Different Degrees of Hell

There are quite a few things in the Bible that make people uncomfortable. Some of those things even make devout believers squirm in their seats. There is one topic that cause almost universal unease and that is hell. Unfortunately what we know about the subject is dominated by caricatures, popular myths and poor interpretations of the Biblical text. Some of the confusion that we encounter originates from the King James Version.

Even though I am comfortable with the King James I am very aware that as a translation it has some major difficulties. It really baffles me today why some people still think it is the best translation out there. Most occurrences of hell in the Bible are found in the Gospels. The problem is that in the Authorised Version, it translates two different Greek words Hades and Gehenna both as hell. These two words are not even distant synonyms of one another but are two completely different concepts.

Now Hades is pretty straight forward. It is the Greek word for the underworld, the realm of the dead. In Jewish thought it corresponds to Sheol, which is mostly translated as the grave in the KJV. It is also sometimes translated as hell in the King James. This really is a neutral term for death. Whether you are righteous or unrighteous you all end up in Hades (Genesis 37:35; Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:15-31; Revelation 20:13.)

Gehenna is a little more complicated. It is a Greek translation of a Hebrew word Ge Hinnom, that is, the Valley of Hinnom. This was a valley outside Jerusalem that served as a garbage dump where rubbish was incinerated. This location had a long chilling history where in times past children were burnt alive as sacrifices to gods like Moloch (2 Kings 23:10.) The Gehenna invoked images of fire, decay, torment and destruction. Gehenna was used to describe the post-mortem state of the unrighteous.

The confusion of terms is apparent if we follow the King James reading. It means both good and evil people end up in hell. If we take hell to mean Hades, that is, death then there is no problem. But hell has such a negative connotation and if we are referring to Gehenna then the idea is completely unfathomable. The way we use words however is more complicated than the dictionary definitions I have offered. In fact these terms related to concepts about the world which are very unlike our modern cultures. As usual we have to dive into the biblical worldview to understand the original Jewish framework and the later Christian modifications.

Hades is best understood in terms of ancient cosmology but Gehenna is better understood in eschatological terms. Cosmology is the study of the cosmos whilst eschatology is the study of the eschaton, that is, the end. Cosmology is about creation whiles eschatology deals with how creation will end. In a prescientific age they conceived the world on a macro scale very differently to us. Not only that, ancient Judaism among its cultural contemporaries had some very unique ideas about the world and how it would end. Now cosmology and eschatology though they are distinct are very much related. As we journey through the Bible we will see how the relationship between the two was forged.

In The Cosmic Landscape I outline how different ancient cosmology is from our own. Away from our modern cultural language, whether it is scientific or not, they tried to describe in their own words the world around them. They answered the very important worldview questions of origins, ultimate reality and environment, in what today we call creation myths. “Myth” is a rather patronising term when it is contrasted with science. It is as if to say what they did was a good attempt but today we know better, we know what really happened. We should not kid ourselves into thinking science has all the answers. Anyway that is the name of the genre, which is far more complicated than the mental image of just-so stories it brings up.

As a quick recap heaven and earth were the twin halves of God’s creation. Ancient Jewish cosmography, that is how they thought the world was shaped, is very different from our own. They thought the earth was a flat disc surrounded by water and the heavens were a dome on top of it, supported by the mountains as pillars, with waters above it. Above that you found the dwelling place of God. They had no concept of outer space. Now Sheol, the shady Jewish underworld, was literally under the earth. It was a subterranean realm that ran deep into the earth, right to the level of dark depths of the ocean. It wasn’t just the idea of the grave, where dead bodies are placed, that had been romanticised. They believe that the dead, body and soul, went into the earth. Let me illustrate this with a curious example.

