Hell, as we currently understand it, is the product of several snowballing misconceptions and irresponsibly translated scriptures. Many Christians believe that the God of the Bible invented or designed Hell. However, a careful study of history and mythology reveals that God did not invent an eternal torture chamber called hell, nor would a loving Creator support such a doctrine. We also see that there is no scriptural or spiritual support for hell when we interpret the Bible in its historical context.
According to orthodox rabbinical tradition, the Torah (or Jewish Law) was given to Moses in around 1300 BC. By this time, the Jews had developed their own ideas of what occurred in the afterlife. They believed in a place called Sheol (or Gehinnom), which means “the unseen place” or “place of the dead.” According to them, each person (both Jew and gentile) would undergo a purification in Gehinnom for 11 to 12 months or less. After purification, souls were sent to live in eternity with their Creator. There were no flames, devils, demons, or other ungodly spirits present in the “place of the dead.”
According to Aish.com, Gehinnom isn’t and wasn’t a place of eternal punishment because “the Almighty’s justice [would not be] served by punishing someone forever.” God’s justice would have been finite and appropriate, not overbearing and treacherous. One suggestion was that a punishment might’ve require the offender to stand in the presence of God’s unfiltered holiness and experience shame or embarrassment that we cannot fathom in the natural realm.
Hades: The Man & The Myth
The concept of a torturous, demon-governed “underworld” is not popularized until around 400 years after the institution of the Jewish law when Homer’s myths about a god named Hades began to circulate. Hades, according to the ancient Greeks was the “god of the underworld” and the brother of Zeus. His domain was named after him and was widely believed to be where souls went after death. Hades often fought with another god named Thebes who wished to free tortured souls from Hades’ eternal captivity. Similar myths about a man named Tartarus began to circulate in 400 BC. This guy also ran a scary underground abode for tortured souls, and yes… he named it Tartarus, after himself.
Around 400 BC, the Greek and Jewish societies merged into something called Hellenistic Judaism, a union that would last for another 600 years. Many Jews adopted ideas about the afterlife from Hellenists until the two sects ultimately split in around 200 CE. Wikipedia notes that this split probably occurred as a result of Christianity’s growth. The influence of Greek mythology is evident in 2 Peter 2:4 which talks about God sending angels to a gloomy “hell.” The word used for hell translates to “Tartarus” in Greek. Appearances of the word “hades” are found in the New Testament, and can also be attributed to the Hellenistic influence that would have existed when those biblical documents were written. Coincidentally, the words Sheol and Gehenna were also carelessly translated to hell in the Bible. We’ll discuss those verses in the next installment of this series.
Life Imitates Dante’s Art
Around the year 1300, hell became a thing of renewed interest, terror, and pop culture when an Italian poet weaved a wildly imaginative tale called the Divine Comedy. Divided into three parts, Dante’s epic story took the reader on a guided tour through the morbidly frightening annals of hell, purgatory, and paradise (labeled as the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso respectively.) Filled with blood, fear, and gore, the tale’s “Inferno” seemed to have it all— unforgettable imagery, sinners begging for mercy, and yes, an eternal oven with flames blaring.
The printing press had not yet been invented, so copies of the actual book were rare. People heard versions of the story, but were unlikely and unable to compare Dante’s ideas about hell to the Jewish writings about sheol for themselves. Over time, myth and religion again became inextricably intertwined leaving the church with unGodly stories about the many “levels” of hell and the various kinds of torture that exist there.
Around 200 years after the release of Dante’s inferno, the Protestant Reformation gave birth to a principle called Sola Scriptura (or “scripture alone”). Christians insisted on allowing their existing canon of the Bible to “interpret itself,” meaning that they didn’t want to use external sources to help them understand the Bible. They felt that Christ alone could guide the Church through their interpretations of the scriptures.
In another century, the King James Version became the translation of choice. The problem, however, was that the KJV Bible used the word “hell” in place of “hades,” “Gehenna,” “tartarus,” and “sheol,” making it literally impossible to tell which references were literal and which were figures of speech. The “Sola Scriptura” reformers were literally comparing one mistranslated word to another, compounding confusion, and developing faulty doctrines. Also, people who read the Bible 500 years ago would not have had the resources to compare their Bibles to the original Greek wording, or even research the histories of the texts they were reading as concordances were not in wide use among laity at the time.
With that, an eternally fiery, extremely complex invention called hell had infiltrated the faith. This occurred despite the revelation of the Jews and certainly without regard for what God may have thought about eternal torture. In many ways, we had built our first spiritual Frankenstein, and no one would fully understand the impact of our errors for many years to come.
In the next few posts, I will discuss how we should interpret the many appearances of hades, sheol, and gehenna. I will also explore how our spiritual Frankenstein (hell) became Christianity’s sacred cow.
More From The “One Hell of a Lie” Series
Prologue: Seven Reasons Why I Don’t Believe In Hell
Part 1: God Didn’t Invent Hell. We Did.
Part 2: Jesus & Hades: What Did He Mean?
Part 3: “Where The Worm Doesn’t Die…”: (Where the hell is Gehenna?)
Part 4: “Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth…”: What Those Verses Mean
Part 5: Divine Torture: Why Our Society Won’t Stop Believing in Hell
Part 6: Pastors, Hell and the Naked Truth
Part 7: What Do We Do Without Hell?
Part 8: About Satan & Evil: Why The Devil Didn’t Make Us Do It
More About Hell:
1. A Few Thoughts On Hell & Religious Power
2. Eternal Life: What if Jesus Wasn’t Talking About Heaven or Hell?
3. Lazarus and the Rich Man: Why It Isn’t About Hell
4. Carlton Pearson: “We should think about why we believe it…”
5. Answering A Concerned Mother’s Questions About Hell