Last week, I said that certain Gospel messages take everything Jesus did and turn it into a “Get out of jail free” card. By which I mean that, for some people, being a Christian is less about following in the footsteps of their rabbi than it is getting saved. Saved from what you might ask? Why, Hell, of course. There’s only one problem with that: Western Christianity’s concept of Hell doesn’t appear in the Bible.
Wait a minute, you say, what about all those times Jesus talked about “hell” and “unquenchable fire” and all that other stuff? That, beloved, stems from a mistranslation. I’ve heard (and read) a couple of different accounts about where this mix up might have occurred; one says Wycliffe was the first, while another takes it back to St. Jerome and the Vulgate Bible. Honestly, beyond this history geek’s curiosity, the when doesn’t matter since we have much earlier manuscripts to work with, ones written in their original language. These manuscripts show that the word most often translated as hell was actually gehenna. That doesn’t refer to a lake of fire where the spirits of those who rejected God are cast for all eternity, it’s talking about a real place right here on earth.
Gehenna is an Aramaic transcription of the Hebrew phrase Ge Hinnom, which translates as “Valley of Hinnom”, which was basically Jerusalem’s trash dump. Some accounts of the place say it was filled with stench of garbage and the smoke of burning trash. Add to that Gehenna’s reputation as the place where the Canaanites sacrificed children to their various gods (most notably Molech) and you can see why Jesus used it as a metaphor for a place of destruction. Other words have suffered the same fate as gehenna, such as Sheol (Hebrew, meaning grave) and Hades and Tartarus (Greek words depicting the underworld). Now, before you get your knickers in a twist, I’m not rejecting the idea of hell, just the current depiction of it.
I believe hell exists, I just think it takes different forms than we’re used to thinking about. As I said, for a first century person listening to Jesus, being cast into Gehenna would’ve been seen as a dreadful punishment and we see parallels of that every day. For progressive Christian, listening to a John Hagee sermon is about hellish as it gets. I also heard a story that developers are building condos in Gehenna. If that’s true, it could only add to Gehenna’s awful reputation, because condo (and apartment) living is about as close to hell as I ever want to get.
So, what do I really think about hell? I kind of like the Eastern Orthodox conception, where heaven and hell are being in God’s presence and it is both punishment and paradise, depending on your spiritual state. I like this for a couple of reasons, 1) because God is always there and 2) if it’s punishment, we make it so. Yeah, I’m deep like that.
Of course, I haven’t even touched on the idea that hell is eternal torment, that once you’re there, you can never leave. That’s a can of worms all its own; one I’ll get into tomorrow.