Exploring Hell – Part 1

By: Jason Wermuth
Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

Over the past few weeks I have received many comments from people chiding me to provide a bit more depth in my treatment of the question of hell. I must confess, however, that writing anything about a subject so terrifying and controversial is daunting, but I feel compelled to lay some of my views out there and then engage in the dialogue. Before I enter into this in a bit more depth, I want to say that by no means am I an expert on the subject, but as all Christians must, I have been wrestling with the concept of hell for quite some time  and I am still working out my views on the matter. Thus, while I am presenting a very concise description of my views of hell in what will follow, I am open and flexible to changing that opinion as I dialogue with others. This post will be a series of posts over the next few weeks, as it will take quite a bit of extra space to present my ideas in a clear and hopefully cogent way.

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:

Hell is:

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;

6. Other…

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?

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Jason Wermuth
This entry was posted by on Saturday, July 3rd, 2010 at 5:00 am and is filed under Biblical Studies, Faith & Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

11 Responses to “Exploring Hell – Part 1”

  1. Evelyn Johnson (rev ej) says:

    I will not voice my opinion (yet) on what hell is; however, I will comment on a recent observation by a young man. We were in the middle of a heatwave and one person stated that she was making sure that she would get her spiritual self right so that she will not have to go to hell.
    The comment was:
    It is not your body that goes to hell but your soul; therefore, you do not have to worry about being burnt, you are not going to feel it. only the physical body can feel the burn.

    If there is fire in hell (literally), and our souls will not experience the heat, what is the sense of being sent there?

    Interesting subject.

    • Evelyn, thanks for the comment. I wonder, however, if we can indeed separate the body from the soul. I think there is something more going on here, but in Jewish thought, it appears that the body and spirit are intertwined in such a way that you could not distinguish the two from one another the way we do today. That said, I have to ask what fire could do to an apparently indestructible body. The only way to suffer in torment forever, it would seem, would be to have in imperishable body that has nerve endings that could be destroyed and then regenerated and destroyed all over again. This idea, however, takes a big stretch of the imagination and is not clear in the text, which is part of the reason that the literal hell option is unconvincing.

      • Evelyn says:

        The Scriptures teach that God formed the body of man out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into him the breath of life and he became נֶפֶשׁ היָה, a living soul. According to this account, man consists of two distinct principles, a body and a soul: the one material, the other immaterial; the one corporeal, the other spiritual. It is involved in this statement, first, that the soul of man is a substance; and, secondly, that it is a substance distinct from the body. So that in the constitution of man two distinct substances are included
        Hodge, C. 1997. Systematic theology. Originally published 1872. Logos Research Systems, Inc.: Oak Harbor, WA

        “The only way to suffer in torment forever, it would seem, would be to have in imperishable body that has nerve endings that could be destroyed and then regenerated and destroyed all over again”.

        If destruction and regeneration were possible in eternity,then the gospel would be in vain. For then I believe that humans would consider that position a game and continue to do as they please with no regard to eternal punishment. They would probably consider themselves ( notice that I stated “they”, excluding myself) gods with no need for redemption. In stead of being in eternal torment (separation from God), they would be having a great time.
        This is interesting. Thank you, Jason.

      • Evelyn,

        The idea of a living nephesh certainly gives the idea of two substances that are separate, however, I think in the Jewish mind, the nephesh and the body are one whole being. Thus the idea that many in the west today have the when you die your body is left behind, but your spirit goes to heaven would be totally foreign to the Jewish mind. The body and the “soul” are totally intertwined and inseparable. The breath without the body is just wind. The body without the breath is just matter.

        It is also interesting that you say “eternal torment (separation from God).” I don’t necessarily disagree, but where in scripture do you find the idea that hell or “eternal torment” somehow equals separation from God. Is not God everywhere? Can one truly exist and be separated from God?

  2. Thanks Jason for asking questions and asking for responses (sometimes this is thought unnecessary in renewal). I would love to go to school, but pastoral responsibilities can out-weigh the need for exploration/research into our faith at an academic level. I am considering Regent (online), but I did not see any presence at SBL?

    Like you, I have seen no evidence of hell in the Old Testament (OT). Sheol is used, and I too understand it in the literature to mean the place of the dead, the pit. So first off, from Adam to Malachi there is no hell. This is significant. There is judgment for sin (unfaithfulness to the covenant). However, the penalty for sin is exile. And prior to exile is mercy upon mercy. God’s grace is demonstrated over and over again to the the nation of Israel.

