Abandon All Hope You Who Enter Here
Or not. Because hell might not be what you think it is.
When you think of hell, do you think of a desolate, fiery landscape ruled by a red satyr-ish creature with horns? Have you ever considered the origin of that image or just accepted it because that’s what you saw the most often? The concept of hell, like other aspects of theology, developed over time. Moreover, disagreement over the concept of hell is likely to be divisive and heated as it raises questions about God’s nature and the mechanics of divine justice.
Many have said that ignoring the existence of a hell flies in the face of Jesus’s teachings, but reading the Bible alone doesn’t really lend itself to the traditional image of hell that we have today. Hell is described as a place of separation from God, eternal torment, and a destination for the immoral. However, it seems that people have taken a fair bit of artistic license with the depiction of hell. The Bible doesn’t really point to the existence of the traditional Hell, let alone the oddly specific image of Satan being a red satyr-like creature with a goatee and a pointed tail.
The Bible talks about hell using four words: Sheol, Gehenna, Tartarus, and Hades. Some think that these words clearly point to the existence of hell as a literal place akin to Heaven while others think that these words have been mistranslated or that the overall concept of hell was misinterpreted by people who wanted to use Christianity to control others. However, as more and more people are able to access theology resources, the concept of hell has come under question from esteemed scholars and laymen alike. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that some churches tend to dwell on the concept of hell or avoid the topic altogether.
The Hebrew word Sheol is thought to refer to a place called the “House of Dust and Darkness” where all people go regardless of how they lived their life. In the House of Dust and Darkness, souls spent the rest of their existence eating dust an “unrelenting haze of ash.” Regardless of whether or not eating dust and breathing air comparable to that of China’s industrial regions sounds appealing, Sheol is more of an allusion to the nature of physical death itself than it is to the concept of an afterlife.
Gehenna was a valley that the ancient Israelites used to dispose of corpses and animal carcasses, but people just ended up throwing their trash in there. This meant that the fire never stopped burning. Although this would be the closest to the hell we have today, keep in mind that Gehenna refers to a place that the ancient Israelites could walk to if they wanted or needed to go there. Matthew 10:28, a popular hell threat, states that Gehenna can destroy the body and soul, but the warnings about Gehenna pertain more to the physical body than the soul. Therefore, it does not make sense to see Jesus’s warnings about Gehenna as the threat of hell, but as a reminder that self-destruction and shame can indeed destroy the soul.
Tartarus is a place in Greek mythology where monsters and the worst of criminals were imprisoned. It is only mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4, but even so, it is clear that Tartarus is not a place where humans are punished. The Biblical Tartarus is a holding pen for demons rather than a place for the punishment of humans. This supernatural prison is on the earth but, unlike Gehenna, it cannot be physically located. With this in mind, rest easy knowing that humans do not go to the Biblical Tartarus.
Hades is the name of the Greek god of death, but it’s a place in the Bible. Sometimes, Hades and Sheol are treated as one and the same. However, Hades offers a different type of torment. For the rich man who wouldn’t give a gravely ill beggar named Lazarus some bread (Luke 16), this torment involved eternal thirst and flame. This Hades comes the closest to the traditional depiction of hell, but it is often translated as “death” or “grave”. However, Roman-Jewish historian Josephus found that this punishment was temporary and would end after the Last Judgment.
The word Hades is used differently in Matthew 11:23 and in Luke 10:16 than in Luke 16 — and by the same person. Capernaum, a well-respected city, would be “cast down to Hades”. Seeing that God doesn’t have much regard for social convention, this did not mean that the citizens of Capernaum would go to hell. Rather, the city would lose its position of respect. That alone would be hell for those who cared more about Capernaum’s image than the health of its people. Since this loss of respect entailed widespread poverty, disease, and a lack of political influence, Capernaum’s citizens would go to hell in this sense. However, it does not mean that everyone in Capernaum was destined to be punished supernaturally just for having citizenship or residing in Capernaum.
Though Bible scholars have taken hell to mean either a literal supernatural place or a state of being, it appears to be both. Hell is a holding pen or prison of sorts for certain ungodly souls and a torturous state of existence. In a sense, Christians (including myself) tend to fixate on the impending threat of the holding pen while ignoring the fact that hell is all around us in the form of mass shootings, political tension, corruption, illness, and pollution. Minimizing these events as mere tests of faith compounds the ignorance of hell on earth, which will ultimately drive more souls into the holding pen.