Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What the hell?

[mostly notes from research done while I couldn't sleep when I quit smoking]

I was challenged to do some research on hell. I person from my past *suggested* that I was going there. So the grumpy insomniac decided to look up biblical references on the place and see what I was in for. Couldn't be worse than cold turkeying a pack and a half a day...

Now that I have concluded this research, I believe the concept of hell as observed by the Christian to have formed in the first 200-300 years after Christ. This happened specifically because of the persecution of the Romans, and the desire for revenge that filled some early believers. Once the Romans adopted Christianity, it became a popular belief, largely due to the the judgmental nature of some of the existing roman religions.

When you think about it, it makes quite a bit of sense. How a religion based on Hebrew culture where there is no concept of a conscious afterlife could transform into a religion with an afterlife based on sins. This initially Hebrew religion was adopted by a group of people with a rich tradition of religion, most including a judgment after death based upon the weight of your sins. These people went on to become the custodians of the christian church for the next 2000 years, and consequently shaped the notions of all Christianity from that point forward.

The first use of hell in English is dated to about 725 AD, and probably has German roots to the term helja, which means "one who covers up or hides something."

Cultural references to an afterlife of punishment exist in many religions. However, there are relatively few references to the word "hell" in the bible, all of them being translated from one of four words. Different versions of the bible (King James, vs New Revised Edition, etc.) will have different counts for the occurrence of the word "hell", but the same four Hebrew or Greek words are used as their reference.

Sheol is a Hebrew word that carries connotations of grave, underworld, a place of unconscious rest, and a time to wait. It is the common destination of both the righteous and unrighteous dead as indicated in Job and Ecclesiastes. Ancient Hebrews had no concept of an immortal living soul that existed after death, so the references in the old testament make reference to grave (literal), or place of unconscious waiting (figurative). Approximately 64 references to this word exist in the 66 books that make up the modern bible.

It is worth noting that there are several apocryphal books to the bible that are included in the set of texts followed by the Catholic church, but are not included in the 66 books we classically think of as "the bible" today. One of these books (Enoch) includes a reference to a four-part hell (sheol) that includes a section for the wicked who don't even warrant resurrection are tormented.

In 1611 (ish) when the KJV bible was translated, 50% of the references to sheol were translated as "grave" or "pit", and 50% were translated as "hell". It gets a bit difficult to be precise with the count here because several versions of the KJV were produced. Each had minor variations because they were transcribed by hand. Best reference available to me seems to indicate 31 cases where sheol was translated as "grave", 3 where sheol was translated as "pit" and 29 where sheol was translated as "hell".

I can't find any reason that the same word would have been translated differently in these cases. I could imaging a split by era or author, but the references seem to be used inconsistently. I suspect several translators worked on the text, and some had a different understanding of Hebrew or psychological bent. To this date, there is still a question on what should be done about this. I think it's unlikely the references to sheol will be changed from hell to grave as this has serious implications to an afterlife as understood by believers today. It doesn't make much sense to change the 30 or so references from grave to hell because they pretty clearly are contextual references to grave.

I believe the translation was in error about 50% of the time, and that it should properly be translated into grave for consistency. Conversely, the term sheol could be used specifically, with the intended meaning of "grave" or "place of rest after death" depending upon literary intent.

The new testament was written not in Hebrew, but in Greek (two books may have originated in Hebrew, but master versions of the texts are considered by most to be Greek), and as such, the word sheol is no longer used. We classically consider the new word used to represent sheol to be hades. Hades, however has a slightly darker context, as it refers to an place actual place of afterlife where people were aware of their condition. Though, it is more gloomy than it is torturous, this is probably due to a different mythology reference, and probably not due to literary intent.

It's pretty clear the terms are intended to mean the same thing because of at least one re-telling of a psalm. Acts 2:27 and Psalm 16:10 share the same text, but in Greek, the term Hades (instead of sheol) is used.

The term Hades is used 10 times. I assume these to also mean grave or place of rest after death in all cases.

The term Tartarus is used once to describe a place where the devil and his angels were sent to await judgment. This is not described as a place for human souls.

Gehenna is the term that modern Christians have come to understand as "hell". The term is used in the bible both literally and figuratively.Figuratively, it refers to a place of punishment who's roots spring from a literal reference to the valley of Hinnom, a place with a history of human sacrifice, pagan rituals, worship of other gods, where criminals were executed, and garbage was burned. This is the only term that can actually be used to mean "hell" in the bible. Several of the references are clearly literary (in my opinion). I think ten of the twelve references are literary in nature. It is worth describing each of these references in detail:

The references made by Christ are found in Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5.
The reference made by James is in James 3:6

Matt 5:22
But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.

This is the hardest one, so I address it first:

He speaks of the judgment of God, and of the difference of sins, and therefore applies his words to the form of civil judgments which were then used. By that judgment which stood of 23 judges, who had the hearing and deciding of weighty affairs, as the matter of a whole tribe or of a high priest, or of a false prophet.

