Old Testament Visions of Hell

I’ve been reading a great work of Reformed scholarship lately, entitled Hell Under Fire edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson. Chapter 2 by Daniel Block is titled “The Old Testament on Hell.” He opens his chapter with, “What does the Old Testament teach about Hell? The simple answer to this question is, ‘Very little.'” He is right; but in another sense, he provides more than enough pointers to Scriptures that, if you pursue them in deeper study, you can pretty much get a clear vision of how the Old Testament prophets and Jews viewed Hell, or the underworld. It may come as a surprise to many Christians, that there are very little references to the fire of Hell in the Old Testament. In total, there are probably no more than 7 verses that envision Hell fire, and these are included in prophetic poems–so you really have to search for them, and interpret them that way (see Deut. 32:22; Job 18:15; 31:12; Ps. 11:6; 37:20; 140:10; Isa. 66:24). Its not really until you get to the New Testament that visions of Hell fire start to appear with striking imagery and literal clearness, without much need for interpretation (see Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9; 25:41; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 3:9, 17; Jas. 3:6; Rev. 9:2; 14:10-11; 20:10).

Over the course of world history, God chose the Jews to be His covenant-keeping people; and also the people from which He would choose prophets or visionaries who would convey divine revelations to the people. These prophets would often write their visions down on scrolls in the form of poems; rather than simply journal out the dream or vision experience–they interpreted their mystical symbolism, and put their prophecies and revelations into lyrical form, whether by poetry or song. The Book of Psalms has examples of songs with visionary or prophetic dream content in them, for example Psalm 22, which envisions Jesus on the cross.

Gustave Dore - Farinata 1

In Dante’s “Inferno” X, the part on the Sixth Circle of Hell (Heresy), Farinata degli Uberti is depicted in a grave pit. Gustave Dore’s woodcut pictures of this scene are probably the closest artistic rendition of the Old Testament vision of the Grave.

1520 B.C. – Job’s Vision of the Grave (Job 10:19-22)
The Grave is a deep land of shadows and darkness. It is the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It is a depressing place of no return; and a place of disorder.

985 B.C. – David’s Vision of the Grave (Psalm 88:3-7)
Those who go down to the Pit have no strength; and they lie in their graves in beds. They are forgotten by God; only His wrath abides on them. It is a dark place.

701 B.C. – Isaiah’s 1st Vision of the Grave (Isaiah 14:9-20)
The kings of pagan empires come to greet the arrival of the king of Babylon upon his death and entrance into the Grave. In this vision, they are seen rising from their “thrones” in the Grave. They disgrace him by reminding him of everything he has lost, how weak he now is, and that he won’t even get to lie down on his own bed, like the other pagan kings in the Grave can. Instead, he will go to the lowest pit: as a rotting corpse, lying on stones, and eaten by maggots forever.

680 B.C. – Isaiah’s 2nd Vision of the Grave (Isaiah 66:24)
There are corpses of men who rebelled against the law of God. For ever and ever they are eaten by worms and burned in fire!

580 B.C. – Ezekiel’s Vision of the Grave (Ezekiel 32:17-32)
Deep down below the Earth, there are massive cemeteries for the kings and armies of pagan empires; they are there not only because they were pagans, but because they ruled by terror: Assyria, Elam, Meshech and Tubal, Edom, Sidon, and Egypt. Each of their kings’ graves are in the center of their armies’ graves. They lie on coffin-like beds, but remain as souls fully conscious and living. They lie in grave pits, but are not buried by soil. The reason: “The punishment for their sins rested on their bones” (32:27).

530 B.C. – Daniel’s Vision of the Grave (Daniel 12:2)
The wicked, whose names are not found written in the Book of Life, will after dying, awake to shame and everlasting contempt.


Hell Bibliography: The Biblical, Literal, Historical, Traditional View (1/5/13)

Buis, Harry. The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1957.

Bunyan, John. Sighs from Hell. Edited by Don Kistler. Orlando, FL: The Northampton Press, 2011.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Wrath of Almighty God: Jonathan Edwards on God’s Judgment Against Sinners. Edited by Don Kistler. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996.

——–. The Torments of Hell: Jonathan Edwards on Eternal Damnation. Edited by William Nichols. Ames, IA: International Outreach, 2006.

Gerstner, John. Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980.

Morgan, Christopher. Jonathan Edwards and Hell. Geanies House, UK: Christian Focus, 2004.

Morgan, Christopher, and Robert Peterson, eds. Hell Under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.

—–, eds. Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Peterson, Robert. Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995.

Shedd, W. G. T. The Doctrine of Endless Punishment. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986.

Strachan, Owen, and Doug Sweeney. Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell. Chicago: Moody Press, 2010.

Vincent, Thomas. Fire and Brimstone. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999.

Walvoord, John. Four Views on Hell. “The Literal View.” Edited by William Crockett. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.

Personal Visions of the Literal Hell

Baxter, Mary K. A Divine Revelation of Hell. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1993.

Bunyan, John. Visions of Heaven and Hell. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1998.

Charles, R. H., trans. The Book of Enoch. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007. Also known as 1 Enoch, there is probably no other book in ancient Jewish literature that had such a profound visionary influence on Jesus and the apostles’ views of Hell. Although this book is not considered inspired Scripture, to some Christian groups it has been considered Scripture. It is even quoted in the New Testament (Jude 1:14-15=1 Enoch 1:9 | 1 Peter 3:19-20=1 Enoch 21:6 | 2 Peter 2:4-5=1 Enoch 10:15-16 | Revelation 20:12=1 Enoch 108:3 | Luke 6:24-26=1 Enoch 94:6-8); and I think, at least, some of its visions should be taken seriously. If nothing else but as an inspirational book, like Bill Wiese’s 23 Minutes in Hell.

Gardiner, Elizabeth, ed. Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante. New York: Italica Press, 1989.

Lord, Bob and Penny. Visions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Journeys of Faith, 1996. Read with caution against Catholic dogmas of Mary, prayer to saints, or Purgatory–all doctrines which I reject on a Biblical and theological basis as an Evangelical. However, some of the saints’ visions of Heaven and Hell could be real.

Wiese, Bill. 23 Minutes in Hell. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2006.

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