The Church’s Development
of the Hell Myth
The myth of hell developed steadily after Yeshua’s death in 30 CE, but it does not appear in the Old Testament, the New Testament, Yeshua’s teachings, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s epistles, or the other epistles in the canon. The explanation of how it developed in the church follows.
Paul and the early church had a dilemma. The Jewish Yeshua and those in the Jerusalem church, especially James, Yeshua’s brother, held a traditional conception of the Messiah. The Messiah would be a man, perhaps descended from David, who would be anointed by God to rout the occupying army, the Romans, and establish an earthly kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Israel). It would be presided over by God’s elect, but God would be the supreme ruler. It would be a theocracy. Some envisioned a new Kingdom of Heaven separate from the earth.
The 12 tribes of Israel would be the citizens and beneficiaries of this kingdom. All Jews in the Diaspora would move to Israel. Some believed all other people on Earth would live normally, but be so drawn by the quality of life in the Jewish kingdom of God that they would convert and eventually, all of humanity would be Jewish. Others believed the rest of humankind would be eliminated, leaving only the Jews.
“Salvation,” then, meant being saved from Roman occupation and being part of the kingdom of God; there was no conversion involved with the Jewish messiah. It was salvation for Jews only. Yeshua was thoroughly Jewish, was bringing a message to the Jews exclusively (Matthew 10:5-6 and 15:24), had Jewish disciples, and first had a following after his death established in Jerusalem as a Jewish sect awaiting the return of the Jewish Messiah to establish the Jewish Kingdom of Israel. Yeshua never thought of starting a new religion and never thought of converting non-Jews to become Jews.
Yeshua’s followers believed, when he was alive, that he was the Messiah promised by God for Israel, who would deliver Judea from the Roman occupation. When Yeshua was executed by the Romans, the executioners wrote “King of the Jews” on a placard, showing that the common conception among his followers, the Jews who condemned him, and the Romans who executed him, was that Yeshua was claiming to be the Messiah who would establish an Earthly kingdom of God.
After Yeshua’s death, his followers were sure he would return within a few days or weeks to rout the Romans and establish the Jewish theocracy. The author of Luke reported that after Yeshua’s death, two downtrodden disciples leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus despaired, “. . . we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) “Salvation” had nothing to do with a place of torment; people would either be in or out, saved or unsaved, Jewish or non-Jewish. If they were unsaved, meaning not Jewish, they would live outside of the kingdom as they had been living on earth; some asserted the non-Jews would perish, meaning they would die and no longer exist, leaving only Jews in the Kingdom of Israel.
But the disciples, Jewish leaders, and Romans didn’t understand Yeshua’s words. Yeshua did have a message for the 12 Tribes of Israel, but it was that the kingdom of God was within, not a physical kingdom. He likely believed himself to be the Messiah, but his message was for the Jews to be born again (actually in the Greek, “born from above”). What he believed politically is not known. However, his spiritual message is crystal clear. Salvation for Yeshua meant growing to be compassionate, loving, non-judgmental, peaceful, and forgiving. The person who grew to spiritual maturity would display those qualities, and would thus live in the kingdom of God that was within. That was salvation for Yeshua.
However, the disciples misinterpreted his message and continued to be sure Yeshua would drive the Romans out of the land and establish the Kingdom of Israel.
Paul and the others converting the gentiles had a problem. The gentiles couldn’t relate to the “Kingdom of Israel” at all. They were not willing to convert to Judaism, would not follow Mosaic law, and certainly would not submit to circumcision. The conception of an earthy Kingdom of Israel was meaningless to them. A Messiah descended from David was lost on them. If Paul and the others were to draw gentiles to believe Yeshua was ordained by God to save humankind, they had to shift their perspective.
So “salvation” came to have a different meaning the gentiles could understand. Anyone who expressed belief that Yeshua was the anointed one would be rewarded with being part of the kingdom of God Yeshua was going to return to establish and would have everlasting life. Yeshua was resurrected as the first man to live eternally. He was not considered by Paul to be a God. When Adam sinned, death came into the world. Through Yeshua, death had been defeated and believers would live eternally. That was what it meant to be “saved.”
Paul still had no conception of a hell of everlasting torment or a heaven elsewhere than on earth. People who were not “saved” would simply die. They wouldn’t have everlasting life. They would perish and never be heard of or seen again. They would not go to a hell; they would just be dead.
By the second century, however, the church leaders, in their zeal to convert people to become followers of Yeshua, read references to fire and judgment in the Bible to mean that people who did not convert to their version of Yeshua’s theology would not simply die–they would be thrown into a fire that would burn eternally. They based this belief on the pagan descriptions of a hell at the time.
The first adoption of the pagan beliefs by a Christian writer was in the Apocalypse of Peter, probably written between 125 and 150 CE that remained in various church lists as a canonical text for centuries. It contains what the author claimed were the words of Yeshua as he instructed Peter after the resurrection about the signs of the end times. It also contains a variety of punishments awaiting sinners in hell and the pleasures of heaven. The descriptions clearly came from Homer, Virgil, Plato, and Orphic and Pythagorean traditions. The hell myth wasn’t in the Old Testament or Christian tradition before this writer developed it out of pagan traditions.
In the New Testament canon, Yeshua referred to “Gehenna,” the valley of Hinnom, where garbage burned continually, corpses were sometimes deposited, and in earlier times, people had been sacrificed. He only referred to it to illustrate his lessons about spiritual growth and the Earthly realm–that the earthly body was meaningless and would be thrown on the garbage dump. Some suggest he was warning the entire Jewish nation that it must turn away from its Earthly focus and reform by being more concerned with spiritual growth and the inner person, and if it didn’t, the Jews would be destroyed in fire. He was right, of course. Jerusalem and the temple were torched in 70 CE.
However, he didn’t refer to a hell as everlasting torment for people who didn’t swear allegiance to him. By the time of the first English translations of the New Testament, the hell myth had been so well rooted in church tradition that where the translators saw “Gehenna,” they simply inserted “hell” as the translation. That led to the misconception about hell being in the New Testament and in Yeshua’s teaching.
This steady evolution took Yeshua from a humble Jewish rabbi teaching about growing spiritually to love God and man, on to the Jewish Messiah whose followers would have eternal life by being in the kingdom of God he would establish imminently, and finally on to the Greek Christos man-god who would stand before humanity in judgment, hurling men, women, children, and infants not swearing allegiance to him into the torment of eternal fire. Yeshua would have found the judgment and cruelty ascribed to him distressing, and would have overturned the tables where the authors sat writing the myths.
Over the centuries, the compassionate, loving, non-judgmental Yeshua was positioned as a judge presiding over an increasingly complex realm of pain and punishment that included levels of torture befitting the sins of the damned. In addition to the inferno (“infernus”) of indescribable eternal pain, the church added a purgatory where the saved souls go to be purged of the temporal effects of their sins and two limbos where souls worked their way out of hell: the Limbo of the Infants, a place of perfect, natural happiness to which those who died before baptism go (because baptism was necessary for salvation but the infants had not committed personal sins), and the Limbo of the Patriarchs made up of two purgatories where the lost would work to raise themselves from the condemnation of hell.
The concept of a hell of torment with these remarkable complexities did not exist before the church added the inferno, purgatory, and the limbos. It simply isn’t in the New Testament, written in the decades prior to 110 CE. Detailed explanations of this development of the hell myth follow.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament refers to “Sheol” (Hebrew) or “Hades” (Greek) as the place of the dead where all who die go. It simply means “unseen.” In no instance in the Old Testament does it refer to a place of torment where people go after death. The Anglo-Saxon (English) word “hell” originally also meant “unseen,” so it was a suitable translation from “Sheol” or “Hades.” However, hell came to be the place of torment, fire, and brimstone in church tradition, so it lost its original meaning in Anglo-Saxon.
Thomas B. Thayer on Hell in the Old Testament
(From The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment by Thomas B. Thayer, 1855)
The word hell, in the Old Testament, is always a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, which occurs sixty-four times, and is rendered “hell” thirty-two times, “grave” twenty-nine times, and “pit” three times.
By examination of the Hebrew Scriptures it will be found that its radical or primary meaning is, The place or state of the dead.
It is plain that it has here no reference to a place of endless torment after death.
It is plain, then, from these citations, that the word Sheol, “hell,” makes nothing for the doctrine of future unending punishment as a part of the Law penalties. It is never used by Moses or the Prophets in the sense of a place of torment after death; and in no way conflicts with the statement already proved, that the Law of Moses deals wholly in temporal rewards and punishments.
This position, also, I wish to fortify by the testimony of Orthodox critics, men of learning and candor [who were currently professors of history and theology at Oxford when Thayer wrote]. They know, and therefore they speak.
- CHAPMAN. [Mark Chapman, Oxford theologian and historian] “Sheol, in itself considered, has no connection with future punishment.” Cited by Balfour, First Inquiry.
- DR. ALLEN says: “The term sheoldoes not seem to mean, with certainty, anything more than the state of the dead in their deep abode.”
- DR. CAMPBELL. “Sheol signifies the state of the dead without regard to their happiness or misery.”
- DR. WHITBY. “Sheol throughout the Old Testament signifies not the place of punishment, or of the souls of bad men only, but the grave only, or the place of death.”
