Skip to main content

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with professor Meghan Henning about hell and the afterlife as they explore the following questions:

  • Does hell exist?
  • Did ancient people wonder if hell existed?
  • How did popular ancient stories influence the ancient world and the Bible?
  • What is Sheol and why didn’t people want to go there?
  • What is the tradition of the “two-ways” in the Hebrew Bible?
  • What Greco-Roman discussion does the New Testament participate in?
  • What is Gehenna?
  • What do ancient school books tell us about hell?
  • What does it mean that the New Testament uses multiple words for “hell”?
  • When did the idea of hell as we think of it come to be?
  • Does the idea of an afterlife persuade people in the modern context?
  • Was Jesus the first one to talk about hell?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Meghan Henning you can share. 

  • “We might need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this a lesson about what the afterlife is actually like or is this lesson about how we could use the visual vocabulary and the rhetorical tools of our contemporary world in order to bring life and healing and education to people as well?’” @HenningMeghan
  • “If there is a hell, we’re all going.” @HenningMeghan
  • “The question, ‘Does hell exist?’ is really a modern question that we have for ancient texts that aren’t asking that same question.” @HenningMeghan
  • “Our scientific curiosity wants us to try to decide whether or not hell is really there or not, but the problem is that the text that we’re asking that question of, namely, the Bible…the earliest readers of those texts would not have had that question.” @HenningMeghan
  • “These texts are describing Sheol not as a place that you don’t want to go to because it signifies that you’ve done something wrong but rather to go to Sheol too soon would be to die prematurely.” @HenningMeghan
  • “Even the earliest readers of these texts understood on some level that the real point here is about how you treat others.” @HenningMeghan
  • “But if we think of this as rhetoric that Jesus is really quite serious about and trying to drive home, what we find is that the emphasis in these texts is really on care for the other and concern for the marginalized.” @HenningMeghan

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript [Introduction]


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Welcome everyone to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Oh boy, do we have a treat for you today. We’re talking about does hell exist.

Pete: Mm hmm. Does it?

Jared: You’ll have to listen to find out.

Pete: You’ll find out.

Jared: I mean, you won’t, of course.

Pete: You know, you’re going to get the answer actually within the first, like, two minutes and it will shock you.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: As they say on the interwebs.

Jared: Just click here to find out more.

Pete: [Laughter]

That is sort of a hell isn’t it?

Jared: It’s true.

Pete: That’s what I think of all that stuff, so anyway. Yeah, our guest is Meghan Henning and she is a Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Dayton, so she deals with stuff like before the time of Jesus, during, and a little bit after, just the rise of Christianity. And she’s done a lot of thinking about hell.

Jared: And just the best of, I love –

Pete: You’d never guess it talking to her though, right?

Jared: I love having these, like, nerdy scholars on who really just – all they want to do is just dig into texts –

Pete: Yeah! Right.

Jared: And find, I just really appreciate that level of honest scholarship.

Pete: Amen. Bible for Normal People, that’s what we do. We talk about this stuff, have nerds on, and we keep going.

Jared: That’s right, excellent. All right, one more thing. It’s very important so listen up.

Pete: Very important, listen up.

Jared: Every once in a while, we like do to these courses online where Pete and I jump on, we tackle a topic and this time we’re going to be talking about how to read the Bible as adults.

Pete: But Jared! How much does it cost?!

Jared: It costs $5,000.

Pete: If you want to…

Jared: If you want to.

Pete: It’s a pay what you want course, folks.

Jared: So, it could cost you nothing.

Pete: Could cost you nothing.

Jared: You know –

Pete: If you’re not a capitalist, you just show up.

Jared: Normally, we have these courses for, you know, $49, $99, something like that – but no human is going to be turned away. We really want to just continue to have this dialogue and conversation about what the Bible is, what do we do with it. So, we’re going to be having this course March 26th, so write it down on your calendar like, right now – unless you’re driving – but otherwise write down March 26th, 8:30 Eastern Time. So, from 8:30-9:30 we’re going to be talking about how to read the Bible as an adult. We’re going to be talking about its ancientness, its diversity, its ambiguousness, how to be flexible with it, diving into wisdom and some other topics, so we hope you can join us. If you would be interested in registering for that, just go to You can sign up there, pay what you want, we’ll see you March 26th at 8:30PM Eastern Time.

Pete: Eastern Time, don’t forget, Eastern Time.

Jared: Alright, we’ll lets have this conversation with Meghan Henning on hell.

[Music begins]

Meghan: If we think about the ethical commands that are tied to this, the conclusion that we draw is that if there is a hell, we’re all going. But, if we think about this as rhetoric, that Jesus is really quite serious about and trying to drive home, what we find is that the emphasis in these texts is really on care for the other, concern for the marginalized, and that theme is still carried forward. Even the earliest readers of these texts understood on some level that the real point here is how you treat others.

[Music ends]

Pete: Well Meghan, how are you? Thanks for being on the podcast.

Meghan: Thank you! Thank you so much for having me.

Pete: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of interesting stuff to talk about today. Before we get to that, let’s just hear a bit about your background. How you got into this, your spiritual background, and maybe why you even went and got a Ph.D., which probably sounded like a good idea at the time.

Meghan: [Laughter]

It’s everyone’s doing it.

Pete: Yes.

