Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In Regard to Hell – Part One

What comes to mind when you think of “hell”?

More than likely, Christian or not, you’ll be imagining some sort of red devil with horns and a fiery furnace. This will, of course, be accompanied by the screams of the damned who’re destined to an eternity of suffering. It is a fairly popular perspective, one reinforced in contemporary culture with everything from cartoons and movies (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and Hellboy) to Iron Maiden album covers and t-shirts painting this sort of picture.

I don’t think it is an accurate picture though. I don’t even think it is close to accurate – even though at times this idea comes up in some Sunday morning sermons. Hell as eternal conscious torment is daft.

So, esigeses and exegeses. Now those are a couple of words beginning with “e”! 

Esiegeses is the process of reading an idea into the text. For example, when you read the following phrase – the key was stuck – more than likely you are imagining a key stuck in a door lock. The thing is, you’ve read an idea into the text that may not be accurate to the intended meaning. We need a better understanding of context in order to truly figure out what a phrase may be getting at. Look how a little more information changes our understanding – the piano tuner rang to confirm that indeed, the key was stuck. Now we see it is far more reasonable to conclude that a key on a piano has become stuck and will require a repair.

The more contextual information we have the better we’ll be able to make sense of what is going on. 

When it comes to our understanding of “hell” in the Bible, I think it is fair to conclude that in many instances rather than engaging in a process of exegesis (a careful reading that attempts to draw meaning out of the text), many folk instead engage in esiegeses and read meaning into the text instead – meaning stolen from contemporary culture and particularily ideas of “hell” inherited from Dante Alighieri and his 14th century work The Divine Comedy in which “hell” is depicted as nine concentric circles of torment located in the centre of the earth.

Basically, people have an idea of “hell” in their head, see the word in the Bible and then conclude that the idea they have in their head is the same as the one the Bible is trying to convey. It may not be so.

So, what’s the story with hell?

Let’s begin by noting that the Bible doesn’t mention “hell.” Not even once. Quite simply, "hell" isn't something that any of the biblical authors write about. Neither in the Old or the New Testament.


At the end of the day, “hell” is an English word used in our English translations of the Bible as a substitute for certain Hebrew and Greek words that the original authors did use to convey particular ideas. The biblical authors wrote of; sheol, hades, tartarus and gehenna.

Now, you may be tempted to think of me as disingenuous to use this language-game to suggest that the Bible doesn’t mention hell. Hear me out, I don’t think I am. What I think is disingenuous is to play a language-game that puts a pop-culture idea of hell into the text in place of what the authors discuss as sheol, hades, tartarus and gehenna.

We use these words, but to steal from The Princess Bride; "I do not think they mean what you think they mean."

Let’s start by looking at the Hebrew word sheol and then the Greek word hades.

First up, sheol.

In the Hebrew scriptures, sheol is the place of the dead or the abode of the dead.

When you put it like that though, it gives the impression that sheol is a place one travels to in death.

And then when you put it like that it gives the impression that death isn’t dying but is instead some sort of a relocation – as if sheol is where the dead go to live. This isn’t the case. To be dead is to not live, it isn’t to live somewhere else.

It is better to understand sheol as the equivalent of being “6 feet under,” or, “pushing up daisies,” or as a “rest in the dust.” It is to be swallowed by the ground or to disappear into the depths of the sea.
Ultimately sheol is the grave, sheol is death.    

In Genesis 37:35 we’ve Jacob hearing that his beloved son Joseph has died.  And all his sons and all his daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning I will go down to sheol (to the grave, to my death), to my son.” So, his father wept for him. What we shouldn’t imagine is Jacob in death getting a chance to visit his son – as if in dying his son had moved to Australia and Jacob will get to visit soon when he dies.

In Job 7:9 we’ve Job speaking of those who have died. As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so those who go down to sheol (the grave, death) do not return. In death people don’t relocate to sheol, they die, they cease to exist.  

