Friday, October 20, 2006

thoughts on hell

I just finished reading The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren. I have had the book on my shelf for over a year but just recently decided to pick it up after hearing him speak in Kansas City. In this book McLaren is dealing head on with something I have thought hard about since I was a small child - HELL. This book is basic a historical deconstruction of the modern concept of hell that most evangelical Christians hold to today (which is that hell is the place where Satan, the fallen angels, and everyone who has never heard of/never accepted Jesus will spend eternity in conscious torment).

Since I have had a morbid fascination with this issue since childhood, I appreciated this analysis of the topic. One of the things that is pointed out, which puzzles me, is that there are three words in the New Testament that are translated into English as hell: hades (appears 11 times), gehenna (appears 12 times), and tartaros (appears 1 time).

Tartaros and hades are borrowed from Greek mythology. In my understanding, hades refers to the place that all dead people go, and tartaros a very bad portion of hades. Gehenna is "The valley, which forms the southern border of ancient Jerusalem, is first mentioned in Joshua 15:8. Originally it referred to a dump in a deep narrow valley right outside the walls of Jerusalem in modern-day Israel where fires were kept burning to consume the refuse and keep down the stench. It is also the location where bodies of executed criminals, or individuals denied a proper burial, would be dumped. In addition, this valley was frequently not controlled by the Jewish authority within the city walls; it is a commonly held historical opinion that this valley was used as a place of religious child-sacrifice by the Caananites outside the city" (, "gehenna").

Here's a crazy thing. When I first became a Christian I was at a retreat. I remember asking one of the clergy a question about hell, and he said, "first of all, we have to understand that the word translated in the Bible as hell really means trash dump." I immediately dismissed him as a liberal and a heretic.

Here's my question. As a person who has since conversion been a defender of conservative evangelical theology, including hell, I feel a little bit cheated. Why did the translators of the English Bibles not feel that they could just translate gehenna as gehenna, hades as hades, and tartaros as tartaros?

I imagine if Jesus used words from Greek mythology and Jewish history with all the baggage they bring, then he wants us to think about why he used those words and how they effect the rhetoric he is employing. I wonder how our understanding of hell would be different if the general Christian public knew the background of these words.


Keith Taylor said...


I have had this same arguement with one of my good friends who is patently agnostic and like to argue about Christian versions of heaven and hell. My point to him is that some of the most vivid descriptions of Hell from Christ have nothing at all to do with mentioning the particular words, Hades, Gehenna, or Tartaros.

Matt. 13:41-42 Christ says "the Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."


Matt. 13 49-50 Christ again says, "... so shall it be at the end of the age: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just. And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."

Matt. 25:41 "...depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared, for the devil and his angels. ..."

Or the Parabel of Lazarus and the Rich man.

My point is that none of these confuse the issue of a trash heap or a garbage dump with hell, because they are pretty clear examples on their own and don 't refer to the Greek examples or references to Hades.

Jason Woolever said...

Keith thanks for the feedback. Just to play the devil's advocate. Would we then say that hell is a literal furnace? Or is furnace a metaphor for very hot?

And, does the fact that its an everlasting fire mean that its everlasting torment? I think that their was always a fire burning in the valley of Gehenna even though corpses and other things that were burned in there were eventually destroyed by the fire.

In the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, wasn't the Rich man in Hades? Does that mean that Jesus affirms the Greek doctrine of Hades?

Matt said...

Jason-I stumbled across your post and was struck by how you seem to be in about the same place that I am on this subject.

God's blessings as you continue to work-out this issue.

Jason Woolever said...

thanks. you too.