Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Does The Bible Teach a Literal Hell?

Someone referred me to a girl on TikTok named Apostate Ashley, specifically to a video of hers wherein she outlines a number of reasons why she deconverted from Christianity to atheism. The video is very scattergun in its presentation. She doesn’t go into much detail about each point. Which is fine, it’s TikTok. But I still felt she gave a useful summary of a lot of the different challenges leveled against Christianity by skeptics, and so I think her video is worth using as a foil for making counter-arguments.

I don’t know if I will end up responding to all of her points, but I at least want to make a start of it. Her first point is about hell, and here’s what she says.

“Here are some of the things from the Bible that made me skeptical. The very first was the doctrine of hell. . . . I looked into the original words that hell was translated from – Sheol, Gehenna, Tartarus, Hades – realizing that there was no reason to believe in a literal hell. Any literal translations of the Bible have zero mentions of hell. Jesus never mentions hell and Paul never mentions hell. Within the Bible, there is never mention of a torturous hell. That comes from the Greek beliefs of Hades.”

The first thing to note is that she’s not making a moral argument against hell. For most people, the idea of hell is simply disturbing, and rightly so. It should evoke that kind of reaction. But for some, this becomes their reason for rejecting the idea altogether. They refuse to believe in such a place, and that God would send people there. They reject hell on moral grounds. 

But that’s not where Ashley is coming from, at least not in this particular instance. Instead of making a moral argument against hell, she’s actually making an enormously more difficult argument: that the Bible doesn’t speak about hell. Long story short, I find that to be an indefensible claim. To be fair, she says some things that are true to an extent, but she then makes a major leap to what I believe is an untenable conclusion.

She starts by mentioning the relevant Hebrew and Greek terms, which she’s right about. Sheol is the Hebrew term used in the Old Testament to refer generally to the place of the dead. Some people would even say that Sheol is simply a poetic way of referring to the grave. In Genesis, whenever Jacob thought his son Joseph had died, he says, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” It’s another way of saying “I will go to the grave” or “the place of the dead.” Everybody eventually goes to Sheol, because everybody eventually dies.

In the New Testament, the Greek equivalent of Sheol is Hades. Psalm 16:10 is a good example of this. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” In the original Hebrew of the psalm, the word Sheol is used. But in the New Testament, whenever Peter quotes the same verse in Greek, he says Hades instead of Sheol (Acts 2:27). He applies the verse to Jesus, who died and went to the grave (Sheol/Hades), but he was not left there. God raised him from the dead.

The tricky thing about Sheol/Hades is that it doesn’t seem to be strictly for the wicked. Apparently it’s a place where the righteous go as well. As I mentioned earlier, all people go there, because all people die. The evidence suggests that Hades is a place of torment for the wicked, but somehow simultaneously a place of peace for the righteous (Luke 16:19–31). Yet in either case, Hades is temporary. The Bible is clear about a future resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Jesus said, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

In other words, both groups will be brought back from the place of the dead (Sheol/Hades), and the righteous will enter into eternal life in heaven while the wicked will step into eternal judgment, which is hell. I suppose we could think of Sheol/Hades as a temporary holding place for all who die, until we’re all resurrected again and taken to our final destinations.

So let me tie this back to Ashley’s argument. She mentioned that Sheol and Hades are words that are translated as hell, and she’s right about that to an extent. But that was generally an older choice of translation. For example, the King James Version translates Sheol and Hades as hell very regularly. In fact, Hades is always translated as hell in the KJV. But most modern translations will simply leave these words as is: Sheol and Hades. They are not given an English equivalent, presumably because there really isn’t an English equivalent.

And I believe that’s a wise translation choice. Because we have to consider what the English word hell means. Any standard English dictionary will reflect that hell is understood as the fiery place of judgment where the wicked are punished after death. Fire, judgment, wicked, punishment – these are the ideas everyone associates with hell. So if Sheol and Hades gets translated as hell, then English readers will naturally import all of those connotations into this pair of Hebrew/Greek words which actually don’t always convey those things. And that could be misleading. So I think it’s probably better if we just call it Sheol or Hades.

With all that said, I could be wrong in some of the things I’ve said about Sheol/Hades. One of the main disputable points among Christians is whether or not the righteous go there along with the wicked. I’ve read other sources that say it’s only the wicked who go there, and they make some worthwhile points too. In any case, I’m not ashamed to admit that my understanding of Sheol/Hades is relatively murky.

Gehenna, however, is an entirely different story, and this is where I think Ashley’s claims fall apart. The term Gehenna is used 12 times in the New Testament. Eleven of those usages are from Jesus, and one is from James. It’s virtually always translated as hell, in both old and modern translations.

Here’s one example from Jesus: “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:47–48).

Many people have pointed out that Gehenna was the name of a waste dump outside of Jerusalem, and that’s true based on what I’ve read. But it seems obvious to me that Jesus was utilizing the term as a metaphor for something more significant and more severe. He wasn’t just saying “you’ll be thrown into the garbage dump.” He describes this as a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched, in other words, it’s a place of eternal suffering that can’t be escaped.

And even in places where Jesus doesn’t use the specific term Gehenna, he’s clearly referring to the same reality. For example, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). He doesn’t use the word Gehenna, but there’s no reason to think he’s talking about a different place. The descriptions clearly match: fire, judgment, eternality, the wicked are sent there, etc.

So what exactly does Apostate Ashley mean when she says the Bible doesn’t give us any reason to believe in a literal hell? Is she just saying the English word hell doesn’t appear in the original languages of the Bible? If that’s what she’s saying, then of course she’s right. But it’s not a significant point.

It would be like claiming the Bible never says anything about love, because the Bible uses the words agape, phileo, etc, and never the English word love. But that can’t be taken seriously. The whole concept of translation, by definition, means taking the words of one language and converting them to different (but equivalent) words in another language. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you call it Gehenna or hell. The reality behind the word is what matters, and that’s something the Bible could not be more clear about.

I’ll just briefly say something about Tartarus, because it’s almost completely absent from the Bible. The proper-noun form actually doesn’t appear at all. But there is one verse in the New Testament where Peter uses a verb that’s related to Tartarus. “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment” (2 Peter 2:4). The verb that’s translated “cast them into hell” is tartarosas (which sounds way too much like tartar sauce). So you could think of this as Peter saying that God “tartarus-ed” the fallen angels.

But I don’t see any reason to take this as referencing a different place than what Jesus called Gehenna. Think back to the fact that Jesus described Gehenna as “prepared for the devil and his angels,” which is very much in line with what Peter says about Tartarus here. Based on what I’ve read, Gehenna was the term more likely to be used by Jews, while Tartarus was the more common word among Greeks. But the terms were functionally equivalent.

In conclusion, I believe the Bible does teach a literal hell, and very clearly so. If I were Ashley, I would abandon trying to convince people that the Bible doesn’t speak about hell. To be honest, I think that’s just too difficult of a case to make. And besides, Ashley is eventually going to say she rejects the Bible as the word of God because it was written by men. So that means even if Ashley were to become convinced that the Bible does in fact clearly teach the traditional doctrine of hell, she still wouldn’t believe it.

Talking about hell is not exactly comfortable, but the best thing about having an open, honest, and biblical discussion about these things is that it’s an opportunity to be reminded of what Christ rescues sinners from. Hell is the fate that every one of us deserves based on our own deeds. The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Our sins are forgiven and we receive the free gift of eternal life by trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross, and surrendering our lives to him. When you have eternal life in Christ, that means there’s no more fear of death, and no more fear of hell.

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