By Philip Cottraux
Is hell, the most unpleasant aspect of Christian doctrine, real? Even while many preachers shy away from the topic, the Bible at least seems to say so. In his book 23 Minutes in Hell, Bill Wiese recounts a terrifying vision he had, then lists over 200 scriptures backing up the existence of such a place (many of which eerily coincide with his experience).
And Jesus talks about it more often than any other prophet. However, some have attempted to reconstruct what He actually meant.
Questioning the existence of hell isn’t anything new. At first glance, the Old Testament seems oddly vague on the subject, only referring to a place called “sheol.” A clever theologian will point to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, which shows two different aspects of sheol: hell, where the rich man ended up, and Abraham’s bosom, with a great gulf between the two. Since people couldn’t go to heaven until Jesus came, the souls of the righteous went to Abraham’s bosom as a temporary waiting place.
If hell is not real, then its doctrine has historical roots somewhere outside Judaism. The Old Testament sometimes calls it “hades,” which is actually the Greek description of the underworld (Hades was the god of death and brother of Zeus). The theory goes that after the conquest of Alexander the great (336-323 BC), Greece conquered a massive empire that included the ancient Middle East. Hellenistic culture dominated the region for many centuries afterwards. This is when the concept of Hades entered Judaism, which previously didn’t believe in an afterlife, and serves as the origin for the eventual Christian doctrine of hell.
But this theory is very problematic. For one, it rests on the assumption that hell, or any semblance of the afterlife, doesn’t appear in the Old Testament. It is true that some Jewish sects did not believe in the afterlife, specifically the Sadducees. But remember when I mentioned earlier that Bill Wiese listed over 200 Bible verses on hell? A shocking number are from the Old Testament, maybe even more than the New. Here is just a small sample:
Deuteronomy 32:22,24: For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains…They shall be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter destruction: I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them, with the poison of serpents of the dust.
Psalm 9:17: The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.
Proverbs 1:12: Let us swallow them up alive as the grave; and whole, as those that go down into the pit:
Isaiah 14:15: Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.
Ezekiel 32:27: And they shall not lie with the mighty that are fallen of the uncircumcised, which are gone down to hell with their weapons of war: and they have laid their swords under their heads, but their iniquities shall be upon their bones, though they were the terror of the mighty in the land of the living.
Daniel 12:2: And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Throughout its history, Israel was subjected by many world powers, including Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. But we can’t really find an equivalent to “hell” in any of their cultural ideas of the afterlife. Furthermore, when subjugated by another kingdom, the Jewish people had a tendency towards resistance and a resurgence historical pride. We saw this during the Maccabean revolt. While there were some Hellenistic Jews in Jesus’ time, they constituted a minority. Meaning that the doctrine of hell is unique to Judaism itself.
Getting back to Jesus, we need to put ourselves into His time period. What were Judaism’s beliefs on hell and the afterlife in the early first century? We need look no further than Jewish writers of the time.
According to Ezra the scribe: “The chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment…recompense shall follow…unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear…and the furnace of Gehenna (hell) shall be disclosed.”
The book of Baruch: “The coming world will be given to these, but the habitation of many others will be in fire.”
The apocryphal book of Maccabees (the 160s BC): “Because of this, justice has laid up for you intense and eternal fire and tortures, and these throughout all time will never let you go.”
There are plenty of other examples, but you get the idea. The important point is that by Jesus’ time, the belief in hell, an eternal place of fire and torment for the unrighteous, was well established Judaic doctrine.
And as we know, there was no greater challenger of Judaic tradition than Jesus. He radically called out the Pharisees on their hypocrisy, subverted the ridiculously strict laws on observing the Sabbath, and overturned the money tables in the temple. So when it comes to attacking religious tradition, Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak the truth. He was also very exact on what He taught.
Yet when it came to hell, Jesus’ message was chilling and unmistakable.
Matthew 13:49-50: So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
A recent theory, first proposed by Christian Universalist Rob Bell, goes that outside of Jerusalem was a large garbage dump called “gehenna.” Universalism is controversial belief that all of humanity will eventually end up in heaven, even the unsaved. Some Universalists have described hell as only a temporary punishment to “purify” the wicked until they are ready for heaven.
According to Bell: “People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over the scarps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out. Gehenna was an actual place that Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with. So the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, ‘Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere…’”
Many have accepted Bell’s claim as fact; but just like the Greek-influence theory, a further study makes it problematic. For starters, “garbage dump” gets increasingly awkward if we try to apply it to Jesus’ other references to hell.
Matthew 5:22: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of garbage dump fire.
Matthew 10:28: And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in the garbage dump.
Matthew 18:9: And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the garbage dump fire.
Matthew 23:33: Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of the garbage dump?
But in Matthew 13:49-50, which I brought up earlier, Jesus was in fact referring to a physical location, which does seem to give the theory some credence. The word gehenna, actually refers to the Valley of Hinnom, which if you recall from my blog last week, had a notorious reputation. In Jesus’ time, it was known as a great killing ground with a similar reputation as Auschwitz has to us today. A shrine to Baal had once been erected here for idol worshipers to sacrifice and eat their own children. The prophet Jeremiah references this in 19:5-6: They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind: Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that this place shall no more be called Tophet, nor The valley of the son of Hinnom, but The valley of slaughter. The children were usually thrown alive into flames, their horrific screams drowned out by cheering crowds.
No garbage dump existed here. Archaeologists have found the gruesome remains of children, but no evidence of rubbish piles. The “town dump” theory is a misinterpretation by Bell of a 1200 AD writing from a rabbi named David Kimhi: “Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and in which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgment of the wicked is called ‘Gehenna.’”
But just because gehenna was a real location doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t referring to the afterlife in Matthew 13. In fact, quite the opposite is more likely. Jesus often spoke in parables and was good at using analogies. A perfect example is the parable of the ten virgins from Matthew 25, which hammers home why some would be taken at His return at others left behind. Since His followers were obviously familiar with first century Jewish wedding customs, it helped them understand the point He was trying to make.
The same is true of gehenna. A place that still haunted the memories of Jerusalem, where screaming children had been thrown alive into burning flames, illustrated His comparison to hell, where the unsaved will be cast into never-ending fire. And we know it wasn’t just an analogy because He explicitly refers to it as the fate of those who oppose Him.
Matthew 25:41,46: Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
Jesus wasn’t playing around with this, and we shouldn’t either. Hell, as unpleasant as it is, is the reality of Christianity’s central theme. Christians need to start taking this more seriously. It isn’t just a doctrinal discussion. People’s eternities are at stake. But hell serves as the terrifying backdrop against which the glorious nature of the cross, God’s great act of mercy, is revealed.
-Chan, Francis. Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up. David C Cook Distribution, Ontario, Canada, 2011. Pages 23, 52-23, 56-61.
-Wiese, Bill. 23 Minutes in Hell. Charisma House, Lake Mary, Florida, 2006. Pages 137-155.