Why the word hell appears less often in the common Spanish Bible compared to the KJV

By Missionary Calvin George

Because the Spanish word for hell appears less often in the common Spanish Bibles compared to the KJV, some have put together a conspiracy theory of sorts to put the common Spanish Bible in a bad light. The word “hell” shows up in the KJV 54 times, in the Spanish 1865 42 times, 32 times in the 1909, and finally 13 times in the 19601. Some point to this “downward progression” as evidence that there is an agenda to gradually do away with the doctrine of hell in the Spanish Bible.

Hell in the Old Testament

The word “hell” shows up 31 times in the KJV Old Testament. There is only one Hebrew word that was ever translated “hell” in the Old Testament in the KJV, and that is the word sheol. Sheol appears in the Masoretic text 65 times.

Strong’s Concordance defines sheol as follows:

H7585

שׁאל שׁאול

she’ôl she’ôl

sheh-ole’, sheh-ole’

From H7592; hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranian retreat), including its accessories and inmates: – grave, hell, pit.

The last part of the definition after the dash represents how the word was translated in the KJV. It was not consistently translated as “hell.” In fact, as can be seen by its definition, the Hebrew word doesn’t mean hell exactly. But apparently in the Hebrew vocabulary in Bible times it was the closest word representing “hell.” By analyzing the context in which sheol was found, many translators have at times justifiably translated this Hebrew word as “hell.”

The KJV translated sheol as grave 31 times, as hell 31 times, and as pit 3 times. In other words, the KJV translated the Hebrew word sheol as “hell” less than half the time. Because sheol is such a generic word, and sometimes the context in which it is found is not always crystal clear, the translation of this word has caused translators much difficulty. To illustrate this, consider how at Ps. 49:15, where the KJV revisers translated sheol as “grave,” they placed a marginal note in their 1611 edition that stated, “or, hell.” Just six chapters over at Ps. 55:15, the opposite occurs. They have “hell” in the text, but the marginal note in the 1611 states, “or, grave.” This might have been repeated elsewhere in the 1611, but I did not continue looking for more examples.

In the Old Testament of the 1568 Bishops Bible, the word “hell” shows up 38 times, which would be seven more instances than in the KJV. The 1587 Geneva Old Testament has the word “hell” (sometimes spelled “hel”) 23 times, which means the KJV had the word “hell” in 8 more instances. The biggest surprise was the 1535 Coverdale Bible. Its Old Testament had the word “hell” or “hel” 52 times, which would be 21 more instances than in the KJV Old Testament.

All this data demonstrates how subjective the translation of sheol can be. It is not a black-and-white issue. Instead of attempting to interpret in an area where other translators have struggled and have sometimes been very inconsistent, the 1960 Spanish revisers decided to consistently transliterate the Hebrew word sheol every time it appeared in the Masoretic text. This is the reason the Spanish word for hell in Spanish (infierno) is not used in the Reina-Valera 1960 Old Testament. By not translating sheol as infierno, some figurative references to hell were avoided. For example, consider Jonah 2:2: “And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” Did Jonah literally go to hell? Was hell located in the belly of the whale? Obviously, this reference to hell in Jonah is in a figurative sense. KJV defender David Blunt, in his booklet Which Bible Version: Does it Really Matter? published by the Trinitarian Bible Society, on p. 15 acknowledges regarding the word “hell” in the KJV Old Testament that “Not all of these are references to the place of eternal punishment, but many are…” By transliterating the word sheol the 1960 revisers avoided what in some cases would have been a reference to hell in a figurative form.

In spite of the common Spanish Bible lacking the word “hell” in the Old Testament, the doctrine of hell is vividly taught therein. Below are sample passages in the Old Testament of the common Spanish Bible which clearly teach of a place for the wicked with fire, brimstone, and eternal flames:

Proverbios 30:16 El Seol, la matriz estéril, la tierra que no se sacia de aguas, y el fuego que jamás dice: ¡Basta!

Salmos 11:6 Sobre los malos hará llover calamidades; Fuego, azufre y viento abrasador será la porción del cáliz de ellos.

Isaías 33:14 Los pecadores se asombraron en Sión, espanto sobrecogió a los hipócritas. ¿Quién de nosotros morará con el fuego consumidor? ¿Quién de nosotros habitará con las llamas eternas?

