Saturday, May 1, 2010

Oh Hell...or Hades...or Gehenna...or Sheol! Will there be an Eternal Crispy Burning Sensation there?

Recently, someone I know posted a question on his Facebook page about Hell. He said he didn’t see anywhere in the Bible where it said that a person was cast into Hell for an eternity of suffering. “From what it looks like, once a person is thrown into Hell, he is dead, with no eternal suffering or anything.” His responses from other people included references to Mark 9 (“where the worm doesn’t die and the fire isn’t quenched”), Luke 16 (the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus), the rationale of using the “you’ll burn in Hell for eternity” scare tactic to win people to Christ, and questions of how one defines “death” and “Hell.”

I think my friend has a good reason to ask this question, for too many Christians have a caricatured idea of “Hell” that is more a product of questionable medieval theology and Dante-esque imagination than of actual biblical Christianity. The topic of Hell is complicated simply because when a Christian uses it, he doesn’t realize he is glossing over a wide range of languages and meanings. The most important thing to do is to first make sure one clearly sees all the relevant pieces to the puzzle. Here are those pieces:

1. The Greek concept of Hades: it is the place of the dead, where one is now just a flighty shadow, lacking reputation, sense, and vigor. One has been forgotten in the land of the living and is now just wandering about in sadness and darkness. It is not necessarily a place of “punishment.” It is simply the unavoidable end for all people.

2. The Ancient Near Eastern/Old Testament concept of Sheol: simply put, it is the grave. In the ANE Sheol was associated in some way with the primordial sea of chaos. Therefore, for example, when Jonah is thrown into the sea, he says both “I’m going down to Sheol,” and “I’m going down to the abyss.” At the same time, though, Sheol is very similar to Hades, in that it is seen as the place of the dead. Like with Hades, Sheol was not a place of punishment—both the righteous and unrighteous went there at death. The despair of Sheol is not because of divine punishment, but rather because one was no longer fully human—one was a shade, a disembodied shadow, forgotten and cut off from the land of the living.

Therefore, it should be agreed on that it is biblical to say that when one dies, one goes to Hades, or Sheol, or the grave—i.e. the place of the dead. This place is not a place of punishment. If anything, the idea of disembodied shadows wandering about in darkness and senselessness might well be considered to be a colorful/metaphorical way of simply saying, “You’re dead…you do not have a place among the living.” Another way death is described by both Jesus and the early believers is “having fallen asleep”—John 11:11-12; I Thessalonians 4:13. To be “dead” is simply to be “asleep”—because Christians believe that when Christ returns, those asleep (i.e. dead in Christ) will wake up, resurrect, and live again.

3. The New Testament term Gehenna: even though this word is often translated as “hell,” such a translation is really misleading. Gehenna is just another word denoting the Valley of Hinnom, which is one of the valleys surrounding the old city of Jerusalem. This valley has quite a history to it. It was not only the site where the ancient worshippers of Baal-Molech sacrificed their children by fire, but by the time of Jesus it was essentially the city garbage dump where people threw their garbage, dead animals, etc., which would then be burned and consumed by fire. Furthermore, in Jewish folklore, in Gehenna there was a gate that led down to a molten lake of fire.

When Jesus uses the term Gehenna in the New Testament, he uses it in the following ways:
• Matthew 5: 29-30; 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47—better to cut off a body part than to go to Gehenna, the unquenchable fire.
• Matthew 5:22—the one who says “you fool” will be liable to Gehenna of fire.
• Matthew 10:28—fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.
• Matthew 23:15, 33—the Pharisees make a convert twice as much a child of Gehenna than themselves; the Pharisees won’t escape being sentences to Gehenna.
• Luke 12:5—fear the one who, once he has killed you, has the authority to cast you into Gehenna.

