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Hell

Christian theology invokes a very frightening image of Hell, which is quite close to how the ancient Greeks envisaged Tartarus.

Wikipedia

In Christian theology, Hell is the place or state into which, by God's definitive judgment, unrepentant sinners pass in the general judgment,

Hades

According to the Britannica encyclopedia Hades was the word used to describe Hell in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and it is quite clear that it is from the infernal regions of ancient Greek mythology that Christians get the image of Hell being a place of fiery gloom and punishment.

Britannica encyclopedia

In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the word Hades is used for Sheol, denoting a dark region of the dead. Tartarus, originally denoting an abyss far below Hades and the place of punishment in the lower world,

Sheol

However, The original word used in the Hebrew Bible to describe Hell, was Sheol, which according to (Job 10:21) simply meant a place where "all" the dead go, with no other connotations and the horrific images they conjure up, implied.

Britannica encyclopedia

(Job 10:21). In Sheol, the good and the wicked shared a common fate, much as they had in the Babylonian underworld. The place did not conjure up images of an afterlife, for nothing happened there. It was literally inconceivable, and this is what made it frightening: death was utterly definitive, even if rather ill-defined.

Question

It would appear to be quite clear from the above that Christians today get their image of Hell from ancient Greek mythology, and not from the original Hebrew Bible. Is it not paganism to believe in polytheistic ancient Greek religion? Why do Christians use ancient Greek polytheistic connotations when defining the literal meaning of Hell?

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    Alternatively, Christians get their image of hell from the New Testament, rather than the Hebrew Bible. Whether or not the images are correct is another matter, but Luke 16 & Revelation 20 are common sources for the way Christians envision hell. Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 15:26
  • @Hold To The Rod. In the original new testament, Peter used the word "Tartarus" to describe Hell. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_in_Christianity Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 15:38
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    Jesus is the person who used the expression gehenna. James also uses it. Peter uses the expression tartarus. John uses 'abyss' and 'lake of fire'. Christians follow Jesus Christ and his own - chosen - apostles. Why would you question that ? That Greek mythology uses similar wording for similar imagery is unsurprising.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 19:28
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    @Nigel J. It takes only a very brief google search to find out that Gehenna is a "real" and historic valley in Jerusalem, and when Jesus used the term "Gehenna" he was "not" referring to Sheol/Hell. "It is different from the more neutral term Sheol",en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valley_of_Hinnom_(Gehenna). The King James Bible was "wrong" to translate Gehenna as meaning Hell. Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 19:44
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    Not all Christians view Sheol/Hades as a place of torment. Also, Hades is not the same as Tartarus in Greek mythology.
    – agarza
    Commented Sep 5, 2022 at 19:50

2 Answers 2

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The basic answer is provided in the OP. "In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the word Hades is used for Sheol." This version, the Septuagint, was the translation used by nearly all of the early Church fathers. Other Christian writers who addressed the question of the afterlife were also Greek-speakers and naturally thought more in Greek terms than Jewish ones.

Looking back at the Jewish literature, there is little discussion of the afterlife other than references to Sheol and a few visits by prophets to the higher realms where angels surround God's throne, but no humans are permanent residents. The concept of resurrection emerges with the Book of Daniel. By the time of Jesus there was much debate among the rabbis (and no doubt common folks as well) about life in "the world to come." Jesus' fable about the poor man who was transported to the "Bosom of Abraham" (Luke 16) may reflect this but it is not known if this story was known to other Jews.

Among Paul's early converts, Greek mythology must have been better known than Jewish concepts of the afterlife. He himself appealed to Greek mythology when he spoke to potential followers (Acts 17). Some of them, witnessing a healing miracle, even thought Paul and Barnabas were in fact Greek deities (Acts 14:11–12):

“The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes.

Non-Jewish converts to Christianity and later Christian thinkers naturally adopted Greek concepts when they considered the afterlife. The second and third centuries produced a proliferation of Christian literature which dealt with the afterlife, nearly all of it written in Greek. Some of these provided guided tours of heaven and hell and borrowed from Greek literary forms and terminology. The Acts of Thomas and the Acts of Peter represent two examples. Says the translator of the latter:

The heaven of the Petrine Apocalypse is akin to the Elysian Fields and the Islands of the Blest. In it the saints are crowned as with flowers and beautiful of countenance, singing songs of praise in the fragrant air, in a land all lighted up with the light of the sun.

During the Renaissance, Dante's works strongly influenced the Christian world's understanding of the afterlife along Greek lines. Dante's debt to Peter's Apocalypse has been noted by scholars, though few of his modern readers are aware of this. Milton's Paradise Lost seems to consciously borrow from Greek mythology to create a Myth of the Fall that has proved widely influential. Here, Lucifer has become a kind of Prometheus

A recent book by Bart Ehrman provides a deep dive in to the History of Heaven and Hell. Although Ehrman's skeptical attitude toward the Bible has many critics, his work here provides a useful analysis of Greek and Christian sources, from Homer through the Renaissance and beyond.

