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Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Hell Jesus Really Meant I: The Old Testament

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Luke 12:4-7

There are fifty-four occurrences of the word “hell” in the King James Version of the Bible. In the Old Testament, the word is exclusively the Hebrew “Sheol”, which is what you will see in many modern translations. The New Testament words for hell are the Greek words “gehenna” (primarily), “hades” and “tartarus” (only once in 1st Peter).

What is this hell that Jesus speaks of? The first thing we have to do is determine when Jesus is speaking and isolate those, right? Well, yes and no. If we want to know what he meant by hell, we have to look at how he used it – but because Jesus was God incarnate, the very words of Scripture are His words, and thus every use of it in the Bible is the hell that Jesus meant. Attempts to separate Jesus’ words from other words in the Bible deny his divinity and/or the inspiration of Scripture, neither of which we are willing to do here at Team Hammer headquarters.

Yet, for those who think that somehow we should differentiate, I don’t think the answer changes. Jesus Christ was not only God, he was a Jewish man in 1st century Palestine. The OT use of the word “Sheol” was the way that the Jewish people would think of hell. Culturally, there would certainly have been some influence of Roman and Greek thought in the intertestamental period, so gehenna and hades have meanings of their own that are relevant as well, but we have to start with Sheol.

The concept of Sheol is introduced in Deuteronomy 32, which is the song that God teaches Moses to teach to Israel. The song does not reflect liberal theology.

“The Lord saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, For they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.”

God continues with an explanation of the kinds of things his wrath brings – not only fire, but sorrow, wounds, pestilence, hunger, plague, disaster, venom and the teeth of wild beasts. We need to keep in mind that this song is, in fact, poetry. The intent of all of these descriptors is not to say that specifically all of these things will come to pass, but that bad things will happen when people do not serve the one true God. What can we discern about hell from this song? Hell is a bad place where bad things are happening. It is true that this fire is metaphorical, and thus from Deuteronomy we cannot say that there is any fire in hell. What we know for sure is that it is, in fact, bad.

In 2nd Samuel 22, David sings a song to the Lord rejoicing in his deliverance. Sheol here is paired with death and destruction. Not only is Sheol bad, but it is as bad as we can imagine. What is worse than death to our minds? What is worse that destruction? Job mentions Sheol twice, and pairs it with its ruler in Job 26 – the same ruler, Abaddon, of Revelation 9, who is described there as the ruler of the bottomless pit. In fact, pit is one of the translations of the word “Sheol” in the KJV. Thus we see that Sheol is associated with death, yet also a place that is inescapable – a bottomless pit.

The Psalms make our picture of Sheol more clear. It is a place for souls, and more specifically, the souls of the wicked (Ps 9:17, 55:15). It is a place that the righteous one will not be in. The Proverbs make it clear the Sheol is not a place of everyone by definition, for it is sin that leads to Sheol. Isaiah and Ezekiel reinforce these further ideas – a place of the wicked dead, whose iniquities still lie upon them. Apparently, the dead in Sheol yet live in some fashion, for they can be seen by the most high God. The OT stands united in its description of Sheol as a place of the wicked dead which is, simply, bad.

Does this change in the NT? Are we released from a view of a hell that is bad, that is a realm of the wicked? Is that “The Hell That Jesus Never Meant?” Or in the Incarnation, as he does in many other things, does Jesus explain to us more about hell than we ever knew before, just as he tells us more about God, man, sin and salvation than we knew before Him?

Tune in next time to see…


  • Bravo, Teamhammer!

    I love it...but, of course...I'm funny like that with the truth.

    God Bless you and your family during this glorious Passion Week! My reflections on His sacrifice leave me almost overwhelmed at times. Take care!

    By Blogger Rightthinker, at 4/05/2007 05:14:00 PM  

  • Hammer,
    Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with your exegesis. First, the song of Moses you quote is physical, not metaphorical. It doesn't promis these things after death but right here, on Earth. To the children and the children's children. You can' justify a "hell after death" from there.

