Two questions about “hell”

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I have a very clear and consistent view on “hell” in the New Testament. The “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). That is the bottom line. But in the New Testament narrative it is the story of Israel and the nations that determines the scope and reference of the “hell” language: wrath against the Jew, wrath against the Greek; judgment on Israel in the form of invasion, destruction and slaughter; judgment on the Greek-Roman world, and on Rome in particular, in the form of civilisational overthrow; the corpses of Jews thrown over the walls of besieged Jerusalem into the Hinnom Valley; pagans bitterly lamenting the collapse of the old order.

There is no post mortem suffering, no eternal conscious torment, though Jesus is in no doubt about the horrors that his people will face before death. There will be a final judgment, but those whose names are not written in the book of life will be consigned to the lake of fire, which is the second death, a final destruction.

I don’t know how much of what I have written on the subject Lerman d’Eon has read, but he got in touch with a couple of questions. The first I’ve dealt with elsewhere. The second gives me an opportunity to dredge hurriedly through the murky literature of second temple Judaism in search of any unexploded mines that might sink my thesis.

1. Could the one who has power to cast into hell in Luke 12 be someone something other than God? The structure of the text in context goes something like: don’t fear… don’t fear… FEAR GOD!!… don’t fear… God’s got your back. I’m not certain the greatest fear of all time (everlasting conscious torment) should be read in a text whose main focus is to allay the disciple’s fears.

In this post I argued that Jesus’ saying about fearing the one “who after killing has authority to cast into the Gehenna” presupposes the judgment on Jerusalem context. They should not fear their persecutors; they should fear the coming judgment on Jerusalem. Notice that the passage comes after a warning about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and before a saying about not denying the Son of Man before men. If they deny Jesus, they will share in the fate of Israel, they will be cast into outer darkness; they will not be vindicated. So no, I think this has to be about fearing God. There is no suggestion in the New Testament that believers should fear Satan; rather they should resist him.

2. Was Gehenna already code language for other worldly hell by Jesus’ time? Kim Papaioannou says no. David Instone-Brewer says yes. Both are smarter than me.

The significance of this question is this: if it can be shown that Jews at the time of Jesus commonly thought of Gehenna as a place of torment after death, then it’s harder to maintain that Jesus did not entertain such thoughts.

The Greek word geenna is not found in the Septuagint, Josephus or Philo. In the Qumran writings the place of the dead, as in the Old Testament, is Sheol or Hades, though one rather mangled text speaks of Sheol as a place of eternal fire for the damned:

Let the light of Your majesty shi[ne forever upon gods and men, as a fire burning in the dark places of the damned.] Let it burn [the damned of Sh]eol, as an [eternal] burning [among the transgressors … in all the appointed times of eternity. ] (1QM 14:17–18; cf. 4Q491 f8_10i:14–16)

Philo makes reference to Hades and Tartarus as the place of the dead, but has nothing to say about fire or post mortem punishment. For example: “the wicked have received as their share the dark recesses of hell (haidou), having from the beginning to the end of their existence practised dying, and having been from their infancy to their old age familiarised with destruction” (Philo, Dreams 1:151). Hades is simply the end of a journey of dying and destruction.

In 1 Enoch there is reference to an “accursed valley” where the “accursed ones” are gathered for the day of judgment; but there is no reference to torment, and this valley looks more like Joel’s Valley of Jehoshaphat, where the nations will be gathered for judgment (Joel 3:2), than Jeremiah’s Valley of the Sons of Hinnom (1 En. 27:2).

Elsewhere, Sheol swallows up the wicked and “their destruction shall be at an end” (1 En. 56:8); they will be “slain in Sheol” (99:11). When it is said that sinners descend “into Sheol in tribulation” (1 En. 102:11; 103:7), the point, I suggest, is that tribulation accompanies their death, not that they suffer after death in Sheol. Sheol is simply where the dead are kept, including the righteous dead, until the final judgment: “And in those days shall the earth also give back that which has been entrusted to it, And Sheol also shall give back that which it has received, And hell shall give back that which it owes” (1 En. 51:1).

In the Greek Sibylline Oracles geenna is identified with Hades and Tartarus. It is the place to which the dead descend: “all men born upon the earth are in abodes of Hades called to go” (Sib. Or. 1:83–84). There is also the image of burial in contrast to the resurrection of the godly to new life on earth: “And all who have sinned with deeds of impiety a heap of earth will cover again, and murky Tartarus and the black recesses of geenna” (Sib. Or. 4:184–186).

But geenna can occasionally be a place of fire and torment. In Book 1 of Sibylline Oracles the Watchers “went into Tartarean chamber terrible, kept in firm chains to pay full penalty in Gehenna of strong, furious, quenchless fire” (Sib. Or. 1:101–103). In Book 2 the punishment is conceived more generally:

Again those who licentiously defiled the flesh; and all who loosed the girdle of the maid for secret intercourse, and all who caused abortions, and all who their offspring cast unlawfully away; and sorcerers and sorceresses with them, and these wrath of the heavenly and immortal God will drive against a pillar where will all around in a circle flow a restless stream of fire; and deathless angels of the immortal God will punish them all by whip most terribly in chains of flaming fire and from above bind them with lasting bonds. And in the gloom of night, will they be cast beneath many horrid beasts in Gehenna, where darkness is (Sib. Or. 2:279–292)

So, yes, there is evidence that Jews in the late second temple period sometimes thought of Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, Gehenna not merely as the lifeless grave, the destruction of life, but as a place of eternal fire and torment. It’s quite possible that I’ve missed some important texts, but I think the general picture would stay the same.

The question is whether there is any reason to think that Jesus drew on these traditions rather than on Old Testament narratives such as Jeremiah 7:30-33; 19:6-8). It seems to me very unlikely.

1. Eternal conscious torment in Sheol or Gehenna appears to be a marginal or minority doctrine in second temple Judaism. The dominant view was that the dead in all likelihood would suffer at the moment of death but not after it.

2. Jesus is everywhere conscious of prophetic antecedents for the crisis faced by first century Israel. If he can make use of Jeremiah’s metaphor of the two ways to explain the choice facing Israel, then it seems reasonable to think that he also makes use of Jeremiah’s image of the dead thrown into the valley of the Sons of Hinnom to depict the horror of the coming judgment.

3. Jesus does not make use of the sort of language and imagery that characterises the apocalyptic texts. He is much closer to the Old Testament prophets than to the later apocalyptic writers. We can’t imagine Jesus saying:

deathless angels of the immortal God will punish them all by whip most terribly in chains of flaming fire and from above bind them with lasting bonds. And in the gloom of night, will they be cast beneath many horrid beasts in Gehenna, where darkness is…

4. The story of the rich man and Lazarus might be cited against this position, but I would argue that the story is sui generis, not metaphysical speculation but a fable about inclusion and exclusion from the family of Abraham.

Something you have pointed out elsewhere is 4 Macc. 9 where the youths being tormented say that the outcome of their suffering will be the prize of virtue and dwelling with God, but the tyrant will receive divine justice in the form of eternal torment by fire.

I have wondered if this might be a potential land mine, but as you have pointed out, the best case scenario (for the traditional view of Hell) is that genocidal tyrants go there. And considering 4 Macc. makes a great deal about the sons being burned in a torment of fire for their torture, there’s obviously a strong idea of reversal in that statement.

But that, coupled with some of the Enoch passages about the fiery prison designed for angels but a possible destination for truly evil humans makes me wonder if the Greek ideas of Hades, Elysium, and Tartarus don’t play into some of this data. IIRC, it’s “tartarus” that is used in 2 Peter where it talks about the destiny of the fallen angels.