Since my last article, “Why I’m a Big Fan of Hell,” created a bit of a stir, I’ve been asked to write another article on the topic, this one explaining the basic “stuff” behind hell—what is it? Where did it come from? What do Christians mean when they talk about hell?
I’ve enlisted the help of my good friend, Mark Grambo, for some of the more technical stuff. This article will be longer than most Boundless contributions, for obvious reasons. This is a big topic, and it’s worth taking the time to get it right. We’ve tried to make it easy to “skim” for those of you who just want a quick primer.
Ancient Views of Hell
The English word “hell” is most often used to translate the Old Testament Hebrew word Sheol, which is also often translated as grave, and the New Testament [Greek] words hades and gehenna.
Sheol designates a place of darkness and decay where the dead go after they die. In the Hebrew worldview of the Old Testament, judgments were reserved primarily for this world, so Sheol doesn’t really speak to either punishment or reward as much as it simply describes a place where both the ungodly and the godly go, without distinction.
When the Old Testament was translated into the Greek language between the 3rd and 1st century B.C., the Greek term Hades was used to translate the Hebrew term Sheol. In Greek religion, the term Hades was both the name of the god of the dead as well as the place where the dead went.
Originally, this place was understood as somewhat similar to the Jewish Sheol. By the time of Homer, it became understood as a place of retribution. By the first century, it was commonly thought of as a place where individuals could expect either reward or punishment based on their deeds. This development in the notion of Hades possibly resulted from the Greek philosophers’ struggle with the idea of innocent suffering and their observation that in this life wickedness was left unpunished and virtuous deeds left unrewarded.
The notion of hell in the non-canonical Jewish literature during this period appears to have been greatly influenced by these Greek ideas. In most of this Jewish literature, Hades was the place to where all the dead went after life, but it was seldom seen as the place of the final judgment.
Though some of this literature portrays Hades as a place of refreshment for the righteous and those who have suffered unjustly in this world as well as a place of punishment for the hard hearted, ultimate judgment on the wicked would come in a place called Gehenna. There the wicked would be either destroyed or eternally punished. Originally, Gehenna literally described a place on the south slope of Jerusalem where, during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, children were burned as sacrifices to the god Molech. During the middle of the first century, this place had become a garbage dump where rubbish was burned.
In short, Hades was largely understood as a place where the dead went to await the final judgment or The Day of the LORD. Gehenna, on the other hand, was the place where the wicked would be punished after the final judgment. Hence, when the early church speaks of Christ’s descent into hell to preach the gospel, delivering the righteous dead and defeating the powers of death, they are not referring to Gehenna, but Hades.
Jesus: The Teacher of Hell
It’s primarily from Jesus’ words in the New Testament that we’ve developed most of our notions about hell today, moving us more toward the sense of Gehenna than Hades.
Jesus describes hell as a place of severe judgment, so painful that a person would prefer to lose a bodily part here on earth than have his whole body thrown into such a painful place (Matt. 5:29-30). There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 22:13). Hell, according to Jesus, is a place where (quoting from Isaiah) “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). In the famous “Sheep and Goats” parable, Jesus describes the fate of those who go to Gehenna as “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). In the midst of this punishment, there is also separation from the presence of Christ (Matt. 7:23).
From Jesus’ words, we can also discern that hell is not socialist; there will be degrees of punishment, just as in heaven there will be degrees of reward (Mark 12:40, Luke 12:47-48).
Interestingly enough, the only New Testament writer who uses the word Gehenna is Jesus’ brother, James (3:6). Paul, Peter, Jude, and John, in continuity with Jesus’ teaching, all refer to a day of final judgment (and in Paul’s words, it’s a day where some will receive “wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8)). None of the New Testament writers speculate much about the exact nature of heaven or hell. Rather, their emphasis is on warning people that wickedness will be punished, and calling all of us to repent accordingly.
It’s the fact that Jesus is the primary teacher about hell that led me to state that I was a “fan” of hell. In saying this, I’m not endorsing Dante’s version, or the depictions found in medieval art. It’s clear, however, that Jesus (and who should know more than He?) describes hell as a real, everlasting place that’s extremely unpleasant.
We must also be careful about immediately assuming that verses we think refer to hell actually do. In his book Following Jesus, N. T. Wright warns:
[M]ost of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going to eternal punishment after they die don’t in fact refer to any such thing. The great majority of them have to do with the way God acts within the world and history. Most of them look back to the language of the Old Testament, which work in quite a different way from what is normally imagined.
