Hell: Origins of an Idea

Many religious groups portray God as a being who tortures people eternally for their sins. But how can anyone worship a god who sets up fallible humans to be forever tormented in hell?

Among the approximate 6.7 billion people in the world, more than 2 billion are Christians and about 1.3 billion are Muslims. Together these two religions claim about half of the world’s population, and both groups believe in an ever-burning place of damnation. The concept of hell also has a place in Judaism and, though it takes on different forms, in Eastern religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. The idea of perpetual (or near-perpetual) torment is so prevalent in the world’s religions and cultures that if you mention “hell,” a certain concept immediately comes into people’s minds.

With Christianity being the world’s largest religion, it seems only reasonable to explore what the “Book of books,” the Bible, has to say on the subject. But the adherents of Judaism and Islam also share the epithet “People of the Book,” because they acknowledge a common heritage—a lineage that traces back to Abraham and thus a shared respect for many of the individuals we read about in the Old Testament.

We begin with a brief look at the concept of hell as taught by Islam and Christianity.

A Fiery Fate

Muhammad, recognized as the founding prophet of Islam, lived about 600 years after Jesus Christ. By that time the concept of hell was already well established in Christianity, and Muhammad adopted it into the new religion. In fact, hell and final judgment are among the dominant themes of the Qur’an, which warns, “Surely, those who disbelieve in our revelations, we will condemn them to the hellfire. Whenever their skins are burnt, we will give them new skins. Thus, they will suffer continuously” (Sura 4:56, Khalifa translation). Numerous verses relegate unbelievers to this fiery hell, “wherein they abide forever.”

Christianity, including Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism, is also largely framed within concepts of judgment and, for those who fail to meet the necessary criteria, eternal suffering in hell. The Athanasian Creed, thought by modern scholars to date from the fifth or early sixth century and venerated by the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches, ends with these words: “They that have done good shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”

Playing a key role in the development of the Christian doctrine of an ever-burning hell was Augustine, the influential fourth-century bishop of Hippo in North Africa. A leading definer of subsequent Christian faith, he wrote a number of books, some of which are considered to be among the great literary works of Western civilization.

Augustine wrote that “hell, which also is called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire, and will torment the bodies of the damned.” He also wrote of “those everlasting pains which are to follow” the final judgment (City of God 21.10, 13). The bishop argued that every child born is immediately and automatically condemned by Adam and Eve’s first sin. On that basis all those not baptized into orthodox Christianity, including newborn infants and others who have never so much as heard of Jesus Christ, are subject to punishment. One might well ask, how can that be fair on God’s part? Yet Augustine’s arguments are held up even now as foundational to what many Christian churches believe and teach.

Nearly a thousand years after Augustine, the Italian Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy. Dante was a committed Roman Catholic, a politician, a poet and a philosopher. His work, like Augustine’s, is considered one of the cornerstones of Western religious ideas. In Dante’s story he takes a guided tour through the afterlife. He goes first to hell, then to purgatory, and finally to paradise, and he writes about everything he sees. His gruesome picture of hell has taken root in Western society, having inspired such notables as Michelangelo, Gustave Doré, Sandro Botticelli, John Milton and T.S. Eliot.

Kindled by the Ancients

From where did Augustine and Dante get their ideas about a never-ending suffering in store for sinners? Is it biblical? It’s true that by the time of Christ, Judaism had incorporated related concepts into its belief system, though in earlier times it did not teach that an ever-burning hell was to be the fate of the unsaved. Nor did the early New Testament Church teach it. The doctrine has its roots elsewhere.

Dante’s guide through the netherworld was Virgil, the first-century-B.C.E. Roman poet. In his epic poem Aeneid, the hero, Aeneas, is also taken on a tour of hell. Virgil’s graphic depiction of the dismal and macabre place profoundly influenced later artists and writers.

