In my previous post on hell I laid out a few of the more prevalent views and asked posters to comment on where they fell in this theological discussion. The views listed were as follows:
1. A literal burning lake of fire where unbelievers will burn for eternity;
2. A metaphorical reality whereby one will suffer as if s/he were burning for eternity, but really it is more of a separation from God with no literal fire;
3. Hell is actually an annihilation of the soul, a total destruction of the person (the second death);
4. All persons will be saved at the end (this is what Origen believed);
5. There is no hell;
The replies that I received varied greatly. Some followed an Eastern Orthodox posture on the issue of hell. Others followed a more metaphorical view of hell. At least one commenter was convinced that hell was an invention of the early Church fathers. I was surprised (stunned even) that not one poster on that blog mentioned adhering to the literal, burning lake of fire, view of hell. More often than not I talk to Christian’s who question the literal view of hell and have developed their own idea of what hell might be like. Many cannot understand how a literal lake of fire would even serve as a punishment for a spiritual entity. Others cannot fathom a God who would send his beloved children to burn in torturous conditions for eternity. I, on the other hand, find the literal view of hell increasingly unsatisfactory because I don’t find it to be the prevalent view in scripture. To be sure, I believe that hell is real and that those who reject Christ will face an eternity in this condition, but the question I have is: What is hell?
To begin our journey, it seems appropriate to begin with the Old Testament or “Hebrew Bible” for you technical folks out there. In the Hebrew Bible there is actually no mention of “hell.” The dark fiery Gehenna of the New Testament is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. What there is, however, is Sheol. Now I will admit that I am not a Hebrew scholar, but my short amount of Hebrew study (one year) did leave me with the clear impression that Sheol is NOT hell. Sheol is a Hebrew word for the grave, the pit or the depths. It is where one goes when they die, but this is assuredly not a fiery place where demons with pitchforks torture the Gentiles and apostates. In the Old Testament, Sheol is the fate of everyone. In Ecclesiastes 9:10, the teacher makes this point clear: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” The final “you” there is not some violent sinner, but in Qoheleth’s mind, all will end up in this dark grave. The hope of eternal life and resurrection which develops later would flow naturally with the idea that those who die simply remain in their grave until a particular time when the dead will be raised (see Daniel 12:2). Thus the question’s arise, 1) If Sheol is not hell, where does the New Testament idea of Gehenna come from? 2) What role should the Old Testament view of the afterlife play as we attempt to interpret the New Testament vision of hell?
These questions and more will be explored in the coming weeks, but I invite you to join in now and comment more on your views of hell. What role does and should the Old Testament concept of Sheol play in our understanding of hell? Do you think there are allusions to hell in the Old Testament that I may have missed?