throughout the entire empire, which in turn, led to an influx of Hellionistic thinking (Greek philosophy) to spread and adapt through the empire; and it wasn’t until the 100sBC when Roman rule would eventually conquer Macedonian’s empire and take over for the next 500 years (27AD-476BC).

With the spread of Greek philosophy in the entire Alexander-Roman empire; everything Greek, the language, culture, and traditions, including their mythology, followed, which is one major reason that answers the question--“Why the change in translation…?”

Origin of “Hell”

In Greek mythology, the place of torment for the damned was known as “Hades”; and this important to know, because, many who are not familiar with Greek mythology and the influence it had on the NT cultural times see “hades” and “hell” as two different places--hell for the devil and his angels and hades for Godless humans--but that is all related to some Bible translation swapping around hades and hell; needless to say, the same place is being referred. “Gehenna”, as I mentioned before, is the other word that is replaced by “hell”; and the significance of this word is directly related to Jewish--Old Testament--history. Gehenna, unlike Hades in Greek mythology, was an actual place where many horrific situations of torment, sacrifices, and genocide were performed (also known as the “Valley of the son of Hinnom,”--read Joshua 15; II Kings 23; Jeremiah 2). So, when the NT Jews heard the word “Gehenna”, more than likely, drew an instant picture of a terrible and scary place.

So, of course, Jesus being God, Jewish, and growing up in this first century Greek influenced culture was very familiar with such Greek myths and Jewish history; and He used these two places symbolically to describe an actual place of eternal punishment and death so that both the Greek and the Jew could easily grasp a vivid picture to what He was saying (symbolism such as these are seen throughout the Bible to describe the unscribable--not uncommon). And thus, this brings me back to the Norse mythology and its relationship with the modern English term “Hell.”


Greek mythology, though still present in knowledge in the 1st century, was on a steady decline mainly due to increase of other Greek philosophies, Roman mythology, and the Christian movement; and eventually, through the turn of the first and second centuries, Greek mythologies soon become a forgotten memory of meaning. Moreover, with Christianity growing more and more apart from Judaism, the thought of “Gehenna” stuck with the Jews, but lost any and all meaning with the Christians around the middle ages (500AD).

In light of these lost meanings, John Wycliffe when translating the Latin Bible to English in 1380AD decided to pick a known term at the time from the old Norse mythology “Hel/Hell” to provide, as Christ did for the Greeks and the Jews in the first century, a symbolic representation that created a vivid meaning of a horrific place of torment to the fourteenth century Christian. Nevertheless, call it Gehenna, Hades, or Hell--whatever you like-- it was and is all the symbolic picture of an indescribable place of endless punishment for those who choose to believe in themselves rather than the One God and His only Son, Jesus.

So, all the conspiracies, made up stories, and speculative assumptions about “hell” are nothing more than fictional mythologies themselves that hold no truth; and all it took was a little look at history and the mythology found in it to give us the true answers of the origin of “hell.”

**Source Information: The Human Venture, Fifth Edition; Anthony Esler

And please, by all means, if there is anything you would like to add or take away; this is an open forum--your comment is welcome.


Crystal V. said...

The myth of hell has been effectively used by humans to control other humans through fear based upon the demonstrated nastiness that humans have inflicted by using fire as a means of torture over the centuries. It is effectively perpetuated even today, as so many in this country, including young children, are terrorized by the belief that a supernatural entity can punish them for their thoughts and behaviors. It is further reinforced by the belief that anyone who questions this ludicrous notion is being controlled by an "evil supernatural being" that happens to look like a goat.