The following is from a friend who started asking about hell. It’s a common enough theme that I thought others might appreciate. -CL
“I have a friend who says he is a Christian and is always asking me challenging questions that I do not know the answers to. He and I are both growing and we both want to know the truth more. Last week we were talking about hell and the end of the world stuff, and the following questions came about. Would you mind telling me what you think?
1. When did Hell begin to exist?….. From my quick study and quick reading found nothing on Hell before Matthew. I guess that it must have been there since creation but is there a verse?
2. Are Hell and Hades the same or different?…. Again from my reading and understanding is that at least they are similar if not the same. They are both mentioned as places of condemnation and torment.
3. Is there a Scripture that talks about Jesus taking the keys of hell?… Maybe this is just something we Christians believe or have learned?I thought I read that Jesus went into hell and took the keys. Maybe it was popular thought?
Any thought or help on these ideas will be great. I look forward to your reply.” -DJJ
Thanks for your questions. Good questions rarely deserve short answers, but I will do my best without writing a novel.
1) When did hell begin? I think it is important to note that the Bible is relatively nondescript about Hell for a reason: the Bible’s focus is not on getting us to avoid hell (or be afraid of it), but rather to get us to focus on God, serve him and serve each other, and encourage us that when all is said and done, we’ll spend eternity with him. Hell is just a byproduct of rejecting God, and he does not “send” us there as far as I can tell, for humans’ conscious rejection of God sends themselves to “hell,” whatever it is.
There is also a significant Christian tradition of understanding hell, not as a place where people live eternally, but where they go to die the “second death” once and for all. This line of thought points out that only those redeemed by Jesus are promised “eternal life.” Stated another way, many popular Christian conceptions of hell are inconsistent because they posit that the tormented suffer forever, but to live eternally (even if being tortured) is still to have eternal life, and that is not what the Bible, nor Jesus communicates. I find this to be a valid argument, especially if forever means non-existence rather than agonizing, conscious pain.
This is not to say that “hell” does not exist, but it may not exist in the way Western Christians have thought since the debut of Dante’s Inferno and his seven circles of hell. PS: All the imagery of red-suited, pitchfork carrying chaps with firey-eyes and cloven-feet are inventions of the Medieval mind of Western civilization, not the Bible.
I think a more accurate and biblically consistent version of hell is a firey pit or “lake” of sorts where those who have rejected Jesus are annihilated and cease to exist. Christians call this “eternal separation from God,” for apart from God there is no life at all. Present humans on planet earth (even if they are not Christians) experience life to a certain degree because God holds all things together and has not withdrawn his life force from anyone (who is alive), see Colossians 1:16-17 for a reference point.
Heaven, on the other hand, is where we experience the fullness of life as God originally intended, and we do so in the complete absence of sin and presence of perfection for all creation (not just humans). In this paradigm, hell is totally devoid of life, earth is a mix between life and death (the place where we choose), and heaven is the fullness of life. I think it is more helpful to think of hell as a mass grave, rather than as a mass torture chamber. Either way, it is a place that we should best avoid.
2) What are the different names for what we call “Hell” in English that are found in the Bible?
Sheol is most often used in the Old Testament and is Hebrew for the netherworld, the abode of the dead. It’s derived from the verb šʾh, which literally means “to be extinguished,” or “to have significant misfortune.” The latter of which is probably a serious understatement.
Hades was the Classical Greek term that carried over into Jesus’ day and was popular among the religious verbiage aside from Judeo-Christian culture. It was also the name of the god of the underworld.
Gehenna: Strictly speaking this is a Latin term, but has its roots in a Koine Greek use of the Hebrew word gê hinnōm. So yes, it is a Hebrew-Greek-Latin word. Its use was most common among first century Christians and Jews.
Hell is English (der) for these biblical usages. They are all colloquial expressions of the same idea: a nasty, brutish place where death reigns. They were originally thought of as a specific place or realm (the Valley of Hinnom was an actual place, used as a proxy for the pit of death), but I am fairly certain that it is a mistake to think that it is a geographical location in the universe (or beyond). It’s use is more figurative than literal as far as I know.
3. Is there a Scripture that talks about Jesus taking the keys of hell? Yes, there is, but I would caution against taking this too literally or reading too much into it. It is likely to be a useful metaphor for Christ’s unparalleled authority, but I’ll let you decide on that. Rev. 1:18 “I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” Many translations say “death and Hades.”
Finally, I think it is important to note that God is the God of perfect justice. Those who are covered by the blood of Christ receive the justice that he was due (eternal life). Those who are not covered by Jesus receive the justice that they are due (eternal death). But the popular, Evangelical conception of hell is that people live forever as their flesh slowly burns off, only to be reconstituted, just to burn off again and again forever and ever. Given this popular imagery (and one that is not found in the Bible), I think it is fair to ask if a god known for his perfect justice would allow a person (even if by their own decision to reject Him) to suffer infinitely as a result of a finite period of rebellion in life? To put it another way, let’s say that a person lives to be 100 years old and for those 100 years, they were a miserable, rotten person who purposefully rejected Jesus and sinned as much as he or she could. At the end of their life they face judgment. Is it perfect justice to make them suffer unspeakable pain for 100-Bazillion years (and beyond) for their 100 years of badness? I am inclined to say “no.”
There are many Christians who disagree about the issue of hell, but my experience with most of the ones who conceive of it as a real place where people suffer physical torture forever is that they cannot fathom a mercy-killing from God and think that some people do indeed deserve to suffer eternally regardless of a finite life of sin. It is interesting that they want grace for themselves but eternal pain for others. I find that to be a little too convenient and grounded in human vengeance and bitterness, but not God’s perfect justice. However, the bottom-line is that none of us know exactly how hell does or does not work, and I would be extremely cautious towards anyone who acts like they have it all figured out. That includes me, so please don’t mistake my inclinations as the only Christian way to understand hell and its use in the Bible. I am doing my best, just like everyone else.