Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hell Yes, or at Least Hades Yes for a Time

Some comments recently attributed to the Pope about the eternal fate of unbelievers has gotten people on the topic of "does hell exist?" Some critics have pointed out that the historical beliefs of the Jewish people had a different and and less differentiated view of the afterlife than was the case by the first century A.D. Actually, there is no conflict between the early ideas of the after life and what we know later from the New Testament. Let's sort this out.

First of all, because too many pastors have utterly shrieked their duty to educate the flock about the gospel much less derived subjects like this one, most Christians do not understand that the word translated "hell" is not the eternal destination of those who die in their sins. Revelation twenty verse fourteen tells us that hell and death will both be cast into the "lake" (more like an abyss) which burns with fire and brimstone. I could easily get side-tracked here, but without taking time to prove it from the bible, the torments of hell are not from God pouring additional wrath on them, but rather from whatever lies people loved more than God and truth eating away at their souls, combined with being in a condition of restraint so that they cannot act out on the evil desires which are consuming them.

The word translated "hell" is from the Greek word "Hades",which was originally the same concept of the ancient Jewish and near east conception of "Sheol". They were both the abode of the dead whether good or evil. They were not necessarily places of torment, just gloomy realms where all that was left of humans was "shades", sort of phantoms of the original person.

This does not mean that the ancient world was without the concept of an eternal punishment for the wicked. The Egyptians (and thus all the Ancient Near East including the Jews) had a concept very much like the Lake of Fire which the bible teaches is the eternal destination of the souls of the damned. If anything, the Egyptian version was even more brutal. Thus, hell, or Hades/Sheol, is a temporary holding area until the end of the age and the books are balanced. The Lake of Fire is the eternal destination of the dammed.

Not that Hades/Sheol would be a neutral place for the especially wicked. Even Hades had a section, Tartarus, which was more like the traditional hell - a prison and a place of torment and restraint. In the parable of the rich man Christ described the callous wealthy man's condition in Hades as one of fiery torment.

Of course God's revelation to man is progressive so it should not be surprising that details are added to this model, which was already floating around in the ancient world 1,000 years before Christ. In addition the condition of man is progressive as a result of this knowledge. For example, before the law of Moses was explicitly laid out, men did live in more of a "gray area" as to what sort of people they were. Romans says that the law was given to show people how sinful they were. It multiplied transgression, not righteousness. Since the early views of Sheol and Hades were developed when all of our relationship with God was more of a gray area it is not surprising that the afterlife would be a continuation of that ambiguity. The concept of the afterlife changed in sync with the spiritual condition of man. In other words, the original concept of Sheol was very suitable for the state of man before the Law of Moses, and the concept of Sheol with a section of torment much like the Tartaros of Hades was suitable for where man was in the first century A.D.

Unlike the Greeks, the Jews had a more developed idea of what happened to the righteous after death. The conception was called "Paradise" in scripture, with connotations of a garden such as the garden of Eden. This was where Abraham and Moses and the Prophets went, after a long rest, while waiting for the final judgement. Jesus told the thief on the cross "this day you shall be with Me in paradise." This is not the same thing as the modern conception of "heaven" where we sit on clouds and play harps. Rather it was a logical continuation of the cosmology laid out from the beginning. Man was in a morally ambiguous position prior to the garden. His awareness of sinfulness began after that and was made more clear by the law of Moses.

The changing understanding of the afterlife reflected man's condition. It is not necessarily a reflection of "changing the story". Rather it is filling out the story as man's condition itself changed. Before the law, it made sense for the afterlife to be an ambiguous place because that was the typical situation humans were in. Once the sinfulness of man was more complete, they also had more understanding of what that meant for the afterlife. Those who died without faith took their sins with them, and though Hades may have been only a holding place for the final day of judgement, just waiting around for that day would be torment in itself if your soul was not at peace with God.

 The Garden of Eden was an attempt to bring heaven and earth together, a place of divine fellowship with the LORD God. I think moderns have the idea of heaven wrong too, at least as the ultimate destination of the righteous. Instead, heaven and earth are to merge after all the wicked in the world have been confined to the Lake of Fire. God then makes His home among men in the new heaven and new earth. We do not spend eternity playing harps on a cloud somewhere. The garden is developed into an immense city, the city of God.

In conclusion, the modern conceptions of heaven and hell are very different than what scripture teaches. When someone hears what the church thinks of the afterlife and then reads what the ancient Hebrews thought about it, a shallow response would be to think that they are changing their story so there must be nothing to it. A more thoughtful reflection shows that it is the modern view which is out of line with the scriptures, and the view promulgated by scripture is a natural outgrowth of ideas about the afterlife held thousands of years beforehand combined in a logical way with changes in the human condition.

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