Development of the Concept of “Hell”

In the state of Andhra Pradesh summer is the season for the “hell bent” messages. After suffering in the day-long heat of more than 40°C, people throng to the Christian gospel meetings in the cool evening. The summer weather, probably, prepares them for the messages on “hell”. These messages are usually preached by the “experts” in “hell”. In a coastal town of Andhra Pradesh a man went and sat on the sand to listen to the message. He was enjoying the cool sea breeze, after being in the oven-like house throughout the day. The preacher started to give a bombastic message on “hell”. He was describing the “hell experience”—unquenchable fire and eternal suffering of sinners in that fire. Incidentally, Jesus hardly spoke on this subject. His focus was more on the establishment of the kingdom of God (i.e. the rule of God) of justice, peace, love, unity and service on this earth. The man, who came out of the hell-like house to enjoy the evening cool sea breeze and the message, turned to the person sitting next to him and said, “The way this preacher is describing the hell and its experience so vividly, it looks that he has just returned from there!”

The idea of perpetual torment in hell is so prevalent in world religions, though it takes on different forms. Christianity also taught on concepts of judgment and eternal punishment in hell for those who fail to meet the necessary criteria. Augustine, the influential fourth century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, played a key role in the development of the Christian doctrine of an ever burning hell. He wrote that “hell, which also is called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire and will torment the bodies of the damned.” He further wrote of “those everlasting pains which are to follow” the final judgment (City of God 21.10, 13).

But how did the concept of “hell” develop?

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word often translated as “hell” is sheol, which actually means “the grave”. When we die, we simply go to the grave (Ps. 49.10-11; Eccl. 3.19-20). Sheol is portrayed as a place of “darkness” (Job 17.13). The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible comments, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment. The concept of an infernal ‘hell’ developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic period (beginning in the fourth century BCE).”

In the New Testament three Greek words are used for “hell”. In the Gospels the one most often used is geenna (English “gehenna”). The Greek word geenna is a transliteration of the Aramaic word gehinnam, which is derived from the Hebrew word ge hinnom (Josh. 15.8, 18.16). The Hebrew word refers to a valley located on the south slope of Jerusalem (Josh. 15.8, 18.16). It literally means “Valley of Hinnom”. During the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh sacrifices were burnt here to the Canaanite god Molech, even to the point of sacrificing their own sons in the fire (II Kgs. 16.3, 21.6; II Chr. 28.3, 33.6). Because of this prophets condemned this valley, identifying it as the scene of future destruction of life and God’s judgment (Jer. 7.30-33, 19.1-13, 32.34-35, cf. Is. 31.9, 66.24; II Kgs 23.10; Lev 18.21).

In later Jewish literature the Valley of Hinnom came to represent the place of God’s end-time judgment of the wicked Jews by fire (I Enoch 26-27, 54.1-6, 56.1-4, 90.24-27). By the first century C.E. gehenna came to be understood metaphorically as the place of judgment by fire for all wicked everywhere (Sibylline Oracles 1.100-103, 2.283-312). It is located in the depths of the earth (Sibylline Oracles 4.184-186) and is described with “fire”, “darkness” and “gnashing of teeth” (Apocalypse of Abraham 15.6; Sibylline Oracles 1.100-103, 2.292-310). There is also the implication that punishment is an eternal one (Sibylline Oracles 2.292-310; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.14, Jewish War 2.163, 3.374-375).

In Jewish Rabbinic literature gehenna is described as a place created before the creation of the world (b. Pesah 54a). It is reserved for the wicked (b. Erub 19a, b. Yebam 63b), including those who indulged in a variety of sinful acts: idolatry, immorality, arrogance, flattery, foolish speech, lack of compassion and listening too much to women!!! Those who fear God that follow the Torah in obedience and good deeds, and unfortunate in this life are spared from it.

In the New Testament all the twelve references to gehenna are used metaphorically as the place of fiery judgment (Mt. 5.22, 29-30, 10.28, 18.9, 23.15,33; Mk. 9.43,45,47; Lk. 12.5; James 3.6). Gehenna is pre-existent (Mt. 25.41). The New Testament does not describe the torment of gehenna.

Another Greek word used for hell is hades, the place of the departed, the grave, like sheol in the Old Testament (Mt.11.23, 16.18). In the book of Revelation, the word translated as “hell” is always hades meaning “grave” (Rev 1.18, 20.13,14). Hades is the place of the dead, not necessarily a place of torment for the wicked dead.

One other Greek word used for hell is tartaroo. This is found only in II Peter 2.4, where it is described as the place where wicked spirits will eventually be restrained.

From the above it is evident that references to “hell” in the New Testament draw on a rich and varied background. Beginning with the Old Testament, the concept of “hell” progresses through stages of increasing detail and description.



One Response to “Development of the Concept of “Hell””

  1. oogenhand Says:

    Reblogged this on oogenhand.

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