[The following is an excerpt from a book I'd been planning to write for years. It started as a book on comparative religions -- an effort to bring comity amongst the various religions as the world. But, then I became an atheist and a Humanist. Going forward, should I finish it, the book I may attempt to establish a new religion to either replace or be practice in conjunction with the other world religions. Should I make such a bold attempt, the religion would be based on the principles of human harmony and "we-ism" over "me-ism". The "God" -- should any require one -- would be abstract, not corporeal. It would simply be....LOVE.]
·The Dead are NOT in Heaven
This is probably a good place to set the record straight about what the Bible narrative says about where our dead loved ones reside – the grave. As pointed out earlier, the book of Revelations clearly says that there will be a judgment day in which the dead will be resurrected and judged. Until then, according to the Bible they are just dead – not in heaven as our clergy mislead us to believe when comforting us in funeral services:
“…but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” (Eccl 9:5)
Perhaps in anticipation of judgment day the book of Isaiah, in a song of trust in the Lord’s protection speaks of the earth giving up its dead, echoing the words of Revelations:
“Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs and the earth shall cast out the dead.” (Is 26:19)
I imagine this to be the reason that Jesus is quoted to have said to one of his disciples desiring to bury his father:
me; and let the dead bury their dead.” (Matt 8:22)
“…Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60)
These words aren’t harsh in the context of the true Bible story – that the dead are no more. Thus, any hope of seeing them again is in the resurrection of all the dead. This point is also emphasized by the words:
the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt 22:32)
“He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living…” (Mark 12:27)
“For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him.” (Luke 20:38)
There are only two references wherein one could possibly draw an inference that the dead who are worthy go directly to heaven. One is the account of Jesus telling the two thieves crucified with him that on that day they would be in paradise with him. The other is a parable Jesus gives about a rich man and Lazarus (not the guy he raised from the dead, but another):
“And it came to pass, that the beggar [Lazarus] died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” (Luke 16:22-25)
But it must be remembered that this is a parable – just like the prodigal son, the ten talents, the wheat and the tares, the mustard seed, etc. Who has a conversation while being burned alive? Who would ask for mere drops of water on their tongue to ease their torments? To the extent that it represents life after death, it’s a glimpse into judgment day. It’s a story to drive home a point of view that no good deed goes unrewarded and no bad one goes unpunished – be it in this life or afterwards. So stop going into debt, wasting money you don’t have on lavish funerals. Have your wakes to celebrate the lives of your loved ones and let the county bury your dead if you can’t afford to – without shame.
I also never believed that the creator – if there is one – ever wanted mankind to kill nonbelievers, the literal religious texts notwithstanding. Even as a believer in the divinity of the Bible, Qur’an, and other sacred texts, my concept of a loving God precluded me from believing the bad things that were said about him. As stated earlier, I didn’t believe hell was a reality; and I didn’t believe that God wanted “soldiers” to literally kill nonbelievers. It just seemed absurd to me that the creator of the universe [or multiverse] needed or wanted relatively puny human beings to kill for him/her/it. Therefore my subsequent belief that the texts are based on myths, and not divine, didn’t free me from the wrathful God with the anger management problem. I already was. So why adhere to any part of them if one believes them to be myth-based, you ask? The reason is simple. Virtually all myths have elements of both fact and fabrication and understanding the atmosphere that gives rise to a particular myth allows one to separate the two.
·Hell, Gehenna, Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and the Grave
The word “hell” appears thirty-one (31) times in the Old Testament and twenty-three (23) times in the New Testament of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. [A Strong’s concordance is invaluable for determining how many times a word is used in the Bible. For those desiring to study the Bible, I highly recommend purchasing one.] In the Jehovah’s Witness’ Bible – the New World Translation (NWT) – all thirty-one instances of “hell” in the KJV of the Old Testament are replaced with Sheol instead. Of the twenty-three New Testament occurrences in the KJV of the word “hell”, the NWT replaces it: 12 times with Gehenna; 10 times with Hades; and once with Tartarus. This is NOT a CHANGE, but a reverting back to the original Hebrew and Greek words that appear in those Hebrew and Greek texts from which we get our English translations.
Gehenna is the English equivalent of the Greek word Geenna, the Hebrew word gehinnom, and the Aramaic word Gehanna that all mean “valley of Hinnom”. The Hebrew form of the word appears thirteen (13) times in eleven (11) verses in the original Hebrew Masoretic texts (MT) of the Old Testament (appearing twice in 2 different verses). The KJV of the Old Testament translates this word literally as 1) valley of Hinnom; 2) valley of the son of Hinnom; and 3) valley of the children of Hinnom in these 11 verses.
