This week's question comes from an inquirer in Texas who writes, "Whatever happened to hell?"
Church tradition has taught that the concept of hell, and indeed, the concept of the afterlife at all, is espoused throughout scripture. However, clearly the early understanding of life-after-death by the early Israelites is this: there wasn't one. It was thought that those who died went to the place of the dead, or Sheol. Although, later traditions equated Sheol with the relatively modern concept of hell, this wasn't the ancient Israelite understanding.
In their cosmological scheme, Sheol was considered a physical place somewhere beneath the earth's surface. In Numbers 16.30-31, 33 Moses challenges rebellious self-appointed priests by saying, "'If the ground opens its mouth and swallows them, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know they have despised the Lord.' As soon as he finished speaking, the ground under them was split apart. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol."
Although Sheol could be construed from this passage to be a place of torment, it could also be interpreted as simply a place that receives the dead. Indeed, virtually all other references to Sheol are parallel for the word death. For instance, the Psalms extensively use Sheol as a parallel term for death (cf. Psalm 6.5, 89.48). Both 1 Kings 2.6 and Job 21.13 indicate even those of peace go to Sheol. And Ecclesiastes asserts everyone's fate ends in Sheol, the place of non-existence: "There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going" (9:10).
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the cognate Hades was used for translated for Sheol. Hades, however, did not accurately express the Hebrew understanding. Hades was understood as more than a place of the dead, but included the notion of life everlasting. Indeed, this still being debated during Jesus' life; the Sadducees, representing orthodox Judaism, insisted there was no life-after-death (cf. Matthew 22.23).
However, in the New Testament, there is an extensive theology of an afterlife. In regards to hell, there are three Greek words so translated. Hades, as discussed above, Gehenna, and Tartaros. The most predominant term in the New Testament is Gehenna. Gehenna was the name of the garbage dump located outside Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, Gehenna would be the location of the final judgement, thus the understanding of it as a place of punishment. The term Gehennais used nearly exclusively by Jesus, appearing only one other time in the Bible (James 3.6).
The final term for hell is Tartaros. This word is found only in 2 Peter 2.4 and indicates a dungeon-prison for the spirit world.
That hell is described as a place of eternal torment, a place of fire and brimstone, has come from the description, and the Jewish traditions, regarding Gehenna. And yet, in the book of the Revelation, hell (Hades) and death are seen as concomitant and both are destroyed in a pit of fire. In fact, John's gospel, the latest and the most theological of the gospels, nowhere references hell at all. However, in the Revelation John does indicate his "pit" as a place of eternal punishment for those not in the book of life.
So whatever happened to hell? The notion of hell as an eternal place of punishment has been diminished by an increased awareness of God as loving creator, as well as from a departure from church tradition in favor of the serious study of biblical theology.