So what can we take from this? First, the actual valley of Hinnom clearly can be seen as a metaphor for a place where the “garbage” of sin, pride, and hypocrisy are burned. Second, it is a metaphor for destruction by fire. And finally, although it is clearly a punishment for the sinful and prideful, nowhere do these verses suggest that the one thrown into Gehenna is tortured forever. If anything, it seems to suggest total annihilation, not eternal torture and punishment. Furthermore, let’s think about it, how could a disembodied soul be eternally burned by fire? Isn’t fire a physical thing that burns other physical things? How can fire burn a disembodied shade? The imagery of Gehenna, it seems to me, suggests the idea that garbage must be burned and done away with, not eternally tortured for being garbage.

4. The Lake of Fire in Revelation 20: In Revelation 20 we have the famous passage regarding the lake of fire. It unfolds like this:
• In Revelation 19, the beast and the false prophet (in 95 AD seen as Domitian and the Imperial Cult) are thrown into the lake of fire.

• In Revelation 20:1-3, the dragon, the ancient serpent, Satan, is thrown into the bottomless pit.

• In Revelation 20:4-6, those martyred for Christ (see the fifth seal in chapter 6:9-11; chapter 7, particularly 7:14; chapter 13:10, 15; chapter 14:1-5; chapter 17:6; chapter 18:24) come to life and reign with Christ for 1,000 years.

• In Revelation 20:7-10, Satan is released, attempts to attack the holy city, and is then defeated and thrown into the lake of fire, where the beast and false prophet had been thrown.

• In Revelation 20:11-15, Death and Hades gives up their dead, and all are judged. Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire, and those whose names were not found in the book of life are also thrown into the lake of fire.

• In Revelation 21, we find that those whose names are found in the book of life will live forever with God in the new heavens and new earth.

There are a number of things to note here. First, given the previous discussion of Gehenna, I think it is safe to say that John’s Lake of Fire imagery was probably inspired by the very Gehenna that Jesus used in the gospels. If so, we must ask, is there anything in Revelation 20 that suggests that the Lake of Fire is a place of eternal torture? Can’t it be the place where the ultimate garbage (Satan, the beast, the false prophet, and all who reject Christ) is burned up and destroyed? Are we reading into this passage of Satan’s defeat the medieval idea of “eternal torture”?

Second, it should be clear that Death/Hades is NOT the same at the Lake of Fire/Gehenna. Death/Hades is the temporary holding place of everyone; at the time of the final judgment, there will be two options: either eternal life in the new heavens and new earth, or the second death in the Lake of Fire, which is the “second death.” The question is: is this “second death” eternal torture and punishment or utter annihilation?

5. The phrase, “the place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
• Matthew 13:42, 50—evil-doers (weeds; children of the evil one) will be cast into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

• Matthew 8:12—the “heirs of the kingdom” (i.e. Jews who have rejected Jesus) will be cast into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

• Matthew 22:13—the parable of the wedding banquet, where the man who sneaks into the banquet without the proper wedding garments is caught and thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

• Matthew 24:51—the parable of the wicked slave who beats his fellow slaves and drinks with drunkards, when he should be taking care of his master’s household. He will be cut in pieces and thrown out with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

• Matthew 25:30—the parable of the talents, where the worthless slave who buried his talent is thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are a few things to note here. First, this place is obviously reserved for “evil-doers,” “heirs of the kingdom,” “wicked/worthless slaves,” and “hypocrites.” When considered in the historical context of Jesus’ ministry in early first century Galilee and Judea, the objects of these passages seem to be Jesus’ fellow Jews who reject him.

• In Matthew 13, the imagery is the harvest at the end of the age; the “weeds” in his kingdom will be taken up and thrown into the fire. The Jews considered themselves to be God’s kingdom, but Jesus redefines things. The entire field is the world, and the distinction is not between Jews and Gentiles, but rather between the “good seed” (children of the kingdom) and the “weeds/bad seed” (children of the evil one). This imagery goes back to Genesis 3 and the war between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed. When seen in this light, Jews who reject Jesus will be considered “bad seed,” along with all the rest of the children of the evil one.

