Where's The Fire?: A survey of the concept of hell in the Bible

Prompted by Rob Bell's recent book and the controversy around it, this is a study of the concept hell in the Bible.  Prepare for stark contrasts with modern thought.  Interestingly, there's just one chapter on hell in Rob's book, with a few brief mentions elsewhere.  But apparently, this is what got people's attention.  I felt that Rob's treatment of the topic was OK but incomplete.  This post is strictly a study of the biblical text; if you're interested in my commentary on Rob Bell's book, I have written a separate post for that.

In the interest of length and focus, this post is only about the concept of hell.  If readers express enough interest, I will write a separate one on the Bible and heaven (a more complicated topic).

So...hell.  What DOES the Bible say?  Most readers will be surprised.

What does the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) say about hell?  Nothing.  Zippo.  The closest you get is the Hebrew word sheol, which in ancient Judaism was the realm of the dead where everyone went.  It is improperly translated "hell" in the King James Version.  There's debate about whether it was considered an actual place, but either way, it was "the destiny of every man" (Ecclesiastes 7:2, 9:10).   There was a place of "fire" and "burning" known as the Valley of Hinnom, but I will get to that in a moment.

In the New Testament, there are two primary words that translated as "hell."  The first, hades, means "unseen" and is essentially the Greek version of the Hebrew sheol (hades was also a god in mythology).  Hades is the word used in Matthew 11:23, 16:18, Luke 10:15, 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; and Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13-14.  English translations vary in how they translate the word, and it's not always consistent within one translation.  Sometimes it is left untranslated as "Hades," other times "the realm of the dead," and rarely (inaccurately) "hell."  It is clear in these passages that hades is not hell as we think of it.  For example, Jesus uses hades in a parable in Luke 16:19-31.  Yes, Jesus refers to a rich man who is there being tormented, but Abraham is there too, along with a poor beggar named Lazarus.  It's just that there's a "great chasm" between them.  Jesus refers to the man being in a "fire" and needing a drink of water.  Sounds like how we think of hell, right?  Yes, but look more closely.  First, it's a parable.  Like any other parable, it's meant to be taken figuratively and the lesson of the story is what's important, not the details.  But more importantly, even if one insists that it's about heaven vs. hell, why is the rich man there (or, for that matter, how is he able to talk to Abraham)?  Read the story.  The only reason given for the rich man being "in torment" is that he received "good things" in life and was rich, while Lazarus received "bad things" and was poor.  Jesus paints a picture of reversed circumstances in the next life, the last being first (and had very few favorable words for the rich).  But we see most clearly that hades is something different from hell in Revelation 20:13-14, where hades itself is thrown into the "lake of fire."  Death itself being destroyed.

The other word in the Greek New Testament is gehenna.  Gehenna was an actual, geographical location, a valley south of Jerusalem.  The same location is referred to in the Old Testament as "the Valley of the son of Hinnom" which is supposedly the site where practitioners of pagan religions in the region sacrificed their children by fire.  In fact, it apparently gained quite the bad reputation as a place of destruction and evil (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-32).  There's a lot of scholarly debate centered around this.  There's no question that Gehenna was the name of a physical location that doubled as a metaphor for destruction and fire, but some think it was the "city dump" where trash and even carcasses were burned (Rob Bell unquestioningly assumes this).  There are passages in Nehemiah that talk about a "dung gate" of the second temple, and Jeremiah 19:2 mentions a "potsherd gate" that faced the valley (pottery was commonly broken and thrown out, and archaeologists have uncovered lots of potsherds in the area).  There's no direct evidence that it was used for this during Jesus' day.  But if it was such a place of burning, it probably would have had an "unquenchable fire" that burned all the time, and if you got far enough outside Jerusalem, one could imagine wild animals fighting for scraps of food and gnashing their teeth together as they did.  Sound familiar?  However, none of the 7 instances in which Jesus uses the phrase "gnashing of teeth" (Matt 8:12, 13:42, 50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30; and Luke 13:28) is used in conjunction with a reference to gehenna.  At any rate, all instances of the word gehenna, except for one in James, are found in the gospels on the lips of Jesus.  It is the word used in Matt 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33;  Mark 9:43-47;  Luke 12:5; and James 3:6. Jesus was very fond of metaphors and figurative speech:  weeds, sheep, salt, light, harvest, sword.  His teaching was highly image-based.  He used hyperbole and pulled out all the stops to shock his listeners and get his point across.  His Jewish audience knew about Gehenna (and he was not the first to use it in this way).  It was a cursed place.  It had a horrible reputation and history, and was just no place to hang out.  Gehenna.  What a powerful image and metaphor to describe where the destructive forces in our lives belong (Mark 9:43-47) and what it's like to be separated from God.

Funny enough, the closest you can get to the modern notion of hell is the word tartarus which is used once in an obscure verse in 2 Peter 2:4, a verse seldom read or mentioned.  Tartarus comes from Greek mythology and was a dark, gloomy dungeon of punishment and torture below the underworld.  But in this verse from 2 Peter and in the thought of Hellenistic Christians, it was a place where angels were sent for sinning, not humans.  (There's also an apparent reference to this in Jude 1:6 without the use of the actual word).