Hell in the New Testament

In Greek, there are three different words that were translated as “hell” in the KJV. These are gehennah, hades, and tartaros. Gehennah occurs twelve times, the most frequent of the three. It is defined by Strong’s as follows:

G1067

γέεννα

geenna

gheh’-en-nah

Of Hebrew origin ([H1516] and [H2011]); valley of (the son of) Hinnom; gehenna (or Ge-Hinnom), a valley of Jerusalem, used (figuratively) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment: – hell.

There is less controversy regarding gehennah, because in all twelve occurrences it was consistently translated as “hell” in the KJV as well as in the 1960. All occurrences of the Greek word gehennah are in a context in which it was clearly a reference to hell, in my opinion. However, Spanish translators have not always agreed on how to translate this Greek word. For example, the 1909 used the transliteration gehenna four times.

The next Greek word translated mostly as “hell” in the KJV is hades. It is defined by Strong’s as follows:

G86

ᾅδης

hadēs

hah’-dace

From G1 (as a negative particle) and G1492; properly unseen, that is, “Hades” or the place (state) of departed souls: – grave, hell.

The Greek word hades shows up in the Greek text eleven times. It was translated as “hell” ten times, and as “grave” once in the KJV (1 Cor. 15:55). Translators have not always agreed on how to translate this word. For example, the 1587 Geneva Bible translated hades as “grave” in Acts 2:27 and 2:31, in addition to 1 Cor. 15:55. How to translate hades in Acts 2:27 and 2:31 where it refers to where Christ went between his death and resurrection seems to have been debated by theologians for centuries. Albert Barne’s Commentary treats this matter at length. It is interesting that Thomas Bilson, one of the KJV translators, wrote a book in 1604 that contained the phrase “hades or hell” in the title. The Spanish 1960 revisers stayed neutral by leaving the underlying Greek word untranslated.

The 1960 revisers apparently recognized the difficulty other translators have had in translating hades consistently, therefore they opted for using the transliteration hades except for 1 Cor. 15:55.

Some have criticized the implementation of the transliteration hades in the Spanish Bible by asking the rhetorical question “do you preach that if you die without Christ you will go to hades?” I believe that is an unfair question if the same person believes it was OK to translate sheol as “pit,” sometimes a synonym for hell in the KJV. That same person should be asked “do you preach that if you die without Christ you will go to the pit?” It’s wrong to hold a foreign Bible to a different standard than the KJV.

The last Greek word translated as “hell” in the New Testament is tartaros. It is found only once in the Greek New Testament, at 2 Peter 2:4. Strong’s defines it as follows:

G5020

ταρταρόω

tartaroō

tar-tar-o’-o

From Τάρταρος Tartaros̄ (the deepest abyss of Hades); to incarcerate in eternal torment: – cast down to hell.

The Spanish Bibles I have looked up translated tartaros consistently as infierno, with the exception of the first edition of the 1865, which transliterated the Greek word. Since the 1909 and 1960 translated this word as infierno, there is little controversy regarding 2 Peter 2:4.

Hell and critical texts

It should be emphasized that the questions raised about hell in the Spanish Bible have nothing to do with Textus Receptus vs. critical texts. In other words, when the Spanish Bible did not translate a certain word as “hell” it was not because the Spanish Bible was not following the Textus Receptus. In fact, if the Spanish Bible revisers were so fond of critical texts and were trying to gradually do away with the doctrine of hell, why did they not omit a single verse on hell that are omitted in critical texts? For example, Nestle’s 21st edition of the Greek New Testament omits the following entire verses on hell:

Mar 9:44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Mar 9:46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Translation of synonyms for hell

There are several terms used in the Bible that are recognized as being synonymous with hell. This would include “lake of fire,” “pit,” and “bottomless pit.”

“Lake of fire” is found 4 times in KJV, and in those same instances they were translated as lago de fuego in the 1909 and 1960. There are no complaints about how “lake of fire” was translated in the Spanish Bible.

“Bottomless pit” is found 7 times in the KJV, and in those same places it was translated as abismo in the 1909 and 1960. Abismo means abyss, which is part of the description in Strong’s definition of the underlying Greek word. To my knowledge, there are also no complaints about how this was translated in the Spanish Bible.

