dark road, clouds, image of hell

Hell Is Not from the Bible

dark road, clouds, image of hellSo many things people think are part of Christian belief, including hell, do not exactly come from the Bible. There is an idea that some of the angels rebelled against God, led by their captain whose name is Satan. It’s all spelled out in Milton’s Paradise Lost. But in reality, this war in heaven saga is a combination of an ahistorical interpretation of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 with a smattering of other verses thrown in. Oh, and a whole lot of Hollywood-style drama is added to the mix to create this backstory of the angelic revolt.

Recently, a friendly inquirer asked me to spell out what I believe happens to a person when they die if they are not already reconciled with God. That is, what happens to the unsaved at death. You know the usual answer in Christian sermons and ideology. They wake up in a burning place, waist deep in lava or some similar horror.

I described something different, something equally as speculative. My inquiring friend responded, “Where is scripture to support that?”

I can’t say for sure what he was thinking. But I know a lot of people believe the Bible describes plainly what happens after death and what hell is like. Um, no it doesn’t.

Hell? No, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Outer Darkness, and a Lake of Fire

Hell is not in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) at all. Neither is heaven. There are notions of an afterlife there including:

  • Sheol (the underworld) where the shades (ghosts) of human beings continue in a dark land
  • “Going to the fathers,” a vague notion of being with one’s ancestors following death
  • Resurrection, being bodily raised from the dead is in several places such as Isaiah 25 and 26

Sheol is like the Greek notion of Hades. You can see in the Iliad a perfect example of what afterlife is like. Patroclus, who had died, appears to Achilles, his friend. Achilles wants Patroclus to stay, but Patroclus explains he is not whole, that he is half a man.

Hell is not in the New Testament either. Apparently, and I am not claiming expertise, the word itself came into Old English through Anglo-Saxon pagan literature and perhaps before that proto-Germanic tribal languages.

The New Testament refers to Hades, Gehenna, the Outer Darkness, and the Lake of Fire.

Hades (Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13) refers to the underworld and in a general way is a synonym for death. Interestingly, Hades is cast into the Lake of Fire in Revelation 20:13 (hell is cast into hell?). When Yeshua tells Capernaum, “You will be cast down to Hades,” it makes sense to interpret him as saying, “You will die in the coming war with Rome.”

Gehenna (Matt 5:22, 29; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43; Luke 12:5; James 3:6) is the Greek equivalent of the Valley of Hinnom (Gei Hinnom in Hebrew), a valley right outside Jerusalem’s walls. 2 Kings and Jeremiah say that child sacrifice and idol worship happened here in some periods of time. Jeremiah said it would become the Valley of Slaughter (7:30-32; 19:2-6). In 2 Esdras 7:36 it was said to be a fitting place to burn corpses. Yeshua refers to it as a place where people are destroyed (Matt 10:28). It is never associated with unending torture.

Another image of a place or time of judgment in Yeshua’s sayings is “the Outer Darkness” (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). It is a place where people wail and grind their teeth. The origin of this imagery is found in Isaiah and similar passages about the renewed Jerusalem: “Arise, shine, for your light has come” (Isa 60:1), “her righteousness goes forth as brightness” (62:1), and more. The image is of Jerusalem, the shining city in the coming age of God’s messianic peace. Outer darkness refers to people who cannot get into the city, who are kept out beyond its light.

And finally, we have the Lake of Fire (Rev 19:20; 20:10, 14). The Beast, False Prophet, Devil, Death, and Hades are said to be thrown into it along with those who took the mark of the Beast. It sounds like a pool of lava. Do you take it literally? This is Revelation and if you start taking all the images literally, they contradict one another. Do you take it as a place of unending conscious torture? Is “Death” going to be tortured? Is “Death” a person or spirit? Hmmm, sounds very symbolic.

Of course there are other references in the New Testament to judgment in the afterlife, such as “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. None of them describe the “Hell” of popular imagination.

Hell: Cobbled Together Imaginatively

The Hell of popular imagination is a place of torture, felt for eternity with no hope of reprieve. Who wouldn’t be afraid of going there? What if that other religious sect is right and ours is wrong? What is we make a tiny theological mistake and find ourselves in a horror that never ends?

