The HyperTexts

The Poisonous Tomato

by Immanuel A. Michael

Not so very long ago, most Englishmen and Americans "knew" something unknown to almost everyone else in the world: that tomatoes were "poisonous." While Italians happily concocted new tomato-based dishes that would soon take the world by storm, and add luscious nuance to the words delizioso and mamma-mia, world-conquering Britons were cowering in fear, convinced the innocuous "love apple" was lethal.

It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that Brits and Americans finally summoned the courage to take a first few tentative nibbles of the deadly tomato. When they did, it was "love at first bite." The rest, as they say, is history.

How is it possible that the rest of the world knew the tomato was safe to eat, and yet Brits and Americans considered it to be the Forbidden Fruit? Wasn’t the tomato’s English nickname "the love apple" an ironic reference to the Garden of Eden, and the scrumptious-looking "apple" that lured Adam and Eve to their doom? Brits and Americans sometimes grew tomatoes in their gardens: their flower gardens. They could look but not touch, and certainly never eat, the Forbidden Fruit.

Perhaps God is trying to tell us something important, about human folly. Perhaps there is another "love apple" which we human beings have denied ourselves, irrationally. I believe this to be the case, and if you will bear with me for a few minutes, I will present my evidence and state my case. If you have children, or plan to have children, I think this may be very important for them, and for you. But first a very brief history lesson seems to be in order, to help us put things in proper perspective . . .

In 1597 an English barber-surgeon/herbalist named John Gerard published an influential book in which he opined that tomatoes were dangerous to eat. He made this statement even though he acknowledged that tomatoes were being consumed in Europe at the time. Of course we all know how wonderfully wise barber-surgeons were, back in the Middle Ages. Patients sometimes died from recurring migraine headaches because their "surgeons" bled them to death, being convinced that all illnesses were caused by evil spirits ("bad humors") in the blood. Jesus had cast out such evil spirits, so they certainly existed. Barber-surgeons who lacked Christ’s abilities as exorcists got rid of them the ye-olde-fashioned way, with leeches and leather-stropped medieval "scalpels."

But what are human beings to do? How can we determine the best cures for headaches, and which foods are safe to eat? After all, we depend almost entirely on what trusted experts tell us. What happens when the "experts" are morons, or dream things up, or flat-out lie?

Rather than keep you in suspense, I will now explain the nature of the "love apple" human beings have been denying themselves, due to irrational fears that go back to horribly bad advice we received from ancient, highly dubious, yet implicitly trusted "experts."

The "love apple" is sex and the irrational fear is an "eternal hell."

As with the poisonous tomato, we have been hornswaggled, and I intend to prove it. I will do so by proving that according to the Bible there is no such thing as an "eternal hell," and never was. When the Bible discusses sin and its consequences, those consequences are always temporal (of this life), not eternal. This can easily be demonstrated.

Yes, sex can be dangerous. If a man has sex with another man’s wife, or has unprotected sex, he may be taking his life into his own hands. But there is no reason to believe anyone will suffer for all eternity because he dipped his wick in the wrong socket, so to speak (and mix metaphors).

And I think it’s important to point out that the Christian rush to condemn non-heterosexuals to an "eternal hell" flies out the window, if God himself never mentioned an eternal hell. It strikes me as the height of blasphemy for Christians to condemn people to an "eternal hell" in the name of God, when God and his prophets never mentioned such a place.

What the hell are Catholics and evangelical Protestants up to, anyway?

Are they worshiping God, or the Other Guy?

What happens to people who blaspheme the name of God, and dominate and terrorize other people in his name? I don’t pretend to know, and I don’t intend to find out myself. I’m trying to do what I can to address and correct the problem. Obviously, no one is in danger of an eternal "hell," if there is no eternal hell. But that doesn’t mean God will be happy with the hellions who used his good name to further their evil plans for world domination. So I hope everyone who doesn’t want to dominate and terrorize other people will re-think the "eternal hell" thing. Here’s why. I will recap my main points, then give a brief synopsis of each one. I will use OT for Old Testament, and NT for New Testament, for the sake of brevity.

(1) There is no "hell" in the entire OT or the earliest NT texts.
(2) So "hell" clearly did not pre-exist, but neither were its creation or purpose ever announced.
(3) When "hell" appears in the NT, it just "pops up" without a word of preamble or explanation.
(4) Although no Jews believed in "hell" except the Pharisees, there was no debate about "hell."
(5) This "hell" did not come from the Bible, but from pagan Greek poetry and the Pharisees.
(6) Therefore, "hell" is not the revelation of God, but the creation of evil-minded men.
(7) The Hebrew word Sheol obviously means, "the grave," not "hell."
(8) The Greek word Hades obviously means, "the grave," not "hell."
(9) The Hebrew word Gehenna identifies a location in Israel. Today it’s a lovely park.
(10) The Greek word that actually means "hell" is Tartarus, but no human being was ever condemned there.