Again in Job, Job 17:13-16 – we’ve Job speaking of death. If the only home I hope for is the grave, if I spread out my bed in the realm of darkness, if I say to corruption, ‘You are my father,’ and to the worm, ‘My mother,’ or, ‘My sister,’ where is my hope – who can see any hope for me? Will it go down to the gates of sheol (the grave, death)? Where there is rest in the dust? Job isn’t talking about living in sheol, he is talking about death being a return to dust and non-existence.

Here are a few from the psalms.

Psalm 6:5
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from sheol? (from the grave, from the dead). The answer is no one.

Psalm 30:3
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of sheol (the grave, death); you spared me from going down to the pit. i.e. saved me from dying.

Psalm 88:3
I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to sheol (the grave, death).

It seems that the Hebrew idea of sheol is best understood as death or the grave – gravedom would be a good word to use because it isn’t a “loaded term.” Sheol is Genesis 3:19 in action… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.

Now, in speaking of the dead, or the place of the dead, or gravedom; there are poetic descriptions given in the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Isaiah), that appear to give it a sense of animation, as if one exists in sheol albeit as a shadow of one’s former self. The kind of picture painted is that of a place of no return, a land of gloom and deep shadow, a land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness, a land of oblivion, a land of dust, a place of forgetfulness, of forgottenness, of silence, monotony, loneliness, sleep, and paled being.

What seems to be happening here though, is not the suggestion of some actual shadow existence, but rather we’ve poetic and metaphorical expressions of what it is to be dead, to be cut off from the land of the living – lonely and forgotten where even the light is darkness. It’s poetic ways of articulating the reality that in death, your story comes to an end, specifically your relating to others and your relating to God. It’s the antithesis of life.

That said, sheol (not a location by the state of being dead, being 6ft under) was not seen as being beyond God’s sight or reach or power – death and the grave – was not seen as being beyond the arm of God. There was a belief that God would restore those who were righteous from sheol, from death, and from the grave – to enjoy the fellowship of life once again. The biblical word we use here is resurrection and it shouldn’t be confused with some kind of relocation out of one place and to another.

In translating sheol to English, the American Standard Version and the English Standard version just leave “sheol” as it is. This is a pretty good hint that an English equivalent is hard to come by and instead of trying to come up with one we’d be better to preserve sheol and understand this as it’s own thing.

If we want an English word, maybe “gravedom” could be used as it isn’t loaded in a particular direction.

The NIV, mainly uses “grave.”  The KJV though, it uses “grave,” as well as “pit,” and then also “hell.” This is unhelpful. Can you see why?

“Hell” is a word already loaded with meaning. And, the meaning it is loaded with is quite different to anything we’ve just discussed in relation to sheol. And thus, we end up reading ideas into the text rather than out of the text.

It seems, that where “hell” is used in the OT, it is in passages where sheol is seen as the negative consequence of unrighteous living – an early death. This is entirely in keeping with the challenge presented to the Israelites to follow the ways of Yahweh and choose life, not death, blessing not cursing. In Proverbs the way of the virtuous woman (wisdom) rather than the bed of the adulterous woman (folly).  

Psalm 9:17
The wicked shall return to sheol (ESV) (the realm of the dead NIV, hell KJV), all the nations that forget God.

Proverbs 7:27
Her house is the way to sheol (ESV) (the grave NIV, hell KJV), leading down to chambers of death.

The idea is really that there is a way of living that actually leads to death and another way of living that leads to life (green pastures and still waters you could say). To read “hell” into the text, and pop-culture eternal torture and punishment, is really to read ideas into the text that simply aren’t there.

So, if you come across “hell” in the Old Testament, its really a poor English word for the Hebrew word sheol.

In the Old Testament it would be better to leave it sheol as sheol.

Now let’s look at the New Testament and consider hades.

A few hundred years before Christ, Greek scholars started translating the Hebrew scriptures into koine Greek. As they set about the task of translation they came across a certain Hebrew word, sheol, (you might have heard of it). They had to choose a word for sheol and decided to use the Greek word hades. In doing so, they choose an incredibly loaded word.