Meghan: I grew up in a Lutheran family and in the Midwest and when I was in high school, my family went through a lot of trauma and through that time, I noticed quite quickly that the people around me were doing their best to try to support my family with the use of Scripture. But, in some cases they were actually really helpful, and in other cases, not so helpful, and the thing that was really interesting to me at that point was how people could be reading the exact same text, but in one case interpret it in a way that maybe made my family feel bad about our situation, and in other cases really come alongside my family and support us. So that really got me interested from a young age in what it meant to interpret a biblical text, and what role the interpreter had and how Scripture could be either a positive force in someone’s life or something that was even scary. So, that led me on a somewhat winding path to get a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies in New Testament and then I developed an interest in the history of early Christianity as well.

Jared: Well, that’s really wonderful and I appreciate that background, but –

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Today, we really want to ask really just one question. Does hell exist?

Meghan: [Laughter]


Jared: I mean, we really brought you on because Pete and I have been wrestling this for years, we really want to know, so can you just give us the answer? This may be a really short podcast.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Meghan: Right, yeah. The answer is seven.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: [Laughter]

Meghan: No, um.


The question “does hell exist?” is really a modern question that we have for ancient texts that aren’t asking that same question, right? Our scientific curiosity wants us to try to decide whether or not hell is really there or not, but the problem is that the text that we’re asking that question of, namely, the Bible – the readers of those texts would not have had, or the earliest readers of those texts would not have had that question. When they came across the descriptions of the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the gospel of Matthew, or the story in Luke 16 with the rich man and Lazarus, the question for them would not have been – “oh…is that really a place?” The question for them would have been who’s there and why are they there, because that’s the way that the culture that they were a part of understood reality.

Jared: So, we’ll get back to this, because what we really are hoping you can do for us is kind of trace this idea of hell. But before we do that, is what you’re saying then the milieu or the environment of the New Testament wouldn’t, would they have already assumed the existence of something like a hell and so the question really isn’t does it exist? The idea of existence and is it really there, those are really modern questions and in a lot of ways there would have been a lot of assumptions in the ancient world about some of that, so they would have just asked the other questions like who’s there, why are they there, not so much does it exist. Are you saying that in the New Testament there wouldn’t have been an assumption this place called hell does exist?

Meghan: Whether or not they had an assumption that a place called hell existed, they would have already been familiar with ideas that sounded like the language that Jesus is using in the Gospels that was already used in their broader culture to instruct people. So, the idea really begins in the cultures that are surrounding the New Testament writers. So, we have in the Greco-Roman world we have the concepts of Hades and tours to the underworld, and we have in the Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid we have this idea of a going to Hades and on this journey to Hades, learning something that you bring back through this story about your journey to Hades to educate your audience. And even though the hearers of the New Testament might not have been literate or reading those stores, those stories were so widely shared and told. They were part of the Greek and Roman program of education called paideia that was consistent and used with remarkable consistency across the empire. If we look at, for example, some of the school hands, or educational texts that we have from antiquity, one of the things that’s really remarkable that I’ve found through my research is that the chapters of the Odyssey and the Aeneid, so Odyssey eleven and the Aeneid six, that described these tours to Hades are some of the most frequently used texts in those school hands. So, what that tells us is that among the population that was literate, that was receiving an education, this story would’ve been widely familiar and would have been shared. So, it was a part of the kind of understanding that you would tell these stories in order to educate audiences. And then, of course, Jewish apocalyptic literature, which was very popular during the lifetime of Jesus, has its own stories and journeys that are somewhat influenced by these Greco-Roman stories that I’m talking about, but also takes its own spin on this idea of touring other-worldly spaces and using graphic details about those other-worldly spaces to make a point and persuade audiences in the present.

Pete: Well let’s get to that, the point, what they’re trying to do with all this in a bit. What I hear you saying is that this idea of Hades, right, or we might say hell just for arguments sake. A lot of that, it’s, you know, Christianity is sort of dealing and engaging with the cultures around it, which is both Greek and Roman influence and it’s, I mean, it’s maybe an obvious point, but it’s a product of engaging a particular culture and Jews were doing this, but –

Meghan: They were.


Pete: These concepts were not part of their own Scripture. Am I –

Meghan: Right, that’s accurate.

Pete: I mean, in your opinion?

Meghan: Yeah, I did sort of jump over the Hebrew Bible, sorry.

Pete: Well that okay, we all do.

Meghan: I jumped straight to Jewish apocalypticism.

Pete: [Laughter]

No, that’s fine.

Jared: I mean, that’s a very common mistake for all of us.

Pete: I know.

Jared: I go from the Old Testament to Jewish apocalypticism every day.

Pete: Whatever, yeah.

Meghan: Exactly.


Pete: But I guess my question is, I guess my point is, just so you can comment on is that, this is a foreign concept completely in the Hebrew Scriptures, right?

