The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.
Is There A Hell?
Copyright © 2018 Dorian Scott Cole
Some say there is no Hell. Others say that's a lie and they can prove it, holding up their Bibles and pointing to passages. What are the implications of thinking Hell is where people are headed? Some government officials have taken to saying there is a special place in Hell for people who disagree with them. Interesting the godlike qualities some government officials have assumed - something like ancient Roman leaders who were considered gods.
Hell is immediate and transitory, and a place we assign ourselves, not where others assign us. In this I look at what Jesus meant when he mentioned Hell, and the repercussions of our assigning people there.
Is There A Hell?
My wife likes to remind me that she can make my life heaven, or she can make it a living hell. The choice is mine. I believe!
I don't think there is any time that I feel worse than when I've done something wrong and my wife is upset. Or a family member, or someone in the community. I care what people think, but what they think doesn't determine my decisions. But having wronged someone, that's different. That I really regret, and if possible want fixed.
I grew up in a United Methodist Church that would alternate pastors who preached love or preached hellfire and brimstone. It was uncomfortable. Later I was in Baptist Churches where this really gets real. I finally realized that the prospect of hell didn't motivate me, left these churches behind, and went on a quest for truth. This article isn't about my quest.
There are many who are adamant that Hell is a very real destination for a lot of people. They have Biblical proof. Yes, Jesus did talk about Hell. He talked about love much more (I found through researching Matthew), so we should be careful of the results we get with different emphasis.
Our images of Hell begin with Biblical images spoken by Jesus where he tells us that, according to which Greek word or description is used, Hell is like the grave, like being thrown into the trash and burned, like a lake of fire, or like being cast into outer darkness.
Dante decided that Jesus' verbal images weren't enough, so he painted a very imaginative depiction of hell in his book, Dante's Inferno, in which he describes the nine circles of hell, descending into worse punishments depending on the severity of the crime (in his judgment).
If you weren't a Christian, but were honorable, you resided in the first circle, a gray place of limbo from which you might be rescued by refining fire. This coincides with Greek ideas of the underworld, and soon became the Catholic idea of Purgatory, from which others could pray your release or you could be purified. This idea flowered in the Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries and is still part of Catholic doctrine, citing things like events in the two Biblical Books of Maccabees (which are generally not in Protestant Bibles).
Dante had no tribulation about passing judgment and assigned many historical figures to various rings of Hell. His Second circle was "Lust," followed by gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery. Dante himself will have to answer to God about not judging others. He may find himself in ring 10, but that isn't for me to say since I'm probably teetering on the edge of multiple rings.
Dante seems to forget about the idea of forgiveness. All Christians are or can be forgiven for sin. Those sins are forgotten by God as if they have never happened. So what are they being judged for?
I enjoy those people who look at what others do and firmly believe they are going straight to hell, not even pass The Judgment to collect $100.00. These are interesting notions. Somehow people can follow Christ in every way, but if they do one thing that others are convinced are sin, boom, God Almighty just sends you to Hell on a bolt of lightening. This is love! This is the way we treat our children isn't it?
The Egyptians and Hindus had this belief that in the afterlife our good and bad deeds are weighed on a balance, and depending on which side was heavier, that determined where we went.
What did the Jews think? There was no formal theology of an afterlife. Like in most cultures of that time, there was the grave and Sheol, a shadowy underworld. Spirits of great leaders might return, or a person might be "in the spirit of," but for the average work-a-day citizen and priest, you got the grave-Sheol. By Jesus' time there were a lot of Hellenistic and Greek notions infiltrating theology, and the Pharisees thought there might be a gray place in the underworld where souls went, and it got divided between people who deserved punishment and those who were just the undead dead. Something like the Greek Hades, but without the oarsman, or Persephone, or Asphedolus.
The Jews also had a different notion about sin. In the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), and in the Christian New Testament, the Hebrew and Greek words translated sin had the meaning, "missing the mark," which is an archery reference. They felt that breaking the 613 Commandments, if they regarded God, or if they didn't know they were committing a sin, wasn't such a big deal, and forgiveness could wait until the annual Day of Atonement.
If you missed the mark regarding how you treated others, it was a very big deal. What you had to do then was to go and make amends with that person. Jesus spoke to this in Matthew 5: 21-24 (NIV): "“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca [statement of contempt],’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.""
In the Apostle Paul's views - he remained an extremist thinker all of his life - everyone is guilty of missing the mark and is worthy of death. Paul makes a salient point, but is this reality, or "reductio ad absurdum," which means taking a point to such an extreme that it's ridiculous and without practical meaning. Paul's point is that none of us are without blemish, and that we can't be. And he also made the point that the law only condemns us and can't save us.
As the Jews inferred in "missing the mark," we are all human and can't hit the target accurately every time. Is this the slight that condemns us? Condemning and punishment have been central to our ideas of judgment. There have been law codes created down through the ages, from ancient Sumer in 2050 BCE, which was very compassionate toward men and women, to King Hammurabi's list of 282 laws (1754 BCE) (not so equal), and the Jewish "Eye For Eye" which was displaced by love.
When Draco wrote the first Greek law code in 622 BCE, it listed a few crimes and had a uniform system of punishment for them: Death. Steal something, you die. From it we get the word Draconian. They made him amend it so it was less draconian. (No, it doesn't come from Dracula, even though Vlad Dracula horribly killed a lot of people by impaling them on stakes.)
