When I went off to college in 1993, to a small, Baptist school in central Kentucky, I had the same traditional beliefs about hell that many Christians still hold today: hell is a literal place where people who are not saved literally go to spend eternity in suffering and torment. Like many Christians, I don’t think I had ever given a whole lot of thought to this idea; I believed it simply because it’s what I had been taught from a young age. The bizarre idea that a loving God would send the vast majority of humans to suffer in eternal flaming agony for all eternity had not really crossed my mind. That was an intellectual conundrum I would not come to face for quite some time.
In any case, shortly after arriving at college, I heard talk about how one of the religion professors (at this small school, there were only about three) did not believe in hell. I was scandalized by this. How could someone, especially a Christian professor of religion at a private, Baptist college, not believe in hell? I found this perplexing indeed, and wrote it off at the time as simply the weird ideas of a new-age academic (“new-age” is the term I would have used at the time to refer to what is now frequently called “liberal” or “progressive”).
Now, seventeen years down the line, I count myself among those Christians who disbelieve in the existence of hell. I can state categorically that I do not believe hell is a literal place of flame and torment that exists in space and time.
This statement, of course, may cause my readers to ask the same sorts of questions I asked when I first learned about the religion professor who did not believe in hell. How can someone be a Christian and not believe hell exists? The Bible, after all, talks explicitly about hell. Hell, as the counterpart to heaven, has been part of Christian beliefs from the earliest days of Christianity. Jesus mentions hell in the gospels. When you deny the existence of hell, aren’t you essentially saying that Jesus was at best mistaken, and at worst a liar?
Like many issues within Christian history and theology, this requires a bit of background.
In the Jewish scriptures – the Christian Old Testament – hell is never mentioned. Indeed, the ancient Jews had no conception of a place like hell. In the Old Testament, when people die, they simply go to the grave. Good or bad, Jew or non-Jew, the grave awaits us all. The Hebrew word in question is sheol.
Sheol was a word used both literally and metaphorically by the ancient Jews, much the same way we used the word “grave” both ways today. We talk about visiting our loved one’s grave, and we also talk about having “one foot in the grave.” The same is true of sheol in the Old Testament. It can be used metaphorically (“The cords of the grave [sheol] entangled me, the snares of death confronted me” Psalm 18:5), or literally (“The bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be brought out of their tombs [sheol]” Jeremiah 8:1).
Sheol was not, as some recent commentators have suggested, the equivalent of the Greek idea of Hades. In Greek thought, Hades was the abode of the dead. It was not a grave, but rather a sort of collecting place for human souls that had departed their dead bodies. All human souls went to Hades – good and bad. Hades was not a place of punishment or reward, but simply a place for souls to congregate in a sort of dreary underworld existence.
The reason sheol was not like Hades is very simple: ancient Jews had no concept, as the Greeks did, of a soul separate from the living human body. This of course, like the existence of hell itself, is different from much modern theology, which tends to affirm the existence of a soul. Our ideas about a soul separate from our bodies, of course, come from the Greek philosophers of late antiquity, most notably Plato. This Hellenistic philosophy was rampant through Judaism by the time of Jesus and the earliest Christians, which is why souls are talked about consistently by the Jewish-Christian writers of the New Testament. But in the Jewish scriptures, the Old Testament, the human soul is always mentioned in unified connection with the body. For the ancient Jews, souls weren’t separate. They did not leave the body at death. Soul and body were inseparable. The soul, for the ancient Jew, was equated to the breath. The very Hebrew word for “soul” had, as its root, the word “breath.” Just as God “breathed” his own “breath” into Adam, so our own human “breath” is equated with our soul or spirit.
What this all means is quite simple: the ancient Jews had no concept of an afterlife. Soul and body were inseparable, two sides of the same coin, and when a person died, their body (and thus their soul/spirit/breath) simply went into the grave. These ancient Jews, of course, had a concept of heaven, but heaven was not a place of eternal reward for everyday Jews. Heaven was the abode of God and his retinue, not a place pious Jewish souls ventured after death. And there was no concept of a place of punishment like hell at all. Death itself was punishment enough.
