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The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds
by Alan E. Bernstein


Darren M. Slade

March 21, 2016


Introduction ................................................................................................................................... 1

Brief Summary .............................................................................................................................. 1

Critical Evaluation ...................................................................................................................... 10

Conclusion ................................................................................................................................... 15

Bibliography ................................................................................................................................ 17

Annotated Bibliography ............................................................................................................. 19


Intending only to research medieval conceptions of hell, author Alan Bernstein wanted to

investigate postmortem retribution in the ancient world for historical context. This investigation

turned into an entire book of its own. In The Formation of Hell, Bernstein seeks to explain how

the idea of hell achieved a prominent place in people’s minds. He explicitly states that he intends

to accomplish this without any prior concern for whether hell actually exists or any preceding

judgement as to the nature or value of hell.1 In the end, Bernstein provides a superb example of

historical investigation and rigorous scholarship. Though there are certain theological and

metaphysical implications omitted from the book, the author successfully demonstrates that the

notion of hell originally arose late in Judaism out of a need to explain the injustices in the world

and became a rhetorical device designed to elicit conformity to religious and cultural mores.

Brief Summary

The Formation of Hell treats four distinct periods: Greco-Roman, Jewish antiquity, the

New Testament, and early Christianity. Bernstein’s research reveals that Greco-Roman and

Jewish cultural traditions about the afterlife developed independently of each other, though there

are conceptual parallels and an obvious interchange between the two societies. For both the

Greeks and the Jews, a tension occurred between two views. The first was a “neutral” death,

which implied that the dead had a marginal existence without any distinction between the

righteous and the wicked. The second view, which developed later in both societies, was a

“moral” death where rewards and punishments existed in the afterlife. Early Christianity,

Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian
Worlds, Pbk. ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), ix.

however, adopted multiple perspectives, suggesting that primitive Christians felt free to choose

among different options. Bernstein concludes that hell became a necessary proclamation to

balance the belief in God’s justice with the apparent success of evil in the world.2

Before treating the Greco-Roman landscape, the author first provides a brief overview of

ancient Near Eastern concepts of the afterlife, specifically from Babylonia and Egypt.3 The

oldest known beliefs about the afterlife appeared in Mesopotamian literature from the middle of

the third millennium BC, which adhered to a neutral death. For most of the ancient Near East, the

dead inhabited regions of the earth in distant lands that required crossing harsh mountainous

terrain or dangerous seas to reach it. The land of the dead was a barren wasteland, lacking light,

water, and energetic life. The major theme was a clear distinction between the netherworld and

the land of the living, which required the heroic exploits of mythical proportions in order to

bridge this gap.4 Later, during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (ca. 2160-1580 BC), a distribution of

the dead appeared based on a person’s loyalty to different Egyptian gods, though the concept of

eternal torment was not yet present. The punishments, whether dismemberment or burning,

resulted in the total annihilation of the dead. These depictions of the afterlife from Egypt and

Mesopotamia came complete with mischievous serpents, fiery pits, lakes of fire, and incarnate

gods descending into the netherworld to rescue mortals from death. Bernstein concludes that

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, ix-xi.
Here, the author defines “hell” as a divinely authorized habitation of eternal anguish for the wicked. This
definition stresses that God (or, the gods) has purposely established a specific location for punishment and,
therefore, could just as easily abolish it, as well. The definition also highlights the idea that the residents of hell
suffer an existence contrary to their will and justly deserve this torment. Hence, any neutral concept of death, even if
the existence is gloomy, is not properly hell because it would lack postmortem punishments. The concept of “mere”
death, where humans simply decompose in the grave without a conscious afterlife, was present in the ancient world
but never gained a significant following. See Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 2-4.
Interestingly, each of the stories also depicted earthly consequences for attempting to traverse the
underworld, creating serious consequences for breaching this division, such as causing droughts or famine on the
earth. This indicates that the ancient world was more concerned with maintaining an equilibrium and a distinction
between the living and the dead rather than on the fate of those who had died.

these texts do not necessarily demonstrate a direct evolutionary or causative relationship to later

Greek, Jewish, and Christian beliefs. However, these ancient concepts represent major

“landmarks” in the mental perception of the afterlife. As Greek and Jewish notions developed,

the cultural milieu already possessed a storehouse of ideas, which included dividing the dead

based on ethical and cultic principles.5

Bernstein then treats the netherworld in Greece and Rome. The earliest Greek texts do

not directly discuss hell. Instead, they deal almost exclusively on ideas of a neutral death where

all the dead inhabit Hades without any rewards or punishments. An eighth-century text by

Homer, the Odyssey, portrays death as a world of shades wearied by their memories of life.