    The first mention of holy in the OT (other than the sabath – and I am not familiar enough with the language to know the difference between qadesh in Gen 2 and qodesh in Ex 3) is at the giving of the law where God tells Moses to remove his sandals. Following Wright, the law is given as a way of focusing sin onto one nation, the only way to focus sin is to give the law (torah).

    This seems important because I hear sin brought up most often in relation to a holy God. If Wright is correct in his assessment, it would seem that God never intended holiness to be an antecedent to punishment, but rather a means of concentrating sin into one nation and ultimately onto one human our Lord, King Jesus. In this way sin could be dealt with so that every nation could partake in the blessing of Abraham which is, of course, the coming of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Gen 12 as declared in Gal 3. Judgement was never meant to be word filled with dread and doom, but rather, a word of hope that God would set things right in the world.

    If this be true, then the need of the concept(s) of hell, from this covenant view, would be marginalized.

    Thanks so much for the opportunity of discussion – blessings1

    • Gary,

      Thanks for the reply. If you are interested in Regent, we should have a few professors at SBL this year. Dr. Archie Wright will be there and is presenting during the SPS session. Others will be there, but I am not sure who.

      As for Hell, I think you are right about exile being the primary punishment in the OT. It appears that eternal destiny is not so much the concern for Israel as the punishments of this realm. Certainly in the second temple period, however, talk about the spiritual world picks up mightily and ideas like hades and tartarus get interwoven with Judaism. Hell seems to proceed from texts such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees where the fallen angels are punished for their acts of rebellion. More on this in my next post.


      • How would you classify the uses of Gehenna in 2 Esdras? Would you consider them later Christian texts written in a jewish apocalyptic fashion or could they be pre-Christian, second temple examples of the emerging use of Gehenna as a destination for those on whom God will not have mercy.


      • Gary,

        That is a fantastic question. I am actually not well acquainted with 2 Esdras. I have studied it some, but not enough to comment on the question. What do you think about 2 Esdras and Gehenna?

  3. Jason,

    I wasn’t sure a few days ago, but now I would say that 2 Esdras would be disqualified as having any bearing on origins of the concepts of hell. I sent out some questions about 2 Esdras to a few scholars and did some research online and at the library. I could find no evidence on a definitive dating of the book, but most of the folks I trust think the book is post AD 70; a Jewish apocalypse with Christian embellishments. Oh well . . .

  4. Evelyn says:

    truly, I need to get back in the swings of things. It has been four years since seminary days. I omitted the sources where I obtained my idea about separation from God.
    True that God is omnipresent, that where we are, there God is, but I am not speaking separation as in spatial separation, but relationship separation.
    For example,in Genesis 4:16 And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
    The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 . Logos Research Systems, Inc.: Oak Harbor, WA

    and in Matthew 27:46 Jesus asked God the question, why has he forsaken him?
    Why would Jesus ask that particular question if he knew that God was omnipresent? I believe that Jesus was talking also about the relationship between God and him.
    For that matter, I believe that hell is a separation from God, in the sense ,not that God is not there, because scripture notes in Psalm 139:8 that If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there
    The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 . Logos Research Systems, Inc.: Oak Harbor, WA, but in relationship with God.

    Thank you for your response.

    • Evelyn,

      I am very much enjoying our dialogue. I have a few more thoughts regarding your comments. 1. I am not certain that what is happening with Jesus on the cross is separation from God and not simply Jesus’ understandable human emotional response, crying out “Why did you let this happen to me?” I am not sure we can take Jesus’ words on the cross too theologically and make those words mean something more than they are. As for Cain, I think you might be on to something there, but God also protected Cain throughout his life and said if anyone killed him, there would be hell to pay. So in one sense, Cain was sent out from God’s presence and yet, in his grace, God remained with him. I am not sure that is parallel with hell.

      Finally, I think your quote of the Psalm there absolutely makes the point that God is indeed omnipresent. Interesting too though that the KJV mistranslates Sheol as hell, the exact point I was making in my post above. If Sheol is hell, then everyone is going to hell. In reality, all of the other modern translations get that right. Sheol is the depths or the grave, the place of the dead, probably not a fiery place of torment. In Greek, it would be likened to Hades, which would not actually have been anything like the modern vision of hell but is simply the place where souls go when they die. This word has carried over into the New Testament and is often, unfortunately, translated hell. I hope I will be able to adequately make this point in the coming weeks with my future posts on this topic.