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.
I wanted to have more time to give thought to what, for me, has been the most interesting topic yet. Confession, forgiveness, love, and all that jazz: they have emotions attached to them. Hell? Now that’s just pain fascinating on so many different levels, and is wonderfully objective.
So let me begin with this: aside from the fact that I don’t believe in God or Jesus, I can’t find any fault in any of your argument. Even if God and Jesus are metaphors, this is a very apt interpretation, and a very invigorating one.
I have a few aspects of this that I want to explore, but only have time for one. I’m going to begin with the one that makes me look the most daft because it is just very straightforward. When I looked up St Augustine and hell (I mean, got to start somewhere, right?) the first thing that popped up was Sting’s song ‘St Augustine in Hell’. And I just sat there and laughed, because there is one of our answers right there: we need a cultural hell. We need a reference to the abyss, and – after all – we already know that the bible was created in response to a pressing sociocultural need for control and order. What better than a supernatural threat?
And that got me wondering what it is about past and present societies that demand the existence of a hell. Why should that need be there? What is it about the human condition that has to have such an extreme dichotomy of darkness and light? I’m tempted to look at Medieval societies, where hell was always a form of extreme control. It was held over people as a tangible threat in order to persuade them into behavioural patterns, and was also used as a machine of Capitalism. I mean, people could actually hope to buy their way out of hell by donating their assets to the Church rather than to their dependents. Nobody, it would seem, stopped to think about any theological anomalies this might have caused.
Turns out Augustine is often credited with ‘creating’ our contemporary conception of hell. It existed long before him, but the contemporary notions that we associate with it – judgement, misery, eternal retribution, inevitability (for most of us!) – can largely be traced to him. Augustine had daddy issues, mom issues, faith issues, was almost certainly a narcissist and by current classification would probably also be clinically psychopathic. He was strongly anti-social, and would probably have been given multiple ASBOs if he were alive today. Yet he shaped contemporary theology in a profound way, including basic assumptions about matters such as love, faith, and damnation. I read a fascinating article that explained that:
“St Augustine was a powerful intellect with a deeply damaged view of God’s love. To him [Augustine], punishment was a primary part of being” (http://tinyurl.com/jzjbjqd)
This ‘punishment’ had a lot more to do with the practical realities of Agustine’s personal life than with any kind of supernatural weirdness.
It’s a frightening thought that so many of us are sitting here trying to tie together notions of unconditional love with eternal punishment, and that the reason for that may be that so much of Christianity has been shaped by academics such as Augustine who flew off on a tangent and told us all what is ‘true’. I am a huge fan of Augustine: his words are beautiful, honest, challenging. Yet I am now left pondering, once again, the very fabric of ontology. Was ‘hell’ simply created by a guy who couldn’t face the reality around him? More thoughts to come, I should think…
Thanks for this – I was looking forward to your response and was not disappointed – wonderful stuff on Augustine that I was definitely not aware of and fascinating to boot!
This is probably the aspect of Christianity that is most troubling to me. There’s no way to explain hell (as is traditionally understood) without undercutting God in my mind. After many debates about free will v. predestination, it seems both are unsatisfactory. If some of us are predestined to end up in hell because we “reject’ God, then that’s arbitrary eternal punishment and makes God out to be a bit of a sadist. But if we have free will to choose God, that seems silly given how uneven the playing field is. When you take into account genes, upbringing, environment, influences, experiences, and impulses, how can it possibly be fair (just) to judge people based on their choices?
The concepts of heaven (all good) and hell (all bad) are also untenable in my mind. Both sides of a coin must exist for the coin to exist. In a world where nothing bad ever happens, we would lose touch with what makes good “good” and what makes bad “bad.” It’s a simplistic explanation, but the ideas just don’t make sense to me.
Explaining heaven and hell as concepts, and not places, as you have done, seems fine. If heaven is a place where love, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and trust are the norm, and hell is where hate, shame, revenge, anger, and jealousy rule, then it seems we can think of heaven as a place we aim to end up at and do our best to get there.
Thanks Jo, well put. I share your concern about the traditional views on heaven and hell. I truly believe they are metaphorical just like so many pictures used in the bible. Taking one of Jesus’ most well known statements about bringing heaven to earth certainly seems to indicate the same. My conjecture in this piece is somewhat along the lines you are suggesting, that we live in a world that is a mixture of both heaven and hell, and what Jesus came to do was encourage us to make the journey into all that the concept of heaven has to offer.
An interesting topic and one better discussed over some of your great coffee! 🙂 I am of similar persuasion in regard to the “traditional” depictions of heaven and hell. I mean, what hope is there for me in a heaven surrounded by people playing their harps … I cannot carry a tune even should you put a handle on it! 🙂 I do believe that the mission of Jesus on earth was to draw all men (and women) to himself; however, I also believe God gave us all the gift (or curse, depending upon one’s viewpoint) of the freedom to choose. I am of the opinion that those who reject the Son will not see eternal life (eternity under the grace and mercy of God), rather the wrath of God will remain on them (John 3:36). That is a sobering prospect … the thought of an eternity outside of the love, grace and mercy of God! Jesus certainly did not want this ultimate destiny for anyone, after all, he came to bring the antidote for the condemnation that was upon all men (John 3:17,18). Having said all that, I also believe that God is able to grant grace and mercy to any and all in accordance with his own counsel. But, would he likely go against the message of John 3? H-m-m-m … I am much in need of a visit to BG!
Thanks for the feedback Tim, yes the coffee would be great and a good chat around this subject. I agree with everything you are saying, my conjecture and thought provoking idea is around the cut off that is supposedly imposed by death. The premise for my post here is the thought that God continues to pursue us with love for eternity and as there seems to be a clear defeat of death in what Jesus did, we are no longer limited by this cut off. Obviously we don’t know exactly what this might look like, but it just sits so much more with my overall understanding of God that this relationship he offers will always be open to us but he never forces or manipulates our acquiescence, just has it on offer at all times.