57: To hell with hell (Hell Part 2)
Where did "hell" come from? What is Sheol? Hades? Gehenna? And who goes to these places (or are they are even places?) In Part 2, Nate and Tim look at several passages in the scriptures to begin analyzing how various authors conceived of what we’ve come to call Hell. We’ll see how our idea of Hell is actually an amalgam of various concepts related to multiple different questions.
[stories from listeners]
My views have changed pretty drastically about hell, and if I had to put a label on it, I guess I would say I believe in a universal reconciliation, that all people, all things will be reconciled back to God.
Nowadays, I don’t believe in hell, I don’t think about it at all. There’s enough hell on earth, and I don’t really need to believe in it in an afterlife anymore.
Heaven and hell and many other pictures are simply metaphors for a kind of existence we cannot describe in any other way.
Today I think the annihilation theory is the most compatible with a merciful God and is the most biblically supported, because if Judaism doesn’t have eternal conscious torment, then where did Christians get it?
I think that when we have certain views of hell, it can make our faith toxic. I don’t believe in eternal conscious torture; I don’t believe that hell is eternal separation from God. I believe that at some point after death, we all come in contact with the purifying, fiery love of God.
I think that your view of hell is actually very important, because if you really believe in eternal hell, it turns to take things over and it makes Christians more insular and judgmental. If you view God as loving, then you might be more inclined to love others. So I think that the view of hell is pretty important.
Nate: Welcome back to Almost Heretical. We are talking about hell again. Last time we had a philosophical conversation about hell and kind of the options for afterlife for those that didn’t go to the good place. Here’s what I want to know, Tim. Jesus didn’t talk about hell, right? He talked about Gehenna. Is that right? And then there’s these other terms like Sheol, and doesn’t the Old Testament talk about returning to the grave or returning to your fathers? What does the Bible actually say about hell? And yeah, where have we developed some of these ideas? Through the Bible, where have we developed these ideas?
Tim: Well, it’s sort of a surprisingly complicated conversation. It’ll end up simple, but what we want to do is basically say that our concept of hell and the way that’s been derived from the Bible has been way oversimplified, and we’re going to try to recomplicate it to have a sufficiently nuanced conversation about this. First I think we should recap. So last conversation we basically talked about a brief highlight, I mean we only got to like twenty percent of what I wanted to get to, but some of the various theoretical ways to even construe hell. So Nate, why don’t you give it a stab at a recap?
Nate: Okay, so there’s like the eternal conscious torment, where God is like torturing you for all of eternity. There’s annihilationism, where it’s like God destroys you and you’re not, you are no more. There was the C.S. Lewis, “Hell is locked from the inside,” and you’re creating this place of your own choosing, and you could leave but you don’t want to, and that’s why you’re there. And then there was some sort of rehabilitative view where you could restore these people and they could then be in heaven, because they need to actually change before they could be there. Anyways, those are, I don’t know, those are the main ones that come back to my head.
Tim: Yeah, and then basically, so I kind of bunched eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and part of C.S. Lewis’s argument in one box, which is that of some sort of permanent separation between the heaven and hell; the insiders, the outsiders; those two worlds are separated and kept separated. Whether by death and execution in the annihilationist view, by this torture chamber in the eternal conscious torment view, or by essentially this sort of parsing out where hypothetically people in hell could freely choose to enter heaven at any time but they don’t want to in C.S. Lewis’s view. But then we kind of moved towards, yeah, temporary views, where the idea is hell is less than forever for some who are able to allow hell to change them in some sort of way, to transform them to be willing to choose into heaven. So we kind of looked at, even some of the rabbis had literally speculated as to how long that would take for most people, somewhere around a year or so, several of them thought. But that’s basically the view where hell is sort of purgatorial. It’s that idea that there’s sort of this in-between state to get people to the place of being willing to finally repent. So that idea opens the door to Christian universalism, which is to say if that’s possible, and what we know of Jesus, you’ve got all the parallels of—er, sorry. You’ve got all of the parables in the gospels that Jesus tells of wanting to leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep, or to go find that lost coin.
Nate: But where do we get the idea that that all ends when you take your last breath? Why wouldn’t He just keep doing that?
Tim: Exactly! So a lot of people want to say, if what we learned about Jesus in His life, in what He seemed to be revealing about God’s mercy and goodness towards humanity, God’s self-sacrificial, never quitting love for mankind and for creation, if that’s true, then exactly. Why would we think it would end at some potentially nebulous point, right? And who are we, essentially, to say that God can’t succeed in doing what the Bible says God wants to do, which is save everybody.
Nate: This... Tim, this is starting to sound a little bit, a little crazy. This is a little bit heretical now. So I just want to know, why is this not just you trying to—because that’d be really nice, right, if everyone eventually would love God and be in the good place. It seems like the burden of proof is on that side to say, “Okay, yes, that’s what we naturally want to see happen.” So how do you know you’re not just twisting the Bible to say that.
