This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.
I recently read an article from a guy who said that Jesus was the “Great Theologian of Hell.”
The problem is that hell is never once mentioned in the Bible.
I know this may be a shocking statement, because that is what you have heard your entire life. But the idea of being punished for eternity in hell did not develop until the 5th Century and it was by a bishop from Hippo name Augustine, who began to paint a picture of a retributive God that sends the unrepentant to the fiery underground.
And as you know, fear can be an effective method in controlling people.
Enter the Roman Empire and Roman Catholicism.
The government and the church.
With the concept of hell flourishing within those two great superpowers of the world at the time, and also subsequently spreading into Protestantism much later, it is no wonder that hell quickly became the pervasive belief in Christianity throughout the world.
But eternity in hell is not a belief original to the Early Church.
Understanding this context helps us see how biblical translations can be significantly influenced by what people already believe at the time they are translated.
And since the belief of a retributive god that punishes people for eternity in hell was the predominant theology in Christendom from the 5th Century, then that would be the obvious lens one would use to translate the Bible.
Enter King James.
When the Bible was translated into English in the 16th century, the Olde English word helle (pagan word for the abode of the wicked after death) was the single word used in place of four completely different Hebrew and Greek words, each with differing meanings.
Those words are Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartaroo.
These are the original words from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. You will notice that it is not one single word being translated as helle, but rather four distinct words, each with different meanings and cultural contexts, that were combined to construct the idea of eternity in hell.
Interestingly, of the four words mentioned above, only one word is from Hebrew. It is Sheol.
Even more interestingly, Sheol means grave.
And what we find is that it is a place where both the righteous and unrighteous dead go upon death (because both righteous and unrighteousness people die and are buried).
That’s why there is no Jewish conception of eternity in hell. Because the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible (our Old Testament) does not conceive of such an idea.
One ought to pause at this fact alone.
If the tradition in which Jesus was born and raised did not even have the belief of eternity in hell, did the “Great Theologian of Hell” just invent it?
The answer is no, because the notion of eternity in hell is a man-made fiction.
Even more disturbing is the selective bias of the King James translation.
While the word Sheol is mentioned over 70 times in the Old Testament, it is only translated as hell half of the time.
Why is that?
Because it does not fit the already developed idea of eternity in hell.
If both the righteous and unrighteous dead go to Sheol, what does a translator do when the passage suggests that there are righteous people there? Do they translate it as hell? Do they really put the righteous people in Hell?
Of course not. They translate it as grave.
Here is a perfect example of the problem (among many) and the inherent bias of translation.
In Genesis 37, it states that when Joseph died, his father, Jacob, exclaimed, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in Sheol.”
Is Joseph in hell? Does Jacob long to go to an eternity burning in hell? Of course not.
It can’t be grave sometimes and eternity in hell at others times. It is disingenuous. There are not two meanings. It is just grave.
To add to the madness, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek language, the word Sheol was translated to the Greek word Hades. And in the Greek world, Hades was widely known as the mythological god of the underworld who ruled with his wife, Persephone, in the “house of Hades.”
I know they did the best they could, but translating Sheol to Hades picked up a lot of extra mythological baggage. But it should not be lost on us that the original Hebrew word, Sheol, still means the grave. It is the dwelling place of both the righteous and unrighteous dead. And it signifies the singular problem that ultimately needs to be resolved- death.
So when you read the verse in Revelation that says, “Then death and Hades (read Sheol or the grave) were thrown into the lake of fire,” it is indicating that the last thing to be finally conquered and defeated is death.
That is why early believers in Christ knew that their ultimate hope was a deliverance from DEATH, not a rescue from an eternity being tormented in HELL. Even more, they knew that their future hope was, not going to a spiritual heaven when they died, but resurrecting to new, physical life at the renewal of all things.
That is why the parable of The Sheep and Goats is so fascinating. Because it gives us insight into the resurrection of all people, both the just and unjust, and God’s judgment and punishment at the renewal of all things.
The parable tells of a future in which Christ gathers the nations together and separates them into two groups- the sheep and the goats, the favored and the unfavored, the just and the unjust.
But according to the upside-down justice of God, those who are determined to be truly “just” are those who gave hospitality to the stranger, those who clothed the naked, and those who visited the sick and imprisoned.
And it is to the “just” that the King will say, “Come, you blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the cosmos.”
But here is the kicker.
Those who actually perceived themselves to be “righteous” and “just” are actually the goats, or the unfavored, because they are those who ignored the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned during their time on earth.
It is this group of “goats” who will not be welcomed into the Kingdom, but will “go away to eternal punishment.” For the King will say to them, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
This parable ought to be eye-opening for everyone, especially the religious.
Is this passage suggesting that the “eternal fire” is an eternity in hell? Do those who practice empty religiosity and ignore the cause of the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned burn in the underworld with the wicked, the devil, and the fallen angels? Based upon what we know about the nature and character of God, is this “eternal fire” a retributive punishment, or could it be a refining fire that leads to the restoration of a person? Is Jesus really the “Great Theologian of Hell” or the “Great Restorer of All?”
In HELL 9, we will look at how a better understanding of Gehenna will help us understand, not what is typically translated as and believed to be, everlasting punishment, but something entirely different with the hope of restoration at its very heart.