Jesus on hell (1)

Depending on which English translation one uses, the word “hell” appears up to 15 times in the Gospels, and in 11 of those places it translates the Greek word γέεννα gehenna (the only other place in the New Testament where this word occurs is James 3:6): 7 times in Matthew, 3 times in Mark, once in Luke, never in John, and always from the lips of Jesus. There are a further 3 sayings of Jesus where he uses the Greek word ᾅδης hades.  In this post I will look only at the gehenna sayings.

Gehenna is a Hellenisation of a Hebrew phrase גֵּֽיא־הִנֹּֽם gai Hinnom which means “valley of Hinnom”. It appears in this form in Nehemiah 11:30 and in a slightly different form in a few places in the Hebrew Bible where it is also known as גֵּי בֶן־הִנֹּם gai ben Hinnom = the valley of the son of Hinnom. In Joshua 15:8; 18:16 it is referred to as both  גֵּֽיא־הִנֹּֽם gai Hinnom = the valley of Hinnom, and גֵּי בֶן־הִנֹּם gai ben Hinnom = the valley of the son of Hinnom. These texts locate it in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Several commentators have pointed out the historical connections to the valley of Hinnom as a place where, first, child sacrifices were offered to the pagan god Molech, and, later, it became a place for burning rubbish and the dead bodies of executed criminals. The historical uses for the location almost certainly are the basis for its connection in the New Testament as a place of fire.

The single saying of Jesus about Gehenna in Luke (12:5) also appears in a slightly different form in Matthew 10:28.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Matt.)

But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke)

In Matthew’s version Gehenna is a place of destruction while the Luke version suggests a judicial use (one “has authority to cast into Gehenna“). Read together it suggests that Jesus was referring to those who have the judicial authority to dispose of one’s body after execution. The context refers to those who “have called the master of the house Beelzebul” and “malign those of his household” and ends with an assurance that “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven”. The emphasis of this saying is about being being maligned or being acknowledged. At the crux of the saying is an illustration from life which would be familiar to his audience, and which I suggest means in its context that as we would fear the one who has the authority to destroy one’s reputation as an ignominous criminal more than one who can kill but cannot take away one’s reputation, so the followers of Jesus need not fear those who malign them for now but cannot change their standing with God.

The three occurences in Mark are part of the one saying, which appears in a slightly altered form in Matthew 5:29-30, and, I suggest, has a similar judicial application.

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna. (Mark 9:43-47. Matthew leaves out the “foot” part of the saying, which is odd because this gospel seems to like triadic formulas and if Markan primacy is assumed then Matthew has intentionally left out this part of the saying).

The context of this saying in the Sermon on the Mount is about simple actions which have serious consequences. So, looking lustfully at a woman can lead to an offence which carries a death penalty; uncontrolled anger can lead to murder, which also carries a death sentence. A death penalty – a judicial execution – would result in the body of the criminal being burned in the valley of Hinnom rather than receiving a dignified burial. In a comment on a previous post Thomas Farrar referred me to a very helpful comment by Alan Bernstein: “throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, improper burial signified great disgrace …The wicked suffer ignominy in the deepest recesses of the underworld. Shame in death is the beginning of hell”. [1]  Seen in that context this saying of Jesus is a further warning to avoid the ‘minor’ misdemeanors which could lead serious breaches of the law with the most dire consequences.

In the same context Matthew has another saying by Jesus which refers to Gehenna.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of Gehenna (Matt 5:22).

Similar to the previous saying, this verse contains several terms which indicate that it is referring to minor actions with serious consequences:

  1. Simply being angry with someone can result in an action which lands you in Court;
  2. A simple insult can snowball into an action which can end in the Council, the Supreme Court;
  3. Calling someone a fool could be just the beginning which leads to an action demanding a death sentence, and consequent disposal of the guilty person’s body in the valley of Hinnom.

