As I have already mentioned, in the Hebrew Bible (OT), hell, in the way that many modern western Christians conceive of it, is simply unknown. We do not find a fiery place of torment where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What we do find in the Old Testament is the grave. God is the one who lives in heaven and human beings live on earth. When a human being dies, in the OT, they go into the depths of the earth. It does appear that the person continues to exist in some way, but they do not go to heaven or hell, at least not in the minds of early Jewish writers. Things begin to shift, however, when we arrive at the Second Temple Period (roughly 200 b.c. – 200 a.d.). In and around this era, the Jewish people have been exasperated by empires and persecuting rulers. Having recently been freed from exile, the Jewish people found themselves under the attack of Alexander the Great then Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and finally the Roman Empire. In the Second Temple Period (hereafter 2TP), the Jewish writers are often seen trying to make sense of the world around them. In 1 Enoch we read of fallen angels from Genesis 6, who slept with human women and bore hybrid offspring who would continue to torment the earth while their parents (the angels) were subjected to punishment. In a book called Jubilees we find a similar story of angelic beings disobeying God and bearing hybrid offspring who tempted the faithful under the rule of a leader named Mastema (or Satan). In both of these stories, the offspring of these fallen angels appear to be the cause of evil in the world and the reason that the Jewish people are continually tormented.
Interestingly, the fallen angels are not the ones who do the tempting and evil deeds. Why? Because they are trapped in a place of judgement. This, I would suggest, is one of the clearest and earliest examples of a shift from a focus on punishment taking place in the form of exile here on earth and the afterlife being the same for all, to a focus on a punishment for evil in the afterlife. Now let me be clear that I am not saying that these stories were simply made up in order for the Jewish people to understand their present situation. This brief description of the 2TP Jewish view of evil and the afterlife is the root of and foundation for many of the later New Testament views, and I would suggest then that they must be taken seriously.
In 1 Enoch, the fallen angels from the Genesis 6 story are imprisoned in a place burning with fire, probably Tartarus, mentioned later:
‘ And the Lord said unto Michael: ‘Go, bind Semjaza and his associates who have united themselves with women so as to have defiled themselves with them in all their uncleanness. And when their sons have slain one another, and they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them fast for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, till the day of their judgement and of their consummation, till the judgement that is for ever and ever is consummated. In those days they shall be led off to the abyss of fire: and to the torment and the prison in which they shall be confined for ever. And whosoever shall be condemned and destroyed will from thenceforth be bound together with them to the end of all generations. And destroy all the spirits of the reprobate and the children of the Watchers, because they have wronged mankind. Destroy all wrong from the face of the earth and let every evil work come to an end: and let the plant of righteousness and truth appear: and it shall prove a blessing; the works of righteousness and truth’ shall be planted in truth and joy for evermore (1 Enoch 10:11-16).
Now those of you familiar with Greek and Roman mythology will know that Tartarus is not a Jewish idea. Tartarus was a place lower than Hades (the place of the dead). Tartarus was reserved for sinners. People could deal with going to Hades, but Tartarus was very undesirable. Interestingly, in Roman Mythology, Tartarus was surrounded by a flaming river (or you might say a lake of fire ). In 1 Enoch 20:2, the holy angel Uriel is charged with overseeing Tartarus. In Jubilees 10:9, 90% of the evil offspring of the fallen angels are bound in the “place of condemnation,” while 10% were to remain on the earth under the authority of Mastema (Satan) to test and try the people of God in order to separate the faithful from the less than faithful. Lest I lead you to believe that the ideas presented here are simply 2TP anomalies, or apocryphal Jewish hullabaloo, we find this idea very clearly in the New Testament. In 2 Peter 2:4 we have a direct link with the 1 Enoch account of the fallen angels being confined in Tartarus: “[...] God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgement…” Hell here is not the term Hades nor Gehenna, it is actually the word Tartarus. This is significant because it is the only mention of Tartarus in the New Testament and it appears to directly correlate to the 1 Enoch account. Tartarus, then, begins as a Greek idea, and the word is adopted by 2TP Jews to describe what they understand to be the place of bondage for the fallen angels. It is later adopted by the author of 2 Peter to describe the same. Thus, as with Hades, we have a Greek word that is transformed in order to describe a Jewish understanding of the afterlife. In Hades, we have a Greek replacement for the Hebrew word Sheol and in Tartarus, we have a new way of understanding the afterlife that clearly has both Jewish and Greek roots.
So what does all of the above have to do with our discussion of hell? I would suggest it has a lot to do with it. In the 2TP we see a shift in the Jewish mind where an awareness and sensitivity to the supernatural becomes prevalent. This openness to the supernatural draws their understanding of evil and pain away from simply their own un/faithfulness to the law, but understands that there are also culpable spiritual beings who exist to actually make obeying the law even harder. These culpable beings and their parents, however, will suffer for eternity for their tempting work in a place of torment. Thus, I would suggest that the eternal suffering of the fallen angels and their offspring found in the 2TP has everything to do with how the New Testament writers would come to use judgement and punishment language with reference to hell. While these examples are not the only places where the idea of hell in the New Testament finds its origins, these are two prominent examples and I believe provide us with a backdrop to understand what the New Testament writers meant when they talked about hell, Hades and a fiery judgment.
What credence should we give to Second Temple Period Jewish literature as we try to understand hell? What role do you think 2TP thinking had with regard to New Testament ideas of hell?