Formation: What the hell?
Hell is a controversial subject, and with good reason. There is something troubling about holding to the idea that God is love, but that God’s own laws of justice require you to be tortured forever if you don’t respond positively to God’s love. In this version of Christianity, God sounds like an abuser rather than the God of loving kindness and forgiveness that we see embodied in the story of Jesus.
But what’s the alternative? Does that mean that it doesn’t matter what we do? Does it mean that there are no consequences for the violent terrorist or the abusive husband, or the maniacal dictator. Does it mean that Hitler gets a free pass? What do we do with ideas of judgement, hell and love and reconciliation? How does this all come together and what do the sacred texts of the Christian tradition offer us in the conversation?
As we noted in the first session of this series, the language of new heavens and earth used by the prophets is generally related to the transformation of this world when God puts things right. The kingdom of heaven is how we describe reality when God’s presence and God’s way of being are seen, embraced, experienced, lived out. Further, in the Old Testament there was a lot of ambiguity about what happens when people die. They descend into sheol – the shadowy abode of the dead – but there was hope that perhaps God would rescue us from sheol or overcome the grave in some kind of mysterious way in the future.
So by the time we get to the first century - the time of Jesus - there is a hope that perhaps when new heavens and new earth arrive, there will also be a renewal of humankind; a resurrection. For the New Testament writers, Jesus was inviting us into a life that embraces the kingdom of heaven here and now (“your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”) and his rising from the dead symbolised the idea that even sheol – the grave - had been overcome. The hope of early Christianity was that this life doesn’t just end here, but that the life of God, the way of God, the kingdom of God that we experience a taste of here and now, will extend into the future and we will get to be a part of it in resurrection life.
At the same time as this vision is unfolding, it is also happening in a context of language about a contrast to the kingdom of heaven; words that are translated into English as ‘hell’ (although that can be problematic because we read our own definitions back into the text, just like we do with the word ‘heaven’).
It is helpful to think about the language of hell as contrast to the kingdom of heaven, because the first thing it should highlight to us is that we’re talking about an existential reality i.e. a state of being in the world. Language that is used to describe what life is like when the presence and way of God in the world is notseen, known, or experienced. When we see violence and hatred and envy and abuse and oppression, we are seeing the manifestation of hell – the contrast to the kingdom of heaven – unfolding in people’s lives. So what are the kinds of words translated from the Greek New Testament manuscripts into the English word “hell” and what might they suggest to us.
In the New Testament Hades is usually used as the Greek equivalent of Sheol, and by the first century it is also being used as a symbol for a kingdom, or as a personification of the forces of death at work in the world. This is the term used when Jesus says that “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell [hades] will not prevail against it.” This shows us the direction of God’s work in the world. The idea is that even the strongest forces of death and violence cannot resist the incoming grace and love of God that has come into the world through Jesus (and the followers of Jesus).
We can see Paul use similar language, (although at no point in any of Paul’s letters – which are the earliest Christian texts we have – does Paul use any terms translated as “hell”) e.g. In Colossians, Paul talks about how God has rescued us from the ‘domain of darkness’ and brought into the kingdom of the Son he loves (i.e. two contrasting kingdoms).
Hades is also used by some to refer to underworld/post death reality (similar to sheol). In 1 Peter talks about Jesus descending into Hades and preaching the good news of the kingdom of God there - so in the early church a common belief was that Jesus died and descended into Hades, rescued the dead, destroyed the gates and took the keys. At the end of the Book of Revelation, Hades is destroyed by being thrown into a lake of fire.
Gehenna is the term translated as ‘hell’ that is most often used by Jesus and it is the name given to the Valley of Hinnom. This valley was a physical place and was apparently the place of child sacrifice to the ancient gods Molech and Ba’al. There is a suggestion that by the 1st century Gehenna was a place of tombs and corpses, as well as there being some suggestion it was a place where rubbish was continually burned and so on.
There were two ways that Gehenna was used in the 1st century. For some 1st century Jewish rabbis it functioned as a symbol for where the wicked might be sent for a period of purification or destruction. But Jesus appears to use it in the tradition of the ancient prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah protests against those who use their power to oppress and abuse the powerless - some of whom sacrifice their children to Molech in Gehenna - and he says that if they continue in this kind of way, they will themselves end up in something like Gehenna… that’s where this all leads i.e. that’s what happens when you follow the way of violent gods like Molech. And this is what happens - Jerusalem is destroyed and burned – and so Jeremiah employs the symbol of Gehenna to refer to the coming destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of foreign armies and empires.
So it is most likely that Jesus is using Gehenna to refer to the coming destruction of Jerusalem if they do not change their course of action. And indeed, in AD 70 this is what happens => Jerusalem is destroyed by the Roman empire, and the 1st century Jewish scholar Josephus records that at the fall of Jerusalem dead bodies were cast into the Valley of Hinnom. Gehenna is about the self-destructive consequences, the destructive wake of dehumanising behaviour in the here and now.
And so Jesus uses Gehenna in the way of Jeremiah, and also in ways that suggest the idea of ‘kingdom’. For example he refers to the religious leaders as “sons of gehenna” – in a way similar to Hades, this invokes the idea of two contrasting kingdoms (rather than an eternal destination post-death). The epistle of James also uses the word Gehenna to say that your tongue can be set on fire by “hell”. The big question in the New Testament is ‘are you participating in the coming of the kingdom of heaven to earth, or are you participating in the coming of Gehenna/Hades?’
If we were to ask the question, “who is that wants to burn humans in Gehenna?” the answer is Molech, not the Christian God.
Having said all of that, there is language for judgement throughout the scripture. The important thing to note at this point is that this is not what Jesus is talking about when he talks about Gehenna and Hades – the two terms that he uses that we translate as hell.
One of the reasons that the authors of scripture do still point toward judgement and consequence, is the idea that what we do matters. The idea of ‘salvation’ that comes through Jesus is not just about a magical prayer that sneaks you into heaven. It is supposed to be about this idea that it’s a commitment to say “I want to follow the way of being in the world that I see in Jesus, I want to participate in ways of love, compassion, forgiveness, and inclusion and that means I don’t want to participate in ways of being that are filled with hatred and violence and empire”. So the Christian scriptures speculate about what happens if people don’t turn away from that stuff, what if they don’t choose to stop embracing the way of hell? Can that kind of violence, hatred and oppression find its way into the new heavens and new earth?
In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus concludes with a judgement on those who have not cared for the least of these, saying that “…they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” It is helpful to note here, however, that the word “eternal” in the original Greek is aiōnios – a word that doesn’t have a direct English alternative but is related to the word aeon which usually means “an age” of indeterminate duration or a particular ‘state’ of being. Further, the Greek word kolasis, used by Matthew for punishment in Matthew 25, is a word for corrective discipline, remedial or restorative justice (rather than retributive punishment, for which there are other Greek words available).
All of this suggests that even in this text, the emphasis is on our behaviour toward other humans here and now, and that the consequence is some kind of restoration work by God that lasts an undetermined length of time.
It seems the case that the New Testament is ultimately a bit ambiguous on some of these issues. Whenever we deal with ideas of life after death, we are always in the realm of speculation. The reason this conversation matters though, is because our view of God shapes how we live in the world. What are the implications of our view of God? If God is a God who tortures people forever for not getting their religious choices correct, then God is a monster, God is Molech and I have no interest in following that kind of God. That kind of God can be used to justify violence and war and oppression. That kind of God sets us up for tribalism. Instead, Jesus asks us to forgive, and when we say ‘how many times?’ he says ‘again and again.’ So does God do the same?
Do we hold God to a lower ethical bar than we hold each other?
What we can confidently affirm that the scriptures are saying to us is:
- Hell is real as a present reality. To follow Jesus means to become the kind of person who wants to embrace a way of being in the world that brings heaven and earth together and who will seek to rescue people from hell on earth (whether that hell be caused through their own actions, or the actions of others that dehumanise and destroy).
- Whatever the future holds, it must be shaped by a God who is love and who demonstrates that this love reaches even into the depths of Hades. Ultimately Revelation tells us that the gates of the new heavens and earth will never be shut. The hope of all Christians should be that God would ultimately reconcile all things in heaven and earth, in Christ. This what the New Testament authors looked for and hoped for.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.