Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hell, Part 2

In my introductory post I outlined three distinct views which have been taught and believed by Christians over the last 2,000 years regarding the fate of non-believers: Annihilation, Universal Reconciliation and Eternal Conscious Torment. I also stated that I do not believe in the Eternal Conscious Torment view of Hell.

The word "Hell" was, of course, never used by any of the authors of either the Old or New Testament scriptures. Jesus never spoke the word. Our English use of the word Hell comes from the Norse word "Helheim", which means "house of Hel." In Norse theology, Hel was the goddess of the dead and the daughter of Loki (the trickster god). In Old English, the word Hel came to signify the abode of the dead.

In the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians tend to call the Old Testament) there is no concept of Eternal Conscious Torment. There is no Hell. In fact, there is barely any mention of any type of afterlife whatsoever! The closest thing to it in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word "Sheol". But Sheol simply meant "the grave." The ancient Jews believed that man was made of dust and, at death, would return to dust. Gradually, as a result of Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek influence, Sheol gained slightly more definition as the abode of the dead; a dark underground place where all souls went for eternity--righteous and wicked alike. It was believed that souls in Sheol experienced a faint shadowy existence--barely conscious. The recurring phrase in the Old Testament for when someone died is that they "went to sleep with their fathers." There is contained in the Hebrew Scriptures no concept of reward or punishment in Sheol. Everyone--good and wicked alike--ended up in Sheol. When the Hebrew Scriptures were eventually translated into Greek, the word "Hades" was used in place of Sheol. Most modern English Bibles translate Sheol as Hades or, more accurately, as "the grave". Some older translations, such as the King James Version, translate Sheol as Hell.

So, prior to about 600 BC, the Jews did not have much of a concept of an afterlife. During the Jewish exile in Babylon (586-520 BC), the Jews were exposed to the Zoroastrian religion, which did have a Hell-like component. About 200 years after the Jews returned to Israel from exile in Babylon, Alexander the Great conquered the region. Alexander brought widespread Hellenistic (Greek) influences that would have repercussions for centuries. As a result of Babylonian influence followed by Hellenistic influence, two new ideas emerged about Sheol: First was the idea of a possible resurrection from death. Second was the idea of different experiences in the afterlife for the good and the wicked. Resurrection is hinted at in a handful of later Old Testament scriptures which were written around the time of the Babylonian exile (such as Ezekiel's vision of a "valley of dry bones"), but the idea really came into its own after 200 BC--around the time of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabean revolt. Reward and punishment in the afterlife only appears in Jewish writings that post-date the Hebrew scriptures.

After Alexander's death in 323 BC, his empire was divided up between his generals. Israel initially fell under the authority of the Egyptian Ptolemies (named after Ptolemy Lagi, one of Alexander's generals), but later was taken over by the Seleucid Dynasty, which had assumed control of the Babylonian and Syrian portions of Alexander's Empire. The Seleucids were ardent Hellenizers--imposing Greek culture and religion on their subjects by law.

In 175 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes became the Seleucid ruler (by murdering his predecessor). Antiochus Ephiphanes was a cruel and brutal despot who was intent on forcing the Jews to adopt Greek culture and religion. He desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by sacrificing pigs and encouraging his soldiers to have sex with prostitutes inside the holy place. Epiphanes ordered the slaughter of multitudes of Jews. An account exists of an elderly and respected rabbi named Eleazar who was flogged to death for refusing to eat the flesh of a pig. A Jewish woman and her seven children were systematically killed--one by one--for refusing to worship an idol. The Jews stubbornly resisted the Seleucid attempts to eradicate their culture and, as a result, endured brutal persecution. Defiant Jews went to their deaths vowing to their executioners that they would be resurrected and vindicated by God. They shared a common belief about a future event known as "The Day of the Lord" when the resurrection of the faithful would occur, coinciding with the removal of the oppressors and the restoration of Israel as a nation.

Anglican Bishop and scholar N.T. Wright has extensively researched and written about the development of the resurrection belief among ancient Jews ( Another excellent and thoroughly researched resource on this topic is the book "Jewish Views of the Afterlife" by Simcha Paull Raphael.

At this point it is worth stopping to ponder something significant: If a Hell of Eternal Conscious Torment exists, why is there no mention of it in the entire Old Testament? The Old Testament accounts for 2/3 of the Christian Bible! If Hell is real, then the implication is that our Heavenly Father created an afterlife of eternal suffering and allowed billions upon billions of unsuspecting souls to tumble into it forever without the slightest bit of warning. Ask yourself this: If you had no familiarity with Judaism or Christianity and had never heard of Hell; would you be able to read the Old Testament and come away with an awareness of it?

To Part 3
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents


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