Hello, and welcome to a BOOK podcast supplement. I’m Josh Way. We’re going to talk about hell today, and we begin with a simple observation: We’ve done thirty-ish podcast episodes about the history and literature of the bible, and we’ve barely mentioned hell until now. I hope that’s enough right there to prompt us to think about this prickly topic with our eyes and minds opened.
The truth is, we haven’t talked about hell because the text didn’t give us any opportunities. With a few peculiarities that we’ll mention in a minute, there is no “hell” in the Hebrew Bible. The Greek New Testament is where the ideas and traditions we associate with hell are first recorded. And this presents an interesting conundrum:
People often characterize the so-called “Old Testament” as being full of fire and violence and death, and the New Testament as full of love and hope. But the violence and chaos in the Hebrew Bible – and there is plenty of it – is all temporal, people die in floods and fires and wars and famines, but no one is damned to an eternity of suffering. As far as we’re told, they’re just dead. In fact, the wisdom books like Job, Proverbs, and Qoheleth told us again and again that the righteous and the wicked share the same destiny: Sheol, the grave, going to “sleep.” But by the time of the New Testament, despite all of its “good news,” we start to read about the “fires of Gehenna” and descriptions of what sounds like an everlasting torture chamber.
So take your pick: a book that’s honest about the commonplace brutality of the ancient world, or a book that tells you about an afterlife that’s going to be even worse. Of course, there is another option, we could step outside our own modern presuppositions and take a fresh look at this material in historical and literary context. And that’s like, my thing, man. So let’s keep in mind that this discussion, for the 15-to-20 minute duration of this podcast at least, is not about proving or disproving what any of us believes or does not believe about a place called “hell.” We’re talking about traditions and ideas that have evolved over several millennia, and trying to get the best sense of where they come from and what they’re really about.
We’ve already observed that the Hebrew Bible does not uniformly teach any kind of afterlife, much less some kind of torturous eternal punishment. But when a famous conservative mega pastor was asked recently where the bible first teaches about hell, his answer was Daniel Chapter 12. And I guess this is what he was talking about, in verse 2:
2 Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproach and everlasting abhorrence.
Just one tiny verse, but I suppose if you’re looking for eternal punishment this certainly sounds about right. But, of course, this tiny verse has a context, and it was designed to function within that context and not as a talking point for celebrity pastors a few thousand years in the future. Daniel 12 is the final chapter of the book, in which the prophet imagines “the end of the days.” Recall that Daniel is written to and for the Israelites suffering in exile and bondage under the cruel empires of Babylon and Persia. The “end” of which Daniel prophesies is not the “end of the world” so much as the “end of the age” when Israel’s present suffering will end with dramatic rescue by God that will reward those who were made to suffer and punish those responsible. Notice that this verse says that “many” will awake, not “all.” This isn’t about the fate of every human who ever lived, it’s about Daniel’s people and their enemies in this historical moment.
This isn’t a passage about what we think of as “hell,” though it is about judgment. And it’s a pretty radical new paradigm for thinking about judgment within the Hebrew Bible. Before exile, Israelite religion presumed (or hoped) that God would judge people in this life, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Most of the wisdom literature is about how this never seemed to pan out in real life, but it was still the dominant way of thinking. Exile was so horrific and devastating that Israel lost hope for justice in this life, so a view emerged that expected it at the end. The big idea in the Daniel passage is not hell, but resurrection. People who did not see justice in life will have to be “awakened” so it can be done finally. That’s the real innovation here, and as close as the Hebrew Bible gets to an afterlife.
Well, what about the New Testament? It’s very popular among Evangelical Christians to point out that “Jesus talks about hell more than anyone in the bible.” In a certain sense this is true, but if we’re going to be intellectually honest it needs a great deal of clarification. Look in the concordance of a mainstream English bible translation like the NIV or ESV and you’ll see many instances of “hell” attributed to Jesus, it’s true. But what you miss is that many different Greek words have been roughly translated “hell” in these editions, all of them possessing nuanced origins and meanings, none of which precisely fits our modern conception of the place called “hell.” Putting Jesus into proper context is not difficult but has proved bothersome to many.
The word Jesus uses most often that is translated “hell” in our bibles is “Gehenna.” Here’s a typical example from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5:
29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away. Yes, it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.
30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. Yes, it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.
