Jesus on hell (2): a diversion on the soul

Before going on to look at some more sayings where Jesus spoke of hell, I feel I should write some more about the sayings mentioned in my previous post, specifically what Jesus meant by soul when he spoke of “body and soul”. It would be easy to conclude that Jesus had a dualistic view of human nature, namely that the human being is made up of two principal parts, the physical body and an immaterial soul. This would certainly be a common Greek way of thinking, and seeing that the Gospels as we have them are written in Greek and use the terms σῶμα sōma (body) and ψυχή psychē (soul) which are frequently used in Greek discussions about a dual nature we could be excused for assuming that Jesus was using these terms in the same way. Interestingly, however, Luke’s account doesn’t use these terms at all: he has Jesus saying “fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna” (Luke 12:5), without any mention of a soul or any hint of a dual nature.

The Gospels as we have them are written in Greek, and Jesus almost certainly knew some Greek, but it’s equally certain that Jesus’ native language was either Hebrew or Aramaic and that he taught primarily in one or both of these languages rather than Greek. So if he referred to a soul we can be confident that it would have been in the Hebrew sense of the word, and the word which is most frequently translated as ‘soul’ in the Hebrew Bible is נֶפֶשׁ nephesh. The first time it appears in the Bible is in the story of the creation of the first human being: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” The word translated here (in the NRSV) as being is the Hebrew word נֶפֶשׁ nephesh which several translations (such as the KJV) give as soul. In this story the breath of life is breathed into a lifeless body and it becomes a living nephesh. It does not have a nephesh. The nephesh is not what is breathed into the body. The human being became a nephesh.

In Hebraic thinking and usage a living human being is a nephesh – the nephesh is not a seperate part of a dual nature made up of body and soul. In the Hebrew Bible the nephesh is said to become hungry (Proverbs 10:3; 27:7; Isaiah 29:8), and thirsty (Proverbs 25:25), expressions which in Greek thinking would apply to the body but not to the soul. Consequently the word most often simply means a human being, rather than an immaterial part of that being, and as such the nephesh can die. For example, when Ezekiel was discussing the issue of whether children can be punished for the sons of their fathers he wrote: “The person (Heb. נֶפֶשׁ nephesh) who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child” (Ezekiel 18:20). The King James Version translates nephesh here as soul: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”, making it quite clear that Hebrew speakers did not think of the nephesh in the same way that Greeks thought of the psychēas an immaterial and immortal part of the human being. Priests were even instructed not to come near a נֶפֶשׁ מֵת a dead nephesh (Numbers 6:6 – most English translations have ‘a dead body’ as ‘a dead soul’ would sound too strange).

In Hebrew, souls die!

So, when Jesus spoke of ‘souls’ being destroyed in Gehenna there would be nothing unusual in this for his Hebrew or Aramaic speaking audience. His expression “body and soul” would not have implied to them that he was making a distinction between two parts of a dual nature, but rather as an emphasis on killing not only the body but the entire person including their name and reputation.

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.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth

Dieric Bouts (circa 1420-1475)

Hell, Dieric Bouts (circa 1420-1475)

The New Testament expression “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a puzzling one, and one which has engendered fear into generations of believers. It’s an image associated with being “cast into outer darkness” and rejection, and is a favourite of “hell-fire and brimstone” preachers, and is often quoted as an image of the torments of hell. But what exactly is “gnashing of teeth?” The Greek word that is translated as “gnashing” (βρυγμός) is from a word that means “to bite” and describes the snarling of a wild animal as it attacks. The Septuagint uses this word in Proverbs 19:21 to translate the Hebrew word נַהַם used to describe the growling or snarling of a lion (different to the word used for the roaring of a lion, which is שָׁאַג). In all of the passages where the Greek terms for gnash or gnashing are used in the New Testament or in the Septuagint they are always used of anger, rage, pain or anguish. They are never used of sorrow, grief, remorse or regret. The expression “weeping and gnashing of teeth” occurs only seven times in the Bible: six are found in the gospel of Matthew, one in Luke.

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11-12).

The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:41-42).

This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:49-50).

‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 22:12-13).

The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:50-51).

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:29-30).

But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. (Luke 13:27-28).

A similar reference to gnashing of teeth occurs in Acts:

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth (Acts 7:54).

