In the last installment, we saw that the idea of everlasting punishment is not compatible with a God of love. But isn’t a a hell of everlasting punishment taught in the scriptures? No, but they have been aggressively mistranslated and misinterpreted to make you THINK they do.
Let’s start with the Old Testament. When Moses and the prophets gave the law, they warned people that whoever broke God’s laws would suffer in hell forever. Oh no wait. They didn’t say that at all. The curses for breaking the law included famine, sickness and war, but NOT eternal torment. 1
But doesn’t the Old Testament mention hell? No. The Old Testament uses the Hebrew word “Sheol”, which means the grave or the place of the dead. Both the righteous and the unrighteous go to Sheol. But the translators of Bibles like the King James pulled a trick on us. They knew that whenever Christians hear the word “hell” they think of eternal flames. So whenever the Old Testament mentioned wicked people going to Sheol, they translated the word as “hell”, and whenever it mentions righteous people going to Sheol, they translated it as “the grave” – even though they are the same Hebrew word. It’s simply the place of the dead. There is no mention of screams and torment in Sheol. In fact it was called a land of silence 2
This is similar to the use of the Greek word “Hades” in the New Testament. As you may remember from Greek mythology, Hades was simply the underworld. Like Sheol, it was a place of the dead, good or evil. But Jesus does use another word that is translated as “hell”. Most of the images of flames and punishment come to us from Jesus’ use of the Hebrew or Aramaic word “gehenna” or “gehinnom”. For example:
“If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out! It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Gehennah), where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” 3
So what exactly is “Gehenna”. It sounds like a punishment of everlasting fire. But is it? Well, it turns out that it’s actually a valley just outside of Jerusalem. Depending on which historians you read, this valley was either a dump where the garbage was burned, or a valley of tombs, or the place where in ancient times they sacrificed to the god Molec. Perhaps all three of them. It’s also a place where Isaiah claimed God would burn the bodies of the wicked after a great last battle. In fact, Jesus is quoting Isaiah when he mentions it. Here’s what Isaiah says.
“They shall go forth, and look on the dead bodies of the men who have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” 4
But Isaiah isn’t talking about souls in hell, he’s talking about dead bodies. So many that the fires go on and on. And it’s interesting that many of the people Jesus preached to ended up slaughtered a few years later when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and the Roman 10th Legion burned the bodies of the dead in Gehenna valley. 5
So was Jesus simply warning people about the destruction of Jerusalem? Some commentators think so. But about this time, the rabbis also began to use Isaiah’s prophecy of physical destruction as a symbol of a purification process after death. A person who had been wicked would suffer fiery pain in this spiritual Gehenna, but after their wickedness was purged, they would come out. The fires of Gehenna might continue to burn, but no one would spend more than a year in Gehenna, and some would come out much sooner, after they had paid their debt in full, as Jesus said. 6
But what about all the scriptures that talk about eternal suffering and punishment? Here’s where the biggest mistranslation comes into play.
With no exception that I can find, when the Bible mentions eternal or everlasting punishment, the word it uses is “aionios” This is derived from the Greek word “aeon”. That word probably looks familiar, because it’s where we get the word “eon”, meaning a long period of time. But in Greek it could apparently mean ANY period of time, from a week to many generations. So these “eternal” torments are actually “age-long” torments. They may last a long time, or at least seem to, but they come to an end. Also the word Jesus uses for these punishments is “kolasis” 7 which is the word used for pruning away the dead wood from a tree to improve it and help it grow. It is purification to improve a person, not endless punishment to torture them. There’s no point in pruning a tree forever. But over the centuries, theologians began to translate “aionios” as eternal and everlasting, to make the punishments seems more horrible, probably to frighten people into being obedient.
If God had wanted the scriptures to convey the idea of a hell of everlasting torment, surely he would have mentioned it in the Old Testament? Surely Jesus and the apostles would have chosen words that really meant “eternal” or “everlasting” when describing God’s purification (there are several Greek words to choose from). The idea of hell hardly appears in Paul’s writings at all.
St Augustine said that whoever interprets the scriptures in a way that doesn’t teach love – doesn’t understand them. And we’ve just seen that in order to get the Bible to teach a God who tortures most of humanity forever, you have to mistranslate and misunderstand quite a bit.
So what DOES happen to the wicked after death? There are a lot of possibilities, and we don’t need to sort it all out right now. All that’s important for this episode is that we realize that if there are punishments after death, then they are limited, and they are redemptive. As for the rest, some early Christians, as well as some today, believe that God will save everyone. This is called universalism. Some early Christians, as well as some today, believed in some kind of reincarnation. Some believe that the wickedest souls will be destroyed, rather than punished forever. This is annihilationism. You don’t have to believe any of them. Some people combine parts of all of them. I’m going to refer in the annotations to a video of my mentor Bishop Lewis Keizer where he explains the mystical Jewish view of what happens to these various parts of the soul after death. 8
But the moral of the story is that God is just and merciful. We will be punished for our sins, but only to the extent necessary to purify us so that we can move on. You can still follow Jesus without having to think God is a monster who punishes most people forever and ever.
Until next time, I’m Keith Campbell for Godsmarts. See you soon.