Now I will provide a brief synopsis of each main point:

(1) There is clearly no "eternal hell" in the OT or the earliest-written books of the NT. The ancient Hebrews did not believe in "hell" (as we will clearly see), and other than the Pharisees (the sworn enemies of Jesus) most Jews to this day have never believed in an "eternal hell." If there was an "eternal hell," it would obviously have been incumbent on God and the Hebrew prophets to warn people about its existence, and explain how to avoid it. But God and the prophets never mentioned even the remotest possibility of "hell" to Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, Joseph, Moses, et al. "Hell" was not mentioned to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, nor to Cain (the first murder), nor to Noah at the time of the wickedness that led to the Great Flood, nor to Abraham and Lot at the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nor was "hell" mentioned to Moses at the time of the giving of the Law and its punishments, which were all temporal punishments. So obviously "hell" did not pre-exist, because it wasn’t mentioned even to the worst of people at the worst of times, or to the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets: Moses, the Lawgiver, who is said to have written the first five books of the Bible.

(2) But neither is there any verse in the entire Bible—OT or NT—where the creation of an eternal hell or its purpose is ever announced. The Bible was profoundly silent on the matter of "hell" for many thousands of years, until a few curious verses (sans any preamble or introduction) popped up at a very late date in the creation and assemblage of the NT. But the earliest Christian texts—the epistles of Saint Paul—and the book of Acts (the self-recorded history of the early Christian church) also completely fail to mention a place called "hell," much less anyone going there forever. Therefore it seems obvious that God knew nothing about a place called "hell," if God had anything to do with the creation of the Bible from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Acts (the beginning and end of the multi-millennia chronologies of the Bible). If God created "hell", we would expect to hear one of the prophets, or Jesus, or one of the apostles explain exactly when, why and how "hell" popped into existence. But the Bible contains no such announcement. According to the Bible, "hell" did not pre-exist, and was never created. So obviously human beings did the dirty deed. How could an all-wise God have been so remarkably inept? When we see errors of this magnitude there can be only one culprit: man. If "hell" was created at some point in finite time, how could God have failed to mention this—not only to the Israelites—but to every human being on the planet? If a Native American who had never heard of the Bible died, then woke up in an "eternal hell" he knew nothing about, how could God be considered loving, wise or just? This leaves Christians with one of two logical conclusions: either God was involved in the creation of the Bible, and there is no "hell", or man created the Bible entirely on his own. In either case, there is no reason to fear an entirely imaginary "hell" and terrorize innocent children with it.

(3) How is it possible that "hell" completely failed to exist on the pages of the Bible for many thousands of years, and then people suddenly started talking about it, as if it was a foregone conclusion? The answer is simple: there was a gap in time (and a change of location) between the time the epistles of Paul were written (sans "hell") and the time the "hell" verses were finally cobbled into the later revisions of the NT. By the time the few verses that discuss "hell" had been clumsily stitched into the NT, people had already come to accept the idea of some sort of punishment after death, so there was no debate on the topic. This could not have happened in Israel, as we will see.

(4) The fact that no debate over "hell" is recorded in the Bible is extremely important. The NT records several disagreements between Jesus and the Jews who were not his disciples. Jesus debated the Pharisees and Sadducees on various topics. But there is no recorded debate in which Jesus said people would go to "hell", and they responded by saying, "How can you condemn us to a ‘hell’ that was never mentioned in Hebrew scripture: by God, or any prophet. Who are you to condemn us to a ‘hell’ God and the prophets knew nothing about?" Jesus did ridicule the Pharisees’ concept of "hell" in his parable of Lazarus and the rich man. But Jesus was obviously mocking the idea that some people (Pharisees) would inherit heaven simply by being "sons of Abraham" while other people (Gentiles) ended up in a fiery pit. This is an important point, which will be discussed in more detail shortly. But for now please keep in mind that if Jesus and his apostles had been condemning people to "hell," the ones who were familiar with Hebrew scripture would have been livid with rage. I feel the same rage today, when I hear Christians condemning people of other faiths to a "hell" the God of the Bible and his prophets never mentioned. It fills me with anger to think of children being told they are in danger of an eternal "hell," at some unknown "age of accountability" that God, the prophets, Jesus and the apostles never so much as discussed.  Such an infernal dogma should have provoked angry arguments. But there are no heated debates about "hell" recorded in the Bible. This makes no sense, unless "hell" was added to the Bible in Greece or Rome, after the time of Jesus and Paul.

