There are really only two points I wanted to make about hell, or more specifically the Christian doctrine on hell. Of course an infinite amount of things could be and have been said on the subject but I don’t have the time to do extensive research. Both of the points I want to make came to my attention while listening to a sermon at the church I used to attend, and I found them quite interesting indeed. It’s quite likely that a lot of you readers (especially you Bible school attending folks) will have heard all this and groan at my inaccurate and sloppy account. Nevertheless, here I go…
Point 1: The idea that the human soul is immortal is taken directly from the philosophy of Plato, not the Bible.
It is an undisputed fact that in the philosophy of Plato (writtten in the 3rd century BC (ish)) the human soul is considered to be an immortal thing. Here’s a quote from his work, Phaedo:
“The soul whose inseparable attitude is life will never admit of life’s opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible…Do we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation, when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. That is death…. Death is merely the separation of the soul and body.”
The writings of Augustine (writing in the 4th and 5th centuries AD), which had a huge impact on Christian theology, was extremely influenced by the philosophy of Plato. Theologians/philosophers (during the medieval period they were one and the same) after Augustine consistently thought with their Bible in one hand and one of Plato’s (and later Aristotle’s) texts in the other. Theology become irreversibly wrapped up in ancient Greek philosophy (if you disagree, do some of your own research…it’s all there). In studying medieval philosophy, I found that most theological arguments centered around whether the Aristotelian version of Christianity was better than the Platonic one.
Verses in the Bible are actually not as clear as one might think about the soul’s eternal nature. It may be clear that one who believes receives eternal life, but what of the non-believer? In my research I’ve found only one verse (aside from Revelation, which I will mention later) which actually speaks of hell as a place of eternal torment: “”Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). However, this translation from the original Greek is not accurate. Here’s a quote from a site that may or may not have credibility (I’ll let you figure that out for yourself):
“The Greek form for “everlasting punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is “kolasin aionion.” Kolasin is a noun in the accusative form, singular voice, feminine gender and means “punishment, chastening, correction, to cut-off as in pruning a tree to bare more fruit.” “Aionion” is the adjective form of “aion,” in the singular form and means “pertaining to an eon or age, an indeterminate period of time…The noun “aion” in Greek literature has always meant “an indeterminate period of time. It could be as short as the time Jonah spent in the belly of a fish (three days or nights), the length of a man’s life, or as long as a very long age.” (and here‘s the link)
The word translated in Revelation as “hell” is “hades,” which is the name of the Greek god of the underworld and the underworld itself. I won’t say much about Revelation because trying to sift through the use of metaphor to find what is “literal” is far too big a task for this post. What is more important to most Christian readers, I think, is what did Jesus say?
Point 2: What is translated as “hell” in the words of Jesus has been translated from “gehenna,” which is an actual place…where there was a fire that didn’t go out.
The places where Jesus talks about hell (Matthew 5:22, 28-29, 7:13, 10:28, 13:38-42, 13:49-50, 25:46, Mark 9:45, 9:47, Luke 12:5, 16:23-24, 16:26) he refers to a place called “gehenna” or the “Valley of Hinnon” which is located just outside of ancient Jerusalem. Gehenna was where cleansing through fire took place, a place where the “fire never went out.” In a sense it was just a garbage heap, intended for the destruction of things deemed useless. It also served the purpose of cleansing of things which had been contaminated. Gehenna took on a metaphorical significance as the place where things that were unclean were made clean, and where things deemed worthless were burned. It’s quite plausible, I think, to believe that the concept of hell containing fire comes directly from this.
I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions from this because I’m much too lazy to write anymore. Oh, and please have a look at my sources because I have done EXTREMELY sloppy work compared to any university’s standards (I’m lazy, ok).
(I highly recommend that my Christian readers listen to this podcast. I don’t agree with it but I think it’s swell!)
Next up: The problem with Romans 8.
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