Tim: Right, so here’s why. You know, I named David Bentley Hart, I wish we had more time to go into his argument. He grounds a lot of his argument in the fact that all of Christianity and Judaism is built on the idea that God created everything that exists. So Genesis 1-2, this whole doctrine of creation ex nihilo, that God created from nothing. So philosophically, hell, if it exists, is something that God created. And so we talked kind of on the psychology of whether we could actually truly enjoy heaven while friends of ours or loved ones were suffering in hell. But David Bentley Hart goes even further, and he’s pulling a lot of his philosophy, actually, from people like Gregory of Nyssa, from 1600 years ago. And he’s saying that the only way, psychologically, that we could experience heaven as a kind of blissful experience is if we no longer had our memories of all of those that we loved. And what that would mean is that we are no longer people. We are not our true selves, and you may as well make up a new word for it. We’re some sort of new mutant creature if we no longer have the memory of our life here on earth. His argument is that psychologically, we couldn’t, most of us could not feel bliss if someone we deeply loved was suffering, and therefore you basically cannot—his argument philosophically, unless all are saved, none can be saved in heaven. Philosophically. And that’s kind of
Nate: Well, yeah but, don’t you need your brain to have memories? And then you’re saying we would have our brain, which would mean we’d be in the same form, which would mean… what would really change? So I don’t know, aren’t—isn’t it more likely under this worldview that we would be some new form and then you wouldn’t have a brain, which means we might not have those memories? I don’t know.
Tim: Uh… no. [laughing] We don’t need to go down this rabbit hole, but the paradigm in Jewish and Christian thinking is that we will be somehow new and yet continuous with the old. So the paradigm ultimately is how the gospels describe the resurrected Jesus that somehow is something new. Some sort of new, you know the main case study for this is 1 Corinthians 15, which was a big for the universalist patristics. And 1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s little diatribe on what will happen. And we will somehow be these new spirit beings, right, we’ll kind of be like the elohim who are fit to live in these heavenly space, but we will still be ourselves. So that’s why you have this tension in the gospels where it’s a Jesus who can float through doors yet has an open wound in His side. So somehow that’s the idea, how we’re supposed to imagine that, no one really tells us.
Nate: So like all the people who are like, “I’m going to be so hot in heaven,” that’s not probably actually true. You’re going look just like you right now, huh?
Tim: [laughing] Yeah, somehow the idea is that we’re in a celestial body, but the whole thing is based on the fact of a bodily resurrection. The idea is, and we’ll get to this in a sec—remember the two questions are, how will God fix the world? And then what happens to me when I die? So part of the response to that second question is for a time, my spirit seems to go somewhere, basically what we’ll talk about to Sheol, to the grave. But then my spirit and my body will be raised, that is the idea, and then I will receive judgment. So it’s the idea of all the good and the bad, the righteous and the evil, will be raised and resurrected and then receive judgment and go their separate ways. Even, like you said earlier, even the annihilationist view to most the idea is still, and this is kind of a hard part to imagine, the idea is you’ve been dead for some hundreds or thousands of years, you’re raised up and then told you’re about to be executed again.
Nate: Okay, I have a question. So that, I get that. You just kind of laid out in a couple sentences sort of your interpretation of what the biblical authors are kind of imagining when they imagine how this all works. My question is: did other nations also have similar stories for how this whole thing worked and what happened when we died, or is this pretty unique to the Near Eastern world?
Tim: Right. I said this in the last episode, to our knowledge, every civilization that we have records for, the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, all of these civilizations and cultures have strong similarities at many different points with Israel’s cosmology.
Nate: Okay. That’s all I needed for now.
Nate: Okay so then the next part of this question is, part of my theological changing and growing over the last five, ten years, was that the Babylonians and some other nations had a flood story very similar to the Israelite flood story, and that starts to make you think, “Okay, maybe whether or not this happened, this event happened historically or happened this exact way isn’t really the point. Kind of like our episodes with Tim Mackie when we talked about some of this stuff. But it’s more so how are these authors, the Israelite authors, portraying God and spinning this story? And what are they doing with it? And we can find out more about God in how they interpret all this through how they’re doing that. Not so much, is this camcorder footage of what actually happened? And so learning that other nations had a similar story about this event, it probably was this pretty big flood that happened in their area around this time and they all passed it down. But what that does for a lot of people out there is make them question the historical accuracy, or even just the accuracy of the story and more look at it like, what are they doing with the story? How are they interpreting this? And how are they picturing God throughout this whole thing? All that kind of stuff. And so my question is, since you’re saying other nations at the time had similar stories of the afterlife, about judgment, about a place that wasn’t the good place, some of these types of things, shouldn’t that or wouldn’t that just make someone also question the I guess accuracy of this whole picture of what happens to us after we die? Do you know what I’m getting at here?
Tim: Yeah, I think I do. One first thing, we got a lot of slack when we did the episode and told people they don’t necessary have to believe the exodus was —
Nate: I think you mean flack. Slack would be good, right? Because then we’d get a little bit of leash, or a little bit of extra leash?
Tim: [laughing] True. We were hit with shrapnel. When we essentially said that you don’t have to interpret the exodus story as camcorder footage to interpret the exodus story as a faithful account of God liberating Israel—
Nate: We got flack for that?
Tim: Oh yeah. The difference though with this is there’s no book of—
Nate: What do you mean, like two people? I don’t remember that! But okay, okay, okay. We got some flack.
Tim: I read the emails. Oh, and all the… we got a slew of negative iTunes reviews recently, so if you guys are fans of the show, go counter the fundamentalist armies that are out to get us.
Nate: Okay, Tim, Tim. When you say… I still think, I was thinking about this in my shower time the other day, which is my thinking space. Now that I have two kids it’s really my only space, my only quiet space. But I was thinking about this, I feel like for every one piece, whether a friend of mine or someone that emails in that listened to the show, for every one person that’s like, “I don’t know about this,” or, “Hey, this was offensive to me in this way,” I feel like we get 50-100 people that aren’t that way. So when you say we received some flack for that, I don’t know. I kind of remember one or two emails, but it wasn’t like this big outpouring.