    Second, the Psalms also contain various references to all the dead being in Sheol, that the dead are gone, that the dead do not praise God ("who can praise God in the grave?"). These references are not to the wicked dead only but to all of them. There was a strong current in Judaism (and in the OT) saying that death was the end and there was no afterlife. The promises of God to Abraham were all for this world. We see this in the Sadducees of Jesus' own day. Now, Jesus clearly disagreed with them, but the strand of thought is there and must be reckoned with.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 4/06/2007 03:36:00 AM  

  • Sorry, not typing clearly (blame the illness). The last sentence of the first paragraph should obviouly be "You can't justify..."

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 4/06/2007 03:37:00 AM  

  • John,
    Thanks for weighing in. Your comments always help me to be more clear.

    The song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 certainly describes physical consequences. However, I think you, of all people, are not going to insist on uniform literalism, are you? Every passage has a context, and context is king. One
    significant part of the context is the literary form. This "song" is poetic and prophetic. Consider, "May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew" - nothing literal there, a simile. "He made him ride on the high places of the land" - are we to assume that Israel /Jacob never rode in a valley? "You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you" - hmmm. Tough time selling any literalism there.

    No, the song is a poetic warning to God's people about the dangers of forsaking his way. The particular reference to hell shows only two things in this context - that it is a place (it is part of a triplicate of hell, the earth, and the mountaintop, all locations where man may be or seek to escape God's wrath), and it is not safe from God's wrath. We cannot say there is fire, and we cannot say it is a place after death - but we can say it is a place where people would be.

    Assertions without support are not arguments. Show me the Psalm that declares that all the dead are in Sheol. I agree that none can praise God from hell - that is a Scriptural fact, not a justification for assuming annihilation. Whether we assume hell is annihilation, a location of "absence of God" or a fiery eternal torment, all three prevent those there from praising God. Such a good thing would be absent in every case.

    Proverbs 15:24 indicates that the righteous avoid hell. The messianic Psalm 16 clearly indicates that hell is a place, for the Lord will not allow the soul of his Holy One to remain in hell. Job 11:8 contrasts heaven, a place, with hell, a place. Of course neither have postal codes, but they are places where beings exist.

    No, the OT does not fully support an NT picture of hell. It also does not contradict it. It does support all the things I mention - that hell is a place, that it is bad, and that the wicked are there.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/10/2007 10:11:00 PM  

  • Hammer,
    Yes, we can take the passage poetically. However, what we can't do is to transfer the penalties simply from this life to eternal conscious torment after death. That is, the passage doesn't do what you wanted, which is to support any idea of Hell as a place where the dead go.

    It shows that there are consequences to failing to follow God's way - but those consequences are without exception envisioned as being part of this world. This is why we so often see language where God visits punishment for sin on "children and children's children": all consequences are in this world.

    As for the Psalms, I was thinking of verses like:

    Ps 6:5
    "For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?"

    Ps 30:8-9
    "I cried to thee, O LORD; and unto the LORD I made supplication. 9What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?"

    Ps 88:4-5,10-11
    "I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength: 5Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand...10Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? 11Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?"

    These verses do not seem to be talking of the wicked dead but of death in general. They clearly see death as annihilation - the dead will not praise God, nor remember Him. They will not see God's wonders. And not the wicked dead only - there's no hint of that from the context.

    I'm not saying, remember, that Hell is annihilation. Just that we cannot assume that every OT reference to death or the grave or Sheol assumes the same picture.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 4/12/2007 04:36:00 PM  

  • John,
    You are right - I overstepped my bounds in the initial post regarding the passage in Deuteronomy. My previous comment here is what I should have written - it supports Sheol as a place, and a place that is not exempt from the wrath of God. The consequences that follow are not transferable to Sheol in that context.

