Some months while waiting in the gym for Herself to finish exercising, a stranger sat down across from me and asked if I was I. I confessed that I was; he asked, "Do you believe in Hell?" I allowed that I did not.1 The brief discussion that followed was awkward. At the end he thanked me for forthrightly answering his questions, and left. I have seen him around the gym from time to time and our exchanges were superficial but always polite. Again a few days ago in the locker room he renewed the discussion: "I believe you told me you did not believe in Hell," he said. "What is your evidence?" I replied that it was by observation; I found no evidence for it. He said "I thought so." I asked, what is your evidence that Hell exists? He replied: "the Son of God"—I took his answer to mean that according to the Son of God (Jesus) in the Bible, there is such a place, and hence I replied "the Bible is a human book. We can talk about it sometime, but it will take longer than three minutes." "Have a nice swim," he said, and we parted—me to the pool and him to the bike.
I previously published a blog entitled "Did Jesus believe in the Christian Heaven?"2 but neglected to address Jesus' beliefs about the Christian Hell. That impossible-to-answer question runs headlong into the classic contradictions between Jesus as represented in the synoptic gospels and Jesus as represented in the Gospel of John.3 There is no mention of Hell (hades) or Gehenna (geenna) in the Gospel of John, although the synoptic Jesus (Q, Matthew, and Luke) is represented as believing in Hell.4 Of course we don't know what was in his head (nobody can read minds). We only know that statements about Hell are attributed to Jesus in the synoptic texts.
For me the most interesting of the sayings on Gehenna is Luke 16:23, which appears in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-26). The Jesus Seminar voted that this story did not originate with Jesus. They further voted that it had been augmented by an early Christian reference to the resurrection of Jesus (Luke 16:27-31).5 If someone decided that the story did come from Jesus, however, they would still be confronted by the fact that the Gospel of John mentions neither Hades nor Gehenna, and on this question one is forced to choose between John and the synoptic.
There is no future fiery place of punishment recorded in John's gospel! There are hints that there will be a judgment of some kind (3:16-19; 5:24-29; 9:30), but such judgment is not overtly described. In fact judging from these "hints," judgment may not even be eschatological but rather existential. The most interesting "hint" is the description of Judas as "the son of perdition" (17:12; compare 2 Thess 2:3; Acts 8:20; 2 Pet 3:16; Phil 3:19; Isa 57:4 LXX), but the nature of the "destruction" (ἀπώλεια, apōleia) is unclear.
One must remember, however, that John is not writing history but rather writing theology, and may not even know the difference between these two different writing styles,6 which means John is completely unreliable as a historical source. But that must not be construed as a vote for Mark's representation of Jesus as the "historical" default—for Mark's gospel is also seriously flawed as historical report.7 Also It must always be remembered that "the son of God" is not an actual historical figure, but rather a construct of early Christian faith based on the largely unknown historical figure, Jesus of Judea.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "Hell does not Exist," August 29, 2015.
2Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, May 10, 2017.
3See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "The Gospel of John, a Revisionist Gospel?" Dec 6, 2012.
4Hades (Q = Luke 10:15 = Matthew 11:23; Matthew 16:18; Luke 16:23); Gehenna (Q = Luke 12:5 = Matt 10:28; Matthew 5:22, 29, 23:15; Mark 9:43 = Matt5:30, Mark 9:47 = Matt 18:19).
5Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 361-62.
6See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "Does John Know the Difference between History and Faith?" (September 21, 2015).
7See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "History, Historical Narrative and Mark's Gospel" (December 22, 2013); and "The Problem of History in Mark" (October 1, 2016).
I once heard a message about "Annihilation of the extremely wicked" with references to 6 scriptures in the Bible which I don't have with me. Any thoughts on this?
