What comes to mind when you think of Hell? Fire, brimstone, eternal torture, molten lake, goats? You can sleep easy knowing that these modern Christian concepts are an invention.
As I laid out in Part 1, the term Hell is not used much in the Bible. In fact, it is only used in six groups of text, which are all in the New Testament. It is also not used as a force for conversion, as some churches do today. Jesus was not threatening Hell around every corner. The apostles in Acts never used the term, and neither did the greatest apostle, Paul. It is the writing coming later when the church spreads among the surrounding Greek areas that provides our current scary understanding. More specifically, it is John’s book of Revelation that is shaping our modern beliefs. Let’s look at what the terms translated to “Hell” mean, what Revelation says, and then I’ll discuss the reliability of the sources supporting a place of eternal fire and misery.
When looking at every Biblical reference to Hell, we found that five of the six groups used the term Gehenna and the other used Tartaros. Those who used Gehenna were Jesus and James. You cannot fully understand these without understanding their context as Jews living in 1st Century Palestine. Scholars call this the sitz im leben, or life setting. So what would this term mean to their audience? How would it be interpreted? It would not be as the literal Hell we think of today. But don’t take my word for it; let’s see what the Chaplain of Dartmouth University had to say in his eloquent sermon on the subject.
What did Jesus mean when he talked about hell? Well, the first thing we need to know is that he did not talk about hell. He sometimes talked about Hades, which is a Greek word referring to a shadowy underworld. But more often he talked about Gehenna. He said Gehenna; we translate it hell. Gehenna was the name of a specific place; it was the name of the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, where garbage burned continually. Just as Alcatraz is not for us the name of an island but the name of a prison, just as Auschwitz is no longer for us just the name of a town in Poland but a symbol of horror, so Gehenna was both the name of the place where garbage was burned and a symbol of destruction. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, he was speaking metaphorically. Gehenna, hell, was the destination for trash, for wasted lives. Jesus allowed for the possibility – more than that, he even warned, that certain ways of living would lead not to the kingdom of God, but to the garbage dump, to Gehenna, to hell. And when he talked about the fires of Gehenna, his listeners knew exactly what he meant.
Richard R. Crocker, Ph.D.
College Chaplain, Dartmouth University
While I did not find the use of Hades in my translation, I think Crocker captures my central idea. Gehenna was the Valley of Hinnom, an actual place used in conversation metaphorically by Jews living at the time. More importantly, when Jesus did use the term, he was making a point, not saying this is where you will go if you don’t bow down and worship me. I also wanted to note that even if some translations, like the KJV, use Hades, that is used as a neutral term for the place of the dead—both good and bad—just like in Greek mythology.
The other reference, Tartaros (or Tartarus), came later when the religion began to spread among the Greeks. This is evident in the sheer use of a term from Greek mythology. Tartaros means a “deep place” and it was believed to be under Hades as a place of torture and punishment. Mythology buffs may remember it as the place where Zeus imprisoned most of the Titans, including his father, Cronos. It is also the place where Sisyphus is continually pushing his boulder up a mountain only to have it roll down to the bottom again. The place where this term occurs is 2 Peter, which falsely claims to be written by Peter and was almost not even included in the canon.
The most prominent source of indirect references to Hell—those not using the actual term but conveying the idea—is John’s book of Revelation. The book itself ironically doesn’t say much about Hell itself, but it gives us this understanding that things will be scary and torment will reign. This is the most vivid imagery concerning God’s judgment overall in the New Testament.
For any who don’t know, the book is presented as a vision given by Jesus to a man exiled on an island. This man, John, is visited by Jesus, then taken up to Heaven through a hole in the sky. He sees the throne of God and beings worshipping him. God is holding a scroll which records the future. There are seals holding the scroll together. Jesus (portrayed as an actual lamb during this part of the story) starts breaking the seals. With each broken seal, some great catastrophe happens on Earth. One of these broken seals even causes the sun to go black, the moon to go blood red, and the stars to fall out of the sky. It goes on from there and the antichrist comes and then the end is brought about by the whore of Babylon. Of course it has to all end how it began—with a woman causing trouble! But wait, then the armies of God come and save the day. Satan, the antichrist, and even death itself are thrown in a lake of burning sulfur. Those on the “right” side live happily ever after in a new Jerusalem with pearly gates, streets of gold, and eternal daylight. Oh, and all of those people will have “Jesus” tattooed on their foreheads.