Tim: True, we’re still alive. We’re doing okay. No death threats.
Nate: No, I just mean, I think that gives this perception that we have ten people that are like, “Yeah, keep going!” And this onslaught of negativity. And that’s just not the case; it’s the complete opposite.
Tim: Alright. I’ll try to not be cynical and focus on the negatives.
Tim: Okay, let me try to help us get organized here, because we’re all over the map. So the difference between this conversation about hell and the conversation we had about the exodus event as attested in the book of Exodus is we’re not talking about the “Book of Hell”. We don’t have that book in the Bible. There’s no singular story or narrative or singular teaching. What we’re actually trying to uncover is what is the cosmology, what was the cosmology, of the various authors who contributed to writing the Bible? In other words, what did these various authors believe about hell, an afterlife, a future judgment? What we’ll see is that either these authors believed various different things at various stages or they were open-handed enough to be willing to say things that were contradicting to others. So the fact of the matter is you can look at various passages in both Old and New Testament and find evidence that the writer was trying to communicate different ideas in Hell. So my case in recapping, if say we take for now just three categories. Or say four. So one is eternal conscious torment. The reason that became the traditional view for the last 1500 years is because you have some of these dire, fire and brimstone threatening texts which use language of the worm that never dies, the fire that’s never extinguished, that people interpreted and sounds a lot like some sort of ongoing, everlasting experience of punishment. Okay, so you take those texts and you go, yeah, those seem to be making the case that this author, for instance the writer of the book of Revelation where some of the, two of the most problematic passages that sound like they’re talking about eternal conscious torment occur in the book of Revelation. Sounds like the author of that book had some sort of ongoing torment in his head. Okay. Then you have a slew of other texts that people have looked to and said, “But wait a second, these passages make it sound like hell will be something that happens once, basically this annihilation or the end, it’s basically a thing of destruction.” One of the most clear ones is 2 Peter 2. He uses Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of what God was going to do. So I’ll just read it, and then eventually we’ll get into some translation issues here, but it says,
4 For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned—
Tim: This is referring back to the divine beings and all the weird Genesis 6 stuff
—but sent them to [I won’t say ‘hell’ even though that’s what the NIV says, but ’Tartarus,’ it’s the only time that word is used] putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)—if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.
Tim: So, what did Peter just do?
Nate: Wait, what is Tartarus? What does that mean? Sounds like a pop tart startup or something.
Tim: [laughing] It does sound like a San Francisco tech company.
Nate: They could deliver pop tarts to you. You don’t even have to toast them. That’d be a San Francisco thing, like, “You don’t even have to toast them. I know that it’s really getting in the way of your life, having to push that button down and wait that thirty seconds.”
Tim: [laughing] Oh, Nate. Uh, no, we’ll get there in about a half hour.
Nate: We’ll get to Tartarus in a half hour?!
Nate: Okay. Put a pin in that.
Tim: Whether or not everyone is still here for that is yet to be determined! [laughing]
Nate: I’m just gone and you’re just talking.
Tim: So stick around if you want Tartarus.
Nate: It is cold in the garage right now, so if I’m just gone and if you notice that no one’s talking back, that’s probably what happened. I just left.
Tim: [laughing] Just me talking to myself in the shed. Okay, so what did Peter just do? He just referenced the Noah story, the flood story, and the Sodom and Gomorrah story as examples of how God was able to rescue Lot and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, rescue Noah and destroy everyone else, and he uses that as a paradigm for the future judgment. So just think about those paradigms. Did people who died in the flood and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, are they still burning today? They’re not. People died. So what he just did is he gave examples that very clearly paint the picture of annihilationism or in that ballpark of views of hell. Again, that’s in the Bible. So people aren’t making that up; I’m not spinning 2 Peter. That’s the clear, easy sense of interpretation. And then you have yet others that very clearly depict a sense and a hope for what we’ve called Christian universalism. So what we were talking about with David Bentley Hart, he roots his primarily in Genesis 1 and 2 and the idea of creation. He said if God creates everything, then philosophically all secondary causes can be traced back to their first cause. So we talked about the psychology of, if I’m in heaven and you’re burning in hell, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to really enjoy that place. But then think about the fact that if God has created and is willfully sustaining and artificially keeping that place in operation, that’s not just about my ability to enjoy heaven; that says something about God. So how can we say that God is good, God is just, God is merciful and simultaneously say that that is what God will be doing for the rest of eternity. So he roots part of his argument there. Some of the patristics, they looked at 1 Corinthians 15, and there’s a passage that talks about, it says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says that ‘everything’ has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him so God may be all in all.” This was a big one for Gregory, a big one for some of the Orthodox church world. How can God be all in all, or similarly, how can every tongue confess and knee bow if some of them are supposedly sitting in the next room over being tortured? How can you claim that all of existing creation is going to worship Yahweh, or in another passage in Colossians, that all of creation will be reconciled to God? These are New Testament proclamations of what they considered part of the gospel. So how can you say that that is true and also say that, “Well, actually not all of creation. Actually 95% of it’s going to be tortured next door”? So my point here is—
Nate: See, I always thought it was they bow down and they say yes, and then they have to go, “And then everyone in the back rows, exit now.” I always pictured that.