When Jesus speaks, in Mark 13, of the sun and moon being darkened, and the stars not giving their light, we imagine today that he’s talking about the end of the space-time universe, resulting in a cosmic judgment. But the language is taken from Isaiah 13, which is not about the collapse of the universe, but is rather a prediction of the cataclysmic fall of Babylon, the great city that has been persecuting the people of God. Jesus’ re-use of this language is true to the genre. It refers, not to the collapse of the universe, but to the fall of Jerusalem. As a historian, I can say categorically that Jesus’ language about the awful punishment in store for those who reject his message must be read as predictions of the awful future that awaited the nation of Israel if she rejected the way of peace which he was proposing. When he spoke about ‘Gehenna’ he was talking about the Jerusalem rubbish-dump—a great, foul, smoldering heap. His warning was that those who persisted in going the way of nationalist rebellion rather than the way of peace would turn Jerusalem into a huge and foul extension of its own rubbish-dump. The warning came true.
The Early Church and Hell
There is great diversity in the way the early Church Fathers understood Scripture’s teaching on hell. For example, Justin, Tertullian and Jerome understood hell as a fiery pit. Basil of Caesarea and Chrysostom presented a more vivid and materialist view, though Origen and the Cappadocian fathers preferred to think of hell as merely a place of separation from God. Some saw the suffering of the damned as eternal while others believed that there would come a time when the impenitent would be annihilated. Yet, among this diversity, all of the Church Fathers believed that there will be a day when Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. For example, Athanasius writes of Jesus coming again as
Judge, judging each and all according to their deeds ... [as the] blessed Paul says ... that each one may receive according as he practiced in the body, whether good or bad.
The ancients understood that the New Testament teaching on hell is deeply tied to judgment. There will be a day of accountability, and a day leading to reward. Not all agreed that the punishment would be eternal, or even what the nature of the punishment would be. But orthodox Christian doctrine is tied to some form of retribution and warning.
What Does All This Mean?
Where does all of this leave us? How should we talk about hell? What can we know for sure, and what should we be less dogmatic about?
1. The clear biblical teaching on hell means that if we truly care about our communities and our world, we must be willing to give our lives to help bring biblical salvation to all who will receive it. This includes a call to repentance, warning everyone of the judgment to come (and not merely settling for discussions of how sin destroys and distorts creation in the present age). However you understand the teaching of hell, this much is clear: There is a coming judgment when each will be rewarded and punished according to their deeds.
2. Since Jesus is the primary teacher about hell, we know hell’s existence is consistent with God’s message of love, grace, and compassion. We may not understand how decades of rebellion should be “repaid” with such severity in hell, but the reality is this: Whatever hell turns out to be, God will treat everyone with fairness and justice. We needn’t adopt medieval speculations about what hell is like, but orthodox Christianity is necessarily tied to the general parameters of hell as it is described by Jesus.
3. We believe it is really sad that the message of hell is being lost or ridiculed, in part because some Christians are “embarrassed” by the notion of God holding people accountable, and others even think it is patently “unfair,” as if our righteous God could ever be accused of unrighteousness. When God’s coming judgment is proclaimed in a spirit of godliness and love, out of true compassion and concern for the lost, it is a beautiful thing and a marvelous invitation. Denying an unpleasant truth doesn’t make it untrue. If hell is true—as Jesus says it is—removing it from the discussion is an act of arrogant, selfish cruelty, in which we value our esteem and respect over and above God’s truth and the consequences of denying it.
4. We should avoid proclaiming judgment in a spirit of disdain for the ungodly. In our hearts, we should have the same spirit of love—sorrow, brokenness, and concern for the lost—as Jesus demonstrated in his willingness to die so that some might be saved. Sounding “gleeful” at the horrible fate awaiting the rebellious is to mock Christ’s compassion.
5. Wild speculations about the exact nature of hell merely provoke arguments and often distort the true message: Because the stakes are so high, we should be willing to sacrifice our lives interceding and caring for this world—the very world that Jesus died to save.
So, I must clarify what I said in my previous article. I am not really a fan of hell—that is of the punishment of the wicked. But I am a fan of being true to Jesus and his teachings.
The Scriptures clearly teach that there will come a day of judgment. On that day there will be both wonderful and terrible surprises to such a degree that it makes me tremble. Hence I want to warn Jew and Gentile alike that God is not partial.
Jesus will come again to judge everyone according to their works so that for the wicked—those who do not repent of their evil ways—there will be wrath and anger on that final day. This truth makes me all the more eager to speak out with conviction of the truths I do hold so as to warn all of the judgment that is to come. God will hold us accountable, and we must live our lives accordingly.
Gary Thomas is the founder and director of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality, a writing and speaking ministry that integrates Scripture, church history, and the Christian classics. This article was published on Boundless.org on April 4, 2008.