• In Matthew 8:12, the “heirs of the kingdom” is clearly a reference to the Jews, who thought themselves to be the heirs of the coming Kingdom of God, yet who rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah. The point is simple: even a Jew, if he rejects YHWH’s promised Messiah, is thrown out of the Kingdom of God and into the darkness. The emphasis isn’t necessarily on “going to hell” or “eternal punishment” per se, but rather on “being cast out” of God’s Kingdom. Being cast out of the kingdom may no doubt ultimately imply and speculate hell, but that’s not the passage’s emphasis.

• Matthew 22:13, the imagery is of the wedding banquet, which goes hand in hand with the idea of God’s coming kingdom. Those who reject God’s call to come to the wedding banquet obviously will miss out on God’s kingdom; furthermore, those who try to “get into the banquet” without the proper wedding garments will be thrown out into darkness as well. Again, the “proper wedding garments” designates accepting Christ as Lord and Messiah. You can’t take part in the wedding banquet of the Messiah if you reject the Messiah.

• Both Matthew 24:51 and 25:30 focuses on wicked/worthless slaves and their unfaithfulness to their master. Jews considered themselves servants of YHWH, who was the master; and they were awaiting the time when He would come and fully restore them. What these two parables point out is that there were some who, instead of taking care of YHWH’s household, beat their fellow servants and wasted their time in worldly pursuits; instead of investing what they were given by YHWH and furthering His Kingdom, they chose to bury it and not reach out to the world. Servants such as these will be kicked out of the Kingdom.

Please note, these are not anti-Semitic passages. The historical context was Jesus speaking to his fellow Jews. Jews were awaiting YHWH’s kingdom and considered themselves YHWH’s servants. Jesus’ message was straightforward and simple: “If you reject YHWH’s Messiah, if you beat and oppress your fellow servants, if you compromise yourselves with worldly pursuits, or if you fail to invest the talents of YHWH’s kingdom into the world, then you are not children of the Kingdom, and you will find yourselves on the outside.”

Finally, it is interesting that in Matthew 13:42, 50 this place is called a “fiery furnace,” but in the other passages the place is a place of “outer darkness.” Technically, you can’t have “darkness” if there’s a fire! But I think this should be seen in the imagery and context of the city of Jerusalem and the Valley of Hinnom. Ultimately, there are two options: God’s holy city/kingdom or the fire of the garbage dump.

To sum up, my friend has good reason to question the whole “eternal torture” idea that many Christians have concerning hell. (1) Biblically-speaking “Hell” is not a place of eternal torture. “Hell” is Hades, Sheol, the grave—the place of the dead where everyone will go. (2) Biblically-speaking, the fire imagery we’re so fond of comes from the historical site of Gehenna, the fiery garbage dump of Jerusalem, where garbage is burned up and consumed. In Revelation, this imagery is seen in the Lake of Fire, and John’s point is that there will come a time when even Satan himself will be burned up and destroyed, along with those who reject Christ and oppress His people. Whether or not this “fire” is a source of eternal torture and punishment really isn’t explicitly stated. Therefore, I think it is best that Christians not give the impression of eternal torture and punishment, when these passages do not explicitly say that is the case. (3) Biblically-speaking, the whole “weeping and gnashing of teeth” passages should be seen in the context of speaking to the Jews of Jesus’ day who rejected him—they’ll be cast out of God’s kingdom, they won’t take part in the Messianic wedding banquet, and they’ll find themselves outside of God’s New Jerusalem, out in the darkness.


Jason Carroll said...

Hey Joel. Excellent summary of the data. I would also add three points, two historical and the other hermeneutical, to bolster yours.

