A good deal of doctrinal mischief has been caused by preterism without brakes (PWOB). A recent manifestation of this mischief has been in the use of “Hebraic narrative” to deny the doctrine of Hell.
Now as a partial preterist, I am happy to grant that there are passages that have commonly been taken as references to Hell that I believe are actually references to the destruction of Jerusalem (e.g. Heb. 10:27). But what is astonishing to me in this discussion is the neglect of a lot of first century context that lies outside the genre of apocalyptic writings. I am speaking of the common cosmology of the ancient world, which can be seen both in The Aeneid and in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
But one of the reasons we neglect this context is that we have been trained to despise it under the guise of “Hellenism.” But I want to speak about the great blessing that Hellenism brought into the Church. No, I am not talking about the bad stuff — we may jettison that. But we have to confess it is au courant to sniff at Hellenism altogether, as though it were something the ecclesiastical house cat dragged in. But if we are using our heads, the label “Hellenism” is not enough to condemn it.
If Hebraic thought forms were the “be all and end all” that some folks are claiming, then why did God switch to Greek for the New Testament? That would mean that until the end of the world, biblical scholars will have to learn Greek — the language with the most cooties ever. And if the Hebraic olive tree were all that healthy, then why did the master gardener want to graft in a bunch of wild olive branches (Rom. 11:17, 24)?
Of course, there are some Greek words and concepts that need radical redefinition when they are brought over into a biblical framework. The apostle John does this when he reworks the word Logos in a way that cannot be confounded with what Heraclitus did with it (Jn. 1:14). There are other words that require no redefinition at all, words like cat or mat. And then there are words that you think might require a biblical reworking, words like Hell, but which you then discover are simply brought straight across, without redefinition.
Quick note: The final place of torment is Gehenna, which I take as the lake of fire. There is an intermediate place of torment, which is located within Hades. We can tell they are distinct because at a certain point, death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). And in the Apostles Creed, Jesus descends to Hades, not into Hell.
Aeneas descended into Hades, which was a place divided into two compartments. The bad side was called Tartarus and the good side was called Elysium. Aeneas went to commune with his father, who was a shade, but who was in Elysium, a place of peace. The Jewish name for Elysium was Abraham’s bosom, or Paradise. Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom, within shouting distance of the rich man, who was in torment in Hades (presumably Tartarus). Jesus descended into Elysium because He told the thief on the cross that he would be with him that day in Paradise (Luke 23:43). That is where He preached (across the chasm) to the spirits who had been disobedient in the time of Noah, announcing to them their final defeat (1 Pet. 3:19-20). The apostle Peter even refers to Tartarus by name (2 Pet. 2:4), using a word in verb form that means to cast into Hell/Tartarus. When Jesus rises from the dead, He holds the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18), and when He ascends He transfers Paradise to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4). When believers die now, that is where they go (2 Cor. 5:8). In all this there is nothing that summons us to a redefinition from the common understanding of these words, and there is also nothing which allows us to take these expressions as fancy metaphors for “the grave.”
Now some might object that they don’t want to accept the possibility that the Bible teaches that the earth is a flat disk, resting on the back of a turtle. Well, it doesn’t teach that, but if the ancient world did think that, and the Scriptures used turtle terminology straight across without missing a beat, you would have two choices. You could ditch the faith, or you could go with the turtles. What you shouldn’t do is get a couple of graduate degrees from a formerly evangelical seminary, in which process you were trained to run evasively through sitz im leben metaphors like you were a Heisman trophy contender, stiff arm out.
Jesus tells us where this Paradise was. He says that just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:40). Jonah cried out to God from Sheol, the Hebrew word that is rendered in the New Testament (without redefinition) as Hades. Hades is not the grave — Plato thought he knew where the gates of Hades were. It was the kind of place you could get to if you got lost in Carlsbad Caverns, you and your flashlight.
And when you got down there, it would be a great opportunity to proclaim the name of Jesus.
“That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11, emphasis mine).