But the concept of hell as a place of torment predates Virgil as well. A number of ancient civilizations, including those of Mesopotamia, India, Egypt and Greece, held as part of their mythology the concept of an underworld—the realm of the dead. The first-century-B.C.E. Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo discussed the value of such myths, noting that “the states and the lawgivers had sanctioned them as a useful expedient.” He went on to explain that people “are deterred from evil courses when, either through descriptions or through typical representations of objects unseen, they learn of divine punishments, terrors, and threats.” In dealing with the unruly, reason or exhortation alone is not enough, wrote Strabo; “there is need of religious fear also, and this cannot be aroused without myths and marvels. . . . The founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simple-minded” (Geography 1.2.8).

With the rise of Western philosophy at the hands of Socrates and his intellectual heirs Plato and Aristotle, concepts of life, death and the hereafter took on new dimensions. In the East, too, the afterlife continued to stir the imagination. Strabo remarked on a group of Eastern philosophers who “weave in myths, like Plato, about the immortality of the soul and the judgments in Hades and other things of this kind” (Geography 15.1.59).

Plato (ca. 428–347 B.C.E.) became a key figure in the development of these ideas. His name appears frequently in the writings of Augustine, who noted that the Greek scholar had “perfected philosophy” and that he “is justly preferred to all the other philosophers of the Gentiles.” Though the bishop by no means endorsed all of Plato’s ideas, he did hold a number of his philosophical opinions in high regard—“opinions sometimes favorable to the true religion, which our faith takes up and defends” (City of God 8.4).

The result has been of immense importance to traditional Christianity. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which describes Augustine as a “Christian Neoplatonist,” remarks: “One of the decisive developments in the western philosophical tradition was the eventually widespread merging of the Greek philosophical tradition and the Judeo-Christian religious and scriptural traditions. Augustine is one of the main figures through and by whom this merging was accomplished.”

One of the key tenets of Neoplatonic thought adopted by Augustine was that humans possess an immortal soul. This was a critical step in his developing the idea that unbelievers could be made to endure eternal torment in hell.

Back to the Bible

Pagan cultures and philosophies have contributed greatly to modern concepts of hell. But what does the Bible itself say on the subject?

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word often translated as “hell” is sheol, though it actually means “the grave.” The Bible teaches that when we die, we simply go to the grave (see Psalm 49:10–11 and Ecclesiastes 3:19–20). The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible comments, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment. The concept of an infernal ‘hell’ developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic period” (beginning in the fourth century B.C.E.). Greek religious and philosophical ideas, including those of Aristotle and Plato, became influential throughout the region during that time. Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions points out that “many formal aspects of Hellenistic religion . . . persist in the Jewish and Christian traditions today.”

In the New Testament, we find that there are three Greek words translated as “hell.” The one most often used in the Gospels is gehenna referring to the Gehenna Valley, or the Valley of Hinnom. Just outside the walls of Jerusalem, in Jesus’ day it was where the local population dumped and burned trash.

The New Testament does not describe the torment of Gehenna or portray Satan as the lord of Gehenna. These are later literary accoutrements.”

Anchor Bible Dictionary, S.V. “Hades, Gehenna”

The valley is first mentioned in Joshua 15:8: “Then the boundary goes up by the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the southern shoulder of the Jebusite (that is, Jerusalem).” At this time Jerusalem was in the hands of the Jebusites, and the valley marked the boundary between the lands inherited by two of the sons of Jacob—also known as Israel—namely, Judah and Benjamin.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says that the Gehenna Valley “acquired a bad reputation because sacrifices were offered in it to Moloch in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh [kings of Judah]. . . . The Valley of Hinnom came to be equated with the hell of the last judgment in apocalyptic literature”—extrabiblical Jewish writings—“from the second century B.C. . . . The name gehinnom thus came to be used for the eschatological fire of hell. This is the stage of development reflected in the New Testament. In the first century A.D. the term was further extended to cover the place where the ungodly were punished in the intermediate state, but this is not so in the New Testament” (emphasis added). It goes on to say, “In the New Testament there is no description of the torments of hell as in apocalyptic literature,” which later came to include Christian writings as well.