The historical points are that:
1) the ancients saw Hades and Sheol as actual physical locations on earth, more for the Greek Hades than for the Hebrew Sheol if I remember correctly. The Greeks believed that the entrance to Hades was located in the volcanic crater field found near Naples, called the Campi Flegri. Hence they did associate some aspects of Hades with a fiery existence where they saw lava, fire and smoke proceeding. A soul in Hades could in fact come into contact with a fiery environment simply because that is what the physical location was like. Hence Jesus's discussion about Lazarus in Luke 16 could simply have been an emphasis of the hot physical atmosphere of Hades rather than indicating an eternal punishment. Sheol was much less well defined in the OT, so links to a physical place were more fluid and obviously there are fewer descriptors of the place other than being dark, formless and empty.
2) The Greek concept of Hades did eventually develop into a place of just rewards for those who had died. By the time of Jesus there was the concept that a soul that had died will go on a journey through the under world, first crossing the rivers that bounded Hades (Acheron (pain), Cocytus (groaning), STYX (abomination), LETHE (forget), and Phlegethon (river of fire)) and then either be sent to Elysium (an earthly paradise) if one were virtuous, or the City of Dis (a place of torture) if you lived a life of vice. The vast majority of people earned neither, and lived the lethargic, empty existence of a shadowy underworld which you described in your post. Actually, this was sometimes portrayed as peaceful in the sense that you experience no more suffering. If you didn't have the coins to pay the ferryman to get you across the rivers, you would wander the banks forever and never find peace.

Which leads me to point 3)about interpreting the biblical "evidence" concerning "hell". On the one hand I would suggest that it is difficult to deduce a literal parallel to an eternal place of punishment from what are often metaphorical statements made to persuade or encourage (i.e. Revelation, Gospels). And in a modern context like ours where we know the geology of the earth, to argue that an ancient concept of the physical resting place of the dead should be used to draw out an eternal and theological truth about divine justice can hardly be defended. We are not talking about the events of salvation history here, we are talking about legend and popular religious concepts being used as the basis for theology, and that is a mistake in my books.

Further, I would suggest that knowing what we do about the Greek concept of Hades indicates that this is one of those times when the church's theology adopted Greek concepts as part of its theological processes. The Greek concept of Hades as a place where people are punished or rewarded is not Biblical, and the Christian concept (historically) of Hell-as-an-eternal-place-of-punishment is an adaptation of Greek thought. Just follow Dante through the Inferno and you will find yourself on a journey through the Greek Hades now made "Christian". This is just another example of the hermeneutic process getting reversed. Rather than allowing biblical thought to influence cultural thought, the ancient& medieval Christians (and modern ones I guess too)allowed Greek culture to influence its theology.And in the case of much of what the New Testament says about "Hell", we are allowing a medieval interpretation influence our reading of the text, which we obviously cannot allow.

Either way though, I am in full agreement with you that the biblical texts lean towards a final destruction of those who reject God, rather than an eternal punishment in Hell.

J. Edmund Anderson said...


We make a good team. Let's team up and fight crime! I didn't specifically mention Dante in my post, but he was the one I was thinking of when I mentioned medieval theology.

We could shift everything around and focus on the Greek-influenced concept of a "spirit heaven" our souls go to after we die--

Here's a question/thought. Isn't it possible that these heavily-influenced Greek concepts of heaven and hell that many Christians hold today find their roots, not in the early Church Fathers necessarily, but rather in Medieval/Renaissance Catholic theology that came about after the "re-discovery" of the Greek classics?

Being Orthodox and having read men like Kallistos Ware (as well as other Orthodox writers), I just don't find such "heretical-Greek" concepts as much as I do when I read the Catholic, and consequently Protestant, handlings of these concepts like "eternal torture" and "spirit heaven" etc.

Jason Carroll said...

eCool. We could be like Starsky and Hutch, but drive a blue Ford Escort!

In answer to your question: I would need to do some research, but on the whole I think that statement is correct. From my hazy memory I think I recall an author once saying that he felt that the Book of Revelation did not gain such popularity or influence in the Eastern church so the concepts like the Lake of Fire did not capture the imaginations of Christians in the East as much as it did in the West. Another part of that might be the influence of theologians. Origen, who did not agree with the eternal punishment thing and was condemned by the church for it, was an influence on the Cappadocean Fathers, who in turn carried great authority in the East, hence the lower levels of insanity in the East on this particular issue.

