There is something very odd in the Old Testament: In the first approximately two-thirds of the OT, God never threatens anyone with eternal damnation. Isn’t that really, really strange? If you are a sinner (which everyone is due to Grandpa Adam’s forbidden fruit eating), destined to be burned alive, writhing in horrific agony for all eternity, in Hell, wouldn’t it be nice to know that this horrific fate awaits you so that you have the opportunity to repent?
But no, no one during the first several thousand years of human existence is told anything about Hell.
Read the story of Adam and Eve. What was God’s threat to them if they ate from the forbidden tree? Eternal damnation in hellfire? Brimstone? Nope. Just death. That’s it. Just death. And when Adam and Eve did eat from the forbidden tree, what did God say to them: “You, your children, their children, and every generation after them will roast in eternal hellfire, unless, you repent and call on my name for salvation”? Nope. He didn’t say that. Nothing about punishment in an afterlife. Adam and Eve’s punishment was that they would have to work the land to eat, the ground was cursed, all of Creation was cursed, and the woman would have pain during child birth, and, they would die. That’s it.
Nothing about an afterlife or punishment in Hell.
Now, conservative Christians will say that when God said “if you eat of the fruit you shall surely die” he meant physical and spiritual death. But that is not what this passage or any other passage in the first 2/3 of the OT says. This view of “spiritual death” comes from New Testament passages reinterpreting the Old Testament passages.
And what about Cain after having killed his own brother in premeditated murder? Any comment by God that Cain would suffer eternal damnation for this terrible crime? Nope. Cain’s punishment was to be an outcast; a punishment in this present life, not in an afterlife.
What about the people that God killed in the Great Flood? Did Noah preach to these people that they and their children would suffer eternal damnation for their wicked lifestyles? Nope. God’s punishment was death: death by drowning. No mention of any punishment in an afterlife.
How about the people building the Tower of Babel? Did God warn them to stop or he would condemn them to eternity in everlasting fire? Nope. His punishment was to confuse their languages in this life.
And what about Pharaoh and the people of Egypt? Did God warn them that if they did not humble themselves, repent, and let the children of Israel go, that he would cast every one of them into a Lake of Fire for all eternity? Nope. Not a word. God’s punishment for the Egyptians was in this life: plagues and death. No mention of eternal suffering in Hell.
Let’s not forget those stiff-necked Israelites! How many times did God have to punish them for their frequent disobedience and sin? Did he ever once warn them that upon killing them by the thousands they would open their eyes in his torture pit of fire, to suffer agonizing pain for all eternity? Nope. Not a word. All of God’s punishments involved this present life, not in an afterlife.
How about Saul’s punishment for disobeying God and then for his abuse of David? Hellfire and damnation? Nope. God took away Saul’s kingdom and took away his “spirit”. No eternal consequences for Saul.
Did God threaten David with eternal damnation as a means to bring him to repentance for David’s sins of murder and adultery? Nope. God told him he would kill his son. No threat of eternal judgment in Hell.
When Jonah preached repentance to the citizens of Ninevah, did he warn them of eternal damnation in hellfire as the consequence of their rebellion and sin against the Almighty? Nope. He threatened them with the destruction of their city: a calamity in this life, not the next.
And on and on we go. In fact, there is not even a hint of an afterlife until we get into the writings of the prophets post-destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. But an explicit concept of an afterlife really doesn’t develop in the Old Testament until the time period of the Greek occupation of Palestine in circa 300-200 BC. The Greeks did have a concept of an afterlife. In fact, coincidence of coincidences, the Greeks called their abode for the dead….Hades!
So how do conservative/orthodox/fundamentalist Christians explain this? Do a google search and you will find out, but basically it goes something like this: “The concept of an afterlife and Hell are present from the very beginning in the Bible but it is “veiled” or “hidden”. The concept is one of ‘progressive revelation’: Over time (thousands of years), God slowly revealed this concept to mankind.”
Do you buy that, dear Reader?
Do you buy that the just, holy, merciful, loving, compassionate Jesus, (along with his Father and Holy Spirit), took his sweet time in informing the miserable, suffering human beings on this planet, for the first several thousand years of humankind’s existence, that if we did not get on our knees, repent, and obey him, he was going to burn us alive in a cauldron of fire for all eternity???
Most liberal and secular scholars believe the truth is more likely to be this: the ancient Hebrews had no concept of an afterlife. They believed that God blessed you in this life if you obeyed his commands and he cursed you in this life if you did not. Sheol was simply the grave. Death was the end of the line. The end of you. Period.
However, once the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried off the Hebrews to Babylon, the promise of God’s blessings in this life seemed impossible. So what did the priests do? They adopted the concept of an afterlife from surrounding cultures. They began to tell the common people: “Yes, you are enduring suffering in this life, but in the afterlife, if you are righteous (ie., if you do what we say), God will reward you.”
This afterlife concept then really picked up under the occupation of the Greek Empire. Hebrew/Jewish culture and its religion became “Helenized”. Even the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek, the Septuagint, translated during this Greek occupation, was heavily influenced by this Greek concept of an afterlife. The Greek concept of Hades was adopted into the Jewish religion. Then, a few hundred years later, we find Jesus preaching from this Greek translation, the Septuagint, preaching an afterlife and a place of eternal punishment, Hades, separated by a partition from Paradise, the abode of the righteous, very similar to the Greek Hades. Early Christians then developed a separate Heaven, which is “up”, and a Hell, which is “down”, concept, maintaining much of the ancient Greek (and Egyptian) mythology in their newly (invented?) afterlife concept.
So which is more likely to be true, dear Reader: God hid the concept of eternal damnation from mankind for thousands of years, until just a few hundred years before Jesus, or, Hell is an invention of ancient Egyptians and Greeks, which found its way (by Hellenization) into the Jewish and then Christian Bibles?