    The problem with your inferences are that you go beyond what the Scriptures say. They are explicit that the wicked go to Sheol. They are not explicit that everyone goes there.

    Let's just consider the three selections you chose, which I assume would be the strongest for your point.

    Psalm 6:5 points out that those who experience death and hell are indeed unable to praise God. This would be in direct contrast to those who have eternal life. I am not implying that the Psalmist understood heavenly rewards. I am, however, sticking what is written and contextually intended. The Psalmist is imploring God to save him. We can only make up what the Psalmist was thinking, but his intent was clearly that to suffer death and Sheol would be to end all good things in his life and relationship with God.

    Psalm 30:8-9 is very similar. Those in the pit no longer can praise God nor declare his truth.

    Psalm 88:4-5 , describing how the Psalmist is feeling in his despondency, proclaims the truth that those who God remembers no more, who are cut off from his hand, are in an awful state.

    Perhaps my point would simply be that it is certainly possible that many believed that all would go to Sheol. Yet, if it were true, we would not have to infer it. It is explicit that the wicked go there, that those there do not praise God, and that it is bad. Those three we can certainly agree upon.

    In contrast, your assertion that all of God's judgment is temporal/physical demonstrates a classic misunderstanding of OT theology. Why have a law that proscribes punishments if God will punish? Why are Job's three friends upbraided by the Almighty for their foolish theology - a theology that reflects exactly what you say, that God would punish the wicked here and now and bless the righteous here and now?

    If you are saying that many Jews believed that, I would agree. However, I cannot agree that the testimony of Scripture stands with you. Why in Psalm 139, does the Psalmist beg for a temporal judgment against the wicked, if God will do it already? No, any man with a mind about them sees the wicked prosper.

    I encourage you to meditate upon the 73rd Psalm. The Psalmist expresses his frustration, in that he has believed precisely what you claim the OT testifies, yet he has seen the wicked prosper until the moment of their death. He takes comfort that, contrary to your position that all will go to death, destruction and Sheol, that "For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you."

    The psalmist, like us, knows that everyone dies. Thus, the perishing and putting to an end that is applied to those who are far from God and unfaithful to him clearly mean something else - something worse.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/12/2007 11:49:00 PM  

  • Hammer,
    You are inserting phrases into those psalms I quoted that aren't present. There's no hint that the psalmist is talking about Hell. He's talking about death and the grave, in the same sentence. Unless you know different (as you know, I don't speak Hebrew and have to take the translation as accurate), these verses clearly speak of death and the grave in general - there's no hint that only the wicked are in view here. Indeed, the fact that both "death" and "the grave" are referred to means that Sheol cannot be in mind.

    In other words, you're assuming the position you're supposed to be defending. I have quoted verses that indicate (it seems to me) that death generally is being seen as being cut off from God. As I said originally, there is more than one picture of death being shown here. This challenges your assertion that there is a single coherent view.

    I'm not saying that they cannot be read through the lens you are using - but that, by doing so, you are adding something to the verses that they simply don't contain, in order to make them match up. In other words, your process of interpretation is rather loose and not what I usually expect from someone with your views on the Bible.

    I'm also not saying that all of God's judgement is for this world - merely that there is a distinct strand of the OT that sees things in this way. It's a view that changes, becomes rarer, as time goes on and Israel comes to know God better. The idea of a judgement after death becomes more common, and is also reflected in the Psalms (as you have shown). It's a mistake, though, to assume that the Psalms (even more than the rest of the Bible) speak with a single voice.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 4/13/2007 03:34:00 AM  

  • John,
    I understand that you seldom prefer to pick a position and deny other contending ones. I actually don't find my position to be terribly exclusive of some of the things you mention.

    There is a significant degree of temporal judgment - in fact, it is even greater than the picture of eschatological judgment. There is a (true) picture of death as being cut off from God. Yet I have not presented either of those as untrue. What I proposing is that the OT description of Sheol is one of a place, in which the wicked will end up, which is bad.

