Hell a big deal with pagans – with Jews not so much

Finding evidence in ancient texts for a future place of punishment for the unrighteous is much easier and more straightforward in pagan literature than in the Bible.  In fact, references to anyplace resembling Evangelical or medieval Catholic concepts of Hell are almost non-existent in the Bible.  What little we think we find there is almost nil compared to what we find in Plato.

Plato thinks nothing of including in his chief dialogue a lengthy remark by the father of Polemarchus regarding the man’s own beliefs in “the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there” (Republic 330d-331b). Cephalus is grateful that his wealth has afforded him

“no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men when he departs to the world below.”

He implies that an old man without wealth must be unhappy because:

“suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others.  And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings.”

This place in The Republic is not the usual stop for scholars discussing afterlife concepts in Plato (see Republic X., Phaedo, the end of  Gorgias, etc.).  But evidence right here for widespread folk-beliefs about future punishment among the Greeks seems to me more ‘historical’ in the everyday sense and less rhetorical than elsewhere.  At least it is clear that in the fourth century BC the belief was already ancient enough to be a commonplace of casual discourse.

My advice is to avoid trying to squeeze Hell-doctrines out of Scripture.  And you evangelicals who admit of Greek influences in the primitive church take note.

Yesterday I found a post by fellow Christian blogger, neglitz, who I think is trying to be honest about the problem of afterlife concepts in Christianity and their meaning for evangelical religion.

I hope I can get something up soon about why a Biblical and textual challenge of Hell-concepts does not necessarily justify that other questionable doctrine of predestination – universalism.


45 thoughts on “Hell a big deal with pagans – with Jews not so much

    • I like the way you put that, Robert – “loss of God for eternity.”

      Because that dovetails quite nicely into concepts of conditional immortality which I will be featuring here.

      It’s the idea of ‘eternal evil’ and eternally evil ones with immortal souls which is unscriptural, and must go off the boards, in my opinion. I don’t care really how Calvin saw it.

      • Well John we cannot solve the question of evil, but we certainly can’t deny it either! That many souls appear to die in a place of complete spiritual stupor, seems all too real! I think this was Calvin’s point, man is simply dead spiritually, and without God’s help man will profoundly perish! (John 3:16)

          • Here is a translation online. http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm

            Chapter 2. Here is part of the first paragraph.

            “We saw in the last chapter that, because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.”

          • Maybe I misunderstand what you mean by conditional immortality, but I thought you meant the saved get to be immortal and the not saved cease to exist. That seems to me to be what Athanasius is saying. He doesn’t mention hell once in the whole work. The theology that he presents is that the “Fall” in Genesis resulting in man tending towards non-existence. But Jesus took on human form, died, and rose from the dead, so that the saved could be saved from going into non-existence. They could be resurrected to live forever. He doesn’t ever really deal with what happens to the lost as far as I can see, but I would assume that they continue to tend toward non-existence since his original premise was that the “Fall” made man liable to corruption and man was returning to the non-existence from which God originally made him.

          • OK, it was the last sentence in your quote that looked like one of the arguments against annihilation that I think has no merit, but I was reading too much into it. You’re fine. Thanks again.

            Oh, and take a breather (you’re blocked).

  1. Have you read Time Magazine’s article this week on Rob Bell’s book about hell? Or the book itself? I would be very interested on your thoughts. From my understanding, Hell is a hellenistic/Christian idea that would have no place in Judaism because God also has a “Sitra Achra”- an “other side” which encompasses evil.

    • Hannah, I am too busy right now with original sources on this question and so have nothing on Rob Bell or Time Magazine.

      But I am interested to see what comes of the dust-up among evangelicals and what evangelical Christianity might look like without Hell-preaching.

      Thanks for the tip on “Sitra Achra” which would explain some things (but would you call it a majority opinion in Judaism?). I doubt I could embrace such an idea myself without some unpacking and re-arranging, but I can certainly see how anyone believing the Torah to be a divine biography might come to it as a logical conclusion.

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks for this post and the link. I find ‘hell’ as everlasting torture completely incompatible with God’s boundless compassion and lovingkindness and I think you are right that there is little or no evidence for it in the bible.

    The late Clark Pinnock favoured annihilationism or what is sometimes called called conditional immortality. I hope this view gets up among Evangleicals rather than the traditional view, but I doubt that it will.


    John Arthur

    • John, I would view it as a positive result if the Rob Bell scuffle deflates the Hell-concept enough to cause evangelicals to doubt both forms of predestinarian heresy (limited election and universalism) and take a closer look at conditional immortality.

      Thanks for the tip on Pinnock. I am reading Rev. Edward White and Rev. George Storrs and others on the nineteenth century variety of the teaching (which of course was slandered by the Hell-preachers back then too).

