Long, long ago I was a very fervent li’l fundagelical lass. Bright-eyed, bushy-(pony)tailed, sold-out, on-fire, and radical. Yep, that was me.
And as such Christians do, I thought I knew what Hell was. I thought I knew how it’d come about, why it existed, who administered it and why, who went there and why, and what its eventual fate would be.
(Ah, the sheer narcissistic arrogance of the ignorant zealot!)
Even more hilariously, I thought that Jesus had explained all of this to his followers, who shared it with others as a warning. Of course, threats of Hell in my world were not, as they were at first, a warning to ancient people to care for the poor and needy.
Instead, as many modern Christians do, to me threats of Hell represented a dire warning about the utter necessity of absolute obedience to Jesus’ self-proclaimed spokespeople.
So, no. I did not know the real history of Hell. Neither did my peers.
Nor, I am sure, did any of my religious leaders. I doubt it was taught in the indoctrination-station “Bible Colleges” that my denomination favored over real seminaries, which the snottier men in my tribe liked to call “cemeteries.” (I see they still do.)
Instead, the truth about Hell became, to me and my tribemates, occult and arcane knowledge that few imagined existed and fewer still actually held.
It amazes me still to this day that none of our conspiracy theorists—including my then-husband Biff—knew anything about the history of Hell. Oh yeah. They had all their boxes of stapled handouts and all their diagrams, and all their Rooms Full of Crazy.
And yet not one of them had ever stumbled across the truth.
Hell and the biases of the past
To trace the lineage of Hell, we must go back in time many, many centuries. But we also must fight our way through countless biased sources to find the truth.
Because Hell does not really exist, all we have to go by are the myths and legends of what past believers thought about it. They were not disinterested historians and archivists recording factual events as accurately as they possibly could. Instead, they wrote for a purpose: to persuade, to warn, to terrify, to force compliance, even just to astonish. And they definitely hoped to get something for their effort at the end: money, attention, leadership positions, an increase in personal power and influence in their communities, even temporal power over others.
These writers’ audiences already believed in the same twaddle they did, so nobody needed to come up with objective reasons to believe in anything they were writing. Instead, all they had to do was make sure it fit decently well with what they and their audiences already believed – and perhaps just amped things up a notch or two.
So as we read, bear in mind the biases of our sources. These aren’t scientists writing peer-reviewed journal articles. They are well past biased – more like propagandists than historians.
In a lot of ways, what we’re doing today is discussing a popular comic-book series like Batman – except Christian mythology is nowhere near as coherent, cohesive, or interesting as that.
A brief prehistory of Hell
The closest thing we have to the mother of Hell might be the Jewish concept of Sheol.
The earliest mentions of Sheol that we have come from the 8th century BCE, according to this Christian site. So that’s almost a millennium before Christianity – but it’s also a couple of millennia after the first recorded display of religion, and many millennia after humans developed religious beliefs at all. What is possibly the oldest still-living religion, Hinduism, contains something like Hell, but it is very different from Sheol.
(By the way: Isn’t it kinda weird that such a supposedly-important idea came along so late, comparatively speaking, in the history of religion?)
At any rate, a scholarly Jewish site, Jewish Encyclopedia, tells us that Sheol was a riff on the Assyrian word shilu, which meant “a sort of chamber.” In ancient Hebrew use, sheol implied a pit, an abyss, or a place of destruction. The general ideas contained within this belief can be reliably and easily traced to Assyro-Babylonian mythology.
For the most part, though, Sheol represented the end of life, not the beginning of any new life. Everybody went to Sheol, no matter how good or bad they were in life. Sheol wasn’t really an afterlife. It functioned as neither a reward nor a punishment.
Indeed, Hebrew religion focused a lot more on the here-and-now than on anything like an afterlife. For a while, anyway.
And then, a wild Greek paganism appeared
If you’ve seen Disney’s Hercules, you already know that the Ancient Greeks had their own kinda version of the afterlife, which they called Hades – along with its ruler. (In this post, “Hades” refers only to the realm, not the deity).
Tartarus, a part of the realm of Hades, roughly corresponds to the Christian Hell, where naughty people went to spend their afterlife. Greek writers began creating mythology around Tartarus around the 8th century BCE:
Plato talks about it in the 4th c. BCE in Phaedo, and by the 1st century BCE, enough mythology had accreted to the concept of Tartarus that Virgil could describe it in great detail in his Aeneid.
