Hell: Overview and Old Testament

I previously wrote of my difficulty in teaching on Hell while I was still within the Christian world. I attempted to teach my youth about it on a Wednesday night but found it all but impossible to prepare for. I must admit, writing against it has been nearly as hard. Not because I have found solid foundation for the idea and am questioning my motives, but because it is hard to know where to start. That being the case, I intend to use this post to introduce, or recap I suppose, the idea of Hell and to look at how the subject was treated in the Old Testament.

First, I want to describe the idea of Hell that I am dealing with here. I am not Jewish or a scholar on Judaism. This being the case, I do not possess the credentials to expand upon what Judaism has taught about the afterlife over the centuries. Nor am I a Catholic. I simply do not have the ability to do justice to the Catholic view, but suffice it to say, when I speak of Hell, I do not imagine a place where the Devil is the boss and he is trying to lure people in. I do not intend to address the subject of Purgatory either, just to be clear. The Hell of this writing (no pun intended) is the standard Protestant Hell into which all those who do not have “saving faith in Jesus” will be cast after the final judgement. This Hell was not, in fact, the intentional destination for any human being. God created, or will create, Hell as a place for the eternal punishment of the Devil and the angels that chose to follow him. Humans will end up there only because they shunned God’s offer of eternal life and forgiveness of sins. As their sins must be accounted for, the place of punishment becomes their destination by default.

The nature of the human experience of Hell is an interesting subject on its own. The common Protestant conception of Hell is what is known as “eternal conscious torment” or some similar description. This is the idea that God created the soul to be immortal and so will last forever, meaning that the soul/consciousness/essence will consciously suffer absolute agony for eternity. Since judgement is eternal, the punishment that goes with it is eternal as well. The severity of this idea has led some to another view of Hell, though very rare, that Hell will be like a prison sentence with an end, meaning one would be punished according to their crime and then set free, having been purged or refined into holiness. A third version of Hell, and the one that I supported while still in the Christian cul-de-sac, is the concept of Annihilationism or Conditional Immortality. This view posits that eternal life is conditional, based on faith in Christ; meaning that eternity only exists for those in Heaven. Instead, those who are condemned will simply cease to exists. For those keeping score, this view seems to fit more closely with the idea of Hell as presented in the New Testament and will be described in a later post. Essentially, though, this means that Satan and his angels will be punished forever, but people will either suffer for a short time according to their sins, or will simply wink out of existence after they are judged.

I have repeated this fairly often, but I feel it is worth repeating here: I am no longer a believer. The ideas presented here that may show support for Christian doctrine is either presented for the sake of clarity in dealing with the issue, or in respect to describing my former beliefs. I am writing this for those who are deconverting, or have deconverted, and are looking to understand the subject more fully both for their own understanding and for dealing with those who may be urging them back to the faith. It is my belief that the promise of an eternal relationship with Jesus was not enough of a carrot to win and keep followers, so Hell was introduced as a stick. More people have dedicated themselves to the non-sensical out of a profound fear of Hell than ever likewise committed themselves because of the promise of Paradise. My job is to show the concept to be non-sensical, even within that worldview, in order to bring peace to the conflicted.

Now, with that out of the way, I would like to dive into what the Bible says about Hell. This beginning point was the hardest for me to determine. I have settled upon starting with the Old Testament because Christianity must be understood for what it is: an off-shoot of Judaism. As such, from the earliest days, the Hebrew Scriptures were used within the new faith. Indeed, Jesus is presented as the Jewish Messiah, who was rejected by the Jews before ministry and evangelism to non-Jews could ever start. As such, Christian theology must at least harmonize, or be made to harmonize, with Jewish Scripture.

There is no secret made regarding the difficulty in executing this task of harmonization. Most scholars, preachers, etc. will say that the New Testament completes what was started in the Old. That is to say, the New Testament brings clarity at the appropriate time. The way I used to describe it was as an unfolding revelation. Just as a parent would explain something differently to their children of differing ages, so God expanded upon relevant ideas as people were able to grasp them. The Greek-influenced mind of the 50 AD were able to understand things that would have been impossible for the sheep herders of 1,000 BC.