Gehenna (valley of Hinnom) was alleged to be the site where apostate Israelites and followers of various gods sacrificed their children by fire, and later a burning garbage dump. The NWT appendix asserts that:
The valley of Hinnom became the dumping place and incinerator for the filth of Jerusalem. Bodies of dead animals were thrown in to be consumed in the fires to which sulphur, or brimstone, was added to assist the burning. Also bodies of executed criminals, who were considered undeserving of a memorial tomb, were thrown in. If such dead bodies landed in the fire they were consumed, but if their carcasses landed upon a ledge of the deep ravine their putrefying flesh became infested with worms, or maggots, which did not die until they had consumed the fleshy parts, leaving only the skeletons.
No living animals or human creatures were pitched into Gehenna to be burned alive or tormented. Hence, the place could never symbolize an invisible region where human souls are tormented eternally in literal fire or attacked forever by undying worms. Because the dead criminals cast there were denied a decent memorial tomb, the symbol of the hope of a resurrection (emphasis added), Gehenna was used by Jesus and his disciples to symbolize everlasting destruction, annihilation from God’s universe, or “second death”, an eternal punishment.
I have only found one online dictionary that corroborates the Jehovah’s Witness assertion that Gehenna was a “dumping place and incinerator for the filth of Jerusalem” – Collins English Dictionary (British). For instance, the entry for Gehenna at dictionary.com has:
Gehenna: 1) the valley of Hinnom, near Jerusalem, where propitiatory sacrifices were made to Moloch. II Kings 23:10. 2) hell ( def. 1 ) . 3) any place of extreme torment or suffering.
For Merriam-Webster you will find:
Gehenna: 1) a place or state of misery 2) hell
But, Collins English Dictionary has:
Gehenna: 1) (Old Testament) the valley below Jerusalem, where children were sacrificed and where idolatry was practised (II Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 19:6) and where later offal and refuse were slowly burned (emphasis added) 2) (New Testament, Judaism) a place where the wicked are punished after death 3) a place or state of pain and torment
If you don’t know what offal is [I didn’t; pronounced the same as awful] it is defined at dictionary.com as:
Offal: 1) the parts of a butchered animal that are considered inedible by human beings; carrion. 2) the parts of a butchered animal removed in dressing; viscera. 3) refuse; rubbish; garbage.
Additionally, I have a 1982 Webster's New World Dictionary: 2nd College Edition from my college days, published before the merger of Webster’s with Merriam, which also corroborates the refuse burning in Gehenna:
Gehenna: 1) the valley of Hinnom, near Jerusalem, where refuse was burned in Biblical times (emphasis added) 2) Douay New Testament hell –n. any place of torment
So why is any of this important, you ask? The importance lies in 11 of the 16 Biblical accounts of Jesus’ KJV mention of hell – including all of his references about “burning in hell” – and the one time that James speaks of burning in hell. When you know that the actual references were to Gehenna you get a different understanding:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text] fire.” (Matt 5:22)
“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text]. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text].” (Matt 5:29-30)
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text].” (Matt 10:28)
“And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text] fire.” (Matt 18:9)
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text] than yourselves.” (Matt 23:15)
“Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text]?” (Matt 23:33)
“And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text], into the fire that never shall be quenched:” (Mark 9:43)
“And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text], into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text] fire:” (Mark 9:45-47)
“But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text]; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” (Luke 25:5)
“And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell [Gehenna, English equivalent of Greek text].” (James 3:6)
Clearly all of the references of: 1) burning; 2) destruction of the body and soul; 3) the worm (maggot) not dying (until it eats all the human flesh); and 4) the fire that never quenches are about Gehenna – the valley of Hinnom. The fire never went out. It was kept burning because it was a garbage heap. Bodies landing off to the side of the fire were eaten by maggots. Presumably, people thought that the dead soul would still be tormented by the maggots. The body and soul were said to be destroyed because of the belief that only the dead who were encapsulated in a grave had any hope of a resurrection. This is Jesus and James using the analogy of Gehenna, knowing the people’s fear of their dead bodies not being entombed in graves.
This is why many people still shun the idea of cremation to this very day. No grave means no resurrection – eternal annihilation from God’s universe, not eternal torment. The NWT’s depiction notwithstanding, it means that there would be no “second death” for these people because they wouldn’t even be resurrected. However, one might conclude that not being resurrected is better than the absolute cruelty of being brought back to life, just so that you can die again in a “lake of fire”.
My Webster’s dictionary [mentioned earlier] gives the following definition for Sheol:
Sheol: Bible a place in the depths of the earth conceived of as the dwelling of the dead.
It gives the following definition of Hades:
Hades: 1) Gr. Myth. a) the home of the dead, beneath the earth b) the ruler of the underworld 2) Bible the state or resting place of the dead: name used in some modern translations of the New Testament –n. [often h- ] [Colloq.] hell : a euphemism.