Meghan: Yes, so the Hebrew Scriptures have the concept of Sheol, which is not really what we would call a lively afterlife in the sense that it’s described as dusty and dark. It’s certainly not pleasant, it’s not a place that you want to go, but everybody goes there when they die, so in the Hebrew Bible there’s this idea that, you know, when you die, you go to Sheol and it is described in ways that it’s sometimes confusing to people, because when they read the Hebrew Bible, it sounds like hell. And when this translation of the Hebrew Bible was made into the Septuagint, they actually used the word Hades to translate Sheol, and so then that creates confusion for a lot of people because then that starts to overlap those two concepts, but really in the Hebrew Bible, it’s a kind of a neutral place where everybody goes after death and the texts that describe it, or talk about it, do refer to it as a place that nobody wants to go, but that’s because in the Hebrew Bible there’s this tradition of the two ways. And this idea that one way leads to life and abundance, and the other way leads to death. And so, when these texts, Proverbs and Psalms are places where we see a lot of this language, or in Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomist has a lot of language like this, these texts are describing not Sheol as a place that you don’t want to go to because it signifies that you’ve done something wrong, but rather that, to go to Sheol too soon would be to die prematurely. And so, that is negatively valued and seen as a punishment from God, but it’s not the idea of hell that we think of that gets developed centuries later by early Christians.

Jared: Well, it seems like it’s more of this, it’s an extension of the idea that you don’t want to die young –  

Meghan: Exactly.  

Jared: And Sheol is just, yeah, well that’s what happens when you die and if you die young that’s not a good thing and so it’s –  

Meghan: And you want to make what, choices that lead to a fruitful life and a long life, not –  

Jared: Right, right.  

Meghan: Exactly.  

Pete: Yeah, that’s, I mean, that’s a really interesting point and I think an important point to make that this idea that I think a lot of Christians throughout history and today very much, you know, at least the people we talk to a lot – they just assume that this is a thoroughly biblical idea, this afterlife abode which is a place of punishment, even torture and for some traditions –  

Meghan: And bodily torture. That’s why I say that Sheol is not really a lively afterlife, because it’s not totally clear that people have bodies there.  



Pete: Right. I mean, you really can’t do anything in Sheol.  

Meghan: No.  

Pete: You can’t even praise God in Sheol, so don’t send me there, especially before my time. And wanting to avoid Sheol is not because I don’t want to go to hell, it’s because I have a lot more living to do – 

Meghan: Exactly.  

Pete: And I’d like you to allow me, don’t let me go down into the pit or something.  

Meghan: Right, exactly don’t let me go down into Sheol –  

Pete: Right, right.  

Meghan: Before my hairs are gray. So yeah, exactly. You want to live on earth as long as possible –  

Pete: Right.  

Meghan: And that’s a sign of God’s favor and abundance in your life.  

Pete: Right.  

Jared: So, when we get to this, let’s maybe move forward a little bit.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: So, when we get to the –  

Pete: What’s wrong with the Hebrew Bible Jared? We like talking about that.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: Sheesh, man! I’ll tell ya. Okay, go ahead.  

Jared: We get to this time period, so the Hebrew Bible’s been written. We’re kind of going through history here, Jesus is born around this time, there’s what you call, you know, this Jewish apocalypticism, so there’s these ridings and they’re influenced by, maybe, some Greek culture and the Greek idea of Hades. What, you know, how does it change? Because we just went through Sheol, which doesn’t really give us a lot to go on, but by the time we get to Jewish apocalyptic literature, there is, like, what’s the meat to it? What does it start looking like, what does the afterlife look like that’s different than Sheol?  


Meghan: Well, in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, you have descriptions of other-worldly spaces, and so, in a text like 1 Enoch for example, you have someone being taken on a tour and you have spaces where there’s a distinction made between souls that live different kind of lives and they go to different, they’re kind of like pits or hollows that these different, four different types of souls dwell in. So, you have in 1 Enoch, and in other apocalyptic texts from this time, this idea of what we call the differentiation of fates, which is just a fancy way of talking about different kinds of souls going different places. And this can be seen as continuous, for the Jewish people, this is continuous with this idea of the tradition of the two ways, right? You live one kind of life and you live for a very long time; you live a different kind of life and you go down to Sheol too soon, right? But now, the difference is in these apocalyptic texts, right, that actually leads to different kinds of after death experiences whereas the concept of Sheol was everyone goes to – 

Pete: Which seems fair, right? I mean, I’m not being facetious, but that seems fair for that to happen because why would someone who leads a long, righteous life wind up in the same place?  

Meghan: Right. And so, what you have in the Hellenistic period is under the pressures of the empire, you have the apocalyptic texts developing ideas of the afterlife that are both influenced by Greek and Roman ideas, right? So, this idea of differentiation of fates looks different from, but also not totally distinct from what we see in Plato, for example, right? In the Republic, there’s this idea of, you know, the trans-migration of souls, and different souls that live different kinds of lives going to different spaces after death. And so, you end up in Jewish apocalyptic literature starting to see overlap with some of these Greco-Roman ideas, and you also get this in an apocalyptic text that may, in some cases, be influenced by the pressure of living under Roman rule. So, it’s during this time period that we end up seeing early Christian authors who are deeply influenced by this apocalyptic literature invoking language that shares a heritage with both the Greco-Roman culture that they’re a part of, the Hebrew Bible tradition of the two ways where you could, you know, make life choices that lead to different outcomes, and then these Jewish apocalyptic texts. And all of this really funnels into what we have represented in some of the New Testament texts that talk about these different other-worldly spaces.  

Jared: So, the New Testament you would say is participating in some way in this differentiation of fates way of thinking, meaning, you can make choices, and, I mean, you can make choices in this life that lead to different outcomes in the afterlife.  

Meghan: Yes, and I will say, I should say that it is, that is a distinctive Meghan Henning idea.  