That is a long way to go to simply excuse the obvious: there is no Hell in the Old Testament. There are many references to death, to judgement, and to wrath, but these can all be eliminated from the argument for a conscious, eternal punishment simply by observing context or understanding Hebrew writing. For example, when the Old Testament speaks of a “Day of the Lord” or a “Day of Judgement” it is never speaking of the end of the world, it is speaking of a day of God’s judgement either against the covenant-breaking Jews or against non-Jews who have offended Him by mistreating His people. God is allowed to scold His children, but not anyone else, and not forever. Oh, unless God chooses to use someone else to do the scolding, then it’s OK, except then God will judge the scolder as well for having the gaul to touch His kids. Sounds fair.

The other, and possibly most important thing to consider when looking for Hell in the Old, is simply the word sheol. Sheol is, very simply, death. Just like Hades in Greek mythology or Hell in Norse, it is sometimes understood as the underworld, the grave, the place of the dead, and carries with it no connotation of punishment. No one wants to die, no one really knows what is after death, so the idea that a loving God would rescue you from darkness and decomposition is very appealing.

Understanding Sheol instead of Hell puts a totally different spin on the Bible’s message in the Old Testament. I Googled verses on Hell and found a Christian site that purports to give the “Top 100 Verses about Hell.” First, there weren’t many Old Testament verses on the list, but let’s have a look at the ones I did find. By the way, all verses here are from the English Standard Version.

Daniel 12:2
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Psalm 16:10
“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”

Psalm 9:17
“The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God.”

Proverbs 15:24
“The path of life leads upward for the prudent, that he may turn away from Sheol beneath.”

Psalm 145:20
“The Lord preserves all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.”

Proverbs 23:14
“If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”

Psalm 86:13
“For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.”

Ecclesiastes 9:5
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.”

Proverbs 15:11
“Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord; how much more the hearts of the children of man!”

Proverbs 9:18
“But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.”

Psalm 139:8
“If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Isaiah 66:24
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men 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.”

Ezekiel 31:17
“They also went down to Sheol with it, to those who are slain by the sword; yes, those who were its arm, who lived under its shadow among the nations.”

Ezekiel 18:20
“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

Isaiah 5:14
“Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure, and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down, her revelers and he who exults in her.”

Ezekiel 18:4
“Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.”

Ecclesiastes 9:10
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”

Numbers 16:33
“So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.”

Isaiah 14:9
“Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations.”

Jeremiah 7:31
“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.”

Isaiah 47:14
“Behold, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before!”

Psalm 146:4
“When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

Psalm 37:20
“But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.”

Proverbs 27:20
“Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man.”

There is so much to unpack here! Far too much for a simple blog post, so I will not expand on each passage. I would like to make a few observations, though, that would be helpful in reading through this list.

First, although not every one of these contains the word sheol directly, but when the ones that do are read to be understood as speaking of absolute destruction, death, or the grave, the understanding changes dramatically and sheds light on how to understand or interpret the others.

Second, the majority of these passages come from books of poetry; Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. That means that they are mostly the emotions of men! Not eternal decrees of an Almighty God. Further, many of these, Proverbs especially, were not entirely original to the biblical authors but can be traced back to other religious texts that were adapted to Judaism.

Third, aside from one verse from Numbers, all the other passages (Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah) come from prophetic texts. Let’s be clear here: no matter what some preacher may assert, prophetic texts were always written to their immediate audience and were intended either to bring repentance or pronounce impending judgement. They are NOT “end times” prophecies.

Fourth, a couple of words or phrases within this selection give us keys to interpretation. While Abaddon is an ominous sounding word and is, it simply means “destruction.” So, “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied” literally means “death and destruction…” Poetic and absolutely true, even with non-religious, non-eternal, undertones. Also, Jeremiah mentions the Valley of Hinnom. This will be discussed more fully in a later post, but the Valley of Hinnom, also called Gehenna, was a literal, burning trash dump outside of the old city of Jerusalem that had an evil history of child torture and sacrifice. Horrible and not a place I would like to visit; yes. Eternal torture; no.

On the first day of my Bible college Hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) class, my professor said something that shook my then-believing mind at the time but is absolutely relevant here: “the Bible cannot mean now what it didn’t mean then.” We simply cannot make the Old Testament say something about Hell just because it fits our modern belief system. We cannot impose a later belief back upon a text that didn’t originally contain it. This being the case, the absence of a doctrine of Hell in the Old Testament leads to a very stark question: if Hell was such a big deal – so important in God’s plan, such a completely abhorrent destination of the vast majority of humanity, so unthinkable to a loving God that Jesus himself came and died as an atoning sacrifice – why didn’t God mention it for the first 2,000 years of His written history?

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