Common Christian belief: Hell is a place of eternal fire where people go to live in perpetual agony if they don’t believe in Jesus or don’t live a righteous enough life. How have people come to this understanding? I think most who believe this way would say, the bible. But does the bible really teach this?
The bible begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” What’s interesting is that it doesn’t say, “God created heaven, earth and hell”. Therefore, either hell simply never was created, at least not in the same way or at the same time as heaven and earth, or the author of the book of Genesis didn’t deem it significant enough to mention. It seems reasonable to assume that if hell were the equivalent opposite of heaven – one of two places where people spend their afterlife – then it would have needed to be created at some point and would have been mentioned. So, ten words into the more than 750,000 words that make up the bible, something seems to be amiss about the traditional understanding of hell.
The Hebrew word that is translated “hell” is “Sheol”. It’s used 65 times in the Old Testament and rather than meaning a place of eternal fire and damnation, it simply means “the abode of the dead”. Interestingly, the first use of this word is by Jacob, father of Joseph, referring to where he presumed Joseph was when he thought Joseph was dead. Now, Joseph was not some unrighteous nonbeliever. To the contrary, he was a central figure in the lineage from Abraham to Jesus. Yet, Jacob believed Joseph would be in Sheol if he were to die. Well, if Joseph was going to hell, God help the rest of us.
King Solomon’s thoughts about the afterlife are interesting as well. In case you aren’t too familiar with the Bible, Solomon was the King of Israel after David and was gifted wisdom, more than anyone else on the earth. As part of his famous “dust to dust” soliloquy in Ecclesiastes he opined:
“19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”
Thus, according to the bible, this was the wisest man that ever lived and he definitively stated that he didn’t know what happens in the afterlife. Why then, particularly with such vitriol and vigor, do we as Christians claim to know? Why then do we as Christians brow beat and threaten those who may believe differently than we do with eternal prognostications of fire and brimstone?
Certainly, however zealous and well meaning, this type of application of our faith is misplaced. Rather, we’re to love God and our neighbor, and it’s through relationship that people will come to know God, who is love, and Jesus, who is Savior.
What about the New Testament? More to come . . .
Only the truth will set you free. Set me free 360.