Have you ever sat in a single moment and thought about eternity? What did that look like for you? Maybe you imagine reincarnation. Maybe you think that there’s nothing after death. Maybe you think those who do wrong will suffer and those who do good will be in eternal bliss. Maybe you believe in an eternal state of being: Nirvana. No matter what your belief is, I invite you to read this to have a different perspective of a common Christian topic- Hell. Like some previous posts, I’d like to ask that no matter how hard this is to read, please press through. There is room at the table for everyone.
To start off, let’s look at the Bible.
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars- they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
To many, this sounds like a really good idea. The people who do the worst seem to get this ultimate punishment- eternal fire. Why would this be in the Bible? What does this have to do with Jesus? How is God relevant in this?
I want to take a moment to reflect on the words of Brian Zahnd: “What is the book of Revelation? It’s a prophetic critique of the Roman Empire. Read as such, it’s highly apropos for American Christians”. What does that have to do with us in the modern day and why is this so confusing? Shouldn’t the Bible be taken literally and as is? Well, you could take it that way, but you would be losing what the value of the scripture is. The book of Revelation was a critique as Brian stated, and the idea of the early church was that Jesus was coming back soon to take down the oppressive Roman government. He was peaceful during his life, but when he returns he will be a judge and warrior.
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. “Yes,” they replied. He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matthew 13:47-52)
This one seems pretty obvious. God is going to separate those who are good and those who are bad. The good ones go to Heaven and the bad ones go to Hell. That’s a great way to read it at face value, but it’s much deeper than that. Let’s look at history. It’s 30AD and you’re a Jew living in Israel. You’re a human, so naturally, you have trash. What do you do with that trash? In that time, cities were surrounded by walls to keep good things in and harmful things out. This means trash among other things. Trash would pile up outside of the wall and naturally attract animals such as lions and dogs. Unused food waste naturally attracts animals.
There’s something a little bit deeper here. These attractive spots for hostile animals were also places where authorities judged and tried criminals. At the darkest time of night, they would be lowered by rope into the trash where the lions and dogs roamed in search of food. If the person in the trial was found alive, they were usually insane and their teeth would be ground to almost nothing from the torture. Imagine such weeping in the darkness where a person gnashes their teeth to a stub. Jesus was talking about a physical place, not a metaphysical place.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting those who are alone, and doing all of this without anything in return are the heartbeat of this story. Imagine what it must have been like hearing Jesus proclaim that there is a need that the religious society is neglecting. That’s what this is. I often see the religious as the ones who are being turned away and the ones who had no idea they were following God becoming accepted. It reminds me of something I once heard Rob Bell say. He said “Jesus wanted to critique his religion. He would probably be horrified that people started a religion in his name.” It makes me really look at the way Jesus approached the Jewish tradition. He was Jewish in practice and in his ethnicity, but he went about it in a very different way. Critique and a call to justice- that’s what this is all about.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.” (Mark 9:43)
I’ve heard it preached before that this verse approves of self-mutilation in order to stay away from lust. The intent is so the person doesn’t masturbate and go to hell. It’s quite alarming with what fundamentalism can stir up and how far it can drift into dangerous waters. Why would Jesus say such a thing if it shouldn’t be taken literally? Jesus spoke in ways that made people think. In this verse, it seems that Jesus is stating that it’s better to go through life without giving into your desires instead of suffering for doing the wrong things and living with that torment forever.
I’d like to shift the focus on this a bit and define “Hell” according to the original languages that the Bible was written in. Hell in Hebrew is Sheol, which can be found in the Old Testament. Hell in Greek can be found in the New Testament as three words: Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna. Sheol means “the grave” or “the abode of the dead”. Hades later replaced the word Sheol in the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures: the Septuagint. Hades still refers to death and the grave. Tartarus was adopted into the language of the Jews by Hellenization. That’s why the New Testament is written in Greek. Hellenization infused language and theological concepts form the Greek Pagans. Tartarus is a deep abyss that the wicked are judged in. In Greek Mythology, Tartarus is bellow Hades and is where Zeus imprisoned the Titans. Gehenna is another Greek adaptation of a Hebrew word. Gehenna was an actual place where some of the kings in Judea would sacrifice their sons to the Pagan god Molech. It was a place where firstborn sons were thrown into a fire.
So, Hell in a physical sense is a grave. Hell in the times of the greco-romans was where Gods are overthrown to suffer under the best God- a theme that is very evident in the Bible. This is all starting to sound like Hell was carbon copied from Greek Paganism after the Hellenization of the Jews. It’s quite ironic how so many Christians laugh that the Greeks thought the things that they did in their theology, yet it’s a heavy influence in the western thoughts of Christianity. There’s irony in the fact that the very culture that Christians want to manifest has a lot more Rome and a lot less Israel. Do you see the irony?
I had a friend who told me this, “I believe some people (along with myself) are doomed to suffer their whole lives simply because our minds won’t allow us to rationalize the agony that is being alive. In other words, I think enlightenment (and or entrance to heaven depending on what you believe) isn’t permitted to everyone. Some people are born to live in anguish with no hope of relief. There are people damned to hell from the day of their birth.” I admire him for saying this, and honestly, I agree. From all of this deconstructing on Hell, it seems that hell is simply death and the grave. Sometimes we feel dead inside and that’s honestly okay. Depression, anxiety, and other mental struggles are normal. I deal with depression and anxiety. I’ve had the most anxiety deconstructing my faith and the most depression from the way the church that I’ve been at for 4 years has handled it. I’ve felt dead inside.
The reason why I started this whole website was to help me have an outlet for the ideas I was struggling with and give me a way to continue learning and writing about the things that I had learned. Out of this, I’ve talked to people around the world who struggle with faith just like I do and who are tired of what church has become. Unfortunately, we all have experienced hell. We have all been unjustly trailed as we wept and gnashed our teeth. We have all felt horrible from not doing the right thing and taking care of others. We have all experienced oppressive forces over us like the Romans were to the Jews. We have all been excluded. We have all been through what the Bible has shown us is hell: feeling dead inside. This is a global problem.
One of the biggest issues that have happened is taking such a mystical book of wisdom stories and taking it literally. At the heart of it, how are we taking this book and as Jesus said how is this helping us “bring heaven to earth”? People are so often trapt in Hell, and it’s our responsibility to love them and help them out. If you’re a Christian, there’s a weight and responsibility to love endlessly. If the Book of Revelation is correct, Jesus took the keys of death and the grave in order for us to experience the Kindgom of Heaven. It’s our responsibility to bring heaven to earth and to participate with Christ as those who liberate the oppressed and hopeless- the dead.
The Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven are about liberation, love, and enlightenment. There’s a call to love, accept, and to care. There’s a call to repent of our faulted systems, speak up for the ones who are broken, and watch as dead bones rise from the dead in the midst of this Hell that we have on earth. We are called to be partakers of shalom: God’s peace. Christ is restoring and recovering all of existence into a place of peace- that shalom I mentioned. The biggest question that we can ask ourselve is this: “what am I doing to bring peace?”.