And Moses said, “Hereby you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD.” And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up.” – Numbers 16:28-34 ESV

According to the account Sheol literally opened up beneath them, and they went into “hell” alive. Instead of what we call spiritual and physical being discontinuous with one another they conceived them all as part of the natural order. What we call spiritual may be better understood as metaphysical in their worldview, since what was spiritual had some form of substance. There is much more to be said on this issue. Hades was for them the lowest point in the cosmos which is found within the earth and heaven is the highest point. These were fixed points on the cosmic compass and not relative frames of reference as we have with a physical universe (Job 11:8-9.) As far as they were concerned the dead did not belong in the land of the living and had their own place which corresponded with the grave but was even more profound than a corpse’s final resting place.

There is a lot more to be said about what this worldview narrative means. There are a few other things we must mention about it. Sheol is sometimes described as a shadowy realm (Job 17:13. The Greek word Hades literally means “no knowledge.” The light of life did not shine there, therefore the living did not know what went on there. What exactly happened to the dead was a mystery. Ecclesiastes for instance mentions this ambiguity (Ecclesiastes 3:20, 21.) This means we should recognise that the language they used for it was metaphorical and they were not giving scientifically accurate accounts of death. The language they used pointed to a dark, murky end. However they were certain that death is a part of the present natural order and it is a one way street.

As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore. – Job 7:9-10 ESV

These views about death remained largely unchanged throughout the Old Testament. There may be hints here and there about something more to death, such as meeting deceased relatives or differing fates for the righteous and the unrighteous. However they are not further developed, and are not a prominent feature of the Israelite worldview. Dying and going to heaven is not something you really see in the Old Testament. In fact it does not feature much in the entire Bible. It is as we approach the so-called intertestamental period, or better still after the destruction of the first Temple, that we, begin to see more advanced views of what happened during death and beyond. The reason for these developments were complicated but they were largely theological and politically motivated.

The Jews had been conquered by their enemies and the central symbol of who they were, the people of God, had been destroyed, that is the temple. This crisis in national identity forced new readings of the scriptures and also spurned new texts all together. Ideas about judgment naturally came to centre of the discussion. They understood God was judging them for their failure but they knew if they repented and were once again faithful to the covenant, God would vindicate them and punish the nations he used as instruments of his judgment. Now a vindicated Israel would fulfil its mission to the world. Abraham was called to do what Adam could not. If Adam’s story involved the fall of the world, Abraham fulfilling his mission through his descendants would somehow mean the restoration of the world, the blessing spoken of in Genesis 12. Death was the consequence of disobedience so somehow restoration would involve the over throw of death. Apart from primitive views about justice being developed, resurrection began to be considered as a distinct possibility in the formation of a thoroughly Jewish eschatology. The first concrete connection we find between Israel’s vindication and resurrection in the scriptures is Ezekiel 37’s valley of dry bones. By Daniel we have a more concrete eschatology where the righteous are raised to life and rewarded and the dead are raised to condemnation (Daniel 12:1-4.) By the time of Jesus the only prominent Jewish group we know that did not believe in the resurrection were the Sadducees who were a very small but very influential minority. So what we have in among the Jews is a two stage post mortem experience which consisted of death and whatever happened beyond, and then  after that resurrection

Since the Jews believed in a God who was the judge of the earth their views of justice meant in the end he would act righteously and put the world in order. The wicked would not go unpunished and the righteous would be rewarded for their faithfulness. The primitive views of justice in the ancient world meant the both the good and evil people did had consequences in this life, if not in the afterlife in some way. I have already noted that the Jews did not dwell too much on the afterlife. What happened after the afterlife, that is, in the resurrection, was their main concern. It is from this eschatological view point that we must understand Gehenna.

