Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Biblical Look at Hell

We've been having an interesting conversation on the Rush messageboard about hell. One of the more enlightened and intellectually honest Christians on the board created a thread asking about what the bible actually says about hell. He has, apparently, been struggling with the concept of an all-loving, all-merciful God who also sends the majority of human beings to eternal damnation in a lake of fire (what intellectually honest Christian wouldn't struggle with such an abominable and counter-intuitive idea?).

As a result, there has been an interesting conversation taking place. I wanted to post some of my own thoughts from the thread here on my blog, for a wider reading audience.

-----

Did you know that the word "hell" only appears 14 times in the bible? Fully half of those instances are in the book of Matthew alone, and 12 of the 14 are in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The other two are in James and 2 Peter.

How can something that plays such an otherwise insignificant role in the bible be such a central theme within Christianity? By way of comparison, consider the instances of these words in the bible:

Free: 186
Prison/Jail: 140
Slave: 164
Field: 301
Flower: 22
Tower: 51
Life: 589
Love: 697
Compassion/Compassionate: 88
Vomit: 13
Spit: 17
Semen: 6

I mean, for crying out loud, the word "vomit," or a variation thereof, is used as many times in the bible as the word "hell"!!! And look how many times "love" appears in the bible. Based on some of these numbers, what do you think is most important in the message of the bible? Eternal damnation for sin, or showing love and compassion to each other, and bringing the message of abundant life to the people you encounter each day?

-----

There is very little in the bible regarding hell. There are plenty of references to Satan, but not a single one of them is referenced in a passage regarding hell.

Think about that for a moment.

In the bible, Satan is characterized as the embodiment of evil, temptation, and wayward living. Hell, on the other hand, is where you end up if you are out of communion with God. Christianity, and other religions, connect these two things, but if you simply look at biblical texts, you won't find a clear connection between Satan and Hell. If you assume hell is a real place, the very first question you must ask yourself is "Is Satan there too?" The bible doesn't make this clear. For me, this is strong evidence that our modern concepts of hell and Satan are entirely manmade. If God were a supernatural entity attempting to communicate with us through the bible, he sure messed up on giving us a clear picture about hell and Satan.

The reason for the ambiguity in the bible, of course, is because hell, as a theological concept, was still in its infancy when the New Testament was being written. I've remarked elsewhere that I don't personally believe Jesus probably ever said anything about hell. I think the references Jesus makes to hell in the gospels were probably words put into his teachings by later Christian writers who were writing after the concept was beginning to be incorporated into Christian theology.

Thus, for instance, when Matthew has Jesus say, in chapter 5, verse 4, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell" I think the part about hell was probably added to Jesus's authentic teaching. More than likely, Jesus's teaching would have been about eternal separation from God -- thus, discard your sinful ways (that is, ways that lead you out of communion with God), and begin leading God-centered lives, so that you don't end up permanently out of communion with God. When such a teaching is translated into late 1st century emerging Christian theological language, you end up with what Matthew wrote.

Whether Jesus actually used hell language or not, the issue still remains irrelevant for me. As a 1st century spiritual teacher, Jesus may well have used language and concepts that were common to the people he was teaching and to the culture in which he lived. However, since hell wasn't a concept within Jewish theology, I don't believe he ever talked about hell. Even if he did, 1st century conceptions of eternal damnation are irrelevant for 21st century theology, in my opinion, even if they are from Jesus.

To go a little deeper, let's look at another hell reference in the New Testamant. Most scholars agree that 2 Peter was probably the last NT book to be written -- written sometime in the first part of the 2nd century. There is a reference to hell in the second chapter.

"For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment....."

Gloomy dungeons? That doesn't sound like a lake of fire to me. Interestingly, the Greek word for hell used in this passage was "Tartarus," which refers to a deep, dark pit or hole where the dead await judgment. This concept was drawn directly from Greek mythology, which stated that Tartarus was within Hades -- Hades being the abode of the dead. It's very closely related to the Jewish concept of Sheol.

The point, of course, is this -- this particular biblical reference to "hell" is clearly not related to the concepts of fire that you get in other biblical hell references, and certainly not in the modern evangelical concept of hell. To the Christian community that composed 2 Peter, hell was not about eternal fire and damnation, but more in line with Jewish and Greek concepts as a holding tank for the final judgment. This speaks to Jeremy's original question about whether we get a chance, after death, to accept God. It would seem, by the standards of the writer(s) of 2 Peter, that final judgment doesn't happen during life or even at death, but at the end of time -- and this was a distinctly Jewish idea, not at all like what we understand in modern Christianity.

