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.