Why didn’t the ancient Jews conceive of an afterlife for everyday Jews? That’s a difficult question to answer, but at least part of the answer probably lies in the Jewish tendency to reject anything that smelled of Gentile theology. Remember that the story of the Jews began in slavery in Egypt. After the Exodus, when the Jews settled in the Promised Land and began forming their own kingdom and their own religious codes, they tended to reject all the trappings of “pagan” religions, especially those centered in Egypt, the land of Jewish captivity. They did not worship multiple gods, like the pagans. Unlike the pagans, they did not utter their god’s name. They did not build statutes or draw pictures in likeness of their god – they considered such things to be “idols.” And, unlike the ancient Egyptians, whose concept of the afterlife permeated all levels of Egyptian culture – indeed, it’s fair to say the ancient Egyptians were certifiably obsessed with the afterlife – the ancient Jews did not accept such pagan ideas. The afterlife was a Gentile notion; that, by itself, made it immediately suspect to the sensibilities of self-respecting Jews.
(It’s interesting to note that the ancient Egyptians, while having a very complex and well-developed theology of afterlife, also did not have any concept of a soul separate from the human body. As noted above, this is an idea that did not develop in Western culture until Plato and the Greek philosophers of late antiquity. The Egyptians mummified themselves for the very reason that they had no concept of a soul-body separation. The physical body itself needed to be preserved for the afterlife.)
We have seen that the ancient Jews had no concept of an afterlife for humans, which means they also had no concept of a place like hell. We have also seen that their word for “grave” – sheol – did not mean anything like the Greek idea of Hades, which necessitated a belief in a soul separate from the human body – a concept that did not exist among ancient Jews.
In the last few centuries before the birth of Jesus, however, Greek culture began to permeate the Jewish homeland. Although the Jews fought, and ultimately won, a great war against Greek overlords in the 160’s B.C.E., Greek culture had come to stay. The Jews, as they say, had become Hellenized.
With this Hellenization came new theologies and ideas. First and foremost, the Jews began to conceive of an afterlife. But their concept was not like afterlife conceptions most common in Christianity today. Since, despite Hellenization, Jews still clung to the idea of a soul inseparable from the body, the Jews began to develop the notion of resurrection. Those pious Jews killed so unjustly over the centuries by various invaders and persecutors, would one day be physically raised back to life. Their bones and bodies would literally reform and come walking out of their tombs.
Along with resurrection for the pious, Jews also began conceiving of punishment for the wicked. God would not only reward the pious with resurrection, but would enact punitive measures against evildoers. This punitive aspect of God was, of course, nothing new in Jewish theology. But where the God of the Old Testament had always enacted his punitive measures against evildoers during their lives (usually by some horrible method of dying), now God’s punitive measures would extend beyond the natural human life. Jews looked around themselves and saw their enemies and persecutors prospering, living fat and happy to a ripe old age. Clearly the old ideas about God’s punitive measures against Israel’s enemies could not stand up to this “modern” scrutiny. So Jews began conceiving of “ultimate” punishments for evildoers. While the pious would be resurrected, the evil would be eternally punished.
What would this punishment look like? In Jewish sources from the time, a number of metaphors are used to convey emerging ideas. From a 1st century B.C.E. book called the Wisdom of Solomon:
The Lord will laugh [the unrighteous] to scorn. After this they will become dishonored corpses, and an outrage among the dead for ever; because he will dash them speechless to the ground, and shake them from the foundations; they will be left utterly dry and barren, and they will suffer anguish, and the memory of them will perish.Later, in the 1st century C.E., around the time of the New Testament gospels, a work of Jewish apocrypha called 2 Esdras was written, most likely in response to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 C.E. As an apocryphal book, it envisions the end of time and the Last Judgment:
The pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight.It was, of course, in the gospels of the New Testament, written about the same time, where we begin to see references to hell, usually on the lips of Jesus.
In both the New Testament, as well as the above-quoted passage from the book of 2 Esdras, the word used for hell is the Greek word geenna. This word referred to a place outside the city walls of ancient Jerusalem known as the Valley of Hinnom. It was here, in the Valley of Hinnom, that the inhabitants of Jerusalem deposited their collective waste products. It was, quite literally, a garbage dump. Because such a place would have been considered immensely unclean to average Jews, it was perpetually on fire, which helped to keep the contagion of “uncleanness” in check, and also helped the dump from becoming overwhelmed with garbage.
