How Hell Developed in Early Christian Writings (Journey Into Hell #7)

How Hell Developed in Early Christian Writings (Journey Into Hell #7) June 4, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Though I don’t believe a single claim Christians make about Christianity or their god figure, the purely natural development of Christianity fascinates me. So, so many Christians claim their religion is absolutely unique in all the world. They also think it couldn’t possibly exist without divine inspiration. However, reality spins a different story. Yesterday, we talked briefly about how Hell developed as an idea before Christianity’s creation — and how it developed in other religions alongside Christianity. Today, let’s look at how the earliest Christians further developed existing ideas about Hell.

sounds like a lot of fun
Luca Signorelli, The Damned in Hell. Painted around 1500. (Richard Mortel, CC.)

(Previous Journeys Into Hell: The Night My Fear of Hell Died; But WHICH Hell Shall We Fear; Why Hell Fails as a Christian Threat; We’re Made Out of Meat; Why Hell Succeeds as a Threat; Dealing With Hell Disbelievers; A Brief Prehistory of Hell. Instead of BC and AD, historians and archaeologists who aren’t completely addled by religious zealotry now prefer BCE and CE — “before the Common Era” and “Common Era,” respectively. (And “c.” means “century”) Also, when I talk about the dating of Bible writings, bear in mind that there’s some speculation about these. Here, I offer the general majority view. Thanks!)

Gehenna: The Lake of Fire.

As we saw yesterday, Sheol was just the general Jewish afterlife. It wasn’t really a punishment.

But Gehenna was. When the Bible talks about a “lake of fire,” the term probably meant to invoke Gehenna.

Gehenna is a real place — like Mount Olympus. It’s a valley just south of Jerusalem. The name derives from the Aramaic name “Ge Hinnom,” or “Valley of the Son of Hinnom” by way of the Ancient Greek Geenna.

looks real bad eh
(Deror avi, CC.) The Valley of Hinnom, part of Gehenna.

And this valley has a dark mythic history.

Long ago, ancient Hebrews thought idolatrous and disobedient Jewish Moloch cultists sacrificed children there (2 Chronicles 28:333:6Jeremiah 7:3119:2-6). Thus, they considered Gehenna a Tophet, or place of child sacrifice.

(The Old and New Testaments abound with well-shrouded examples of early Hebrews performing ritual human sacrifice. Sometimes their god demanded it. Other times, he forbade and condemned it. In the case of Gehenna, he disapproved heartily. Therefore, this time the practice represented a ghastly, sinful abomination. Objective morality? The Euthyphro dilemma? Gosh, who are they?)

Later, Gehenna supposedly became a trash dump where criminals lurked and where refuse, litter, and dead bodies (animal and human) were burned. I say “supposedly” because archaeology hasn’t confirmed much of this belief. At most, the valley might have contained a crematorium. Jews at the time weren’t wild about cremation, so maybe that’s where all these vile associations came from.

Either way, early Jews sure believed all this. So perhaps it’s inevitable that Jews began to associate Gehenna with a naughty-person-punishing realm of the afterlife, and to apply aspects of its mythology to that afterlife.

(Interestingly, BTW, ancient Egyptian mythology also features a lake of fire.)

Tartarus, Generally.

In Hellenic mythology, Tartarus was reckoned to be a realm of Hades — a deep abyss under the main underworld realm. (BTW: We find a lot of references to “Hades” itself in the Bible.) There, the wicked suffered. Tartarus was also where the gods imprisoned the Titans. Like Sheol, Greek writers began setting down parameters for Tartarus around the 8th c. BCE. They’d continue to develop these ideas until around the 2nd c. CE.

(As we often find in these myths, certain mystery and mystic sects also considered Tartarus a divine being. In that sense, Tartarus wasn’t really a god. He was more like the ineffable primordial force that gave birth to the capital-L “Light.” But as with Hades, when I use these terms I refer always to the place, not the mythic person — unless stated otherwise.)

We don’t find the actual word “Tartarus” in the Bible itself as a place name. That said, we do find it invoked in a verb, tartaroō, which translates roughly to “throw to Tartarus.” This verb form can be found in ancient pagan writings all the way to the 5th c. CE.

As for the Bible, Peter’s writer mentions Tartarus in 2 Peter 2:4-6 (written between 60-130 CE), and we also find it in Jude 1:6 (70-90 CE, but possibly early 2nd c. CE). The term also appears in early apocryphal Jewish writings, as we saw yesterday. In the 2 Peter reference, the writer reveals that his god imprisoned disobedient angels there.

