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The Truth About Hell

October 27th 2008

Israel Topics - Hell

Below the Old City walls in Jerusalem there is a ravine that begins as a gentle, grassy separation between hills, but then quickly descends south into the rocky earth. Eventually, the ravine becomes a steep, craggy depth, scarred on the far side by shallow caves and pits that vaunt hollowed-out chambers and narrow crypts.

Until recent years, everywhere one could see the scorches and smolder from trash fires. Rivulets of urine trickled down from open sewers at the cliffs above, watering thorn bushes, weeds and unexpected clumps of grass among the outcroppings. One could smell the stench of decaying offal, the congealed stink of putrefied garbage, and the absorbed reek of incinerated substances seared into the rock face. Crows circled low. Worms and maggots slithered throughout.

Listen. Imagine. Some cannot help but hear the tormented screams of babies being burned alive, the macabre incantations of the idolatrous in gruesome celebration, the agonized cries of helpless victims, and every other echo of death and disconsolation that dwells here so pervasively that not even the centuries can silence them.

Welcome to Hell. The real Hell. This is Jerusalem's Gei Ben Hinnom, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom. The Valley was named for an alien non-Semitic family, the Hinnom clan that predated the First Temple period and immediately established the locale as a place of abomination. Gei Ben Hinnom became Ge Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom, and eventually Gehenna in English or Gehennem in Arabic and Hebrew.

Those who walked through the Biblical "valley of the shadow of death" walked here. Images of unending torture and fire as punishment for a life of evil originated in this hideous acreage. The prophets always understood that Hell existed, not as a hidden, allegorical place deep beneath the ground maintained as a fable of fear. Hell is on Earth, just a short walk from the path of righteousness that leads to the Temple Mount.

Perhaps it is fitting that the path to Hell begins delightfully. In recent years, the northern and unoffensive length of the valley has become a zone of chic gentrification: exquisite townhomes, landscaped parks, a concert bowl at the Sultan's Pool, and movie theaters. But, as the ravine carves deeper and deeper between the rocky hills, and as it rounds the corners of Mt. Zion into East Jerusalem en route to the Arab village of Silwan, Gei Ben Hinnom conjoins with the Valley of the Kidron. Here it traverses a stretch of depth that has become a sort of urban no-man's-land in the struggle between Arab and Israeli. As land that defies political peace, this is the only part of the Valley that Arabs cannot improve and that Jews dare not.

Therefore, little has changed here for centuries. Still visible are the original, deep angular cuts into the flat scorched stone seating the infamous Tophet, created hundreds of years before Christ. Tophet altars are said to be named for the noisy drum that devotees of the mysterious Molech would beat to drown out the ghastly cries of children immolated in sacrifice before their own willing parents. In the black rapture of their misguided faith, mothers and fathers not only witnessed the sacrifice, but glorified the act. Beneath the ancient Tophet altars, one can still see foreboding square entryways barely big enough for a human torso to squeeze through. Within those dark depths lay a complex of carved-out crypts, as well as chambers for ritual preparation in honor of Molech.

Little is known about the god Molech. Some archaeologists, using Tophet models in Carthage, speculate that the Molech idol in Gei Ben Hinnom was equipped with outstretched cantilevered arms that extended a small platform upon which the innocent baby was tied. Slowly the platform would swivel toward the consuming flames as the baby shrieked in helpless agony. No wonder this most hideous place has repeatedly been the focus of Biblical wrath:

"He defiled Tophet, which is in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech." II Kings 23:10.

"Therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter." Jeremiah 19:16.

But how did a very authentic site of pagan abomination transmogrify into the concept of postmortuarial eternal punishment we call Hell? The tortuous course from reality on the ground to the murky mind of man has evolved along broken and jagged philosophical lines. Ironically, the concept of Hell developed less from the word of God, than by the mind of man. And its supposed physical locale was originally not in burning depths beneath the ground, but rather in a dark corner of heaven.

To understand Hell, we must separate its spiritual and geographic history. Two separate dynamics have been at play for centuries. The first is the concept of eternal punishment in death for evildoers. The second is the site of that punishment.