Another text from the same era, Hesiod’s Theogony (or Birth of the Gods), discusses the

rebellion of superhuman Titans against the Olympian gods who are subsequently imprisoned in

Tartarus, a place located deeper in the bowels of Hades. Thus, ancient Greek demarcations of the

dead kept humanity in one location while the gods tortured the insurrectionist Titans in another

location. Tartarus is therefore the cultural background for hell. Much like the Egyptian and

Babylonian texts, the netherworld existed in a distant land with multiple rivers, one of which was

the Pyriphlegethon (the river of fire). Bernstein stresses that burial of the dead (inhumation) was

especially important to the ancient mind, which developed intricate superstitions about the

negative consequences for those who remained unburied or died at sea. By the Hellenistic age,

the Greeks imagined humans suffering alongside the Titans based on the person’s cultic devotion

to particular deities. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BC) attributed these

ideas to the influence of ancient Egypt. Over the next few centuries, the compartmentalization of

the dead intensified with more images of fire, serpents, and devilish monsters. The threat of

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 1-18.

punishment became so common that Aristophanes (fifth century BC) satirized his society’s

tendency to exploit these fears in order to promote social conformity and proper conduct.6

The Greek concept of moral death emerged at a time when the Greeks started to object to

the belief that everyone was equal in the afterlife. Bernstein examines Plato, who asserted a

belief in the immortal soul and was the first to introduce the notion of eternal torment in the

ancient world. Plato eliminated the classical idea of Titans and a pantheon of gods but retained

the notion of Tartarus as a habitation for the wicked where the righteous are separated (placed to

the right) from the evil (placed to the left). Even Socrates acknowledged that these beliefs were

good for promoting self-control in the public, while Plato admitted that his concept of the

afterlife derived from wanting a reprisal for those who escaped justice on earth. According to

Plutarch, there were many who felt that the notion of postmortem punishment suggested a

deficiency in divine providence, justice, and rationality. Many Greek writers, such as Lucian of

Samosata (second-third century), ridiculed belief in the afterlife because of its cultural, political,

and ethnic motivations. The only consistent factor was the tendency for the ancients to exploit

these stories in order to manipulate the living into certain behaviors.7

Bernstein closes the Greco-Roman world with notions of a useful death where the

acceptability of different beliefs depended largely on its utility as a social influence on people’s

conduct. Here, Bernstein reveals how the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed their own religious

traditions, noting that their beliefs correlated to a desire for social order. Authors such as Critias

(fifth century BC), Polybius (second-third century BC), Lucretius (first century BC), and Cicero

(first century BC) recognized and occasionally denounced these beliefs as manipulative methods

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 21-49.
Ibid., 50-106.

for instilling fear into the people. They were exploitive and derived from psychological factors,

including human anxiety, uncertainty, and guilt. Bernstein argues for the importance of

recognizing this type of analysis in the ancient world primarily because Jews and Christians did

not engage in the same introspection. This is because the Jews and Christians held to the concept

of divine providence and special revelation about the afterlife.8

The next section surveys ancient Judaism.9 Bernstein first presents the retribution

theology of ancient Israel that believed rewards and punishments occurred in the present life.