Traditionally, Jesus’ words have been taken as a dire eternal warning: stop committing those sins or you’ll be tossed into the flames when you die. It doesn’t help that “Gehenna” has been consistently translated “hell.” But the origin and meaning of “Gehenna,” combined with the real context of Jesus “Sermon on the Mount” reveals a different sort of warning. Gehenna was not a mythical or other-worldly place, it was a geographic location in Jesus’ own time, the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, and it already had a long history of infamy and unpleasantness.
In 2 Chronicles (chapters 28 and 33 to be precise) we read about the apostate kings of Judah and their wicked deeds which led the entire nation astray. Among these deeds is the particularly loathsome practice of child sacrifice, which was practiced ritually in the name of a god called Moloch at the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, Gehenna in Greek. The valley, just outside of Jerusalem, was already a byword of death and wickedness by the time of the prophet Jeremiah, whose primary vocation was warning Judah about coming destruction at the hands of Babylon. In Jeremiah Chapter 7 we read this, the prophet speaking on behalf of Israel’s God:
31 And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire — which I never commanded, which never came to My mind.
32 Assuredly, a time is coming — declares YHWH — when men shall no longer speak of Topheth or the Valley of Ben-hinnom, but of the Valley of Slaughter; for they shall bury in Topheth until there is no room left.
33 The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.
Because Judah’s wicked kings sullied Gehenna with the blood of children, the prophet announces, the valley will become a depository for all the dead bodies when the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem. Topheth/Ben-Hinnom/Gehenna is where apostate Judahites will rot after they are punished and destroyed in warfare.
Now back to Jesus in the New Testament. Remember from our Matthew podcast that Jesus is presented primarily as a Jewish prophet in the tradition of the ancient prophets of Israel and Judah, and he is especially influenced by Jeremiah. This seems to be one of those points of influence. Recall that Jesus’ message isn’t about “getting religion” or “going to heaven,” it’s about the coming “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God” on earth, and what that would look like. Jesus calls his fellow Children of Israel to repent of their old, misguided, selfish and violent ways of seeking God and to embrace a new way, the Kingdom Way of selfless love and radical forgiveness.
Should Israel fail to heed this call to repentance, says Jesus, there will be real and drastic consequences. We spent some time in that Matthew podcast talking about his prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction, which actually came to pass in 70 AD. The Gehenna references seem to work in a similar way. If you can’t learn the ways of peace and justice, you’re going to end up with all the others on the flaming pile of corpses in Gehenna when the Roman armies come for you. There’s nothing here about eternal torture, but it’s still a very serious – though culturally located – warning of judgment.
Elsewhere, especially in his “Kingdom Parables,” Jesus uses other images to make similar warnings about Israel’s fate should she keep on her present course. In Matthew Chapter 22 he tells a parable about a king who wants to throw a wedding feast. The king is God, and the feast is his kingdom on earth. When the king discovers a guest at the party who is not dressed properly, he tells his guards to:
13 … “Tie him up, hands and feet, and throw him into the darkness outside, where people weep and grind their teeth.”
This is a fictional yet stark description of what life will be like for those Children of Israel who are left “outside” of the Kingdom, who do not participate with God in this new endeavor.
And then, in Chapter 25, we read Jesus’ final parable, known as “the Sheep and the Goats.” In this parable, the long-awaited “son of man” comes to earth as king, and he judges all the people of the earth “like a shepherd separating sheep from goats.” Those judged “righteous” enter an earthly kingdom prepared by God, while the “wicked” are sent away into “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Well that’s as close to hell and damnation as you can find in the bible, and it’s right here in the words of Jesus. But a couple of important points to keep in mind:
First, this is a parable, a fictional story told to make a serious point. The king, the sheep, the goats, the kingdom and the fire are all non-literal images invoked to describe things which couldn’t otherwise be described. And second, it’s worth noting the real point of this parable, which is revealed in how the sheep and goats are actually judged. The “righteous” and “wicked” are not separated according to religion or creed, or their personal devotion to Jesus. The “righteous” are righteous because, the king says:
35 “… I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome. 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you came to visit.”
It’s fascinating that the same people who appeal to Matthew 25 as a literal description of hell are often the same people who insist that “being a Christian” and “believing in Jesus” are required to avoid going there. But according to the parable, it’s not religious affiliation or right belief that make one righteous, but simply taking care of one’s neighbor. When I was a kid, I was afraid of this story because it was taught to me as the promise of “hell.” Now, as an adult, I understand that this is basically the same message as the Sermon on the Mount, but expressed in a dramatic supernatural parable. The essence of the Law and the Prophets, and now of Jesus’ kingdom teaching, has always been love for other humans. Anything that dulls or twists that message seems like a colossal missing of the point.
