In Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century, hell is described as a “city of woe” and a place of “eternal pain”—metaphors of endless suffering.
The prospect of eternal torment implies a dichotomy of the human being (body + soul) and the immortality of the soul. These two ideas penetrated Christianity early on, having been taken directly from the Greeks, or indirectly through Jewish writings outside the biblical canon, which in turn were influenced by Hellenistic philosophy.
Regarding direct inspiration from the Greeks, Oscar Cullmann states that “1 Corinthians 15 has been sacrificed for the Phaedo,“ in other words, the Pauline doctrine that there is no life after death until the resurrection of man (as a body-soul unity) was replaced by the notion of the immortal soul surviving without a body, explained by Plato in the Phaedo. Although not all Greek philosophical schools believed in the immortal soul (e.g. the Epicureans and Stoics rejected it), after several theologians of Eastern Christianity (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others) were trained in Greek philosophy, the Christian community increasingly adopted the Platonic view of the soul.
As for the influence of Greek philosophy on Jewish writings, the canon of the Old Testament, dated before the 4th century BC, could not have been influenced by Greek philosophical thought, since the latter was introduced during the transition from the 5th century BC to the 4th century BC. However, the influence of Hellenistic culture did reach the Jews in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, leading the non-canonical Jewish literature of the period to combine Old Testament Judaism with notions of Greek philosophy.
Here is an example: the passage in Isaiah 66:16-24 describes God’s judgement on eschatological rebels and ends with the repulsive image of corpses that worms and fire will not cease to devour (v. 24). In the apocryphal book of Judith, written in the 2nd century BC, we read that on the Day of Judgement, God will “put fire and worms into their flesh [all the nations that opposed His people], and they will weep with full awareness forever” (Judith 16:17, author’s translation). In Isaiah, the wicked are consumed by worms and fire, whereas in Judith they are tormented by fire and worms for eternity. It seems that the apocrypha adapts the Old Testament image to Greek ideas that had entered Jewish thought. Therefore, the idea in Judith belongs to Hellenistic Judaism, not to Old Testament Judaism.
As in Greek philosophy, in Hellenistic Judaism we find opposing ideas about the eschatological (final) punishment of sinners. Although the idea of an immortal soul and eternal punishment predominates, there are exceptions, which we will mention later. In other words, not all intertestamental Judaism is syncretistic, incorporating Greek ideas. According to Edward Fudge, whose conversion from an eternal hell view to an annihilationist view (capital punishment with eternal consequences) was depicted in the 2012 film Hell and Mr Fudge, intertestamental Jewish literature does not reflect the “Jewish vision” because there was no single unified vision. It would therefore be simply wrong to assume, as Joseph Ratzinger, the late Pope Benedict XVI, did, that Jesus, Paul and the early Church are assimilated to Hellenistic Jewish culture, which affirms the immortal soul suffering eternally in the flames of hell.
The main question, then, would be to which side does the New Testament belong: the Jewish literature that follows the Old Testament, or the literature of Hellenistic Judaism? In this article, we will look briefly at Jesus’ view of hell. The vocabulary of hell in the New Testament includes several terms: Gehenna, fire, darkness, and Hades. We will look at these four terms with the intention of discovering which Jewish tradition Jesus belonged to: the Old Testament tradition or the one developed during the Hellenistic-influenced Second Temple period.
The first term Jesus uses is Gehenna. This name comes from Aramaic and is the name of one of the valleys outside Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom. Before Jesus used this term, the Old Testament prophets foresaw the eschatological slaughter where God would punish His enemies in a valley near Jerusalem (Joel 3:14; cf. Zechariah 12:9). This valley came to symbolise the place where the wicked would be punished (e.g. 1 Enoch 27:2; 90:26; 2 Ezra 7:36-38). In Jewish apocalyptic and rabbinic literature the emphasis is on the description of the punishment in Gehenna and its purifying role (except in the case of Gentile sinners, who would spend all eternity there). However, Jesus seems to disagree with these traditions on one very important point: Gehenna is a place of destruction and death, not of purifying life or unlimited punishment. Here is a summary of what Jesus is saying:
Who will go to Gehenna? The “judgement of Gehenna” is not only for notorious sinners, but also for hypocrites (Matthew 23:33), those who pretend to be pious and, when they bring someone to faith, make that person twice as wicked as they are (Matthew 23:15). Whoever insults their neighbour is likened to a murderer (a transgressor of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue) and will therefore “be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22).
If one had to choose between living with a disability in paradise (an exaggeration, of course) or being thrown into hell, the former would be preferable, Jesus says (Matthew 5:29, 30; 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47).
The point of this statement is not that some will go to heaven physically imperfect, but that even if they could, it would be better to do so than to perish whole in the fire of hell. Jesus is telling his followers to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to avoid the punishment of fire at the end. In some of the above passages, Gehenna is compared to a fire that “never goes out” (Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43,48) or is “eternal” (Matthew 18:8), but we will deal with the duration of this fire in the next section.
What actually happens in Gehenna? This fire seems to be nothing other than the final judgement, when God will “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). When Jesus spoke like this, much of Judaism at the time was dichotomous. Therefore, Jesus uses the body-soul opposition (without embracing it) only to affirm that the human being will be destroyed in its entirety in Gehenna. Thus, Jesus corrects even those who believed in the immortality of the soul by emphasising the total (body-soul) destruction of humans. “Under that judgement,” says R. T. France, “it is not only the body but the true life of the person which is liable to destruction in hell…. In this passage it [Gehenna] is spoken of as a place of destruction, not of continuing punishment, a sense which fits the origin of the term in the rubbish dumps of the Hinnom valley, where Jerusalem’s garbage was destroyed by incineration. On the basis of this text alone it would therefore be better to speak of true life (the ‘soul’) not as eternal but as ‘potentially eternal,’ since it can be ‘destroyed” in hell.’
Furthermore, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that the body of the sinner will be thrown “into hell” after being killed (Luke 12:5). From the perspective of these two texts, therefore, it cannot be a hell of eternal suffering or a fire in which the sinner suffers in a conscious state. Jesus understands Gehenna as a hell that destroys, a fire that consumes, a judgement that annihilates forever. The condemned sinners are conscious until they die. Then the fire continues its work of purifying the earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 20:9).
The second term used to illustrate the punishment of hell is fire. The tree that does not bear good fruit (a symbol of the unworthy human being), Jesus explains, will be thrown “into the fire” (Matthew 3:10; 7:19; Luke 3:9; cf. John 15:6). At the end of time, the transgressors will be thrown “into the blazing furnace” (Matthew 13:42, 50) and burned like the weeds in the harvest (Matthew 13:40). As noted above, there are texts which give a temporal character to the fire of the final judgement. Jesus speaks of “a fire that never goes out” (Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43, 48; Luke 3:17) and of the “eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8) prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). We have here two words that require attention: asbestos “unquenchable, inextinguishable” and aiōnios “everlasting.” Let us look at them one by one.
The phrase “unquenchable fire” refers essentially to a fire that burns unceasingly, but it is by no means an eternal fire in the absolute sense, that is, one that never goes out. Here are some of the main references.
Among the Greeks, the fire that did not go out was the fire in the temples, which burned constantly, but which had to be fed to keep it burning, and which also went out from time to time. A fragmentary inscription from the 2nd-3rd century AD, from a temple of healing in the ancient Greek city of Epidaurus, dedicated to the god Asclepius, describes the priest’s duty to light candlesticks with the “inextinguishable fire [asbestō].” Plutarch (46-119 AD), a Greek writer and politician, describes how, according to local customs, the “inextinguishable fire” was a fire made in certain containers and constantly supplied with oil, which the Greeks gave to women (priestesses or widows). The quality of the unquenchable fire (asbestos) obviously implies the constant supply of burning material.
However, Plutarch records several occasions when the fire on the altar or in the candelabrum was extinguished because of internal or external political conflicts. Plutarch’s mentor, the philosopher Amonnius, speaks of the “unquenchable fire (asbestos)” which some kept burning “for years” (chronon etōn), a period some would call “infinite” (apeiron). It is therefore clear that the unquenchable fire may extend over a number of years, but it is not eternal in the technical sense. Also, it is clear that an “infinite” period covers many years, not necessarily an eternity.
We also have this terminology among the Jewish people. Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. to 50 A.D.), a Hellenistic philosopher of Jewish descent, says that the altar offerings were “consumed by an unquenchable fire [asbestō].” However, comparing the light of ordinary fire with that of the sun, Philo calls the former “a perishable light proceeding from a perishable material” (fthartoū ftharton) and “one which admits of being extinguished” (sbesis), while he describes the latter as “inextinguishable” [asbeston] and imperishable [adiaftoron].”
This raises an anthropological question: is the human being imperishable? If not, then not even the fires of hell can burn the sinner forever. The fire lasts as long as there is something to fuel it, and then it goes out. The expression “fire that never goes out” cannot literally mean a fire that never goes out, but rather a fire that burns continuously until it is consumed by internal causes (it runs out of fuel) or external causes. The New Testament describes only God as “eternal” (afthartos, 1 Timothy 1:17) and “who alone is immortal” (athanasia) (1 Timothy 6:16). Human beings, on the other hand, are “perishable” (fthartos, Romans 1:23). Only the righteous who will be resurrected will be clothed in “the imperishable” (aftharsia, 1 Corinthians 15:54), not sinners. So the fire into which the wicked are cast will be extinguished, but only after it has fulfilled its destructive role.
