Hell’s kitchen

The lack of immediate reward for obeying God is often troubling.

hell311 (photo credit: http://www.wga.hu)
(photo credit: http://www.wga.hu)
Is hell a physical realm? Both Judaism and Christianity believe in the concept of hell, but differ as to its nature and purpose. Even if we believe in divine rewards and punishments, shouldn’t all be completed in one’s lifetime, as promised in Deuteronomy (30:16-18) – obey God and prosper; turn away and perish? As history has proven, rewards and punishments do not always come immediately. The prophet Malachi recognized that many were disillusioned with Deuteronomic justice; it seemed futile to serve God. What is the value, they asked, of keeping His charge or of walking humbly before the Lord of hosts? So we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test, they escape (Malachi 3:14-15).
The author of Psalm 73 admits that “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (v.3).
People are intimidated by the brazenness of the impious, who taunt believers by claiming that God does not know the difference. Ecclesiastes (chapter 9), explores the same question: “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all.... The living know they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward (verses 3 and 5).” To many people, it seemed that God waits too long to visit His wrath on the wicked.
Since there seemed to be no difference between the good and the evil in life, except that the wicked often advanced by persecuting the righteous, perhaps there might be some difference after death? “The Lord kills and brings to life; He brings down to sheol and raises up” (I Samuel 2:6). While translators often interpret sheol as a synonym for the grave, the Torah makes it more than just a physical burial place.
The first time sheol is mentioned is in Genesis 37:35, when Jacob is shown the bloodstained coat of Joseph and loses his desire to live: “I shall go down to sheol to my son, mourning.”
The verse does not use the Hebrew word kever (grave), but sheol, denoting a specific place where people go after they die.
It is the same place that Korah, Dathan and Abiram went when the earth swallowed them (Numbers 16:33). That account locates sheol beneath the surface of the earth.
In Psalm 6, the poet, believing death to be near, reminds God that in death there is no remembrance of God: “in sheol who shall give Thee thanks?” The prophet Amos conveys the Lord’s warning to the wicked of Israel: “Though they dig into sheol, My hand will take them; and though they climb up to heaven, from there will I bring them down (9:2)” Psalm 49 proposes that the true difference between the wicked and the good becomes clear only after death. Isaiah 14 says sheol is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades [rephaim] to greet you.
Another place came to exercise many of the same functions as sheol. That place, just outside Jerusalem, (Jeremiah 19.2), was a ravine called Ge-Hinnom (Nehemiah 11:30; Joshua 15:8). In the center of Hinnom was a high place called Topheth. Second Kings 16:3 states that King Ahaz offered his son as a sacrifice to Molech in Ge-Hinnom. Apparently he was not alone. When Josiah instituted the reforms returning the country to the worship of God, he defiled the altar on Topheth to prevent further child sacrifices (2 Kings 23:10). Forever tainted, Ge-Hinnom was associated with eternal burning, shame and wickedness.
With Ezekiel’s violent multitudes in graves of shame and Isaiah’s image of corpses in heaps, the Valley of Hinnom eventually came to represent the fate of the wicked.
Judaism’s concept of hell is different than that of other religions. While the righteous will receive their full reward in the World to Come, and purely evil individuals will receive their punishments, the rest of us will go through purgatory – a cleansing process that takes up to 11 months. Afterward, our souls will rejoin God until Messiah arrives, when they will again be incarnated.
David Nekrutman is Executive Director for The Center for Jewish- Christian Understanding & Cooperation in Efrat, Israel