“If God is presented as one who actually tortures those who do not like him, we have a God who does not 'practice what he preaches!’" - Richard Rohr
At Christ Church we like to say that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion or simply save us for the life beyond but came to show us how to be human here and now.
Much of what we think of hell is informed by Dante’s Inferno - which was written during the Renaissance, reclaiming classical Greek and Latin philosophy, informed by a recent Latin translation of the Holy Quran, and, essentially, a political manifesto against Dante’s enemies!
The Christian tradition is birthed out of the Jewish faith with all sorts of influence from other Ancient Near Eastern stories, religion and myth as well as so-called classical Greek and Latin culture.
In the Bible, there is no uniform concept of “Hell.” When Jesus spoke about it (which he did 11 times in the New Testament) he was referring to a literal garbage dump on the edge of the old city of Jerusalem known as Gehenna - or The Valley of Hinnom. It was a notorious place because, at various times throughout the city’s history, it was actually a place where people sacrificed their children to various alternative deities like Molech/Moloch.
There are a few primary words that have been poorly translated into “Hell,” including:
Sheol: shadowy underworld
The Old Testament refers to “Sheol,” a shadowy type of underworld where the dead dwell (Job 3:17–19; Ps. 6:4–5; 88:3–6; Isa. 5:14; 14:9). Sheol does not divide the good from the bad or the wicked from the righteous (Eccles. 9:2–6, 10). - Sharon Baker, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught About God's Wrath and Judgment
Look how Sheol has been poorly translated in just two passages in various Bible versions:
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.
King James Version
The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me.
Hell’s ropes cinched me tight;
death traps barred every exit.
But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
But Jacob said, "My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow."
King James Version
And he said, My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he is left alone: if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.
But Jacob refused. “My son will not go down with you. His brother is dead and he is all I have left. If something bad happens to him on the road, you’ll put my gray, sorrowing head in the grave.”
Gehenna: hot garbage
“Gehenna was an actual place that Jesus’s listeners would have been familiar with. So the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, “Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere . . .” - Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
“It was a fire that burned forever, where the worm did not die and where people went to throw their trash, grimacing from the stench, gritting their teeth in revulsion, never venturing too close for fear of falling into the abhorrent abyss. In times of war, decaying human flesh mingled with the rotting garbage—imagine the vile vision. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, his hearers would think of the valley of rotting, worm-infested garbage, where the fire always burned, smoke always lingered, and if the wind blew just right, a smell that sickened the senses wafted in the air. The word “Gehenna” called to mind total horror and disgust.“ - Sharon Baker, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught About God's Wrath and Judgment
Gehenna is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament:
Jesus: (speaking about the opposite of life in the kingdom)
- Matthew 5:22: "....whoever shall say, "You fool," shall be guilty enough to go into Gehenna."
- Matthew 5:29: "....it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna."
- Matthew 5:30: "....better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into Gehenna."
- Matthew 10:28: "....rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna."
- Matthew 18:9: "It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than with two eyes to be thrown into the Gehenna."
- Matthew 23:15: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you... make one proselyte...twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves."
- Matthew 23:33, to the Pharisees: "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you to escape the sentence of Gehenna?"
- Mark 9:43: "It is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into Gehenna into the unquenchable fire."
- Mark 9:45: "It is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into Gehenna."
- Mark 9:47: "It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into Gehenna."
- Luke 12:5: "....fear the One who, after He has killed has authority to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, fear Him."
Mentioned once not by Jesus:
James 3:6: "And the tongue is a fire,...and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by Gehenna.”
Hades: a greek God or a Greek place of torment?
“These elaborate legends were supposed to explain why and how Rome had become so adept at empire-building.” - Jon Sweeney
10 or 11 uses of the word Greek word ᾅδης in the Bible
לא־תעזב נפשׁי לשׁאול - Psalm 16:10 (Hebrew Scriptures)
οὐκ ἐγκαταλείψεις τὴν ψυχήν μου εἰς ᾅδου - Acts 2:27 (Greek Scriptures)
Which translates into English: “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol / Hades”
- Matt. 11:23: you will not be lifted up to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades.
- Matt. 16:18: I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
- Luke 10:15: you will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades.
- Luke 16:23: And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment,
- Acts 2:27: you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor will you allow your
- Acts 2:31: soul was not left in Hades, neither did his flesh see decay
- Rev. 1:18: ages to come; and I have the keys of death and of Hades.
- Rev. 6:8: His name was Death, and Hades was following along with him;
- Rev. 20:13: and death and Hades gave back the dead that were in them,
- Rev. 20:14: And death and Hades were thrown into the Lake of Fire.
Is Hell a real place?
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. - CS Lewis, The Great Divorce
Yes! and No! and Maybe so?
We really have no idea. There’s something about the ancient Jewish wisdom tradition that acknowledges that we all return to the earth - which is why when we set out on the Lenten journey every year, we remember our mortality on Ash Wednesday by saying “from dust we were gathered and to dust we shall return.” Myth and story matter - they inform how we live in the world and root us in an ethic of love and life for God, neighbors and ourself.
How will we be about repairing the world for love, light and justice? How will we live our one, beautiful life?
Because some people live in fierce hells. Hells of addiction, despair, poverty, abuse, mental health, and self-inflicted wounds. People live in hellacious conditions - in urban slums much like “Gehenna” or locked in basements as slaves or worse.
The question we might consider wrestling with is not so much where do we go when we die, but how will we loose the bonds of hell for others as we seek the life that is truly life?
Go deeper: resources for further study
- The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
- Inventing Hell: Dante, The Bible and Eternal Torment by Jon Sweeney
- Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgement
- Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell
- The Love Wins Companion: A Study Guide For Those Who Want To Go Deeper edited by David Vanderveen
If you want to listen to Sharon Baker talk about her book, check these out:
Homebrewed Christianity has some great stuff!
Jon Sweeney in Huffington Post: Hell is A Myth - Actually, a Bunch of Myths!