The phrase “eternal fire” (to pyr to aiōnion, Matthew 18:8; 25:41) has for Jesus the same meaning as “fire that never goes out,” that is, a fire that will burn unceasingly until it consumes the substance it is burning.
Before listing some of the most important evidence, it is useful to note that the prospect of the destruction of the world by fire is already present in the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 66:15, 16; Amos 9:5; Zephaniah 1:2, 3, 18; etc.). An interesting example is Jeremiah 17:4 (cf. 21:12), which describes God’s wrath through the metaphor of a fire that will burn forever. But this “forever” (ad-olam) is to be understood in the sense that Jeremiah later explains: “The anger of the Lord will not turn back until He fully accomplishes the purposes of His heart” (Jeremiah 23:20; 30:24). God’s wrath will pursue sinners until they are destroyed (Jeremiah 49:37). After the plan of destruction is completed, the “fire of divine wrath” will obviously be extinguished.
Regarding the fire of the final judgement in general, Jesus says that it will be like the fire of Sodom, which “destroyed them all” (Luke 17:29, 30). It is interesting to note the expression in Jude 1:7, which describes the judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah as “the punishment of eternal fire [pyros aiōniou]”. This is not an endless fire, but one that “finishes the job.” Moreover, the idea of a sinner who is destroyed but at the same time burns eternally is a contradiction on a conceptual level. How else can we understand that sinners “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), if not in the sense of final destruction? This is also the case with the apocryphal text in 4 Maccabees 10:15 about the tyrant Antiochus IV—he will suffer “everlasting destruction” (ton aiōnion olethron). We are constructing a contradiction in terms when we say that the lost will be continually destroyed for all eternity. Destruction is by its very nature a work with an end.
However, let us continue with the phrase “eternal fire.” The concept of eternal fire destroying sinners at the end was present in pseudo-epigraphic literature of Judeo-Christian origin. The Jewish examples begin with the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a work of Jewish origin, but to which Christian interventions were added in the first two centuries A.D. In the sixth testament, that of Zebulun, it is said that “upon the ungodly shall the Lord bring eternal fire, [pyr aiōnion] and destroy them throughout all generations” (Zebulun’s Testament 10.13). The idea of destruction by fire or eternal fire occurs in the Old Testament (Malachi 4:1; Ezekiel 38:22), in the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (37-100 AD), in the Collection of Sibylline Oracles (2nd century BC – 7th century AD), in the Life of Adam and Eve (100 BC – 200 AD), etc. In 1 Enoch 84:5, the patriarch prays to God to preserve the generation following him (according to the Bible, Enoch was taken up to heaven in the year of Noah’s flood) and not to “wipe out all the flesh of men and make the earth empty so that there is destruction forever.” This destruction would be eternal in the sense that it would be final, complete and with eternal effects.
There are also Christian examples that go in this direction. The Epistle of Barnabas, a work written somewhere between 70 and 130 AD, refers to the “eternal death” (thanatos aiōnios) of sinners, which will occur “with punishment.” Referring to this punishment of eternal death, the Epistle of Diognetus, a 2nd-century Christian apologetic work, states that the “real death” (the eschatological death) is “kept for those who are condemned to the eternal fire [to pyr to aiōnion], which will punish to the end those that are handed over to it.” The phrase “to the end” (mehri telous) implies a terminus. The Apocalypse of Elijah, a Judeo-Christian composition from the 2nd-3rd century AD, states that on the Day of the Lord, fire will come down from heaven and consume sinners and devils like stubble.
All this seems to confirm what John Moulton, a renowned 20th-century linguist, said about the adjective “eternal”: Without pronouncing any opinion on the special meaning which theologians have found for this word, we must note that outside the NT, in the vernacular as in the classical Greek, it never loses the sense of [Latin] perpetuus.“ Its basic meaning is therefore that of ‘continuous, uninterrupted, constant.’ This resolves the apparent contradiction between the meanings of “eternal” in the opposite expressions “eternal life” (without end) and “eternal fire/death” (with end). In both cases the adjective “eternal” means “perpetual.” It is the quality of being continuous, of being permanent— whether we are talking about life or death. Eternal fire refers to continuous punishment until death, destruction or eternal annihilation occurs.
A unique expression is used in Matthew’s Gospel: “outside, into the darkness.” In the context of a Roman centurion’s demonstration of faith, Jesus points to a contrast between the Gentiles who will be received into the kingdom of heaven with the patriarchs (Matthew 8:10, 11) and the Jews who will be “thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). In the parable of the wedding banquet of the king’s son, Jesus uses another contrast between those invited to the wedding who, whether good or bad (Matthew 22:10), have received wedding clothes, and the man who has come to the event hoping to be received without the wedding clothes. Those in the second category will be thrown “into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). The final example comes from the parable of the talents, where Jesus contrasts the servants who multiplied the talents they had received with the servant who buried what he had received. The latter is thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).
