Radio and TV preachers are fond of scaring the hell out of their audiences and trying to put them on the straight and narrow by painting a visual image of Hell as a fiery place of punishment (Rev 21:8; 14:10; 19:20; 20:10). Oddly enough the word Hell does not even appear in the Greek New Testament. Several words for the place of punishment of evil-doers appear in the New Testament,1 but Hell is not among them. The Biblical Greek word is "Hades" (usually translated as Hell). The worst thing to fear about Hades and Sheol (the land of departed spirits in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), however, is not the New Testament fire and brimstone [sulpher], for how could actual fire affect a nonmaterial entity (soul, spirit)?2
The most terrifying thing about Sheol is loss of memory. In the ancient world, in both Hebrew and Greek traditions the dead continue in a kind of semi-existence. It is once referred to as "the Land of Forgetfulness." The psalmist questions God:
Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave,
or thy faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are thy wonders known in the darkness,
or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalm 88:12-13, RSV)
The place the psalmist inquires about is not the fictional Land of the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey,3 but rather the mythical place of departed spirits in Semitic and Greek antiquity, as the Hebrew parallelism with "the grave" and "Abaddon" (Rev 9:11) makes clear. Sheol is described as "the land of gloom and deep darkness where light is as darkness" (Job 10:21). The dead are there, but as "not existing" (Sirach 17:27-28). They are spiritless shades (Baruch 2:17) that know nothing (Eccl 9:5). In Sheol the dead are but shadows of their former living state; thinking, feeling, purposeful action, and remembering are finished, for in Sheol the vacant, thoughtless, and oblivious monotony of death reigns.
In Greek mythology the underworld was ruled over by the Greek God Hades. His kingdom was populated by the shades of those who had died. One of the five rivers running through Hades was called Lethe (forgetfulness, oblivion). The dead drank of the waters of this mythical river and instantly lost their memories. For example, Odysseus journeyed to the mythical land of Hades, the land of death, and found his mother's shade. She did not know him until she sipped blood that Odysseus poured out; then she knew him.4
Both Sheol and Hades hold a terror worse than a lake burning with fire. Being bereft of memory is a loss of self identity and hence a loss of self; it is in a sense a kind of living death. You "live," but it is no longer that person you once were, but someone without a past—where one has neither memory of childhood nor of one's own children.
The places of punishment in the Judeo-Christian tradition are mythical locations. Yet there is a real location, sharing the terror of Sheol and Hades, in which the land of forgetfulness becomes a contemporary reality. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) dementia/Alzheimer's "is a syndrome in which there is a deterioration in memory, thinking, behavior, and the ability to perform every day activities." The syndrome is not a normal part of aging and there is no current treatment either to cure dementia or slow its progression. Approximately, 50 million people around the world suffer from dementia. Alzheimer's is the most common form of the disease; the WHO estimates that 60-70% of dementia sufferers may have Alzheimer's disease. The WHO claims that "there are nearly 10 million new cases every year," and further estimates the number of people with dementia will be 82 million in 2030 and 152 million in 2050.5
One could debate which of the two is the greater threat to the human psychē—the mythical hell of Sheol and Hades or the living hell of dementia/Alzheimer's. It seems to me, however, that dementia is by far the greater threat, for dementia robs sufferers of the integrity of life in the land of living in the here and now rather than in some mythical future. I seriously doubt, however, that true believers will see it that way.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts on Religion Blog: "Does Hell Exist," August 29, 2015: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=hell
2Well, maybe, a mythical, magic fire might.
3In this land all who eat the intoxicating fruit of the lotus "longed to stay forever, browsing on that native bloom, forgetful of their homeland" (Book 9).
4The Odyssey, Book 11
5https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia (19 September, 2019)