Considering Hell

I have been meaning to write something about hell here for a while, with it being such a thorny issue and all, so when the subject came up on the Salem Gathering forum this afternoon I thought I’d cross post some of my thoughts back here. The conversation is still ongoing, so bear in mind this is just a partial picture, but here’s my initial contribution:

The problem with talking about hell is that we have too many preconceptions about it. Over the years we’ve seen so many renaissance paintings, and so many Hollywood fantasies, both horrific and humorous, that it is difficult to read what the Bible has to say about hell without overlaying it with all sorts of imported images from elsewhere.

For example, in the popular imagination hell is often envisaged as an underground lair with steaming lakes of lava, populated by red demons running around with pitchforks taking great glee in tormenting naked men and women with the most exquisite punishments. But virtually none of this is Biblical. Demons never have pitchforks. The Bible never depicts demons as in charge of hell, only as prisoners in it, awaiting final punishment. Satan is described as an angel of light, and as a multi-headed dragon, but never as a sexy thing in red leather or spandex. Hell itself is described variously as a bottomless pit, as a lava lake, and as a rubbish tip, but curiously, caves are never mentioned. The Bible does not present us with one image of hell, it presents us with several, but none of these are what popular culture has told us to expect. What becomes clear from a deeper reading of what Jesus and the prophets actually said is that they were being very poetic when invoking it, and we need to look deeper if we want to understand what it points to.

Nowhere is this problem more obvious than with the word “hell” itself. A forgotten truth here is that the word “hell” is one we Christians adopted from Germanic Pagans. In the original Greek, the apostles spoke of Hades and Tartarus, the lands of death and punishment drawn out of Pagan mythology. Before attacking hell as an abominable Christian construction what needs to be recognized is that much of what we find in the New Testament actually represents a dialogue with Pagan culture using terms drawn out of Pagan culture. Uncovering the real meaning requires us to uncover similar worldview bridges in contemporary terms.

A complicating factor here is perception of time. Buddhists and Hindus have there own hells, but with their cyclical view of time souls are never permanent residents in it. This strikes many contemporary westerners as a good thing. What those same westerners often fail to appreciate though is that Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of heaven are similarly impermanent. Because of this, these systems rapidly shift to judging all existence as hellish, as samsara and maya respectively. To be reincarnated is to be trapped in a living hell. Is this truly more liberated than the Christian view?

The deeper we explore different worldviews, the more obvious it becomes that many of them have hells of sorts, however differently they may be envisaged. What is the common factor? I would say it is the understanding that actions have consequences, either in this life or the next. Only nihilists say otherwise. What distinguishes Christianity, Islam and Judaism from Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism is that they see history in asymmetric terms rather than symmetric terms, that they see a direction and purpose to history and thus hold out the hope of eternal resolution rather than eternal return.

Worldviews that do not incorporate a hell or judgment day of one sort or another must account for how injustices sometimes never have consequences in this life, how rapists sometimes seem to get away with it, how the poor sometimes suffer for no apparent reason. Generally such worldview systems come up with one of two possible resolutions, either the person deserved their blessings or punishments in some way we are not aware of, or the universe is amoral and indifferent. Both of these ideas have their own consequences.

6 Comments

  1. I’m reminded of No Exit by Sartre “Hell is other people”. Of course this is just a comment on human nature, but nevertheless powerful. I think we as Christains should focus on “the Kingdom of God”, that reality of the church that is the antithesis of “Hell is other people”.
    Secondly Jesus used the words Gehenna for what we now translate as Hell. Gehenna was an area outside of Jerusalem were they burned the detestable idols of (Molech? I think) whom some idolaters were sacrificing children to. This is a helpful image.

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  2. I agree Isaiah, the Kingdom of God should be our focus. There are many problems associated with fixating on hell which is why I approach the subject cautiously. I suppose I am focussing here on people who get stuck on it; hopefuly this can help them find a way out of it.
    In reference to your second comment, I was alluding to Gehenna when mentioning the “rubbish tip”, which is what that site was by the time of Jesus. Personally I am not sure how “helpful” an image it is for the people I work with, it still requires much explaination, but it is worthwhile noting it as one image that is significantly different from popular ones.

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  3. True, the image of gehenna is not really ‘helpful’ for some people we work with but for the workers themselves it is good to understand the original image as opposed to the fire,brimstone,lava etc. image of hell that usually pops up.

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  4. You know personally the image that works best for me is the abyss, the bottomless pit. Endless darkness … loneliness … no warmth … falling. When I think of existence without life, purpose, meaning, life disconnected from LIFE, that is what seems to fit best for me.

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  5. You know, I should probably write a post on heaven some time soon too. Our images of heaven can be just as distorted. I know for myself, besides from TV and horror movies, I got a lot of what I knew from heavy metal album covers and lyrics. You know, AD/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast”. When confronted by a Christian that I could be going to hell, I said “Hell yes, that’s where all the good guitarists are at. Why would I want to be caught dead in heaven with all that flacky Christian music and harp playing!” If we are to address the topic seriously we need to get beyond such cultural baggage.

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  6. Hi Matt,
    Very good post. I wanted to comment on your statement re: Buddhism and samsara being the equivalent of being trapped in a living hell. While in one sense you’re correct because in Buddhism, in an ultimate sense we’re seeking enlightenment such that we can escape the Wheel of Rebirth. However, be careful as to what conclusions you draw from that as to whether that’s really a more liberating view than Christianity’s (I’m not here to argue whether it is or not, I just want to clarify a point you made).
    Even though such escape may be our ultimate goal, in the Mahayana tradition, that goal is actually not all that important. Rather, we seek to attain enlightenment (which can be defined as seeing our true nature and the true nature of all things) in order to continue coming back to serve all beings and help them achieve enlightenment.
    Joseph Campbell wrote that there are several different mythic systems, one of which he termed life-denying. These are the systems that seek to escape life to something greater beyond. Then there are mythic systems he termed life-affirming, which see life as perfect as it is. Theravada Buddhism is often an example of the former, and more like what you described in your post. Mahayana is a life-affirming mythic system. We see the world as already perfect as it is. Yes, we suffer, and Buddhism is about eliminating suffering. But yet, the world is still perfect as it is. Just to complete the story, Campbell places Christianity in a third category that is between life-affirming and life-denying. Clearly Christianity does not see the world as life-affirming, as the world is fallen. It’s also not life-denying, as you’re not trying to escape life.
    Back to my point, even though we see life as containing much suffering, we also see it as the golden lotus world of perfection. A good example of this is the author Thich Nhat Hanh. All of his writings contain this amazing, touching level of love of everything in this world. His writing so clearly conveys how he sees beauty in everything. AND! Just to show that stereotypes don’t always hold, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Theravada monk!
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post Matt!
    Mike

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