Good Morning Mr. Gents,
Thanks for the question. You seem to have stumbled me into a contemporary theological debate between some who argue for an eternal punishment of the wicked and others who argue that the wicked will be annihilated and hence not suffer forever. Here is my response: 1. There is no one uniform "biblical view" on any question. The Bible is a collection of texts written over a considerable period of time, reflecting the views of numerous authors, most of them unknown, who composed their narratives in several languages under the influence of numerous cultural and social environments. 2. Hence their ideas about God and the afterlife may be expected to be different. 3. No one knows for certain what happens, if anything, to human beings after they die. 4. This "debate" strikes me as a waste of time--something akin to the Middle Ages argument as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
"Hell" as WE know it is a construct of the medieval (& modern) Christian imagination. Hebrew scriptures refer to the underworld as Sheol which was the place of ALL the resting dead until --for Pharisees at least -- the day of resurrection. Later Christian readers combined that with OT laments about the fires of Gehinnom (the Valley of Hinnom) on the east side of Jerusalem where in pre- & early Israelite times child sacrifice was practiced & was regarded by Jews as desecrated & cursed. In NT times it served as a dump where garbage was burned, whose smoldering stench gave rise to the few (mostly Matthean) references to Gehenna in the gospels: 5:22,29 & twice (23:15 & 33) in Matthew's (but not Luke's!) version of the woes aimed at "scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites." The only pre-Matthean Jesus sayings to refer to Gehenna are once in Q (Matt 10:28//Luke 12:5)& in Mark (Mk 9:43-47 (3x)//Matt 18:9). In both sayings the word is used for rhetorical effect, the first in advice NOT to fear someone who could kill you but only the UNNAMED party who could cast the dead into Gehenna & the second in the graphic warning to cut off offending members. Both sayings appear addressed to situations faced by the post-crucifixion Christian community & therefore are dubiously credited to the historical Yeshua whom opponents a crony of toll-collectors & sinners. So one can safely say on the basis of the historical evidence it was not Jesus himself but the author of Matthew's gospel (with a little aid from Mark) who was primarily responsible for inspiring Christian preaching of "hellfire & damnation."
Charlie, have you or Mr. Smith ever heard of the rabbinical teaching that the purpose of "Gehenna" is to rehabilitate the wicked in the afterlife? I heard Rabbi Michael Skobac mention that in a lesson once (A Rabbi Cross-Examines the New Testament series) Apparently, in Judaism, the "wicked" are not cast into eternal punishment but are sent to some place where their souls are "purified." It's not exactly punishment, but it's not paradise either. It's like going to the hospital, according to Rabbi Skobac anyway. Are you or Mr.Smith familiar with this analogy? The Catholic doctrine of purgatory was supposedly derived from this teaching in Judaism.
I agree with you Charlie, that it is a waste of time to speculate on what is ultimately unknowable in this dimension of physical reality. That is why so little is written about "hell" in the Torah. It CANNOT be verified. However, the NT mentions hell numerous times. In fact, how do you think evangelists would be able to persuade so many people to the Christian religion without the concept of hell? It's their number one selling point. Or should I say scare tactic.
Thank you as always, Elizabeth
This is an excellent reply to Charlie's blog on hell. Thank you for writing it- very well done.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
I have not read any of Rabbi Skobac's comments but his sentiments seem to be a rabbinic explanation of the role of the ancient concept of Gehenna for modern Jewish faith. It has less to do with the situation in antiquity than it does with making sense of an ancient concept for modern religious faith.
I would track the success of modern preaching on Hell in general to the iconic status of the Bible in modern culture. People put the Bible "on a pedestal" and are hence conditioned to believe what is written there.
Good Morning Mahlon,
Thanks for weighing in!
Perhaps there ought to be a sequel here: Is acknowledging the existence of Satan/Beelzebul/evil spirits equivalent to believing in the Christian Hell?
By the way, it is my thought that the word "believe" suggests that something is unprovable. The word "think" suggests a discovered fact. So, for example, at one time a round earth revolving around a sun would have been an assertion of "belief"("I believe that..."} but then at a point in time it entered the realm of "thinking" ("I think that..."). So did Jesus think that the realm of Satan was a popular fallacy, believable, or provable?
I'm inclined to think that Satan and his domain of power was "real" to Jesus. The Jesus Seminar voted that the following sayings were original to Jesus:
I was watching Satan fall like lightening from heaven. (Luke 10:18)
"Even if I drive out demons in Beelzebul's name, in whose name do your (Pharisees) own people drive them out..." (Matt 12:27)
"If Satan is divided against himself --since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzebul's name--how will his domain endure? If I drive out demons in Beelzebul's name, in whose name do your own people drive them out?" (Luke 11:18-19)
"When an unclean spirit leaves a person...it then returns...and goes out and brings back seven spirits more vile than itself." (Luke 11:24-26)
I think Rabbi Skobac may have been referring to the following passages in the Babylonian Talmud:
It has been taught (that) the school of Shammai says:
--"(There will be) three groups on Judgment Day [yom haDin]:
(a) one that is completely righteous,
(b) one that is completely wicked,
(c) and one that is in between."
