You are going to die. It makes no difference if you are rich or poor, wise or foolish, educated or uneducated, successful or unsuccessful. You are mortal, and you are going to die!
Most of us don’t want to hear those words, but they are true nonetheless. For that reason, death has always occupied the minds of the living. And, more particularly, what happensafter we die? That is a question that everyone thinks about at one time or another. That is the question everyone wants to know the answer to.
Coupled with the fact that we will all die is the fact that injustices and inequities are part of life in this world. Inherent in all of us is a sense that something has to be done in the next world that will somehow rectify the unfairness we see all around us in this world. Throughout history, people in every culture have wrestled with what that would look like and tried to come up with an answer. Most have concluded that there is some kind of balance scale on the other side on which humans are weighed, with those who are found wanting being cast into a place of anguish and misery.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, the idea that people will be tortured and suffer forever in that place of misery did not come from the Bible! It is not originally a Judeo-Christian concept at all, although most people today think of it that way.
Old Testament Teaching
The Old Testament is often maligned by those who flippantly say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love. God is one. He does not change. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Neither the God of the Old Testament nor the God of the New Testament is a God of wrath and vengeance.
The Old Testament talks often of punishment for sins. God deals decisively with those who turn from His ways to pervert justice and equity, and whose behavior will ultimately bring pain and sadness to themselves and others. But, the only form of divine punishment prominently presented in the Old Testament as occurring from the time of Adam through to Israel’s return to the Promised Land and the rebuilding of the Temple was temporal. It was punishment meted out on this earth, and did not refer to the spirit-world or a future state, at all.
Noah’s Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah were temporal judgments threatened and inflicted by God on the people who turned away from Him. So were the plagues that came upon Pharaoh and Egypt in the days of Moses. The blessings and curses of the Law were derived entirely from the material sphere. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 promised health, long life, fruitful seasons, military ascendancy, honor and power for Israel if she walked in the ways of the LORD. It threatened disease, famine, defeat in war, shame and weakness if she chose to disobey the LORD. The periods of the judges and kings illustrate graphically how these temporal punishments were meted out.
In all their warnings against the wickedness and idolatry of the nation, the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel did not refer at all to future punishments in the spirit-world or to some kind of redemption from them. They referred to the terrors of the siege, of famine, of the capture of the city, of captivity in a strange land, or to their being brought back from such captivity. These were all things that occurred on this earth in this life.
What Did The Pagans Think?
In contrast to the Old Testament teaching, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans each had a fairly well developed idea of what would happen to the wicked when they died. And, each is very close to the traditional view of Endless Punishment.
For example, in an ancient Egyptian tomb from the 20th Dynasty (1190 BC-1077 BC) there is a funerary text that has come to be known as the Book of Caverns. It was written on a wall inside the tomb for easy reference by the deceased after he died. It describes the journey of the sun god through the six caverns of the underworld. In the lowest register of the sixth section, we see pictures and descriptions depicting scenes of torture and punishment in the next world. It is a place
. . . where at first, goddesses wielding knives torture supine, beheaded figures with their heads set at their feet and who's hearts have been torn from their bodies. The accompanying text also explains that the soul and shadows of these enemies have also been punished. In the second scene, we encounter four bound female enemies who are guarded by two jackal headed goddesses. Re has condemned these enemies, once again, to the ‘Place of Annihilation, from which there is no escape.
An account from ancient Babylon and Assyria tells of the descent of the goddess Ishtar into the netherworld. Ishtar is the goddess of life and fertility. She descends into the land of no return to the place where the goddess of death and sterility dwells. It is a place where those who enter cannot leave, and where travel is a one-way street.
To the Kurugu, land of [no return],
Ishtar daughter of Sin was [determined] to go.
The daughter of Sin was determined to go
To the dark house, dwelling of Erigalla’s god,
To the house which those who enter cannot leave,
On the road where traveling is one-way only,
To the house where those who enter are deprived of light,
Where dust is their food, clay their bread.
They see no light, they dwell in darkness,
They are clothed like birds, with feathers,
Over the door and the bolt, dust has settled.
The Greek writer, Plato (428—348 BC), told his readers about a place in the depths of the earth filled with great rivers of fire. It’s a dreadful place where those who have committed gross sins are cast. It is also a place from which these wicked sinners will never leave!
. . . there are everlasting rivers of huge size under the earth, flowing with hot and cold water; and there is much fire, and great rivers of fire, and many streams of mud, some thinner and some thicker, like the rivers of mud that flow before the lava in Sikelia (Sicily), and the lava itself. . . . But those who appear to be incurable, on account of the greatness of their wrongdoings, because they have committed many great deeds of sacrilege, or wicked and abominable murders, or any other such crimes, are cast by their fitting destiny into Tartaros (Hell), whence they never emerge.
The Roman author, Virgil (70 BC-19BC), also writes of a place of deep distress and sadness:
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way: . . .
Just in the gate and in the jaws of hell,
Revengeful Cares and sullen Sorrows dwell,
And pale Diseases, and repining Age,
Want, Fear, and Famine's unresisted rage;
Here Toils, and Death, and Death's half-brother, Sleep,
Forms terrible to view, their sentry keep.
Unlike what we find in the Old Testament, these ideas sound a lot like the descriptions in the “hellfire and brimstone” sermons we looked at briefly in an earlier post. These pagan writings talk of supernatural beings torturing the souls of men and women. They tell of a place where darkness dwells and from whence there is no escape. They speak of rivers of fire and a place where the inhabitants are filled with revengeful cares and sullen sorrows. But, they were written by people who had little or no contact with the Bible.
Where did the teaching about endless punishment in Hell come from?
It was not the Bible that influenced the pagan cultures regarding the fires of Hell. Rather, it was the pagan cultures that actually influenced some of the later Jewish and Christian writers to incorporate themes into their writings that were completely foreign to Biblical teaching.