I recently began a series on the topic of “hell”. My main premise is that, for some, there is a bit of an off-base teaching concerning this topic. And I believe this is due to a few reasons: not knowing the terminology used throughout Scripture, conflating different biblical terms, and being driven by a post-biblical, abstract theology that is inconsistent with the Jewish narrative of Scripture.
In my part 1, I laid out the background to two major terms used in Scripture: sheol (Hebrew) and hades (Greek). Simply stated, they are the realm of the dead, the place of the grave for all humanity. Nothing more, nothing less. That means they are neither a place of eternal bliss or eternal torment.
However, for some, in an effort to show that hades and “hell” (or gehenna) are basically the same “place,” and, therefore, that hades is a place of torment, a particular passage is brought to the table. It is found in Luke 16:19-31. We get a sample in these few verses below:
22 The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
While it seems clear from this text that hades is a place of fiery torment, there are a few things to note about this passage.
If we read the verses leading up to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, we see who and what is ultimately being addressed: “Pharisees, who loved money.” Jesus would then exclaim: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (vs14-15).
Consequently, Jesus is not specifically addressing what happens post-mortem, much less any details regarding torment. He’s addressing a group of Jewish leaders who love money. And they are about to get the shock of their lives when they hear Jesus speak about the reversal of fortune for both the rich man and the discarded beggar!
Did I also mention that this is a parable, a storied account given to teach? It will do us well to remember that, in parables, the goal is not to give a story in which each detail carries a spiritual meaning for something real in life. The goal is to provide one major point of instruction (or challenge). That’s what has been done here by Jesus, the great parable-crafter: the Pharisees, the great lovers of money, rather than loving God and others, are being challenged as to their evil heart’s intent. Even more, they will receive a surprise that this beggar, who was covered in sores, longed to eat scraps from the floor, continually licked by the dogs, was the one who would be welcomed into Abraham’s kingdom.
Very scandalous in the eyes of these leaders.
Again, this isn’t focused on giving a description on the post-mortem details of humans.
Now, I do understand that there might have been some Jewish and other ancient writings that mixed the concepts of hades and gehenna. However, do we think this one instance allows for a strong case that Jesus is teaching hades is a place of fiery torment? Can the case be made from a storied parable that carries a focus of condemning the money-loving ways of the Pharisees? I think this is an argument that holds very little water.
As highlighted in the words of Andrew Perriman’s work, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, Jesus is probably “evoking such traditional stories in order to construct a vivid and populist critique of the complacency of the wealthy” (loc. 919-920).
Remember the central focus of the narrative in Luke 16, as highlighted above.
Edward Fudge, one of the prominent teachers of annihilationism (that unbelievers will be brought to destruction, burnt up, rather than eternally tormented), states it this way:
“Few serious interpreters attempt to take the details of the story literally. To do so would require us to imagine the saved and the lost conversing with each other after death, in full view of each other and at close range…
Even if this story were historical narrative rather than parable, and even if Jesus had told it in answer to a question about the afterlife (which, of course, he did not), and even if we ought to understand all of its details literally (which no one says we should), the parable of the rich man and Lazarus still would tell us absolutely nothing about the final destiny of the damned.” (Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue, p41)
Fudge’s point is well taken.
I, too, echo this overall problem of viewing the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as teaching that hades is a place of eternal conscious torment in fire – or “hell,” as many might say today. It seems clear that this is beyond the scope of Luke 16 – and the full tenor of Scripture as well. Instead, as suggested, hades is the realm of the dead, signified by the grave itself.
I’ll move on to the topic of gehenna in the next post.
Here are the links to the rest of this series:
Part 3: Looking at the word gehenna, which is usually translated as “hell.”
Part 4: Understanding the words eternal and everlasting when it comes to judgment.
Really love your writing, Scott. I think I agree with you here. I just wanted to clarify something. Are you saying Hades = the Netherworld in general? So then it’s not so much a place as a spiritual realm of existence where either the righteous or unrighteous can and do exist, but it does not intrinsically refer to a place of torment or bliss. If so, I agree. I think that fits with the Jewish understanding of the afterlife according to the OT. But if this is the case, then Jesus’ use of Hades as a place of torment in his parable recorded for us in Luke 16 is legit because, Hades being simply a general reference to the place of the dead, could be referred to as a place of torment or bliss without clarification because both places (if we are to think of Heaven and Hell as actual places even) as coexisting under the umbrella term Hades (i.e., the Netherworld). Would it not?
Thanks for the comment. Yes, I suppose we could say hades is the netherworld (though, again, I think Hollywood might allow for interesting, and scary, pictures to be evoked by the terminology). Nevertheless, hades probably does the same for many. We just need to chip away at the wrong images.
I’d say hades is a “place,” though with reservation of how that might be taken. Can you go to hades? Well, yes – in the grave. Scripture speaks of people “falling asleep.” But I would argue against it being a place where the soul/spirit goes off to, while the body is in the ground decaying. I’m always going to steer clear of “divided” thinking, similar to what the Greeks would do in splitting the “spiritual” and “material” (done similarly today by many). That’s not healthy.
I think the imagery of going to Abraham’s bosom, at least in this Luke 16 passage, is not that the righteous and unrighteous are split up with one group going to one place and the other going to another place (like many might infer with the imagery of the sheep & goats in Matt 25). Rather I’d say that both groups are simply dead, in the grave, awaiting the final resurrection. But the concept of Abraham’s bosom used here (which is probably a concept known amongst 1st century Jews) is almost a pointer to the future dwelling of the righteous. It’s bringing to mind something like what we find in Matt 8:11 – “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” This is the kingdom of heaven, connected to the fathers of Israel, that being Abraham and his near descendants.
As to your last question/point, I think you are saying hades it the umbrella term, with heaven and hell under that. Am I reading that correctly? If so, I don’t believe that is workable. Heaven, or the kingdom of heaven, is something altogether different from the grave or gehenna. The kingdom of heaven is God’s rule expressed concretely in real life, with heaven ultimately joining earth in the final day. No relation to hades or gehenna. Hades is the reality for all humanity, based upon the judgment pronounced in the garden. Death, actual death, not just a “spiritual” death, is our lot. But it is the righteous that will be resurrected to life; it is the unrighteous that will be brought forth to be given the second death. Gehenna, I believe, is actually historically connected to the time of Jesus, not an ethereal, spiritual realm of punishment, either eternally or to burn up/annihilate the unrighteous.
I’m jumping ahead of myself, but I hope that helps somewhat (at least in describing the framework of my thoughts).
Good stuff, Scott. Have you looked into the etymology of our word “hell” yet? There’s a good chance that it stems from Norse mythology, and even there, doesn’t necessarily carry the connotations we give to it today.
Brian – That’s a good thought on the etymological background of “hell.” I think much could be based in medieval theology, depicted in some paintings. It would be good to look more into why we imagine “hell” as we do. But I think understanding gehenna in it’s own historical Jewish narrative, as well as noting it is not the lake of fire & sulphur spoken of in Revelation, will be a helpful start.
Interesting post Scott. Based upon your examination of the original terms used to describe sheol, hades and gehenna – is it of your personal belief that hell exists? Also, after having evaluated the language and its uses in the Bible, what is your opinion concerning a literal heaven, hell, and judgement for believers and non-believers?
Josh – I’ll share more in my next article on gehenna, or “hell.”
Edward Fudge – what a great name!