Begin with postmortuarial reward and punishment for leading either a good or evil life. Originally, this is not a Judaic percept. Ancient Jews believed life was the single most precious thing on earth, imbued with the spirit of the Almighty. Dead people—good and bad, from Abraham and Moses to unworthy transgressors—all descending to the same destination, a nondescript underworld called Sheol.  Some scholars question whether the wicked and good both entered Sheol or existed there under identical circumstances. Even still, Sheol was never considered a place of torment or reward, but merely an inanimate repository for the deceased. To underscore the meaninglessness of death, Ecclesiastics 3:19-20, declared, “…the same fate awaits human beings and animals alike. One dies just like the other. …They are both going to the same place—the dust. From dust they both came and to dust both shall return.” Verse 9:5 adds the comment“…the dead know nothing and they have no reward.” 

Ancient Israel, however, was a crossroads, populated by descendents of disparate tribes who brought with and were easily influenced by the beliefs of others. Conquest by foreign armies brought foreign ideas that slowly crept into the Jewish mindset. By the 7th Century BCE, at about the time of the Assyrian defeat, Isaiah’s writings in 26:19 allegorically suggest, “dead corpses shall rise… awake and sing, dwellers in the dust.” And Isaiah frequently predicts a punishment by fire for the wicked. The Book of Daniel also poetically asserts resurrection for the godly, and “shame and everlasting contempt” for evildoers.

But concrete Judeo-Christian notions of posthumous reward and punishment for earthly goodness or sin probably originated with the 6th Century BCE reform Persian prophet Zoroaster and his followers. Zoroastrianism spread across a wide realm, from Asia Minor and the subcontinent to what is now Russia and the Balkans. As it did, Zoroastrian principles swept across Palestine. Hellenistic belief in man’s duality—the material man vs. the soul—also contributed to change. By the time of the Pharisees and a Christian precursor sect known as the Essenes, a highly organized school of Judaic thought embraced the ideal of immortal resurrection for the good and damnation for sinners. These ideas were hardly universally accepted among the ancient Israelites, but Jewish Christians adopted them as credo.

Christianity took centuries to restate, redefine, enhance and finally codify conflicting Judaic views on death and eternal judgment. The process began in the books in of the New Testament, especially as the words of Jesus are recalled and interpreted in parables. Heaven is identified as the destination for godly people. For the unrepentant and wicked, images of Sodom’s fiery destruction and burning furnaces of divine retribution are everywhere. Matthew 13:41-42 warns that evildoers will “be thrown into a furnace of fire.” The Book of Revelations speaks of a “lake of fire” awaiting the damned.

Early Church writings sought to interpret and organize precepts of final judgment, heaven and Hell. Concepts, motifs and illusions melded. Acrimonious debates over whether references to “eternal damnation” were real or symbolic were eventually settled as part of church politics. Damnation became real. In the fourth century, Augustine insisted, “Hell, which is also called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire and torment to the bodies of the damned.” Augustine even detailed how the fires of Hell would connect to a man’s body parts to intensify unceasing pain.

The first geographic specifics on Hell were invented by Hellenists. Initially, Hades was nothing more than the Greek translation for Sheol. The original Greek term, a des, means “the unseen” or concealed. Those that inhabited the realm of Hades—good and bad alike--were shades that existed as nonentities. But great philosophers such as Homer, Plato, Virgil and Ovid eventually used Greek and Roman underworld mythology to blend in the gods, such as Jupiter and Mercury. The god Hades ruled the underworld of the same name.

Much of the gore and dismal landscape ascribed to Hell by the first Christian writers were in fact visions contributed by Greek classics, such as The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Later, ecclesiastical paintings, poetry and literary whimsy became as potent a force among the early church fathers as movies and pop fiction is today among those seeking answers to such mysterious topics as UFOs and alien life. Flights of fancy, poetic license and wild imagination in paintings and tracts depicted with increasingly detail what the most gruesome site on earth might look like.