Hades was both the Greek god of the underworld and also the underworld itself. In Greek mythology Charon (the Ferryman) would ferry the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron, the cost being a coin that was placed on or in the mouth of a deceased person. Cerberus, the multi-headed hound of Hades, was the watchdog that guarded the gates of hades so that no one could escape. Hades ruled the underworld, along with his queen, the goddess Persephone, the daughter of Zeus who Hades had abducted and dragged into the underworld – hades.

Did you get all of that?

It’s important to note though, that while this Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures uses hades in place of sheol, the intent was not that the word would be understood in the same manner as it is in Greek culture. They weren’t seeking to import Greek mythology into the Old Testament. No one translating the text would have thought that Jacob, on hearing that his beloved son Joseph had died, refused to be comforted and that in mourning he’d die, have a coin placed in his mouth, be carried by Charon across the rivers Styx and Acheron, past Cerberus, through the gates of  hades and to the Greek god of the underworld himself – Hades. Though they use the Greek hades for the Hebrew sheol, it is simply an attempt to find a word suitable.

When it comes to the New Testament written post-Christ, the question to ask is whether or not the New Testament authors were using the term hades (in their writing) to mean something more than what sheol meant in the Old Testament? Or, was hades still the word of choice to convey similar theological ideas to sheol in the Hebrew scriptures.

Let’s have a look – it only occurs a few times.

Matthew 11:23 and also Luke 10:15
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.

Here the ideas are the same as we see in the Old Testament, in Isaiah and Ezekiel, sheol is seen as the great leveler of the mighty and the rich, and of those that had great miracles in their midst but did not believe. Death awaits. Hades is here conveying the same ideas as sheol; the grave, gravedom, 6ft under.

Matthew 16:18
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

The gates of death, the realm of death, the grave, gravedom, being 6ft under won’t ultimately be the end of the story. Here the idea of hades is the same as the Hebrew Scripture’s idea of sheol. Additionally, hades is used here with a nod of the head to the Greek idea Hades with the reference to gates, but we shouldn’t see this turn of phrase as an endorsement of Greek cosmology or mythology.

Revelation 1:18
I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Death and the grave, sheol / hades, those that have died have returned from the dust of the earth, from the grave – because Jesus is sovereign over that too! Jesus is king of the grave! Or, you could say, the Greek god Hades is not the king of the grave! That myth is all wrong.

Revelation 20:13
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.

Here hades again speaks to the same sort of idea that we have with sheol – gravedom, the dust of the earth or depths of the ocean – Hades is no god of the dead.  

Revelation 20:14
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

Death and the grave is destroyed, no more sheol, no more hades, no more false kings of the dead – only Jesus Christ as Lord of both the living and the dead. Death is destroyed and any idea of the realm of the dead – that’s destroyed too. Eventually we’ll come back to that.

For all intent and purpose, when we read sheol in the Old Testament and hades in the New Testament the ideas behind the text seems to be very similar – death, the grave, gravedom, the dust of the earth, 6ft under, pushing up daisies etc.

In the New Testament there are some allusions to Greek mythology but that’s the culture of the time and every passage undoes the reality of the mythology. We shouldn't miss the subtlety here.

To “be in sheol” or “to be in hades” is “to be in death” is to be dead, 6ft under, pushing up daisies. As it is so eloquently put in the movie A Knight's Tale, it is to have “the spark of one’s life covered in shite.”

Thus, when we read translations of the Bible that use “hell” in place of sheol or in place of hades, there is every chance we’ll be reading some ideas into the text that we shouldn’t be.

Sheol should be left in play in the Old Testament.
Hades should be left in play in the New Testament.

Now, of course, there is still much more to be said about hell. We’ve still got words like tartarus and gehenna to consider. Not to mention the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus - that's a biggie.

We’ll get there. Don’t worry. Grace and peace.

You can read part two here.
You can read part three here

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