Updated: Jul 18, 2021
Isn’t hell so fun to talk about? Not really. If we’re honest, many of us like to avoid the subject. Most people may have some idea what the Bible says about it, but we find it too disturbing to think about. I don’t think I’m unmanly or just have a squeamish stomach when I say it’s preferable to avoid this subject and just talk about happier things. Isn’t it better to just not focus on it and say, “It’s a really bad place. Try your best not to end up there.” While there is a good deal of truth in that statement, I think we can do better.
It may surprise some readers to learn that often where Bible translators translate hell, there are actually other names or words being used. Why some translations choose to consistently use “hell” I am not sure. One thing we need to keep in mind is each of the scriptures that talk about “hell” are actually using a variety of terms that potentially mean different things including: Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, and even Tartarus. My purpose in this article will not be to convince you of what I think hell will be like for those who go there, but rather to ask some important questions that challenge some common assumptions of what the Bible says about hell.
The Old Testament Theology of the Afterlife
Let’s start with the Old Testament. This may come as a big surprise to some, but there is actually not a clear sense of reward or punishment in the afterlife in the Old Testament. While Sheol is referred to here, the other so-called “names” for hell are not. Hades and Sheol are not the “hell” equivalent that is spelled out in New Testament’s explanations of the afterlife. Sheol was a netherworld place where everyone went when they died. It was not a place of reward or punishment.
So what was it that kept the ancient Israelites from doing evil, or motivated them to do what was right, if not the belief in reward/punishment in the afterlife? It was the punishments for not following Torah or rewards for following it that were given in this life (See Deuteronomy 28).
Likewise, this announcement of reward or punishment was almost always corporate, or aimed at the community, not the individual. This is almost impossible for our modern Western individualistic mindset to comprehend. When the curses or blessings were laid out for this life it was not aimed at individuals, but the whole community. Because of this, to a large extent the fait of the people laid in the hands of the leader or king of the people, and the policies he decided to enforce, whether they aligned with the laws of Torah or not.
While there is no renunciation of a belief in the afterlife in the Old Testament, and we do see hints here and there of the possibility of an afterlife in the Old Testament, there is never a strong enough statement to suppose a full-blown doctrine of the afterlife. One possible exception is Daniel 12:1-3 and 13 where the concept of an eternal judgement or reward is finally spelled out in more detail. There are other passages that hint at the possibility of eternal life for the righteous, but there are not any clear doctrines spelled out.
So what did the Israelites think happened after they died? Many scholars believe that they thought they would continue to be in community in the netherworld, or Sheol, after they passed, whether they were good or evil. They had not yet received any clear revelation from God about the afterlife, so I would be open to the possibility that some had more of a view of the afterlife than others. By the time of the first century, there were Jewish schools of thought that had arrived at different interpretations on the subject. Pharisees and Sadducees, for example, in Acts 23:7-9. We shouldn’t treat the Saducees too harshly as their is a good deal of ambiguity on the subject in the Hebrew scriptures. There was not yet any clearly defined doctrine of the afterlife for the Hebrew people.
The New Testament Theology of the Afterlife
Now, let’s zoom forward from the time that Daniel chapter 12 was written, through the second temple period, and into the first century. How does the New Testament talk about “Hell” and what are the words used to describe it? How do Jewish people who didn’t believe in punishment in the afterlife all of a sudden start to believe in hell? Most importantly, how are we to think about it today?
As previously stated, since the generic English word “hell” is used in some translations for every instance of punishment in the afterlife, we need more information to take each scripture on a case-by-case basis.
Hades is mentioned in some passages. This term comes from Greek mythology and is a somewhat generic term referring to the netherworld, but also sometimes referring to a place of punishment. We see it used in both ways. The King James Version refers to both Hades and Sheol as hell throughout the Bible, so many people are under the mistaken impression that the Bible talks about the hell all over the place.
Gehenna is a Greek adaptation of the term Valley of the Son of Hinnom, or in Hebrew, Ge Hinnom. This was an actual place that cuts from the southern part of the city of Jerusalem around to the west where the Israelite king Manasseh along with other Israelite kings committed child sacrifice to other gods. It was a place of evil, idolatry, and fire historically, a smoldering garbage heap in the first century. This place is clearly being used as an image or illustration for what the afterlife will be like. Likewise, Peter uses the pagan background image of Tartarus as imagery for what the afterlife will be for evil beings who rebelled against God (2 Peter 2:4).
We need to take the idea of imagery seriously when we look at how these different names are used. For instance, I grew up going to a church camp where hell was preached about. One scripture used was Mark 9:47-48, where it says that in hell “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” The preacher gave the impression that this should be taken literally and I imagined giant fire-impervious worms that tortured people day and night. I actually realized recently that Jesus is quoting Isaiah 66:24 here:
“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
Is this scripture talking about an everlasting place of torment where people’s flesh continually regrows as worms, large or small, torture them forever? Nope. It’s about judgement on the Israelites, and they died, and there were worms all over them. That’s why the worms never died. It’s because there were pretty much unlimited dead bodies for them to feast on. Is Jesus using this scripture as a parallel between God’s judgement on souls in his day and God’s past judgement on the Israelites prophesied through Isaiah? If so, this passage says nothing of eternal conscious torment.
But Doesn’t Hell Last Forever and Won’t Everyone Receive the Exact Same Eternal Punishment There?
For this question, the New Testament offers an ambiguous answer. For example, in Luke 12:35-48, Jesus admonishes his audience to be watchful because we do not know when he will return and to keep our lamps burning. If we are not watchful, the Son of Man will come unexpectedly and bring judgement assigning us a place with the unbelievers. Jesus goes on to say in verse 47, “The servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows…” If this passage is talking about punishment in the afterlife, this passage is saying not everyone will be punished in the same way, but some will receive greater or lesser punishment. Does this fit with the “everyone thrown into an eternally tormenting lake of fire where our flesh keeps regenerating and burning off again” perspective of hell?
Consider also what Jesus says in Luke 10:10-15:
10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.
Interestingly, Jesus says that the judgement will be more bearable for Sodom than for a town that does not heed the gospel because of the miracles done there.
Some may say, “Well, what about all those scriptures that refer to eternal judgement?” Let’s look at a few of those and also look at the word “eternal” as it is commonly used throughout the Bible. It may surprise some readers that this word is often not used literally in the Bible, but figuratively.
To start, let’s look at Revelation. This is the only place in the bible where the imagery of a lake of fire is used for hell (see Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 13-15; 21:8). For one, unless I’m missing something, it is the Devil, the beast, and the false prophet who are said to be “tormented day and night” (20:10). On the other hand, the list of sinners in 21:8 are simply consigned the “second death” (21:8). There is no reference here to these sinners being tormented day and night for eternity.
On the other hand, when approaching the book of Revelation we must keep in mind that this book is highly symbolic. I believe it would be highly unwise to create a doctrine based on the nature of hell based on what is found in these scriptures. Do we take Revelation 16 totally literally where an angel “pours out his bowl on the sun”? How about Revelation 12 where “the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent”? I’ll let the reader decide after reading these chapters if anything in Revelation is meant to be taken in a totally literalistic sense.
Also, how about the fact that “death” or “the grave” were thrown into the burning lake (Revelation 20:14). How much more symbolic can you get than that? Revelation also says “each person was judged according to what they had done.” So how can everyone receive the same exact same torment forever and yet be “judged according to what they had done”? Where is the judgement there?
In part two, I will continue my discussion of hell by continuing to get into the scriptures on the subject, and having a short conversation about how this subject relates to the idea of justice and evangelism.