As such, references to geenna (often transliterated into “Gehenna”) were metaphorical in nature. When, for instance, Jesus states, in Matthew 23:33: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” he is referring to Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom, the burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem’s city walls. He is not, quite obviously, suggesting that God is going to send all evildoers to the burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem’s city walls for all eternity. He is using that place as a metaphor for destruction – which is, itself, a way of referring to exclusion from God’s kingdom. If you reject God’s love and God’s vision of justice, you are not part of God’s kingdom; you are as good as a corpse burning in the Valley of Hinnom.
Consider a modern analogy in regards to flushing a toilet. I might lose my job and, upon returning home, my wife might tell me that I’ve just “flushed my career down the toilet.” Does she mean that I have literally flushed my literal job down a literal toilet? Of course not. It’s a euphemism – a metaphor.
Suppose I said that evildoers – those who are not part of God’s kingdom – are flushed down the toilet. Would you suppose I meant a literal toilet and a literal flushing? No. You would understand that I was using a metaphor. Now suppose that a thousand years from now, Christians come to believe in a literal cosmic toilet where God literally flushes evildoers into an eternal tank of sewage and waste. Sound silly?
To literalize Jewish metaphors about the burning garbage dump outside ancient Jerusalem’s city walls is to completely misunderstand the idea that was being conveyed. If Jesus, or the early Christians who used the metaphor of Gehenna, could somehow be told about modern concepts of hell, based on the euphemisms they used in the 1st century, I believe they would find it bizarre at best. Geenna – Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom – was a metaphor used by early Christians to illustrate their ideas about what one’s life was worth outside the kingdom of God. It wasn’t considered in cosmic terms.
Despite its common place in Christian theology, hell is mentioned only about a dozen times in the entire New Testament. More than half of those come in the Gospel of Matthew alone. There are other references to “fire” or a “lake of fire,” but most of these also come in Matthew and the book of Revelation.
In the modern day, many people imagine Satan as the ruler of hell. This is reflected in our jokes and our colloquialisms. Yet, in the New Testament, no such thing is ever implied about Satan. Satan is not the ruler of hell; he is an evil presence on earth. In Revelation, in fact, the writer tells us explicitly that Satan lives and has his throne in Pergamum, a city in modern day Turkey!
I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives” (Revelation 2:13).Antipas, referenced in this passage, was the bishop of Pergamum who was martyred in the early 90’s C.E. (and not Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee during Jesus’ life).
There are only two spots in the entire New Testament where Satan is connected to hell, and these two spots, again, come to us from Matthew and Revelation. In both cases, the writers predict that Satan will be thrown into “the fire” at the end of time (in Revelation it is the “lake of fire and sulfur”). Hell, then, is a punishment for Satan, at the end of time, as it will be for evildoers. Satan does not rule hell.
In the same way that “hell” (geenna), is used metaphorically, so are these references to “the fire” and the “lake of fire.” They are metaphors for utter destruction. In the ancient world, fire was one of the four elements of nature, and it was nature’s destructive force. When an ancient person equated an ultimate punishment to “the fire,” it was a way of saying that the coming punishment was destruction. When Jesus, for instance, says that the “fire” is reserved for “the devil and his angels,” he is saying that evil’s fate is destruction. Again, if I said that my career has been flushed down the toilet, am I talking about a real toilet? Jesus isn’t talking about a cosmic pit of fire.
This may not be persuasive to many of my readers who believe strongly in the existence of a place called hell. But consider one final point. “Fire” and “hell,” as ultimate punishments for evil, are used most frequently by the writers of Matthew and Revelation. But other writers use them as well, particularly “fire.” Such references can be found in both Mark and Luke, as well as 2 Peter, Jude, and the book of Hebrews. Yet among these different writers, there is disagreement about the nature of hell. In Matthew and 2 Peter, for instance, hell, or “the fire,” is a place of complete destruction. For instance: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28); and “But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless (2 Peter 3:7). Additionally, Hebrews 10:27 speaks of a “fire that will consume” the ungodly, and 2 Peter, Luke, and Jude all make references to the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, reduced to ash, and how that is a symbol of what will happen to the ungodly.