Paul, the reported author of 13 New Testament books and from whom Christians derive much of their theology, never mentions hell.  He mentions judgment, Christ's return, etc., but never hell.  He mentions salvation, but the only thing in his writings that is given as its alternative is "death."  There is, however, an intriguing idea that appears in his letters:  handing someone over to Satan.  1 Timothy 1:19-20: "holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme."  And in 1 Corinthians 5:5:  "hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the sinful nature so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord."  Clearly, whatever it means to hand someone over to Satan, Paul saw it as a temporary act that would result in correction and restoration.

The gospel of John never mentions hell.  The closest you get is verses like John 3:16 with the word apoletai, which is often translated "perish."  Apoletai was a commonly used word that referred to a finite end or a complete destruction (not the persistence of something in another state or place).

One other word that is never translated "hell" but needs mention is the Greek word abusson.  It's usually translated "abyss" and occurs 9 times in the New Testament:  once in Luke 8:31, once in Romans 10:7, and the other 7 are in Revelation (Rev 9:1-2, 11, 11:7, 17:8, 20:1-3).  The word refers to something "bottomless" and was originally synonymous with the sea/ocean (remember folks: no scuba equipment, no sonars.  As far as they knew, there was no bottom).  But as all concepts do, it developed, and that bottomless pit of the sea came to be known as the abode of Satan and his demons...and no one else.  As with tartarus, there is never a mention of a human going there (other than Jesus in Romans 10:6-7, but Paul seems to be addressing some kind of false thinking, implying that Jesus did not actually go there).

There are other passages in the Bible that seem to refer to "hell" in some way without using any of the above words; I am only going to look at a few.  At the end of Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), he says that the goats will go away to kolasin aionion; literally, "a correction/punishment age" (Matt 25:46.  The sheep go to zoen aionion - "a life age."  Maybe I will have to write that blog about heaven...).  English translations use the word "eternal" for aionion but that can be somewhat misleading.  We think of time in a linear fashion, which means that, for us, "eternity" goes on with no end, is necessarily in the future, and is kind of like "infinity" in mathematics.  But there's a technical difference:  it means "perpetual," and it didn't necessarily refer to the future (e.g., Rom 16:25).  Some Koine Greek scholars say that there was no such concept as "never-ending."  The point is that it's a very nuanced word that's hard for us Westerners to grasp.  The other word, kolasin, is said to have originated as a gardening term, referring to pruning and trimming.  And why do we prune and trim plants?  So that they can grow and flourish (remember Paul giving people over to Satan?).  Why do we punish children?  To correct their behavior.  We find something similar in Jude 1:7, this time with a puros aionion, an age of fire.  In Revelation 20:15, we read about a "lake of fire" where everyone whose name is not written in the book of life is thrown.  But remember, this is also where hades, death, is going to be destroyed.....not tormented.  And this comes after "each person was judged according to what they had done" (Rev 20:13).

...according to what they had done?  This leads me to a final point.  But first, let's summarize:  No mention of hell in the Old Testament, only the realm of all dead, which is also what hades refers to in the New Testament.  Gehenna was an actual place used as a metaphor.  No mention of it in Paul's writings or the gospel of John.  Tartarus and abusson were mysterious, bad places but were not for humans.  The New Testament sparsely mentions an "age of punishment" or an "age of fire."  But now, all these things - along with gehenna - were reserved for.....whom?

So far, we've explored the words and images used that gave rise to modern notions of "hell," and you should have seen by now that things have morphed quite a bit.  But there's something I haven't fully mentioned yet that is possibly the most jolting and shocking of all when compared to traditional, orthodox Christianity.

Gehenna, fire, punishment:  who were these things for?  Who was threatened with these things?  God's judgment is a very prominent theme throughout scripture.  But who is it for?

If you were to go back and read all the aforementioned passages in context to see who was being threatened with "hell" or who was in danger of judgment, here's the list you would come up with:

Pharisees (i.e., religious leaders; the "in" guys), children of the kingdom, hypocrites
Wicked, unrepentant towns (compared to Sodom and Gomorrah)
Rich people who don't share
People who insult others and rage in anger
People whose eyes and hands "cause them to stumble"
"Everything that causes sin and all who do evil"
"Lazy servants"
People who don't tame their tongue
Those who practice sexual immorality and perversion
Those who fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.

There are other passages not mentioned yet that list off things or kinds of people who "will not inherit the kingdom."  Paul has lists that include adulterers, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers, the arrogant, and the unmerciful.  Jesus said those who "do not become like children" will not "enter the kingdom."

Wait a minute.  Isn't something missing here?  I thought people were eternally punished for not believing the right things; for not being a part of the right religion?  Where is that?

Is Rob Bell a heretic who just wants to smooth over parts of the Bible that people don't like, or does the Bible itself cast more doubt on the issue than even Rob Bell does?

You decide.

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