H E double hockey sticks

I was recently asked to contribute to a podcast for Love for All Ministries, a group of young Christians dedicated to honest, intellectual dialogue with non-believers of all walks and creeds. The topic for the discussion when I was on was “Hell”. I haven’t talked much about hell on this blog so far, so I thought I’d point to this podcast.*  I didn’t want to bring in too many of my own unique and esoteric beliefs on the topic – although I would have brought in more if I had had time – but I was primarily interested in problematizing the typical fundamentalist/evangelical view of hell.

My primary goal in discussing this topic was to emphasize something that Travis, the show’s main host, brought up on his own: the majority understanding of hell is not easily demonstrated in Scripture. The main biblical sources that fanned the flame (so to speak) of the medieval imagination on the topic of hell are all highly figurative (more on this in another post, perhaps). But even the word “hell” is nowhere near as clear-cut as modern Christians think it is: for one thing, there is no single word for “hell” in the Bible. We have the obscure and poorly understood sheol in the Old Testament, translated as Hades in the New Testament, which in the OT was the place both the righteous and unrighteous slept after death; we have Peter using (of angels) a verb that means “imprison in Tartarus”, another word originally tied to Greek mythology; one more word that has played into the current understanding of hell is the NT word Gehenna.

Translated in English usually as “hell” in the NT is the word γέεννα ‘Gehenna’, the Greek name for the Valley of Hinnom (originally Valley of Ben Hinnom) outside the city of Jerusalem described in 2 Kings 23.10, 2 Chron 28.3, and 33.6 as a place wherein human sacrifices were offered to Molech. This ignominious purpose and the valley’s eventual usage as a constantly-burning trash and refuse heap for the city of Jerusalem naturally came to be associated not just with wickedness but with judgment on the wicked. Jeremiah in chapter 19 predicts this as the site of judgment on Jerusalem:

In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. I will devastate this city and make it an object of scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives. [Jer 19.7-9]

Jesus’ reminder that what he’s referring to is that place “where the fire does not go out” in Mark 9.43 may be taken as an indicator that he was not just using a popular metaphor for the fate of the wicked when he talked about Gehenna, the ever-burning trash and refuse heap outside Jerusalem. Rather, it was a specific reference to the judgment mentioned in Jeremiah: Jesus was predicting another identical judgment – the same judgment described in Matthew 24 concerning the destruction of the temple. The Jewish nation was going to be judged — and it was, in the events leading up to and culminating in the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. What’s absolutely fascinating is that the Jewish historian Josephus who witnessed this Jewish-Roman war described exactly these events happening during the siege, right down to a mother boiling her child for food during the siege and corpses of those who died in the siege being stacked high in the Valley of Hinnom.

In all the places Gehenna is mentioned (Mat 5.22, 29, 30; 10.28; 18.9; 23.15, 33; Mark 9.43, 45, 47; Lk 12.5; Ja 3.6), none of them even imply that those who go there are conscious of eternal flames. It’s the fires that don’t burn out, a common expression describing the perpetual trash and refuse incinerator that was the Valley of Hinnom. In fact, Mat 10.28 even implies the annihilation of those who enter there: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy [Gk. ἀπόλλυμι] both soul and body in hell.” The Greek word apollumi refers to destruction, not torture. This passage, I think, gives insight as to the origin of Gehenna as metaphor for eternal destruction: the Hebrew concept of the afterlife assumed the physical body as necessary for any afterlife, so burning the body was (inaccurately) thought of as destroying one’s chance for the afterlife. Jesus told his disciples that, although their body may be killed by those who persecute them, they would still have hope for an afterlife (the Resurrection), but that the same could not be said of those whose entire existence God would extinguish as judgment; the very clear implication is that the ones who would suffer that fate would be the persecutors he is warning the disciples not to fear.

If there’s enough interest, maybe I’ll work through the other NT references to hell and parse them out. At very least I should tell my understanding of the fate of the unregenerate. In the meantime, Google “conditional immortality“.


*  I didn’t realize how nervous I was on the podcast.  In the flurry of the moment, I made a couple goofy errors I wanted to correct here for the record.

1) I said that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus was of the same theme as the parable earlier in Luke chapter 16.  The parable that opens chapter 16 is not directly related.  What I was actually referring to was the Prodigal Son that closes out chapter 15, which shares some important thematic material.

2) As an example of the bizarre images in Revelation, I mentioned a harlot riding a dragon.  As soon I listened to the podcast I realized that was wrong: a woman flees from a dragon (Rev 12) and the harlot rides a beast (Rev 17).

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