Pete: Okay.  


Meghan: That a lot of twentieth century Bible scholarship, actually how I got interested in this topic is that I was reading some New Testament theology book by Rudolph Bultmann and he was writing it, you know, earlier in the twentieth century and he was really keen to try and say, well yeah, there’s these texts in the New Testament that talk about Hades or Gehenna, but you know, those are really, the Hades texts are all, those are all, it’s Greek and Roman ideas and that’s not really the true essential kernel of the New Testament, and I thought, well, wouldn’t it be convenient if that was true.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jared: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: And that started me down this road of thinking and noticing that most of the scholarship of the twentieth century was a kind of a scholarly game of hot potato where their different scholars are trying to pin the blame of hell on different people groups basically.  

Pete: Yeah. 

Meghan: And so I’ve really taken a different approach in my own work and said, you know, if Jesus, if we know Jesus is using apocalyptic language in other places, it’s probably not fair to assume that somehow this apocalyptic language wasn’t really, he didn’t really mean it.  

Pete: Yeah, he…right, right, right.  

Meghan: And instead, it’s probably most fruitful to be honest about what’s there and say, yeah, there’s this terminology about Gehenna and about Hades, but what’s happening by the end of the first century when the Gospel authors are using this terminology is that they are really starting to develop an idea of a lively afterlife – 

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: In which there’s rewards and there’s punishments. And so, I do think that first century Christian texts that we call the New Testament do have the beginnings of an idea of hell. It’s certainly not the developed idea that we think of though when we think of hell today. Like people are always like, oh, do you study Satan, and I’m like, well, in the New Testament texts you really don’t get a lot of Satan, right? There’s not – 


Pete: Mmm.  

Meghan: We think of hell as this, really, when we think of hell in the contemporary world, it looks a lot more like what Dante described in his Inferno, and that work is really indebted to second through fourth century Christian ideas about hell that really take what’s in the New Testament and amp it up –  

Pete: Mm hmm, yeah.  

Meghan: Times ten.  


Pete: To say the least. Now Meghan, you mentioned Gehenna, so explain what that is and what it means and that should take you three seconds, right?  

Meghan: Yeah, no problem, no problem.  

Pete: So, but, ya know, that’s a concept that normally, not normally, but often translated as hell by English translations which is very unfortunate, but just, yeah. So, what is it? What is it and what do we do with it?  

Meghan: Yeah, so, Gehenna is itself a reference to, and that term actually also occurs in the Hebrew Bible. It’s in the Hebrew Bible, it mostly likely refers to an actual, it does refer to an actual valley, the Valley of Hinnom. It’s a valley that’s associated specifically with idolatrous acts of non-Israelite peoples that said to include child sacrifice, so it is, and it’s also thought to be a place, so this valley is in Isaiah 66 gets specifically associated with that imagery of people who are not following the God of Israel and who are reaping the consequences of that, right? And it becomes a kind of, so the Valley of Gehenna or Hinnom become this kind of monument to the idea of there being consequences for not following God, but that idea of it being a physical place by the time Christians start referring to it in the New Testament text, has already started in apocalyptic literature to refer more generally to the idea of there being a kind of fiery place of punishment or a fiery space that would be a place where people were isolated for the things that they had done in their life.  

Pete: Would that be an afterlife thing or not?  

Meghan: Yeah, so in the apocalyptic literature, it has already started to refer to, so that’s the thing, I have heard many, in my lifetime I have heard many sermons where people will say, “oh you know, Gehenna was this trash heap and it was this place of fire.” So, all that stuff about the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, there’s no, there’s been some articles published, there’s no archaeological evidence for that –  

Pete: Right.  

Meghan: And it was not, it was really, by the point that the New Testament was written, it was already kind of well-known as a monument to infidelity and then an afterlife space.  

Jared: So, it had already become known as a way of talking about the afterlife?  

Meghan: Yeah. So that’s the thing that makes it, it’s important, I do think it’s important to recognize that the New Testament authors are not using one word for hell. They are using Gehenna, they’re using Hades, in one case, they’re using Tartarus. In Revelation they’re using a lake of fire, there’s all these different concepts that are in the New Testament texts because they still don’t have, they’re still working this out. We have a bunch of different concepts being used to gesture towards the idea of eternal punishment. And that’s part of an early developing notion of eternal punishment.  

Pete: So, okay, I like the way you put that. They’re working it out.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 


Pete: Which, because it’s a newish idea, and it’s probably a bit flexible  

Meghan: Mm hmm, exactly.  

Pete: And it’s used in different ways by different people. So, we have this New Testament which is supposed to be clear and tell us exactly what’s what.  

[Music begins] 

Pete: But it’s a little more complicated than that it sounds like.  

Meghan: Yeah, by just a bit. 

Pete: Juuuust a bit.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

[Producer group endorsement] 

[Music ends] 


Jared: Well I’m trying to, I’m trying to, I’m going down a few different parallel tracks. Because on the one hand, we have this influence of Jewish apocalypticism, which by the New Testament’s definitely taking on this afterlife flavor, even if the concepts are still being thrown around. We’re not exactly sure what to do with it. But earlier you said something that maybe is worth bringing back up, which was this method, this paideia, and you’ve mentioned a few times that in a lot of these stories, there’s a journey to Hades – 

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: And there’s lessons learned, and it reminds me kind of this dominant kind of meta metaphor of life is a journey –  

Meghan: Mmm.  