Though the Israelites accepted a belief in shades that assembled in Sheol, there was no

distinction between the righteous and the wicked.10 The Deuteronomic laws created a society that

understood a reciprocal relationship between God and the Israelites. If they observed the law,

then God would grant them long life and prosperity. If they disobeyed, then God would release

earthly catastrophes. Even a single wrongdoer could ruin life for everyone else. Unfortunately,

mounting evidence from worldly injustice necessitated questioning the Deuteronomic scheme.11

A mixture of different sentiments arose among the ancient Israelites who eventually

conceived of a division among the dead. Israelites began questioning God’s justice for punishing

innocent people for the actions of a few individuals. There was also a growing realization that

God was not fulfilling his role in the Deuteronomic covenant. Hence, later biblical writers

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 107-29.
Relying on current biblical scholarship for dates, authorship, and the evolution of textual compositions,
Bernstein accepts that the biblical writers held political and social motivations. However, he does not proceed with
his investigation under the precept that biblical concepts of the afterlife evolved over time. Instead, the Bible depicts
a diversity of various religious communities with different opinions, suggesting that the overall biblical theme is an
acceptance of this diversity. There appears to be no attempt to systematize or theologize these perspectives, leaving
inconsistencies in both the Hebrew and Christian notions of hell.
This is exemplified in the encounter between the wicked King Saul and the righteous spirit of Samuel
when Samuel remarks that Saul will join him personally in Sheol (1 Sam. 28:19).
Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 133-53.

explicitly questioned God’s inaction and refused to treat death or Sheol as neutral. This is

especially evident in books like Malachi, Job, and Ecclesiastes, as well as scattered Psalms (e.g.

Ps. 49) and other later writings from Ezekiel and Isaiah. Though this belief is the precursor to

hell, the ancient Israelites still did not conceive of torture or suffering in Sheol. Simultaneously,

the creators of the Septuagint designated the Valley of Hinnom (Ge-Hinnom, transliterated as

gehenna in Greek) as a pit of destruction. Because Jeremiah described it as idolatrous with a

history of burning sacrificial victims and executing criminals (cf. Jer. 7:31; 19:4-9), this valley

became forever associated with fire and wickedness. Later apocalyptic literature would develop

the idea of Gehenna into concepts related to the general resurrection of the dead and a final

judgement. This development occurred during Second Temple Judaism when social and religious

disillusionment escalated into political and civil revolts.12

By the first century AD, many Jews accepted the notion of eternal punishment, though it

did not receive widespread acceptance at the time. The earliest and most influential text for these

newfound convictions was the apocalyptic book 1 Enoch, which depicts wicked angels and

humans suffering eternally in fire, water, and sulfur. These writings help clarify that Jewish

writers eventually distinguished Gehenna from Sheol much as the Greeks distinguished Tartarus

from Hades. It ultimately derived from a desperate desire to rescue God from charges of

incompetence or injustice by supplying vengeance for the people of God.13

Bernstein then directs his attention to the New Testament. Bernstein argues that the New

Testament reveals at least three considerations in primitive Christian thought about the fate of the

unsaved: mere death where humans simply decompose in their graves (destruction or

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 154-77.
Ibid., 178-202.

annihilation), divine retribution where the unsaved are either temporarily or eternally punished

upon resurrection, and universal salvation where all of creation is reconciled to God. Beginning

with Paul, Bernstein argues that the apostle held a tension between hoping for universalism and

settling on some form of annihilationism. Interestingly, none of Paul’s writings discusses the fate

of the unsaved in explicit terms. At best, Paul’s depictions of the afterlife are from a “positive

tradition,” meaning that he treats the fate of the saved almost exclusively and does not give the

same details to the damned, even refusing to apply the term “eternal” or any other similar notion

to the experiences of the unsaved. At worse, Paul sees the wicked as forgoing the resurrection

and eventually disappearing. Bernstein contends that the Gospel of John also holds a tension

between universalism and total destruction.14

The author continues by treating the rest of the New Testament as it relates to the concept

of eternal damnation. The earliest New Testament reference to an eternal hell appears in the

Gospel of Mark where the evangelist compares the undying fire and worm in Isaiah to the Valley

of Hinnom in Jeremiah (Mark 9:43-48). Afterwards, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke expand

upon these ideas, recording Jesus as saying that people will be banished to outer darkness where

there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (cf. Matt. 25:30). Interestingly enough, however,

