Hell Part 2: Lake of Fire and Brimstone

Lava Lake (Erta Ale)

Back when I first was invited to join T&S I started doing a series on Hell in the Book of Mormon. This is the long delayed follow up. Last time I discussed the three broad categories of how hell has been viewed theologically. This time I want to start focusing on the metaphors and typology used to deal with hell in the Book of Mormon with a particular focus on the “lake of fire and brimstone.”[1]

Among several purported anachronisms in the Book of Mormon is the frequent phrase “lake of fire and brimstone” (2 Ne 9:16, 28:23; Jac 3:11, 6:10, Mos 3:27, Alma 12:17, 14:14) The problem is that this phrase doesn’t appear in the Old Testament but only the book of Revelation. (Rev 19:20; 20:10; 21:8)[2] The usual scholarly view is that the idea of resurrection and punishment after death is a post-exilic development due to heavy Persian influence on Judaism. While Mormon apologists have had several responses, a common one is to appeal to Egyptian influences on pre-exilic Judaism. While Egyptian influences are noted by non-Mormons, it tends to be an older position from the early 20th century which fell out of fashion in preference to Babylonian and Persian influences during and after the exile along with Greek influences after Alexander conquers Palestine.

Typically the earliest view of Judaism is seen as either people just facing permanent sleep when they die or else going to Sheol which is dark, dank and depressing. It is not really a punishment and involves no fire or brimstone. Rather it’s usually seen as closer to the Canaanite view although the Ugarit texts tend to only focus on gods journeys rather than human ones. So the Book of Mormon view seems surprising.

There are some parallels between the Book of Mormon and the neighboring Canaanite view. In the Baal cycle Baal enters hell by being consumed by Mot, the god of the underworld. Mot is portrayed as thus both the ruler of hell and hell itself. Mot’s the devourer and wants to consume human beings. Mot really isn’t a fallen evil creature the way the devil is but there are some parallels. Much like Greek myths, the underworld involves crossing a river of judgment by way of a ferry. After dying Baal is resurrected and then triumphs in battle with Mot representing the triumph of life and fertility (especially with crops) over death – paralleling the seasons.

In the Book of Mormon we find Nephi quoting Isaiah 5:14 which has a similar motif. “Hell hath enlarged herself and opened her mouth without measure” (2 Ne 15:14) Scholars frequently see this as a reworking of Canaanite myth. Jacob then uses this imagery of Mot as hell in 2 Nephi 9. “O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.” Now Jacob is explicitly being metaphoric here but it’s interesting how the metaphor partakes of these earlier traditions.

I’d mentioned earlier that Sheol was often viewed just as a sleep. Lehi makes use of that imagery as well in 2 Nephi 1. “O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, even from the sleep of hell.” Now he does use some other imagery of political capture – the idea of chains as well. That is the captivity of Egypt, Assyria (for the north) and Babylon are types of hell.

We’ll talk more about that in a subsequent post. For now though I want to start focus on the fire motif. Gehenna is the common New Testament image for hell. Tradition is that this was the small valley outside of Jerusalem where human sacrifice, particularly of children, was practiced. (See Jer 7:31; 19:2-6) The burning of human sacrifices then became a type for hell starting sometime around the rise of the rabbinical era. This usage is often see as arising out of the prophesied destruction of Assyrian army in Isaiah 30:33 in the “burning place.” While this is seen as akin to burning wood, the verse also mentioned “the breath of the Lord like a stream of brimstone doth kindle it.” The end of Isaiah[3] talks about judgment “by fire and by his sword” where Israel is restored and the dead who transgressed against God are described as “their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched.”

Now of course in uncontroversially pre-exilic writings there are plenty of fire metaphors. Burning is a frequent image both due to burnt offerings, God’s glory as burning paralleling Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, but also burning as judgment in war. We’ll get to this image of war and captivity for hell later, as I mentioned. The bigger issue is volcanic imagery.

Much of the Old Testament fire imagery that isn’t due to war or sacrifice typically is seen as lightning.[4] There are some exceptions like Isaiah 24 but that interestingly isn’t in the Book of Mormon even if many date it to before the exile. Isaiah 24 is significant since it makes extensive use of pit imagery. There are earthquakes and people fleeing “shall fall into the pit; and he that cometh up out of the midst of the pit shall be taken in the snare.” (18) This transpires as “the inhabitants of the earth are burned…” (6) This may be an influence to Nephi even if we don’t have a direction connection. However we should also note that many see this as the destruction of Babylon by Cyrus and a post-exlic text.[5] Portions of the broader text are usually seen as post exilic due to discussions of resurrection (Is 25:8; 26:19).

This highlights a certain circularity in the arguments. If resurrection and more robust conceptions of hell are seen as post-exilic that means any text referencing them quickly gets labeled as post-exilic. We should note that we don’t have actual pre-exilic texts. The only texts are dated quite late – typically to the Roman period. Reconstructing origins in somewhat speculative and largely tied to self-reinforcing models. A different models leads one to radically read the texts differently often thereby ascribing different dates to them.

What I want to bring up though is the proximity of a rather large volcano that actually can explain at least some of Nephi’s uses. We often distinguish between the southern Kingdom which included Jerusalem and the northern Kingdom which had been conquered by the time of Lehi. What most people don’t realize though is that there is a huge volcano field extremely close to Jerusalem. How close? Syria’s Al Safa is not much farther from Jerusalem than Utah’s main volcano, Pavant Butte is from Salt Lake City. (120 miles vs. 145 miles) Further it’s been continuously active including a rare lava lake visible to humans without special clothing in the 19th century. The overall volcanic field is huge stretching from current day Jordan to Saudi Arabia. In the map below the main volcano is marked but you can see smaller cones and well as the large field extending to the south east.

Now I want to be careful here. I’m not saying this is the source of fire imagery in the New Testament. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that volcanoes were common and well known. So even if Revelation’s imagery comes later from other volcanoes around Turkey or Italy, there’s no reason why Nephi couldn’t have come upon this metaphor himself. Especially if he were already well travelled. There’s also well known Egyptian use of fire associated with the dead. I’ll discuss that next week.

[1] Brimstone is just the word people used for sulfur smells often associated with volcanic activity. An example is the rotten egg smell you pick up at say the hot springs beside the Diamond Fork road to the east of Provo in Utah.

[2] To be fair the phrase “brimstone and fire” is found in Gen 19:24 relative to Sodom and Gomorrah. However it’s the lake part we want to focus on.

[3] Isaiah 66 is usually seen as the writing of a post-exlic prophet designated as trito-Isaiah. Interestingly he’s not quoted in the Book of Mormon.

[4] Yahweh was typically seen as a thunder god bringing lightning bolts somewhat like you see Thor doing. Sometimes this is obscured in translations like the KJV.

[5] It’s also quite possible that the text started out as about Jerusalem and then was reworked at a later time.

8 comments for “Hell Part 2: Lake of Fire and Brimstone

  1. Clark Goble, you are a gentleman and a scholar, and I very much appreciated the enhanced understanding I received from this OP.

  2. Wow. That was a very intense analysis of the text. I read this three times, and I think I understand it. Nephi’s description of hell as a “lake of fire and brimstone” is textually anachronistic because the idea of hell as a punishment was not really a strong theme in the Old Testament (all their prophesied punishment was more immediate than that, during this life). But Nephi may have drawn his imagery from a big volcano near Jerusalem. That explains the imagery, but where did Nephi get the idea that hell is a punishment rather than a sleep? I would say that idea came from his visions when he was taught by God and angels. But I look forward to a future post when you explain how Nephi developed that concept too.

  3. I tend to think there were many strains of Judaism prior to the exile. With Josiah’s reforms the priests and deuteronomists tried to centralize everything to Jerusalem even as they attempted to strip out false teachings. But much as what happened in the post-NT era this meant that true doctrines were lost. So I strongly suspect although I can’t prove that a lot more was known by an inner circle prior to the exile. That was then lost and evolution happens more or less as many say.

    That said we should also be careful as many Book of Mormon teachings such as about Christ are new revelations to Nephi and clearly not something he or Lehi knew about. So there’s a heavy evolution going on as they try to understand these new revelations. I also think it’s quite plausible that Lehis roots are in the northern kingdom (as his lineage indicates) and thus represents a different theological tradition. He also has strong Egyptian ties and may reflect one of the more Egyptian forms of Judaism such as at Elephanti. How much Egyptian metaphors, poetry, names and other influences are in the Book of Mormon is still debates. So it’s a place people can rationally disagree.

  4. Great stuff here Clark. Not having much of substance to add, I’ll just note that 2 Nephi 9 is Jacob’s sermon.

  5. Clark,

    Do you think it’s a stretch to consider the idea that Nephi’s usage of some of the same metaphors and motifs that are found in the Book of Revelation might be due to the fact that he saw the same vision as John the Beloved?

  6. I think the issue isn’t the imagery in the vision but the way they are expressed or described. So some of that is possible but then what pre-existing beliefs and rhetorical background enables him to talk the way he does. We can easily describe even new objects in a say a movie or a documentary because of our pre-existing linguistic background. Part of what I was getting at is that vulcanism was very much a live a local thing for people in Israel. 140 miles to a huge stereotypical volcano can’t be neglected. I think most people don’t even realize there is a volcano that close to Jerusalem.

    Beyond that the way the translation was done clearly borrows or quotes Revelation. My ultimate aim is to just note that whatever the underlying text was, it’s completely plausible for Nephi to have a language of vulcanism of various sorts.

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