In all of these accounts, the ultimate punishment is destruction. Yet most people, when they think of hell, think of a place of eternal punishment, where one will burn in agony without dying, suffering through all eternity in unimaginable torment. In the New Testament, there are only two spots that seem to support this sort of view. The first is found in a parable of Jesus. As a parable, of course, the details are not intended to be taken literally in the first place, but to be seen as pointing to a greater truth. In any case, the parable in question is found in Luke’s gospel, and is usually referred to as the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this story, Lazarus is a poor man begging in front of a rich man’s house. The rich man ignores him. In time, both men die, with the beggar going to heaven, and the rich man going to hell. The rich man is in “torment” by the “fire,” and asks for a drink of water, which Abraham (who is there by Lazarus) is not able to give him, because of the great chasm that separates them.
There are a lot of interesting things to say about this parable, but the one that matters here is the image of hell not as a place of utter destruction, but a place where someone remains alive in tormenting flames.
The only other spot where this idea is supported in the New Testament comes at the end of Revelation, after Satan is finally defeated by the forces of God at the end of time. There, the writer tells us that the devil will be thrown in the lake of fire, to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever (Revelation 20:10). Again, this supports the idea of hell being a place not of destruction, but of eternal, unceasing torment.
These are the only two spots where this idea is affirmed by the New Testament. As noted above, there are far more references that support “ultimate destruction” rather than “eternal torment.” Furthermore, one of these two spots comes in a parable of Jesus – a morality tale rather than a statement of metaphysical truth. Additionally, it is important to note that Luke never actually uses the word “hell” (that is, geenna). Instead, he calls the place Hades. Also, he doesn’t say that Lazarus is in “heaven,” but rather “with Abraham.” Finally, as the use of the word “Hades” makes clear, by the time of Luke’s gospel (circa 90 C.E.), many Jewish Christians had been Hellenized by Greek philosophy, and had adopted the idea of Hades as a holding place for souls to await a final judgment. Luke adds in the idea of torment and flames, but since he calls the place Hades and not hell, it is consistent with his other comments (the Sodom and Gomorrah reference above) about the ultimate punishment being utter destruction. Hades first, then complete destruction at the end of time.
With that taken into consideration, it is fair to say that of all the New Testament writers who talk about hell, fire, and ultimate punishments, only one writer – the apocalyptic author of Revelation – affirms the idea of hell being a place of eternal torment, rather than a place of final destruction. And even in that account, it is only the devil, the beast, and the false prophet who are explicitly said to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Other ungodly people will be thrown in the lake of fire, so they too will presumably suffer this same outcome, but that is not necessarily stated explicitly by the writer of Revelation. Perhaps only the devil and his angels will get that particularly odious fate.
We are left with a few things to make sense of. First, the Jews of the Old Testament did not believe in a place like hell. They had no particular afterlife beliefs at all, good or bad. By the start of the Christian era, Hellenism had brought ideas about souls, the afterlife, and Hades to Judaism, and Jews themselves had developed apocalyptic ideas about ultimate punishments and rewards. In the New Testament, these apocalyptic ideas are illustrated with the use of metaphors: ultimate punishment is related to the destructive element of nature – fire – and is symbolized by the metaphor of the burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem’s city walls – the Valley of Hinnom. Ultimate reward, on the other hand, is symbolized by the kingdom of God and a life lived in union with God. The yin-yang idea here is one of life and death; in early Christian practice, these were referred to as "the Two Ways." One led to destruction – that is, death – and the other to abundant life. Numerous authors in the New Testament describe ultimate punishment in terms of ultimate destruction. Only one writer explicitly refers to ultimate punishment as eternal torment, and even that is only given in the context of the devil and his minions. It is left unclear whether this counts for ungodly human beings as well.
For these reasons, I do not believe in hell as a literal place of eternal torment for people who have not made the right profession of faith. I believe hell is a metaphor for separation from the sacred, from God, and therefore functions as a symbol of what life apart from God might look like.
In the words of the early Christians, it’s like being thrown on the burning garbage dump outside town; in my own words, it’s like being flushed down the toilet.