All of these references to Gehenna refer to actions which result in a legal execution, and have no connection to an afterlife. There are a few sayings which refer to fire or burning in the context of judgment and often understood to refer to punishment after death. I will look at these in a subsequent post.

[1] Bernstein, Alan E. 1996. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Cornell University Press. (pp. 166-167)

Sheol and the afterlife

The Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) doesn’t have a hell. At least, it doesn’t have a place where the wicked go to be tormented when they die. There is not even a hint that some people go to heaven at death, while the rest go to ‘the other place’. In fact, according to the Hebrew Bible everyone, good or bad, goes to the same place at death, to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). The word sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and is usually translated into Greek as hades, and into English as either “hell” or “the grave” (although there is a tendency for more modern translations to leave it untranslated and transliterated as Sheol). However, the way the ancient Israelites thought of sheol was considerably different to the way later Christians often think of hell. 

Everyone goes there. According to the Hebrew Bible everyone goes to the same place at death. When news came to the patriarch Jacob that his son Joseph was dead he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37: 35). Using parallelism typical of biblical poetry David described his deliverance from death at the hands of his enemies in terms of being rescued from Sheol:

For the waves of death encompassed me,
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me. (2 Samuel 22:5-6).

Interestingly, he thinks of death in terms of destruction rather than conscious existence in an afterlife. Perhaps even more surprisingly Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) even asserts that animals and humans share the same fate: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upwards and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (Eccl. 3:19-21).

Sheol is not a place of punishment.

In a long speech in which he longs for his own end, Job describes death this way:

But a man dies and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and where is he?
As waters fail from a lake
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.
Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath be past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If a man dies, shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait,
till my renewal should come. (Job 14:10-14).

There are a few important things we should note from this speech. First, Job describes death as a place where he could hide from God’s anger, not as a place where he would experience wrath or punishment. Second, he describes death as a place of sleep (see more about this below). Third, in the last lines of the extract above there is a possible hint of resurrection (there is a more familiar possible reference to resurrection in Job 19:25-26, although I have explained earlier that I personally don’t see any evidence in this text that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death). However, the Hebrew word חליפתי (“my renewal” ESV or “change” KJV) could mean that Job is looking for some kind of relief (so ESV footnote).  There isn’t necessarily a sense of “renewal” or resurrection in the Hebrew word, which simply means “change” in the same way we could speak of a change of clothes. The NJPS translates this as “my replacement”, in the sense of a soldier or servant carrying on with their duties until their watch or shift ends when they are replaced by another.

God is there. I sometimes hear people describe hell as a state of being seperated from God, rather than a physical location. But this is not how the writers of the Hebrew Bible understood sheol. A Psalm attributed to David makes the confident assertion that God is everywhere, even in sheol!

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 138:7-8)

Satan is never associated with Sheol in the Hebrew Bible. In popular culture hell is ruled by Satan. Somewhat surprisingly the Hebrew Bible nevers links Sheol with Satan, and, perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the only time the New Testament mentions hell (hades) and the devil together is when it describes both the devil and hell being destroyed together in a lake of fire: “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever … Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:10, 14). According to this text the devil does not rule hell: he meets his end, together with hell, in a lake of fire. And hell isn’t a lake of fire: on the contrary, hell is destroyed in a lake of fire. Puzzling imagery indeed, and one which deserves more attention. (There is a similar reference in Matthew 25:41 to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” but see my short post here.)

Sheol is for sleeping. The New Testament refers to death as sleeping and the image is almost certainly drawn from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Bathsheba describes David’s death as the time “when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers” (1 Kings 1:21). The New Testament draws on this terminology in a speech by Paul: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). Earlier in the same book of Acts is a speech by Peter, and both speeches refer to a Psalm attributed to David:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10).

In the speech by Peter he quotes this Psalm and says “David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:34). He was firmly of the view in the Hebrew Bible that everyone, good and bad, go to the same place at death, to sheol, and that not even King David went to heaven.