Did Christianity’s View on Hell Stem from Judaism or Zoroastrianism?

Recently in the Winston-Salem Journal, a columnist named Earl Crow wrote a piece entitled “Concept of hell as eternal punishment is retributive.” Crow argued for a Universalist understanding of hell, being that eventually everyone would be saved and that hell was not a true reality. No one likes the notion of hell save those who have a sadist complex. Let us be forthright in saying that some preachers preach on hell as if they had rather prefer that some people go there. In stark contrast, others, like Crow, are so put off by the notion of hell that they would rather deny its existence. To deny the merit of a place known as hell, Crow argues that the idea of hell is untenable to biblical understandings.

Crow argued his case by proclaiming the following: “Judaism had no doctrine of hell…The Christian concept of an eternal punishment may have been adopted from Zoroastrianism…Can you fathom a God so vindictive that he would relegate some of his children to eternal burning?…The whole idea of hell is retributive while Christ is about redemption…Some scholars note that the addition of hell as everlasting punishment for the wicked was added by St. Jerome…translations can render different interpretations” (Crow 2015). This argue will address the various arguments that Crow presents and will demonstrate that his arguments are unfounded and found lacking.

Crow’s First Argument: Does Judaism (OT) possess a doctrine of hell?

Crow first argues that Judaism did not possess a doctrine of hell. Is he correct? Well yes and no. The Old Testament does not present as complete a doctrine of hell as does the New Testament. The intermediate state of a heaven and hell was not clearly defined in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament. The concept of Sheol (Hebrew for the place of the dead) was a place where all deceased individuals lived, both good and bad. Yet, as R. P. Lightner argues, “Jacob, at death, went down into Sheol (Gen. 37:35), but so did the wicked Korah and Dathan (Num. 16:30). Such teaching has led to the view that Sheol had two compartments—an upper and lower level. It is thought that Christ delivered the righteous in the upper level at the time of his resurrection (Eph. 4:9-10; 1 Pet. 3:19)” (Lightner 2001, 548). Lightner’s argument is supported by such statements as “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8).[1] The two compartment view of Sheol is supported by Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.

While the intermediate state of hell is not as explicit as such a doctrine is in the New Testament, the Old Testament is clear that at the resurrection some will experience an eternity of God’s curse. In fact Prophet Isaiah—and note there are good reasons for holding that one writer wrote the book although it may have been edited by redactors—writes a strong message pertaining to the existence of a hell in that after the judgment of God is delivered that “they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24). Note that the phrases “worm shall not die” and “their fire shall not be quenched” denote an eternal state for such individuals. Therefore, the conclusion is simple: the doctrine of hell belongs in Old Testament Judaism every bit as much as it does in the New Testament. Jesus presented a thoroughly Jewish understanding pertaining to God, the afterlife, and the like. The Pharisees and Essenes held to the idea of the afterlife, resurrection, angels, and the like just as much as Jesus.

Crow’s Second Argument: Was the concept of hell borrowed from Zoroastrianism?

The previous section demonstrated that Christianity took its idea of heaven and hell from Judaism and not Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was a Persian dualist religion which was most likely a state religion that Judaism could have encountered during the exile. Could Christianity have accepted tenets of Zoroastrianism in its doctrine? Not likely according to biblical scholar N. T. Wright. N. T. Wright, a New Testament scholar, former professor at Cambridge, and the former Bishop of Durham, notes that people have sought to link Christianity’s message pertaining to the resurrection to Zoroastrianism, just as Crow does for the concept of hell. But, Wright denotes, borrowing from John Day, that “since Daniel, the main biblical exponent of the doctrine, is clearly echoing not only Isaiah but also Hosea, this takes the stream of thought back behind any likely influence from Persia; and that, when Ezekiel speaks of the dead being raised from their graves, this cannot be related to Zoroastrianism, since the Persians exposed, rather than buried, their dead” (Wright 2003, 125). Some could even argue that an explicit reference to resurrection and an implicit reference to the afterlife are mentioned in Job 19:25. Job is thought by many to be the oldest book in the entire Bible.

Crow’s Third Argument: Can you fathom a God of love being vindictive?

While the first two arguments, as well as his fifth argument, deal with historical arguments against the belief in a place called hell, the third and fourth arguments are theological in nature. Crow queries, “Can you fathom a God so vindictive that he would relegate some of his children to eternal burning” (Crow 2015)? Crow even seems to oppose such a concept against the United States Constitution in saying that “Even the United States Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment” (Crow 2015).  I find it a bit odd that Crow would seemingly restrain God by a human document known as the United States Constitution. Before anyone claims, isn’t that what you are doing with the Bible, I would note that evangelical Christians hold that the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity—in other words, what God tells us about himself.