By the 12th Century, an Irish monk created “The Vision of Tundal,” describing the innermost workings of Hell. This widely disseminated illustrated fantasy was translated into more than fifteen languages. Its panoramic landscapes rivaled anything Hollywood could produce. Readers thrilled to mountains of flame and ice, to incinerating sinners continuously pierced and battered, to lions and dragons, to valleys and lakes of pain and anguish traversed by bridges impossible to pass, and to the omnipresence of stench and dung. Such a Hell was all under the careful control of endless demons aided by gleeful helpers. It was quite graphic.

When Dante penned “The Divine Comedy” in the early 14th Century, it was easy for him to add geographic and cosmologic fine points. So convincing was his fantastic architecture of Hell that in the 1500s Galileo calculated the opening to Dante’s Hell as being only 405 15/22 miles below the surface of the earth. Indeed, although Dante’s Inferno derives from the Latin word inferus or infernus, which means below or underneath. Medicine still uses variants of the term inferior to identify structures below one another. But because of the Divine Comedy’s popular impact--and only because of it--the word inferno eventually took on the meaning of a burning place. It came to mean Hell itself.

More fiction and fantasy, each improving on the scenery specifics, continued until Milton authored Paradise Lost in the 17th Century. Now Hell became imbued with dungeons, furnaces, fiery deluges, ever burning sulfur and awful devils and demons with frightening names.

Eventually, what began as an amorphous inconsequential netherland called Sheol had evolved into a very visual Hell, vivid with layers, beasts, characters, fires and eternal torments. It was not the word of God but the mind of man that had constructed Hell’s odious vision. The lines between dogma, fantasy and wonderment had blurred. Hell was here to stay.

With so elaborate a destination of punishment, Hell needed its own head man. Lucifer, the arrogant fallen angel, was perfect. But even the concept of Lucifer was enhanced by linguistic error and wild imagination. Pick up any King James Version and read in Isaiah 14:12-15, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How are thou cut down to the ground… Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” Sounds like Lucifer has fallen from heaven right into Hell. But in point of fact, the words are a mistranslation by the earliest Christian Vulgate Bible and in turn the King James Version, a mistake that nearly all modern translations have revised. Thus, in all but those two archaic Bibles, the name “Lucifer” does not exist.

Scholars know the original Hebrew word helel and its root, the Hebrew verb lelyeh, means “bright star.” The context of Isaiah’s writing are a clear attack against the King of Babylon, who like many ancient monarchs fatuously identified with the sun and the stars. In this case, Isaiah referred to the King of Babylon as “The Morning Star.” Moreover, the reference to “Hell” and “the pit” is quite simply a mistranslation of the Hebrew Sheol. Isaiah’s real words are now typically translated as: “How you have fallen from the heaven, O Morning Star, son of the dawn. …you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.” Indeed, the name Lucifer itself derives from the Latin term for light or brilliance, hence, such everyday words as lucid and lumen to denoting clarity and shining. Nonetheless the concept of a personified Lucifer has stuck.

The concept of Hell as a locale of eternal damnation and punishment evolved over centuries through twists and turns of fantasy and theology. But exactly where was the actual site of Hell? The locale was misidentified early on to be the bleak valley of Hinnom just beyond the walls of the Old City.

Original Judaic thought never conceived of a location for Sheol or any other hellish place of punishment. Virgil’s map of Hades placed Hell directly under Italy, but that was discarded by those in Palestine. The earliest Judaic notions of such a place did not arise until the Intertestamental period. Both noncanonical books of Enoch describe Heaven as a literal location in the clouds where God and His angels dwell. But within that “white as snow” world, there is also a dark place of torment and punishment. For all intents and purposes, this was the first location of Hell.

While in heaven, Enoch 1:17 offers the following vision “And they brought me to the place of darkness, and to a mountain the point of whose summit reached to heaven. … And I came to a river… in which the fire flows like water.” In the next chapter Enoch quotes an angel explaining, “This place is the end of heaven and earth: this has become a prison for the stars and the host of heaven (which)… have transgressed the commandment of the Lord… (They are ) bound till the time when their guilt should be consummated (even) for ten thousand years.” Enoch2:12 adds that the damning portions of heaven “had all manner of tortures… the whole place is everywhere fire, everywhere frost and ice, thirst and shivering and the angels fearful and merciless.”

