I would wager a guess that most of us have spent time considering the realities of Heaven but what about Hell? In our study, The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler, we’ve been introduced to a few aspects of Hell. I’ve always enjoyed studying and learning how other religions view the Afterlife. Today, I thought I would share a little, but by no means exhaustive, of what I’ve gathered over the years of study.
I believe three pieces of literature have greatly influenced our foundational understanding of the Afterlife: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Paradise Lost by John Milton, and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. These writings are beneficial to providing a visual image but I believe they’ve been detrimental as well because they are fabrication. While the visual images they portray might possibly be true, I think searching the scriptures and understanding what God has provided for us in His word about the Afterlife is important. I think by having a clear understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding the Afterlife, we can wisely appreciate or toss information about the Afterlife from non-biblical sources.
A basic appreciation of the Old Testament’s understanding of the Afterlife will help in understanding how the idea of Hell formed. Prior to Abraham, the people were polytheistic which means they believed in many gods. Mesopotamian pagans believed gods travelled to the Netherworld and returned in 3 days. When God called Abraham out of Haran in northern Mesopotamia to go to the land that He would show him, Abraham began his journey of learning to serve the one true God. Abraham’s faith became monotheistic.(Genesis 12:1-9) The Hebrew people believed when they died they went to a place of non-existence where a person was neither dead nor alive. Hebrew thought also included the idea that the body did not join you in the Afterlife. Sheol was a place of ruins, dust, gloom, darkness, and shadow.(Job 10:21,22) Sometimes, Sheol is rendered into English as grave, pit, or hell. The Hebrews believed that nothing awaited them in Sheol. Sheol was a shadow land. Their punishment was in life not death. Abraham had an extraordinary belief, however, to believe and trust that God brought back from the dead. (Hebrews 11:11,12,17-19) This faith, God credited to Abraham as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
Two possible Hebrew root words form Sheol. The first root means to “ask or inquire” and possibly was used because of the belief that oracles could be obtained there. The second root means a “hollow hand or hollow way.”
Being sent alive to Sheol was reserved for the exceptionally wicked. Korah and his followers were swallowed alive by the earth when they opposed Moses and treated the LORD with contempt. (Numbers 16) David also spoke of this very notion in Psalm 55.
“Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave (Sheol) for evil finds lodging among them.” Psalm 55:15 (insert mine)
During the Jews exile to Babylon from their land, they were influenced by Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster taught the ideas of a “good “ place and a “bad” place or a paradise and a hell. The Babylonians and Persians also had strong beliefs in the supernatural, specifically angels and demons. The Persians were astrologers and worshiped the stars, moon, and sun. These ideas began to be incorporated into Sheol by the Jews. I think these influences also affected their writing because during this timeframe, apocalyptic writing began like the book of Daniel.
“The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD…They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire —-something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.” Jeremiah 7:30,31
Jeremiah, a prophet during the exile, describes the actions of the people at Topheth. Topheth, “high place”, is formed from an Aramaic root that translates into English as “fireplace.”
Located in the Valley of Hinnom just outside of Jerusalem, the people were burning their children as offerings, typically to the god, Molech. (Jeremiah 7:30-8:3) This passage implies the offering was to the Lord. The people had chosen to show their devotion to God believing that He would require such a costly gift. They were melding their understanding of God with the pagan beliefs of those influences around them. The Valley of Hinnom is also called the Valley of Ben Hinnom, the Valley of the sons of Hinnom, the Valley of Lamentation, Valley of Whining, and the Valley of Slaughter.
The Valley of Hinnom in Hebrew is “Gehinnom” which became “Geenna” when translated into Greek and then switched to “Gehenna” when the word was translated into Latin and also into English. This word became synonymous for judgment, fire, brimstone, darkness, and the place of final punishment. Gehenna was seen as a temporary place for bad Jews with the sentence of punishment dependent on how bad you had been, but was a permanent place for Gentiles. Jesus describes this place as darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) Gehenna is the place we view as Hell.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.” Luke 16:22,23
Moving forward in time to the New Testament, the ideas of the Afterlife and a central accuser known as Satan or the Devil are more fully formed. Sheol is now composed of 2 sections separated by a great chasm. These sections are referred to as the place of Abraham’s bosom for the righteous and the place of torment for the wicked. Jesus’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus gives a wonderful picture of Sheol in Luke 16:19-31.
This place of torment in Sheol became intertwined with the Valley of Hinnom/ Gehenna because Jewish tradition held that the mouth of Hell was located in the valley. This location was used to burn corpses of criminals, animals from the sacrifices, and refuse. Basically, the area was the city dump and the fire burned continuously there. The exact location is unknown but 3 possible locations are: The Kidron Valley which is the traditional site held by the Muslims, the Tyropoeon/Tyropean Valley, and the Wadi-al-Rababi which is a site favored among scholars and the site of Calvary/Golgotha.
This area also contained the Akeldama, Aramaic for the “field of blood” or Potter’s Field, which has been used as a burial site for foreigners and was purchased by the 30 pieces of silver that Judas Iscariot tried to return to the priests for betraying Jesus. ( Matthew 27:3-10; Acts 1:18)
The Greek word, Hades, found in the New Testament, is closely associated to the Hebrew word, Sheol. Hades is not a permanent region for the lost but rather an intermediate place for the departed spirits until Gehenna. Jesus Christ proclaims that He has the keys to Hades in Revelation 1:18. Hades will be cast into the lake of fire which is Gehenna/Hell. (Revelation 20:14) In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the Underworld. Hades, with the help of his two brothers, Zeus and Poseidon defeat their father, Cronus.
The verb, “tartaroo,” translated “cast down to hell” is used only once in scripture and is found in 2 Peter 2:4. The place referred is Tartarus, which is not Sheol, Hades, or Hell, but a place for the punishment of rebellious angels.
Additional scriptures about Sheol: Genesis 37:35; 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 17:16; 33:18; Psalm 6:5;16:10;18:5; 30:9; 31:17; 88:6; Isaiah 25:7,8
Additional scriptures about the Valley of Hinnom/ Gehenna: Joshua 15:8;18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Isaiah 66:24; Jeremiah 19:6-11; 32:35; Matthew 5:22,29; 16:18;18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43-48
Additional scriptures: Job 26:6; 28:22; 31:12; Psalms 88:11; Proverbs 15:11; Matthew 16:18
Reference materials used include The New Bible Dictionary:Editor –J.D. Douglas; Know Your Angels by John Ronner; Encyclopedia of Hell by Miriam Van Scott; Abraham by Bruce Feiler; Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words by W.E. Vine; The Complete Word Study New Testament by Spiros Zodhiates