Some people think this is what God is like. Before I go on to describe how “Hell” is a cobbled together fiction, let me remind you God is not an Eternal Trickster waiting to inflict pain on people without respite based on theology failures. The God of the Bible is the one of whom it is said: “For the Lord will not cast off forever . . . though he cause grief, he will have compassion” (Lam 3:31-32). God is busy “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).

Where does the Hell of popular imagination come from. It is pieced together from a verse here, a verse there, and by ignoring other verses which do not fit. Yeshua’s parable about a rich man and Lazarus gives people a lot of the ideas they need (so much so, that I think I need to write an article on it separately). Also pulled in are images like the lake of fire and any description that uses the word eternal or forever with an idea of judgment. Oh, and since Yeshua said the way is narrow, most believe the majority of human beings end up in Hell.

From these people piece together the following points:

  • Hell as a place of torture by fire
  • Hell as a lake of fire
  • Hell as a place from which no one escapes
  • Hell as an eternal, conscious punishment
  • Hell as the homeland of Satan (a.k.a. the Devil)
  • Hell as the destiny of the vast majority of people who have ever lived

But the whole idea does not work. It is proof-texting at its worst. The standard Hell Theology is an ideological house of cards built on tradition and flimsy use of biblical texts. It is a wall built with flimsy bricks, like the old Babylonian pyramids. The rains come and the bricks of this wall do not last. They erode under the scrutiny of historical, contextual reading of the Bible.

“Lake of fire” is a notion specific to Revelation and cannot be combined with other ideas outside of Revelation. Hades in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man cannot be absolutized into a depiction of afterlife. Perhaps more importantly, you cannot just ignore the images that do not fit. Outer Darkness is not an image that can be simply disregarded. Leaving out Paul’s term, Eternal Destruction, is a sloppy way to build a theology.

The Grey Place

So, I presented another idea to my friend who inquired about my beliefs. What happens to a person when they die if they have not already been reconciled with God? I have my own speculative, cobbled together notion. It is somewhat like Sheol, a Grey Place. It is possible that in the place of judgment, which we could call hell, we are not whole. Perhaps we are only a semblance of our true selves. After all, in this present life, I believe we lack wholeness, that we are not all we have been created to be.

I certainly do not believe the myth that we wake up in God’s presence, either to be blessed or damned. I think we may wake up in the outskirts of paradise or in a sort of grey world. Those who awake in the ashen landscape of “hell” will find it to be some sort of self-contained universe. Lewis pictured it quite well in The Great Divorce.

God does not leave them alone in that universe any more than he does in this one. Sure, his presence is hidden, just as it is now. But the subtle light of goodness glows inside them just as it does in us in this present world.

They, like us, need to grow to know God is real, to believe in the light, to desire goodness and see through the falsity of self-absorption. The curse of Adam, though, has already been broken. One act of righteousness, Messiah’s, leads to rectification for all human beings (Rom 5:18). As in Adam death came to all, how much more in Messiah who is the Last Adam, will they receive the abundance of favor from heaven and the free gift of righteousness, with which to reign in eternal life (Rom 5:17).

The Grey Place is what I believe awaits those who do not yet know God. But there is hope beyond the Grey Place. It is Hades, Sheol, temporary.

If you say, “There is no specific scripture that supports your view,” I will say the same about your belief.

Do articles like this make you want to read the Bible with more insight? I teach Hebrew and I tutor students in theology and biblical studies. I currently have openings in my schedule for online, independent study students. Email me at Derek at TheHebrewNerd.com

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15 Comments

  1. It’s good that you are taking your writing back Derek. I have questions for you

    Believing as you’ve written above would cast Christianity in a less than positive light because it uses, at least in part, the fear of eternal torment to gain converts/get people saved. You might say it scares the hell out of people. I’ve heard leaders laughingly refer to it as “turn or burn.” Again, believing as you do what is your view of a religion for which hell as eternal torment is a central fear based tenet?

    My other question is this: I live in an area that has a high LDS population. I can tell you from personal experience that devout LDS make great neighbors and fine co-workers. Can we extrapolate from your writing that your position stands in opposition to orthodox Christian teaching on Mormons as being alienated from God?

    1. Daniel,

      I don’t think Mormons have a correct view of God or Messiah. To me, that puts them in the same boat as most of humanity. That boat is “not yet reconciled to God.”

      Having said that, God does not judge people based on doctrinal correctness. The love and good deeds of all people are precious to God. And the flip side of the coin is that people with essentially correct doctrine are just as spiritually poor as everyone else and in need of divine transformation. Right ideas are not the highest form of godliness.