Another thought came to mind from your response and your mention of "spirit heaven" for our souls. One of the bases for Origen's rejection of an eternal punishment is that that he takes the resurrection seriously and assumes that sinners will be resurrected alongside the righteous. These resurrected sinners will the suffer the torments of a life without God, or one condemned to be controlled by their darknesses and passsions.
He writes: "We must see, also, lest this perhaps should be the meaning of the expression, that as thesaints will receive those bodies in which they have lived in holiness and purity in the habitations of this life, bright and glorious after the resurrection, so the wicked also, who in this life have loved the darkness of error and the night of ignorance, may be clothed with dark and black bodies after the resurrection, that the very mist of ignorance which had in this life taken possession of their minds within them, may appear in the future as the external covering of the body." (On First Principles 2.10)

God can then use these sufferings to bring about redemption of those folks. If a person is not moved to awareness by the sufferings of a resurrected but unredeemed ensouled body, the that is a just punishment and eternal in the sense that they do not change from their original sinful state. However, if they are moved by their sufferings to repent, then God is just to redeem them as well, and hence the church condemned him as a universalist. Gregory of Nyssa, I think, picked up on this and argued that this temporary state of punishment for the purpose of redemption was purgatory, and only was Hell if you stayed there. Remarkable that C.S. Lewis makes the almost exact argument in "The Great Divorce".

So yes, I think you are correct to assert that the concept of an eternal fiery punishment awaits the unredeemed was more of a western thing than an eastern one. Funny, Greeks affected by Egyptians and not by their own culture!

What I'd like to know is when the concept of the resurrection got eliminated from the equation. Heaven and Hell in modern/medieval thought is, as you said, "spirit-oriented" and the body has no place. Our souls just float off to heaven to bathe in God's presence or get dragged to Hell to get tortured for eternity. Where is the body? In that regard, whether you agree with Origen or not, he was certainly correct to at least attempt to include the resurrection in the thought process. Perhaps that might be something that brings a new perspective on the question. Why don't you write a book on that?

J. Edmund Anderson said...

Yes, let's keep these blog conversations going, and within a few years we can have our own "Resurrected Orthodoxy/Extra Terminus" book! Sort of a "Resurrected Orthodoxy: Beyond the Borders of a Crumbling Western Church"--what do you think?

Jason Carroll said...

I love it. Mind you, we'll be excommunicated too. But I'm Okay with that, since I'm already on the outs.

LJClay said...

This was really interesting stuff!

Michael said...

Good points, but I think there's certainly biblical evidence for at least some being eternally punished as Rev. 20:10 says that the beast, false prophet, and devil "will be tormented day and night for ever and ever."

Joel Edmund Anderson said...

Michael, that is certainly something that needs to be taken into account. But hopefully I've been able to show that a lot of our assumptions about Hell are somewhat misinformed. When you look at the passages I cited in the post, there is also indication that perhaps human beings who are not saved might simply cease to exist. Ultimately, it is not made clear, but either way--whether eternal torment or annihilation--we can be certain that that is not what God desires for us. When eternal life is offered, why would anyone reject it?

Michael said...

Yeah I agree, I believe Scripture is intentionally fuzzy on what happens after death because our focus should be on how we are following God right now, not on whether we will get a mansion one day. The fear in the gospels is separation from God, not eternal torment. I am indebted to The Great Divorce for helping me understand how inadequate our graspings at eternity shall always be.

jobin said...

Hi Joel.. what about the following verses which states that the punishment is eternal.
Rev 14:9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand,
Rev 14:10 he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
Rev 14:11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."

Again later, we have the false religous kingdom Babylon been spoken about

Rev 19:3 Once more they cried out, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever."