What are the origins of the teaching of HELL?
ANSWER: (In Outline Form):
The above question posed concerning hell is related to its ideological, historical roots or beginnings.
Before we continue I must make it known that I personally believe in a heaven and hell and according to the Zohar there may be transitional stages in-between. However, this does not necessitate that I believe them to be literal physical places. More than that; from a historical context the evolution of hell is clearly defined and more closely relates to a state of being, a frame of mental and spiritual reference. However, since the Torah doesn’t spend a great deal of time on the subject other than when necessary to further its teachings, I will not be fixed or dogmatic in my own thinking about the subject. That said, however, that has not prevented me, nor should it you, from learning as much about it as is possible if it will help one to understand the great mercies of HaShem to His people.
My intention is not to convince anyone to believe or disbelieve in a hell. However, to be able to intelligently discuss a thing it is vital to know something of that thing's inception and evolution over time.
Even the Tanakh, which most people in the Occident use as a basis for their belief in hell, was not created in a vacuum. The authors and characters of the Holy Writings all brought to the table their concept of a hell that was prevalent in their day.
When we look at hell's beginnings and how it evolved from generation to generation it is quite fascinating. What is more interesting is that we can go back to a time when hell wasn't even a factor. In what follows some may be shocked to find that the very founding father of our people, Avraham, did not know of, believe in, or even could conceive of such a place that many religions across the globe view as an eternal place of unimaginable eternal torments.
The idea of hell has a beginning in the annals of time and over the centuries it has evolved into this magnificent foreboding dwelling place that many have come to accept and fear today.
Provided for your intellectual and spiritual quest is an outline of hell’s origins followed by some interesting and, hopefully, helpful reference material for those who wish to really study the subject for themselves. It should be noted here that while the Tanakh touches on the “afterlife” it doesn’t dwell heavily on it. Its goal is to equip the soul for life in a physical body in the here and now and while it may refer to a place for the dead as a reality it doesn’t elaborate much on its particulars. May your journey bring you truth, knowledge, comfort and hope.
[NOTE: All dates used in this outline are BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) - Dates are approximations]
I. Prehistory — ~ ? to 4000 BCE — Adam to Noach:
The “Myth of Eternal Return” — The Miracle of Continuous Rising — Rising and Falling of the Sun — Waning & Waxing of the Moon — The Monthly & Yearly Cycles — Organic birth, death & rebirth
II. Post Deluge __ ~ 3000 to 1800 BCE — Sowing and Harvesting — Sacrifice of God-Kings — The Eternal Journey of the River of Life
Sumerian God-King annual & seasonal sacrifices — Nimrod (Gilgamesh) to Tower of Babel
Egyptian Pharaoh — God-King entombments
Feeding of the Entombed Dead [See: Deuteronomy 26:14]
II. Early Biblical Period — The Tribe, 1800 to 1250 BCE - Avraham to Joshua
The Family Cave Tomb — Genesis 25:8; 35:29; 49:29-31,33; Numbers 27:13
In the early Biblical period throughout the Middle and Near East death meant one thing: "Entering the ancestral realm of the family tomb so that upon departing from this world the deceased would be 'gathered to his people.’" [SEE: Genesis 25:7-10]
III. Pre-Exilic Period — The Nation, 1250 - 586 BCE - Joshua to Babylonian Exile
During this important period new and different ideas about the afterlife began to slowly develop. These changes did not take place immediately but in successive increments over the next 700 years or so. The Tribe has been replaced by the Nation causing a paradigm shift in the political-social-religious consciousness of the nation. This shift greatly affected the views of death and what takes place in the afterlife.
The concept of Sheol (Grave of the Ancestors) is revealed Genesis 42:38; Isaiah 5:15; 14:11; Psalm 141:7
The idea of Sheol was borrowed from the Mesopotamian - ARALU - a place of the dead - located beneath the earth. Job's description of Sheol found in Job 10:21-22 is identical to the Babylonian kur-nu-gr-a (land of no return). Job lived in that part of Mesopotamia known as the city of Uz just a few kilometers from Avraham’s hometown of Ur. This idea was later adopted by the Greek culture to represent Hades, which in turn eventually was expanded by the Christian religion to resemble a place of eternal suffering envisioned in the classic piece of literature known as Dante’s Inferno.
IV. Post-Exilic Period — To Scatter & Re-Gather: 587 - 200 BCE — Babylonian Exile to Maccabean Revolt against Seleucid rule in Eretz Israel.