      Now as for people who believe in God primarily because they are afraid of hell: that is what happened to me when I was 19. It was a beginning. God is far from through with me or you or anyone else. Fear might be a starting place. Wrong theology might get people moving in the right direction.

      But I believe the message of God’s covenant love will win more people to the light than fear of hell.

  2. Actually, I’m not done. If Mormons, in your view, are not reconciled because theology errors then it would seem God does give a theological quiz for being right with him? Oui ou non?

  3. The Germanic roots of the word that entered English as “hell” can be seen in their word “heller”, which is akin to the English word “cellar”. It was a cool, dark, place for storing foods to be used throughout the winter months. Its religious imagery is therefore comparable to Sheol or some areas of Hades. It also fits the image of “outer darkness”, whence those Jews who had cut themselves off from the covenant with HaShem and their people would be consigned, thus unable to approach HaShem or to enjoy the intellectual light and emotional warmth of His Presence. But other areas of the Grecian Hades correspond better with Gehenna or Gei Hinom. Specifically, the Hinom valley was a refuse dump in the period leading up to the first century when it was referenced as a place wherein “the worm does not die” nor are fires quenched. In this case, it was an area of unremitting decomposition from the chemical fires of composting processes as well as those of bacteria and somewhat higher invertebrate life-forms. Thus it was a fitting image for degrading human physical decomposition after death, particularly for the dishonored unrighteous, and a tremendous contrast with the notion of resurrection that was deemed the reward of the righteous.

    Rav Shaul also drew upon this sort of reward imagery when he described the “rapture” that would immediately follow the first resurrection (i.e., of the righteous), at the last sounding of the trumpets or shofarot that we see described in Yohanan’s vision. His view of the transformation that would occur to each of those groups at that time ignores any consciousness of physical decomposition by focusing on the “re-clothing” of these human neshamot. Even further, he describes these events as if they would be virtually the next conscious thought these people would experience following their death, as he wrote of only two states of existence — present in the body and absent or isolated from the full experience of HaShem’s Presence, and absent from the body and present with HaShem. In this case I am interpreting the phrase “the Lord” as HaShem rather than as the Master rabbi Yeshua, though he also is expected to be present as the returning Messiah ben-David at that time.

    Now, the reward imagery doesn’t help us much with interpreting the hellish conditions envisioned as the consequences of unrighteousness. We may speculate whether the varied descriptions might actually represent different degrees or types or durations of punishment designed to fit the nature of the crimes committed or the nature of the people who committed them. It is possible that envisioning Sheol as the sort of grey place that CS Lewis envisioned, with its subdued awareness and limited intellectual consciousness, except when anger would flare, is really a mistaken Greek gloss or interpretation borrowed from definitions of Hades. In Hebrew thought, Sheol seems rather to be more a place of storage or unconscious waiting, where “the dead know nothing” (as Kohelet stated). The end of that waiting would be either the resurrection of the righteous, to receive the reward expected as their deeds would be reviewed from the Book of Life, or the resurrection of the unrighteous whose names were not found in the Book of Life, but whose deeds were recorded in another book from which examination and judgment would proceed.

    Of course, I still haven’t found anything in the scriptures to answer Derek’s questions about limited duration of punishment, or remediation and redemption of sinners, after such judgment has been rendered. Such notions are derived solely from consideration of HaShem’s attributes of lovingkindness and mercy, and references in Yohanan’s vision about the ultimate destruction of death and Hades (and other nasty things, and some people, as well) in a fiery lake, before a new heavens and earth appear. Personally, I wonder just a bit about the use of the concept of a lake, or the Greek words used for it (“λίμνην τοῦ πυρός”). I wonder about possible cognate relationships between the Greek “limne” (“lake”) and the Latin “limen” (a “threshold”) or “lumen” (“light”), though neither of these seem to fit the context of Yohanan’s vision.

  4. Hel was the norse underworld, near where Loki was chained. Asgaard (Olympus), Midgaard(Earth), Hel(sometimes called Helheim).

    At Ragnarok, Loki (who was bound from the beginning), will break free and wreak havoc.

    1. In the story, St. Anthony is going on a hero quest across the deserts of North Africa, I believe. And he runs aground of the ruins of Alexandria. Fauns and satyrs emerge from the rubble and blame the Christian G-d for their dwindling following, threatening to do him violence.

