Who was the first person to preach on Hell?
Answer: John the Baptist. Now that might surprise you but I do need to qualify my answer before you bash me over the head with a King James Bible!
The KJV and the OT
Unfortunately, the King James Version (along with many others I might add) has muddied the waters because it incorrectly and confusingly translates several different words as Hell including: Hades, Sheol, and Gehenna. In fact, literally the word Hell doesn’t actually occur in the Bible!
If, by Hell though, we mean a place of eternal punishment in the the after-life, then this concept is not found in the Old Testament! In fact, the Old Testament tells us very little about the after-life – except that there is going to be a resurrection of the dead – alluded to in Daniel:
Daniel 12:2 “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
It was probably this scripture that informed Martha of her belief in resurrection:
John 11:24: “Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Even today, Judaism believes in the resurrection of the dead but not eternal punishment in Hell.
Therefore, when the King James Version of the Bible uses the word Hell in the Old Testament – this is NOT describing a place of eternal punishment. It is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word Sheol – the place where the dead are imagined to reside. The Greeks had similar but more complex idea that they called Hades.
Hell by John the baptist
Back to our question and answer though, was John a hell-fire preacher and if so – what did he mean by it?
Matthew 3:7: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
3:10 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptise you with water but He who is coming after me is mightier than I whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand and he will thoroughly clean his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire”
What is clear, is that John is not speaking of a place of eternal punishment and torment. No, John knows that he is the messenger and last Old Testament’ prophet prophesied in the last book of the Old Testament:
Malachi 3:1 “Behold I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me”
Malachi 4:6 “Behold I send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord”
The End of the Age
Therefore, John would certainly be aware that when Messiah came, the age (aeon) would be expected to end and new one would begin called the millennial kingdom.
Malachi 3:2 “But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.”
Consequently, what John is announcing is CHANGE! The Old System is going to be purified by fire – its time to clean house; get ready for the owner of the house to visit! There is going to be a big bonfire!
Malachi 4:1 “For behold the day is coming burning like and oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble and the day that is coming shall burn them up”
Jesus and Hell (Gehenna)
Now we understand this, it is much easier to understand what Jesus the Messiah meant by Hell. Jesus uses a word: Gehenna. By the way, no one else uses this word (only the Apostle James). Gehenna is a real place: the valley of Hinnom – the rubbish tip outside the walls of Jerusalem.
2 Chron. 28:3. “Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel.”
Therefore when Jesus talks about people being cast in to outer darkness, the wailing and gnashing of teeth and sheep and goats etc, those listening would understand the context is the Messiah establishing the kingdom on earth!
We will look at this in more depth in my next article.
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Previous related post on the topic of Hell:
Love never fails (Part 1)
Gods brilliant plan (Part 2)
How big are God’s plans? (Part 3)
God is a universalist (Part 4)
Jesus is God’s plan (Part 5)
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