Indeed, some Jews and Christians at the time may have initially separated out the idea of “a punishment place for humans” (Gehenna) from “a punishment place for fallen angels” (Tartarus) (See endnote.) If that was ever a standard-issue belief, it sure didn’t last. Today’s Christians struggle hard (and hilariously unsuccessfully) to reconcile this obviously-pagan reference in 2 Peter 2:4-6 with their modern beliefs about Hell.

As Christianity’s beliefs became more solidified and codified, Tartarus morphed into a more colorful word for “Hell” — alongside Gehenna.

Early Christianity Dives Into Hell.

Christianity began life as an offshoot sect within Judaism. So naturally, it initially contained the same basic cosmology as its parent.

As we saw yesterday, quite a bit of Christians’ notions about the afterlife draw upon the ideas of mystic Jews like Philo of Alexandria — which in turn drew upon ideas contained within Hellenic philosophy and Assyro-Babylonian mythology, among others. At the time of Christianity’s birth, these comparisons would only have seemed more striking. So by 60 CE, the notion of a naughty-person-punishing afterlife was very familiar to Jews.

Accordingly, the writers of  the Gospels set down their own ideas concerning Hell:

  • Mark 9:43 (66-74 CE): “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.”
  • Matthew 18:19 (80-90 CE): “It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” Also, Matthew 5:22: “Anyone who says ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Hell.” (Jesus was one of those do as I say, not as I do kinda godlings, I suppose.)
  • Luke 16:23 (80-110 CE and beyond): “In Hades, where [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.” Luke 16:19-31 contains a wealth of details.
  • John (90-110 CE) doesn’t say all that much about Hell specifically, though in John 5:29 he does talk about the evil dead being condemned eventually.
  • Revelation (81-96 CE) also talks about Hell at length.

Sometimes these writers used specific terms like “lake of fire.” Sometimes they used “Gehenna” or “Tartarus” or even “Hades.” Maybe they meant specifically different places.

However, in time it all turned into “Hell.” Christians stopped worrying about where sinful angels went and began seeing Hell as more of a human problem.

Early Christian Writings About Hell.

After Christianity’s creation, early Christian writings expanded a bit more on those early beliefs. Ignatius, a bishop who lived in the early 2nd c. CE, wrote a letter to Christians in Ephesus that explains a bit more about Hell:

Those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God. [. . . ] Such an one becoming defiled [in this way], shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens unto him. [Source]

Similarly, check out the Second Epistle of Clement, a sermon likely written around 95-140 CE by an anonymous Christian leader:

But the righteous, done good and endured torments and hated pleasures of the soul, when they shall behold them that have done amiss and denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds, how that they are punished with grievous torments in unquenchable fire, shall give glory to God, saying, There will be hope for him that hath served God with his whole heart.

These ideas stuck. The Martyrdom of Polycarp was likely written in the early 4th c. CE concerning an early Christian bishop who likely died in the late 2nd c. CE. And it only expanded on the imagery those 1st-and-2nd-century writers had developed:

[Martyrs] despised the torture of this world, purchasing by the endurance of a single hour remission from eternal punishment; and the fire of their harsh tormentors was cold to them, for they had before their eyes to escape the eternal and never-quenched fire; and with the eyes of their heart they looked up to the good things that are reserved for those that endure, which neither hath ear heard, nor eye seen, nor hath it entered into the heart of man [Source]

There’s lots more besides this. But you get the idea, hopefully.

As one might expect of such a huge threat, Hell was on early Christians’ minds. They tended to describe it in terms of pain and fire, sure, but they also began to perceive Hell’s torments as a spectacle enjoyed by the saints preserved in Heaven.

The Changing Nature of Hell.

By the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, Hell had evolved quite a bit from the relatively-primitive view of Sheol held by Christians’ forebears in Judaism. Now we have a solid opinion about exactly who goes there, what happens to those who end up there, and how people outside that realm engage with it and those within it.

That said, we’re still not finished tracing our lineage of Hell. We’re coming up on one early Christian leader whose writings changed the Hell game in some important ways: Augustine of Hippo.

But for now, we’ll rest here — marveling at a doctrine with such obviously-earthly origins that a huge number of Christians think is really a threat that everyone on Earth should fear.

NEXT UP: Russell Moore has let slip the dogs of war at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Tomorrow, let’s examine what he’s revealed — and see if we’re actually surprised by any of it. See you then!


Endnotes.

Regarding possible ancient beliefs in separate Hell afterlives for humans and angels: It’s an interesting plotbunny for me, at least, and it would explain a lot. Some modern Christians reject the toxic Christian variant of Hell as a place of human punishment. Instead, they reserve Hell for supernatural beings. (Back to the post!)


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(PS: Don’t miss this 1921 paper whose author frets hard about Christianity’s very obvious similarities to Babylonian mythology.)

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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