There are lots of conservative and fundamentalist Christians who believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour, you’re going to go to hell.
I respectfully disagree. There are other ways of thinking and talking about Christian faith than this way which is based on fear. This point of view assumes that the primary purpose of Christian faith is to determine where you end up after you die. Many fundamentalist Christians conceive of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment — in other words a punishment that never ends and never stops and you are always conscious of the pain and suffering being inflicted on you.
I don’t believe that is so. As I’ve said many times before in these columns, Christian faith is NOT about the afterlife. It’s about our present life, how we live here and now.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that hell is not a Biblical concept at all. Neither the Old nor the New Testament mention hell as a place of eternal punishment. It is found in the writings of early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Plato, for example, discusses the concept of ‘hell’ in his dialogue “Gorgias”, where he speaks of eternal punishment. The early church in Rome embraced this concept in the early years of the history of the church, when it was fighting for its life.
So let’s explore the concept a little bit.
The Bible never uses the word “hell” understood in that way. The Bible uses four different words which are all translated by this same word in English.
The Old Testament uses the word “Sheol”. It is a nebulous, ethereal realm, but most importantly, it is a neutral place that was thought to lie beneath the surface of the earth. That makes sense when we remember that the ancients thought of the earth as a flat plain covered by the dome of the sky. Sheol was simply the grave or the pit where the dead rested or slept.
The New Testament uses three different words for this concept.
The first word is “tartarus”, which only occurs once in 2 Peter 2:4 to describe a place of darkness where the rebellious angels were chained and reserved for judgment. No eternal punishment there; it was a ‘holding cell’, if you will.
“Hades” is used 11 times as the direct equivalent of sheol. It is the Greek word to describe the grave or pit. Greek mythology thought of Hades as the underworld or “the place for departed spirits”, but that is not the New Testament understanding of this word.
The most commonly used word is “Gehenna”. It is used 12 times, all but one of them in the gospels. Gehenna takes its name from a valley located just outside Jerusalem called the valley of Hinnom. During Jesus’s time on earth, this valley was used as the city dump. A fire was constantly kept alight there to burn up and consume all of the city’s unwanted rubbish.
On a literal level, Gehenna was a place of cleansing and purification. All the unwanted garbage was consumed as a way of keeping the city cleaner.
So often, however, the gospels use this image and many others as metaphors. Like the image of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle, Jesus uses hyperbole to make his point. For Jesus, Gehenna becomes a teaching tool to help motivate people to do right in this life. Jesus uses it as a metaphorical ‘stick’. In the same way as the garbage fire kept the city clean, so God would use metaphorical fire to clean up our lives.
It’s important to remember, however, that the gospels only use “Gehenna” 11 times. Jesus rarely spoke about the ‘stick’ and spent far more time offering the ‘carrot’. Jesus describes the kingdom of God in much more positive ways to describe the blessings of living in godly ways on earth that demonstrate that we are citizens of God’s beloved community and realm.
Jesus never tries to guilt us or beat us into the kingdom of God through fear. It is always an invitation, a gracious welcoming into a new way of living with compassion and grace and love.
As a result, I don’t follow Jesus in order to go to heaven when I die. Conversely, I don’t follow Jesus to avoid going to hell. That’s much too small a vision. It’s a cheap form of faith that is really nothing more than eternal fire insurance.
Do I believe in hell? Certainly. But I suspect that the only hells that exist are the ones that we create and allow to exist. Too often, we make “hell on earth.”
But that’s not the gospel. The gospel is that we are invited to follow Jesus here and now so that we might experience wholeness and grace, compassion and peace, goodness and love. These are the gifts given to us as we give ourselves away in love for the service of all people and all creature.
I believe that we are called to live as the people God created us to be here and now. This is what the gospel of John calls “abundant or eternal life”. For me, that’s the whole purpose and raison d’être of being a Christian.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook