Rethinking Hell

This week my Tuesday night Bible study, The Jewish Context of the Bible, was on the Jewish view of the afterlife.  If you were not in the class, this is one lesson I’d say you need to listen to more than any of the others.  But I’ll give you the same warning I gave my class: this lesson will stretch you theologically.  It’s going to take you outside of your comfort zone and make you at the very least re-think your current outlook on the Christian view of the afterlife.  Don’t be afraid or worried if you think on these ideas for several weeks.  You can find the audio on the website of Prestoncrest Church of Christ, or on my Audio Lessons page.

There are many Christians today that don’t believe in Hell at all.  Many Christians who do believe in it don’t believe in Hell as presented by mainstream Christianity which is, in a nutshell, a place where the people who don’t believe in Jesus go after they die and stay there forever in intense torment.  Most people who believe in Hell don’t like to think about it, are comfortable with their belief about it, and don’t wish to revisit it.  But after all my research into the Jewish sources, this topic too warrants some thought.  Join me as I rethink the concept of Hell.

Disclaimer: listen to the lesson audio lesson first, or what comes after this really won’t make much sense.

I think the most important question for a Christian regarding the idea of Hell is to ask: what did Jesus believe about Hell? Some might want to point out that Christians believe that he was the Son of God and so he didn’t just have “beliefs” about Hell, but he knew everything about it.  If you want to go that route, then let’s just ask: what did Jesus teach about Hell?  I think this is a question we can answer from the Gospel texts.  But first, a little bit of cultural context to orient our thinking.  The last thing we need to do is to come to a Biblical discussion about Hell with the picture of a burning fiery pit and a guy with a pointed tail and pitchfork torturing people. 1

What did the Jews of Jesus’ day believe about Hell?

As I pointed out during class, the word Jesus uses in the New Testament for “Hell” is the Greek word “Gehenna”, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Gehinnom”.  What does this word mean?  Gehinnom comes from the Hebrew of “Gai Ben-Hinnom” which literally means “Valley of the Son of Hinnom,” a real place just outside of Jerusalem.  This valley appears multiple times in the Tanakh, and was mainly used as the place where the people of Jerusalem would burn their trash and waste.  They say the fires of the Hinnom Valley never went out because something unclean was always burning there – and with a city the size of Jerusalem, it’s probably true.  Picture a desolate wasteland where small fires of human and animal waste, trash, criminal and animal carcasses, are all burning.  It smells horrendous, there is no water, but you can see Jerusalem in the distance.

So Jesus uses this word Gehinnom in his teachings, a different word than Gai Ben-Hinnom, but still has that connotation.  When the rabbis talked about Gehinnom, the picture they wanted to conjure up was that of the Hinnom Valley – a truly terrible place to be.  The concept of Gehinnom was around before Jesus and no where does Jesus attempt to redefine what it means.  He takes the Jewish concept and teaches about it.  So what did the Jews believe about Gehinnom in the first century?  It’s hard to tell because most of what we have on Gehinnom is from the Talmud, composed in the 6th century AD, but the best scholarship tells us that much of it was believed in Jesus’ day, though that’s debated.  So it could be that none of what I’m going to present was believed at the time of Jesus, and it could be that it all was.  A grain of salt will help in reading these next words.

The Jews believed that the Messiah would come and would rebuild Jerusalem with precious stones at its foundations.  The Messiah would bring about world peace and accomplish many other great things (such as bringing home the lost ten tribes).  And finally the Messiah would bring about the physical resurrection of the dead where the dead are raised back to life with real bodies (not just souls).  After that, they will all be judged by what is written in “the books”.  The truly righteous are inscribed instantly into the Book of Life for the Righteous.  The truly wicked are inscribed into the Book of Life for the Wicked.  The wicked together with those somewhere in-between righteous and wickedness are all cast into Gehinnom.  Most rabbis believed that most people cast into Gehinnom would only spend 12 months there before taking their place in “the world to come.”  The truly wicked would stay there for ever, or perhaps just be completed destroyed after serving their 12 months.  During the 12 months of torment, those in Gehinnom are forced to somehow watch or contemplate all of their sins and missed opportunities to do good, over and over again.  It appears that in Gehinnom you will be able to perfectly understand what is good and bad, and will be truly repentant of everything you ever did (and didn’t do).  The rabbis believed this experience which produced true repentance would purify you and make you ready for the “world to come,” that perfect world where God again dwells with men like in the beginning in the Gan Eden (Garden of Eden).

What did Jesus teach about Gehinnom?

Surprisingly, not alot.  It seems there are three types of Jesus’ teachings about Gehinnom. (Note: as mentioned above, the Greek word used in the Gospel texts is “Gehenna”, but since Jesus spoke Hebrew like the other Jews of his day, he most likely said “Gehinnom” and not “Gehenna” and certainly not “Hell”)  The three types are:

1) Gehinnom is a place you don’t want to go, so take extreme measures to make sure you don’t go there.  Examples of this can be found in Mark 9:43-47, and mirrored in Matthew and Luke.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, for it is better to enter eternal life with just one hand than to be cast into Gehinnom with two.

2) If you just follow the “letter of the law” rather than the “spirit of the law,” then you are in danger of Gehinnom.  God doesn’t care if you go through the mindless actions, he wants his law to be written on your heart.  This is reflected in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he tells people things like: “Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of [Gehinnom].” (Matthew 2:22b, NIV, Hebrew translation of the Greek word “Gehenna” substituted instead of English translation “Hell”. Substitution mine.)  This is also reflected in his lambasting the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:15 where Jesus’ frustrations come from the Pharisee’s following the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law and leading others to do the same.

3) Don’t fear men who can merely kill your body.  Rather, fear God who can destroy your soul too.  “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into [Gehinnom]. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:5, NIV, substitution mine, see above)  As I stated above, remember the rabbis believed that while most people would get out of Gehinnom after 12 months, the truly wicked would actually perish there and cease to exist – a truly scary thought.  Jesus was right: that’s definitely something to fear.

Now an observant reader might ask why I left out perhaps the biggest teaching of Jesus about Gehinnom, which is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus?  There are two reasons I left it out.  The first is because it’s a parable, a made up story that’s not meant to teach doctrinal truth about the locations in said parable.  The point of that parable is to teach people to repent in life because if you were evil in life, then you will be in pain in the afterlife.  The second reason is that the setting isn’t heaven and hell, but Sheol.  The Greek word used by Luke in telling this story is that the rich man went to Hades.  Hades was not Hell in Greek culture, but a dark, dreary, watery place where souls floated around.  The Hebrew correlation to this idea is Sheol.  Just like we see the true story of God’s flooding the world ending up in other cultures and becoming their myths, we see the true idea of Sheol as presented in the Tanakh ending up in other cultures too.  Furthermore, by the time of Jesus the rabbis had decided that Sheol was divided into four areas with a chasm between each.  Everyone in each part of the divided Sheol could see the others in the other parts.  One of the divisions, where the righteous went, was known as “paradise” and  the rabbis frequently used the euphemism of “Abraham’s bosom” to describe it.  Notice that’s where Lazarus ends up.  They had also decided that those who were wicked in the lifetime would be tortured in Sheol until the resurrection. So it’s much more likely that the setting that Jesus’ hearers would have understood the parable to be located in was Sheol, and not Heaven and certainly not “Hell”.

Rethinking Hell

Now we come to the most difficult part: have we gotten “Hell” wrong? What if it’s not really a place of eternal torment? One thing that has always bothered me deeply is when people ask “How could a God of perfect love condemn someone to eternal torment?” That seriously bothers me.  The defense of eternal Hell has always been something like, “Well, God is also a God of perfect justice, and since all have sinned, then unless you accept Jesus to pay for your sins, then you cannot be with God.” But even that answer really bothered me.  I took comfort in that answer, but it still deeply disturbed me.  Why did it disturb me?  Well, for starters, what if I’m wrong about my religion?  What if I actually do need to be a Roman Catholic to go to heaven?  Or a Methodist, Baptist, etc?  There have been millions of Christians who have died and chances are (statistically speaking) that most of them didn’t have the right theology that God originally intended!  But what if it was God’s plan all along was to save everyone through the Messiah, even those who were wrong? What if you can still repent in the afterlife?

Maybe it’s time to rethink how we read about “Hell”? Try reading through the Bible once with the paradigm that Jesus is teaching about Gehinnom as thought of by his rabbinic peers, and see if it doesn’t make sense to you.  What do you think about all of this?  Got any verses that might contradict? Please, share them.

Peace to you,

James

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Footnotes:

1. Once you understand why the rabbis used the word “Gehinnom” to picture Hell, many more stories about the valley make sense, such as in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:31-32, 19:2, 19:6, 32:35).  In Jeremiah’s day it was where the wicked would go to burn their children in sacrifice to Molech, a terrible and detestable thing.  Understanding the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Gai Ben-Hinnom) brings all kinds of new insights to studying what was done in that valley in the Tanakh.

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