Jared: And you’re going down that path and you’re learning lessons along the way. So, at first, I was excited about that, because I was thinking, oh! Well, I’ve never heard that, maybe that’s kind of what Jesus is doing here in the New Testament to bring these up and talk about kind of life is a journey, there’s a way of going on these things you’re going to learn, these lessons, but then, there’s definitely an influence of this apocalyptic afterlife as well. And I’m having a hard time putting those two thoughts together.  

Meghan: Perfect. So, the apocalyptic literature itself draws upon this idea of a journey or a tour. So, the idea that you are being taken on a tour by a guide is used in, for example, 1 Enoch, as an example of a Jewish apocalyptic text. So, it’s not just in the Greek and Roman tour literature, but also in the Jewish tours. And so, we get this idea that, so both the Gospel authors and the audience of the Gospel authors would have been aware of this idea of going on a tour of other-worldy spaces in order to learn something. Whether they were familiar with it through exposure to Jewish apocalyptic ideas or through the more, the broader Hellenistic curriculum of learning about the afterlife on tours of Hades. So –  

Jared: So maybe there’s not like a clear line that we can draw between this. You go on these tours and you learn these lessons in these narratives and an actual, historical – historical is not even the right word – uh, metaphysical –  

Meghan: Place.  

Jared: Reality of this afterlife, maybe that’s a distinction we’re trying to make that maybe wouldn’t have fit in the New Testament.  

Meghan: Exactly. I agree. So, I think that’s a distinction that we want the text to answer that question and I think that the text is actually trying to answer a different set of questions.  

Pete: Okay.  

Meghan: The set of questions that I think Jesus and the Gospel authors are trying to answer through these stories is, how should I live today?  

Pete: Okay, so that sort of raises a question that I’ve been pondering here for the last few seconds as you were talking, but Jesus. Let’s talk about Jesus.  

Jared: So, you weren’t listening to her; is that what you’re saying?  

Pete: I was listening and pondering.  

Jared: You were thinking what you were going to say.  

Meghan: Listening, pondering. Exactly.  

Pete: Yes, thank you. I multi-task, but. So, did, this is one of these stupid modern questions. I’m trying not to ask the wrong question. 

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: Okay, so let’s talk about Jesus. Was Jesus thinking of, from what we can tell, right, from the world around him and what’s developing at this moment. When Jesus says Gehenna, is he thinking of an afterlife place of punishment or is Jesus using the rhetoric of his tradition to motivate change in the people that he’s talking to?  

Meghan: The times where he uses the language, whether it’s Gehenna or Hades, are context of ethical instruction. So, it’s possible that people hearing this would’ve also thought of a metaphysical space.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: But, what I know for sure, and that is like, since I don’t have a telekinetic connection with the historical Jesus or his audience, I can guess they might have thought that, but I don’t know.  

Pete: Right.  

Meghan: But what I can tell from looking at the texts today, is that they’re using this language to try and persuade audiences to behave in particular ways. So, for example, you know, Matthew 25, right?  

Pete: Oh yeah.  


Meghan: Is a place where we see this language, and it’s quite clear that the whole story about the sheep and the goats has some pretty specific things, right? And the question that gets asked, well wait, we didn’t know it was you, is followed with an answer of, like, very specific instructions about well, you should do this for the least of these. You should feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and tend to the sick, right? That’s all very specific ethical instruction that then is also a callback to the Sermon on the Mount, which is another place where we get this language in Matthew’s gospel as well. And so, there are multiple places where it’s quite clear that the language of weeping and gnashing of teeth or the language of Hades or Gehenna is tied specifically to an ethical lesson. You get the same thing in Luke 16, right?  

Pete: Which is where people get the idea from of if you’re bad you go to hell and are tortured forever.  

Meghan: Where do they get that idea?  

Pete: No, they get it from that.  

Meghan: Yes, exactly.  

Pete: From a misreading, let’s say, of the intentionality of Gehenna or Hades.  

Meghan: Right.  

Pete: And so, again, we’re sort of back to, because I’m trying to wrap my head around this, because this is sort of important, I think, and I know really important for people listening to this too.  The rhetoric of Gehenna/Hades, it has a function. Okay, let’s put it this way, I really hope that if you call your brother an empty-headed idiot as in the Sermon on the Mount, or if you’re angry with your brother, if you hate him in your heart or something, you’re going to hell forever to burn. I hope that’s not true.  

Meghan: Mm hmm, right.  

Pete: I really hope Jesus isn’t saying that. He doesn’t seem to be saying that.  

Meghan: No.  

Jared: Well, I have an interesting thing I want to test with you, Meghan, and I just came up with it ten seconds ago, so it’s maybe not as brilliant as it seems right now. But the, I just can’t help but think back to Deuteronomy.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: And if we take it to that context and we have these you know [Deuteronomy] 28-32 or something where we have the blessings and cursings. When we have these ethical pronouncements of how now shall you live, there tends to be some level of accountability. Like in the ancient world, I would say even in the modern world, we think of consequences and accountability if you don’t behave in these ways.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: And back then, in the Deuteronomic texts, it would’ve been, there’s an oppressing army that will come and wipe you out as a people.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: And in the same way that we don’t think today, if I disobey God, that somehow, well there are some traditions that would still have this, but that somehow the enemy armies of an oppressing nation are going to come and wipe us out, like that’s not what we think of as the ethical conclusion of my misbehaving. I think it’s just as –  

Meghan: No, right. We don’t expect for, like, the earth to open up and for us to be smitten.  


