Liquid Footprints

Considering Hell

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Photo of Hinnom Valley: GehennaRecently I had an interesting Facebook discussion about hell and its existence. I find the idea of “eternal punishment” an oxymoron; punishment is synonymous with correction. One cannot be corrected if they are in eternity.  I firmly think most of the passages on hell deal more with the internal and external hell we experience when we wrong God and other people than an eternal destination.

I can hear some of you getting riled up already. No, I am not a universalist who doesn’t believe hell exists. Rather I believe hell is an eternal “cutting off” from God. Essentially it is the ultimate consequence of choosing not to love Him and other people.  Fire, brimstone and all that good stuff has nothing to do with it. Simply being shunned by God would be torment enough. After all, Jesus was anguished when it happened to Him (Mark 15:34). Not everyone will make it to heaven; some people are sadly beyond redemption. Such as Albert Fish.

However, most of Jesus’ teachings on hell ( Gehenna when He spoke of it) dealt more with the here and now than after death. Jesus taught morality and how to live as God would like us to live. He didn’t spend much time speaking about eternity. Most of the parables used to reference hell are couched in teachings about changing oneself now. Let’s take a common passage used to build up our 2000 years of developed hell.

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell [Gehenna], into the fire that shall never be quenched— where

‘Their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched.’

 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell [Gehenna], into the fire that shall never be quenched— where

‘Their worm does not die,
And the fire is not quenched.’

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire— where

‘Their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched.’

Mark 9:42-47 NKJ

I added the original Greek word “Gehenna” next to the word “hell” to give proper emphasis to the original meaning of the text. Gehenna, also called the Valley of Hinnom, was a trash dump outside Jerusalem where garbage was burned. It was also the site of child sacrifices (via fire) in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 7:31–32). Jesus was also quoting Isaiah 66:24 where the valley is full of dead bodies. The fire burned so hot people couldn’t put it out. All the trash kept the maggots fed, and it looked like they didn’t die. Generally it was an unpleasant place.

Also we need to define “kingdom of God” according to Jesus. When we read this phrase now, we think of heaven. Jesus defined the the kingdom as a spiritual seed that grows within us and as something His disciples would have seen in their own lifetimes ( Matt 13:1-23, Mark 9:1)

Now, let us consider what Jesus was saying.

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell [Gehenna], into the fire that shall never be quenched— where

‘Their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched.’

Life is used interchangeable with Kingdom of God in this passage.

Is He saying we should literally cut off our hand? Of course not! He is using this as an illustration about the nature of sin. Sin is as painful to cut out of our lives as it would be to cut off a hand. We have to change who we spend time with and what we do. He says this pain is better than the pain of sin’s consequence, which is as ugly as Gehenna.  When Jesus says “the fire that shall never be quenched” He wasn’t talking about eternal hell fire. He uses the verb “quenched” instead of “burns forever” for a reason. When we sin we often try to “quench” the pain and consequence of what we did. We try to put out the fires of our pain and fail to do so. Jesus is saying it is far less painful to avoid sinning in the first place, even if it costs us something as painful as sawing off our own hands.

The pain of sin doesn’t burn forever. He didn’t say that. He said the pain of sin cannot be quenched, or put out. We have to let it burn itself out just as Gehenna had to burn itself out.  And that pain lasts longer than even losing a hand, eye, or foot. Only by removing sin from our lives can the Kingdom of God grow within us (and the disciples He was speaking to).

This passage also doesn’t have anything to do with hell as we consider it because of the way Jesus ends it:

For everyone will be seasoned with fire,[g] and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.”

He is saying everyone will experience the fire of Gehenna at some point in their lives. That pain helps people grow, even if it is best avoided. Every sacrifice ( the hands, eyes, feet He spoke of), will also help a person grow closer to God. Only through sacrifice and experience can we be “salted” and water the Kingdom of God within us.

This is a far deeper and more meaningful lesson Jesus gave us than our simplistic surface reading of hell fire. It does us well to discard our preconceived ideas of what Scripture says and think deeply about what Jesus was really trying to say.

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Author: Chris

Wanders the world of Japanese culture and library nerdiness.

2 thoughts on “Considering Hell

  1. Interesting take. Very similar to Rob Bells “Love Wins.” I myself have been strugling with a lot of this as I too believe the hell we experience after dell is eternal seperation from God, however, my concern is that many also add that you have the option after death to choose Christ or Hell. No one in their right mind would choose Hell. Ive come recently to understand that God’s ways are not my ways and that I may never fully understand all He has and what all life-after-death will look like. All I know is what he has called me to do in there here and now and how my faith in Him will help me through the times of “Hell on earth” and those times I try am building a barrier between myself and Him due to my ignorance, arrogance, and selfishness.

    • I find how we live here and now more important than ultimately fruitless discussion of things we cannot understand. This bias colors the way I read the Bible, much to the frustration of my more literal Christian friends. I also study science, particularly quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is showing us that reality isn’t anywhere near what it appears to be. So it is very likely too that the afterlife is very, very different from anything we read or can comprehend. Debating about the existence of an eternal hell is rather silly considering this. Rather we should look at how we create hell on earth and work to fix that bad habit.

      As Christians we also have to be careful not to be too hard on ourselves. I spent most of my Christian life being far too hard and unforgiving with myself. Strangely enough it was Buddhism that taught me how to be a better, more loving Christian more than my hours of Bible study.

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