Dear Straight Dope:
A few members of my family have done some research and have come to the conclusion that the Bible never originally stated that there is a place of eternal damnation, commonly referred to as Hell. I didn't really understand their explanation, saying there were several different words in the original language that referred to a "place of the dead," which, over time, have been changed into Hell to scare the common folk into doing what the church says. Being the lazy American I am I said, "OK, whatever" and dismissed the subject. But my curiosity has often drifted back to the subject. What exactly is the definitive opinion on the topic?
SDStaff DavidB replies:
Helluva a hot topic, Jon! So good that U.S. News & World Report featured a cover story about Hell in its January 31, 2000, issue. And in the summer of 1999, both the Pope and the Jesuit magazine, La Civilta Cattolica, were talking about it. They said Hell is not a place, but a state of being in which you suffer from being away from God. To describe such a condition, the Pope said the Bible uses symbolic language. However, some non-Catholic Christians still believe Hell is a physical place where your soul burns in the lake of fire for eternity.
Did the Bible “originally state” that there is a place like Hell? Depends on what you mean by “originally.” In the Old Testament, there was no “place of eternal damnation.” There was Sheol, where everybody — good or bad — went after they died. It was, according to the U.S. News article, “a gloomy underworld realm , a morally neutral place akin to the Hades of ancient Greek mythology.”
Things got messier from there. When the Hebrew text was translated into Greek, “Sheol” was replaced by “Hades.” Then, when evolving Jewish and Christian beliefs began to emphasize resurrection, Hades became a place where only the nasty folks went.
OK, so there were two different names for this place. Now let’s introduce a third, Gehenna, which early Christian teaching said was a fiery hell to which the wicked would be sent after judgment. The root of the word refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a location “south of Jerusalem, where trash fires burned incessantly and where ancient human sacrifices had been offered to Canaanite gods.” (U.S. News) The Book of Revelation took this a step further by saying those evil folks would be “thrown into a lake of fire.”
So far, no mention of “Hell.” That changed when the Bible was translated into English. Many versions render Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna as Hell. The New Testament also refers to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and a place where the “worm never dies and the fire is never quenched,” and things like that.
Theologians and philosophers debate whether Hell is a physical place or a state of mind, and, if a real place, whether souls really burn for eternity or are consumed by the flames. Some say the Bible’s references to “eternal destruction” and “the second death” mean a person’s soul is destroyed rather than tortured. Evangelical scholar Clark Pinnock asked in the Criswell Theological Review, “How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness” that He would visit “everlasting torture upon his creatures?” He says a God who would do that is “more nearly like Satan.” Author and clergyman Philip Hughes says the belief in everlasting punishment owes more to pagan Greek notions than the Bible. Others disagree, referring to the Bible’s notion of “everlasting punishment,” for example.
Many religions besides Christianity have their own versions of Hell. According to a U.S. News sidebar, Islam has a crater of fire, Hinduism has 21 hells to “burn away bad karma,” and Buddhism has hells along the road to nirvana. Jainism has 8.4 million hells (damn!), and Taoism has a few too.
Getting back to your question, did the Bible “originally” mention a place of eternal damnation? No, if you mean “originally” as in the Old Testament. Yes, if you mean some versions of the New Testament. And theological interpretation could take it either way.
Like so much else when you get into religion, it turns into a big debate, complicated by translation issues and whether a given passage is literal or figurative.
In other words: Hell if I know.
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