[1]Dr Craig Keener in The IVP Background Commentary: New Testament mentions there are different views of Gehenna among the Jews. We must remember the harrowing imagery we earlier mentioned since it was used to describe a place or a state of punishment for the wicked dead. Sometimes it was used for the place of punishment for the unrighteous resurrected. Paradise, a Garden of Eden like environment, was the opposite of Gehennna where the righteous went. It too could be applied to the afterlife or the after afterlife. In the post mortem state Gehenna was sometimes associated with Hades as we see in the story of Lazarus where the rich man is in fiery torment. Likewise Paradise was sometimes associated with heaven as we see in 2 Corinthians 12. Other times it resembled the Elysian Fields in Greek mythology. With these various options are available how do we make sense of what the New Testament teaches?

In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright points out that the early Christians had uniform beliefs about the afterlife and beyond which contrasted with the assorted beliefs that were found in second Temple Judaism. There was also some significant mutations in these Jewish beliefs the early Church inherited. All this stemmed from Jesus and the proclamation that he had been bodily raised from the dead. Jesus also talks about hell, both Hades and Gehenna but especially the latter, more than any other person in the Bible. This means we can use him as a reference point for what his followers believed about death and beyond. In other words we can find the position of the New Testament on hell as in Gehenna.

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ – Mark 9:43-48 ESV

In these statements we can see Jesus is pretty emphatic, repeating the same point over and over. Hell there is Gehenna and by contrasting it with (eternal) life/entering the kingdom of God we know he is talking about the great resurrection at the end of time. (I explain what eternal life is in more detail in another post.) Plus his reference to the body knows we are not dealing with the afterlife but with physical, bodily resurrection. Now in the story of Lazarus and the rich man Jesus we find the beggar in life being comforted by Abraham in the afterlife. Now in contrast we find symbolic features of Gehenna, that is, fire and torment, being used to describe the rich man’s experience of Hades. There is also a clear distinction between the two represented by the chasm in between them. The way Jesus told the parable implies that what happened immediately after death anticipated what would happen in the resurrection for both the righteous and the unrighteous.

When Jesus used Gehenna or its associated features, like pain and decay, he was using a very terrifying image from Israelite history as a symbol to describe a future reality. He was illustrating what it would be like not to participate in the age to come, that is, eternal life in resurrected bodies in a renewed creation where God’s rule is established on earth as it is in heaven. He was the describing an ultimate destiny you would rather avoid. It was not just punishment for being naughty but for resisting God’s good and righteous rule on earth, in other words, aiding and abetting evil. It was a very serious prophetic message that stood firm in the Old Testament prophetic tradition. It wasn’t necessarily new but it was being delivered in renewed urgency. As an urgent eschatological message the best way to appreciate it is in Jesus’ role as a prophet but that is a matter for another post.

As I noted in Literally Metaphorical, when people in the Bible uses such stock metaphors, symbols and imagery, as Jesus did for Gehenna, he was not trying to paint a photorealistic depiction of something. We should not make the mistake of taking the metaphorical literally. A metaphor does not mean what Jesus talked about was unreal. It means rather he was describing something beyond human experience, in this case the end of the world, which is obviously very difficult to do. Therefore he used familiar language to serve as signs pointing into a mysterious future that we can only glimpse through the mists of time. He was using the known to point to the unknown.

Hades is simply the realm of the dead, whether you are righteous or unrighteous. Hades can be Gehenna-like if you were unrighteous in life and paradise-like if you were righteous. Hades however, is not the same as Gehenna. Gehenna is the ultimate fate of the unrighteous in the resurrection on the last day, the Day of Judgement. This makes Hades temporary since there will be a future resurrection of all. Having explained Jesus’ views on “hell” how do we resolve the confusion?

The way we use hell does not perfectly correspond to what the Bible has to say. Culturally, when you mention hell it brings up unpleasant images which more or less corresponds with the idea of Gehenna. Etymologically hell rather corresponds to Hades, that is, the netherworld. Personally I try to avoid using “hell” and if I do have to, I usually mean Gehenna. This is how it is more or less used in more modern translations of the Bible like the ESV. Whichever way you do use it, we must remember the difference between the popular view of hell and the biblical view.




[1] Keener C., The IVP Background Commentary: New Testament, p 241


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