All this leads back to the original statement -- and that is that the bible gives no clear idea of what hell is, and no clear connection at all to Satan. Hell was a concept that was in use in sporadic Christian communities during the 1st and 2nd centuries, and there was no clear agreement even among these communities about what hell was or what Satan's role was there. It was not until much later that specific ideas about hell, Satan, fire, and eternal damnation were developed. And because we now have these sorts of ideas about hell, we read those same ideas back into the bible, even though those ideas aren't actually there.

It's important to note, too, that no reference to hell ever appears in Paul's writings -- the earliest Christian writings in existence. If Jesus talked about hell, and hell was an important Christian concept, wouldn't the father of Christianity have at least mentioned it in passing? I firmly believe no Christian ever talked of "hell" until the latter part of the 1st century, long after Jesus, his followers, and the earliest missionaries were gone.

-----

Just remember....hell, as a location, is mentioned in only 5 of the 66 biblical books (that's less than 8% of the books in the bible), with a total of only 14 mentions, half of which are in one book alone. Hell is never mentioned by the New Testament's earliest writer, and the general father of Christian theology, Paul, and it is also not mentioned in other early New Testament books like the book of Hebrews. Finally, hell and Satan are never mentioned together in the bible, and there is no indication in the bible that Satan lives in hell, or that hell is place of eternal and irreversible damnation. All of those ideas were developed long after the biblical books were written, and by people and institutions that were not part of the earliest Christian communities.

-----

If you want to read further on my beliefs and feelings about hell, click here. This is a blog post from March where I talk about hell.

11 comments:

deine schwester :) said...

You're going to hell for this. :)

Anonymous said...

You're narrow-minded fundamentalism never ceases to amaze me.

Scott said...

You're just mad because when you read my blog, it forces you to think about stuff you don't like to think about :-)

Anonymous said...

I believe in God but not hell.

If you know how to read the Hebrew Bible from which I believe other translations are made from, there is NO metion of the word "hell". People translated the word "Sheol" which means "grave" and turned it into "hell". Plus if you read the Old Testament - Adam, Moses and Abraham were all not warned or told of "hell". I don't God our Creator would be so thoughtless as to forget to mention it. God is kind and loving, and by the grace of God everyone will enter Heaven.

Scott said...

Thanks for posting, Anon. Indeed, the concept of hell was foreign to the ancient Hebrews. It did not come into play until Christianity usurped the Greek idea of Hades. More than likely, the idea of hell would have been foreign to Jesus.

Anonymous said...

If there's no such thing as Hell, why in the world did Jesus Christ have to suffer so? Why would a perfect, just, and holy God allow sinful wretches to pierce his hands and feet; to forsake him; to jeer at him; to place a crown of thorns on his holy head and to cause him to suffer and die as the vilest of criminals?

Apparently, we Christians have a huge problem when it comes to God casting sinners into hell but no problem whatever when God himself hangs on a miserable tree so that we don't have to.

You see, the cross and the ugliness thereof is a visual representation of the hidden, more subtle heinousness of our own sin. Christ's death was so miserable because he mentally, physically and spiritually bore all the iniquity of fallen man.

So, the way I see it, if you toss hell out, you toss the crucifixion out as well. If your god is so unjust as to do nothing about the problem of evil and sin--and then to cast sin on the back of an innocent man--then your god is not the God of the Bible.

Now, please don't take me the wrong way. I've made some seemingly harsh statements here; I'm only trying to make you guys think about your position. Please do so...

Anonymous said...

And as for the original blogger's statement that Jesus likely did not speak of Hell... Wow, if that's the case, how do we even know Jesus existed?

If the gospel writers did not speak truth but rather inserted into Christ's words their own, we stand upon a foundation of men and not God's Word. That is to say, if you're going to say that Jesus didn't speak about hell, who's to say he spoke about grace? If you're going to say he didn't speak about sin, who's to say he spoke about love? You can't simply pick and choose which things you think Jesus said and which you don't think he said.

If you do so, you pull the rug from under Christianity. If there is no objective set of instructions and historical assertions (i.e. the Bible), all we are left with is relativism and the cold reality that God has indeed not spoken to us direclty (and if he has, that he is error-prone).

Anonymous said...

In regard to the Hebrew Bible, it is indeed true that the closest thing to "hell" is Sheol, which is probably one of the vaguest and most versatile terms in all of the Hebrew language.

However, if you're going to deny the concept of hell in the OT, you must do likewise in respect to the concept of heaven! (The only real reference to a heavenly afterlife is where Elijah is taken up into "the heavens"... which is pretty vague to say the least.)

Furthermore, that the OT does not address hell directly is more of an indication that --1) they did not understand the afterlife and 2) that God had yet to reveal certain facts about the afterlife-- than it is an indication that Hell does not actually exist!