The scattering of the 10 Northern tribes by the Assyrians and decades later the loss of the nation’s two Southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin to Babylonian captivity put a sword through the heart of our beloved Jewish Nation that we haven't fully recovered from to this very day. The heart of the nation was no more, its central focus, the Temple of Solomon, was rubble. A new shift in the thinking among the people and the prophets began to take place. With this shift Sheol slowly takes on new responsibilities in successive stages. Sheol now moves from a place of rest or a grave for the ancestral dead to the Realm of Retribution. To those so far from their promised inheritance Sheol now becomes the place of chastisement for Israel's enemies foreshadowed by Isaiah 14:9,15 and espoused by Ezekiel 32:18. Not only a place for kings and nations that come against the House of Israel but it also takes on a more personal place for an individual’s responsibility and retribution, be they Jew or Gentile. [SEE: Jeremiah 31:20-30; Ezekiel 18:4,20]
V. Post Biblical and Pre-Christian Period - 200 BCE - 2 CE
During this period Greek influence throughout the Middle and Near East was inclusive. Few escaped this Hellenistic intrusion. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha are the Hellenized Jewish writings of this period. It is these writings, along with the teachings of the later Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees that impacted, greater than any other factor, the newly developing concepts of hell that would be fully entrenched by the mid 1st Century CE.
It is from this period that the idea developed that Sheol was divided into two distinct sections: A side for the wicked dead called Gehenna (Gehinnom); and a side for the righteous dead called Gan Eden - Garden of Eden (a.k.a. Avraham's Bosom).
Gehenna and Sheol were used interchangeably in the early apocryphal period, however by the end of this period Sheol had all but disappeared. Traditions about Gehenna evolved and eventually took on mythical proportions in later Rabbinic and Kabbalistic writings. Over time it developed into a place of torment, filled with ravenous wolves, unquenchable flame and thirst, maggots, cancor worms and a continuous darkness of sleepless agony. By the historical time of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem this was the predominant view held by most religious Jews. The one difference that has developed since then between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim concept of hell was this:
In Jewish tradition, while hell is an eternal state, it is not the eternal abode for the individual. The predominant view held in pre-Rabbinic and Rabbinic Judaism is that Gehenna, or hell, is not punitive in nature but its primary purpose is to serve as a place of purgation, atonement, and purification. Picture a place in which the tares are burnt off so only the pure grain can emerge. Or the soul is being refined in the fires of purity so that what emerges on the other side is a pure, refined silver fit for the King of Creation. According to the Talmud in Midrash Pesikta Rabbati 53:2, "after going down to Gehenna and receiving the punishment due him, the sinner is forgiven from all his iniquities, and like an arrow from the bow is flung from Gehenna." Then according to Exodus Rabbah 7:4 the soul having been sufficiently purified is able to enter the beautiful realm of Gan Eden.
These were the common views held by most religious Jews and early Christian Jews until approximately 135 CE. There was always division between these two disparate groups, but at that time a great division occurred aided by the final Roman destruction of the Simon Bar Kokhba revolt. Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity went their very separate and divergent ways.
With the massive influx of non-Jewish thought coming into the Christian movement later called “the Church;” by the 4th century CE, the original Jewish followers of Jesus as their Messiah along with their influence had died out and was completely replaced by Pauline theology and further developed by Augustine's theology as reflected in his infamous eschatological work entitled "City of God." He and Paul’s concept of hell as an eternal place of suffering, as well as, all his other themes have influenced Western Christian thought to this very day. This idea of hell finally reached its zenith in the 13th century CE when the Christian Roman Catholic poet Dante, in his literary masterpiece of fantasy "Divine Comedy" mapped out in a very picturesque graphic display the images of hell. What few realize is just how great these two works of antiquity have colored today’s concept of hell.
To sum up:
Hell as it as come to be known today evolved slowly over the last 6000 years. It originally was nothing more than a burial place or family tomb for a nomadic tribal peoples that was totally devoid of any concepts of judgment, retribution and was amoral in its view. It then developed into a place for the nation's dead, evolving later as a place of retribution for the nation's enemies. This eventually led to a place of retribution for all individuals. Over time, for the Jews it became the place of retribution, purgation, atonement and purification. A place to leave for the joys of Gan Eden after a period not to exceed 12 Earth months.
For the Christian and Moslem it became a place for the unbelieving throng and infidel to be tortured for all eternity with unimaginable torments.
The following is a list of references (some were quoted from in the above text) that I hope those who wish to explore this topic further will find them helpful.
The Tanakh — Written Scripture
The Talmud & Midrash - The Oral Scripture and Traditions
Jewish Views of the Afterlife - by Simcha Paull Raphael
Dante's Divine Comedy
City of God - by St. Augustine
Oriental Mythology, The Masks of God - by Joseph Campbell
The Language of Judaism - by Simon Glustrom
The Book of Jewish Wisdom, The Talmud of the Well Considered Life - Jacob Neuser & Naom M.M. Neuser