(5) Who could have added "hell" to the Bible, so clumsily, and gotten away with it? The answer is simple. Until AD 70 the seat of the Christian church was in Jerusalem. The Jews who were not Pharisees did not believe in "hell." Jesus and his apostles were all Jewish. The book of Acts records the history of the Jerusalem church, and it never mentions anyone being condemned to a place called "hell." But after Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, the seat of the church moved to Greece and Rome, and people in Greece and Rome already believed in "hell" (not the wise men, but the ignorant, unwashed masses). They would have accepted the idea of a place called "hell" without debate because they were unfamiliar with Hebrew scripture, and they already had heard about "hell." But it is important to note that this hell was Tartarus, not Hades. More on this in a few minutes. Perhaps the most incredible, ironic fact is that, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, it was the Pharisees who had incorporated the dogma of eternal punishment into their version of Judaism. Where did hell originate? First with pagan Greek poets like Homer (whom Socrates and Plato accused of lying, and teaching other poets to lie), and then with the sworn enemies of Jesus, the Pharisees!

(6) Let’s quickly recap things at this point. Looking at the Bible chronologically from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the book of Acts—the entire millennia-long history of Judaism and the early Christian church—and including the earliest Christian texts (the epistles of Paul), there is not a single mention of a place called "hell," nor any discussion of when, why or how "hell" suddenly popped into existence. According to the Bible, hell did not pre-exist and was never created. If God spoke to the Hebrew prophets and to the apostles of the early Christian church, how could he have failed to mention that a place called "hell" had been created? This is quite startling! Did God make sure that hell could not be attributed to him? Perhaps that’s where he drew the line. But then why do Christian theologians and ministers claim they will be saved "by grace" while the saints of other religions—good men like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama—have been condemned to an "eternal hell"? Do they believe in the grace of God, really, or are they just trying to profit from a human-devised religion built on the shifting sands of human opinion?

(7) "Now wait just a minute, buster," you may be saying to yourself, "I know the King James Bible" contains the word "hell" in certain verses. Where do you get off saying those translations are wrong?" Good question. But it’s not just me. Today even conservative Bible scholars freely admit that the Hebrew word Sheol clearly means "the grave," not "hell." If Sheol means "hell" then Job asked to be hidden from suffering in "hell," King David said God would be with him when he made his bed in "hell," and the sons of Korah said God would redeem their souls from "hell." These statements flatly contradict the Christian dogma of a "hell" which is a place of eternal suffering, where God is absent, and from which no soul can ever be redeemed. It is more than obvious that Sheol means "the grave," not "hell." But this means there is no mention of a place called "hell" in the entire OT. The Hebrew language doesn’t even have a word that means "hell." That’s a startling omission, if God transmitted the Hebrew Bible to Moses and the prophets, don’t you think?

(8) But the same is true for the Greek word Hades as well. Hades clearly means "the grave," not "hell." In fact, there is only one word in the entire Bible which can be correctly translated as "hell," as we will see. 

(9) Don't believe me? As Casey Stengel said, "You could look it up." The famously conservative and literal Southern Baptist Convention recently helped produce a new Bible, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, or HCSB. It correctly translates Sheol and Hades as "the grave," leaving a mere ten verses in the entire Bible which mention a place called "hell." But these ten verses are mistranslations of "Gehenna," which was not "hell" but a physical location in Israel, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. In NT times, Gehenna was a fiery, smoking landfill where garbage was burned continually, so that its flames were seemingly continual. But those flames were far from "eternal" because they were extinguished long ago. Today Gehenna is a lovely park. You can find pictures of it on the Internet. So Gehenna is clearly not "hell" either.

(10) Only one verse in the entire Bible (2 Peter 2:4) contains a word, Tartarus, which designates a place that might properly be termed "hell." But this is a verse about fallen angels awaiting judgment, so its "hell" is not eternal and it is not for human beings.

Are there a smattering of verses that seem to describe a place of suffering after death? Yes, there are a few. But they make no sense, if God, the prophets, Jesus and the early Christians never announced the existence of a place called hell. How can there be a hell unless God said there is a hell? If he created it, it would be incumbent on him to tell people when it was created, and how to avoid it. But clearly the God of the Bible never said that he had created a place called "hell."

Why then do Christians accuse God of damning billions of human souls to an "eternal hell"? Is the Cult of Hell the Great Apostasy the early Christians feared and wrote about? After all, the dogma of an "eternal hell" turns Jesus into a being so unjust, petty, vindictive and cruel that he would send Gandhi to "hell" for not "believing" in him. How can anyone so petty and cruel be worthy of belief?

The HyperTexts