Jesus consistently associated this judgement of the wicked to their charitable actions. Those who

did not help the poor will be damned (25:37-40). He concludes that the synoptic Gospels appear

to side strongly with one tradition that propounded eternal suffering.15

In Bernstein’s section on “the myth behind hell,” he uses the term “myth” not in a

pejorative or negative sense that denotes an unfactual account. Rather, the term denotes the

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 205-27.
Ibid., 228-47.

antecedent background narrative that reinforces the oral and written traditions of a people.16

Imbedded within this overarching narrative is the idea that angels rebelled, produced demons,

and now continue to influence the world. Later New Testament books such as Jude and the

Petrine epistles exemplify this theme. By the end of the first century, the New Testament depicts

a decided interest in threatening nonconformists with eternal hell for disagreeing doctrinally with

the church. The notion of eternal damnation promoted church discipline, reflecting an ecclesial

institutionalization and a concern for identifying heresy. He concludes that the ancient church

utilized notions of hell to impede the differing doctrines already sprouting in nascent

Christianity. Bernstein hypothesizes that eternal punishments became more elaborate as more

sanctions were necessary to create cohesion within Christianity.17

The final section of Bernstein’s book explores different tensions in ancient Christianity.

Though Nicene Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire in 392 AD, there were

persistent differences in Christian teachings since the beginning. Because there was no

centralized authority in Christianity after the apostles, divergent views about hell manifested in

different regions. Ancient Christians grappled with the justice of a sovereign God being unable

or unwilling to save everyone. Whereas the New Testament was conservative with its depictions

of hell, later Christian writers exaggerated the details to an extreme. It is clear that Greek

mythology heavily influenced both the New Testament and extrabiblical material since they

utilized Greek terms, such as Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, and Elysium. However, the

excessiveness of these images in later writings also produced a strong current in Christian circles

In the case of Christianity, the myth behind hell is the story of salvation history that views time as a
progression from creation to a never-ending eternity. The myth channels, structures, and even programs the
imagination and perceptual thinking of a people as they develop their collective worldview.
Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 248-65.

to reject eternal punishment. Many writings from the second century onwards indicate that God

would eventually release people from hell. The fires of hell became edifying and temporary,

which could have been a precursor to the later doctrine of purgatory.18

A significant trend developed among early Christians who believed the punishments of

hell were egregious and unjustified. These sentiments expressed a conviction that if God did not

end the torture, then humans would prove more compassionate than God toward the wicked. The

chapter concludes with a brief introduction to Origen, who questioned how an omnipotent God

could lose control of the universe and damn people eternally instead of simply eradicating the

evil. Though much of Origen’s beliefs stemmed from Neoplatonism, he ultimately speculated

that God’s justice must be corrective and not everlastingly punitive. Bernstein’s final chapter

discusses the eventual triumph of the doctrine of eternal hell in later Christian orthodoxy. Driven

primarily by the systematizing theology of Augustine, the Latin West solidified its doctrine of an

eternal conscious torment of nonbelievers. While Augustine insisted that people could no longer

change their merits after death, he also developed a system of suffrages that could benefit the

dead. Ultimately, Augustine’s assertions were a reaction to the common belief in a more merciful

God that diminished the suffering of hellfire.19

Bernstein concludes by commenting that the earliest notions of the afterlife were neutral.

However, a bifurcation of the dead developed, which later informed the Christian idea of hell.

This bifurcation originally occurred in Jewish circles because of a disillusionment with the

Deuteronomic understanding of earthly justice, but it was not until the introduction of 1 Enoch

and other apocalyptic literature that the concept of eternal torment gained momentum. Over time,

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 269-91.
Ibid., 292-333.

more and more distinctions appeared on how to determine someone’s place in the afterlife. For

Christians, hell fit into their overall mythology that God was both merciful and just, though there

are strong indications that the concept of hell had a utilitarian function for the ancient church.20

Critical Evaluation

One of the most commendable aspects of Bernstein’s book is its lack of pretense or an

ideological agenda. Typical discussions on the doctrine of hell are oftentimes selective in nature

and simply attempt to prove one theological belief over another. It is refreshing to read such an

extensive amount of historical research on the subject without the author feeling obligated to

filter information in order to alleviate the incongruities of the ancient world. Though the author

recognizes parallels among Greek, Jewish, and Christian concepts of hell, he is properly cautious

about drawing a direct causal link between any of the cultural groups.

