What Does Hebrew Scripture Say about Life After Death?
There isn’t much in Hebrew scriptures about life after death. According to Ecclesiastes, death is final: “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). One of the earliest concepts of an afterlife in Hebrew scriptures is “sheol,” which was an inescapable grave, pit or abyss. All dead people went to Sheol, which was an area located beneath the earth that was filled with worms. A couple of verses about Sheol include, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37:35b) and “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit” (Psalm 16:10). When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek circa 200 BCE, the word “Hades,” which means “underworld,” was substituted for “Sheol.”
Daniel had a slightly different idea of life after death: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2).
What Does Christian Scripture Say about Hell?
Matthew and Revelation are primarily responsible for the idea of a fiery punishment in hell. Matthew transformed the valley of Hinnon, which was used as a garbage dump that was always burning, into Gehenna.
Matthew claims hell is a furnace of fire with lots of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:50). Mark writes, “…their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:48). Hell is the absence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
According to Revelation, if we are cowardly, faithless, polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, or liars, a “lake that burns with fire and sulphur” is our punishment in hell (Revelation 21:8). Furthermore, it says we “will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Revelation 14:11, 20:14-15). Hell is a lake of fire that burns with sulphur (Revelation 19:20).
In Jesus’ parable about a rich man and Lazarus, a poor man, Lazarus, died and was carried by angels to the “bosom of Abraham,” but when the rich man died, he ended up in Hades. The rich man begged Abraham for mercy and, still thinking of Lazarus as someone who was beneath him, asked Abraham to send the poor man “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” Abraham reminded the rich man that he had received many good things during his life, while Lazarus received “evil things.” Lazarus is now “comforted,” while the rich man is in agony. There also is a great chasm between Hades and where Abraham and Lararus are that cannot be breached. The rich man urged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they will not end up in “this place of torment.” Abraham told him that his brother should listen to Moses and the prophets. The rich man protested that if someone from the dead went to his brothers, they would repent. Abraham concluded by saying, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)
Concerning this passage, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
“We must not take this story as a theology of the afterlife. It is not a guide to the next world. Its symbols are symbols and not literal fact. Jesus accepted the hereafter as a reality, but never sought to describe it. There is always the danger that we will transform mythology into theology. We must remember that there is always a penumbra of mystery which hovers around every meaningful assertion about God and the afterlife. He who seeks to describe the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell is taking the mystery out of religion and incarcerating it in the walls of an illogical logic. Jesus had no such intentions He was merely telling a parable to get over a basic truth about this life. He who takes this parable as a description of the history and geography of the afterlife is transplanting it violently from its native soil to a barren literalism where it cannot live.”
Dr. King is certain that this idea of hell is not factual and he also warns us not to “transform mythology into theology.” What an excellent quote: “There is always the danger that we will transform mythology into theology.”
Dante’s Version of Hell
Dante’s Inferno, part one of his Divine Comedy, redefined eternal damnation for the medieval masses. What had been an abstract concept became a terrifying one. Following the poem’s release, the Catholic Church enjoyed a huge boost in attendance from people hoping to avoid hell.
In the 1480s, Sandro Botticelli painted Dante’s horrific vision of hell. Those who had not read Inferno could now see Dante’s subterranean funnel of suffering – a wretched underground landscape of fire, brimstone, sewage, monsters, and Satan himself waiting at its core.
As Dante and his guide, Virgil, pass through the gate of Hell, they noticed an inscription, the final line of which is “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate,” or “Abandon all hope, all who enter here.” Virgil then guides Dante through the nine rings of Hell, concentric circles that increase in sinfulness. Each circle’s inhabitants are punished eternally in a fashion that fits their particular sin. Those who prayed for forgiveness of their sins before their deaths are in Purgatory, where they labor to be free of their sins. Those in Hell tried to justify their sins and were unrepentant.
The first five circles or rings are inhabited by those persons who committed self-indulgent sins; the next two circles are for those who committed violent sins, and the final two circles are for those who committed malicious sins.
The first circle is “Limbo,” where all virtuous non-Christians and virtuous pagans reside. They never had the opportunity to accept Jesus as the Christ or for one reason or another did not accept Christ. Limbo included green fields and a castle with seven gates that represent the seven virtues – the Catholic Church’s seven virtues include four virtues from ancient Greek philosophy: prudence, justice, temperance (or restraint) and courage (or fortitude), and three virtues from Paul’s New Testament letters: faith, hope and charity (or love). The castle is the dwelling place of the wisest people of antiquity.