If there is an outside, there is also an inside. The latter refers to the kingdom, the holy city, the people of God. This is where God, who is light itself, dwells (1 Timothy 6:16; Revelation 22:5; cf. Isaiah 66:19, 20). The darkness outside refers to the godless earth, where the wicked will receive the judgement that will destroy them. In conclusion, for Jesus, hell is not the place where evil is isolated, as in the alternative literature of His day, but the place of total punishment, the extinction of evil, the darkness that will finally dissipate before the glory of God that will fill the whole earth at the renewal of all things (Numbers 14:21; Psalm 72:19; Habakkuk 3:3).
Jesus uses the Greek word for “hell” four times. The Greek hadēs corresponds to the Hebrew sheol in the Old Testament, with both terms having the meaning of the place of the dead, or more precisely, the place where the dead end up. In the biblical tradition, the place of the dead is a place of stagnation, inactivity, and lack of consciousness (Psalm 6:5; Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10) that will eventually be destroyed (Revelation 20:14).
Only one of Jesus’ four uses of the term is relevant to this study. It is the use of Hades in a mythological sense, in the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In short, the plot of the story follows the fate of the two contrasting characters. In this life, the rich man has everything, while poor Lazarus is hungry and covered with sores. At the time of their death, they both end up in Hades, where their roles are reversed: Lazarus ends up by Abraham’s side, where he is happy, while the rich man ends up in the fire, where he is tormented.
A few general observations are in order. The first is that the narrative is in the form of a parable, but it is unique in that it uses proper names, unlike any other parable of Jesus. One might erroneously conclude that the use of proper names makes the passage not a parable but a true account of the world beyond. For Romanian audiences, it is probably enough to recall stories like Costache Negruzzi’s Toderica and Ion Creanga’s Ivan Turbincă, in which the protagonists end up in both hell and heaven. Nobody reads these stories as factual history. In the same way, Jesus uses mythological images for didactic purposes. Some images convey the mythical side of the story: (1) heaven and hell are mutually observable (Luke 16:23), (2) the rich man’s body is buried, and although he is in the place of the dead, he physically feels the burning of the fire (Luke 16:24), (3) the impression is given that he would cool down with only a splash of water from the tip of Lazarus’s finger (Luke 16:24).
The second observation is that in Jesus’ vision both the good and the bad end up in Hades, in full agreement with the Old Testament, where we read, for example, that the patriarch Jacob (Genesis 37:35), but also the rebels of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16:33), end up in the place of the dead. The third general observation is that once a person is in Hades, they cannot change their fate (Luke 16:26).
I would like to emphasise two critical details. One observation is that the story, if taken as a true story, is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture on the subject of the Last Judgement. Kim Papaioannou observes that the rich man’s suffering and Lazarus’ happiness seem to come after the judgement, while the rich man’s desire to help his living brothers to repent gives the impression that life on earth goes on and that the judgement has not yet come. In Scripture, however, the judgement does not take place separately at each person’s death, but on the Day of the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:12; 22:12).
Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham’s side (Luke 16:22). The phrase illustrates the father-son relationship, in view of the non-canonical tradition in which the righteous are greeted after death by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other patriarchs (see 4 Maccabees 13:17). Is Jesus suggesting that Abraham is alive in Hades? Absolutely not. In a later context, in a discussion with the Sadducees about the resurrection, Jesus uses the Pentateuch for His argument because the Sadducees only accept the books of Moses. He quotes the divine name “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” and then states that God is not “the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:32; Luke 20:38). Here, the argument that only Abraham’s body is dead while his soul is alive in paradise is, as Luther would put it, “ein dreck” (rubbish). Luther insists that we read here “totus Abraham” (the whole of Abraham). Therefore, Jesus’ argument to the Sadducees is that the patriarch will rise on the Day of Judgement because the God of Abraham is the God of the living.
Finally, it is important to note one more thing. The story says that the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus “from the dead” (apo nekrōn, Luke 16:30) to warn his brothers. The response that “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead [ek nekrōn anastē]” (Luke 16:31) shows that in Jesus/Luke’s view, the way someone can rise from the dead is through resurrection.
In exploring the subject of hell in Jesus’ interactions with His contemporaries, it is clear that Jesus does not subscribe to Hellenistic Judaism with its non-canonical dualism, but only to the Old Testament anthropology, which sees the human being as whole and hell as a place of total destruction on the Day of Judgement.
Laurenţiu Florentin Moţ invites his readers to discover that although the language Jesus uses to talk about hell is the same as the language of His contemporaries, His words do not have the same meaning.