Friday, March 22, 2013

Why the Hell? Part 2: A tour of afterlives

This is part two of a four-post series on Hell. One Three Four

This is going to be a pretty fun post. I'm going to investigate some of the cultural and mythological lines of thinking, besides the Bible itself, that have helped to shape our modern understanding of Hell. Three mythological underworlds have done so: Sheol, the Hebrew underworld; Hades, the Greek underworld; and Hel, the Norse underworld. Also, the valley of Gehenna is an important part of the cultural background for Jesus' teaching on Hell and the writings of the poets Dante and Milton have been critical in the evolution of how the church has viewed Hell.


Sheol is the underworld of the Old Testament, variously translated as "the grave", "the dead", or in the KJV, "Hell". It's used 66 times in 64 verses in the OT. In keeping with the view of the cosmos in my post on evolution, it was thought to be underground, so people spoke of going "down to Sheol". (Genesis 37:35, Job 17:16) It was a dark, still place, cut off from God and the light. Souls in Sheol were thought to have no personality, thought, strength, or ability to praise God in Sheol (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Isaiah 38:18) Still, these "shades" could be summoned to commune with the living (1 Samuel 28).

Sheol was generally seen as a universal, morally netural destination for the righteous and the wicked; the Jewish eschatological hope was temporal, not for any eternal paradise after death. The wrath of God was manifested not in any punishment in Sheol itself but in His violently sending people there, as in Numbers 16:33 where God shows His displeasure with the rebelling Korahites by sending them "down alive into Sheol", i.e. causing the earth to shallow them.

Nonetheless, we do see some glimmers of hope for life after death in the Old Testament in the form of redemption of the soul or spirit, if not the body, from Sheol (Psalm 16:10, 49:15, Hosea 13:14) In the intertestamental period, a shift in thinking led to Sheol having separate compartments or being seen as the destination only for the wicked, with the righteous going to "Abraham's side" (Luke 16:22) or even the belief that Abraham stood at the gates of Sheol preventing any circumcised man from entering.


Hades is, of course, the Greek underworld, and would have been well-known in the Hellenized Judea that Jesus lived in. If you're a nerd like me who grew up with an illustrated book of Greek mythology, you probably already know all about Hades. Like in Sheol, souls in Hades were senseless and weak, drifting around like leaves on the wind and living an afterlife similar to on earth but drained of its joys and the ability to change. Obviously Jesus' use of the term doesn't mean that all the Greek myths are true; He was simply teaching His audience using concepts they were already familiar with.

"Hades" is used to translate the Hebrew "Sheol" in the Septuagint and in the New Testament, where it is mentioned 10 times. As such, it is used semi-analogously to Sheol as a synonym for death (see Revelation, where "death and Hades" are paired four times). Still, it is definitely not a universal destination and is seen as being a place for the wicked (Luke 16:23, Matthew 11:23). In Acts 2 Peter explains how Psalm 16:8-11 prefigures God raising Christ from the dead, not only in spirit but bodily. 2 Peter 2:4 also mentions Tartarus, the abyss below Hades that served as a prison for the titans and other enemies of the gods, as the place God sent the rebellious angels.


Gehenna is not a myth; it is a historical place, a valley just to the south of Jerusalem. Gehenna, the English version of γεεννα, is just the New Testament version of the Old Testament "valley of the [son/children] of Hinnom". This valley is mentioned 13 times in 11 verses in the Old Testament, never positively.

The Hebrews viewed the valley of Hinnom (or Topheth, a place in it) as a place of paganistic idolatry and abomination, where other nations would sacrifice their children in fire to the gods. The people of Judah are later seen to do the same thing, to their condemnation. Besides these usages, the interesting ones are Jeremiah 7:32 and 19:6, where God promises that the Valley of Hinnom will become the Valley of Slaughter, a place of horrifying judgment and wrath on the godless. 7:30-34 reads:
“For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste.
And 19:1-7:
Thus says the LORD, “Go, buy a potter’s earthenware flask, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the elders of the priests, and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind— therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.’
In the New Testament, Gehenna is mentioned 12 times, 11 by Jesus and once by James, frequently associated with fire, and is always translated to "Hell" in English. We should not, as (apparently my favorite figure in modern Christianity) Rob Bell did, assume that Jesus is using the word literally, as if it is better to cut off your hand than to take a trip to the Valley of Hinnom. Nor does it seem likely that He specifically meant a return to the child-burning that took place there. It is overwhelmingly likely to me that when Jesus said "Gehenna", He was using it in the eschatological sense of the above passages, as a place of terrible divine wrath and judgment.

I think the significance of the fact that Jesus' word for Hell had such significant historical connotations for His listeners (Jewish listeners) is commonly understated. And there are more questions: was Jesus using "Hades" and "Gehenna" interchangeably, or did He have separate conceptions of the two that we have since lost? (The KJV translates "Sheol", "Hades", and "Gehenna" all to "Hell", and I think that Christians with more modern translations still think of them as all being equivalent to Hell) Or could it have been context-dependant, with "Hades" substituted when speaking to more Hellenistic gentile audiences?