Jared: Exactly. And in the same way, maybe, for me, that’s an analogy to repeat what you’re saying, which is, why then do we think no, no, no. But when Jesus says if you do wrong you’re going to hell forever, why do we take that then as like the literal thing that will happen when we kind of have this other context in the Old Testament where, no, it’s a cultural way of talking about consequences of ethical misbehaving and Jesus is doing the same thing in an apocalyptic way and we have our own way of doing that and so it does frame it for me. Is that an appropriate analogy?  

Meghan: Oh, absolutely. And one of the things, I mean, what you were saying too about, so, the Deuteronomist is a great example, right? That we read that, and we have a sense of how ancient audiences would read that. And so, to think about what’s going on in the New Testament text is equally appropriate.  To understand that Jesus is using rhetoric of his time in order to really bring home an ethical message for his audience and to get them to take it seriously. And one of the things I think that people misunderstand sometimes, so you’re saying it’s just rhetoric? And I’m saying, “no!” There’s no such thing as just rhetoric. Rhetoric is actually really important. Right?  

Jared: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: You use it when you really want to make a point and you want to make it clear and well.  It also means that, because it’s not rhetoric we use in the same way in the contemporary world, we have maximal opportunity to misunderstand it. I mean, one of the things, you know, if we think about, like you said, if we think about the ethical commands that are tied to this in the New Testament, then the conclusion that we draw is that if there is a hell, we’re all going. Because no one has upheld the entirety of that pronouncement. But if we think of this as rhetoric that Jesus is really quite serious about and trying to drive home, what we find is that the emphasis in these texts is really on care for the other and concern for the marginalized and that theme, even as the intensity of hell gets amped up in the early Christian period in the tours of hell that come later, that theme is still carried forward. So even the earliest readers of these texts understood on some level that the real point here is about how you treat others.  


Pete: Yeah, that’s helpful. I’m stuck on something here though.  

Meghan: Great.  

Pete: I’m such a modern person I don’t get it, but I’m trying to put myself in this space of ancient people and to be persuaded by rhetoric, there has to be – maybe there doesn’t, maybe I just don’t get it – but I would think there has to be some connection between what is said and here is the modern word, reality.  

Meghan: Yes.  

Pete: Otherwise, it’s just, listen, you’re just using a bunch of hyped-up hyperbolic language here about fire and torture and whatever, but we all know that’s not, another modern word, true. Right? So, help me through that.  

Meghan: Yeah, good. So, one of the things that ancient rhetoricians would’ve said about this is that rhetoric, visual rhetoric especially, only works if your audience can picture it in front of their own eyes, so you have to use language that’s familiar. You know, if I start talking about something and you’ve never seen it before, you can’t draw it up in your imagination no matter how hard you try, right? But it also has to have verisimilitude, or what I tell my students means truthiness, right?  


Pete: Mm hmm. Yes. 

Meghan: It has to resonate as true on some level. And so, even if audiences could call up the image, they also had to understand or believe that it was somehow had some truth to it. Now, whether that is a metaphysical truth or whether that is an acknowledgement or an assent that, yes, you know, the wicked have justice meted out to theme in some way ultimately, and yes, the righteous have justice meted out to them in some way ultimately, you know? It’s hard to know what the metaphysical commitment was –  

Pete: Right.  

Meghan: For the audience, but for sure on some level if this rhetoric did work, and it seems to have worked for some time, there had to be some level of truth to it among the people using it. They had to have some sense that it was, it had what I would call verisimilitude or truthiness to it. But, you also get someone like the ancient geographer Strabo, who said, well yeah, you know, the myths that we tell, because he was talking about education, and he said, yeah, the myths that we tell in education, it doesn’t really matter if they are true or not. The point is that the persuade our students, right? And they can still have value in them, even if we don’t think that everything that is in the myths, and he was talking about specifically about Homer. But even if everything in the myths isn’t true, it still has a pedagogical value. So, I think there were different levels of commitment to the rhetoric.  

Jared: But there’s a bit of a difference there between like, I resonate with Aesop’s Fables because I resonate with the wisdom of the point.  

Meghan: Yes.  

Jared: And I don’t need it to be historically accurate to get value out of it.  

Meghan: That’s true. Mm hmm.  

Jared: Which feels different than, here are these ethical frameworks and if you don’t do them, here is something really bad that will happen to you. Don’t worry, if the really bad thing happens, that hell will happen to you, will actually happen to you or not.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 


Jared: Like, that feels like a different, feels like we’re comparing apples and oranges. But I also did want to mention that I think there’s something to, I keep coming back to the idea that you said that this isn’t really settled, so it’s not a clear concept. 

Meghan: It’s not.  

Jared: In a lot of ways, that actually helps the persuasion of it, because I think of a concept like today, in today’s world, I think of the concept of karma.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: Where like, a lot of modern Americans, I just know people that will, like, use it. And if I were to actually drill down and say, like, what do, like, they really are afraid of karma. That is something that persuades them.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: That like, if I put good into the world, I’ll get good back. If I put bad into the world, I get bad back. It’s kind of like, Deuteronomic theology all over again. But, if I ask them to like, drill down, well like, tell me the mechanics of karma. Like, how does it actually, how does it actually happen? Especially if they don’t believe in a personal God or something who exacts this kind of justice.  

