A look into the shadows: A brief history of hell and Satan
(Part two of two)
By Christian Piatt
(This column originally appeared in the Pueblo Chieftain Newspaper)
Last week, I discussed some of the historical bases for our contemporary understanding of Satan. This week, I’ll consider how hell evolved as part of the Christian faith.
In Old Testament scripture, the resting place for the dead is called Sheol. While some believe this is the same as hell, there are indications to the contrary. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Sheol is a place of rest for both righteous and wicked, with no distinction.
Not everyone is happy about it either.
In the third chapter of Malachi, the prophet recognizes the consternation of faithful Jews who are frustrated that the wicked share the same fate. In Ecclesiastes, the priest Koheleth claims that serving God is vanity. For him, the fact that the righteous are treated the same as the wicked and vice-versa should be a call to eat, drink and be merry.
With respect to any relationship between Satan in the Old Testament and Sheol, there is none.
Approximately 3,500 years ago, the Greek philosophical practice of Hellenism emerged. Hellenism was practiced by the preponderance of Greek culture, valuing logic, knowledge, self-care and moderation. It was influential on Jewish culture, not only in the practices adhered to by the Greeks, but also with regard to their belief in the immortal soul and the afterlife that followed.
Greek culture believed in a place called Hades, which was the resting place for disembodied souls. We see evidence of this in writing as far back as the 8th century B.C., in Homer’s Odyssey. Hades is described as an Underworld, literally located underground; thus we can see the first indication of why we think of hell as such.
Hades includes multiple levels, including Elysium and Tartarus. Elysium, also called Elysian Fields, can be equated with our modern idea of heaven. One difference – although Greek scholars did not always agree on where different levels of Hades were – is that we think of heaven as located above us, whereas the general consensus is that all levels of Hades were part of a larger Underworld.
Tartarus was the level of Hades where unrighteous souls dwelled. This correlates to our modern understanding of hell, where there is wailing, fire and gnashing of teeth as those who displease God pay an eternal price of their disloyalty. For the Jews of the time, this Hellenistic belief was appealing because it helped justify their faithfulness. It gave reasons beyond earthly consequence for following the laws of the Hebrew scripture.
How heavily did Greek culture influence Jewish tradition? Consider this: whereas the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the original language of the New Testament is Greek. The influence of Greek culture can hardly be over-emphasized.
The writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish priest, had tremendous sway over early founders of the Christian church such as Origen, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Josephus, in turn, was particularly interested in Greek culture and ideology, as well as that of the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish network very focused on end-times theology and Jewish mysticism. Joesphus’ noncannonical texts such as The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities were available to these church fathers, as well as to those who wrote the Gospel texts and other New Testament scripture, which is the source of our contemporary understanding of hell.
Unfortunately this historical perspective doesn’t help make any clearer what the “truth” is about the afterlife. It does, however, tell us something about ourselves, our deepest hopes and fears, and our need for human justice. We may claim to understand God’s ways, truth and justice, but ultimately, it’s all filtered through our dimly illuminated human lens.
God only knows what awaits us.