Tim: Right. The main point here, you could read people who say, have moved from an eternal conscious torment view to an annihilationist view, and a lot of those people say there are twenty or thirty verses, for instance the depiction that there’s a line and it’s either life one way or death the other way. There are twenty or thirty verses that’ll make it sound like hell is a kind of annihilation like that 2 Peter one we just read, and maybe two in the book of Revelation that sound like eternal conscious torment. You have others like David Bentley Hart who’ll say there are probably forty-five verses in the New Testament that if you just read them, you would be convinced that the writers were universalists. Again, not the universalists that believe there is no hell or there is no judgment, but universalists in the sense that God will one day succeed through judgment in saving and transforming everyone. And those same people will say there are a couple that sound like eternal conscious torment. The point is, most of the people that are honest aren’t going to say it’s all this or all that. They’re going to say, “If you just read this verse, yeah, that’s what you’d come away with. You’d come away with feeling like hell is going to be eternal punishment. But if you just read this verse, you’re gonna come away feeling like hell is going to be the end of life, existence.”
Nate: Okay, gotcha. Gotcha, gotcha. One little interjection there. When you said God will eventually succeed through judgment, that sounds a little bit like the torturing a person to get secrets out of them or something. Like, yes, if you torture someone long enough, they will eventually come to the other side and be like, “Okay! Just stop! I’ll worship you.” That to me still kind of sounds monstrous. So is there… do you mean something else than what is coming into my head when I hear ‘through judgment’?
Tim: I’m not trying to get you to think anything right now. I’m just trying to paint the picture of the pool is way bigger than we thought it was.
Nate: Gotcha. Okay.
Tim: So in our world, in evangelical world, and still there all these that think, Al Mohler for one will say that if you move from believing that hell is eternal conscious torment and using that eternal conscious torment as the main fear tactic to get people to believe in Jesus, that you are straying from the gospel, in his pushback against this new wave of people, conservatives, moving towards an annihilationist view. And then you’ll have other people like David Bentley Hart who, when they encounter C.S. Lewis’s view, who like, the Pipers of the world love C.S. Lewis, they hate what he said about hell. But even the David Bentley Harts of the world will say C.S. Lewis’s view is completely illogical and so rooted in tradition he wants nothing to do with. And all these people are Christians! You’ve got a broad spectrum, and all of this: C.S. Lewis, David Bentley Hart, Al Mohler, they’re all pulling this from interpretations of scripture. So we do this show because we have opinions on which interpretations are better, both out of biblical interpretive practices and out of the toxicity, the fruit, of those beliefs, right? So personally, this isn’t the point of the show, I’ll just say an annihilationist view to me is way more palatable than an eternal conscious torment view, and Christian universalism that many in the Eastern Orthodox tradition at least get close to if don’t outright believe, is to me the most loving and empathetic or empathy-driven view.
Nate: Okay, but I hear someone saying, “But who cares what you want it to be, which one sounds the best to you? What about the truth?” I hear this from people. They’re few, but what they say is like, “I want the truth, what’s the truth, though?” So Tim, what’s the truth?
Tim: [laughing] Okay, so for right now, this is one of the few times where I don’t actually care about my own opinion, and I don’t—put this on record: I don’t really care in this moment on this podcast whether people feel or think the same thing I do about hell. Here’s what I want to do. Even the word ‘hell’ is a symbol for how much we’ve over-simplified all of this. So the first thing I’m trying to do is paint the picture that, like I said, the pool is bigger, the amount of possible views—one quip people sometimes make about older streams of theology, for instance in the Eastern wing of the church, is their doctrine was the Apostle’s Creed. That was doctrine.
Nate: Right. You say that now and people are like, “Okay, and… ? What else? That’s like what, twelve lines?”
Tim: Yeah! The Apostle’s Creed is pretty simple. Yeah. Jesus died for us, descended into hell, was raised. Beyond that, what Hell is is not doctrine; it’s up for interpretation. So that’s very different than the stream that we’ve been in, where a specific view and how that view is used and how that view intersects with what we think Jesus accomplished on the cross, all of that is not just doctrine, but then that doctrine is connected to salvation. Some of the calls we received of people sharing their stories was that this topic is so scary to be on the table, because to get this topic wrong, the way we’ve been trained, feels like potentially you’re risking losing salvation, getting it wrong on hell.
Nate: Yeah, totally!
Tim: So that, I just want to say, that’s an evangelical way of thinking, that is a point of evangelical indoctrination. Feel free to get up and walk away from that. Where that takes you, I’m not overly concerned. The point is none of know for sure. So you’ve got people out there that are going to make philosophical or theological or scriptural arguments, and strongly, and I think they’re all worth listening to and there are voices that should be listened to more than others, especially for what those views end up saying about God and about Christianity, and how they end up shaping our hearts to feel towards our neighbors. But at the end of the day it’s like, you can choose for yourself what to believe. The Bible doesn’t tell us, “Here’s the outline,” and none of us knows. So here, what I want to do is look at how the Bible talks about this thing called hell. There is—
Nate: Is this where we get to Tartarus? Is this where we get to the pop tart startup?
Tim: Not… soon, yes.
Nate: Aw, dang it!
Tim: But just, there is no thing called hell in the Bible. There isn’t hell. There are various ideas that it wasn’t until several hundred years after Jesus, long after the scriptures were written, that people consolidated various ideas into one concept called hell. So what I want to do is back up, unpack those ideas, see the different meanings, and then move forward.
Nate: Erasing hell with Tim Ritter. Here we go!
Nate: Okay, so you mentioned the Tartarus thing, I know we’re going to get there eventually, but what other ways does… do the biblical writers talk about this thing? Before we consolidated it all into one, what are the options out there, what are the different things? And did it change? Did someone believe this thing, and then eventually they believed this other thing, or they talked about it this way and then another writer talks about it… what’s going on there?
Tim: Right. First piece is, like I said, there are two questions. We’ve lumped together and pretended, I think, or maybe just not thought about it so it seemed like there’s one question about what is the afterlife?
Nate: So it’s like, what happens after we die was the one, and then what happens to the bad people and the judgment, what is that thing?
Tim: Yeah. And the bigger question, how will God fix the world? Answer one is God will have to intervene, and part of that intervention is there are evil people here doing evil things, and evil people who did evil things in the past. Evil people right now who are scheming to do evil in the future. For God to fix this place and to heal humanity, to restore the world, God needs to deal with those people, right? So then you get into this piece of judgment. And that’s where I said, I’m not even going to give much air time to, I’m really not at all interested in Christians who have come to what I would call a liberal open universalist view, which is simply that there is no judgment, because I don’t think you have Christianity without judgment. And I more importantly don’t think you have justice without judgment. Change your views on hell, I’m happy to do that, but in terms of stripping the idea of ultimate justice, I don’t think that helps anybody. So for instance, Martin Luther King had six principles of nonviolence that the King Center still today uses these as the pillars of nonviolent resistance. And the sixth one on the list, the last principle, says, and I quote, “Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of judgment. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.” So there’s that line that the universe bends towards the arc of justice, right? And I think the idea is we don’t actually know if that’s true. We don’t know if the world is all that more just today than it was yesterday. You could make arguments for that. But at the heart of what Martin Luther King was saying was to have hope to actually work toward justice in a nonviolent manner following the nonviolent way of Jesus, you have to believe that there is this current of justice. Or in the line here, that “the universe is on the side of judgment.” You can’t just believe that everybody’s going to get away with whatever they’re going to get away with. You can’t build a life of justice based on that sort of futile view. So that whole piece to me, you’ve got that idea, that God has to help save the world by judging it, but the whole idea, where we get eschatology, the word eschaton, the end of the age and the new age, what that meant was that that time is somewhere in the future. Right? A lot of people have made the case that you can look at Paul’s writings, and he thought that Jesus was going to return very, very quickly. He thought the end of the age was going to happen in his own lifetime or in many people’s lifetimes that were around him. The point was, it’s some future event. It’s going to be the end of this age, God will enact judgment, and then the new age will begin. And the new heavens and the new Earth will be created. So the question, the second question is, what happens if I die before that event? Before that point in time? And what happens to all of the other people who have died in the past? And so Paul asks that question and tries to answer that question in part in some of his writings, but Jews and non-jews, like you were asking Nate, of other Near Eastern cultures, were of course just asking the question of what happens to us when we die, you know? It’s like five year olds ask that question without being taught to.
Nate: Does Cam know that things die yet?
Tim: Uh, animals. He doesn’t know about, I don’t think he knows that we die.
Nate: Yeah, same with Lucy. She doesn’t really understand. I think a worm died. She has this little bug container, and her worm died or something, and so she kind of… she still doesn’t really know what it means, I don’t think, but yeah. But people, she hasn’t been… That’s going to be, I just think about how traumatizing that really is to think as a kid to be introduced to death for the first time. It’s kind of huge.
Tim: Totally. He came home from the museum with my mom and there was this eagle exhibit, and they had a dead deer. You know, it’s fake, but in the exhibit to look like what eagles would be feeding on. And he came home and he’s like, “Dad, the deer died! The deer died!” And I was like shocked, I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I had just entered a world of parenting and having to comfort him. And he said it like six times and I finally go, “Cam, does that make you sad?” And he goes, “No.” [laughing]
Nate: [laughing] Problem solved!
Tim: Oh! Okay, so I have a sociopathic three year old! [laughing] So problem sort of averted and potentially much more disastrous problem looming.
Nate: Oh, that’s great.
Tim: Okay, so. What happens to us after we die? The answer is the Hebrew word sheol. And that word essentially has a whole bunch of connotations, imagery, connected to it. The pit; the grave; the pit becomes connected to cisterns, which were these dug out wells for holding water, just because they’re literally in the ground under the ground; the abyss. So the idea is it’s basically very similar to any sort of underworld ideology. It’s called the land of oblivion, the land of no return in 2 Samuel. It’s basically, it’s used 65 times in the Old Testament. It’s basically where when we die, our bodies go into the ground, which is obviously somehow connected to this ideology, and some part of me lives on in this sort of half-life state. So it’s not good; it’s not like I’m just living it up as if I was here in my own life. People want to avoid Sheol. There are all these cries. For instance, Hezekiah finds out he’s sick, he basically laments that he’s going to live his life, the rest of his remaining years, at the gates of Sheol, like right on the edge of death. So basically it’s death, it’s this sort of shadow existence, this sort of half-life, semi-human existence where you kind of don’t really know, but maybe there’s some consciousness of the world.
Nate: For all you Stranger Things fans out there, it’s the Upside Down.
