Images of Hell
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “you that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…And these will go away into eternal punishment. Matthew 25:41,46
I grew up with the image of hell as a hot place where bad people went and were tortured for eternity. Eternity meant forever, and there was no hope of escape or redemption for those so condemned – ever. Perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about hell was the ambiguity about what would send one there. Certainly, bad actions would do it – but how bad? If you hurt someone but didn’t kill them, would you still go to hell? Did thoughts count against you? What if you were sorry and promised never to act poorly again? Could you tell lies? If so, how many? Although there are some images and descriptions in the Bible about eternal punishments, the conclusions we draw are more in line with Dante’s descriptions of hell than anything the biblical authors cited, certainly not when we consider the Bible as a whole, which is all about redemption. In his 14th Century work, The Divine Comedy, Italian writer Dante Alighieri described the nine circles of hell, with the devil held in bondage at the center. Sinners were assigned a level based on the severity of their sin, and the eternal punishments grew worse the closer one got to the center.
Interestingly, hell is not mentioned in the Old Testament, at least not by name. In the New Testament, it is a minor theme at best. The most references to hell are in Matthew (7), with three in Mark (all in one passage), and one in Luke. The books of James and 2 Peter have a single mention each. None of Paul’s letters refer to hell, nor does John.
In Matthew 25, Jesus provides an image of sinners being sent into “the eternal fire” and mentions it as “eternal punishment.” In context, Jesus is referring to those who mistreat the less fortunate, saying that what we do or don’t do for them, we also do or don’t do to him.
In Matthew 23:33, Jesus says, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” His remarks are directed at the scribes and Pharisees, religious leaders whom he accused of greed, hypocrisy, and misleading the people under the guise of piety.
In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In context, Jesus is warning his disciples whom to fear. In the verses that follow, he assures them their Father loves, cares for, and attends to each of them.
Mark describes hell as the place where the “worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:48). In this grotesque teaching, Jesus tells his followers that it is better to cut off a hand or foot that causes them to sin than to have their whole body thrown into hell. James’ reference to hell (3:6) has to do with the firestorm of emotions our words can cause. The reference in 2 Peter (2:4) speaks about fallen angels being sent to hell until a future judgment. That’s pretty much it for hell in the New Testament.
The word translated as hell refers to a place known as Gehenna. It was a small valley outside of Jerusalem that was used as a trash dump. Legend says that the fires there never stopped burning. This imagery reminds me of the city dump in the town where my grandparents lived. There were always fires going there, too, transforming much of the trash to smoke and ash. It was great fun to poke through the stuff that others had thrown out. It was a place of intrigue, but I did not equate it with eternal damnation. Rather, it was where what was no longer wanted or useful was left to be burned or buried. It was a place of decomposition, which is the prerequisite for recomposition or recreation – a place of rebirth. It was what recycling looked like years ago.
It is interesting that the city dump was what Jesus chose as an image of the consequence for less-than-stellar living. It seems to me that if he were referring to a post-death destination, he might have used the more familiar Old Testament term Sheol (not mentioned at all in the New Testament) or the Greek Hades (referenced twice each in Matthew and Luke). One would hope that a place of such eternal consequence might warrant a more comprehensive treatment.
More next week.
This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at email@example.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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