    Also, I'm not "inserting phrases that are not present". The word in the 6th Psalm is Sheol. In the 88th, verse 3 declares that Sheol is what is being described. "Abaddon" is the place of destruction. Because the Hebrew text is numbered differently than the version you use, I read Sheol from verse 3 there - but it still is applicable. I think you will agree that sound doctrine (whether you think it important or not) is not arrived at by picking and choosing verses and divorcing them from their context.

    The interchangeability of terms such as grave, pit, and hell as translations of Sheol demonstrate its use - a place of the dead. Hebrew possesses verb and adjectival forms to describe death and the state of being dead. Sheol does more than this - it says where they are and that it is unpleasant.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/17/2007 11:49:00 AM  

  • Hammer,
    "I understand that you seldom prefer to pick a position"

    That's a bit unfair. We've debated quite a few things where I supported specific positions. The difference here is that I'm not disagreeing with your point - this article is an introduction. What I'm doing is trying to see any weaknesses in your arguments. If they are there, removing them can only strengthen your point. If you can't remove them, perhaps there's something wrong with the position you're suggesting.

    "Because the Hebrew text is numbered differently than the version you use, I read Sheol from verse 3 there"

    I quoted from the KJV, because I know it's the version you prefer. If that's not useful, let me know and I'll use something else.

    "The word in the 6th Psalm is Sheol."

    My problem with that is that the translation is using two words in very close proximity - "death" and "grave". Surely they cannot both be "Sheol"? Or are you saying that, every time one of these words is used, the Hebrew says "Sheol"? If so, why have the translators apparently gone to great lengths to avoid making the implication that you are drawing (that Hell is meant in each case)?

    Similarly, in Psalm 88, again we get several words: "the pit", "the dead", "the slain", "the grave". These cannot all be "Sheol". Even if verse 3 uses "grave" for "Sheol" (thanks for that detail), I can't see that as limiting what follows. Indeed, the psalmist's whole point seems to be to make it as clear as possible that he means all the dead. He even counts himself among them - surely he isn't saying that he is one of the wicked? How, if so, can he say that God has done this to him and ask for relief?

    Psalm 30 introduces yet another word: "dust". The psalmist clearly indicates that if he is destroyed and goes down to the pit, he will become dust (a clear reference to man being made from the dust, and returning to dust when he dies). There's no suggestion that his destruction arises from his wickedness - quite the reverse, in fact. So, he is seeing "the pit" not as the destination of the wicked but as his own narrowly avoided fate - avoided not by his own repentance but by God's mercy. If he's still destined to go to Hell with the wicked, the rejoicing just doesn't make sense. Conversely, if he was wicked and is now righteous, why is there not the slightest hint of this in the psalm? If this is the point he's making, I'd really expect to see some evidence of it.

    My point is not that you are wrong about what the situation is really like. Nor am I saying that we do not read the picture you suggest in many places in the OT. I am making the simple point that there are also other pictures in the OT. These pictures are not easily conflated with the idea of the good and the wicked being separated after death for eternal glory or eternal torment. There is a definite strand that says that death is the end and there's nothing thereafter. To ignore that means that we'll misread portions - as you are in danger of doing to these psalms, it seems to me. The point isn't whether we can force them into the "Sheol = Hell" mould, but whether that is the mindset from which they were written.

    pax et bonum

    (I had a real ordeal getting this posted. Google have changed their system and my old login no longer worked - I eventually had to convert it to a new "Google account".)

    By Blogger JohnP, at 4/18/2007 11:37:00 AM  

  • John,
    I tried to summarize the conclusions here in the first paragraph of the following post. I don't deny that the OT leaves a lot of loose ends with regards to death and hell, and don't have an issue with your concluding paragraph.

    KJV is fine. I use the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures to do the exegesis, and I am pretty sure that all English versions have that verse shift.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 4/21/2007 12:34:00 AM  

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