I GREW UP IN THE BAPTIST CHURCH, memorizing scripture as part of our “sword drills” and arming myself with the necessary tools to convert my friends to the side of righteousness. I was taught that the Earth was 5,000 years old, that scientists fabricated the fossil record to fit their agenda, and that some people—really, most people—were going to hell.
I remember waking up, shaking in my bed from dreams of the hungry flames of hell licking at my heels. My daily decisions were increasingly governed by fear and guilt rather than by love or a sense of what was right.
Where do our contemporary ideas about hell come from? First, we have to consider what it is we’re talking about when we say “hell.” Is it effectively the same as the annihilation of the soul, when one ceases to exist, even in the spiritual sense? Is it less physical and more of a conscious torment, where we, bound by our sins, spend eternity aware only of our irreconcilable separation from God?
Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller says, “If the religious fundamentalists are right, heaven will be hell. And almost nobody will be there.” Rob Bell, best known for his bestselling book Love Wins, stirred up a tidal wave of controversy not so much for suggesting there wasn’t a hell, but for suggesting a loving God would ensure that such a place would sit empty.
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, the word “hell” appears 31 times. The phrase “the grave” is used 31 times, and “the pit” comes in at a distant third with three appearances. But all 65 instances of these words throughout the first 39 books of the Bible come from the same Hebrew word, Sheol.
In the Jewish tradition, Sheol is a resting place for the dead. While some believe this is the same as hell, there are indications to the contrary. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Sheol is a place of rest for both righteous and wicked, with no distinction.
In the New Testament, there are three words from the Greek that, when translated to English, are generally translated as “hell.” One is Hades, which appears 11 times. Another is Tartarus, which only shows up once. And the third is Gehenna, which comes up 12 times.
Greek culture believed in a place called Hades, which was the resting place for disembodied souls. We see evidence of this as far back as the 8th century B.C.E., in Homer’s Odyssey. Hades is described as an underworld, literally located underground; thus we can see the first indication of why we think of hell as such.
Hades includes multiple levels, including Elysium and Tartarus. Elysium, also called Elysian Fields, can be equated with our modern idea of heaven. Tartarus was the level of Hades where unrighteous souls dwelled. This correlates to our modern understanding of hell, where there is wailing, fire, and gnashing of teeth as those who displease God pay an eternal price for their disloyalty. For the Jews of the time, this pagan Hellenistic belief was appealing because it helped justify their faithfulness. It gave reasons beyond any earthly consequence for following the laws of the Hebrew scripture.
The third New Testament word for hell is Gehenna, which is actually Greek for two Hebrew words, geeand Hinnom. Translated literally into English, Gehenna means “the Valley of Hinnom.” This valley was notorious among the Jews, as it was the place where apostate Jews, worshipping the pagan god Baal and the Canaanite god Moloch, would go to conduct sacrifices. Here they would burn their offerings to Baal, which included birds, sheep, and in some cases even their own children. Because of this, Gehenna was considered to be eternally cursed. It was also the site where Jerusalem’s trash was taken to be burned. The site was considered so evil and repugnant that Jewish folklore told of a mythical gate in the valley that led directly down to a lake of fire.
DOES HELL EXIST? Perhaps. But the God of my understanding—the God revealed to me by the life and teachings of Jesus—is a God that seduces us, beckons us toward love and light. It is not a kingdom governed by fear and the avoidance of pain, but rather a kingdom in which the hungry are fed, the weak are empowered, and the desperate find hope.
We are reminded in 1 John 4:18 that there is no fear in love, and that perfect love drives out fear. We can be governed by one or the other, but we can’t cling to both. I choose love.
Christian Piatt (christianpiatt.com) is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About the Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus.