God Didn’t Invent Hell. We Did.

By | June 18, 2010
Note: You are reading one of several posts in the “One Hell of a Lie” series. I have expanded the series and compiled it into a FREE e-book that can be downloaded in PDF format. Click Here to download the free e-book as a PDF, and please feel free to share it with a friend.

Hell, as we currently understand it, is the product of several snowballing misconceptions and irresponsibly translated scriptures. Many Christians believe that the God of the Bible invented or designed Hell. However, a careful study of history and mythology reveals that God did not invent an eternal torture chamber called hell, nor would a loving Creator support such a doctrine. We also see that there is no scriptural or spiritual support for hell when we interpret the Bible in its historical context.

According to orthodox rabbinical tradition, the Torah (or Jewish Law) was given to Moses in around 1300 BC. By this time, the Jews had developed their own ideas of what occurred in the afterlife. They believed in a place called Sheol (or Gehinnom), which means “the unseen place” or “place of the dead.” According to them, each person (both Jew and gentile) would undergo a purification in Gehinnom for 11 to 12 months or less. After purification, souls were sent to live in eternity with their Creator. There were no flames, devils, demons, or other ungodly spirits present in the “place of the dead.”

According to Aish.com, Gehinnom isn’t and wasn’t a place of eternal punishment because “the Almighty’s justice [would not be] served by punishing someone forever.” God’s justice would have been finite and appropriate, not overbearing and treacherous. One suggestion was that a punishment might’ve require the offender to stand in the presence of God’s unfiltered holiness and experience shame or embarrassment that we cannot fathom in the natural realm.

Hades: The Man & The Myth
The concept of a torturous, demon-governed “underworld” is not popularized until around 400 years after the institution of the Jewish law when Homer’s myths about a god named Hades began to circulate. Hades, according to the ancient Greeks was the “god of the underworld” and the brother of Zeus.  His domain was named after him and was widely believed to be where souls went after death. Hades often fought with another god named Thebes who wished to free tortured souls from Hades’ eternal captivity. Similar myths about a man named Tartarus began to circulate in 400 BC. This guy also ran a scary underground abode for tortured souls, and yes… he named it Tartarus, after himself.

Around 400 BC, the Greek and Jewish societies merged into something called Hellenistic Judaism, a union that would last for another 600 years. Many Jews adopted ideas about the afterlife from Hellenists until the two sects ultimately split in around 200 CE. Wikipedia notes that this split probably occurred as a result of Christianity’s growth. The influence of Greek mythology is evident in 2 Peter 2:4 which talks about God sending angels to a gloomy “hell.” The word used for hell translates to “Tartarus” in Greek. Appearances of the word “hades” are found in the New Testament, and can also be attributed to the Hellenistic influence that would have existed when those biblical documents were written. Coincidentally, the words Sheol and Gehenna were also carelessly translated to hell in the Bible. We’ll discuss those verses in the next installment of this series.

Life Imitates Dante’s Art
Around the year 1300, hell became a thing of renewed interest, terror, and pop culture when an Italian poet weaved a wildly imaginative tale called the Divine Comedy. Divided into three parts, Dante’s epic story took the reader on a guided tour through the morbidly frightening annals of hell, purgatory, and paradise (labeled as the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso respectively.) Filled with blood, fear, and gore, the tale’s “Inferno” seemed to have it all— unforgettable imagery, sinners begging for mercy, and yes, an eternal oven with flames blaring.

The printing press had not yet been invented, so copies of the actual book were rare. People heard versions of the story, but were unlikely and unable to compare Dante’s ideas about hell to the Jewish writings about sheol for themselves. Over time, myth and religion again became inextricably intertwined leaving the church with unGodly stories about the many “levels” of hell and the various kinds of torture that exist there.

Around 200 years after the release of Dante’s inferno, the Protestant Reformation gave birth to a principle called Sola Scriptura (or “scripture alone”). Christians insisted on allowing their existing canon of the Bible to “interpret itself,” meaning that they didn’t want to use external sources to help them understand the Bible. They felt that Christ alone could guide the Church through their interpretations of the scriptures.

In another century, the King James Version became the translation of choice. The problem, however, was that the KJV Bible used the word “hell” in place of “hades,” “Gehenna,” “tartarus,” and “sheol,” making it literally impossible to tell which references were literal and which were figures of speech. The “Sola Scriptura” reformers were literally comparing one mistranslated word to another, compounding confusion, and developing faulty doctrines. Also, people who read the Bible 500 years ago would not have had the resources to compare their Bibles to the original Greek wording, or even research the histories of the texts they were reading as concordances were not in wide use among laity at the time.

With that, an eternally fiery, extremely complex invention called hell had infiltrated the faith. This occurred despite the revelation of the Jews and certainly without regard for what God may have thought about eternal torture. In many ways, we had built our first spiritual Frankenstein, and no one would fully understand the impact of our errors for many years to come.