- DR. MUENSCHER. [A distinguished author of Dogmatic History] “The souls or shades of the dead wander in sheol, the realm or kingdom of death, an abode deep under the earth. Thither go all men, without distinction, and hope for no return. There ceases all pain and anguish; there reigns an unbroken silence; there all is powerless and still; and even the praise of God is heard no more.”
- VON COELLN. “Sheol itself is described as the house appointed for all living, which receives into its bosom all mankind, without distinction of rank, wealth, or moral character. It is only in the mode of death, and not in the condition after death, that the good are distinguished above the evil. The just, for instance, die in peace, and are gently borne away before the evil comes; while a bitter death breaks the wicked like as a tree.”
[Thayer continues] These witnesses all testify that sheol, or hell, in the Old Testament, has no reference whatever to this doctrine; that it signifies simply the state of the dead, the invisible world, without regard to their goodness or badness, their happiness or misery. The Old Testament doctrine of hell, therefore, is not the doctrine of endless punishment. It is not revealed in the Law of Moses. It is not revealed in the Old Testament. To such result has our inquiry led us; and now what shall we say of it?
Hell Is Not in the New Testament
Thomas B. Thayer on Hell in the New Testament
(From The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment by Thomas B. Thayer, 1855)
Thayer explains at length the fact that references to Gehenna in the New Testament are not a hell. This is his conclusion:
Now no one believes in such a hell as this. A material hell of fire, and torments by flame, have been long ago abandoned. And the Savior cannot be understood as believing or teaching future torments, . . .
We have now passed in review, as far as our limits will permit, the New Testament doctrine of hell, and we have not, surely, found it to be the doctrine of endless punishment, but something very wide from this.
Origin of the Concept of Hell after the New Testament Was Written
(Summary from The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment by Thomas B. Thayer, 1855)
Thomas Thayer explains that some Jews, especially among the common people, had borrowed the concept of Hades from the Pagans, with fires, demons, and torment. However, the Jewish Rabbis and Jesus did not mean to suggest that superstition when they used the words translated as “hell.” Clearly, the Old Testament writers did not have that in mind, and Jesus did not either.
Hell has been used by over-zealous Christian preachers for centuries to frighten their flocks into obedience. But it has no basis in scripture.
Even the Pagans from Whom the Myth Was Taken
Described the Hell Myth as a Fabrication
The hell myths were taken over bodily from pagan mythology. But even the ancient historians knew the hell myth was a fabrication created to keep the people in line. Polybius, the ancient history, called the myth “contrived”:
Since the multitude is ever fickle, full of lawless desires, irrational passions and violence, there is no other way to keep them in order but by the fear and terror of the invisible world; on which account our ancestors seem to me to have acted judiciously, when they contrived to bring into the popular belief these notions of the gods, and of the infernal regions.
Polybius’ statements sound very much like the rationale the church had for adopting the hell myth and using it to keep parishioners in line.
The famous ancient historian Seneca termed the hell myths a “fable”:
Those things which make the infernal regions terrible, the darkness, the prison, the river of flaming fire, the judgment seat, etc., are all a fable, with which the poets amuse themselves, and by them agitate us with vain terrors.”
Sextus Empiricus called them “poetic fables of hell.” Cicero spoke of them as “silly absurdities and fables” (ineptiis ac fabulis).
Strabo, the ancient geographer, described the same justification for “the punishments the gods are said to inflict on offenders,” calling the creations “superstitions”:
The multitude are restrained from vice by the punishments the gods are said to inflict upon offenders, and by those terrors and threatenings which certain dreadful words and monstrous forms imprint upon their minds. For it is impossible to govern the crowd of women, and all the common rabble, by philosophical reasoning, and lead them to piety, holiness and virtue—but this must be done by superstition, or the fear of the gods, by means of fables and wonders; for the thunder, the aegis, the trident, the torches (of the Furies), the dragons, etc., are all fables, as is also all the ancient theology. These things the legislators used as scarecrows to terrify the childish multitude.
These fables and myths were taken up eagerly by the church to convert the unbelievers and keep the believers in line, even though the pagan writers themselves thought them to be ridiculous.
The Idea of Hell as a Place of Torment Develops in the Second and Third Centuries
Hell did not exist as it is thought of today in the Old Testament, Yeshua’s teaching, Paul, or the earliest days of the church. It was a pagan instrument to keep the rabble in line. But by the second century, the church leaders had adopted it and were beginning to use it to marshal believers. The descriptions of a hell with punishment and torment gradually become more embellished with detail. Until the end of the second century, the penalty was simply eternal fire. The atrocities against those who wouldn’t swear allegiance to Yeshua increased in intensity by the third century.