Again, to understand the source of the idea that people are tortured in an ever-burning hell, we have to go outside the Scriptures. That should send up a red flag for anyone who regards the Bible as his or her source of belief.

As already noted, the Hinnom Valley had taken on negative connotations over the years. According to Jeremiah 7, the Israelite inhabitants of the region had erected idols in the temple of God, and in the adjacent valley they had set up altars to these false gods. They had even burned their children on these altars to appease the pagan gods.

In Jeremiah 19:4–7, the prophet offers this message from God: “‘Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built high places to Baal to burn their sons in fire as burnt offerings to Baal, . . . therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies . . . ; I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth.”

This is how Gehenna was known in Jeremiah’s day. In the New Testament, the word gehenna is generally used in references to the final destruction of evildoers. Jesus said, “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”—gehenna (Matthew 10:28). In other words, people can kill you, but they can kill only the body. Don’t fear them; fear the One who can put an end to you forever.

Jesus used the word in other situations as well, always alluding to that burning trash heap as a metaphor for the ultimate demise of the incorrigibly wicked.

The Keys of Death and Hades

Another New Testament Greek word translated as “hell” is hades: the place of the departed, the grave, like sheol in the Old Testament. For example, in Matthew 11:23 Jesus says: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades.” The city wasn’t going to be tormented forever; it was going to be put into the grave—destroyed.

The Greek word Hades is sometimes, but misleadingly, translated “hell” in English versions of the New Testament. It refers to the place of the dead but not necessarily to a place of torment of the wicked dead.” 

Anchor Bible Dictionary, S.V. “Hades, Hell”

Similarly, Jesus told His disciples that “the gates of hell [hades] shall not prevail against” the Church He established (Matthew 16:18). God’s Church will never die out or be “entombed.”

In the book of Revelation, the word translated as “hell” is always hades, meaning “the grave.” For instance, the resurrected Jesus says: “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18). With these symbolic keys, the graves of the dead will be opened at some future time. At that point, according to the vision the apostle John saw, “Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them” (Revelation 20:13). Both of these verses refer simply to the grave. The latter also refers to people being resurrected to physical life. After this resurrection of the dead, “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (verse 14). Death itself will be destroyed—made obsolete.

Gehenna is analogous to this lake of fire, which in the end will burn up everything temporal, including the incorrigibly wicked. The apostle Peter writes that at that time “the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10, New King James Version). But that doesn’t mean that God will torment the ungodly forever; there is simply no biblical basis for that widespread teaching. As Romans 6:23 clearly states, “the wages of sin is death”—an absence of life, not an everlasting life of misery and anguish. The prophet Malachi notes that the wicked will be reduced to ashes (Malachi 4:3).

One other word is translated as “hell” in the New Testament: tartaroo. Only the apostle Peter used it, and only once, when he wrote of the holding place where wicked spirits will eventually be restrained (2 Peter 2:4). Like gehenna and hades, it has nothing to do with man suffering forever in an ever-burning hell.

But what about Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:41: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’”? The devil and his angels—or demons—are immortal spirit beings, and “the eternal fire” represents their ultimate fate: incarceration by God in order to prevent them from wreaking any more havoc on the rest of His creation. Because they are in continual rebellion against God, they will have to be restrained for all eternity. Spirit beings do not burn up or suffer pain as physical beings do, but they will be cut off from God forever. Thus the idea of being punished for all eternity applies to Satan and his demons, not to human beings.

By contrast, any person who knowingly refuses to live according to the laws that produce happiness and peace will not be resurrected to eternal life as a spirit being, as Christ was. God, in His love, doesn’t want a person living forever in an attitude of rebellion and the unhappiness such an attitude produces. Thus the incorrigibly wicked will be put out of their misery, as pictured by the fires of Gehenna. This is referred to in Revelation 20:14 as “the second death”—a permanent cessation of life. If hellfire has come to mean anything else through religious tradition, it’s important to realize that the Bible does not teach that.

In future issues, Vision will explore in greater detail the origin of concepts such as the immortality of the soul as well as the idea that all those who aren’t “saved” in this life are doomed for eternity.