The second circle of Hell is for the lustful or “carnal malefactors,” whose sensual desires overruled their reason. These souls are eternally blown by a terrible windstorm, symbolizing their inability to control their lustfulness.
In circle three, gluttons are forced to lie face down in a vile sewage. The slush reveals the true nature of gluttony – which includes not only overindulgence in food and drink, but all kinds of addiction.
The fourth circle is for those who worship material goods. These greedy individuals include the avaricious or miserly. Dante included many “clergymen, and popes and cardinals” who hoarded their possessions, and also the prodigal, who squandered them in this circle.
The fifth circle is the residence of the angry. In the swamp-like water of the river Styx, these angry people fight each other on the surface, and the sullen lie beneath the water, withdrawn “into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe.”
In the sixth circle, heretics are trapped in flaming coffins, damned to eternal fire. Heretics are defined as dissenters from established religious dogma, especially Roman Catholics who disavow a revealed truth.
The seventh circle houses the violent. It is divided into three rings: in the outer ring are people who were violent against people and property. They are immersed in a river of boiling blood and fire, to a level commensurate with their sins. The middle ring is for those who were violent against themselves – suicides and profligates. Those who committed suicide are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees and then fed upon by Harpies, a winged spirit who steals food. Dante learns that those who committed suicide will not be resurrected after the final judgment since they sinned against their own body. The other residents of this ring, the profligates, are those who destroyed their lives by destroying the means by which life is sustained – i.e., money and property. They are perpetually chased and mauled by ferocious dogs. Those in the inner ring are those who blasphemed against God, the usurers, those who lend money at exorbitant interest rates, and the sodomites, those who engage in sodomy. They reside in a desert of flaming sand with fiery flakes raining from the sky, a fate similar to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. The blasphemers lie on the sand, the usurers sit, and the sodomites wander about in groups.
The last two circles of Hell punish sins that involve conscious fraud or treachery. These circles can be reached only by descending a vast cliff. The fraudulent – those guilty of deliberate evil – are located in the eighth circle named Malegolge (“evil ditches”). This ring of hell is divided into ten ditches, each for a specific type of fraud:
• In the first ditch, panderers and seducers march in separate lines in opposite directions, whipped by demons for all eternity.
• In the second ditch, flatterers, those who exploited others by using language, are steeped in human excrement, which represents the words they uttered.
• In the third ditch are those who committed simony, the practice of buying or selling spiritual or Church benefits such as pardons, relics, or ecclesiastical preferments (the corrupt presentation of any one to an ecclesiastical benefice for money or reward). They are placed head-first in holes in the rock with flames burning the soles of their feet.
• In Dante’s fourth evil ditch, sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets’ heads are twisted backwards on their bodies. Not only does this refer to attempts to see into the future by forbidden means, it also refers to the twisted nature of magic in general.
• In the fifth ditch, Dante places corrupt politicians, who are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, which represents the sticky fingers and dark secrets of their corrupt deals. They are the political equivalent of the ecclesiastical simoniacs in the third ditch.
• In the sixth ditch, Dante and Virgil find hypocrites apathetically walking along wearing gilded lead cloaks. Since hypocrites pretend to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs and principles that they do not actually possess their lead cloaks weigh them down and make spiritual progress impossible.
• Ditch seven is devoted to thieves, who are pursued and bitten by snakes and lizards. The full horror of the thieves’ punishment is revealed gradually: just as they stole from others, their identity is stolen here; the snake bites force them undergo various transformations.
• The eighth ditch is devoted to fraudulent advisers or evil counselors, who are concealed within individual flames. These are not people who gave false advice, but people who used their position to advise others to engage in fraud.
• In the ninth ditch, a sword-wielding demon hacks at the Sowers of Discord, dividing parts of their bodies as they divided others during their lives. As they make their rounds the wounds heal, only to have the demon tear their bodies apart again.
• The tenth ditch contains various sorts of falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, and imposters) – who are a “disease” on society. They are now afflicted with different diseases. These sinners are half buried upside down, their legs sticking out of the earth.