An unfortunate aspect of the book is the repeated use of terms such as “Jews” or “Jewish

people” when talking about the tribal society of preexilic Israelites. Even Second Temple writers

such as Josephus differentiated between Jews and Israelites, an important indication of the

dramatic shifts within social, political, cultural, and religious life.21 For any historical survey of

the biblical world, it is appropriate to distinguish between the Bronze Age or patriarchal Israel

(3300-1200 BC) and Iron Age Israel, which can then divide into premonarchic (1200-1050) and

early to late monarchic Judea/Israel (1000-586). The latter is further divided into the united

monarchy (1050-925) and the divided monarchy (925-586). The exilic period designates a brief

but influential half century (586-539) before the Persian period of postexilic Judaism (539-332).

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 335-41.
For the importance of making an historical distinction between preexilic Israelites and Second Temple
Jews, see Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox
Press, 2014), 8-12.

The broader Second Temple period (ca. 538 BC-70 AD) encompasses multiple epochs, such as

the introduction of the Hellenistic period (332-167), the Hasmonean Kingdom (167-63), and

finally Roman Judea (63 BC-135 AD).22 Identifying these epochs by specific names and dates

would help the reader trace the progression of thought, as well as similarities and differences in

belief systems among the various times and cultural influences.

It is clear from the ancient sources that Second Temple Judaism and nascent Christianity

at least tolerated a diversity of views about hell. Underlying the author’s discussion on divine

providence is the concept of progressive revelation, something he does not explicitly mention.

This concept would have been helpful for his readers to learn when trying to understand why

divergent views appeared throughout history. The biblical writers believed either that it was okay

to have a diversity of beliefs or they assumed that progressive revelation could alter opinions

over time and, thus, provided the ancients with a credible explanation for their changing beliefs.

A striking feature of Bernstein’s investigation is its extensive documentation that indicate

both a Greek suspicion and the early church’s apprehension about accepting the eternality of

hell. From an historical perspective, it is intriguing that Jews and Christians did not question the

socio-political incentives for the propagation of this idea, whereas a significant number of Greek

writers scolded the belief as mere propaganda. Regardless, the use of hell as a scare tactic would

not have been an unusual development for the ancient Israelites or Second Temple Jews. The

biblical notion of shame and guilt was a powerful tool in the ancient world that enhanced social,

judicial, and political control. The fear of being publically shamed through punishments such as

exile (physical separation from the group) could easily progress into a fear of damnation

For a detailed periodization of ancient Israelite and Jewish history, see John D. Barry, ed., The Lexham
Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), s.v. “Israel, History of, Overview.”

(spiritual separation from the group). Both encouraged right behavior in a culture that heavily

depended on group consensus for its identity, survival, and sense of order.23

Unfortunately, Bernstein’s conclusions about ancient Israel’s interaction with Canaanite

rituals do not give adequate attention to the cultic worship of the dead. The author insufficiently

explores ancient Mesopotamian beliefs about ghosts, especially in relation to ancestor worship

and depictions of the dead as being pitiable and weak. Whereas both biblical and Mesopotamian

texts classified dead spirits as pathetic, senseless, and destitute (cf. Eccles. 9:4-6), Israel’s ancient

neighbors also held a belief in angry poltergeists who inflicted illnesses on neglectful or

irreverent humans. Given that ancient Israelite culture was essentially Canaanite in nature with

numerous affinities between the two peoples, it is likely that embryonic Israel held to the same

beliefs about ghosts as ancient Mesopotamia. There is evidence that ancient Israelites practiced

an ancestor cult of giving provisions to the dead to prevent silent ghosts from becoming

poltergeists. For both cultures, the dead typically slept through the afterlife safely detained in the

Netherworld so long as living family members provided the spirits with food offerings.24