- 150 CE: Second Clement(“eternal punishment” only)
- If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment (Second Clement 5:5).
- 151 CE: Justin Martyr(“eternal fire” only)
- No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments (First Apology 12). [Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons (First Apology52).
- 155 CE: The Martyrdom of Polycarp(“eternal fire” only)
- Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire (Martyrdom of Polycarp2:3).
- 177 CE: Athenagoras(“fire” only)
- We [Christians] are persuaded that when we are removed from this present life we shall live another life, better than the present one. . . . Then we shall abide near God and with God, changeless and free from suffering in the soul . . . or if we fall with the rest [of mankind], a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere incidental work, that we should perish and be annihilated (Plea for the Christians31).
- 181 CE: Theophilus of Antioch(“eternal punishments . . . wrath, indignation, tribulation, anguish . . . everlasting fire”)
- Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Bible] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God…. [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortally by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things. . . , For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire (To Autolycus1:14).
- 212 CE: Hippolytus(“eternal punishment . . . unquenchable and unending fire . . fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain . . . no sleep”)
- Standing before [Christ’s] judgment, all of them, men, angels, and demons, crying out in one voice, shall say: “Just is your judgment!” And the righteousness of that cry will be apparent in the recompense made to each. To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them (Against the Greeks3).
- 226 CE: Minucius Felix(“clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them”)
- I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment. . . . Nor is there measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them (Octavius34:12-5:3).
- 252 CE: Cyprian of Carthage(“ever-burning Gehenna . . . devoured by living flames . . . tormented . . . souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies . . . without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual”)
- An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life (To Demetrian 24).
Development of Hell Levels in the Middle Ages
The conceptions of hell described by the writers of the second-century and third-century church continued to be embellished throughout the rest of the millennium until the middle ages. Roman Catholic thinkers in the middle ages developed a series of levels in hell, all with no Biblical basis:
- Infernus, the place of torment for the unrighteous damned and the demons. This is the place one most often thinks of when one hears the word “Hell.”
- Purgatory, where the saved souls go to be purged of the temporal effects of their sins
- the Limbo of the Infants (Limbus Infantium), a place of perfect, natural, subjective happiness to which those who died before Baptism (and so are denied the Beatific Vision) but who have not committed personal sins (so don’t warrant punishment) go.
- the Limbo of the Patriarchs (Limbus Patrum), where the righteous who lived before Jesus came to earth went. It is this part of “Hell” that Christ descended into. It no longer exists.
The primary images of hell we have today came from the poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). In The Divine Comedy, Dante takes the reader through three realms of the dead: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The poet has developed places for every type of person, allowing him to editorialize about people’s actions in the world of his day. In the process, he creates vivid scenes of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Those, then, became the basis for virtually all of the artistic depictions of hell in the middle ages and our modern conceptions of a hell with demons, torment, and fire. All of it is poetry; none came from the Bible.
John Milton (1608-1674)
Milton’s Paradise Lost ended the embellishments of hell, both because of the masterpiece Milton had created and because not much more could be originated that Dante and Milton hadn’t already created through the genius of their imaginations.
If the church created hell, Dante and Milton furnished, decorated, and populated it. The church was delighted with the horrific images that would frighten the flock into submission and encourage conversion through fear, so it adopted them in toto. The fact that the images weren’t biblical was a meaningless detail.
Hell in the Eighteenth to Twentieth Centuries
Since the eighteenth century, hell has been a tool evangelists and preachers have used to convert sinners and frighten church members into what they deemed righteousness behavior. Yeshua taught that the Kingdom of God is based on love, but the church with his name developed a theology based on fear. Hell and Satan became the preoccupation of the church. Love was mentioned only when it spilled out from the page as a Bible passage was read.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Jonathan Edwards presided over the “Great Awakening” in America beginning in 1734 in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards, through his fire and brimstone messages, brought a great feeling of sinfulness and fear. When he preached the sermon that follows, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the congregation screamed and wept. It was reported that they reached for building columns and chair rails to keep from slipping into hell.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment. (Retrieved from http://members.aol.com/jonathanedw/Sinners.html, December 15, 2006).
People were to be drawn to conversion and righteous behavior through fear. Maturing spiritually and learning to love had no place in the church of the Great Awakening. The concept of hell had grown far beyond Yeshua’s reference to the garbage dump named Gehenna outside of Jerusalem.
The Hell Myth Today
Today, even the church is drawing back from the hell myth, realizing that it has no Biblical basis and is simply incompatible with a loving God. To read what the views of Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, and others are saying today, go to this link.