Throughout time man has sought an understanding of what occurs after death. In early ancient Hebrew times the belief was that all those who died went to a common place called Sheol or the pit. This belief was then adapted by the end of the Old Testament and even further in intertestamental writings in the Apocrypha. Here Sheol took on the role as an interim home, housing all dead, but housing them separated according to wickedness or righteousness. This belief was again adapted in New Testament times in the form of Hades, an interim housing for all dead awaiting the final judgment and heaven or hell. The beliefs of each of these cultures serves to make a basis for the modern day beliefs on heaven and hell, life after death.
Old Testament beliefs on the afterlife were very dismal in the respect that they reflected no eternal joy or reward for those who led a righteous life, in fact no matter how you lived it was believed that you all went to the same place, Sheol. Sheol was the home of all dead whether righteous or wicked1, and was believed to be in the lowest part of the earth; it had to be entered through a gate, and once through his gate the dead were unable to escape, they were literally prisoners in a place devoid of all human emotion, sound, feeling, light, and God.2 However this belief was not wholly accepted, in that many believed that God's presence was in Sheol as well, this is illustrated through the Psalmist when he says "If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there." (Psalms 139:8) This belief in God's presence in Sheol, establishes the beginnings for later Old Testament beliefs that Sheol is actually made of two compartments, one reserved for the punishment of the wicked, and one reserved for the reward of the righteous, and the possibility of bodily resurrection for the final day of judgement. However this idea is not fully developed in the Old Testament but is instead somewhat matured in intertestamental writings, or the Apocrypha.
In the Apocrypha, Sheol became a temporary place to house the dead awaiting final judgment. Sheol was no longer a place for the eternal containment of the dead, but a literal holding tank, separate from the place of final, and eternal punishment. The place of eternal punishment was usually located in a valley to the to the South of Jerusalem called, Ge Hinnom, or the Valley of Hinnom, which was prophesied in Jeremiah 7:31-32 to be the place of God's future judgment.
"And they go on building high the place
of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom,
to burn their sons, and their daughters in the fire - which I did not command, nor did it come
into my mind. 32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be
called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury
in Topheth, until there is no more room."
This valley was infamous in Hebrew culture, and had a long history if desecration due to its use in sacrificing children to the pagan God Molech.3 It was then further defiled when Josiah turned the valley into a refuse dump for the city of Jerusalem. This "dump" however, was not merely for trash, it was also used for the bodies of dead animals and executed criminals. To handle and consume all this "garbage", fires were constantly burning in the valley as well as maggots working in the filth, and at night wild dogs would howl and gnash their teeth as they fought over the refuse.4 The dead were, now, no longer permanently sentenced to Sheol, but instead were held there until their day of judgment arrived, and it was then that they met with their eternal sentence. It was these images from, Sheol, and the valley of Hinnom that later became the basis for the beliefs on the afterlife in the New Testament.
The New Testament beliefs on afterlife are strikingly similar to those
found in the Old Testament, and in fact are almost a parallel. In
New Testament theology, as in Old Testament, all those who die go to the
same place, however the place is no longer termed Sheol, but is
now termed Hades. Hades is a Greek identical to Sheol,
it is a temporary home of disembodied souls of the dead, not the place
of eternal punishment. Hades contains to separate areas, one for
the righteous, paradise, and one for the wicked, Tartarus. This belief
was clearly illustrated in Luke Chapter 16 through Christ's parable of
the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man pleads for Abraham to send
Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool him for he is in
agony from the flames. However Abraham responds by saying in verse
26 that "Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,
so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and
no one can cross from there to us.'" (Luke 16:26) Thus is shown the
imagery of a dual Hades, paradise and tartarus, each of which are separate
and mutually exclusive. This image however does not, as with Sheol,
display that of the eternal place of punishment or reward. Eternal
punishment comes after the day of judgment, at which point all in Hades
will be judged, the righteous will go to Heaven and the wicked, to Hell,
Click here to see a larger image of the afterlife.
In the New Testament Hell, or Gehenna: Greek for Valley of Hinnom, is the eternal place of punishment for the unrighteous, it will be occupied by those who are deserving of Gods wrath, from hypocrites, to murders, to those who failed to help the poor etc. Hell is the final place of bondage and isolation, a fiery furnace, a lake of fire,( (Revelations 19:20; 20:14-15; 21:8; 20:7) in which the the damned will pay retribution for all the harm they have done by not following the will of the Father. (Luke 12:48) However every punishment is not equal, those who know the will of God and do not follow it will be punished more severally than those who do not know the will of God. This concept was illustrated in the early 12th century by Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. In Dante's hell there are nine circles each denoting a different crime and different punishment, with traitors at the ninth circle receiving the greatest punishment. Thus Hell, in New Testament and modern belief, is the final punishment and retribution for all unrighteous.5
In conclusion it is each cultures belief of the afterlife that serves to define and refine each new culture. Our modern day concept of Heaven and Hell comes from the intertestamental separation of Sheol, the final judgment, and the valley of Hinnom, which began in the Old Testament with the initial belief in an afterlife known as Sheol. Without these initial foundations throughout history there could not be an accurate and refined depiction of afterlife. One belief builds upon another until they become almost one.