By the time the books of the New Testament were penned, there were 21 references translated as “hell” which speak of a detestable place of fire and damnation. But these are mostly based upon Sheol or Hades, and Gehenna. However, Sheol or Hades even then was merely considered an inert grave dwelling. A typical usage is seen in II Peter 2:4, when the writer warns, “God did not spare the angels who sinned, but threw them into Hell, where they are kept chained in darkness….” The Hell referred to is the dim nothingness of Sheol, and the “chains” allegorical predict mortality even for angels if they sin. Yet through the ages, these words have been transmogrified into a judgment of eternal torture.

The second source of New Testament Hell, Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was actually known for abomination, never-ending fire, ghastly agonies, and eternal dishonor for the dead. So the imagery its name evokes is ideal for those warning of eternal pain and punishment. Understandably, Hinnom became the prototype site for what we consider Hell.

Hinnom’s ghastly child sacrifice was only halted when Josiah overran the Valley and desecrated its altars with bones. Eventually, part of Gei Ben Hinnom became a dump with constant day and night trash fires, belching fire and stench. Another portion of the ravine became a cesspool receiving the dung and sewage of Jerusalem. Indeed, believing Jerusalem too holy for defecation, Essenes and other holy men used to carry their dung out past the city walls where they channeled it down to the valley.

What’s more, Hinnom was a place of the shamed in death. Proper burial under Judaic Law was vital, both to combat the necromancy of early Israelite tribes and to show respect for the cessation of God’s most precious gift. The dishonored and unclean were not entitled to a proper Jewish burial with the city. Dishonored corpses were disposed of in the reviled valley. Those without family to make arrangements were interred in the potter’s field situated at one end of the valley. The name Potter’s Field remains today in most urban settings as a cemetery for the anonymous.

And it was in the Hinnom Valley that Judas took the 30 shiny pieces of silver he called “blood money” and purchased a tract of land that later became the Convent of St. Onuphrious. The abbey straddles a cliff above the deepest stretch of Gehenna.

No wonder, the Hinnom ravine became off-limits for all but the unpure. No wonder Gehenna was a symbol of damnation. No wonder, in Matthew’s many references to the defilement and torment of Hell, the word used is actually “Gehenna.” Thus, Matthew warns in 5:29: “So if your right eye causes you to sin, take it out and throw it away! It is better to lose a part of your body than to have your whole body thrown into Hell.” The warnings are repeated for other body parts. But Matthew means, it is better to live a Godly life than suffer the fate of a burial in the burning acres of Gehenna. In 23:23, Matthew says, “You snakes and children of snakes. How do you expect to escape being condemned to Hell.” This too refers to an ignominious fate in the Valley.

Because the ground of Gehenna was known for maggots and worms, invoking Gehenna often meant invoking the image a corpse laden with maggots and worms. Isaiah in 14:11 warned the King of Babylon that he was mortal and would fall: “You used to be honored with the music of harps, but now here you are in the world of the dead. You lie on a bed of maggots and are covered with a blanket of worms. "

The glissando of Christian ideas took the allegorical and historical references to Gehenna and combined them with raging conceptual notions of eternal punishment for the wicked. Behold: when you have come low to Gehenna, you are in the Hell of eternal damnation.

All that remains is to understand the linguistic origins of Hell. Linguists debate one of two sources. Some credit Hel, the name for the Norwegian underworld as well as the ogress that ruled that realm. Norwegian Hel harkens back to Hades. Other experts credit the Anglo-Saxon word “helan,” which means concealed or covered, as in the “hull” of a ship or “helling” or burying potatoes. The concept of concealment remembers the original Sheol.

This much is certain, no matter how we trace Hell’s spiritual lineage or try to pinpoint its geographic fix, the map mark and quality of the place of eternal damnation is inescapeably confined to one powerful locale: the mind of man.

Edwin Black undertook his research about Hell for writings originally published by the Washington Post at the time of the millennium during the global fascination with the year 2000. From time to time, the work is reprinted seasonally.


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