Meghan: Right.  

Jared: It’s sort of, it’s a fuzzy concept. And actually, the fuzziness is what’s more compelling about it. Because if you ask them, to like, break it down into the mechanics of, well exactly tell me how if I do this good for someone, a good thing’s gonna happen to me later.  

Meghan: Right.  

Jared: I don’t understand. And so, there’s some way in which the ambiguity, I guess, of the mechanics of hell and dying forever and burning, it plays to the advantage here, I think, of the rhetoric.  

Meghan: Yes. There’s no question that in the first century this concept is being developed. So, it is definitely at its beginnings and the more developed idea that we think of when we think of hell in the contemporary world is really an invention of late antiquity and medieval Christianity.  


Jared: So, in some ways it’s impossible for us to understand hell as they would have, because we already –  

Meghan: It’s really hard to unknow it.  


Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jared: Right. We already have all this stuff, we poured it into us.  

Meghan: That’s exactly right.  

Pete: All those vivid images and things like that, that’s part of our reality.  

Meghan: Exactly, that’s what I would call our visual vocabulary and what kind of –  

Pete: Oh yeah! That’s a great phrase. I’m stealing that.  

Meghan: Yeah, well, I should tell you I stole it from Quintilian.  

Pete: Okay.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: Well nobody knows who that is, so, ya know. 

Meghan: Good.  


Pete: So, I guess, here’s, let me. Okay, here’s what I’m hearing. Ancient people probably truly believe there are consequences for actions, and if they forgot then they need to be reminded of it by people like Jesus or Paul or whoever. And the rhetoric of hell and Gehenna and Hades and all that, that’s a very vivid way of expressing that, let’s call it truth, or that reality, that there are consequences. What that’s actually going to look like, who the heck knows? But it’s a way of communicating to the people in ways they understand in these, their visual vocabulary they already have. And that, to me, that’s like a really important insight, because it’s just another example of, well, what Jared was just sort of implying that context is very important, right? And we can’t get into people’s heads and we read these texts and we right away bring them into our visual vocabulary which has been probably a distorted lens.  

Meghan: Yeah.  

Pete: Right, for 1500 years or so. And to get back into that investigation is, maybe, very healing for people who are just freaking out about, you know, my relative died and – 

Meghan: What is going to happen?  

Pete: They’re burning conscious. Well you know, that’s the thing too. What struck me early on as you started talking, Meghan, when we’re talking about, like, you know, where this notion of hell developed. Along with that is really, maybe, a different kind of interest in afterlife in general.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Pete: And I think these things, it’s rather obvious that they go together, and, you know, that’s something that preoccupies religious people typically, at least Christians it does.  

Meghan: Absolutely.  

Pete: Jews, not as much. But Christians, I think it really does. Like, where do ya go?  


Meghan: It’s a big one.  


Pete: What do you do? Let’s see what the Bible says. Okay! Bang, bang. There ya have it, and the two ways, you know, and there’s just, I just think there’s a lot at stake here for our own paideia, our own education, our own training to think about this maybe with fresh eyes and to admit that maybe a lot of our theologies have been distorted.  

Meghan: Yeah. And to reassess if Jesus, if this is rhetoric, if this is Jesus and early Christians using the visual vocabulary of their own time in order to persuade and educate those around them to behave in particular ways. If we want to think about what we can learn from that for the contemporary world, then we might need to ask ourselves is this a lesson about what the afterlife is actually like, or is this a lesson about how we could use the visual vocabulary and the rhetorical tools of our contemporary world in order to bring life and healing and education to people as well.  

Pete: Uh huh. Right. I appreciate the way you put that. We follow Jesus best by employing our own visual vocabulary to try to affect something that it seems like Jesus was trying to affect. And not copy the vocabulary and then distorting it.  

Meghan: Exactly.  

Pete: Yeah. But what, okay, so what do we do? How do we tell people they’re going to hell?  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: [Laughter] 

How do we say that? Or have I missed the point entirely?  

Jared: [Laughter] 

Pete missed the boat. He missed the boat, yeah.  

Meghan: I think that’s a great title for my next book!  

Pete: You’re going to Disney World! You’re going to Disney World! Okay, that’s it.  

Meghan: How to tell people they’re going to hell. Okay.  

Pete: You’re going to a mall parking lot! Do you want to spend your eternity in a mall parking lot?  

Jared: If you don’t do what Jesus says, yeah, you’re going to the mall.  

[Continued laughter from all] 

Meghan: Right, right. I think we do have to be creative. I mean, one of the things that was really troubling for me as I was starting to do this work, and I do work with my students on apocalyptic rhetoric in a contemporary world with film and movies and tv is that given ability to depict kind of like, the most extreme violent situation we can possibly imagine on the screen, I think, actually, that the rhetoric of violence is done. I don’t think that that is productive in the contemporary world in the same way that it might have been in antiquity.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: And I also think that we’ve learned in thousands of years what the, also, what the kind of consequences for using that kind of rhetoric might be. In a way that, in the early period of the inception of this idea that wasn’t quite as clear.  

