The Problem of Hell Part 1: Textual Issues

In the Old Testament, it’s interesting to note that eternity is almost never dealt with. Instead, the Israelites were told that if they went after other gods, or didn’t follow the law God gave them, then he would drive them out of their land, cut them off from their people, or they would be put to death (Leviticus 18:24-30; 19:29; 20:2-21). There is no reference to what happens to them after that. When Uzzah reaches up to steady the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 6), he is struck dead, but nothing is mentioned about his eternal destination. When the man of God is misled by the old prophet in 1 Kings 13, he is killed by a lion on his way home. Again, we aren’t told if he was able to go to Heaven or not. When Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph obeyed God, they were rewarded with earthly prosperity. There was no talk of them going to Heaven one day. Even Job’s reward was simply more wealth and children than he’d had before. The Bible didn’t reference eternal destinations.

When someone died, the Old Testament talked about them going to “Sheol.” It was this word that the King James Version typically translated as “Hell.” But its description is not that of an eternal place of suffering for the wicked. Instead, it seems to simply be death, or the grave. In some places it may just be talking about the realm of the dead, neither good nor evil – much like the Greek notion of Hades.

For example, consider Genesis 37:35 where Jacob has been led to believe that Joseph is dead:

His sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

If Sheol was the same as our concept of Hell, should we think that Jacob and Joseph deserved to go there? This passage obviously carries no implication of punishment, just the idea of death, or the realm of the dead.

In 2 Samuel 22, David sung a song of thanks to God for delivering him from Saul. Verses 5-6 say this:

“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.”

Here again, it’s obvious that Sheol is synonymous with death, or the realm of the dead.

There are several examples in Job. In 12:13, he says:

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!

Why would anyone want to “hide” in Hell? And if they did, that certainly wouldn’t be a safe place to escape the wrath of God. Again, this obviously refers to the realm of the dead, or the grave. In Job 17:16, we see another reference to Sheol as the grave:

Will it go down to the bars of Sheol?
Shall we descend together into the dust?

There are many other references we could point to. This is not to say that none of them are negative – Psalms and Proverbs especially often refer to Sheol as a place that one would like to avoid. But that’s not very strange – we all want to avoid death. Knowing that it will inevitably come does not mean we’ll be happy when it does. Basically, there are no references to Sheol that indicate it is a place of eternal punishment reserved for the wicked.

Furthermore, the Old Testament only refers to Heaven as the sky or God’s abode. There is not even one reference to Heaven as a destination for the righteous. Not a single one. It is only a place for God and the “heavenly host.” The Old Testament only makes one reference to everlasting life, and that’s in Daniel 12:2. This is the only Old Testament passage that refers to reward and punishment after this life. And as I’ve alluded to earlier, most of the evidence points to the Book of Daniel being written around 165 BC.

Regardless, if the whole point of Christianity is to offer a way of salvation, then why does the Old Testament only refer to it in one verse? Why aren’t Heaven and Hell spoken of throughout? And if the notions of Heaven and Hell were not developed from the Old Testament, why are they spoken of so much in the New Testament?

The idea of punishment and reward in the afterlife is very old. Hundreds of years before Moses was born, the Osiris cult came to prominence in Egypt. Followers of Osiris believed that even peasants could gain eternal life, if they lived a good life. Those who were evil were punished in a lake of fire and then devoured so that they ceased to exist.

Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion that also teaches of an afterlife. The religion teaches that Ahura Mazda is the one god that created everything – he is wholly good, and everything he created is good. But there is also an evil force called Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman. He is the source of evil in the world, and he is in constant conflict with Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrians believe that the wicked will be sent into darkness when they die. But they also believe that all souls will eventually be reunited with Ahura Mazda.

Greek mythology also spoke of an afterlife (Greek underworld). Hades was the generic realm of the dead. But evil souls were sent to Tartarus, where they were punished in some fashion forever. The good and heroic were sent to Elysium, a paradise. Those who were neither good nor evil were sent to Asphodel Meadows, a land of utter neutrality.

Here’s one of my main points: All of these afterlife ideas were developed without the influence of the Bible. In fact, the Bible doesn’t speak of the afterlife in this way until long after these ideas had been developed in other cultures.

By the time Jesus was born, the Jews had spent generations living among pagans in Palestine, and they had been subject to the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. When I was a Christian, I usually thought of the Jews as coming through those periods relatively unscathed, from a religious perspective. But as we’ve just seen, the teachings about the afterlife are profoundly different between the Old and New Testaments. Much like the early Israelites, the Sadducees did not believe in much of an afterlife (most modern-day Jews don’t believe in one either). But many of the other Jews had been influenced by the surrounding cultures and now believed that everyone was going to be judged after this life: the evil would go to Hell, and the righteous would live with God in Heaven.

In fact, when the New Testament talks about the afterlife, it typically uses Greek terms to do it. The afterlife in general is called Hades (Matt 11:23, Luke 16:23, etc), and 2 Peter 2:4 refers to Hell as Tartarus. When Jesus spoke of Hell he used the term Gehenna (Matt 5:22, Matt 18:8-9, Matt 10:28, etc), which refers to the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem, a place where trash was burned continually. If Hell were a real place taught about from the very beginning of time, why didn’t it have its own name? Why were names borrowed from other cultures or familiar landmarks?

Personally, I think all these points are strong evidence that Heaven and Hell were brought into Judaism and Christianity by the influence of other cultures. But even if the Bible had taught these beliefs all along, there are still some problems with them. We’ll get into that in the next post.