While Bernstein does discuss the influence of apocalyptic literature on the formation of

hell, he does not sufficiently draw out the necessary implications of apocalyptic imagery and its

use in Christian rhetoric. Some New Testament writers apparently embraced evolving concepts

about the afterlife from Jewish apocalypticism. Specifically, the notion of a separable, immortal

soul emerged during the Second Temple period, along with notions of hellfire and eternal

Cf. Lyn M. Bechtel, “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel: Judicial, Political, and
Social Shaming,” in Social-Scientific Old Testament Criticism, ed. David J. Chalcraft, Biblical Seminar (Sheffield,
England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 47:232-58.
See Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 2nd ed.
(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 1-14, 19-31, 162-71 and JoAnn Scurlock,
“Ghosts in the Ancient Near East: Weak or Powerful?,” Hebrew Union College Annual 68 (1997): 77-96.

punishment. As Murphy summarizes, “The concept of postmortem rewards and punishments,

with the attendant belief in resurrection or immortality of the soul, and of heaven and hell as

places where humans go after death, all come into Judaism through apocalypticism. Ultimately,

they may derive from traditional Persian religion, Zoroastrianism.”25

During this transitional period, some religious communities continued the earlier Israelite

conception about the afterlife. In the Wisdom of Ben Sira, humans merely returned to the earth

upon death (Sir. 16:30; 17:1; 40:1, 11; 41:10). There is no immortal soul (17:30; 44:9). In

Enochic Judaism, however, there is a decidedly Hellenistic influence on texts such as Jubilees

and 1 Enoch where humans now have an immortal soul that separates from the body and enjoys

rewards (cf. Jub. 23:31) or punishment (cf. 1 En. 90:26-27). While some segments of Judaism

continued to disavow any belief in spirits and the afterlife (e.g. the Sadducees, Acts 23:8), the

prevailing belief in Second Temple Judaism eventually came to regard a need for retribution in

the hereafter.26 Conforming somewhat to the Platonic view of humanity, Second Temple Judaism

became more dualistic in its distinction between a soul and a body, believing that one separated

from the other upon death. Retaining the monistic views of ancient Israel, these later Jews still

believed that life required a union between the body and soul. Thus, concepts about resurrection

became prevalent during this period to explain both rewards and judgement in the afterlife, as

well as the need for a body in order to experience eschatological vindication.27

Frederick J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction (Grand
Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 68.
See the development of Second Temple beliefs about the afterlife in Joel B. Green, “Heaven and Hell,”
in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed., ed. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin
(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 372-73.
Richard J. Bauckham, “Life, Death, and the Afterlife in Second Temple Judaism,” in The Jewish World
Around the New Testament, Pbk. ed. (2008; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 250-52.

Historically, the notion of eternal torment did not originate with Christianity but, instead,

was prevalent in apocalyptic literature. Due to the prophetic utterances of God’s impending use

of the Valley of Hinnom as a place of judgement (Jer. 7:32; 19:6-7), the Second Temple period

disassociated the valley from Jerusalem and transformed Gehenna into an eschatological place of

divine retribution. Second Temple literature apparently took the Semitic concept of Sheol, which

did not differentiate between the wicked and the righteous dead, and began to elaborate

exponentially on the fate of the damned. This caused Second Temple Jews to distinguish

between the final resting place of the faithful and their enemies.28 As Hans Scharen summarizes,

In its earliest mention it is reserved for apostate Jews only but is gradually expanded to
include all the wicked, Jews and Gentiles alike. The existence in Gehenna is depicted
predominantly as for one’s whole being (body and soul) rather than merely the
soul….within apocalyptic eschatology the different fates of the wicked and righteous
become increasingly emphasized and their respective dwelling places become more
absolutely differentiated. Within this development, the sudden appearance of Gehenna
and its inseparable connection with the destiny of the wicked take on a prominent role.29

When commenting on Revelation, Grant Osborn remarks, “The depiction of a ‘lake of

fire’ as an extension of Gehenna also has its background in apocalyptic ideas.”30 Because the

