It is a common (mis)understanding that “the Old Testament God” is one of wrath, while “the New Testament God” is one of grace and love. The usual response is that in fact Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in scripture. But what exactly did he say about hell? And what did he mean? There are several different words and concepts that he used, and “hell” is an unhelpful word to summarize them all. The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus is Kim Papaioannou’s published dissertation from Durham that tackles these questions and texts.
The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus
Studies of hell’s geography are often limited by attempts to cover too much territory. Others are limited by their apologetic or polemic nature. Jesus’ teaching provides a natural connection between the OT and other ancient tradition, and the later NT tradition. He also has much to say about the topic! So a focused study on Jesus’ teaching on “hell” is needed.
The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus is laid out in four parts.
Part 1 treats Gehenna. The first chapter considers the background to Jesus’ references to Gehenna in the OT (Hebrew and Greek), and other ancient texts. Gehenna derives from Ge-hinnom, a valley near Jerusalem. It was there that Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificed their children in worship of Ba’al (2 Chron 28:3; 33:6) and where Josiah in his reforms burned the vessels of Ba’al worship, scattered human bones, and burned the bones of the priest of Ba’al to defile the site and ensure none could use it (2 Chron 34:1-7). Jeremiah later predicted Ge-hinnom as the location of future destruction (Jer 7:32 and others). Papaioannou concludes that Jesus retrieved the term from Jeremiah and brought it into fashion (p25). Papaioannou considers individual passages in which the word occurs in Jesus’ teaching. Space only permits a summary here. Papaioannou concludes that Gehenna is a word for the final location of judgment, in other words, hell-proper. In Gehenna texts, there is an emphasis upon the body, final judgment after a resurrection and complete annihilation (rather than extended torment).
Part 2 treats Hades. Hades was the common Greek term for the grave or place of the dead. It is also the LXX translation for Sheol, the equivalent Hebrew term. In contrast with Gehenna, Hades is “not a place of eschatological punishment, but rather the destiny of all human beings” (p87). Neither is it a place of temporary suffering or punishment until the final judgment. Rather, Papaioannou argues that those in Hades/Sheol lack consciousness and “in effect [cease] to exist” (p87). In all uses by Jesus, it is seen that he uses Hades simply as a metaphor for death or destruction. The gates of Hades (Matt 16:13-20) “simply refers to death” (p109). The “parable” of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) receives the attention it deserves. Papaioannou interestingly concludes that the passage does not contain positive teaching about the conditions of life in Hades, but rather is used “to deconstruct popular views on the afterlife,” and “functions as a parody on popular tales about communication with the dead” (p135).
The Abyss and Tartarus
Part 3 treats the Abyss and Tartarus. Though the latter is not found in Jesus’ teaching (it is in 2 Peter 2:4), it is helpful for understanding the former. The Abyss primarily refers to large bodies of water and sometimes is a metaphor for Sheol. In other ancient texts, it refers to the location of fallen angels.
The Outer Darkness
Part 4 treats the phrase “the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Though this does not immediately appear to refer to a place, every mention includes “there” (ekei), implying that it is indeed a location. However, rather than being a place of suffering or ongoing torment, Papaioannou concludes it is “a set phrase to describe exclusion from the kingdom of God” (p237). In other words, it is a metaphor for being kept from resurrection life on the final day.
This book is highly useful for its collection of data, both in ancient sources and the Gospels themselves. However, I found some of his conclusions less than persuasive. Papaioannou’s treatment of Hades/Sheol is a prime example. It is here that the author’s commitment to soul-sleep appears to have directed his conclusions more than thorough exegesis. Unfortunately, he overlooks texts in both testaments that (at least appear to) present consciousness in the grave. For example, the story of Saul conjuring up Samuel as well as the Sons of Korah traditions and texts are particularly important to consider but unfortunately go unmentioned.
Tartarus, Papaioannou concludes, is “associated with the earth where the evil spirits dwell,” rather than the underworld. I find this highly unpersuasive. Rather, it is presented in scripture and ancient texts as the location where the fallen angels were imprisoned deep below the earth. Thus, it is similar to the Abyss, from where these beings are released in Revelation. Papaioannou seems confused by the connections between the Abyss/Tartarus and the sea when he says, “it is difficult to picture angels bound up, or stored for judgment in the sea” (p160). However, it’s abundantly clear that ancient religions considered the sea an entrance to the underworld and thus the associations are natural.
Finally, for a book released in 2013 (a revised dissertation from earlier), the bibliography is dated. Most cited works date from the 60s-80s, with only one or two post-2000.
In conclusion, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus is a useful book for considering these key geographical words, their backgrounds, and Jesus’ use of them. While the data is useful, the conclusions are often less so. Papaioannou argues fairly well for the annihilation of the wicked, but his tendency to demythologize the spiritual realm and ancient cosmology often misses the mark. Robin Parry’s The Biblical Cosmos and Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm would be helpful resources here to provide balance here.
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Many thanks to Wipf & Stock for providing a review copy.