The Doctrine of Hell: Hot Takes from First-Century Jews

Understanding the Ancient Context of the Bible and Our Modern Lens

There has been a lot of recent discussion among evangelicals concerning the doctrine of Hell. Fundamentalist doubling down on their tradition, and the progressives, as always, open to “new interpretations”. When we approach the Bible, we often forget that it is an ancient document. It was written in a very different cultural and historical context from our own. This leads to a significant challenge: we tend to interpret scripture through our modern, Western eyes. This can distort its original meaning.

If you were to stumble upon an old letter from your great-great-grandmother, filled with words and references from a bygone era, you would likely misinterpret her intentions without understanding her world. You would miss the nuances of her communication. It’s like trying to understand Shakespeare through the lens of modern slang. You lose so much of the depth and meaning. The same risk applies to reading the Bible without considering its ancient context. 

One area where this misinterpretation is particularly evident is in our understanding of the doctrine of Hell. Modern sensibilities often clash with ancient views. This leads us to reinterpret or even deny biblical teachings that make us uncomfortable. Our culture’s emphasis on individualism and human rights can make the doctrine of Hell seem harsh and unjust. Yet, to grasp the true meaning of scripture, we must strive to understand it as the original authors and audience did.

The Doctrine of Hell and Modern Misconceptions

The doctrine of Hell is one of the most misunderstood and contested teachings in the Bible. Many modern scholars and theologians have attempted to soften its impact. They often twist scripture to fit contemporary values. A prime example of this is the interpretation of “Gehenna.” This is a term Jesus frequently used to describe Hell.

Some modern scholars claim that Gehenna refers to a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. This is where refuse was burned and wild animals scavenged. This interpretation, popularized by figures like Rob Bell, suggests that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. He was referring to a literal dump, not a place of eternal punishment. However, this view is not supported by historical evidence.

The notion that Gehenna was a garbage dump does not appear until the 12th century. This was long after the time of Jesus. This idea was first mentioned by Rabbi David Kimhi. He lived in medieval Europe, not first-century Palestine. Prior to this, there is no archaeological or textual evidence to support the garbage dump theory. Instead, Gehenna was understood by first-century Jews as a place of divine judgment and punishment for the wicked.

This modern reinterpretation of Gehenna highlights a broader trend. It involves reshaping uncomfortable doctrines to align with contemporary values. In doing so, we risk losing the profound and often challenging truths that the Bible seeks to convey.

Understanding Jesus’ First-Century Context

To better grasp the biblical doctrine of Hell, we must understand how Jesus’ first-century audience perceived it. Jewish writings from this period provide valuable insights into their views on the afterlife and divine judgment. For instance, texts like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra depict the doctrine of Hell as a place of fiery torment and eternal separation from God. These writings influenced the cultural and religious context in which Jesus taught.

First-century Jews distinguished between Sheol, a place where the dead awaited judgment, and Gehenna, the final destination for the wicked. They believed that Hell was not a place of correction but of retributive justice. It was a punishment for sin rather than a means of rehabilitation. This perspective is evident in various Jewish texts. They describe Hell with images of fire, darkness, and unending anguish. Some sources even describe annihilation.

Jewish Writings on Hell

The Jewish text “4 Ezra” describes Hell vividly: “The chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment… recompense shall follow… unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear… and the furnace of Gehenna shall be disclosed.” This text clearly shows the belief in Hell as a place of punishment after judgment.

Similarly, the “Book of 1 Enoch” paints the doctrine of Hell as a place of torment. It says, “Woe unto you, sinners, because of the works of your hands! On account of the deeds of your wicked ones, in blazing flames worse than fire, it shall burn.” Another Jewish writer, likely Flavius Josephus, from the first century described Hell as a place where “the habitation of the many others will be in fire.” He also said sinners will “cry and lament in a place that is an invisible wilderness and burn in the fire.”

Jesus’ Affirmation of Jewish Teachings on Hell

Contrary to the claims of some modern interpreters, Jesus did not challenge or deny the first-century Jewish view of Hell. Instead, He confirmed it. He used vivid and often terrifying imagery to describe the fate of those who reject God. For example, in Matthew 10:28, Jesus warns, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Jesus’ use of the term Gehenna would have resonated deeply with His audience. It evoked the familiar images of divine judgment. He spoke of Hell as a place “where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43). He also said it was a place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:50). These descriptions align with the Jewish literature of His time. This literature portrayed Hell as a place of unrelenting torment and despair.

By affirming the traditional Jewish doctrine of Hell, Jesus underscored the seriousness of sin and the necessity of repentance. His teachings remind us that divine judgment is real. Our choices in this life have eternal consequences.

Why Understanding Hell Matters

Understanding the true doctrine of Hell is crucial for several reasons. If Hell is indeed a real place of eternal punishment, then it has significant implications for how we live our lives. It also affects how we view the eternal destiny of others. The doctrine of Hell is not just a theological abstraction. It involves real people—our friends, family, and neighbors. Recognizing the reality of Hell should evoke a deep sense of compassion for the lost. It should motivate us to share the gospel with urgency.

The Bible describes Hell as a place of unending torment. This is a consequence of rejecting God’s grace and continuing in sin. This understanding should not only shape our evangelism but also our personal walk with God. It reminds us of the seriousness of sin and the profound nature of God’s justice. It’s not about fear-mongering but about embracing the full counsel of God’s Word. We must respond with both love and truth.


In our quest to understand the Bible, it is crucial to acknowledge its ancient context and resist the temptation to reshape its teachings to fit modern sensibilities. The doctrine of Hell, though difficult to accept, is a vital part of biblical revelation. It challenges us to confront the reality of divine judgment and to respond with a heart of compassion for the lost.

By studying the first-century Jewish context and Jesus’ teachings, we can gain a clearer understanding of what the Bible truly says about Hell. This knowledge should not only deepen our faith but also motivate us to live out the gospel with greater conviction and urgency. Let us remember that these doctrines are not mere theological concepts. They are truths that impact the lives and eternal destinies of real people—fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons. May we approach them with both reverence and compassion. We should strive to share the hope of salvation with a world in desperate need of God’s grace.

Grace and peace,

Joshua Lewis

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