Tim: The Upside Down, yeah. Basically it’s, this concept of Sheol is completely distinct from the idea of hell as a place of punishment. It’s basically synonymous with death. And especially this pit, cistern metaphor. So Joseph, when he gets thrown into a pit, and then he’s lifted up out of the pit, that’s a way of narratively depicting that Joseph died and rose again. Jeremiah gets thrown into a pit down in the ground. He doesn’t die, but he goes under the ground into the dirt and then comes up, and it’s a way presenting Jeremiah as a type of resurrected character. So Sheol is basically, you’re dying and you’re sort of living on and you’re sort of not. And so in Greek world, you have a very similar concept of the underworld called Hades. And Hades was both the name of the god that apparently ruled over this underworld, and then the place was just given that name. So then you actually have sections both in Revelation and in the New Testament and in Job and in Psalm 88 where it’s almost a direct parallel. There’s a word, abaddon, in Hebrew, and it says there’s an angel of the abyss in Revelation 9:11, there’s an angel of the abyss who acts as king over them named Abaddon, which is just the Hebrew word ‘destruction,’ and his name is Apollyon in Greek, and that same being gets referenced in Job. And it’s basically a replacement to Hades.
Nate: So they’re literally just borrowing from Greek mythology.
Tim: Cosmology. I mean, think about it! Everyone’s asking these questions, right? Everyone’s trying to figure out, “What is life? How does this work? What happens to us when we die?” And they shared some pieces and they differed in other pieces. But the idea is that it’s basically this parallel vague understanding. No one’s claiming they have the exact details on Sheol. That’s why you don’t have, again, either a book of Sheol, or the chapter of Sheol, or your map and outline in the back of the book, you know showing you your place in Sheol.
Nate: “You are here,” like the mall.
Tim: Yeah. [laughing] You’ve got a lot of people that eventually get bored and speculate on stuff like that, but it’s not part of the biblical texts. So the interesting piece is that the Septuagint, which is the original translation from Hebrew into Greek of the first five books, the Torah, of the Hebrew Bible. And then eventually the entire Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. Well, when it was translated from Hebrew to Greek, not only was the concept of Sheol similar to the concept of Hades, but they just used the word Hades to translate the word Sheol in most places. And then as you probably remember, the New Testament was written in Greek! So in the New Testament, when someone is talking about where you go after you die before God’s judgment, they use the word Hades. It’s used ten times. But here’s the problem: when you read your Bible in English, it says the word ‘hell.’ And it also says the word ‘hell’ when the word ‘Tartarus’ is used, which means something totally different, and it also says the word ‘hell’ when the word Gehenna is used, which is very, very different.
Nate: Okay, wait, wait, wait. Where does hell even come from, the word ‘hell’? This word that they’re all morphed into, where does that even come from?
Tim: That’s a good question… Uh, it’s Old English, so I believe the King James?
Nate: Ah, okay.
Tim: Yeah, I could be wrong here. If someone fact checks me and knows better, then please email me. But I suspect that the old King James was the first time this word showed up.
Nate: Tim’s notes are very long on this episode, but this is not included in it. I always try to like, break the notes and find something that you didn’t study. Okay, so there’s multiple words here that the biblical writers are using. Some from Greek, some from a pop tart startup. So why do they just say ‘hell’ for all of them?
Tim: Okay, so I can give the old King James slack—not flack, slack, because biblical scholarship was a long ways off hundreds of years ago. I cannot give modern translations slack on this. At this point, the reason three different words in the New Testament are all translated as ‘hell’ is because New Testament translators don’t want to make us uncomfortable by breaking away from tradition of one singular idea of hell. So they’re actually making a decision to keep tradition, even though it’s from several hundred years past the writing of these texts, to let that tradition shape the meaning they’re giving in English words, rather than the original intention of the authors. If you do any basic studies in any of the Bible software or any of the Bible dictionaries, there are very clear separations between all these words, and they show that they mean very different things. But you never get there when you’re just reading through the stuff in plain English.
Nate: Everyone knows that, anyone who knows anything about studying the Bible knows that, but we just all kind of agree to not… like, no one actually talks about this stuff.
Tim: Right. So okay, so first one, the first word is hades. That word is related to the first question, “What happens to me after I die?” I go, somehow, in some place that becomes essentially this waiting place. Once the idea of resurrection becomes more and more popular throughout Old Testament texts and then into the Intertestamental Period by the time of Jesus, you start getting language that Hades is this temporary place that we’ll be raised up from, and so then in the New Testament, the belief is that Jesus descended into Hades to liberate the imprisoned spirits that have been there from dying in the past, and Jesus now hold the keys to death and Hades. It’s what it says in Revelation 1:18. In other words, He can let everybody out. Because Jesus is the ultimate human, the vindicated human who pioneered through death, He now has the keys to let people out of Hades. So do you remember the weird thing in Matthew?
Nate: Oh, yeah, where Jesus is resurrected, and then a bunch of people just like, go free? A bunch of dead people just like, starting running away?
Tim: [laughing] Yes.
Nate: I’ve never heard someone talk about that in any compelling way.
Tim: And all the churches said, “Let’s never talk about that at all!” [laughing] Yeah, that’s the idea! Literally, Matthew’s just like, “Oh, yeah, and all these hundreds of people came up out of the grave and walked around through town, and because of that people thought Jesus was the Son of God.” So where does that idea come from? That idea comes from the idea that when you die we’re waiting around to be raised up from that death, and when Jesus died He spent three days in Sheol, in Hades, in the grave, and then brought people up out with Him. He was the first one to be resurrected from death, but the first of many.
Nate: Why do I remember people fighting so hard about whether or not Jesus descended into hell or not?