The book says this is all true and it is going to happen soon. It’s not just John saying it; Jesus is saying it! It has to be true.
Are these books reliable? – or – How I learned to stop worrying and live my life.
Given the strength of the argument against considering the use of Gehenna in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and James as a literal reference to Hell, and since 2 Peter only has one verse, I want to focus on Revelation. This book is not reliable and its inclusion into the canon was hotly debated. Those early Christians were wary of whether this book was reliable and even later church figures, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, questioned its inclusion.
Revelation is what’s known as apocalyptic literature. Within the confines of the New Testament, it may seem to be unique, which lends to its mystery and ability to convince people it is prophetic. However, apocalyptic literature was very common around the time it was written. We have numerous examples, including The Shepherd of Hermas and The Apocalypse of Peter. All apocalypse tales divide the world into good vs. evil, they tell of journeys into heaven and future events, and they are all imminent. Yet, none of them have happened. It’s easy to say they just haven’t happened yet, but that is a preposterous objection in my opinion. The author of the book is supposed to be prophetic and his opinion is that it will obviously happen very soon—not thousands of years soon, but any minute now soon. You then have to admit fault in his prophecy, and if he is wrong about that, he could be wrong about everything else. This book is not unique. It is not special. It does exactly what every book of its kind does (and is wrong just like the rest). The only difference is this one somehow made it into the Christian canon. For a more detailed description of the genre, and a fantastic discussion of the book, I would read The Book of Revelation by Robert H. Mounce, a respected scholar of apocalypse literature (this link is to a free copy on Google Books).
Let’s also recognize that the book makes completely ridiculous claims based on an uninformed understanding of the Universe. Let’s look at just a few, including those I mentioned above:
- The sun will burn out, but the moon will still show color
- The sun will burn out and we keep going
- The stars are apparently being suspended in order for them to fall out of the sky
- Heaven is up in the sky and Hell is down in the Earth
- God seems to be physical in that he requires a throne and holds things
- God needs the future of the world written down even though he is omniscient
- Babylon (a reference to Rome) is an evil instigator
- Apparently when we are in paradise, we will need streets and they will be gold
There are a few points I want you to take from this. First, this person was quite obviously not seeing the future. The predictions are driven by a poor understanding of science, most notably astrophysics. We now know the moon is not internally lit, but a reflection of the sun. We know the stars are not rotating around us in these magical spheres. We know we would all die very quickly without the sun. And we know there is no Heaven in the sky and no Hell in the ground. Apologists try to get around these things by claiming metaphor, but this is obviously based on the scientific understanding of the time. They didn’t need metaphor to talk about Heaven because everyone knew it was up in the sky. After all, didn’t Jesus ascend up to Heaven? They were wrong. Accept it. We also know Rome is no longer the center of power, as it was then. Does it make more sense to say Rome is coming back into global power or that the author was just using the world he knew? Second, they had a hard time imagining a non-physical God, so they personified him. Now, we have a view of this detached consciousness that doesn’t even exist in our Universe or within the confines of time. This is not how the author sees God. Why? Again, because that is how people thought of God. He is not having a true vision. This new approach to God is driven by philosophical objections that have pushed God further and further away until he is unrecognizable. He is in the sky and you can’t reach him, then he’s invisible, then he’s not even physical, then he is in an eternal (timeless) place, whatever that even means. Finally, there are clear cases of the author inserting imagery that reflects human wishes. Won’t we be spirits? Do we really need streets, gold, palaces, gates of pearl, crowns, etc? This is obviously human, not divine.
This is not intended to be a complete case. For that, I would follow the link above or read Bart Ehrman’s textbook on the New Testament. Rather, I wanted to get people to notice the following:
- Hell is not widely discussed in the Bible
- When it is, it does not seem to support our modern view
- The place that does give us many ideas about how horrible judgment will be has serious issues
This idea of Hell, judgment, and the world coming to an end is not supported by anything we know. We can trust a person who claims to be a prophet, yet seems to know nothing, or we can move on with our lives and trust only those things that are verifiable. Hell is not one of them. If you believe in it, ask yourself why. If you think it’s because the Bible tells you that you will burn for eternity, I would encourage you to think again.
- Why the Hell are we so scared? (Part 1 of 2)
- Let him who is without sin fudge the first story.
- The Problem of Judas