Some quick notes on Douglas Wilson's argument about Hell and Hellenism

Read time: 4 minutes

Douglas Wilson—a genial fellow by appearances, who calls himself an “evangelical, postmill, Calvinist, Reformed, and Presbyterian, pretty much in that order”—complains about the “doctrinal mischief” that is being caused by the ‘use of “Hebraic narrative” to deny the doctrine of Hell’. Daniel pointed this out and I can’t just let it slip by.

I have no problem with acknowledging that the thought-world of the New Testament was shaped by Hellenism to some degree. That is entirely plausible. The question is: To what degree? And to what effect? Wilson’s opening argument about the “great blessing” of Hellenism is flimsy, to say the least, even eccentric. Yes, the New Testament was written in Greek, but nearly all the literary trails lead back to the Old Testament, not to the Aeneid or Plato. Did God “switch to the Greek for the New Testament” because he wanted to import some good Hellenistic ideas or because he wanted to translate Jewish ideas into the language of the oikoumenē? What did the translators of the Septuagint think they were doing when they used “Hades” for “Sheol”? Did God cut off and destroy branches from the sick Jewish olive tree in order that he could graft in some healthy Greek concepts? Really!

Gehenna is identified with the lake of fire for no good reason—Wilson just takes this to be true. It allows him to differentiate between an intermediate place of torment in Hades and “hell” as a final place of torment. The evidence is supposedly found in Revelation 20:14: death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire. But the lake of fire is not called “hell”. Nor is it called “Gehenna”. It is distinct from death and Hades only insofar as it is the place where death is destroyed.

Sadly, Wilson does not consider the argument that Jesus’ use of “Gehenna” sits neatly on a line that can be drawn between Jeremiah’s warning that when Jerusalem comes under attack from the Chaldeans the dead will be cast into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom (ie. Gehenna) and Josephus’ account of the dead being thrown into the valleys during the Roman siege.

Wilson blithely asserts that the “Jewish name for Elysium was Abraham’s bosom, or Paradise”. Where is the evidence for that? When Jesus told a parable in which Lazarus is transported to the side of Abraham or assured the bandit next to him on the cross that he would be with him in paradise, was he referring to a place that the Greeks knew by the name “Elysium”? Does Wilson know of texts that demonstrate a close literary relationship between the two sets of concepts—texts which Jesus might reasonably be expected to have known? Should we say that Jesus believed in Elysium? Even in 1 Enoch the “paradise of righteousness” is on earth (32:3), not in Hades. Or is it more likely that Jesus’ language draws on essentially Old Testament traditions—about inheriting the promises made to the fathers, or of paradise as the garden in which is found the tree of life (cf. Gen. 2:8-9 LXX; Rev. 2:7)? This would make them far more than ‘fancy metaphors for “the grave” ’ without permitting the importation of an alien mythology. You choose.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus uses a folk motif to depict the significance of the coming judgment on Israel. In my view.

Wilson thinks that the difficult passage 1 Peter 3:19-20 speaks of Jesus going to Elysium, the more salubrious part of Hades, to preach across the chasm to the imprisoned spirits. I don’t think that it speaks of Jesus going anywhere between his death and resurrection—that is a misinterpretation. Tradition has simply got this wrong. Peter is speaking figuratively of Jesus’ preaching to Israel in the same Spirit by which he was raised from the dead, at a time when the nation faced its own flood.

“Tartarus” in 2 Peter 2:4 is certainly a Hellenistic sojourner in the conceptual world of Judaism, though presumably it arrived by way of Hellenistic-Jewish apocalypticism. Notice that only the fallen angels are kept here, and there is no reference to torment. Sinful humanity is destroyed in the flood—unpleasant, but not eternally so (2:5).