The completely righteous will be recorded and sealed at once for eternal life. The completely wicked will be recorded and doomed at once to Gehinnom,
as it says:
--"And many who sleep in the dust of the earth shall rise up, some to eternal life and some to shame and eternal rejection" (Dan 12:2).
Those in between will go down to Gehinnom and cry out and rise up,
as it says:
--"And I will bring the third part through the fire
and refine them as silver is refined
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call on my name and I will answer them" (Zech 13:9)..."
(But) the school of Hillel says:
--"He who is Master of grace tends towards grace...."
--- Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 16b-17a
[Note that the Hillelites (the intellectual ancestors of all modern Jewish rabbis) did not have as rigid a view of judgment day as the Shammaites who were the dominant party of Pharisees before 70 CE.]
Then a bit later:
Israelites and peoples of the world who sin with their body
go down to Gehinnom and are punished there for twelve months.
After twelve months their body is consumed and their soul is burnt up
and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous, as it says:
--"And you shall trample the wicked
as if they were ashes under the soles of your feet" (Mal 3:21).
But the sectarians [minim] and the informers and the scoffers --
those who reject the Torah and deny the resurrection of the dead,
those who forsake the ways of the community,
those "who spread terror in the land of the living" (Ezek 32:23c)
and those who sinned and made the masses sin,
like Jeroboam ben Nebat and his colleagues (cf. 1 Kings 12:20-33) --
they shall go down to Gehinnom and be punished there for all generations...
Gehinnom will be consumed, but they shall not be consumed.
--- Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 17a
Caution: The BT is a compilation by 4th-5th c. CE rabbis living in northern Mesopotamia (Iraq) so it is not direct evidence of what a 1st c. Galilean Jew like Jesus, who was NOT a Pharisee, MIGHT have believed.
Hope this helps.
Good Morning Gene,
I would not say that acknowledging the existence of evil spirits is the equivalent of believing in the Christian Hell. A few other steps (in my view) would be required to get from the one to the other.
In my experience the words believe and think are frequently used interchangeably. I would say however that "believe" is properly a confessional word and think is properly an opinion word.
As to what Jesus thought, I must beg off here. I don't read minds and think that we never know for sure what others are thinking even when they tell us what they are thinking. And that is particularly true of paper characters invented by authors--in this case the gospel writers.
Thank you so much- it does help.
If you don't mind my asking- what do most observant Jews (that you know of) believe about Gehenna today? In other words- do they come down along the lines of the Hillelites or the Shammaites? Or neither?
Thank you again- I have a great love for Judaism.
St. Louis, MO
So, in part, the gospel writers present Jesus with a view of evil that seems to be consistent with a broad cultural belief that agents of evil seek to control one in this life. So there's this battle for control. So, I wonder, how did that eventuate in believing that agents of evil punish one in the next life?
Good Morning Gene,
On your last sentence: I think I missed your point here. In the Judeo-Christian tradition I thought it was God who was responsible for punishing the agents of evil. What have I missed?
I need to think more before I write!
What is your understanding of these scriptures:
II Tim. 3:16 “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God…”
Luke 24:27 And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself (being the Messiah).
2 Peter 1:19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed,
20Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation.
21For no prophecy was ever brought about through human initiative, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.…
2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
What is YOUR understanding of them? And what is the purpose of listing them here at this blog?
Good Morning Rick,
Thanks for the question,
Here is what I think. The word scripture in 2nd Tim 3:16 refers to what modern Christians call the "Old Testament." However, they used the Septuagint which contains more books than appears in the modern Protestant OT. At the time of the author of 2nd Timothy there was as yet no New Testament, whose earliest attestation as such comes in the 4th century.
The anonymous author called Luke (and generally in early Christianity) in order to make Christian sense out of the Jewish Scriptures (in the form of the Septuagint: Jewish Bible plus Apocrypha) resorted to a "prophetic interpretation," which interpretation in my view is an abuse of the text--the original author said something appropriate to his own historical context, but the early Christians made it say something out his historical context but appropriate (as they saw it) for their new Christian context.
The author of 2nd Peter (written second century common era) was not talking about the texts of the Jewish Bible plus Apocrypha he was referring to oral prophecies that are caught up in written texts.
In our day in conservative Christian circles 2 Tim 3:15-16 is extended to the entire Bible, which could not have been in the original author's mind when he wrote, since there was no New Testament as such until the 4th century.
A more complete discussion is found in a Previous Blog Post of January 12, 2015: "What does the Term 'Word of God' as applied to the Bible Signify?"
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