The incarnation and the specific person and nature of Christ are not in the OT; should we therefore toss that out the window as well? God forbid! You see, there's such a thing as progressive revelation, wherein God reveals those things in the NT which were obscure or isolated in the OT. The people of the OT knew that God was fully just and that He would punish sins... and that was all they needed to turn toward Yahweh in repentance and reverence.

(Once again, I know I am being quite dogmatic, but bear with me. I love you guys!)

Scott said...

Anonymous: Thanks for posting your thoughts. I'll make a few comments on things you said:

You said: "If there's no such thing as Hell, why in the world did Jesus Christ have to suffer so? Why would a perfect, just, and holy God allow sinful wretches to pierce his hands and feet; to forsake him; to jeer at him; to place a crown of thorns on his holy head and to cause him to suffer and die as the vilest of criminals?"

There is no question that when one begins to recognize the deficiencies in Hell theology, that one must also recognize similar deficiencies in other Christian dogma and doctrine. If there is no hell, then no, Jesus couldn't have been saving us from hell by dying on the cross.

I believe Jesus died on the cross because he stirred up too much trouble during a time (Passover) when the Roman authorities were especially on guard against possible uprisings. It was only after he died that his followers began trying to read divine meaning into his otherwise seemingly tragic and senseless death.

You said: "And as for the original blogger's statement that Jesus likely did not speak of Hell... Wow, if that's the case, how do we even know Jesus existed?"

That's a pretty drastic stretch. Just because Jesus may or may not have spoken about hell does not mean Jesus didn't exist. Just because the Bible may or may not record the actual, specific words of Jesus does not mean Jesus did not exist. That's just simply a logical fallacy.

The reason I assert that Jesus may not have spoken about hell is because hell was not a concept within Judaism. Hell is a Christian/Greek idea. Jesus was not a Christian or a Greek. He was a Jewish man living in Jewish Roman Palestine. It's unlikely he would have had any concept of hell.

As for "picking and choosing," this is not a valid argument. Attempting to determine what Jesus was likely to have said, and not likely to have said, is a historical/cultural process that is subject to the same criteria as any other analysis of an ancient text. The hell issue is a prime example: Why do scholars suggest Jesus probably never talked about hell? Because hell wasn't a defined concept in the Jewish world that Jesus worked and lived in. Was love a concept in that same world? Of course! So it's not unreasonable to suppose Jesus would have talked about love. Historical analysis cannot ever claim to have ultimate truth. But it can lead toward historical fact and help to separate the fact from the fiction.

You said: "If you do so, you pull the rug from under Christianity. If there is no objective set of instructions and historical assertions (i.e. the Bible), all we are left with is relativism and the cold reality that God has indeed not spoken to us direclty (and if he has, that he is error-prone)."

Well, my response to this would be that if this is what we are left with after a historicaly analysis of the Bible, then we must face that reality. Just because we don't like the results, does not mean we should run from them. Doing so would be intellectually dishonest. I am a person who is willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it forces me to change my mind about deeply held convictions. Now, having said this, I don't believe that historical and scholarly analysis of the Bible renders the Bible useless. In fact, the Bible becomes a text of deep spiritual value when you begin to understand it historically and contextually.

You said: "However, if you're going to deny the concept of hell in the OT, you must do likewise in respect to the concept of heaven!"

I agree with you here. Indeed, Judaism also had no real concept of heaven either, at least not until late in Biblical Jewish history. Ancient Jews believed that when you died, you went to Sheol. Sheol was neither heaven nor hell, but rather nothingness.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure of the concept of hell, the original word for hell used ion the NT was 'hades' which stemed from Greek mythology, why would the Bible use this instead of tan original word? Makes me wonder if hell is really true. If hades is true so are the greek gods.

Also lately I have asked this question within myself, the answers is always that this is a ridiculous concept relating to the true nature of God. Everytime I look inside for answers I get peace and serentity. Everytime I look outside I get strife and conflict, no peace, to believe in the concept of hell I have to look outside.

Scott said...

Thanks for posting, Anonymous.

There are two words used for "hell" in the New Testament. The Greek word "Hades" is actually the least common of the two. Normally, the word used to refer to hell in the NT is "gehenna," which refers to the Valley of Himnon, a place outside the walls of Jerusalem used to burn the garbage from the city. It was aflame year-round, making it a perfect metaphor for the eternal suffering associated with not being in communion with God.

But when one separates the word from its metaphorical meaning, and literalizes it, then you turn God into an unthinkable monster who literally burns people for all eternity if they don't make the right profession of faith - a concept that I reject as nonsense and absurd and unbiblical.

Serene Musings Books of the Year, 2005-2015