In studying the doctrine of Hell, I found some interesting things. First, Hell is not talked about in the Old Testament. The King James Version mentions “Hell” a number of times, but that’s just a translation issue. The actual word used in the Old Testament is Sheol. Now, we might be tempted to just say that Sheol was merely the Hebrew word for Hell, but if we examine the OT, we’ll find that’s not the case. In Genesis 37:35, we read:
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.
Did Jacob believe Joseph was going to Hell? Is that what most parents think when they lose a child? Or do they assume that child is in Heaven? I find it very unlikely that Jacob believed Joseph was destined to go to a place of unending torment. Another good example is Job 12:13:
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!
Who would want to hide in Hell, especially as a place to escape God’s wrath? No, I think it’s obvious that Sheol meant something other than our idea of Hell. In fact, other passages in the OT give us the impression that Sheol referred to either the literal grave, or to a place that all souls went after death. Certainly there are OT passages that talk about Sheol in a negative light. But since Sheol represented death, it’s not hard to see why it would sometimes be viewed negatively.
In studying Hell, I also couldn’t help notice how often Heaven is referred to in the OT. Unlike Hell, it’s referred to many, many times. However, if you’ll take the time to go through the OT references to Heaven, you’ll find that it’s never spoken of as a place the righteous go to. It’s only talked about as the sky, or as God’s abode. Heaven and Hell are both talked about in the New Testament, so there’s no denying that the Bible teaches the concepts. But why the lack of mention in the Old Testament? If there is an eternal judgement, that’s the most important thing any of us will face. Its importance far outweighs that of anything else in this world. So why didn’t God communicate that to the countless generations of people who only had the OT for reference? The only OT reference to eternal consequences that I know of is Daniel 12:2:
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
Most scholars believe Daniel was written around 165 BC, but even if it’s as old as 550 BC, the writing of that passage comes much too late for everyone who lived before the Persian Empire. That’s a lot of human history to leave in the dark about eternity.
I found that to be fascinating, and it certainly wasn’t what I expected to find in studying the subject of Hell. The New Testament, of course, does deal with Heaven and Hell. In the NT, a couple of different Greek words are used to talk about Hell. The primary one, Gehenna, is etymologically tied to the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, this was a trash heap that burned almost continually. During the time of the Israelites, it was a place of human sacrifice. Obviously, both terms conjure unpleasant images. Another Greek term to describe Hell that’s found in the NT is Tartarus. 2 Peter 2:4 uses this term, and it’s the name of the Greek’s version of Hell. I find it interesting that Hell, if real, is a place that’s as old as the world itself, yet it had to borrow its names from the Greeks or from physical landmarks, and it’s not even spoken of in the OT.
But despite discovering these things, it still seemed to me that Jesus taught about a literal Hell that would consist of eternal punishment (if you’d like to see an alternate view, check out this article). So I found no solace in my study — my understanding of God’s plan of salvation still left me feeling dejected and distraught over the fate of most of mankind. I tried not to dwell on it too often, and instead focused on the more positive aspects of the gospel.
That was 2008 and early 2009. I’ll cover more ground in the next post. By the way, if you’d like to read more about the issues I have with Hell and why I think they’re important, you can check here, here, and here.