The Formation Of Hell by Alan E. Bernstein

[in case anyone is interested, I wrote this paper for my independant study on the doctrine of Hell.]

Alan E. Bernstein’s work, The Formation of Hell: death and retribution in the ancient and early Christian Worlds, is an examination of the historical mythologies and philosophies that have influenced our current concepts of Hell. It is structured into four main parts with an introduction. Introduced by an examination of ancient Babylonian and Egyptian texts, these four parts include (1)The Netherworlds of Greece and Rome, (2)The Afterlife in Ancient Judaism, (3)Hell in the New Testament, and (4)Tensions in Early Christianity.

Part one takes us through explanations of four developmental concepts of after-life in the ancient world of Greece and Rome: “Neutral Death,” “Moral Death,” “Porous Death” and “Useful Death.” These concepts evolved one from another, yet eventually became contemporary to one another.

“Neutral Death” portrayed “death as neutral, embracing all the dead in nearly the same conditions, chiefly marked by strict separation from the living” (p.21). This strict separation is represented in Homer’s eighth century epic the Odyssey, where the hero Odysseus travels to the land of the dead giving us an image of the afterlife. Homer emphasizes that “the land of the dead is very far away from human habitation” first of all by the amount of effort required in reaching it (p.25). In neutral death there is no intentional judgment for the dead involving a forced punishment, but “one’s conduct in life determines one’s fate after death” (p.49). Neutral death is different from our traditional concept of Hell where there is torment and punishment. In Hades, as referred to in Greek culture, there is no real class or merit distinction made among the dead. All the dead, called shades, occupy Hades’ quarters and there is no torment or special treatment for humans (p.38). In this view, life after death is a reflection of what you felt during the moment of your death. So it was not their conduct, but the way they died that determined the quality of their after-life.

“Moral Death” sprouted from the concept of “neutral death” based on a call for vindication of the righteous. “Moral Death” emphasized the importance of living in good conduct because in death there would be punishment for the wicked and vindication for the righteous. The ancient philosopher Plato was extremely influential in the formation of this view especially in his work; Republic, concluded by the myth of Er. Plato establishes why it is so important to live rightly. Plato provides the first evidence of postmortem distinction between the righteous and unrighteous. Bernstein quotes Plato saying:

“we must at all times give our unfeigned assent to the ancient and holy doctrines [hierois logois] which warn us that our souls are immortal, that they are judged and that they suffer the severest punishments after our separation from the body. Hence we must also hold it a lesser evil to be victims of great wrongs and crimes than to be doers of them” (p.52).

“Porous Death” focused more on the relationship between the land of the dead and the land of the living. This developed from the concern for proper burial of the dead. The living and the dead were not so strictly isolated from one another as they were in previous views. The land of the dead had influence upon the land of the living and vice versa. This prompted the Greek Heroes to frequently venture into Hades and gave allowance for the dead to visit the land of the living. Proper burial had a two pronged function. It first of all “provided access to the underworld for the dead” and secondly it “safely isolated them from human habitation” (p.93). This view kept people aware of their relationship and responsibility toward the dead.

“Useful Death” dealt with the practicality of how the afterlife was viewed. A good understanding would lead to loyalty to Rome usually through fear of postmortem punishment. A wrong understanding of the afterlife was thought to lead to selfish and malicious behavior. Philosophy called for a view of death that could “serve the state,” and a view that “makes men’s private lives righteous” (p.109). If people are rewarded for good conduct and loyalty to Rome in the afterlife and are punished for the opposite then they will likely be prompted to live virtuous lives and serve the state well. Death shapes behavior and teaches “moderation in conduct” (p.128). People were given images of an afterlife that gave incentive to live morally.