Finally, did Jesus think that Hades, the place where the dead go, was in the “heart of the earth” (cf. Matt. 12:40)? Why not, if that’s what Jews believed? It had to be somewhere. But the paradigm remains intact: the dead are in Sheol or Hades, conceived conventionally as a place of shadows, of negligible existence, not of torment; Gehenna in Jesus’ usage is a metonymy for God’s judgment on Jerusalem; the wages of sin is death; resurrection is from the dead, ultimately either to the life of God’s new creation or to a final destruction in the lake of fire.


Your assessment above is very well-argued.  The lengths people go to to defend an infatuation can be very creative indeed. It is simply fallatious to claim that Greek-mythological concepts were imported into Hebraic thinking just because certain Greek terms were used to convey certain ideas.  Grounds for a slippery slope?  Oh, yes!  And this “evangelical, postmill, Calvinist, Reformed, and Presbyterian” certainly took it…

Here in Africa many Biblical concepts have to be conveyed using African language and culture.  The error is hybridization, when alien concepts contaminate pure biblical truth.  Precisely what our friend above did…

Mitchell Powell | Thu, 08/30/2012 - 07:28 | Permalink

Douglas Wilson is one of my favorite characters in the Reformed camp: he’s more of an original thinker and less of a repeater than many of the other Reformed. (His willingness to say what’s on his mind and to consider alternative opinions has, as many will know, gotten him some noteriety.) Seeing him engage on this topic is a good sign for the future of evangelical soteriology. As one of the leading thinkers in the Federal Vision controversy, he’s already shown that he’s willing to let the Bible provoke a rethinking of old formulations.

Dana Ames | Fri, 08/31/2012 - 14:24 | Permalink

Wilson is a smart man and has a good vocabulary.  The Federal Vision has limitations.  An education in the Classics is not a panacea.  I have trouble taking seriously the soteriology/eschatology of anyone who believes slavery as practiced in the US was good, and who believes that adult females should stay at home and wait on their fathers until they get handed off to another male in marriage.  Caveat emptor.

Dana Ames

@Dana Ames:

Hi Dana,

I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of negative material about Pastor Wilson’s view on slavery. But if you get the chance, you should read his book “Black & Tan” which explains what he’s doing and which might surprise you in light of what you may have read about him. He’s basically giving some historical evidence which pushes back against some of the demonization of the South: the issue was more complicated than the North as the good guys and the South as the bad guys. He also argues that there were better options for dealing with the situation than having the bloodiest war in American history which left 650,000 dead.

As far as his views on dating, while you may not agree with everything he says about it, you have to admit the modern dating situation in America, in which fathers are absent and in which there are scores of broken hearts, is in need of repair. He’s trying to improve the situation by reintroducing the father to the system. It’s not a perfect system, but from what I’ve seen in my two years in Idaho here, it works pretty well. And it’s not about the system anyway, it’s about the relationship between father and daughter, which is what he is pushing for.

I think a lot of people misunderstand Pastor Wilson because there is a lot of false info. about him online.



@Steven Opp:


I’ll give you that the North/South issue was complicated.

I’ve read “Angels in the Architecture,” could not figure out all of what he was trying to say with that — did not move me to pursue reading anything else of his.   I’d rather spend my time on other things.

I have, however, read some of what he says about fathers and daughters, and male/female relationships in general, in context.  Where his thoughts are clear (another issue), they make all sorts of red flags fly before my eyes.  His ideas are not good news for females, pure and simple.  Just because something “works” does not mean it’s healthy.  I would urge you to reassess.  Tightening down the screws that hard places a great deal of stress on the “works.”

I too believe fathers should be lovingly involved in their children’s lives.  I just don’t see these times as very much different from any other time in history in terms of “dating,” broken hearts, or father involvement.  Even though it was less socially acceptable for fathers to abandon or otherwise mistreat their families in the past, they still did so.  Simply having a male parent around is no guarantee of anything.  Blood is not thicker than water, and I say that as an adopted child raised by 2 loving and reasonably healthy parents, including a very involved father.

We obviously won’t agree on this.  I pray blessings for you and yours as well.