A number of references to the word “pit” in the KJV in the Old Testament even when not representing the Hebrew word sheol appear to be a reference to hell. But the word “pit” is used in so many different contexts and for so many different things that an analysis of this word is beyond the scope of this article. The times when the word “pit” seemed to refer to hell and I made a comparison with the Spanish Bible, there was no noticeable difference that could be interpreted by a reasonable person as an attempt to downplay the existence or characteristics of hell.

Terms that are not normally thought of as meaning hell become synonyms for hell when the context in which they are in make it obvious. For example, the word “pit” is not normally thought of as primarily meaning “hell,” and yet the KJV translators used it. In the same way, transliterations such as seol and hades become synonyms for hell when the contexts in which they are found reveal their meanings.

Does the Spanish Bible downplay the characteristics of hell?

Fellowship Tract League has a tract entitled “What You Miss by Being a Christian.” It contains an outline of 24 characteristics of hell. (It can be seen online at http://www.fellowshiptractleague.org/tract_pdf/english/145.pdf). Each characteristic of hell has a biblical reference to correspond to it. I looked up all 24 references, and discovered that only two of the references even contained the word “hell” in the KJV. All 24 characteristics of hell were readily located in the common Spanish Bible, except one. And even in that one exception, the 1960 reading followed the primary meaning of the underlying Hebrew word very close. Of the 24 characteristics of hell in the outline, the only one that didn’t match the 1960 was Ps. 18:5, where it speaks of “the sorrows of hell.” The 1960 has ligaduras del Seol, which could be translated “the ropes or knots of Sheol.” However, one reason this reading is not wrong is that the KJV translators placed a marginal note at this point that read “Or, cords.” Also observe how the dictionary in Strong’s Concordance defines the Hebrew word in question:

H2256

חבל חבל

chebel chêbel

kheh’-bel, khay’-bel

From H2254; a rope (as twisted), especially a measuring line; by implication a district or inheritance (as measured); or a noose (as of cords); figuratively a company (as if tied together); also a throe (especially of parturition); also ruin: -[the words after the dash represent how the word was translated in the KJV] band, coast, company, cord, country, destruction, line, lot, pain, pang, portion, region, rope, snare, sorrow, tackling.

The KJV reading of sorrow is not wrong in my opinion, but the 1960 reading is closer to the primary meaning of the Hebrew word. The KJV and Spanish RVG reading corresponds to the Latin Vulgate. The Vulgate has Dolores at Ps. 18:5, which means “grief, misery, pain, suffering.” (http://www.websters-dictionary-online.org)

When you consider that the Spanish reading of Ps. 18:5 is vindicated by the Hebrew, this typical outline of 24 characteristics of hell can be preached and taught from the common Spanish Bible with no problems whatsoever.

If there was a conspiracy to dilute the teaching of hell in the Reina-Valera line, why are the vivid descriptions of hell not tampered with?

A look at hell in other foreign Bible translations based on the Textus Receptus

A look at Luther’s 1545 German Bible, universally considered to be based on the Textus Receptus, yields some interesting discoveries. The German words for hell (höllischen & hölle) appeared a total of 63 times. Even though this is 9 more instances than in the KJV, there were 7 times that Luther’s German Bible did not use the German word for hell where the KJV had “hell.” In those 7 passages tode (death) or grab (grave) were utilized instead of “hell.”

The French words for hell (enfer & enfers) appeared in the 1996 Ostervald translation a total of 14 times. This is merely one more instance than in the Spanish Reina-Valera 1960. Words substituting hell include sépulcre, géhenne, and abîme. The Ostervald is considered to be based on the Textus Receptus, and the 1996 edition I have was printed by Bearing Precious Seed of Milford, OH.

The Italian word for hell (inferno) appeared in the 1649 Diodati translation a total of 29 times, and only 9 times in the New Testament. Words substituting hell include geenna and sotterra. The Diodati is traditionally regarded as being the Textus Receptus-based Italian Bible.

(The accuracy of the above figures are subject to verification by fluent German, French and Italian speakers).

Conclusion

If we had to build our doctrine of hell based solely on the definitions of sheol, gehenna, hades and tartaros, I believe we would have a weak case, considering how these words were sometimes translated. The definition of tartaros in Strong’s dictionary is the strongest, but it could be pointed out that the only time it is used it is a reference to sinning angels being cast there. What strengthens and ultimately proves the conservative theological teaching of hell is the vivid descriptions found in the Bible. As documented, I do not see the descriptions of the characteristics of hell toned down in the Spanish Bible.