This is the only passage in the New Testament where the verb “gnash” is used and it is a significant passage because it sheds light on the meaning of the associated noun “gnashing of teeth.” This verse describes an incident where the religious leaders were furious with Stephen, the first follower of Jesus to be martyred. Apparently full of anger and hatred at Stephen’s teaching, their rage soon led to them stoning him. To “gnash the teeth” as it is used in this passage has nothing to do with sorrow or regret or grief or remorse. It describes their anger and hatred. They are described as being like angry growling animals about to devour their prey.

We should firstly note that in these sayings Jesus envisages a future time, “the end of the age”, and not something immediately following death. When speaking about “the kingdom” his emphasis was almost invariably on a future period, what is often called the ‘Age to Come’ (Hebrew עולם הבא, or ‘world to come’), or the ‘Messianic age’,  although he also taught about how this future time has implications for the present. We would be hard pressed to find any teachings of Jesus which explicitly refer to an intermediate stage between death and this future Messianic age.  While many of the images from the sayings listed above are popularly used to describe the torments of hell following death, the original context in the gospels is about some event “at the end of the age”.

One of the occasions when Jesus used this expression was in the context of speaking about the “sons of the kingdom”, or citizens of the Kingdom (the NIV has “subjects of the kingdom”). The background to this saying was an encounter with a Roman centurion – someone outside of God’s chosen people Israel – and Jesus said of him ” I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” He then went on to say that while many would come from outside and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom, the “children/sons/subjects of the kingdom” would be cast into outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is evident that he is saying outsiders (such as this Roman centurion) would be welcomed into the kingdom while those who thought the kingdom was their “right” would be rejected. When we look at some of the other similar sayings of Jesus we see that he did not argue that all Israel who would be cast out, but only a particular class within Israel.

It was not only “Gentiles” who were “outsiders”. The Pharisees and religious leaders also excluded people with disabilities (the blind, the crippled, the deaf), those with infectious diseases such as leprosy, people who colluded with the Romans (such as tax-collectors), people who didn’t measure up to their standards of holiness or who rejected some of their doctrines (the term “sinners” included people who disagreed with them as well as those who were guilty of breaking the Law) as well as Samaritans and Gentiles. In fact, they took the name “Pharisees” precisely because it meant “the separated” – those who were “pure in doctrine and conduct”.

Consequently many of Jesus’ sayings and stories were directed against this elite class within Israel: the religious leaders, the pure, the separated, those who felt that they alone were the “true Israel”. For example, after Jesus told the parable of the talents Mark and Luke tell us that “the teachers of the law and the chief priests … knew he had spoken this parable against them” (Mk 12:12; Lk 20:19).

In these sayings Jesus is saying that it was those who were regarded by the religious leaders as being “outsiders”, those whom they rejected, that are to be made welcome in the Kingdom. On the other hand, the “insiders”, the doctrinally pure, those who have separated themselves from the ones who don’t measure up doctrinally or in their behaviour, are to be “cast out”. As a result of being rejected there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This is not a weeping of remorse or sorrow, but of anger and resentment. This is a technique which is used frequently by Jesus – turning things on their head and saying that the truth is actually the opposite of the popular notion or the teaching of the religious leaders.

When Jesus told stories or parables about the kingdom he often referred to some future time in the Age to Come. However, he used these images of the future to make an important lesson about the here-and-now, and how kingdom-people should prepare for this Age to Come. Even when he sais “this is how it will be at the end of the age” the context often suggests that he was drawing lessons about the hear-and-now and how our actions in the present will have implications for the future. So it is that the religious purists who will be rejected “at the end of the age” will go away angrily “gnashing their teeth” with rage because that is how they behave now. In Stephen’s day they directed their anger and rage against this follower of Jesus (and his Greek name suggests that he may have been a Gentile, an “outsider”). Throughout history we have seen “religious” people directing their anger against other believers who don’t measure up to the standards imposed by the purists.

Putting this together, we see that the idea behind this expression is that those who are apart from God attack each other and try to tear each other, much like a pack of dogs fighting over a carcass. Without love there is just hatred and envy. According to the gospels, those who do not live by Jesus’ teachings end up biting and tearing each other, while those who live according to God’s way help others, rather than tearing them down. In these stories of Jesus we are being told that the time will come when this class of people will be left to themselves to tear each other apart. But, as with many of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom, we don’t have to wait until “the end of the age” to see this principle fulfilled. Communities, denominations and churches which splinter and divide often do so because they are obsessed with their own standards of doctrinal purity or so-called holiness rather than reaching out in love to those who are in need of God’s kingdom, and in the process they tear each other apart.

In future posts I would like to explore some more biblical imagery commonly associated with hell or the afterlife, especially some of the popular ideas which have moved considerably away from their biblical foundations.