The Jews used four kinds of punishments, before their government was taken away by Herod: hanging, beheading, stoning, and burning. It is burning that Christ meant, because burning was the greatest punishment; therefore by making mention of a judgment, a council, and a fire, he shows that some sins are worse than others are, but yet they are all such that we must give account for them, and will be punished for them.

Gehenna is a specific reference to the Valley of Hinnom, which the Hebrews called Topheth: it was a place where the Israelites cruelly sacrificed their children to false gods, whereupon it was taken for a place appointed to torment the reprobates in Jer 7:31. Consider this to be the worst form of punishment on the tier of punishments. Remember, the place was walking distance away, and served as a great contextual device.

No mention of a hell, just a sequence indicating some crimes are punished more severely than others. Or, you could choose to believe that calling someone a "fool" is a sin worthy of putting you in hell.

Matt 5:29
If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.

To put it in context, the Valley of Hinnom was right outside the city, and served as a particularly potent example of a place that nobody wanted to go. It seems very clear that the reference her is that it is better to remove a part of yourself than go to Gehenna. People were punished there. It seems that the most obvious intent here was that it was better to mutilate yourself than run the risk of physically being thrown into Gehenna, which was a potential punishment at the time. This seems particularly likely, not only because of the proximity to Gehenna, but also because Hebrew's at this time had no concept of an afterlife where one is punished for their sins.

Still, no mention of hell.

Matt 5:30
If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.

This is an equivalent literary reference to Matt 5:29

Still, no mention of hell.

Matt 10:28
Don't be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

If this is a reference to hell, it is not a place of eternal punishment, but a place where your body and soul are destroyed. Though it is not consistent with the concept of hell as Christians understand it today, it is a literary reference to a place where the soul is punished, much like the body is punished in Gehenna. Note however that no specific word for hell is created -- instead Jesus alludes to a nearby location instead of giving hell its own name.

Could be a reference to Hell.

Matt 18:9
If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire.

This is an equivalent literary reference to Matt 5:29

Matt 23:15
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel around by sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much of a son of Gehenna as yourselves.

This text is referencing to being a person from the valley of Hinnom. Evil person.

Mark 9:43
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire,

This is an equivalent literary reference to Matt 5:29

Mark 9:45
If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life lame, rather than having your two feet to be cast into Gehenna, into the fire that will never be quenched--

This is an equivalent literary reference to Matt 5:29

Mark 9:47
If your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out. It is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire,

This is an equivalent literary reference to Matt 5:29

Luke 12:5
But I will warn you whom you should fear. Fear him, who after he has killed, has power to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

I think this is the same as Matt 10:28, a duplicate reference to something that could be hell.

James 3:6
And the tongue is a fire. The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by Gehenna.

Gehenna was a place where people were punished in horrific ways. This appears to be a literary reference.

Two (equivalent references from Luke and Matthew) of the 12 could be referencing a place called hell. In other words, one individual reference to "hell".

The valley of Hinnom is mentioned several times, but in all cases, it is a literal reference to a physical location.

So here's the thoughts on hell:

1. Approximately 60 references to sheol are references to various implications of grave. Various biblical scholars agree that this was a translation issues, and these should never have been translated into the word hell. this oversight is likely to never be corrected.

2. The one reference to the word Tartarus as hell has a specific definition as a place for fallen angles, and not a place for human souls.

3. Though Gehenna occurs 12 times, Jesus actually used it only on four or five different statements, the rest being repetitions as written by multiple authors of his initial speaking. However, I believe a single reference to hell can be obtained from these references, while the others are actually referring to the actually valley of Hinnom in a metaphorical way. How is it possible that Christ could refer to hell only once in three years? Was He faithful to the souls committed to His charge? I think people have to assume that he was.

4. Jesus and James are the only persons in all the New Testament who use the word. None of the fourteen epistles of Paul mention it. Peter mentions Tartarus, but not Gehenna. John wrote three epistles and the book of revelations, but does not mention Gehenna once. The Book of Acts contains the record of the apostolic preaching, and the history of the first planting of the Church, and covers a period of thirty years from the ascension of Christ. Nothing.

How is it, that the term "hell" is so conspicuously absent amongst all of the writings of people who supposedly understood the teachings of Christ? It's fairly obvious:

This is not something that Christ focused on. Christ focused on forgiveness, peace, and redemption.


  1. "Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I'm sure we'll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn't withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn't seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That's an idea we're so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it's kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? - because you're not!"
    — Douglas Adams

  2. I agree that it's good to approach the different examples in their original languages, the original terms which have all been translated as "hell" in English. It's unfortunate that Christianity has become a religion centered primarily on hell and how to escape it, rather than on God and how to have a relationship with him.

    That said, what about the part in Revelation 20 about the lake of fire? After the final judgement at the great white throne, those whose names aren't written in the book of life are cast into the lake of fire. I know this isn't mentioned by Jesus in the gospels or the other apostles, but Revelation is a prophesy/vision that was given by God to the apostle John late in his life. Do you have any thoughts about how this fits into the whole picture?