The ninth and final circle is for those who committed acts of treachery. There are four concentric zones (or “rounds”) of traitors. In order of seriousness, these rounds correspond to betrayal of family, betrayal of community, betrayal of guests, and betrayal of liege lords. In contrast to the familiar image of Hell as fiery, the traitors are frozen in a lake of ice with each group encased in ice of progressively greater density.
• Round 1 is named after Cain, Adam and Eve’s son, who killed his brother, Abel, in Genesis. Those people who betrayed family members are immersed in the ice up to their faces.
• Round 2 is named after Antenor of Troy, who according to medieval tradition, betrayed his city to the Greeks. People who betrayed their countries, states, or communities are located here.
• Round 3 is named after Ptolemy, son of Abubus, who invited Simon Maccabaeus and his sons to a banquet and then killed them. People who betrayed their guests are punished by lying on their backs on the ice, which covers everything but their faces. They are punished more severely, since the relationship to guests is an entirely voluntary one.
• Round 4 is named after Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus. These traitors betrayed their lords and benefactors. All of these sinners are completely encapsulated in ice and distorted in inconceivable positions.
In the very centre of Hell, condemned for committing the ultimate sin, which is personal treachery against God, is Satan. Dante’s Satan is a huge terrifying beast with three faces, one red, one black, and one a pale yellow. Satan is waist deep in ice, weeping tears from his six eyes, and beating his six wings in a vain attempt to escape. The icy wind that blows freezes
Satan’s tears, which further imprisons him. Each for his three mouths chews on a prominent traitor.
Comparing Christian Denominations View of Heaven
Until the later part of the 19th century, the Episcopal Church primarily followed the traditional belief of a literal hell where sinners and non-believers were physically punished in perpetuity. Due to most Episcopal clergy and laity reassessing their view of hell since then, the current concept defines hell as “eternal death in our rejection of God.” They believe that the concept of hell is an Old-Testament-era belief in which the dead reside in a place of darkness and silence called Sheol, which was not a place of torment or retribution. Hell received these attributes from later era influences and re-imaging in the New Testament.
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, believed hell was a real place of real torment that lasted through eternity. Today’s conservative Methodist members still believe in an afterlife spent in a literal place, either heaven or hell, while more liberal minded Methodists downplay hell, because the image of God torturing people for eternity, even if they are sinners, is not easily equated with their idea of a loving God. Nor do they like the idea of a just God casting people into hell simply because they have never heard about Jesus. Since the mid-20th century many Methodists do not consider either heaven or hell as literal places. They tend to believe that hell is a metaphor for living in the absence of God in this life, not in some future afterlife.
For the Presbyterian Church USA, hell has always been theologically troublesome. They question whether unrepentant sinners are ultimately separated from God, which is torment, or whether they are, literally, tortured for eternity. The only official statement that includes any comment on hell since the 1930s is a 1974 paper on universalism adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States that warns of judgment and promises hope, acknowledging that these two ideas seem to be “in tension or even in paradox.” The statement concedes that God’s redemption and judgment is a mystery. In a 1996 Presbyterian USA survey only fifty-one percent of members and forty-six percent of pastors said they believed in hell.
The Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) claims hell “is clearly revealed in Scripture.” The Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations says unbelievers will suffer eternal separation and condemnation in both body and soul. They will suffer “indescribable torment;” the degree of torment is determined by “the nature of the sins.”
According to the Southern Baptist Church, “The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment.”
The Roman Catholic catechism claims that people who die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love will be separated from God forever. The sinner has a choice; it is a free-will choice. Choosing to be excluded from communion with God is hell.
The Assembly of God Church correctly, in my opinion, says that our “human language is inadequate to describe either heaven or hell.” Hell’s terror and torment is a place where one will experience total separation from God.”
My View of Hell
My view of hell is similar to my view of heaven.
I believe in a “stair-step afterlife,” not unlike Dante’s vision of hell and heaven from his Divine Comedy mentioned above. Somehow, after death, our souls continue to grow toward God. The more in tune we are with God, the more heaven we are in; the less, the more hell.
As I mentioned the my article about heaven, early Christian scholar and theologian, Origen Adamantius, thought we ascended a chain of being step by step until we reach God. My “stair-step idea and his “step by step” approach sound similar.
So what’s hell like? I have no idea! I sincerely hope it is not like Dante’s hell. Simply put, for me, hell is the opposite of heaven – the absence of God.