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Why do Christians use ancient Greek polytheistic connotations when defining the literal meaning of Hell?

I would venture to say that the Apostles employed phrases in their writings that were understood (Greek culture) by the people of their day. They used Greek expressions and terms that were understood back then. Christians today try to understand these Scriptural nuances, sometimes translating then into other expressions, sometimes leaving the Greek word as a literal translation.

The Apostles simply tried to use expressions that would make sense others of their day. Sometimes imagery is an awesome tool and the Apostles knew that. Thus Greek connotations is still used as a tool to aid Christians in explaining Hell!

The Greek culture was very prevalent in the Apostolic Times. They wrote in Greek with some imagery that might help with converts from Greek/Roman paganism. Converts from these two cultures soon outpaced those of Hebrew descent.

Five different Greek gods are mentioned by name In the New Testament alone! There are several allusions to the names of other gods. Ancient Greek culture had it’s influence on the Sacred Authors. The Greek verb ταρταρῶ, which occurs once in the New Testament (in 2 Peter 2:4), is almost always translated by a phrase such as "thrown down to hell". A few translations render it as "Tartarus"; of this term, the Holman Christian Standard Bible states: "Tartarus is a Greek name for a subterranean place of divine punishment lower than Hades." (2 Peter 2:4) Greek connotations!

In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the lowest point of the universe, below the underworld but separate from it. Tartarus is best known from Hesiod's Theogony as one of the first beings to come into existence in the universe and also as the place of entombment for the monsters, the Titans, and in later myths, for mortals who committed unforgivable sins. The punishments for each mortal was different and depended on the crime they committed. Although, as a deity, he is the father of Typhon, Tartarus is not depicted any other way than a dark abyss used as a prison, therefore there are not many myths or stories of the primordial god. - Tartarus

The New Testament played out against the backdrop of Greek and Roman culture, so it’s not surprising that some of the gods of the Greeks and Romans are mentioned in the Bible.

Events in the New Testament play out against the backdrop of Greek and Roman culture, so it’s not surprising that some of the gods of the Greeks and Romans are mentioned in the Bible. Five different Greek gods are mentioned by name, and there are several allusions to the names of other gods.

One of the Greek gods mentioned in the Bible is Hermes, whom the Romans called Mercury. Hermes acted as a messenger for the gods and was honored for his diplomacy, cleverness, and social skills. The Bible mentions Hermes in the account of Paul’s first missionary journey. When Paul and Barnabas came to Lystra in Asia Minor, they healed a paralyzed man, an act that attracted the attention of the townspeople. “When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ . . . Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:11–12). A priest arrived on the scene, bringing bulls and wreaths in order to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas (verse 13).

Of course, the missionaries could not allow themselves to be honored as pagan gods, and they shouted, “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (Acts 14:15). Eventually, Paul and Barnabas were able to cool the pagan fervor and with difficulty kept the crowd from sacrificing to them (verse 18).

On the same occasion, the Greek god Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans) is also mentioned. As the people of Lystra were honoring Paul as Hermes, “Barnabas they called Zeus” (Acts 14:12), believing him to be an incarnation of the chief god. Zeus was the god of lightning, thunder, rain, and the heavens, and he ruled over the other gods. Lystra had a temple to Zeus just outside the city (verse 13).

Two other Greek gods are mentioned in the context of Paul’s journey to Rome. The apostle Paul had been arrested and was under guard in transit to Rome across the Mediterranean Sea. After a stay in Malta, Paul was put on “a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux” (Acts 28:11). Castor and Pollux were twin brothers (although they somehow had different fathers). They were thought to bring good luck and protection for sailors and were associated with the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire. Today, these twin gods of ancient myth are often called the Gemini.

The goddess mentioned in Acts 19 is called Artemis of the Ephesians. The Greek goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans) was the goddess of the moon and hunting. The goddess worshiped in Ephesus as “Artemis” seems to have been a local deity, distinct from the Greek moon goddess with whom she shared a name.

We will mention here that the Bible also uses the words thanatos (“death”) in John 8:52, hades (“place of the dead”) in Luke 10:15, and a cognate of tartarus (“hell”) in 2 Peter 2:4. In Greek mythology, Thanatos, Hades, and Tartarus are all gods associated with death and the underworld, but the Bible uses the words in a different context without sanctioning the idea that they are gods.

What Greek gods are mentioned in the Bible?

If the Apostles were not afraid to use Greek connotations in Sacred Scriptures, Christians of our day should be able to explain these ideas without fear of being misunderstood either while employing Greek term and connotations.

We must also remember that Greek was the language of commerce in Apostolic Times. Greek was also the language of the liturgy in the Early Church, even in Rome for the first three (3) or four (4) centuries.

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