New Testament adopts this apocalyptic theme of torment, Christianity must now wrestle with the

possibility that descriptions of hell were merely an imagistic construct designed to threaten the

original hearers into religious fidelity. As one Catholic priest suggests, “Any interpretation of

hell based on the Bible must be viewed from within the framework of the literary discourse that

Hans Bietenhard, “Hell, Abyss, Hades, Gehenna, Lower Regions,” in New International Dictionary of
New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 2:208; Hans Scharen, “Part 1:
Gehenna in the Synoptics,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149, no. 595 (July 1992): 325-29.
Scharen, “Part 1: Gehenna in the Synoptics,” 329.
Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Academic, 2002), 690.

was intended to threaten its listeners. We must not presume that these biblical images constitute a

factual preview of what may come in the future or what actually exists today.”31

Though William Crockett believes in the metaphysical reality of hell, he argues that

Scripture does not intend to present a literal depiction of torture. Rather, Christ’s words are an

example of rabbinic hyperbole and the images of hell are symbolic, warning nonbelievers that

God will put an end to wickedness.32 Since apocalyptic imagery intended to address social and

political crises, as well as to promote religious fidelity against the oppressive influences of

outsiders, it is possible that New Testament depictions about hell are simply rhetorical tactics

designed to enhance religious and social conformity. Having originated in apocalyptic

eschatology, the threatening language of hellfire may be hyperbolic symbolism with the same

embellishments that was customary in the Second Temple period. Rather than interpret hell

literally, Christians may have to reexamine the possibility of interpreting it as apocalyptic

imagery designed to shock the original audience’s emotional senses.33


Ultimately, Bernstein is correct to hypothesize that eternal punishments became more

elaborate and dreadful the more that internal sanctions were necessary to create cohesion within

the fledgling Christian community. Hell provided an adequate, centralized “avenger” against

John F. O’Grady, Catholic Beliefs and Traditions: Ancient and Ever New (New York: Paulist Press,
2001), 277.
See the entire discussion in William V. Crockett, “The Metaphorical View,” in Four Views on Hell, ed.
Stanley N. Gundry and William V. Crockett, Counterpoints: Bible and Theology (1992; repr., Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan, 1996), 41-76.
On how to interpret apocalyptic and prophetic literature, see Greg Carey, Ultimate Things: An
Introduction to Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2005); D. Brent Sandy,
Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL:
IVP Academic, 2002); and Sam Hamstra Jr., “An Idealist View of Revelation,” in Four Views on the Book of
Revelation, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 93-131.

dissenting church members and outside oppressors. Watching the wicked go unpunished required

a new theodicy and explanation for the origin of evil. The devil, fallen angels, and eternal

torment provided the necessary psychological answers. Bernstein appropriately recognizes that

concepts of hell are the result of an existential need for justice against religious enemies. It is the

human desire for vengeance that psychologically propels these beliefs into popular acceptance.34

Bernstein’s historical investigation makes it evident that the imagery of hell was a social

construct designed to explain the presence of injustice in the world and was a rhetorical scare

tactic to illicit conformity to religious and cultural mores. The author presents clear evidence that

the notion of judgement, torture, and punishment in the afterlife is a late belief in Jewish thought

and was customary only among a minority of Jews. In the end, the book insinuates that the

formation of hell was utilitarian in nature, lending a practical metaphysical consequence to any

earthly behavior that could disrupt the unity of society or the church. While hell is potentially a

logical belief, inferred from the idea of a just God, the results of Bernstein’s investigation

appropriately question the credibility of hell’s ontological reality.

Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 262-64.


Barry, John D., ed. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.

Bauckham, Richard J. “Life, Death, and the Afterlife in Second Temple Judaism.” In The Jewish
World Around the New Testament. 2008. Pbk. ed. Reprint, 245-56. Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Academic, 2010.

Bechtel, Lyn M. “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel: Judicial, Political, and
Social Shaming.” In Social-Scientific Old Testament Criticism, edited by David J.
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Press, 1997.

