Hell is not a Christian word. Hell is not a Christian place. The word Hell is derived from Germanic etymology and comes to our vocabulary through Old English.[i] And yet it is conflated to be the “bad place” for the Christians who speak English. Now it is not as though there is no “bad place” of Judaic origin that they could have just ported over; there was Gehenna (Gehenom) which was the bad place for the Jews who were living about at the time of Jesus and it had been that way for a fair amount of time (although differences of opinion existed in Jewish belief in different times on different aspects of the afterlife or its existence at all). When the New Testament came along, a lot of it was in Greek and they used the term Tartarus, which ultimately makes at least some kind of sense because there were stories of people who were punished in Tartarus.
Heaven similarly is not a Christian word, it is not a Christian place. Heaven is similarly of Germanic origins from Heofon.[ii] “Heaven” is not even really where people end up at all in the Bible or in the Jewish belief. People go to Sheol; all people, regardless of if they are good or bad, go to Sheol in the old beliefs of the Jews. Where this begins to take form was that eventually the chosen people would return from Sheol and live again. When the New Testament dips into Greek, the term they use is Hades, and generally speaking the term is fairly appropriately used here. Hades and Sheol had a lot in common, they were the general holding place for all dead people regardless of how good or bad they were. Now the really bad people went to Tartarus, but that was rare; in much the same way it could be assumed that only the really bad people went to Gehenom.
Furthermore, there was a place in Sheol called the Bosom of Abraham which was the place where the chosen would be up until the time they were raised up to love again. That is the closest that ancient Judeo-Christian belief comes to when it pertains to “Heaven”. There are some problems with this though. There is a reason that it is the Bosom of Abraham, because all Jews are supposed to be descendants of Abraham, they are essentially just returning to be with their family, which would be the chosen people. In this case, the bosom is important because it is trying to recall how families slept in ancient times, you kept your children close to your bosom as you slept. In this way Abraham is the direct blood ancestor of all Jews and therefore he draws them to him as family in Sheol. This is potentially problematic; I bet you can see the issue: Christians are overwhelmingly not descendants of Abraham. Christians overwhelmingly converted to Christianity. So if the Jews go to their family and that would be the Bosom of Abraham in Sheol, and they’re going there because he is the founding father of the bloodline of the Jews, what would follow is that Christians wouldn’t go there at all and would by that thinking in all likelihood end up with their own pagan ancestors. So much for Sheol, so they had to radically remake their afterlife beliefs and quick before anyone figured out that their original afterlife would have sucked if directly ported over for Christians.
Now things start to get a little tricky, because we have this book and all these generations of teachings that are describing an afterlife that is now unattainable for the vast majority of the people who are being converted into the religion. So they apparently at some point just concocted a new one, one that more suited their views of things. And when they did that, they put it into terms of the language of the people they were converting at the time – and for the English language that was the ancient Anglo-Saxons. In much the same way Hades and Tartarus entered into the vernacular of church beliefs for the areas that spoke Greek.
This all was rather easy to get away with because very, very few people were literate in their own language much less in other languages needed to read the Bible as written. It was not until vernacular bibles came about in the common language of the people that you had some of these discrepancies come more to light, but by then there had been generations of people being told about Hell and Heaven.
Now herein lies the issue. The modern Christian concept of Hell is vastly at odds with both the ancient Judeo-Christian beliefs as well as the pagan beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons whose term it was originally. In much the same way the beliefs about heaven are similarly warped. I personally have a lot of issues accepting the Christian narrative. It reads as though the monks arrived and began to start to Hell-splain the pagans their own religion and over time succeeded in convincing people that the perpetually green fields of the afterlife were lakes of fire and that the realm of the gods which was likely closed off to people would be thrown open to followers of Christ. In this way they could work within the system and spread their beliefs using old vocabulary. And they pretty much got away with it due to the illiteracy of the masses of people.
Whatever the case might have been, it is our job as modern day pagans to untangle the mess those ancient Christians made of our afterlife. We have to get the Gehenna out of our Hell. Gehenna may have been lakes of fire, but Hell is not.