      Unlike Plato and the Greeks (who teach an automatic or natural immortality of the soul), the Bible hints that a real relationship with God is necessary for the growth of a soul into immortality. That is of course the ‘condition’ required by the teachers of conditional immortality.

      For this reason I dislike the term ‘annihilationism’ because it implies that a person who shuns all relationship with God has some kind of immortal soul anyway – which God then ‘annihilates’ in the second death. But what takes place with an atheist in the ‘resurrection to judgment’ in my view is a quiet confirmation of lack of immortality by dissolution of identity – much as imagined by the atheists themselves.

      I’m still monitoring your blog on the WordPress surfer, by the way (although not visiting much in a direct way). I hope you will keep up the good work.

  3. I agree with you, John (well, both Johns haha…the author of this blog and the commenter above).

    I keep adding to my latest blog post about Hell because I keep finding more support for the annihilationism view, rather than the traditional Christian view. It’s almost staggering when I take a step back and look at it.

    • Thanks for dropping by, live2, I hope more people get to your blog – your post is one of the best ‘informal’ studies of the problem with Hell (and its alternatives) that I’ve seen since the Bell hub-bub started.

      If you are adding more material I’ll be over to read up. I like it when believers apply creative power to the problem as you are.

      • Thanks John, I really do appreciate that. I think it’s vitally important that tradition and assumptions don’t cloud our view of the truth, especially when the false representation of hell is what’s keeping so many people away from a “cruel” God.

        • Oh please, the only thing that keeps people from God, is their own sin and spiritual dullness! – Note the Parable of the Sower or “Word.” (Mk. 4: 3-25 / Matt.13:1-23)

          “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

          But sadly today, as always, people don’t want to really hear, or see!

          “They may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.” (Isa. 6: 9-10, NIV-84)

          • Robert, I’m fine with you being the expert on ‘spiritual dullness’ around here, but I’m not sure you even know what unscriptural Hell-preaching sounds like.

            I agree with live2 that it can drive many minds away from the truth. Are you saying that Hell-preaching drove you toward God? What text?

          • John,

            There are many Texts…Luke 12: 5 / Matt. 10: 28, are a few. Note this destruction is not the loss of being, but well being, “both soul and body.” And of course no one can get around Matt. 25:46!

            I was raised Irish R. Catholic, in the 50’s and early 60’s, so Hell was presented then as a reality and judgment, eternal place, and loss of God forever. But Jude 12-13, with 23 seem real to me, even with the use of metaphor.

          • Robert, the use made by Hell-preachers of our Lord’s reference to ‘Gehenna’ is a perfect example of their tendency to insert unscriptural insinuations into his teaching.

            What authority have you for implying that Jesus needed any meaning above ‘garbage dump’ for explaining the end and dissolution of the lost? I say all of your authority is among pagan authors and their scary eternal underworld teachings.

            Mat. 25:46’s “aeonian kolasin” I think depends upon a Maccabean reference in order to mean anything like punishment. But the more common “cutting-off” seems more apt, even perfectly apt, in opposition to the very un-Maccabean “aeonian life” with which it is contrasted by our Lord in the same verse).

            These have become very emotionally-charged spots in our text, but I think we have to stand back a little and see the pagan roots of these Dante-esque nightmares, and judge whether we are not attributing false associations and anachronisms to our Lord.

          • Robert, the minority view expressed by the blogger you cite, which doubts the traditional view of Gehenna’s status in Jesus’ time, only fortifies my point about its lack of support for ideas about everlasting fires.

            And the references to the vale of Ben Hinnom in Isaiah seem clearly to describe only the ending place of contemporary evil-doers.

            None of the scholars cited at the blog have worthy credentials in my opinion except maybe Peter Head (Tyndale House Cambridge). And he only admits that “a thorough investigation would be appreciated” into the allegations which overturn the traditional view of Gehenna as a place of refuse.

            He writes instead: “Gehenna is presented as diametrically opposed to ‘life’: it is better to enter life than to go to Gehenna” I’m fine with this.

            The opposite of life is not punishment – it is death, dissolution, emptiness.

          • John,

            If you read and look closer (the comments section), the man who wrote this article and did that study, does believe in the classic Catholic and Reformational/Reformed doctrine of Hell!

            It seems sir that your “presupposition” is to diminish the traditional doctrine of Hell & Judgment! At any cost? But as even the pagan Plato knew, the essence of man is eternal.

            Myself, I don’t know what the literal Hell will be, but I do believe all men’s souls will live before God, in grace/glory or perdition!