Greek paganism traveled very well. Hellenic mythology has a stunning ability to absorb and synthesize with literally any other mythology. That’s why we find variants of the god Hermes all over the ancient world and a temple dedicated to Isis in the ruins of Pompeii.
So we should not be surprised at all to discover that ancient Hebrews started talking about Tartarus eventually. Of course they would. It was as inevitable as a high school’s head cheerleader developing a crush on the football team’s quarterback. The only real surprise is that it took them all the way to the 4th century BCE to adopt the concepts.
Tartarus in Judaism and early Christianity.
Eventually, ancient Hebrews developed the absolutely groundbreaking concept of an afterlife.
They almost certainly developed it as a result of their mingling with ancient Greek culture. I mean, Alexander the Great conquered Judea in 332 BCE. After that, we start seeing elements of Greek religious thinking popping up in Judaism.
We first find Tartarus mentioned in the Septuagint version of the Book of Job (40:20 and 41:21), which was written in a dialect called Koine Greek, spoken from the 4th c. BCE to the 6th c. CE., his translation of Job probably happened around the 2nd c. CE.
In addition, someone translated 1 Enoch into Greek around the 4th-2nd c. CE. It talks about the archangel Uriel being “in charge of the world and of Tartarus.” Apparently, this translation also mentions Tartarus being the location where 200 fallen “Watchers,” or angels, are imprisoned.
We also find Tartarus mentioned in an old Jewish writing called Hypostasis of the Archons (also known as Reality of the Rulers), which is dated to about the 3rd c. CE. This Gnostic writing is a commentary on Genesis. And it appears in other places in Jewish writings of the time, as OMG NO IDOLS EVER Judaism absorbed this essential concept.
By the time someone first created Christianity’s ideas, Tartarus, as a Hell-type afterlife, was very much already a familiar Jewish idea. And believers in Hell were developing it within their religious milieu, without anyone screaming at them that they were infidels or heretics.
And remember that all this time, Christianity was developing alongside this belief in Judaism.
Sidebar: The birth of mystic Judaism.
In tracing the evolution of Hell, I’d be absolutely remiss not to mention the rise of mystic Judaism around the 1st c. BCE. As Jews began to absorb Hellenic ideas about the afterlife, they began developing some truly mind-blowing ideas. In a lot of ways, Christianity would not exist without them.
Mysticism itself holds that humans can gain knowledge of a reality that cannot be sensed or measured by objective means. Mystic Jews thought that they could grow close to their god through mysticism — and thus transcend regular ole mortal life.
The biggest name in this movement might be that of Philo of Alexandria. If Christianity wouldn’t exist today without Jewish mysticism, then it largely wouldn’t have started at all without Philo.
Philo is generally thought to have lived from 20 BCE to 40 CE, mostly in Alexandria. As a member of a wealthy family, he was tightly enmeshed with the politics and commerce of the area. One of his two sons even married into the family of Herod Agrippa I – the one mentioned in Acts.
(Of course, Philo never wrote a single word about Jesus. Weeeird.)
In his writings, Philo meshed Greek and Roman philosophical ideas with Judaism. He tried to show that Greek and Roman philosophers had gotten their biggest ideas from Judaism. Most of all, he had a lot of thoughts about “Logos” being responsible for Creation somehow, while “the man of God” was a super-important instrument of the Logos.
You might be thinking right now about John 1:1, and you’d be right to do so:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Yep. But Philo wasn’t really into Hell, so much. He didn’t seem familiar with the term “Gehenna,” either. That term only got rolling after the time of the Second Temple (515 BCE – 70 CE) as a common shorthand for a hellish afterlife of punishment.
As we edge our way toward Christianity’s Hell.
And now, we find ourselves teetering on the ledge of Christianity.
Christianity is a fusion religion. It started as a riff on Judaism that incorporated all kinds of elements: Greek and Roman mythology, mystic philosophy, Jewish writings and beliefs, you name it. A bit plucked from here, a bit plucked from there.
As such, we shouldn’t expect Hell, as a doctrinal belief, to be any different at all. Like Christianity itself, the concepts included in Hell are the fusion of a number of different elements. We can understand these elements and see them swirl and draw closer together. They’re not supernatural at all. They’re just the result of regular ole humans — if very smart ones sometimes — thinking hard about the ramifications of their beliefs.
Hell-believers—as we defined—have a truly unfortunate number of hurdles they must clear in order to make the case that their beliefs are objectively true and factual. As each new element entered their religion’s belief system, the chances of it being the actual objective factual truth drops that much more.