The Old Testament on Hell – Daniel I. Block
One thing that was pointed out to me, and that I want the reader to keep in mind, is that the Bible is unfortunately wrongly divided. What I mean is that what we know as the Old Testament, the 39 books, is basically four short. The four that should be included with the 39 books are the four Gospels that are included under the New Testament. It might be better to think of Old Covenant and New Covenant as this would include the Gospels and make the Old Covenant into 43 books. And, if we really want to follow the distinction, Acts would also have to be included in the Old Covenant since the New Covenant really began after the history we find in Acts. This is a discussion to be continued at a later day. For our purpose though, the importance to the discussion of hell, is that there is continuity from the writings we currently understand as the Old Testament and what Jesus taught as recorded in the Gospels. I think I will bring this out more when discussing the upcoming chapters but may discuss it a bit in accordance with this chapter.
Block summarizes his chapter by saying the following:
Ancient Israelites believed that a person dies and goes to a place called Sheol, which is defined as the realm of the dead. The Hebrew word “sheol” is the only term used in the Old Testament (39 books) referring to where people go after death. The physical body decomposed after death but the “person” lived on, basically as a living corpse in Sheol. They did not believe in annihilationism, and curiously everyone who died went to Sheol, the wicked dead and the righteous dead. He states that “prior to Daniel 12:2 we find no clear evidence of belief in hell, if by hell we mean a place of eternal torment and judgment for the wicked.”
I appreciate Block’s honesty and the way he follows the text of scripture where it leads. For the most part , except for a few leaps, he lays out what most Christians have never heard before; hell as we know it (eternal conscious torment of the wicked) did not exist until at least the time of Christ (though this author does not agree that it exists at all as eternal conscious torment). Block does mention that “When the doctrine of hell develops in the New Testament, it borrows much of its imagery from the Old Testament, particularly the images of perpetual suffering through maggots and unquenchable fire in Isaiah 66:24.”
Speaking of Isa 66:24, Block goes into an explanation of the city dump outside Jerusalem, a place where worshipers would likely pass by on their way out of the city. There they would observe Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom, or the Valley of the sons of Hinnom, all referring to an actual physical place where an “endless” fire was consuming the refuse (including dead bodies) and the maggots ceaselessly eating away at those decomposing bodies which had been dumped there. He says, “It is tempting to interpret this verse as an Isaianic vision of hell, equivalent to the Gehenna spoken of by Jesus in Luke 12:5, the fiery Gehenna of Matthew 5:22, and the Gehenna of unquenchable fire of Mark 9:43. However, we should not do so too hastily, primarily because the sight that greets the worshipers coming out of Jerusalem is not a netherworldly scene. On the contrary, the image is realistic and earthly.”
In this same section, Block adds to the earthly image of this garbage dump by saying this is also a battle scene because the pile of corpses in the dump were victims in battle, dumped there and torched. Because of this he says, “Even if Isaiah was not hereby speaking of the netherworld, let alone Sheol, as a “hellish” place where the wicked suffer eternal punishment, it is not difficult to see why this text came to be associated with hell in the intertestamental period and in the New Testament.” He says it is a small step for Jesus and the New Testament writers to use Isaiah’s image for their own purposes.
What I found a bit disingenuous, as I now do with most Christians who seem to be given to eisogesis (reading into the text what is not there, such as our own 21st century church traditions!), is that Block makes so many comments about the accuracy of the text, and seemingly is reluctant to go where the text does not lead, yet he will succumb to modern beliefs about hell. He states that although the Old Testament does not have hell (eternal conscious torment) in it, the beliefs of the Israelites changed from Sheol, the abode of all the dead, righteous and unrighteous alike, to hell as eternal conscious torment for the wicked and heaven for the righteous, as seen in the New Testament. I am not meaning to suggest I know his motives, but merely wish to point out that the leap that most Christians need to make to get from Sheol to hell is a giant leap and one that requires more faith in tradition than in where the God-given text leads us.
What Block and other Christians, who write about hell as eternal conscious torment, fail to mention to their readers is that it is well documented that as early as the writings of Plato, somewhere around 850 BC, reference was made to a place of eternal torment devised by the government to keep the average citizen compliant. In other words, the rulers of that period would threaten their citizens with the wrath of the gods (burning in fire and not being consumed, etc) in the next life if they refused to comply with edicts passed on by the ruler. They would state that fear was a necessary and effective motivator to keep people inline. And as we get closer to the New Testament days, we can read ancient historians like Polybius and Livy, geographer Strabo and others writing about these threats of future punishments in the next life and that these were used by the legislators as scarecrows to terrify the childish multitude. If Block can hint that Jesus and the New Testament writers got there ideas of hell from Isaiah 66:24, then I don’t think it a stretch to say that the Israelites, as worldly as they had become by absorbing beliefs and practices from the pagan cultures they were conquered by, also formed a view of eternal torment from the legislators they had to obey as subjects of those kingdoms and countries.
I would even say that it is less a leap, no, a small baby step, for the Israelites to have most assuredly developed their idea of eternal torment (the supposed NT belief developed by Jesus and other NT writers!) from these legislators threats and then used this as the scarecrow to eventually threaten their own people to believe like the Pharisees or receive hell (eternal torment) as their next life reward! Are these types of threats not the same types that we use to keep our own children inline? We use fear all the time to emphasize a point or belief.
So Block states that the Old Testament contains no concept of eternal torment in a place called hell. History shows us that the concept of eternal torment developed in early (at least as early as ~850 BC, maybe much earlier) societies and were the same societies that God scattered the Jews to during the Captivity years. And yet, it isn’t until just before or at the time of Jesus that this concept of eternal torment was taught and believed by the Jews.
I suggest that the reader go on the internet and secure Dr. Thomas Thayer’s book The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment. There you will find many more quotes from early secular philosophers, historians, etc. You can then, as I have done, take those names and resources listed and download many of them from various book repositories for free and look up the exact quotes for yourself. Study what Thayer has to say and determine for yourself what is more likely to have happened. My belief is that, just as the church today, the Old Testament Jews adopted a method from secular culture to instill and maintain compliance to God’s laws to help their Jewish friends and family to be holy and obedient to God. This place of eternal conscious torment known as hell was the “scarecrow” to remind believers to obey God’s law or else.
My question for Dr. Block is, “How does one make the leap from seeing a physical place such as the city dump where physical bodies (of criminals, war dead, diseased, etc) are being eaten by maggots and burned with fire whose smoke seems to be always present (not eternal because the fires are not burning today!) and then state that people who are wicked and die without believing in Jesus will go to a place of eternal conscious torment (a spiritual outcome)? To me, it makes much more sense to believe in the threat aspect to keep the common man inline (a physical situation in this life), rather than drawing a spiritual sense (hell for the wicked) for the future from a present day physical situation.
I will end here for now, but as always, I welcome your comments. Also, be aware that in the future I may add amendments to these chapter reviews as may be necessary to clarify thoughts or expand on doctrinal issues raised. The next chapter may take some time to go through because of the research necessary to contrast what the author has written with others who hold an opposing view. I will say, by way of a teaser, I was a bit disappointed that Yarbrough in his chapter on Jesus On Hell did not address universalism, but only took on annihilationism. Until next time, Godspeed!