This week I am responding to another question:
I’ve been wrestling with the idea of hell. It’s hard sometimes to let go of things you think you’ve known for 30+ years even if those things are harmful ideas. I know you don’t believe it’s real but I’m wondering what your knowledge is on the subject.
This is a great question, and one that I get from people on a regular basis. Before I jump in to my response let me offer a book recommendation. Jon M. Sweeney’s book Inventing Hell: Dante, The Bible, and Eternal Torment is probably the best I’ve read on the creation and background of the idea of hell. If this post piques your interest, you should get your hands on a copy of that book.
Let’s begin with this: so much of what we take for granted would be unfamiliar and confusing to our spiritual ancestors. For example, the idea of an afterlife is practically absent from the Hebrew Bible. There’s only one reference, found in Daniel 12, to “eternal life and eternal disgrace.” The reality is that, in the first century CE, the context in which Jesus lived, the idea of an afterlife, hell, and angels and demons were newer concepts that had been accepted by some Jews, but not by all (see the Sadducees).
In the Hebrew Bible there are references to “the grave,” which is how many translators render the Hebrew word sheol. Sheol isn’t an afterlife, however. There is no punishment or reward. It’s just the place where the dead are held, the common grave where all humans end up. It was imagined to be under the earth, and characterized by darkness and silence.
The idea of hell does pop up in Jesus’s teaching, but it’s important to understand what’s happening with his usage. The most common word translated as hell in the New Testament is the Greek word Gehenna. Gehenna was and is a real, literal place. It isn’t located under the earth, and people don’t end up there when they die. Gehenna is actually a valley located near the city of Jerusalem. This place is known in Hebrew as the “valley of the son of Hinnom.”
The first references to the spot come in the book of Joshua, which describes the borders of Judah. It pops up again in 2 Chronicles, and it’s here that we begin to understand why this place might eventually take on a more ominous meaning. Here’s the account of Ahaz’s (the king of Judah) actions in the valley of Hinnom:
Ahaz was 20 years old when he became king, and he ruled for sixteen years in Jerusalem. He didn’t do what was right in the LORD’s eyes, unlike his ancestor David. Instead, he walked in the ways of Israel’s kings, making images of the Baals and burning incense in the Ben-hinnom Valley. He even burned his own sons alive, imitating the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. (vs.1-3)
In chapter 33 we are also told that Ahaz’s grandson Manasseh followed in his footsteps:
He burned his own sons alive in the Ben-hinnom Valley… (v.6a)
Gehenna, then was an actual place on the map where Judahite kings sacrificed their children to other gods by burning them alive. By Jesus’s day Gehenna was the city dump, a place where the trash was perpetually ablaze. It makes sense that Jesus would adopt this image—a place of waste and destruction—in his teaching. It’s a vivid and visceral picture for the imagination. But what did he mean by it?
Was Jesus referring to the afterlife or was it a warning for this present life?
I think many, if not most, of Jesus’s references to Gehenna involved his call to resist Rome non-violently and through the creation of an alternative community. He uses it as a warning, essentially saying something like, “If we respond to Rome by fighting fire with fire, if we exclude and marginalize our fellow Jews by playing by Rome’s political and economic rules, then we are destined for destruction and the garbage dump.” Turns out, he was right. In the year 70 CE the Romans razed the Temple and burned the city of Jerusalem to the ground in response to a violent uprising—Gehenna, writ large. I’m not suggesting Jesus only talked about Gehenna in this way, but I think he did talk about it in this way at least in some cases.
Do I believe in hell? Does it exist? Is it real?
I do not believe in a subterranean place called hell where people will go to be tortured for all eternity. That isn’t Christlike, and I reject that concept completely. Our images and imaginations about hell have been shaped far more by Dante’s The Inferno than by anything found in scripture. The hell so many of us were threatened with is a figment of our imagination, not our reality.
In that sense, no, I don’t think hell exists.
But, I do believe hell is real.
Hell is real in the sense that Jesus used it, to warn us about the consequences of our actions and inactions. Think about climate change, mass shootings, white supremacy, growing income inequality, and even the way many have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic (please get vaccinated!): our refusal to think and act differently has put our society and world in grave danger. If we don’t rethink how we are living with one another, we might be swallowed up in a hell of our own making, but not in the next life. Instead, our hells will be experienced right here, in this life.
That’s just a brief introduction, but I hope it’s helpful.
(I spared you a rant about how the KJV mistranslated sheol as hell—talk about exhibit A for confirmation bias!)
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