I don't think the difference between Hades and Gehenna was simply Jesus' audience. In Matthew 16:18, after Peter's confession that He is the Christ, Jesus says, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of [Hades] shall not prevail against it." If Hades was just Jesus' Greek version of Gehenna, why did He use the word when speaking in private with His disciples, all of whom were Jewish? And He also uses "Hades" in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31, told to the Pharisees. So, it seems that our modern view of "Hell" may include Biblical teachings on both Hades and Gehenna. More on this distinction in the next post.


The Norse mythological underworld of Hel, ruled by the giantess of the same name, was not developed until well after the Bible was written and of course no one in the New Testament period had any knowledge of it. I only include it because, obviously, it is the origin of our English word "Hell", which indicates a connection worth looking into. Hel is just one part of the larger body of Norse belief about the afterlife. Norse paganism doesn't distinguish between the righteous and the wicked so much as between causes of death. Those who died "honorably" in battle were thought to go to the hall of Valhalla or the field Fólkvangr; Hel was reserved for those who died ignobly or old age or disease. Elsewhere, though, evil men are also said to go to Hel; the myths don't make much of an attempt to establish a consistent "doctrine of Hel".

One of the major myths in which Hel appears is in the death of the god Baldr. After he is killed by Loki's treachery, his brother, Hermod, is sent on the eight-legged horse Sleipnir to retrieve him from Hel. The Swedish "viking metal" band Amon Amarth, which draws much of its lyrical inspiration from Norse mythology (and the rest from Viking history), has done an excellent song about this story, in which Hermod gives this description of his journey to Hel:
Wailing voices on the wind
Urging me to turn
Distant tortured screams
Cold blue fires burn
I hear the sound of river Gjöll
Running cold and deep
Its golden bridge shines in the dark
The bridge that Móðguð keeps
These verses reflect Hel's overlap with Niflheim, the primordial world of ice containing nine frozen rivers. It's hard to see how Hel relates to the Christian Hell, being frozen instead of burning and reachable by horse, but it at least reflects the Germanic mindset towards the afterlife from which our modern, western culture partially arose, similar to the polytheistic background we set Old Testament Yawhism against.

Milton and Dante

The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1261-1325) and the English writer John Milton (1608-1624) have been hugely influential in shaping and defining the common western view of Hell with their epics The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, respectively.

The Divine Comedy describes an allegorical from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven, with Virgil acting as Dante's guide. In the first part, Inferno, Dante describes a Hell with an intricate geography divided into nine circles, each for a different kind of sinner and representing varying levels of punishment. In the outermost circle, Limbo, reside the unbaptized and "virtuous pagans" like Virgil himself and is really more of a deficient version of Heaven for those who avoided lives of sin but were not baptized into Christ. (Obviously this clashes pretty strongly with Protestant theology where you're either for or against Jesus)

Beyond that the circles correspond to various sins like lust, anger, and fraud, and the sinners therein are punished poetically in ways that fit their sins; the wrathful continue to fight each other or lie sullen underwater in a black marsh; fortune-tellers are forced to walk with their heads on backwards so they can't see ahead; thieves have their identities stolen as they are pursued by snakes and transformed into various forms. The lowest circle is not burning but frozen, where traitors are encased in ice. In the very center is Satan himself, not the ruler of Hell but just another prisoner, encased in ice to the waist and chewing on Brutus, Cassius (two of the conspirators against Caesar), and Judas Iscariot.
Paradise Lost opens in Hell, where Satan has just been cast down after his unsuccessful rebellion against God. Milton describes Hell through Satan's eyes:
At once, as far as angels' ken, he views
The dismal situation, waste and wild:
A horrible dungeon, on all sides round,
As one great furnace, flam'd; yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible,
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades,
Where peace and rest can never dwell; hope never comes
That comes to all: but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed',
Such place eternal justice has prepar'd
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness; and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of heaven
As from the centre thrice to the utmost pole.
O how unlike the place from which they fell!
The description of a fiery Hell obviously contrasts with Dante's description of Satan as encased in ice, and in this depiction Satan, though nominally a prisoner in Hell, does set himself up as its ruler to plan his revenge against God, saying it's "better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven".
As Paradise Lost only covers the events up until the fall of man, no people are depicted in Hell, but the classic elements are there: a terrible, hopeless dungeon, pitch-dark yet eternally burning whence God casts the rebellious. This description (minus the pitch dark; no one seems to know how to draw dark flames), along with The Divine Comedy's theme of differing degrees of punishment and regions of Hell according to the sin, accounts for much of the popular conception of Hell today.

In the next post we'll start to actually put all of these pieces together into a coherent view of Hell. Note: I have no agenda here and still have no idea where I'm going to end up with this.

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