            “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” (Ecc.12: 7) Metonymy (of Cause), put of the body which is made of dust (Gen.2:7 ; 3:19 / Ps. 104:29 / Job 34:15-16)

            *John, note too, that verse 12:6, “golden bowl”,
            these words dscribe a lamp crushed in a fall caused by a link in the silver chain. This suggests the frailty of aging. Something we perhaps feel more than most our younger bloggers here! 🙂 Yes, death & dying are sure, and after this the judgment. (Heb. 9:27), but Christ and His Death, are our only lasting surety!

          • “Oh please, the only thing that keeps people from God, is their own sin and spiritual dullness!”

            Maybe at the fundamental, base level, yes. But for many people, issues such as the doctrine of hell provide big mental hurdles that need to be overcome before they will even be willing to open their minds and hearts to anything else we have to say.

            If you just dismiss it and say, “you are a fool,” you will only push them further away and trivialize their legitimate questions. That is not the way to reach them.

            God didn’t tell us to have blind faith, after all, but to have reason for faith. That includes solving some difficult questions and problems, not approaching it from a “Bible says so” perspective all the time.

            C.S. Lewis, for example, came to faith with reason, not emotional need. Luckily, he was informed enough to solve the spiritual dilemmas in his mind so that he logically progressed to faith. Otherwise, he might have needed other people to help guide him with answers, which is what apologists try to do as well.

          • We cannot reason our way into faith, but perhaps, we can reason our way out.. My thoughts at least. Note, Lk. 16:31. The Biblical Doctrine of Hell stands for me anyway!

            Btw, I have read a great share of C.S. Lewis, simply a profound Christian! But certainly not infallible, and we must make our own decisions based upon both scripture and the doctrine of God incarnate! This somewhat includes the Ecumenical Councils, in the historical of the Church, but also the Great Reformation/Reformed. In the end, the Church is always itself under the Word/Logos!

          • Fr. Robert:

            And of course no one can get around Matt. 25:46!

            Your confidence is unwarranted. Matthew 25:46 poses no threat to conditionalism (aka “annihilationism”). Conditionalists have always affirmed that the punishment of the wicked will be eternal, but that the punishment will be death, not endless torment. Unlike the first death which is only a temporary “sleep”, undone at the resurrection, the second death will last forever. If you seek understanding, I suggest you read Henry Constable’s classic treatment on the subject.

            But as even the pagan Plato knew, the essence of man is eternal.

            That’s right! Innate, or unconditional, immortality is a pagan, Greek notion. The unequivocal biblical teaching that immortality was lost in Adam and regained only in Christ.

            And just so you know, most contemporary defenders of eternal torment reject the notion that men are essentially immortal. They do this, I think, precisely to escape the charge that they’ve been influenced by Platonic philosophy. But Christians who are untutored in the debate will almost always espouse natural or essential immortality. This confirms the conditionalists’ contention that the primary theological motivation behind the doctrine of eternal torment always has been, and continues to be, the doctrine of unconditional immortality.

            “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”

            Yes! As God took dust and breathed into it the breath of life in Genesis 2:7, so when man dies, God’s breath returns to Him, and man returns to the dust. “Spirit” here refers to the life-giving and sustaining “breath” of God, not an immortal, immaterial soul! I earnestly encourage you to do a word study of the Hebrew words ruach and neshama (and while you’re at it, nephesh).

          • Ronnie,

            Yes, I have studied this issue myself, and though I still include the pagans, just as you do, I see the life of man or the soul/spirit as eternal or everlasting. That is really the issue!

            I have read and studied the Hebrew words “ruach” and “neshama” and too, “nephesh”. As also the NT Greek: psuche, translated soul. And note here too btw, Heb. 4:12. And also, 1 Thess. 5: 23. And in fact also from the work of E. W. Bullinger. Who was himself not an annihilationist, at least stated so; as some of his followers. See both his: The Companion Bible, and his book: Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. From here we can see: Soma (body), and pneuma-spirit, may be separated, but pneuma and psuche-soul, can be distinguished. And for Bullinger, psuche used of the life of man, can be lost, destroyed, saved, and laid down. Nephesh is used of Man, as being “cut off” by God. Man as being mortal. Bullinger does not define this further, but does admit both theology and psychology.
            Finally, Bullinger notes Nephesh (rendered soul) in or described by four different words, I will mention his use of “hell” (R.V. “Sheol”) or pit, the lowest Sheol. And, “dumah”= silence, and “shachath” = a pit (for taking wild beasts); hence, a grave. Both the Septuagint and the NT take it in the sense of corruption and destruction. Here it is used for the “pit” and the “grave”. Bullinger allows the believer to make his own biblical decision here.