Jewish concepts of the afterlife provide tension and even paradox in considering the afterlife, but in its foundations it was a very neutral view. In the Deuteronomic system the main concern was justice in life. Afterlife was not discussed thoroughly, if at all. Judaism “measures justice according to prosperity and adversity in life” (p.153). Yahweh rewarded and punished in life, but there was no vindication or damnation in the afterlife. Sheol, which we usually translate death or the grave but is also often translated “hell,” was not understood as we understand hell.[1] Sheol in ancient Judaism was understood simply as death or the grave. As history progressed, views emerged giving “levels” to Sheol (p.162). The book of Job may have been written as a direct challenge to the Deutreronomic system (p.156). Until Job was written it was thought that righteous people were blessed and unrighteous people were cursed. It was articulated within the Torah; the Jewish law. In Job we see a righteous man cursed even though he is righteous. This certainly would have raised some questions for contemporary readers. Job also represented questions that many people in the culture were already asking. Job calls out for “moral death.” He questions God concerning “the nature of death” saying that God cannot be just if He “destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (p.158). Job called for postmortem justice because it wasn’t playing out in life. The concept of “eternal punishment” which is later alluded to in the New Testament only saw it’s infancy in the book of Daniel and some other apocalyptic literature.

Early Christian views formed primarily from the Ancient Jewish concepts with some likely influence from Hellenistic philosophy. One important note is that the main theme in the New Testament is not Hell or eternal damnation rather it is “eternal life” (p.205). The Most influential Christian writers expressed an “aspiration for universal salvation” (p.228). They seem to avoid discussing damnation but naturally it came up. Paul does not refer to Gehenna, which we translate as hell in the New Testament, as eternal punishment. In fact he seems to be more of an annihilationist than anything else. John, agreeing with Paul on Soteriological matters as far as what qualifies for exclusion, alludes to eternal damnation only slightly stronger.

Other writers, particularly the writers of the synoptic gospels, explain Gehenna “as fire, call it eternal, and declare it to be the fate of those found wanting at the Last Judgment” (p.228). The concept certainly rises stronger in the New Testament than it ever did in the Tanak but it is still important to note that it was not the driving force behind any writers. The damnation was used mostly to contrast against eternal life, which was their true focus.

The Early Christians continued to formulate ideas about Hell. After the authority of the Pope was established literature concerning hell emerged. From the Gospel of Nicodemus (p.274) to The Apocalypse of Peter (p.282) to the writings of Saint Augustine (p.320) literature continued to wrestle with the theory. The Church seems to be continuing the trend. Literature is spouting up to this day and we have by no means nailed it down.

What intrigued me about the Formation of Hell was that every idea about death or Hell throughout history was influenced by story or myth. Today we dig within the pages of scripture for neatly packaged explanations all the while treating it as a book of doctrine when it is truly a narrative. Why do we search for truth in the form of a doctrine of Hell rather than a story of hell? Stories are essential to us if we are to responsibly formulate a theology of Hell. We cannot explain Hell apart from the narrative we’re given. From here we must wrestle with how this can be done and how it plays out in our theological study. We must ask how Hell plays out in the biblical narrative before we make conclusions about how to avoid it. We cannot simply say, “accept Jesus and escape Hell” until it is clear to us what the nature of hell is. It isn’t as simple as a one line doctrinal statement. The truth about Hell is found in the mysterious story of Scripture and History.

As a Church we tend to believe that Hell is something we made up. We forget that our concepts are heavily influenced from outside our sphere. Hell is much older than the revelation of Yahweh through Jesus. We are guided by the Tanak and the Greek texts and the ancient Babylonian texts before them. Bernstein has given us reason to be humble in our articulation of Hell because we are following an ancient trend not dispensing absolute and objective truths. Entrance into a study of Hell requires grace for those who do not agree with us and humility because we know we are not the first and we will not be the last to embark on this ominous endeavor.

[1] Deut. 32:22, Psalm 9:17, Psalm 55:15, Ezekiel 31:15


SteveW said…
Wes, I am not a trained theologian or a professional minister of any kind but I have learned to think outside of the traditional boundaries so often established by tradition. In doing so I have found a sense of the Spirit of God leading me and teaching me beyond the wildest expectation of my earlier years of belief.

I applaud you in your openess to look at issues in a broad place of perception. I hope that you will always attempt to prevent yourself from becomuing so closed and educated in your orthodoxy that you can no longer learn. I suspect that God uses very humble and sometimes foolish appearing ways in which to cause is to grow in grace.

I honestly believe that growing in grace is nothing more than becoming more childlike in our faith of God and His plan for us all.

May the peace of God always guard your heart and mind.