There are more similar parables and references in the other gospels, but I think we’ve made our point about Jesus’ “hell” language, and we can save those bits for forthcoming podcasts on Mark, Luke and John.
So what does the rest of the New Testament, the stuff after Jesus, have to say about hell? Well, with the possible major exception of the book of Revelation, not a whole lot. Paul, whose letters comprise the largest portion of the entire New Testament, doesn’t use the word “hell” or anything similar, not even once. We’ll talk about Paul’s writing in depth soon enough, but for now it’s enough to say that Paul believed strongly in judgment, and in a coming resurrection of people not unlike that found in Daniel, but when it comes to the fate of the wicked, Paul only talks about death, or a “second death” after resurrection. Very interesting that the modern church’s favorite teacher – generally taken more seriously than even Jesus when it comes to instruction – makes no mention of eternal suffering or a lake of fire. (He also never mentions the Virgin Birth of Jesus, but that’s not exactly on-topic.)
In the book of Acts, where the generation of apostles after Jesus travels throughout the Roman Empire preaching “the gospel,” we’d expect to find these proto-evangelists warning everyone that they’re going to go to hell if they don’t convert and accept Jesus into their heart. But the thing is, they never do that. They don’t mention hell at all, and the “salvation” they preach is not a ticket out of hell, but the same kind of personal repentance and rebirth that Jesus offered Israel in his ministry. Apart from two isolated references to the underworld (one in James, one in 2 Peter) that are not related to the fates of human beings in any way, we don’t hear anything else about hell or eternal punishment until we come to the book of Revelation.
Revelation is a symbol-laden “apocalypse” text heavily influenced by Daniel and Ezekiel, which metaphorically describes Rome’s persecution of Israel and the early Christian Church, and envisions the fall and ultimate destruction of the empire and the evil forces that fueled and sustained it. That’s the super condensed version, and we’ll flesh it all out in a long podcast soon enough, but today we’re especially concerned with what happens at the end in chapters 19 and following.
The Roman Empire, represented by a pair of “monsters,” and the satan, represented by a “dragon” are captured by God and thrown into a “lake of fire which burns with sulphur,” where they will be “tortured day and night forever.” (There’s your eternal torture, but it’s not humans that suffer, it’s the “monsters” in this apocalyptic parable.) There follows, in chapter 20, a resurrection and judgment scene with some elements borrowed from Daniel 12 and some from Jesus’ “Sheep and Goats” parable. Resurrected humans are judged “according to their deeds” (again, not their religion), and those who pass muster are ushered into the city of “New Jerusalem,” while the wicked go on to their “second death” in the lake of fire.
The thing about Revelation is that you can’t get hung up on any single metaphor, or you’ll find that the story starts running into walls. The “monsters” and the “dragon” are said to be tortured forever in the “lake of fire,” but in the very next scene the judged humans who are thrown in the same fire, and they just die. And this sounds like a final and decisive judgment of the entire world, but then in the next chapter, even after the Kingdom of God is established as a glimmering city, there are still people outside the kingdom, the “kings of the earth” bring tribute, and the city is said to give “healing to the nations.” Revelation defies logic and tells a very non-literal and non-linear story. It is impossible to come away from this text with a singular and definitive notion of “hell” or afterlife. (Also, the ideas of “rapture” and “going to heaven” are conspicuously absent, but we’ll say more about that when the time comes.)
Let’s conclude our brief survey of “hell” in the bible with a few broad observations. What we didn’t find is a singular, monolithic, cut and dried description of a literal place called “hell,” where the devil will torture naughty boys and girls for all eternity while twirling his mustache. Most of the imagery we associate with “hell” comes from medieval, Anglo-Saxon art and literature. What we find instead in the actual Jewish/Christian writings of the bible is a wide variety of traditions, images, parables and stories that dramatize the notion of judgment. And, one last time, this is not judgment based on religious belief or affiliation, but on deed and character.
We have at least three choices how we will receive these ancient traditions: 1) We can reject them and laugh at them for being antiquated and implausible, 2) we can embrace them as literal descriptions of what is to come and accept the anxiety and cognitive dissonance that come with that heavy task, or 3) we can embrace their meaning and their radical call to personal accountability. Thankfully I’m just a podcast guy, so I can’t tell you what you should do.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.