            Finally, in the end, we are left to the theological and spiritual expressions to the life of man. Created for life, but dying bodily in death. Does he live forever? I say yes, either in everlasting life with Christ; or in corruption of self and sin. Note C.S. Lewis here! The life of man is always more than a mere definition, but “spirit” and “truth”. And this is only in Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life.” To loose Christ is to loose both life and life everlasting, and to loose Christ is the loss of God “Himself”, the Triune God!

          • Thanks for your thoughts Robert. The frustrating thing about proof-texts like Hebrews 5:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is that people smuggle in dualistic presuppositions and just assume that by “soul” Paul means what they think a soul is.

            For what it’s worth, I believe that humans have “souls” and “spirits”, but they are not separate substances that live on some ethereal realm after we die.

            Does he live forever? I say yes, either in everlasting life with Christ; or in corruption of self and sin.

            But Paul very clearly teaches, in several passages, that immortality is given to the saved only. The tree of life, which would have conferred immortality to Adam, was put beyond reach, and is only made accessible in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1). The meaning of the imagery is obvious: Only those who are able to enter the city of God will live forever.

          • Ronnie,

            Yes, there are a few Calvinist theolog’s that come close to annihilation of the spirit/soul of those who reject Christ! See the book: The True Image, The Origin And Destiny Of Man In Christ, and the chapter 37: Is the Soul Immortal?, by the once great Anglican presbyter: Philip Edgcumbe Hughes. Some feel he is a full annihilatinist here? But he also sees that God fully delivers His retribution to those lost and in “the destruction of the second death.” And then he quotes, Isa. 65:17 with Rev. 21:1-4.

            Whatever here? I see this as fully biblical either way. But God MUST have His judgment & retribution for those finally lost!

  4. I agree that no one is infallible. I never said that lol.

    Reason alone cannot bring someone to faith, but in a lot of cases, it can give them the “intellectual permission” to believe. We are to believe with all our hearts and MINDS, after all.

    William Lane Craig, a renowned apologist, tells numerous accounts of people who came to faith after hearing his logical arguments because “it finally made sense.”

    • Yes, it is ‘faith seeking understanding’! And here of course reason is of great help, but God alone holds even those cards! 🙂

      Btw, WL Craig is a brilliant mind like N.T. Wright, and both are about my age also. > That includes you too John! 🙂 But sadly often both men will not stand before or under Scripture alone. The sola of the Reformation and Reformed!

  5. John,

    Btw, the issue for me really is about the loss of God by a human life. Man really can loose himself, as he is already apart from God, (Eph. 2:1-2). And for me, this can be an eternal loss! This seems to be the essence of the teaching of Christ also. (Matt. 25:46 again).

    Finally, ‘Judgment Itself’ will also be very real, and simply God’s great dividing line! (Note, Lk. 16:26 / 2 Thess. 2: 10-12) But do we believe God’s Word and love it?

    • Robert, yes, we two are joined in overall concern with the seriousness of loss of God, or of folks losing faith in God. My belief in conditional immortality retains the same strong evangelical principle as your belief in unconditional immortality.

      In a later post I’ll give my texts and reasons for holding that unconditional or natural immortality of the soul (without faith in God) is unbiblical and just another Greek metaphysical principle. And this is the key, because it is only the pagan’s immortality belief which necessitates his other belief – that there must be a ‘place’ for all the immortals who are ‘lost’ – Hades or Hell.

      Ronnie, it looks like I will find help from your blog on that – thank you.

      But Robert, I am fully able to respect your belief that all human souls are immortal – because I believe your conviction must stem from a real truth of your own self-consciousness – that your own soul has in fact received intimations of its immortality. The difference between us is that I hold that your soul was not always so, and is so now only by the grace of God and as a result of your own living faith. See how that works? 🙂

      • John,

        Indeed life is such a precious thing, both creational and then of course God’s Gift of eternal or everlasting life In Christ! Since I am an old combat veteran (RMC’s), this has always stuck hard in me, not to mention being raised Irish Roman Catholic…a thing of beauty, blessing and providence overall, even with the real failure’s of the RCC.

        I did not like or respect much from Bell’s book! (Which I did spot-read heavily). Just pop “emergent” stuff for me. So I no doubt acted out from this position somewhat. So forgive my rough edges here! Remember, I am always a priest & pastor, though thankfully an Anglican (Reformed) one. 🙂

        Finally, we all know that Augustine saw this subject from the point of man’s eternal being, as he saw him, note too Augustine’s idea of man’s psychological being with God’s Triune Being. This is of course theological, but we cannot diminsh that either.

        I look foward to seeing your further thoughts! 🙂

  6. rey, are you aware how late that bit in Isaiah is judged to have been written? It comes after Deutero-Isaiah (which was largely from the exile). That’s contemporary with the Plato I think.

    But thanks for the heads up. I had no idea.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s