Gehenna! This is the word used by Jesus commonly translated in our english bibles to the word ‘hell’. In fact, it is a real place, the valley of Hinnom, or historically, a place where criminals were dumped after execution, where children’s bodies were left after sacrificing to Molech. It is also recorded by some historians as the rubbish heap of Jerusalem, where fires were always burning and stray wild animals would gnash their teeth and roam menacingly, scavenging off the dead bodies and garbage! So I guess this is where we will end up if we are stupid enough not to heed the warnings and resist the temptation to raise a hand at the next evangelical altar call!
Forgive me for a little tongue in cheek irreverence here, but really, what do we imagine is being talked about by Jesus here, and what has this done to the message of ‘good news’ purportedly spoken about by Christians all over the world. Frankly, I have always struggled with the idea of a God who would resign a beloved human being to an eternal torment and agony just because they were not impressed by the message at an evangelical rally. I remain equally bemused by a ‘heaven’ strewn with harp playing winged cherubs where all we do is sing worship songs all day. If they are as musically mediocre as much of what passes for creative worship in today’s churches, I am not sure I can stand it!
The thing is, I think we have perverted the heart of the message of Jesus, who, the bible says, came to save the whole world and whose modus operandi was based on love and acceptance, not fear and rejection. Do I believe in the concepts of heaven and hell? Absolutely. But, as with so much of the bible, it all comes down to how you interpret what you read. Simply substituting the word Gehenna for the concept of ‘hell’, is potentially missing the point of what Jesus was alluding to. Many believe he was actually referring to the judgement that would befall the city of Jerusalem and the Jews that became a reality in the devastation of AD70. I think it extends beyond this historical meaning, and takes on a metaphorical significance alongside a similar interpretation of the concept of ‘heaven’.
I don’t believe that either heaven or hell are actual places, but much more significantly, they represent our standing with God and depict a state of being. Jesus, after all, actually encouraged his disciples to pray for heaven to be brought down to earth, implying the well-being, justice, love and peace could be a ‘state of existence’ here on earth. Likewise, many of us have tasted what it might be to live in a ‘hell on earth’ when things fall apart, relationships crash and our world caves in. Those who do not subscribe to a faith in Jesus would not ascribe either of these alternatives as having anything to do with a relationship with God. But Jesus certainly came to draw people into a whole new way of living that involves denying self for the sake of loving others that few would deny brings its own unique rewards.
My biggest problem with the way that ‘hell’ has been interpreted amongst those who profess faith in Jesus is the underlying message of fear and exclusion. Even amongst those who do not openly preach a fire and brimstone message, the implication that not responding to the evangelical message means eternal suffering and torment is far removed from the way Jesus is seen to deal with those around him. What he offers, most strenuously, is reconciliation, love, peace and joy from the positive impact of knowing a loving, caring God. This God who did not just send his message but became his message in a move that brought ‘heaven’ down to earth and gave us all hope for a better world and a better future from which no one is ultimately excluded. Let’s face it, the scripture tells us he overcame death. I can only assume that means this no longer limits anyone from enjoying what he came to give to all mankind and that life continues beyond the realm of this world. That life can be graced by heaven or plagued by hell before or after the temporal divide. I realize this is controversial, but I believe that my relationship with God is a journey embraced through love and acceptance and not limited to a one off decision made before we die.