Bernstein, Alan E. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early
Christian Worlds. Pbk. ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Bietenhard, Hans. “Hell, Abyss, Hades, Gehenna, Lower Regions.” In New International
Dictionary of New Testament Theology, edited by Colin Brown. Vol. 2, 205-10. Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Carey, Greg. Ultimate Things: An Introduction to Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature.
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John Knox Press, 2014.

Crockett, William V. “The Metaphorical View.” In Four Views on Hell. 1992, edited by Stanley
N. Gundry and William V. Crockett. Counterpoints: Bible and Theology. Reprint, 41-76.
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Sandy, D. Brent. Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy
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Annotated Bibliography

Wright, Archie T. The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Jewish
Literature. Rev. ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.

Originally written in Aramaic and then later translated into Greek and Ethiopic (Ge‘ez),

the Book of the Watchers depicts a special class of archangels who had the ability to act

autonomously apart from God’s will. The prospective religious community responsible for the

Watchers tradition was Enochic Judaism, a special class of Jews who were fascinated with

Genesis 5-9. It is possible that Enochic Judaism was a widespread sectarian movement,

incorporating the Qumran community, and may have viewed the Watchers tradition as

authoritative revelation, eclipsing the earlier chapters of Genesis in importance. Enochic Judaism

retrospectively read back into the text of Genesis to validate its own mythological beliefs in

order to provide an explanation for the origin of evil. The core account of the “fallen angels”

tradition appears in 1 Enoch 6-11. Following the chronology of Genesis, Shemihazah lusted after

beautiful women and led a group of two hundred Watchers to produce offspring with them (6:1-

8). The women then gave birth to “great giants” (7:2), who consumed all the produce, wildlife,

and even attempted to devour humanity, eventually resorting to cannibalism (7:1-6). The

storyline then depicts another chief Watcher named Asael, who led a group of angels in teaching

humanity (among other things) how to make weapons for warfare and how to apply eyeshadow

on women (8:1-4). As the earth filled with bloodshed and corruption, the souls of human victims

cried out for retribution, causing the archangels to beseech God for instructions (9:1-11). God

declared that he would send a flood to destroy the earth (10:4-6) and dispatched angels to destroy

the giant offspring. Despite these orders, the spirits of the giants remained trapped on the earth in

order to disturb humanity until their judgement (15:8-16:1), later becoming the origin of Jewish

and Christian demonology.

Gundry, Stanley N., and William V. Crockett, eds. Four Views on Hell. 1992. Counterpoints:
Bible and Theology. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

John Walvoord promotes a literal interpretation of hell, which consists of an eternal state

of consciousness involving actual hellfire, smoke, and anguish. He discusses both the Old and

New Testament references to punishment in the afterlife as being conscious and eternal, giving

special attention to Christ’s statements for support of literal hellfire. Because Jesus did not

utilize other descriptive images, his statements require the reader to recognize the presence of

actual fire and burning. William Crockett advocates for a metaphorical view of hell, which

agrees that punishment of nonbelievers is unending. However, Crockett argues that these

descriptions are merely metaphorical images used to describe the hellish torment present in the

afterlife. Jesus utilized rabbinic hyperbole to explain the seriousness of disbelief. The same is

true for descriptions of heaven. While heaven consists of eternal consciousness, its descriptions

of mansions filled with gold are recognizably metaphorical. Defending the view of purgatory,

Zachary Hayes urges readers to examine both Scripture and tradition. He likens Catholic

theology to a blossoming tree. While certain ideas were not known early in church history,

awareness of the truth continues to grow centuries later. Purgatory is likened to the interim

period characterized by Walvoord and Crockett’s belief in Sheol or Hades. Hayes argues that

evangelical theologians already believe in a type of purgatory, they just neglect the full

implications of its existence. Finally, Clark Pinnock contends for annihilationism. Pinnock

argues against a state of consciousness that never ends, rejecting Platonic notions of an immortal

soul. He appeals primarily to the irrational belief in a loving God who would be content with the

eternal suffering of nonbelievers. Pinnock identifies a contradiction in the idea of Christ restoring

the universe to a state of perfection at the eschaton while still maintaining a place for rebellion

and wickedness to exist in the universe by allowing hell to remain intact.