  5. Hello. I just sort of stumbled upon your blog recently and I’ve been reading posts here and there, as I am interested in learning about the Jewish roots and context of my faith.

    I am curious what this means for people who devote their lives to proclaiming the gospel overseas, in hopes that many from “unreached” nations will know Jesus as their Messiah and Lord. Jesus says that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that no one can come to the Father except by him, and I’ve heard the argument that if people die and are unreconciled to him but end up with him anyway (maybe via this gray place) that it sort of implies his death was for nothing. Can you speak to that? Do you have opinions on whether or not people should proclaim the news of Jesus to the unreached (i.e. the great commission)?

    The wages of sin is death (usually referred to as eternal death), and I guess you are agreeing, but also implying that this death is not eternal. I feel like many people’s response to that would be to just wait and see, to take the chance. It sort of destroys the urgency of sharing one’s faith in a sense.

    I’m really not arguing one way or the other, just hoping to learn. Apologies for the confusing post. Your article is sort of flipping years of theology on its head.

    1. Jen,

      I think that the work of churches and Messianic congregations in teaching people about Yeshua — his works, his divine nature, his sayings — is vital. People need it. The fact that there is “hope beyond hell” and that God will reconcile all things in Messiah, things above and below, does not mean we don’t need him.

      The journey to knowing God and filling ourselves with his goodness and letting him transform us is something we need sooner than later.

      The urgency of knowing God is not to avoid an eternal mistake which will leave us in unescapable torture. It is because we are far, far better off being filled with the love of heaven as soon as we can discover it.

      The usual arguments from Christians that it is not fair for God to save people who did not believe in this lifetime has one gigantic problem. These same Christians will say out of one side of their mouths, “It is grace; I did not earn it,” and yet out of the other side, “It would be unfair for God to give it away to those who did not earn it the way we did.”

  6. Jen and Lindsay,

    If we take into account the hierarchical nature (different rewards and losses based on our works) of the world to come described by Yeshua and Revelation, this could mean that even after the wicked are purified, they would still be the lowest of servants to those that started to follow Yeshua in life (the first will be last and the last will be first). This could be considered a form of eternal punishment, yet also it is universalism because this view says they are actually completely purified before entering into service.

    In the honor-shame society of the Ancient Near East, the Roman Empire, and 70% of the world today, “the first will be last and the last will be first” would certainly feel like punishment knowing that their honor-status level could be so radically reversed in the world to come.

    Therefore, we could speculate that someone like Hitler, after purification would still be a servant for all eternity of various Jewish rulers and the other ethnic groups he committed genocide against.

    This also fits well with those that never heard. The motive to spread the gospel isn’t so much for getting more into the Kingdom of Heaven as opposed to giving more people opportunities to earn more “talents” for eternity (disciples, not converts).

    Therefore, those that follow Yeshua in this life (a minority in history) are being prepared to be rulers of those that never heard (the majority of all people in history) in eternity.

  7. Greetings Derek,

    You said, “ ‘Lake of fire’ is a notion specific to Revelation and cannot be combined with other ideas outside of Revelation.” I may have found it in the Tenach.

    In the Revelation, we read about the fate of the beast:
    Rev. 19:20 And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. (See also 20:10)

    In Daniel, we also read about the fate of this same beast:
    Dan. 7:11 “Then I kept looking because of the sound of the boastful words which the horn was speaking; I kept looking until the beast (fourth beast) was slain, and its body was destroyed and given to the burning fire. (Referring to the river of fire flowing from the throne in vs 10.)

    During the explanation of the vision, we read:
    Dan. 7:23 ¶ “Thus he said: ‘The fourth beast will be a fourth kingdom on the earth, which will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth and tread it down and crush it. 24 ‘As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings will arise; and another will arise after them, and he will be different from the previous ones and will subdue three kings. 25 ‘He will speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One, and he will intend to make alterations in times and in law; and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time. 26 ‘But the court will sit for judgment, and his dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever.

    In the explanation, it says plainly that the beast being thrown into the burning fire means that he has his dominion taken away, ANNIHILATED, and DESTROYED forever. This would seem to agree with the explanation in the Revelation which TWICE describes the Lake of Fire as the SECOND DEATH.

    Rev. 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
    Rev. 21:8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

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