In spite of the fact that the characteristics of hell have not been tampered with in Spanish Bibles of the Reina-Valera lineage, derogatory references to the “downward progression” of sometimes removing the word “hell” in the Spanish Bible keep surfacing. It was recently brought up by Humberto Gomez in a conference to promote his translation in December of 2007. He stated it in the following words according to the video of the conference:

“They [Spanish Bible revisers] couldn’t do it all at once. They have been mining little by little. They have been mining little by little. Little by little they have been mining. Therefore let me give you a good illustration. The word ‘hell’ was in the Bible 54 times. By 1865 it was there 40 times, by the old 1909 it was there 30 times, and by 1960 it was there 13 times. Fifty-four, forty, thirty, thirteen.”

To begin with, most of his numbers are inaccurate. The 1865 had the word hell 42 times, not 40. There were three times that the 1865 used the plural form for hell, and in the first edition the 1865 transliterated tartaros. The 1909 has “hell” 32 times not 30, if we include the plural form for hell used twice in the 1909. Also he states that “the Bible” had “hell” 54 times. The Greek and Hebrew words underlying “hell” are in the Bible 89 times. Why does Brother Gomez say that the Bible has “hell” 54 times? He didn’t say it was because that is the amount of times it was translated “hell” in the KJV. Of 89 possible times, why does his Spanish translation have “hell” 54 times, if he wasn’t following the KJV? Was it just a coincidence that both the Spanish RVG and the KJV have “hell” exactly 54 times, considering how inconsistently translators have historically translated the underlying Greek and Hebrew words?

In a partial response to this, Humberto Gomez implied in an article that the way “hell” was translated in the 1960 is due to the American Standard Version (ASV) because of the following data: ASV hades 10 times – 1960 hades 10 times; ASV hell 13 times – 1960 infierno 13 times; ASV sheol 65 times – 1960 seol 65 times. Actually, the manner in which “hell” was translated in the 1960 already follows an exact pattern in the Greek and Hebrew as shown throughout this article, so no reliance on the ASV was needed. The only exception to the 1960 following an exact pattern in the Greek is 1 Cor. 15:55 where it was translated sepulcro (grave, as the KJV also translated it). 1 Cor. 15:55 in the 1960 was left exactly as it was in the 1909, and follows the marginal reading of the 1569 and 1602. Also, the ASV uses the word “death” instead of sepulcro (grave) in the 1960 in 1 Cor. 15:55.

If removing some references to “hell” compared to previous translations proves anything, then consider that the KJV was a revision of the Bishops Bible. The Bishops 1568 Bible had the word “hell” or “hel” 62 times, while the KJV had it 54 times. The KJV removed 8 references to the word “hell” compared to the Bible it was a revision of. If we applied this logic to the KJV, we would have to say it was “mining away” the teachings of hell. I reject such a notion for both English and Spanish Bibles we have mentioned here.

That transliterating the Greek word hades is evil is not a recent allegation. In a conference in Haines City, Florida in September 2002, Missionary Carlos Donate who has helped Brother Gomez in his revision portrayed the 1960 revisers in the following ugly picture for having used the word hades: “…his mafia from hell changed to hades.” Moments later in the same speech entitled “Text Types,” Brother Donate added, “Black is black and white is white. There is no gray area.” As we have seen, the variation in the translation of the Greek and Hebrew words sometimes translated as “hell” is indeed a major example of a gray area in Bible translating.

To imply or state outright that the common Spanish Bible is gradually doing away with the doctrine of hell by transliterating sheol and hades would be as ridiculous as saying that the KJV translators were trying to do away with the second coming of Christ by transliterating maranatha.

When the translation of the characteristics of hell are not in dispute, and considering that the interpretation of Greek and Hebrew words underlying hell in different contexts have historically caused translators much difficulty, I believe we should not be hasty in implying evil motives on the part of Bible translators in this regard.

This article is available in Spanish here: ¿Por qué es que la palabra infierno aparece menos a menudo en la Biblia común en español al comparársele con la KJV?

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1 E-Sword software was mostly used in determining the times “hell” was used in various translations. The numbers given in this article are subject to the accuracy of said software program.

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