For many Christians the concept of hell has a lot of baggage associated with it. In the New Testament Gehenna, Sheol, or Tartaros which are translated Hades (Sheol) or Hell (Gehenna or Tartaros) did not carry the same level of imagined meaning to its hearers. The New Testament is not primarily concerned with heaven and hell as locations for the afterlife reward and punishment, which is how most people hear these terms today.
The Afterlife in the Hebrew Scriptures
For most of ancient Judaism heaven was the place that God reigned from, but it was not a place where humans (except for a select few like Elijah and Enoch) were brought to be with God. The Hebrew Scriptures are primarily concerned with the relationship between God and the people of God in this life. The blessings of covenant faithfulness were to be experienced in the provision of God for the people and the curse of covenant unfaithfulness was experienced in the struggle and strife that occurred through invasion, famine and illness. There is a long history of lament when the blessings of covenant faithfulness seem to be denied by God unfairly, but this faithful protest to God still expected God’s action within the lifetime of the prophet or poet calling for God’s action. There is a concept of Sheol, a place where the dead rest, but it is not a place of punishment or reward but simply a place where the dead are. Two quick examples of the concept of Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures: it occurs frequently in Psalms and Proverbs as a place where the dead go and where the faithful one will end up if God does not intervene. In Psalm 6:5 the author attempts to bargain with God to deliver them because, “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” Additionally, there was an understanding that, even though it was prohibited magic for the Jewish people, a medium was summoning the shade of a dead one from somewhere which we see in the story of Saul consulting the medium at Endor. (1 Samuel 28)
Belief about death would evolve near the end of the time where the Hebrew Scriptures were written because the experience of the people appeared to be in tension with the promise of covenant faithfulness. As Samuel Ballentine, quoting Peter Berger, can state:
“All socially constructed worlds are inherently precarious,” P. Berger observes. They are precarious because the socially managed consensus concerning right and wrong, good and evil, actions and abilities that are acceptable and those that exceed tolerable limits, is constantly threatened by chaos. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 139)
At the end of Isaiah, we see the first idea of an everlasting punishment for those who have rebelled against God. This is set within the larger context of an ingathering of the nations where all flesh worships before God but there is articulated a judgment for those who rebel against God that goes beyond this life:
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:24)
In the Jewish writings like 2 Maccabees, Enoch and 2 Esdras, which are written between the time of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we see the evolution of the resurrection of the dead but at the time of Jesus this is not a universal belief (the Pharisees and Jesus accept it but the Sadducees do not.)
In the New Testament
Tartaros occurs only in 2 Peter 2:4 and refers to a place where the rebellious angels are sent. This is combined in later theology to make hell the domain of the devil and the fallen angels, but this evolution has not occurred at the time when the New Testament is written. Satan has fallen from heaven, but his place seems to be on the earth at the time of the gospels. There is the concept of the Abyss in Revelation as well as angels and demonic forces which are unleashed from the sea and the earth as well as punishment in the lake of fire in Revelation 20: 11-15 where the devil and those who align themselves with him end up.
Sheol in the New Testament is translated Hades and is often in parallel with death. It seems to serve a similar function to the use of Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures as a place where people are brought down to at death, but it also becomes personified as an entity (along with death) that is resisting God’s reign. In Matthew it is used twice, once in reference to Capernaum which has had ample opportunities to hear Jesus’ message and repent but since there has not been repentance will be brought down to Hades (Matthew 11:23) and most famously after the declaration of Peter:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16: 18)
Gehenna is used more in Matthew than in any other book of the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30 [parallel Mark 9:43, 45,47] 10:28 [Parallel Luke 12: 5]; 18:9; 23: 15 and 33). The only uses outside of Matthew and Mark and Luke is James 3:6 (speaking about the tongues ability to set on fire being itself set on fire by Gehenna). To further explore Matthew’s concept, I’ve listed each place Matthew uses the idea of Gehenna.
22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire… 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5: 22, 29, 30 [parallel Mark 9:43, 45,47]
28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 [Parallel Luke 12: 5]
8If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands and two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire (Matthew 18: 8-9)
15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Matthew 23: 15
33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Matthew 23: 33
Additionally Matthew does have a concept of the age of punishment in contrast to the age of life in Matthew 18:8, 19: 16, 29 and 25: 41 and 46. (I am intentionally not using the NRSV and most modern translations’ usage of eternal punishment and eternal life because these also have a lot of baggage in the Christian tradition).
Jesus, especially in Matthew and the synoptic tradition, does include punishment for those who choose the path of the wicked. The gospels use the term Gehenna a term that originates withthe valley of Hinnom, which was considered a cursed place and a place where trash from Jerusalem was burned but it also is used as the opposite of the kingdom of heaven. Choose the kingdom of heaven or choose Gehenna, it is a choice between wisdom and foolishness. I think it is difficult to argue that Jesus does not have some conception of a judgment that goes beyond this life that parallels the resurrection that also transcends this life. Yet, rather than giving us terrifying descriptions to fuel the imaginations, Jesus uses the term in a way that the people of his time would understand and that we can only approach through the accumulated tradition and imagination of the church and artists. Jesus doesn’t focus on Gehenna or heaven as a destination, instead he is focused on the kingdom of heaven’s approach to earth. Gehenna is the place that those who oppose the kingdom of heaven find themselves.
How do we as Christians almost two thousand years after Jesus death and resurrection approach this concept of judgement and hell? Here is some wisdom I can share that I’ve learned from other wise thinkers on our tradition. The first comes from Miroslav Volf in his work Exclusion and Embrace where in the final chapter he makes the point:
Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1: 51-52) seems responsible; the God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.
My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover it takes the quiet suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (Volf, 1996, pp. 303-304)
Additionally, I would add the way we often use the concept of eternal damnation and salvation incorrectly, something I learned from Lesslie Newbingin:
In the debate about Christianity and the world’s religions it is fair to say that there has been an almost unquestioned assumption that the only question is, “What happens to the non-Christian after death?” I want to affirm that this is the wrong question and that as long as it remains the central question we shall never come to the truth. And this for three reasons:
- First, and simply, it is the wrong question because it is a question to which God alone has the right to give the answer….
- The second reason for rejecting this way of putting the question is that it is based on an abstraction. By concentrating on the fate of the individual soul after death, it abstracts the soul from the full reality of the human person as an actor and sufferer in the ongoing history of the world…
- The third reason for rejecting this way of putting the question is the most fundamental: it is that the question starts with the individual and his or her need to be assured of ultimate happiness, and not with God and his glory.(Newbingin, 1989, pp. 177-179)
Ultimately questions of heaven and hell, salvation and damnation are not in my control, and that is something I am thankful for. I do trust that God is wiser than I am in judgment and that ultimately the injustice in this world will not outlast God’s justice. The world’s violence will not ultimately thwart God’s kingdom of peace. Beyond this I can accept that there is an opposite to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus announces to those who hear him, but instead of focusing on Gehenna and the path of foolishness I attempt to follow the path of the kingdom and share it with those who have ears to hear. Beyond this part which I can live and proclaim I leave the rest in God’s capable hands.