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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/22/09

The Origin of Hell

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Where did the Christian concept of hell come from?

A number of distinct words and concepts in the original Hebrew and Greek that the Bible was written in were all translated into the single English word hell, from the Teutonic word ‘hel’ which meant ‘to cover’ and later was the name of the Norse goddess of the underworld and later of the underworld itself. In Middle English the word “hell” meant merely to cover or conceal and was thus a fitting translation for what was called Hades in Greek and Sheol in Hebrew. It only came to refer exclusively to a place of eternal torment in the English language later.

This is the word in the original Hebrew that is sometimes translated as hell. Judaism did not originally have an idea of an immortal soul that survived death—this was a pagan concept. The original Jewish belief was one of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Although Sheol later evolved into a type of shadowy afterlife in some circles influenced by Greek spirituality, originally the term Sheol meant merely the grave. The good and bad alike go here. The King James Version of the Bible translates the “Old Testament” word Sheol 31 times as hell, 31 times as grave, and 3 times as pit. While it evolved to serve different purposes, in its original context the word refers to the state of nonexistence in death.

“All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not...For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:2-6).

Whereas the “Old Testament”—the Jewish Bible—was written in Hebrew, the “New Testament” was written in Greek, and Hades is the Greek word used for Sheol—the grave. This word, which means “unseen” (the Greek god of the underworld, Hades, had a helmet that made him invisible), again describes the state of being dead and in the ground—although by the time of the “New Testament” the Greek shadowy underworld concept had become more accepted in certain segments of the Jewish culture. The story of Lazarus and the rich man seems to support this view of the underworld, although it is not clear whether it was meant literally or merely as a parable (http://www.tentmaker.org/articles/Lazarus-byHuie.htm).

For a more detailed description of the evolution of Sheol/Hades, read the online article “What the Bible says about Death, Afterlife, and the Future” by Dr. James D. Tabor, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte:

In 2 Pet. 2:4 this word is used to describe a place where angels, not human beings, that have sinned are temporarily imprisoned. This is a reference to certain apocryphal works that describe “watcher angels” rebelling and being chastised. In Greek mythology Tartaros is the place where the titans are kept after they lose the battle with the gods.

This word is used by Jesus to reference a physical (not ethereal) and specific (not abstract) garbage dump in the southwest of Jerusalem where the physical bodies (not ethereal spirits) of criminals were disposed of and cremated in flames instead of being given an honorable burial (since the Jews didn’t believe in a soul separate from the physical body, this was the equivalent of destroying the soul, since without a corpse the individual could not be resurrected). When Jesus says hell in contexts such as "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33) Gehenna is the word actually used. Today this valley is no longer a garbage dump and has instead been converted into a park. The “lake of fire” found in revelations was based on this initial imagery.

The Zoroastrians believed in a heaven for the righteous and a hell for the unrighteous. The Greeks believed that the underworld was divided into a place where the wicked were punished and a place where the good were rewarded. Although Judaism had no concept of hell originally, Christianity came to have one—though the criterion became failure to adhere to Christianity, not unrighteousness.

The Christian adoption of hell as a concept was also probably influenced by a hatred for the Romans, who ruled over the Jews, and a desire to annihilate them totally. This incredibly black hatred and desire for revenge to an unjust degree was forged out of a deep-seated insecurity, the childish rage that can only think of destroying one’s adversaries, and an incredible jealousy that wanted to rule over the Romans the way the Romans currently ruled over the Jews—taken to infinity.

For administrative purposes, the concept of hell became very useful for scaring people into submission.


Also check out Marvin Harris’s book Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches for more information on the social conditions from which Christianity arose.
Nietzsche also addresses the formation of the concept of hell from a philosophic point of view in his book On the Genealogy of Morals.

If you identify with the message of this article, please email it to people, tell your friends, even print out copies to pass around. Together we can raise awareness. Thank you.

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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