It’s the beginning of my senior year at Sarah Lawrence College, and I’ve resumed many responsibilities which I missed while abroad. My favorite activity is leading a new progressive Christian group on campus, “Rise.” Now, it’s helpful to know that my campus is the second least religious in the U.S., and the most LGBTQ+ friendly; so Christianity isn’t exactly popular. People come here with wounds from other “Christians,” being rejected by churches, being shut out because of who they are.
And then there’s me, the openly gay soon-to-be pastor; my atheist boyfriend comes to church with me when he’s here, and one of my mentors was a conservative evangelical. My denomination is on the brink of schism—possibly leaving me without funding for seminary, or without a Church to call home.
Nonetheless, I, like so many others, press on for the continuation of the good that we know God can do (when God isn’t bogged down/confined/defined by religious authorities and oppressive institutions).
Now, down to business!
I’ve begun hosting a weekly discussion called, “Tea-ology.” Every Thursday we sit around with tea and discuss theological issues. This week’s topic was Hell (a nice causal start). It must be admitted that the Church has used and abused the concept of Hell as an instrument of power, to exploit profit, and to control behavior. How did this idea of everlasting torment begin, and is it actually in our Bible?
Here’s a (very) brief overview: *Translation is a MAJOR problem*
-In the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) there is no concept of hell or heaven—everyone goes to the same place. In Hebrew שְׁאוֹל (sheol) means: “underworld.” (see Brown-Driver-Briggs) Jews were more concerned with living this life properly, so that their children, and children’s children would continue to have God’s blessing. If you see a passage (like Psalm 86:13) which says “Hell” in the King James Version, you know that they have chosen to translate Sheol improperly.
-In the New Testament Jesus refers to Hell 15 times. When Jesus says “Hell” he almost always uses the word: γεέννῃ (Gehenna), which is a Greek word used as, “the name of a valley or cavity near Jerusalem.” (see Strong’s Concordance) The valley of Hinnon was the city dump: it’s where garbage was disposed of. A constant fire burned to consume the garbage, dead bodies which were not claimed by relatives were thrown there, and the sound of animals gnashing their teeth as they fought for food was heard. Hell, Gehenna, was an actual place that the people of Jesus’ day would have been familiar with. “If one part of your body causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it into Gehenna. It’s better you do that then throw your whole body in there.” (Matthew 5:30 paraphrased)
In Summary: Hell is not an eternal place of damnation in the Old or New Testaments. This is not a heresy to say, in fact it’s orthodox. Jesus’s listeners would have heard his words and understood that Gehenna was an actual and disgusting place, somewhere really terrible. So when Jesus tells the religious leaders that it’s better to cut off a hand and throw it into Gehenna than to continue in sinfulness, they knew it was about this life and how they interacted with each other. Jesus challenges us today to reflect on how we interact with others, and essentially says that bad behavior belongs in the dump, not in the Kin-dom.
This leaves us with many questions, like if there’s no Hell what happens to people who “sin”? Or, if there’s no Hell, is there a Heaven? Stay tuned as we continue to speculate about this with the ancients!
*I must say that Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins,” has been a wonderful aid and inspiration for this series.*