By: William Jackson
Did you know that “Hell” does not exist in the Tanakh (Old Testament)? Yet, the world’s major religions all have a Hell. So begs the question, when did Hell come into existence and how was its very concept shaped? In this study, we will view those cultures that cohabitated with Israel in chronological order. You will see how many of these influential civilizations have helped to shape our current day depiction of Hell. Additionally, this study will end with the truth, how the Tanakh spells out what really happens at our deaths.
The idea of Hell surfaced in Egypt through the religious cult of Osiris, about 1700 BC. This was at a time that Jews lived in Egypt, after Genesis1 and before the Jewish Exodus.
In this cult, if you are found guilty of not being righteous, you are thrown into a “devourer” and condemned to the lake of fire. Some will be purified and experience spiritual rebirth others will be simply destroyed. Nevertheless, there is no eternal damnation2.
The history of Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia, extends back approximately 3,500 years. The Jewish culture would have been exposed to it during Persia’s occupation between 538 and 400 BCE3.
If your bad deeds outweighed your good, you were sent to Zoroastrian Hell. This is a place of fire with a terrible stench. However, it was not eternal and at the end of the world God will purify all souls4.
Where the other nations possibly influenced the Jewish culture through their religion, Greece did it with her philosophy. Here we have born the term Hellenistic Jew. Hellenistic Judaism was a form of Judaism in the ancient world that combined Jewish religious tradition with elements of Greek culture. We find many Greek concepts in the New Testament. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote two very influence pieces about the afterlife prior to Greece’s occupation of Israel in 312 BCE.
There was Plato’s book “The Myth of Er” which is a story about a man named Er who dies in battle. He goes on a journey in the afterlife. The tale includes the idea that moral people are rewarded and immoral people punished after death.
Also, we have Plato’s book Republic which is a factious dialog between him and Socrates on Justice. From this book is born our modern day concept of Hell. The Christian writers would introduce it to their bible about 4 centuries after Plato spelt it out.
Rabbinical Judaism is largely influenced by the Talmud. The Talmud was written by Rabbis as a way for Jews to have continuity after the Temple was destroyed. They use the term Gehinnom5 as a place of damnation for the wicked. Talmud Berachot 57b states that Gehinnom is sixty times as hot as a regular fire, thus we see another fiery Hell. For those Jewish sects that believe in this hellish conclusion, the time sinners spend in Gehenna is not forever. They longest time spent here is about 12 months.
Christianity also agrees with those follow-on religions regarding a fiery Hell. Unlike the other religions, in Christian Hell the wicked will suffer an eternal fire (Matthew 18:8, 25:41, Jude 7:1). In addition, one does not just get sent to Hell for living a wicked life, but will be sent there for not believing in their messiah (Mark 16:16, John 3:18-19, 36). This is called exclusivism.
Also Islam, which is the Muslim religion, believes sinners will go to Jahannam, a fiery Hell. This will happen on judgement day when the world will be destroyed. On this day, all will be a resurrection and judged. An exemption to this are those that have died earlier and are considered enemies of Islam. They go straight to Hell. Again, like Christianity, exclusivism.
The Torah does not talk of Heaven or Hell; it simply says all souls will be going to Sheol. Sheol is a likened to a dark pit, where we live a shadowy existence (Job 26:5, Psalm 88:10-12, Isaiah 14:9-10). However, through the Prophets and the writings, the Tanakh reveals God’s ability to ransom the righteous from this underworld (Hosea 13:14, Psalm 16:10, 30:3, 49:15). Also, Isaiah 26:19, Ezekiel 37:12 and Daniel 12 talk about a future point in which all souls will be resurrected, “…some to everlasting life and some to everlasting shame…” (Daniel 12:2) So, what about Hell? Well the last prophet to speak, Malachi, does say that God will set ablaze sinners during His judgement in Malachi 3:19. Earlier, in Malachi, He talks about using fire to purify (Malachi 3:2). Also, Zechariah 13 talks about God’s people being purified through fire in the end. It may be possible that sin will be purged with fire, since this appears to be a very popular theme amongst the prophets (Isaiah 48:10, Zechariah 13:9, Ezekiel 22:18-22, Malachi 3:2, Psalm 66:10). If there is a fiery Hell in the Tanakh, this is more than likely it.
- “Bible Timeline.” Bible Timeline. Accessed May 15, 2016. http://biblehub.com/timeline/.
- Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt, Rosalie David, p. 158–159, Penguin, 2002, ISBN 0-14-026252-0
- Albertz, Rainer (1994) [Vanderhoek & Ruprecht 1992]. A History of Israelite Religion, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy. Westminster John Knox Press, pages 437-8
- By Contributing Writer. “Beliefs of the Zoroastrians on Hell.” People. Accessed May 14, 2016. http://people.opposingviews.com/beliefs-zoroastrians-hell-4670.html.
- Brawer, Naftali, Rabbi. “Should I Believe in a Jewish Hell?” The Jewish Chronicle. August 25, 2011. Accessed May 14, 2016. http://www.thejc.com/judaism/rabbi-i-have-a-problem/53651/should-i-believe-a-jewish-hell.
- “Islamic Beliefs about the Afterlife”. Religion Facts. Retrieved 23 December 2014.