People have been very prescriptive in how they intend for people to be punished. In Hof, in 15th. Century Germany, Executioner Franz Schmidt was given a lot of responsibilities. He was required to torture criminals until they confessed, doctor them so their broken fingers healed, then he had to act as priest and help them confess to God. At this point many of the criminals had befriended him. The community leaders then passed sentence on how they were to die, depending on the crime, which Franz would then carry out. Some would have their limbs snapped with a large wheel. Some strangled, hung, burned alive, or any combination of these. Then Franz would dump the body into a wooden trough for people to steal bones from for medicine, or for the birds and animals to eat. This place of disgrace was their final resting place.
While the "wages of sin is death," is this a man made concept from ancient ideas, or a god made concept? God sent Jesus to substitute himself on the cross in our place. Had God wanted us all to die, he could have just waited for our first sin and then sent fire and brimstone. We kind of think this is not what God wants. John 1:19 (NIV) "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." 2 Peter 3:9 (NIV) "The Lord is not slow about keeping His promise as some people think. He is waiting for you. The Lord does not want any person to be punished forever. He wants all people to be sorry for their sins and turn from them."
I study people, particularly about attitude. People are always a mystery in how they work and what they become. Do some people make choices that take them on a path toward evil? What should happen to a Hitler? Is this all a learning experience? Difficult questions. I don't have a pat answer. I lean more toward forgiveness and learning. From the time of Adam to today, we miss the mark, we learn, we do better.
The cynic thinks that we don't learn and that people don't change. People just keep doing bad things until you punish them, then they might change. In my experience people change slowly. Once in a while you see a rapid change, but mostly it takes place over a period of many years during which experience is integrated into the person's personality. I once asked a person who was an admitted liar why he stopped. He said he got tired of the pain from it.
The cynic, like Draco, prescribes death. Criminals made themselves and get what they deserve. Others prescribe experience and love, knowing that many people will change, given some time.
I also study ideas about justice, so I talk in-depth about law. What is required by people for justice to be served? What is the purpose of incarceration? punishment, correction, prevention, retraining? Another chance, erase history ...? My conclusion? There is no real justice. Justice in the US is mostly about punishing crime, as if that fixes anything. Real justice is about restoring people to a place they are whole. That is an entirely different story than catching criminals and locking them up.
Incarceration can be valuable in preventing repeat offenses and in sparking change by making people come face to face with where they are headed.
Some pose the question, should Hitler have gone to Hell? To what end? Could he ever receive enough punishment for what he did? And if he did receive a commensurate amount, what purpose would it serve? Would it restore the families he destroyed or bring the dead back to life? International courts have sought justice through restoration and recompense for those affected by Hitler's crimes to humanity. Many have been restored.
We live in an unjust world where we set people up for failure. We see them born into in pockets of poverty, areas fertile for crime, firmly in the grasp of despair for a better future. We're irate about the people there and let them stew in it until they fail, and then we prescribe punishment. It changes nothing. We could change these areas if we wanted, slowly over years, turn people into productive and self-supportive people. In the hardness of our hears, we prefer to just watch them turn against each other and the world. Would we treat our children this way? Fixing things like this is social justice. It restores. It makes whole. It's the kind of thing the prophets of Israel spoke.
Punitive, restorative - two very different actions with two very different outcomes. One creates a never healing sore in both parties over an injury done by one. Restorative heals and restores both parties, making them both whole.
So when I look at man's punitive prescription for missing the mark, I see a much more negative outcome. When I look at Jesus' prescription for missing the mark: love and forgiveness, I see a much more positive type of outcome.
I think the ideas that Jesus referred to of the grave (Sheol), the place of trash (Gehenna, a place in Jerusalem where trash was burned and unclaimed dead were buried), a place where the dead wait (Hades), the lake of fire and outer darkness where those who have refused God go, Jesus was generally talking about the consequences of sin in people's lives, the more immediate effect on your conscience, that just like the Kingdom of God is here and now. Missing the mark transforms people into self haters, giving them feelings of having offended making them unworthy, feelings of separation and isolation. It destroys relationships. It can become a downward spiral. This is what offending others does for you. You become that kind of person through your actions. Jesus said to make amends with others before you talk to God.
There is an unforgivable sin, if you want to go there. It is never allowing the Spirit of God into your life. How can God forgive you or accept you if you neither ask nor recognize that God is there? This is self imposed eternal separation from God, outer darkness, where people put themselves. All other things can be forgiven. (The Pope and many others realize that many are driven away from God by the people in the church, and this punishment doesn't apply to them.)
Is there a place of eternal punishment? You kind of have to go out of your way to get there. What purpose would it serve. I can't feel good about my fellow humans being there. Maybe it would be best for the Hitlers if they didn't exist, and that would be justice. I want to give opportunity to others to be transformed through love into better people, and potentially have them restore others from the harm they have done them. It can make strong relationships.
Be careful what you wish for others. Should we be like Dante and focus on bringing misery to others? The Apostle Paul advised in Corinthians 10 that all things are permissible, we aren't under the Jewish Law, but not to set our hearts on evil things. In many ways we may get what our hearts want ... for others. Matthew 7:2-5 (NIV) "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye ...." Which one of us is perfect?