People fear Hell. Is it their reason for belief in a god? That’s hard to say, but I think we can agree at least some people believe solely because they are scared of the imagined alternative. I argue that we can reasonably discard this fear.
I’m going to focus specifically on the modern Christian view of Hell. I will discuss that this is a Christian invention, it is not widely supported by the Bible, and the places it is supported are not very reliable as sources. Since this is an in-depth topic, I will break it into two parts. The first will set up the case and the second will provide some “meat” for my conclusions.
Hell, as we know it, is a Christian invention.
In my experience, Christians are surprised to learn that many Jews do not believe in a physical Hell. Those that do only believe it is for the most wicked among us, like Hitler. The Rabbinic literature does talk of a purgatory-ish place where some people will go after they die, but it’s only a temporary stay until they are united with Yahweh. This place, Gehenom, is for purification of the soul – kind of like acclimatizing on your way up the mountain. In general, Jews are also not nearly as concerned with the afterlife as Christians. Concepts like tikkun olam (“repair the world”) are very focused on how we can make the most of this life and maintain the beauty of Yahweh’s creation. So how do we get from this very limited place that doesn’t really affect our religion (or no place at all) to a central tenant and driving force for conversion?
As you will see when I examine the Biblical references, the idea didn’t really take off until it spread among the Hellenized culture, who had a background belief in Hades. Of course this influenced the Jewish culture also, but not to the extent it did Christianity.
What does the Bible say?
As I’ve said before, my Bible of choice is the New Revised Standard Version Oxford Annotated Bible. That is the version I will use here, but I will discuss translation variations, as well. I prefer this Bible because it provides great notes and introductions throughout and it uses Hebrew for the OT and Greek for the NT. The only knock against it is that it uses inclusive language (him and her instead of just him – that type of stuff) but that shouldn’t really affect my purpose. I also used my handy Bible concordance, Synopsis of the Gospels, and interlinear Greek-English NT. The Synopsis is especially helpful because it shows you “linked” stories that must have been derived from the same source. You can see this quite clearly when you compare verses within the groupings below. I have arranged groups using a few criteria – from the same sermon and/or expressing the same idea. In such cases, I am counting the reference as being one rather than multiple. What we are left with are 13 individual verse mentions and six particular groups of mentions. The Greek word being translated to “hell” is provided for each in parentheses.
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell (Gehenna) of fire.
Matthew 5:29 – 30
29 – If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). 30 – And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna).
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell (Gehenna) of fire.
Mark 9:43, 9:45, and 9:47
43 – If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell (Gehenna), to the unquenchable fire. 45 – And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). 47 – And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell (Gehenna).
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).
But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell (Gehenna). Yes, I tell you, fear him!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell (Gehenna) as yourselves.
You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell (Gehenna)?
And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell (Gehenna).
2 Peter 2:4
For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Tartaros) and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment.
I can see Group 3 being disputed, but I think these are pretty agreeable groupings. I would maybe even argue to put Groups 1 and 2 together due to proximity in the narrative, but have kept them separate due to the different ideas being expressed. So what have we discovered? Of the 13 mentions and six groups all but one are translated from Gehenna. The remaining is translated from Tartaros. You will also notice that the best example, in my opinion, supporting the modern view of Hell is Group 6, that lone instance of Tartaros.
Among different translations, we will find a varying number of terms translated into “Hell.” These vary from zero to a maximum of 54, though most are in the 12-13 range. You can find a handy table here along with some interesting commentary about uses of Hell in the Bible. This author uses a King James translation, so his numbers and terms are different from my own if you want an expanded view to include possible Hebrew Bible references.
To be continued…
Next time, I will go into the meaning of these Greek terms, indirect references—those that don’t specifically use the term—as well as the reliability of these sources and discuss John’s book of Revelations, which I think is a primary source for our modern belief. Continued in Part 2.
- Why the Hell are we so scared? (Part 2 of 2)
- The Bible is Unique (Part 1 of 2)
- The Bible is Unique (Part 2 of 2)