In the next few posts, I will discuss how we should interpret the many appearances of hades, sheol, and gehenna. I will also explore how our spiritual Frankenstein (hell) became Christianity’s sacred cow.

More From The “One Hell of a Lie” Series
Prologue: Seven Reasons Why I Don’t Believe In Hell
Part 1:   God Didn’t Invent Hell. We Did.
Part 2:   Jesus & Hades: What Did He Mean?
Part 3:   “Where The Worm Doesn’t Die…”: (Where the hell is Gehenna?)
Part 4:   “Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth…”: What Those Verses Mean
Part 5:   Divine Torture: Why Our Society Won’t Stop Believing in Hell
Part 6:   Pastors, Hell and the Naked Truth
Part 7:   What Do We Do Without Hell?
Part 8:   About Satan & Evil: Why The Devil Didn’t Make Us Do It

More About Hell:
1.   A Few Thoughts On Hell & Religious Power
2.   Eternal Life: What if Jesus Wasn’t Talking About Heaven or Hell?
3.   Lazarus and the Rich Man: Why It Isn’t About Hell
4.   Carlton Pearson: “We should think about why we believe it…”
5.   Answering A Concerned Mother’s Questions About Hell

13 thoughts on “God Didn’t Invent Hell. We Did.

  1. tmamone

    Interesting stuff. I'm curious to read more, especially what Jesus meant by all that “weep and gnashing of teeth” stuff.

    1. fuzzysdoll

      It’s because the old and new testaments are just the words of humans written down. The first gospel was written in 70 AD. The gospels were anonymous and were not written by the disciples whose names were attached to them by church fathers. They’re all a bunch of stories, and inconsistent stories at that. http://www.bibviz.com

  2. Crystal Lewis

    Hi. That's coming in the next post, but the weeping and gnashing of teeth happens out of anger, not because the subjects are trapped in eternal hellfire. Check out the verses about Stephen when he was stoned. The crowd “gnashed their teeth” which was like the grinding and growling of an animal. It was a sign of unrighteous indignation. 🙂

  3. Lewis

    about your “Acceptance” frame to the right, cool idea but don't forget the part where the woman “loved much.” Its not just “acceptance” but also our submission to his direction and love. I'd say “acceptance” implies less love/effort on our part and that God and Jesus do not HATE sin, which they do.

  4. Rob S.

    Hello Crystal, you have the best site for information about these things like Hades, Sheol, etc.

    What I've read here confirmed what I have found out myself, but I didn't know if maybe I was seeing it wrong, because other Christians would try and say that Hades and Shoel are exactly the same thing.

    From what I have seen, the two do not resemble each other. If Jesus Christ really DID talk about and believe “Hades” then, to me however, that speaks AGAINST his divinity because if he was God he should have known Hades was a myth.

    And that leaves me confused. I emailed you and I wondered if you got it.

    Rob S.

  5. Crystal Lewis

    Hi Rob. I checked my email, but your message wasn't there. I also looked in my spam folder, but no message yet. Could you please send it again to crystal.lewis07@gmail.com?

    To briefly answer the questions you've asked here: Hades and Sheol are NOT the same thing. Hades is purely Greek mythology. The gospels that use this word were written long after Christ lived. The writers spoke Greek and had been influenced by Hellenism.

    Shoot me an email if you'd like to talk more– or you're welcome to comment again here.

    Thanks for dropping by! Glad you're finding the series helpful. 🙂

  6. Rob S.

    Hello Crystal, thank you for your answer about Hades, etc. I suspected this before. I would like to email, and I will be sending an email shortly. In case you don't get it, perhaps you would check your spam filter. I'm sorry it's been about a month since I originally sent it, I just never noticed your answer to my question about Hades, along with your recommendation regarding your email adress.

    Thank you again, Rob

  7. Mike Gantt

    Crystal, I am new to your blog. I very much appreciate this thought-provoking series on hell.

    My own study of the Bible confirms your positions at many, though not all, points. Most importantly, everyone is going to heaven. This does not mean, however, that right and wrong don't matter. On the contrary, everything we think, say, and do is judged whether in this life or the one to come. Therefore, we have every reason to do the right thing – our greatest motivation being love for the One who created and redeemed us.

    If you are interested, my biblical case for everyone going to heaven can be found at http://wp.me/PNthc-i6. If not, be assured that indeed “mercy triumphs over judgment.” He who commands us to forgive all will surely Himself forgive all. And though there will be justice for all, there will also be mercy for all. Blessed be the name of Jesus!

  8. Anonymous

    Crystal, I'm an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry who has studied the matter of “hell” in the Bible for 53 years. I agree with most of what I've read on your website.

    One thing that I would point out is that if an “eternal hell” had been created by a loving, just, all-wise God, he should have warned every human being, especially potential mothers, about the terrible risk of having babies who might go to hell. The lack of such warnings in the Bible (and in other religious texts the world over) seems proof positive that “hell” did not originate with a loving, just, all-wise God.

    I have created an article about my research and conclusions, if anyone is interested:


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