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Hell: A Modest Proposal

May 24, 2007 Length: 9:24

Hell? Hades? What's the difference and when should those terms be used? Clark give helpful background and instruction.

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“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land” (Isaiah 1.18-19, KJV).

Hello, and welcome yet again to Faith & Philosophy. Today’s topic is: “Hell: A Modest Proposal.” My proposal is that we do away with “Hell.” The word, that is. Few words create more problems of interpretation, or more misunderstandings, than the use of this word in our translations of the Scriptures, the Liturgy, and the writings of the Fathers.

For example, what do we mean when we sing at Vespers on Saturday night that Christ has “slayed Hell with the splendor of his divinity,” or that Christ has “delivered all men from Hell”? Are we espousing universal salvation? A lot of people might well draw that conclusion. Or take Kyriacos Markides’ marvelous book Mountain of Silence; he has a chapter entitled “Hell” in which he recounts the story of an ascetic on Mt. Athos who, quite literally, prays his spiritual father out of Hell. I can tell you that as an Evangelical, that chapter would have been enough to make me discount the rest of the book, however sympathetic I might have been to the rest of Fr. Maximos’s teaching.

The problem here is that the English word hell is used to translate a variety of different words used the in Greek Scriptures; words which do not have the same meaning in their original contexts. The result is that we invariably read into Biblical and Patristic texts ideas associated with the English word Hell which have nothing to do with what the original author was trying to convey. Let’s start with the Greek New Testament and then work our way forward to our present day translations.

In the New Testament, several different words are used to refer to the afterlife and the state of final punishment. However, the two primary terms are Hades—which is the Greek equivalent of Hebrew Sheol—and Gehenna—which is simply a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word for a burning trash pit outside of Jerusalem. It is generally agreed among New Testament scholars that these two words have very different meanings in the New Testament. Hades like Sheol is simply the abode of the dead, where the righteous and unrighteous alike dwell. Later Judaism will subdivide Sheol into the “Bosom of Abraham” and Sheol proper—as illustrated by our Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16.18-31).

It is to Hades or Sheol that our Lord descended to bind the strong man and to lead the righteous of ages past to freedom. When you hear the word Hell used in the Octoechos, the Triodion, and the Pentecostarion, it is almost always translating the Greek word Hades. A better translation would be this: “When thou didst descend to death or life immortal, thou didst slay Hades with the splendor of thy divinity. And when from the depths thou did raise the dead, all the powers of heaven cried out: ‘O Giver of Life, Christ our God, Glory to Thee’.”

Except for one instance, which appears to be metaphorical, the word Gehenna appears only in the synoptic Gospels. There, the word is used exclusively to refer to the state of final damnation of the wicked which takes place after the resurrection and the Last Judgment. So, the English word Hell is used to translate two very different terms which denote two very different realities.

Now this is where it gets interesting. Hell or the middle English Hêle is, in fact, the correct translation of Hades. Hell was the goddess of the underworld is Scandinavian mythology, just as Hades was the god of the underworld for the Greeks. So, technically speaking, Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos were correct in translating Hades as Hell in the Lenten Triodion. The problem, however, is that when modern people hear the word “hell,” they don’t think of death, per se, the gloomy abode of all the dead, but of eternal punishment. They envision fire, brimstone, and demons running around with pitchforks. In other words, people think of what our Lord meant when he used the word Gehenna.

Now the question is: how did the middle English for the word Hades become synonymous with the concept of Gehenna?—a concept, by the way, which seems to be unique to Christianity. The simple answer is that by the time the Scriptures came to be translated into the vernacular in the medieval west, the Latin word for Hades, Infernus (or sometimes Inferus) and the transliterated Aramaic word Gehenna had become completely confused, so that the terms Infernus and Gehenna were used interchangeably. Initially, Latin authors distinguished between Infernus and Gehenna just as the Latin translations of the Bible had done. Augustine, for one, was very careful in his use of these words. And yet, early on, there was a tendency to import the notion of punishment into the concept of Infernus. We see this already in Tertullian, and Cyprian of Carthage actually used the word Gehenna to refer to the abode of the dead—even before the Last Judgment. Gregory the Great spoke of the Rich Man being in Gehenna even though the Vulgate, following the original Greek, uses the word Infernus. By the time we get to the Venerable Bede, the terms are used interchangeably —any sense that they refer to different realities has been lost.

This explains why all English translations of the Scripture prior to the 20th century, from the very earliest translations of the Psalter into middle English, to the translations by Wycliffe, and, of course, the KJV and the Book of Common Prayer, all of them translate both Hades and Gehenna using the single word Hell. To the translators, Hades and Gehenna meant the same thing, so they used the most obvious word in their own tongue to render both terms. The problem is that the concept of Hell as the state of death, or, more literally, the abode of the dead, has been completely lost. And because of that, we are unable to correctly interpret the New Testament, our Liturgical hymnody, or the writings of the Fathers. We are left with a stark polarity: the dead either go to heaven to be with Christ, or they join the devil in Hell to suffer righteous punishment for all eternity. In this view Jesus comes to save us—or at least some of us—from eternal damnation, not death.

But where does Christ’s descent into Hades fit into this picture? or His resurrection? What is the purpose of the Last Judgment, if sinners are already suffering the torments of Gehenna? and how on Earth can we justify praying for the dead when then blessed are already enjoying perfect bliss, and the rest are hopelessly damned? Well, I’ll pick up with those questions next week. In the meantime, the Saturday before Pentecost is a souls’ Saturday —a day especially dedicated to praying for the dead—and at the kneeling vespers of Pentecost, we ask God, on bended knee, for His mercy for all the dead, from all the ages. I want to encourage you to listen carefully to those prayers. Oh, and by the way, if the translation used by your priest uses the word Hell, think Hades.

And now may our great God and savior Jesus Christ, the vanquisher of death, who ascended to the Father taking our humanity with Him and placed it at the Father’s right hand, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, and of the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into His Kingdom.


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