With that being said, it is a sad commentary to think that justice and holiness have been attributed to vindictiveness. I would answer such a charge with a question. Say a person has been charged with murdering his entire family. The man took the time to kill his spouse and kill his children. The evidence for such a crime was so strong that the husband killed his family in that the investigation was over almost before it started. The man is found guilty. Would the judge trying the man’s case be viewed as a good judge if the judge simply said, “Well, I love you. I am going to let you go free and kill again”? Of course not!!! God is not only a loving God, but God is also holy and just. If a person is unrepentant (meaning that the person is not sorry for his guilt), then what kind of God would God be if he simply allowed unrepentant sinners into his heaven? God’s heaven prepared for repentant would become hell for everyone if God simply allowed everyone—even those unrepentant—in his heaven. Remember, heaven is God’s to give. Pertaining to God’s children, Jesus says to his condemners, “He who is God hears God’s words. Therefore, you do not hear them, because you are not of God” (John 8:47, MEV).[2]

Crow’s Fourth Argument: Can a retributive hell coexist with a redeeming Savior?

This argument is easy to dismantle. Crow writes that “The whole idea of hell is retributive while Christ is about redemption” (Crow 2015). If this is so, then what did Christ come to redeem humanity from? If Christ came to redeem humanity from sin, then what about those who refuse Christ’s forgiveness? John’s Gospel says it best in that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16, MEV).

Crow’s Fifth Argument: Was the idea of hell added to the biblical text by St. Jerome?

Crow’s fifth argument is so innately erroneous that it is surprising that it was published. Crow argues that “Some scholars note that the addition of hell as everlasting punishment for the wicked was added by St. Jerome, who in the fourth century was commissioned by Pope Damascus I to create a Latin translation” (Crow 2015). WHAT?!? St. Jerome was born around 347AD. It is true that Jerome did translate the Greek texts of his day into what is known as the Latin Vulgate. However, Jerome translated from previously known biblical Greek texts. The Vulgate was completed around 405AD. Here, one must understand that over 6,000 manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered that have dated to within 3 centuries of the events they record. Perhaps some of the more intriguing finds are complete, or nearly complete, New Testament codices (ancient Greek books). The Codex Sinaiticus dating to 325-330AD, the Codex Alexandrinus dating to around 400AD, and the Codex Vaticanus dating to 300-325AD provide complete documentation for the New Testament with some nearly a century before Jerome’s Vulgate. Do these documents provide the concept of hell? Certainly!!! In fact, most modern translations (e.g. NIV, ESV) use these ancient texts for the basis of their translations. Thus, Crow’s argument is laughably in error.

Crow’s Sixth Argument: Do translations demerit the biblical doctrine of hell?

head on keyboard

At this point, you may hear the sound of my beating head against a keyboard. How is it that translations muffle clear teachings on hell? Revelation 20:15 provides a clear teaching on hell. The ESV reads, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). The NIV reads, “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15, NIV).[3] Another translation reads, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15, NASB).[4] An older translation reads, “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15, KJV).[5] One of the newest translations on the market reads, “Anyone whose name was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15, MEV). So tell me, how can a translation afford one the opportunity to dismiss the biblical teaching on hell?

Conclusion

Hell is not a pleasant topic. In fact, hell is so uncomfortable that many have turned the mere mention of hell into a curse word. Nevertheless, one must face the reality of hell. Many charge God with being unloving for allowing such an existence. However, it has been demonstrated that a holy God must allow for such a place due to the lack of repentance found in the hearts of many. Yet, let us turn this around for a moment. How loving is it for a person to deny the existence of a place that has been so clearly taught in Scripture? How loving is it for one to coerce others to live as if hell were not a reality? Jesus was the most loving and yet the strongest teacher ever to step foot on the planet. Jesus spoke on hell quite a bit. Why did Jesus teach about hell? Jesus did so because he loved people so much that he did not want to see them go there. But understand this: you don’t have to go to hell. Jesus loves you so much that he is willing to take you where you are, regardless of what you have done, and forgive you, change you, and mold you into a much better person while offering you the greatest gift in the entire world: redemption from hell and admittance into heaven. What will be your response to his offer?

Sources Cited

Crow, Earl. “Concept of hell as eternal punishment is retributive.” Winston-Salem Journal (July 18, 2015). Accessed July 26, 2015. http://www.journalnow.com/news/local/everyday-religious-questions-concept-of-hell-as-eternal-punishment-is/article_23d037c2-2cef-11e5-a98a-d70a1e5aab67.html.

Lightner, R. P. “Hell.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd Edition. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

© July 26, 2015. Brian Chilton.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture in this article comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[2] Scriptures marked MEV come from the Modern English Version (Lake Mary, FL: Passio, 2014).

[3] Scripture marked NIV comes from The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).

[4] Scripture marked NASB comes from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[5] Scripture marked KJV comes from The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009).

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