Tim: It’s… I don’t want to get into, it’s the stupidest argument. The Apostles’ Creed says, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to hell.” This would be Hades, if you were to ask people to get specific. “The third day He rose again from the dead.” So just look at the logic of the Apostles’ Creed. This is almost 2,000 years old now. He died, was buried in the ground in a tomb in the dirt, and at that point He descended to Hades because that’s what happens when you’re buried in the ground. And then He rose three days later. So the early beginning understanding is that what Jesus experienced during death was death. He was dead for three days! And what happens when you’re dead is you exist in Hades! So the argument is because… over whether Jesus descended into hell or not is in large part because we have this construct of hell, and then people are like, “Wait, why, did God punish Jesus in hell for three days? How does that make sense?”
Nate: Right right right.
Tim: That’s not what it’s saying. Jesus went to death for three days. He went into the abyss; He went into the grave.
Nate: Yeah, yeah. Okay.
Tim: So the other question though is, “How is God going to fix the place? What is judgment going to be like?” And then we have a totally separate word. So the way Hades is the answer to what happens to us after we die, Gehenna is a word, it’s basically just a transliteration of a Hebrew word, the valley of Hinnom.
Nate: Wasn’t that like the trash heap outside of Jerusalem?
Tim: Yeah, totally. I think this has been making its rounds recently and becoming more well known. First you have a few different stories, Old Testament, referring to the valley of Hinnom as the place where fires were burning because people were burning human bodies in child sacrifice to Moloch. And then in Jesus’s day and the hundred years or so leading up to Jesus’s day, this valley, which is just outside of Jerusalem, was the trash refuse heap. They didn’t have modern trash facilities, so they would burn their refuse. And so what do you have? Remember, the concept of heaven is the New Jerusalem, the perfect holy city that’s protected from the outside. It’s got strong walls so that no one can destroy the place, but it’s this imagery of evil won’t be in there. So it’ll be this city free of evil, empowered to rule the world. It’s the perfect pairing to Jerusalem’s trash dump, which is a burning pile of crap, right? So Jerusalem becomes the image for the new world, the new heaven, the new earth. Gehenna is just this loaded perfect imagery for the anti-paradise. So the New Jerusalem is to be the new garden of Eden, the paradise, and Gehenna is the anti-paradise, or the anti-life. The anti-heaven. So if you just think about it, for anybody who’s living near Jerusalem, for any Judean, this has become a loaded cultural term. And I tried to come up with an example, you might have a good one, I didn’t have any that didn’t just end up sounding derogatory toward some town in California I don’t like. [laughs] But, okay—
Nate: [laughing] It’s Bakersfield! It’s Fresno!
Tim: Right. I made a joke about Disneyland last time. Say everyone was as introverted and crowd-shy as I am and does not like spending time in hot Los Angeles with millions of people around, and because—
Nate: It’s DMV!
Tim: [laughs] Yeah, okay DMV’s a good one. Better than Disneyland.
Nate: [laughing] No one, I don’t know anyone, I don’t think even the people that work there are like, “Yeah, DMV, let’s go hang out!”
Tim: [laughing] So it’d be like saying, “You, you’re a good person. I hope you end up in the New Jerusalem in paradise. And you over there? I hope you live in the DMV forever.” Or as Jesus would say to some people, “You are a son of the DMV. That’s how much of a jerk you are.”
Nate: [laughs] And your number’s never getting called.
Tim: Right. So again, this is hard to see if you’re just reading an English translation. If you have any sort of, if you read this digitally you can doubleclick and see the Greek word behind. So when you see hell, you can do a little doubleclick and see whether this is Hades or Gehenna. Basically all of the scary judgment texts, or to put it differently, anytime Jesus gets angry and starts yelling and threatening people, He’s talking about Gehenna. And essentially anytime Jesus sees evil He starts yelling about Gehenna. And this is just another I was saying a Christianity without judgment is a neutered ideology for the elite. Jesus believed that one of the key pieces to good news for the world was that evil religious oppressors like the people who killed Him and the people who were stealing money from the poor and corroborating with the state power to keep their own people down, the Pharisees and the rulers, the Herods of the world, that these people were going to experience something like life in that burning trash heap.
Nate: Okay, so let’s take a specific story. He goes into the temple, He starts flipping tables. Does He say something there about this?
Tim: Uh yeah, let’s see. So I’ll read a few examples. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” Okay, so here we’re talking about judgment. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Again, that word is Gehenna, the fire of Gehenna. So this isn’t about the question of, “Hey, Jesus, what will happen to my body and my soul when I die?” This is Jesus getting really mad, seeing evil, and saying, “You’re in danger of experiencing utter torment like if you were in that fire pit over there.” Or a few verses later, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into [Gehenna].” So because I’m not interested in trying to get anybody to move to my opinion right now, I’m not even going to try to say whether or not I think Jesus sounds nice or not nice in these passages. These passages sound scary, right? There’s another, Matthew 10. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in [Gehenna].” So Gehenna is an image for God’s judgment on evil. It’s very separate from Hades, which is simply a holding place answering the more pragmatic question, almost the mathematical question now that so many billions of us have been alive on this earth, is “Where do we all go when we die and what do I experience?” So here’s part of why it’s absolutely crazy that the Bible translates these words as hell. The book of Revelation says that hell gets thrown into hell. [laughing] The book of Revelation is using this imagery. Revelation 20:13-14 is the image, and actually I think we’re all familiar with this. It’s one that I remember singing and celebrating in churches. Hades and death gets thrown into Gehenna. Hades gets thrown into the lake of fire. So fire is this image of judgment, painful harsh judgment on evil. Starts way back in the Old Testament, goes into the New. Again, to get into the ECT versus annihilationist view, some passages were interpreted, “Oh, the fire’s burning forever and will never be put out, so it’s this ongoing torment.” Most other people said, “No, fire’s just an imagery for harsh judgment that leads to destruction.” So when Sodom and Gomorrah burned, they’re not still burning. They burned down and they’ve been dead for several thousand years now. To move beyond that, what Revelation has in mind is part of the end of where all this is headed is Hades and death itself gets thrown into Gehenna to be judged. Like, what’s the logic here? Basically if we translate this according to how they translate the rest of the New Testament, you’re saying hell gets thrown into hell. The point is that death wasn’t supposed to be here. Death is the last enemy to be overcome, right? To heal humanity. Hades is simply the place connected with death. That’s just where you go when you die. And it doesn’t need to be here; it’s not part of the plan of creation because death wasn’t part of the plan of creation. So when Jesus and God fix everything, they will actually, the last thing they will be fixing through judgment is death and Hades. And it will be eliminated because it has no need anymore because no one will be dead and need to be living there. Right?
