What the misunderstandings of our favorite characters and locations of hell reveal about the character of God
I was invited to participate in a debate as part of Oregon State University’s Socratic Club series. The topic was “Hell and the Love of God.” I debated against, Todd Miles, a professor at Western Seminary in Portland, who took the position that the existence of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment was consistent with an understanding of a loving God. I took the position that it is not consistent with a God of love.
Each of us was invited to offer a 20-minute introductory lecture on our position. Below is the manuscript for the second half of my lecture. Part one is available here. Eventually, the Socratic Club will be posting video of the event, including much more than just my introductory talk here. I will post segments of the video as they come available.
In order to understand how the Bible presents the issue of hell, we have to consider the many words often considered synonymous with “hell.”
Old Testament – Sheol
In the Old Testament, the word “hell” appears 32 times. The phrase “the grave” is used 29 times, and “The pit” comes in at a distant third with three appearances. But all sixty-four instances of these words throughout the first 39 books of the Bible come from the same Hebrew Word, “Sheol.”
In the Jewish tradition, Sheol is a resting place for the dead. While some believe this is the same as hell, there are indications to the contrary. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Sheol is a place of rest for both righteous and wicked, with no distinction.
Not everyone is happy about this either.
In the third chapter of Malachi, the prophet recognizes the consternation of faithful Jews who are frustrated that the wicked share the same fate. In Ecclesiastes, the priest Koheleth claims that serving God is vanity. For him, the fact that the righteous are treated the same as the wicked and vice-versa should be a call to eat, drink and be merry.
With respect to any relationship between Satan in the Old Testament and Sheol, there is none.
Some understand the serpent in the Genesis story to be an incarnation of Satan. However, Satan first emerges in the Old Testament by name in I Chronicles, and again in Job. His primary role is to demonstrate the weakness of humanity in the face of hardship.
In Job, Satan must receive permission from God to prove the fragility of Job’s faith by submitting him to any number of hardships. Satan’s sentiments about people are summed up in Job 2:4, when he claims, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.”
He shows up again in similar form in II Samuel and Numbers, always as the antagonist. The name Satan actually means ‘adversary.’ While some may interpret this to mean he is God’s adversary, it’s more accurate to define him as humanity’s adversary, always trying to show how unworthy we are of God’s love.
In the Old Testament, Satan has no latitude to operate outside of what God gives him permission to do. Think of him more like a prosecuting attorney, beholden to God’s judiciary authority. He actually works alongside God instead of against God.
Some people also erroneously refer to Satan as Lucifer. The word “Lucifer” means “Light Bearer” in Latin, which was the term used to describe the planet Venus. Some people take Isaiah 14, about Lucifer’s fall, to be a story about Satan being cast out from heaven, as it looks similar to a quote in Luke. However, most biblical scholars and historians contend that this interpretation is taken out of context.
The “Morning Star” actually was a term commonly used to describe the Babylonian Empire. The king of Babylon not only oppressed the Israelites, but he also made a habit of comparing himself to God in the scope of his power. With this understanding, the scripture in Isaiah actually is prophesying the fall of the Babylonian Empire.
As for the use of the names “Lucifer” and “Satan” interchangeably in the Bible, it doesn’t happen. Satan is not described as Lucifer until secular literature such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost adopted the pseudonym. From there, the name seeped its way into our culture until we mistakenly began taking it as scripture.
In the New Testament, there are three words from the Greek that, when translated to English, are generally translated as “hell.” One is Hades, which appears eleven times. Another is Tartarus, which only shows up once. And the third is Gehenna, which comes up twelve times.
First up – Hades.
Approximately 3,500 years ago, the Greek practice of Hellenism emerged. Hellenism was practiced by the preponderance of Greek culture, valuing logic, knowledge, self-care and moderation. It was influential on Jewish culture, not only in the practices adhered to by the Greeks, but also with regard to their belief in the immortal soul and the afterlife that followed.
But despite its cultural influence on Judaism, and later, Christianity, it was considered to be a Pagan, or Gentile, religion, and therefore not acceptable in the eyes of God.
Greek culture believed in a place called Hades, which was the resting place for disembodied souls. We see evidence of this in writing as far back as the 8th century B.C., in Homer’s Odyssey. Hades is described as an Underworld, literally located underground; thus we can see the first indication of why we think of hell as such.
Hades includes multiple levels, including Elysium and Tartarus. Elysium, also called Elysian Fields, can be equated with our modern idea of heaven. One difference – although Greek scholars did not always agree on where different levels of Hades were – is that we think of heaven as located above us, whereas the general consensus is that all levels of Hades were part of a larger Underworld.
Tartarus was the level of Hades where unrighteous souls dwelled. This correlates to our modern understanding of hell, where there is wailing, fire and gnashing of teeth as those who displease God pay an eternal price of their disloyalty. For the Jews of the time, this pagan Hellenistic belief was appealing because it helped justify their faithfulness. It gave reasons beyond any earthly consequence for following the laws of the Hebrew scripture.
How heavily did Greek culture influence Jewish tradition? Consider this: whereas the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the original language of the New Testament is Greek. The influence of Greek culture can hardly be over-emphasized.
The writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish priest, had tremendous sway over early founders of the Christian church such as Origen, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Josephus, in turn, was particularly interested in Greek culture and ideology, as well as that of the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish network very focused on end-times theology and Jewish mysticism. Joesphus’ noncannonical texts such as The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities were available to these church fathers, as well as to those who wrote the Gospel texts and other New Testament scripture, which is the source of our contemporary understanding of hell.
Finally, we’ll take a quick look at Gehenna, which is actually Greek for two Hebrew words, “Gee” and “Hinnom.” Translated literally into English, Gehenna means “The Valley of Hinnom.”
This valley was notorious among the Jews, as it was the place where apostate Jews, worshipping the Pagan god Baal and the Canannite God, Moloch, would go to conduct sacrifices. Here, they would burn their offerings to Baal, which included birds, sheep, and in some cases, even their own children.
Because of this, Gehenna was considered to be eternally cursed. It was also the site where Jerusalem’s trash was taken to be burned. The site was considered so evil and repugnant that Jewish folklore told of a mythical gate in the valley which led directly down to a lake of fire.
Interestingly (and be forewarned this is a little graphic) when it rained, the ashes from the valley would be washed down to a nearby lake, at which point the fatty, animal-based remains would rise to the top of the water. If it came in contact with fire, the result would be that of a literal lake of fire, much like a burning oil slick on the surface of the ocean.
On the one hand, some Christians suggest we should play it safe and assume there is an actual hell, lets we lead people to the false assumption there isn’t one, only to find out later we were wrong.
But considering the use of the doctrine of Hell in the Christian faith, particularly in the past few centuries, suffice it to say that the fear, judgment, emotional scarring, family estrangement, physical violence and any number of Holy Wars that have been conducted in the supposed name of saving souls from such a place, we’ve created our own hell on earth.
Does hell exist? Perhaps. But the God of my understanding – the God revealed to me by the life and teachings of Jesus – is a God that seduces us, beckons us toward love, toward light. It is not a kingdom governed by fear and the avoidance of pain, but rather a kingdom in which the hungry are feed, the weak are empowered, and the desperate find hope.
Life has to be about more than buying the right fire insurance. 1 John 4:18 reminds us that there is no fear in love, and that perfect love drives out fear. We can be governed by one or the other, but we can’t cling to both. I choose love.
Photo credit: Flickr / Joseph D. Smith