The ongoing clash between Rugby player Israel Folau and Rugby Australia over a post by Folau on social media which said liars, atheists, adulterers, homosexuals and others would go to hell has triggered a fair amount of debate in the community. The main issues seem to be Folau’s rights to freedom of speech and to practice his religion, against whether a prominent public figure should keep his religious views to himself, especially if it is seen to target a group within the community (in this case the LGBTIQ community) which has already suffered enough. NRL player Ian Roberts has condemned homophobia in sport and pointed to the high rate of suicide amongst gay youth saying Folau’s comments could have an adverse impact on the “[gay] kids in the suburbs killing themselves.”
In this post I’m not going to weigh-in on the issues of freedom of speech or whether Folau’s comments have anything to do with freedom of religion. As a biblical scholar I want to look at his claim that the people on his list are going to hell. There are two issues here: (a) does the Bible say that liars, adulterers, drunks, etc, will go to hell? and (b) does the Bible condemn homosexuality? In a subsequent post I will look at the claim by some people that Folau is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and I’ll examine the verse they cite to say that tattoos are prohibited by the Bible.
First, who is going to hell? A lot of people are surprised when they learn that, according to the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) everyone goes to the same place at death! The Hebrew word is sheol and everyone – good and bad – goes there at death. Sheol is often translated as “hell” in English Bibles (such as the King James Version), but it’s not the kind of fiery place of judgment that we find in much later Christian writings. We don’t get any kind of description of sheol in the Bible. Some of the latter parts of the Hebrew Bible to be written speak of the dead being resurrected at some future time, and thereafter face a “judgment” to determine their final reward or punishment. This idea of resurrection is more prominent in the New Testament, but it has its origins in a small handful of places in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Jewish literature such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s pretty clear that to the writers of the Hebrew Bible sheol/”hell” was a kind of waiting room until the resurrection at the end of the world as we know it. (I’ve written more about sheol and the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible here.)
In the oldest translation of the Hebrew Bible that we know of, the translation into Greek known as the Septuagint (probably translated between 300-200 BCE), sheol is translated into Greek as hades. This is one of the words often translated as “hell” in the New Testament. Hades probably had a similar meaning for the earliest Christians as the Hebrew word sheol and didn’t have any connotations of fire or burning. The word that is associated with fire in the New Testament is Gehenna and is the word generally used by Jesus, also translated as “hell”. Gehenna is derived from a Hebrew phrase and refers to a valley to the south of the city of Jerusalem where the city’s rubbish was burned. The dead bodies of executed criminals were also burned there, and Jesus himself would have been burned in Gehenna if a rich politician hadn’t intervened and paid for his burial instead. But it wasn’t a place of torment as the people who were burned there were already dead. In fact, the New Testament does say (Acts 2:27-31) that Jesus went to hell! This is in a text quoting the Hebrew Bible and using the word sheol. The writer was almost certainly thinking that Jesus was in the place of the dead, waiting resurrection. The only place in the New Testament that associates hell with fire and brimstone is a text in the highly symbolic and enigmatic book of Revelation, where the devil, “death” and hades/”hell” are all cast into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:10-15). This text is at odds with the later Christian idea that the devil rules in hell, because here he is destroyed in the lake of fire, together with hell! How could “hell” be a lake of fire if hell itself is destroyed in a lake of fire? I said this is highly symbolic and enigmatic!
The idea that hell is a place of torment for the wicked dead is foreign to the Bible. According to both Old and New Testaments everyone goes to the same place after death. Israel Folau should get used to the fact that, according to the Bible, he is going to spend some time in sheol/hades/hell with everyone, good and bad.
In my next post I will look at what the Bible has to say (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality.