I have pointed out earlier in this blog and now in my recent commentary (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible) that many Graeco-Roman pagans also believed in postmortem punishment in the afterlife. You might not be aware, however, that they actually believed they had discovered some of the entrance portals to Hell, Hades, and the underworld where one encountered smoky streams and lakes of fire and sulfur. Think of the science fiction TV series Stargate SG-1, but imagine a portal that does not transport you to another region of the universe, but into the underworld where the dead reside. Or, perhaps better known to those of us more familiar with earlier science fiction culture, think of Jules Verne’s 19th century work Journey to the Center of the Earth. This view about entrance points into the underworld was generally accepted in antiquity and even Jesus spoke of gates into the afterlife/underworld (Matt. 16:18). In Graeco-Roman mythology this type of site was called a Plutonium, named after the pagan deity of the underworld, Pluto, a.k.a. Hades.
It has been known for a long time that one such imagined portal into the underworld was located in the city of Hierapolis, not far from the city of Laodicea mentioned in Rev. 3:14-22. Paul’s letter to the church of Colossae (4:13-15) also mentions Hierapolis and Laodicea as all three of these were located in the Lycus Valley, about 100 miles east of Ephesus. Recently Italian archaeologists have extended their excavations at the site of the Plutonium in Hierapolis and even created some digital views of what it might have looked like.
Both friend and foe of the biblical message have acknowledged that the writers of Scripture often used the common language of the day to communicate Christian doctrine, values, and ideas to the surrounding culture. This is clearly the case regarding ideas about the afterlife, at least at times. 2 Peter 2:4, for example, contains the Greek verb ταρταρόω, tartaroō which means “to cast into Tartarus.” Tartarus is defined in the best lexicon for the Greek NT as a location, “thought of by the Greeks as a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was meted out,” and was also viewed this way by the Jewish author Philo and also in “Israelite apocalyptic” literature (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, eds. Walter Bauer & F. W. Danker). It is no surprise that the archaeological museum at Hierapolis contains a clear example of the Greek deity Hades.
So if and when you make your way to Hierapolis, Turkey try to get your guide to show you the remains of the Plutonium. If and when you make your way into the Gospels or the book of Revelation, keep two points in mind. First, Jesus and his earliest followers certainly felt compelled to announce the painful consequences of rejecting God and his ways. Secondly, when apostolic authors did announce this, they did it in a way that was intelligible to their audiences by using the vernacular to communicate their theology.