Pete: Right. 

Meghan: So, that’s actually what my next project is about in some sense, in terms of thinking about, okay, what are the other, what’s kind of the dark side of this rhetoric as it gets developed. 


But, in terms of your original question about, you know, what, how do we, how do we package this and think about this, I, first of all, I like to think about, okay, what are the ethical norms that are being communicated, so what are the things that are tied to this idea, and then how would I communicate those things persuasively in the contemporary world and does that even get tied to the afterlife, or does that get tied to other things that motivate people in the present world? Because certainly, afterlife is a big one, but probably, I think the last Pew survey maybe said sixty percent of the population believes in an afterlife? So, maybe there’s something else.  

Jared: Well, that’s what I was thinking is, you know, is even just thinking through sermons that I’ve heard over the years, and the dominant metaphors and ways of talking have shifted. And I think a lot of times now I hear the language, of say, like, health –  

Meghan: Hmm.  

Jared: You know, if we don’t do this, like, think of the health of our community, or the health of our marriage, or the health of our – 

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Pete: So, go to health?  

Jared: Yeah, right.  

Meghan: From hell to health?  


Pete: [Laughter] 

Jared: Yeah, you go to health. Yeah. From hell to health, there ya go. There’s your title.  

Pete: There it is! 

[Continued laughter] 

Jared: There’s your title right there.  

Pete: You’re welcome. 

Jared: You’re welcome.  

Pete: You’re welcome Meghan.  

Meghan: Thanks guys.  

Jared: But I think that is, you know, it is something that I do think we intuitively, if we pay attention to the language we use, I think as communities of faith we intuitively do that. We pick it up and we drop off things that are no longer useful and we pick up things that resonate more and so, that’s just something I’ve observed is that language of health and natural consequences. Like you said, it’s not always the metaphysical, you know, if you don’t then this will happen to you when you die. It’s more, it feels to me, maybe it’s just part of faith communities that I’m a part of, but it feels more immediate, it feels more naturalistic, it feels more – 

Pete: Intuitive! 

Jared: Yeah, intuitive, like –  

Pete: Not a conscious deliberation of what to say. 

Jared: If we don’t take care of the earth, it’s not, you’re going to go to hell when you die. It’s if you don’t take care of the earth, we won’t have an earth.  

Meghan: Right. Our children will not be able to enjoy the things that we enjoy, yeah, yeah.  

Jared: Right.  

Meghan: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting.   

Jard: Well, unfortunately, we are coming to the end of our time. We’ve been stretching it, because it’s so fascinating. 

Meghan: Thanks.  

Jard: We’ve been trying to go longer here, but what, you mentioned a project that you’re currently working on. Maybe you can say a minute of that and where people can find you online if they want to continue to talk about hell with you or tell you that you’re wrong.  

Meghan: Excellent. Yes, so you can find me online on Twitter and Facebook and Meghan Henning. My next project is, I’m working on gender and disability and early Christian concepts of hell. The book is called Hell Heath No Fury and is about, specifically, how this violent language that gets developed in the later tours of hell in late antiquity and the early medieval period really runs with this first century Christian idea and then becomes what we know today from Dante as this torturous place, but it really ends up using gendered ideas of the body from antiquity to depict people as female and disabled and how, and has really serious consequences, I argue, for the way that we think about bodies in the contemporary world.  

Jared: That’s fascinating.  

Pete: Wow, yeah.  

Jared: Well, we may have to have you back on to just keep this conversation right trucking along into the medieval period at some point.  

Meghan: I would love that.  

Pete: Mm hmm, yeah.  

Jared: Awesome. Well, thanks so much Meghan, for coming on, really appreciate it.  

Meghan: Thank you! 

Pete: Thanks so much, see ya.  

Meghan: Great to talk to you, bye.  

[Music begins] 

Jared: Well thanks everyone for joining in for another exciting episode –  

Pete: Yup.  

Jared: Of the Bible for Normal People.  

Pete: Yeah, all about hell. Hey folks, don’t forget the pay what you want course. Pay what you want course! March 26, 8:30 PM, for one hour, Eastern Time, talking about how to read the Bible as an adult. We hope to see ya there.  

Jared: We’ll see ya next week for another episode of the Bible for Normal People, and we’ll see you March 26 at 8:30 PM.  

Pete: Absolutely, see ya.  

[Music ends] 



Pete: Before we get to that, just introduce yourself to our readers. Give us a little bit of your background… 

Jared: They’re listeners, not readers.  

Pete: Okay, we’re going to start that over again Dave, because I don’t know what medium we’re dealing with.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: Okay. Can we start all over again?  

Jared: Yeah.  

Pete: Meghan? Okay, let’s start all over. 

Meghan: Yeah, of course.  

Pete: I’ve never made a mistake before Jared. How did this happen?  

Jared: I know! Yeah, sorry. He’s short circuiting over there.  

Pete: Okay, I’ll get it right and fix myself there. They’re listeners, you idiot. They’re listeners. Okay, alright. Start again. Ready Dave? Dave, stop. I know you’re laughing Dave. I know you’re laughing. So, okay.  


Meghan: Well, you know, it’s Lent, so it’s a good time to talk about hell.  

Pete: Good.  

Jared: Yeah, perfect! That’s right.  

Meghan: Seasonally appropriate.  


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.