Sheol, is the English equivalent of the Hebrew word [variously, she’ol, sheowl, or sha’al], that actually appears in the original Hebrew Masoretic texts (MT) of the Old Testament 65 times according to The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. There is a difference of opinion among scholars as to whether or not Sheol should have been translated as “grave” or “hell”. My bet is that virtually all scholars that prefer the translation to be “hell” are of the Judeo-Christian faith.
Hades is the English equivalent of the Greek word Haides which appears in the Greek texts of the New Testament 10 times. The KJV renders all such occurrences of Hades as hell and it renders Sheol as hell 31 times, grave 31 times, and pit 3 times according to the lexicon mentioned above as reported by Biblestudytools.com. () (See also )
The NWT appendix says that “[Sheol] is in the earth and is always associated with the dead, and plainly means the common grave of mankind, gravedom, or the earthly (not sea) region of the dead.” (emphasis added)
“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell [Hades, English equivalent of Greek text] delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. (Rev 20:13)
In Acts 2:25-27 Peter quotes Psalms 16:8-11, and clearly shows that Hades is the equivalent of Sheol and is applied to the common grave of mankind:
“For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the LORD always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [Hades, English equivalent of Greek text], neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance.” (Acts 2:25-28)
“I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [Sheol, English equivalent of Masoretic text]; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy…” (Ps 16:8-11)
The interpretation of Sheol and Hades to mean the common grave of mankind – and not a “hell” wherein evil, wicked nonbelievers burn eternally – is much more compatible with the Bible narrative’s depiction of a Judgment Day wherein the dead are to be resurrected and judged. The dead are said to come from the three places/realms the author knew dead people to be: 1) the sea; 2) Hades, a place under the ground; and 3) death, whatever realm that is. Conceivably the realm of “death” refers to all dead who aren’t either under the ground or in the sea. This would most likely be the dead who are lying around and have yet to be buried.
Tartarus is the English equivalent of the Greek word Tartaroo which is used only once in the Greek version of the New Testament – the Second Epistle of Peter – although the KJV uses the word hell instead:
“For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [Tartarus, English equivalent of Greek text], and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;” (2 Pet 2:4)
Tartarus is the name of a deep, gloomy place, a pit, or an abyss used as a dungeon of torment and suffering that is said to reside beneath the underworld. It was regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead, where they suffer punishment for their evil deeds. In Greek mythology, Tartarus is a place in the underworld — even lower than Hades. It is the place where enemies of the gods are sent. (See: )
Obviously, influenced as they were by Greek culture, it’s understandable that writers of the New Testament would incorporate aspects of Greek mythology into their new myth. Uranus, the Greek sky god before Zeus, threw some of his own children in Tartarus because he feared they might overthrow him. Cronus, one of his children whom he didn’t put there, castrated Uranus and took over. Later Cronus’ son Zeus along with his siblings dethroned Cronus and sent him to Tartarus. So if the Greek gods sent their enemies to Tartarus, why wouldn’t the new God Jehovah send recalcitrant angels – his “wayward children” there, too?
So after this lengthy foray into Biblical depictions of the afterlife it should be clear to all that – even according to the Bible – your deceased loved ones are neither in heaven nor are they being tormented in hell. They’re just dead. It should also be very clear that – even if we are to be resurrected, as the Bible narrative suggests – there is no reason to believe that anyone will be tormented in a place called hell for eternity.
Now, if you happen to hear retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong tell you that the entire concept of hell was made up by the church to control people’s minds you may not be so dismissive of him. () The fact is that the notion of eternal life after a future, nonspecific resurrection was far too remote and implausible to convince people to forego the pleasures of the world which the church leaders believed mankind should avoid. Since the promised reward wasn’t enough then – and may not even be enough now – the concept of the alternative eternal existence was fabricated.
And even more insidious was the utilization of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to convince people that their reward or punishment started immediately upon death – contrary to what the Bible narrative actually says. This further strengthened their hold on the minds of mankind because it implies a continuation of life – either in a good place or a bad – thus removing the remoteness of a resurrection.
Bishop Spong is one of a number of clerics who still believes in a creator-God but who reject the realm of hell. Bishop Carlton Pearson – whom I truly recognize as a kindred spirit – sometime around 2005 announced that he no longer believed in hell. His subsequent MSNBC interview, “To Hell and Back” – a one hour special that aired in September 2007 – had originally aired as a Dateline segment in July 2007. There he spoke to the nation about his disbelief in a place after death called hell wherein the evil among us are tormented. The extended interview has been posted extensively on the internet. One such place is: ()