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8 thoughts on “The Problem of Hell Part 1: Textual Issues”

  1. Your criticisms are valid in a sense but overly simplistic in serval places. First, the Bible does not fit into such an easy sociological,progressive analysis as you presuppose. Did they borrow from surrounding cultures? Sure. Why would God (and his people) not communicate in terms they already understood? I am not denying there are many parallels. It is however inaccurate to say other older, religions are exactly the same as those ideas in the bible, and many alleged parallels to ideas such as the virgin birth, creation, and the flood are analogous only superficially. Theologically the bible is completely novel. Additionally, one can just as easily claim parallels are simply evidence of the common experience of humanity with the events of Genesis 1-11 as you do that the bible developed from preexisting traditions. In both cases it is simply a matter of assuming and proving what one already believes.

    As for afterlife in the hebrew bible, you are correct in pointing no author paints a picture of heaven and hell as the concepts are currently understood. However to think they thought of the afterlife as sheol alone is also simplistic. The authors clearly in a variety of places point to a hope of resurrection and/or a hope that God will reenter they world and set things right. The terms “in that day,” “the day of the Lord,” and the “the latter days” are used throughout the HB, including in the Pentateuch, and can be understood only as hope for eternity.

    As an aside, the conclusion that Daniel was written in 165 BCE is likewise based on one’s preconceived rejection of predictive prophecy. If one accepts such prophecy there is no reason in the text whatsoever that it could not have been written in Babylonian/Persian times as the book itself claims.

    I hope you don’t take this in an antagonistic way. I would just like to have a conversation. Have a great day!

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  2. Thanks for the comment!

    I agree that there’s more nuance to these things than I laid out in this short post, but I believe the overall point is valid — the idea most Christians have about the Bible’s position on the afterlife is very different from what it actually presents. Does this mean the Bible is wrong? Not necessarily. But I think it provides much more support to the idea that it’s just a collection of writings from people who had very different ideas and influences over a long period of time. It certainly makes the case for inspiration more difficult.

    As far as the Book of Daniel is concerned, I completely disagree. Scholars don’t come to the 165-ish BC date just because they’re skeptical of prophecy. There are many reasons to think Daniel was written at that time. For a fuller treatment of those issues, please check out the posts I’ve done on the subject. You can find them here. I’d like to hear your take on some of the points presented there.

    And I don’t take your comment as an attack at all! I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to post your thoughts on this. I really appreciate the feedback. 🙂 I hope you’ll comment again soon.

    And hope you have a great day as well!

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  3. Opinions are common in theology. The value of learning philosophy is that it trains us to know when we have proved a point and when we are sneaking in invalid arguments. The point is indeed an opionion to say that something is mentioned in more detail in one part of the Bible, and less detail in others, then concluding that it is “obvious” or is “evidence” that the Jews were influenced by pagan cultures. The case in your post is not proven; you are merely taking an argument from silence and applying your opinion as to the cause. By contrast, I showed from history and the Bible that if anything, the first century Jews were less likely to be influenced by outside culutres, not more likely, as your position holds.

    Saying “no one can prove anything about God or religion” is either another opinion or self-refuting. If you are saying that “the evidence shows” but can’t prove, it is unclear as to whether you are making a point. And as I showed in the post, the evidence does not show that teachings on hell in the Bible have changed over time. Plus this seems to ignore the several proofs for God, such arguments as Kalam, vertical cosmological, moral, and others.

    Nate, I’ve read your stuff, and I think you’re an honest guy. But respectfully, you are using emotional personal justifications, not reasons based in logic or evidence.

    As for whether it seems strange about how many people go to hell verses heaven, my response is this: First, truth is not determined by what seems best to us, but by what exists in reality. So whether it seems strange to me does not prove what is actually the case in the Bible or the world around us. Second, not all Christians agree that the vast majority of humans will go to hell. See the work of Zane Hodges and the Grace Evangelical Society, who makes a case that the percentages that we commonly think of as being saved is false. Third, the Bible gives us some indication that God sends His servants to pagan lands to solve this exact problem. Fourth, God answers this question, in a sense. Several places in the scriptures, such as in Job, He refuses to be questioned. In the end, if we say that our sense of what we think ought to be is enough reason to question God, we are placing ourselves over God, saying we know better. In the Bible, He does not give us that option.

    Again, I believe you are a sincere guy. But so far, all I’ve seen is opinions and “seems to me” type arguments which do not provide logically valid arguments.

    Answered this here:
    http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/is-it-just-to-allow-people-to-go-to-hell-part-6/

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  4. Thanks for offering your thoughts.

    I don’t come to my conclusion about Hell simply by wishful thinking or whim, which is what you seem to think. I am using logic and reason — God-given abilities, if he exists.

    First, the evidence DOES clearly show that the teachings on Hell have changed over time, since it’s never even mentioned in the OT. The only possible reference is in Daniel 12:2, and that’s not a clear enough passage to really tell you anything about Hell, if that were your only reference to it. And of course, to anyone living before the 1st Century, it would have been their only reference.

    Now, could God have just decided to not share that bit of information until Jesus came? Sure, he could have done that. But the Bible also teaches us that God doesn’t show favoritism, so it seems unlikely that he would withhold such important information from one group, but provide it to another. Secondly, God is love, so it makes sense that he would want everyone to know about this danger so they could avoid it. Thirdly, God is our father. Any decent father would want to warn their child about the most important danger they will face. That’s why we cover electrical sockets, warn our children about the stove, and don’t let them get near a street or parking lot without supervision. We put knives, guns, and medication outside their reach. Yet we’re supposed to believe the most perfect father in existence simply chose to not warn the majority of his children about the real possibility of their being tortured for eternity? I think we do our intellect a disservice to simply accept such bizarre dichotomies without question.

    But thanks for offering your thoughts, and I’m glad you linked your article. Anyone interested in this can check out both our arguments.

    Take care.

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