Previously in this space, I mentioned that there were interesting points embedded in Christopher Hitchens’ explanation of Martin Luther King’s patent atheism. Specifically, in this passage:
…it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.
That is surprisingly close to being correct. The New Testament, and Christianity, are indeed much more focused on the afterlife, as both reward and punishment, than are Judaism and its scriptures. Search for the word “Hell” in the NIV, and you’ll only find results in the New Testament.1
The early Israelites do not seem to have had much concept of individuals’ survival after death. Having their progeny succeed and multiply was a far more meaningful “life after death.” But there are obvious exceptions, most strikingly the summoning of Samuel’s spirit for Saul by the witch of Endor.2
And there is an abode of the dead in the Hebrew scriptures. Sheol is very much the equivalent of the Greek Hades (which is how the Septuagint translates it), a sort of gloomy half-world, where all the dead go, whatever they were in life. It is not a place of punishment, and indeed can provide a welcome (if metaphorical) rest from the woes of earthly life. From Job 3:13-19:
For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest, with kings and counselors of the earth, which build desolate places for themselves; or with princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver: or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.
In older translations of the Bible “Sheol” is often rendered as “Hell”; in newer ones, as “the grave,” or “the pit.” (Hence the specification the NIV, a translation I don’t particularly like, in the search above.) It appears most frequently in the more poetic books—Job, and the Psalms—or in the allegorical prophetic books, and hence may have been more a literary device than a statement of belief.
The Gospels do (apparently) introduce another version of Hell. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus refers to “Gehenna,” the exact nature of which is not clear, but which seems very bad indeed. It’s a place of fire and torment, where not only bodies but souls are destroyed. It is the negation of the Kingdom of Heaven. The word is derived from the valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. According to the historical books of the OT, and the prophet Jeremiah, human sacrifices were performed there, an practice that was ended by King Josiah. By Jesus’ time it had taken on a more abstract and otherworldly meaning, no longer an earthly abomination but a place of endless torment.
That is one manifestation of a more general phenomenon: in general the New Testament is abstract where the old is concrete. Compare, for example, the Magnficat with its original, the Song of Hannah. We should perhaps be cautious in extrapolating from the texts themselves to their authors’ and adherents’ beliefs, as concrete language can be interpreted abstractly and abstract language interpreted concretely. This is especially true of Jesus, who (very much in the early rabbinical tradition) spoke figuratively and taught in parables. He certainly went into no detail about the nature of Gehenna3, and may well not have meant to imply a literal eternal punishment.
What Christopher Hitchens—he got us here originally, remember—gets wrong is that this use of Hell, even assuming it means what later Christians think it means, was new with Jesus. It certainly was not. Jesus was after all a first-century Jew, who lived and worked entirely among other first-century Jews, and used language and ideas that were familiar to them. These could vary considerably from the language in the Old Testament, most of which (the apocrypha and the book of Daniel being the exceptions) was written hundreds of years previously, before the arrival and infusion of Hellenistic culture and ideas, in a language that few common people of Jesus’ time knew.
When Jesus4 used the term Gehenna he was quoting early versions of the Targums, translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic (see this article by Frederica Matthewes-Green and this by Craig Evans; in the second you should probably ignore the top part of the page completely and scroll to the quoted article). And the concept of an afterlife, including eternal punishment for the wicked, was certainly not foreign. Josephus ascribes such beliefs to the Pharisees (Jewish War II.8.14): “They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” In this he was probably wrong—the Pharisees more likely believed in the resurrection of the body, a belief long metaphorically associated with the rebirth of the nation of Israel5—but his citation is at least evidence that the belief was not unheard-of.
1 See this handy chart for all the “Hell words” in the Bible, excluding the apocrypha.
2 Here is an article by James Tabor about the afterlife in the Bible.
3 unlike some of his later followers, who so delight in the details of how the God of Love will burn, dismember, impale, and otherwise torture the apostate and the heretical.
4 Or rather, the evangelists, who wrote decades after Jesus’ death. And we can’t even be sure of what the evangelists themselves wrote, as the earliest extant copies of the Gospels are from later still, and may represent considerable editing. See this blog post by April DeConick.
5 See Daniel 12:2, and that most vivid of prophetic visions, Ezekiel 37.