Tim: So you basically have these two concepts. And here’s why, to get back to the fear thing where we started this conversation, of there’s this terrible tension in Christianity that it’s supposed to be eliminating fear but what it’s been for so many of us is producing this fear. You basically have fear of death, which Hebrews 2 says is the thing that has enslaved humanity and Jesus came to liberate us from that fear. That’s what’s wrong with us is we’re afraid of dying, one of the main things, and Jesus came to liberate us from that. But then you have this other thing, the fear of the Lord, which Jesus and Paul and that same author of Hebrews, they are in no way saying that that should go away. So what that means to them, fear of the Lord is the fear that there will be judgment, that you cannot do evil in this world and get away with it. You know, even just this morning I was reading Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, and he has this beautiful line as he’s trying to encourage—this was way back early twentieth century—trying to encourage marginalized, oppressed, disinherited, enslaved people, or socioeconomically enslaved people, to live beautiful courageously lives. He said basically, “What we need to do is be less afraid of people, our oppressors, and fear God.” And what he means by that is to be ruthlessly committed to nonviolence, to doing good in the face of evil, to being better than they are trying to make us be. So that’s what he means, fear of God is integrity. It’s being a good person because you don’t think you can get away with victimizing and abusing your neighbor because you know that if you do that, one day you’ll be held accountable for it. That stays in place as much for Christians as it does for non-Christians. Being saved, praying the prayer, whatever that means, in the mind of all the New Testament writers, does not mean you’re supposed to eliminate that fear, because we all, again this is Paul, will face a judgment for our actions. The thing that’s called the fear of death that Jesus and Christianity’s supposed to eliminate us from is connected with Sheol. So the fear of the Lord is connected to Gehenna, it’s this idea of judgment. Fear of death is connected to what we all just intrinsically fear. It’s like, “Am I going to lose everything that’s ever meant anything to me? Will I ever get to see my loved ones again? Will life have any meaning or will it all just be hevel? What is this experience called death? Will life continue on after this? Is it all just blackness and meaninglessness? Do I just go into the void?” So the idea inherent in the Christianity of the resurrected Christ is that we can stop being afraid of that because we can look forward to a paradise life after this life. The Gehenna idea—that’s all connected to Sheol or Hades—the Gehenna idea is that all of us, Christian or non-Christian, will one day face accountability from a higher power than ourselves, and if we’re an evil victimizer of those around us, we will have to deal with that. So you can see how those two views have gotten lumped together into what we call hell, right? But you can see how if you parse them back, they’re two pretty different ideas. Especially if, you know, the book of Revelation can image hell being cast into hell, then it certainly seems like we should back up and separate these things a little bit. Especially if the fear connected to both of these ideas is totally different and one is supposed to maintain and one is supposed to go away?
Tim: Right? That’s an important piece, especially as we talk about the fearmongering and fear tactics in conservative evangelicalism.
Nate: Okay. This is a lot. And we had planned maybe two episodes. I think we’re going to need at least one more to talk through all this stuff. Because I just had a question that I’m not going to have you answer now, because we need to end this episode. But you said evil victimizers of those around us, those are going to be the people that are judged. Aren’t we all evil victimizers of those around us, even in small ways? And then at what level on that… This is where it’s compelling to just say, “Hey, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, you’re all sinners. You’re all horrible rotten sinners and you’re in need of… there’s nothing you could do, even if you tried to do good your whole life and you never did anything wrong, you already have a sin nature!” They have an answer for that too, right? So we gotta talk about this, but let’s do that next time on the Hell series as we continue. If you have any questions or pushbacks or thoughts or want to share your story, you can do that all at almostheretical.com. And if you want to help us continue making more of these shows, you can give a couple bucks a month to help, and you can do that there as well, just click the give button in the corner. Subscribe to the show so you never miss an episode. Tim, do you have anything else to say?
Tim: We didn’t get to Tartarus, so tune back in next time for…
Nate: Oh! Yeah, yeah, the pop tart startup. Next time! We’ll do it. Alright, later friends!
Tim: [laughing] If you want to help us start that pop tart startup, you can give.
Nate: [laughing] I think it’s going to have to be drones. Right? So like, drones, and they just come right to your window in your office?
Tim: Pop tart deliveries?
Nate: You reach out the window, you grab it. Yeah. And then it’s warm…
Tim: [laughs] Peace, y’all.