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The afterlife

Bible references & beliefs of Americans

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How bible translators handle references to the afterlife:

How many times does the word "Hell" appear in the Bible?

Translation Old Testament New Testament Matthew Mark Revelation
King James Version 31 23 9 3 4
American Standard Version. 0 13 7 3 0
New King James Version 19 13 7 3 0

One has to go back to the original Hebrew and Greek texts to fully understand that nature of "Hell."

The King James Version of the Bible translate three different words as "hell":

bullet Sheol: A Hebrew word which is found 65 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a place located under the surface of the Earth. where everyone goes after death - those who have led good lives and those who have been evil. Its inhabitants lead a sort of shadowy existence, without energy, and isolated from God. They stay there forever.

bullet Hades: A Greek word which is found 10 times in the Christian Scriptures. It is a type of transitional word. Sometimes it means a place under the earth where everyone ends up after death. Other times, it is a place where evil people are punished after death.

bullet Gehenna: A Greek word which is found 13 times in the Christian Scriptures. It refers to a place of punishment or destruction for the wicked. It is based on an actual geographical location: a burning garbage dump in the Valley of Phnom. This is a deep and narrow valley where the garbage from the city of Jerusalem was thrown in ancient times. It is also believed to have been a place of human sacrifice; infants where thrown into the fire by worshipers of the Pagan gods Moloch and Baal. Later, the Roman occupying army discarded the bodies of all victims of crucifixion there.

Bible translators are faced with a quandary over "hell." They have to deal with 3 words (one Hebrew and two Greek) which Biblical writers have used to describe very different destinations after death:

bullet They want to translate the Bible so that it appears to be consistent to the reader. That is, an ancient Hebrew author's description must match that of the 1st century author's writings. Otherwise, the Bible will be seen to teach very different beliefs about Hell, in different passages. The concept of Biblical inerrancy (freedom of error) would become meaningless.

bullet They want to be true to the original text, which describe some very different destinations for the dead.

The translators of the King James Version (KJV) tended to translate all three words: Sheol, Hades and Gehenna, as Hell. This had the advantage of making the Bible appear internally consistent. But many theologians believe that it disguises the variety of beliefs of the ancient Israelites who were under the influence of Greek culture and the writers of the Christian Scriptures. Some religious conservatives criticize the translation because it treats two different places as if they were a single location.

In 31 locations, the KJV translates Sheol as grave. This obscures the meaning of the passages. It sometimes produces very different images, as in Genesis 37:36 where:

bullet The KJV describes Jacob going "down into the grave onto my son." This gives the impression of Jacob digging down into the earth, uncovering his son's body.

bullet The NIV has Jacob going "down to the grave to my son." This implies that Jacob was visiting the location where his son is buried.

bullet The RSV has him go "down to Sheol to my son." This has Jacob going into the caverns under the earth where his son would be living in a type of shadowy existence.

In 3 cases, the KJV translates Sheol as Pit.

The writers of the RSV, NRSV and other versions tried a different approach. They transliterated Sheol and Hades into English. So, the reader is able to see the original Hebrew and Greek words mixed in with the English text. They translated Gehenna as Hell.

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Beliefs among the American public:

The Barna Research Group continually monitors religious belief and practice in the United States. 1 In a survey that they conducted in 1996, they found, American adults held the following beliefs, sorted according to decreasing percentages:

  • 86%: God will eventually judge everyone.

  • 57%: A person can get to heaven by doing good works.

  • 45%: Religious beliefs do not have an impact on one's afterlife.

  • 45%: Religious beliefs do have an impact.

  • 39%: All persons who have not trusted Jesus as savior will go to Hell. This would include about 70% of Americans, and perhaps 85% of the rest of humanity.

  • 37%: Hell is not a place but a condition of separation from God.

  • 31%: Hell is a real place where sinners go to be punished.
  • 21%: Hell is a symbolic concept, not a place.

A similar survey in 2003 found that:

  • 81% believe in life after death, in some form.

  • 79% believe that everyone has a soul that continues to live after death.

  • 76% believe that Heaven exists.

  • 71% believe that Hell exists.

  • 64% believe that they will go to Heaven after death.

  • 39% believe that Hell is "a state of eternal separation from God’s presence."

  • 34% believe that that it is possible for people to communicate with the dead.

  • 32% believe that Hell is an actual place of torment and suffering where people’s souls go after death.

  • 24% say they have no idea what will happen after death.

  • 18% believe in reincarnation -- that they will be reborn as another life form.

  • 13% believe that "Hell is jut a symbol of an unknown bad outcome after death."

  • 10% deny that life exists after death.

  • 9% believe that life may exist after death but they were not certain.

  • 5% believe that they will simply die and will not exist after death in any form.

  • Only 0.5% expect to go to Hell after death. 2

The average pastor would probably be amazed at the range of beliefs among the people in his congregation.

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  1. G. Barna, "The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators," Word Publishing, Dallas TX, (1996), Pages 71-76.
  2. "Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death," Barna Group, 2003-OT-21, at:

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Copyright 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-OCT-15.
Author: B.A. Robinson

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