This article is based on a fascinating subject. It challenges the common notions of hell and addresses the source of associated with these terms which are the basis for misinterpretation.
We will invite a group discussion together once the final article on this subject has been published, and welcome you to the conversation.
Our mental image of Hell is pretty clear, relatively specific, generally agreed upon, and mostly wrong. All of these attributes of Hell are because there is a vast landscape of Christian thought that is covered over with horrifying thoughts about Hell. Most of this seared over territory is not Biblical, being a mental playground, the basic boundaries of which, were delineated by two Christian/political poets, Dante in 12th century Florence who had a beef with how his city-state was being abused especially by the Pope, and Milton of 17th century England who expressed the cultural atmosphere in that country when Puritan “Roundheads” generaled by Cromwell took over that nation and beheaded King Charles the first who was supported by Catholic aristocracy.
It was this pair, more than any others, who took specific images that actually are to be found in the Bible and imaginatively expanded them into the picture that millions of people see in their minds today, when Hell is used to threaten Christian believers. Certainly these two did not do every bit of the damage by themselves. Hundreds of visual artists and preachers certainly did their parts.
Hurt, frightened, angry animals roar threats and show gleaming teeth and rending claw to threaten their enemies, and we humans do the same. Among our many peculiarities is that our physical teeth and claws are not quite so scary, even to other humans as might be a wolf, or lion’s. So, for as long as we have been language using creatures our weapons of threat have been words. For as long as there have been Christians our preferred words of threat have been culled from the Bible.
So, what are these images found in the Bible, and what do they look like when not being magnified by those historical poetic lenses mentioned above?
There are at least four, two of these being expressions of the same undesirable two-part fate as seen by Hebrew speakers, one an imaginative expansion of one of the elements involved in those first two, and one a memory of a different tradition.
In the Hebrew testament, the word pit is sometimes used as the fate of the unrighteous dead, sometimes this is translated into English as Hell. The same idea is made more explicit in the New Testament by citing the actual wadi (narrow canyon) Gehenna, which for centuries served as the city dump for Jerusalem where all the trash got burned. Twenty years gone by, I, myself walked up to the lip of that long, zigzagging crack in the Earth, and could see, and smell, smoke still rising, for its use as a dump still persisted.
Originally the Hebrew people envisioned no afterlife, God had breathed life into clay, and when life departed from the clay that was it. A person was an animated puppet, which meant no animation – no person. What was left was an empty puppet that would be honored with entombment in memory of the honorable person that was. Counterwise, the dishonorable would be thrown into a pit in memory of the disgrace (sinner) they had shown themselves to be.
Also in those days after the Northern Kingdom which we remember as Israel was wiped out, and the Southern kingdom called Judea was reestablished, the Classical Greek image of the afterlife took root among some of the people and was called in Hebrew Sheol. Sheol was pictured, just like the Greek Hades, as an eternity of blah. A forever of bare awareness beyond the living world where stuff was happening, without strength or substance. Think about it, awareness without any power to do anything, effect anything, be stimulated by any new thing? Sheol also is translated into English as Hell.
During the four hundred or so years between when the last books of the Hebrew Testament were committed to papyrus or parchment and the New Testament begins a large fragment of Jews had evolved their views to include the possibility of a resurrection at the end of days. Jesus was accused by his opponents of believing this, and some of our Biblical stories confirm this. But even for these latter day Hebrews the person was an animated puppet, and the other direction for that equation still bore true.
For Jews, no puppet – no re-animation – no resurrected person. So the original threat that your community would not bury a disgraced member, merely throw the body in a pit was elaborated into thrown into the dump and burned so that no resurrection would be possible for the sinner because there was no dead puppet to re-animate.
The last book included in our “Canonical,” which means agreed upon by all Christians, Bible, written more than a hundred years after the execution of Jesus, a new twist was emphasized. The threat of being burned was pictured by the author of Revelation,” as being thrown into a lake of fire, and the agony of being burnt “Alive” would go on forever. This of course was not the first image of fire being used in Christian scripture. We might remember mentions of wilted flowers, and vines that bear no fruit being consigned to the fire in Jesus’ parables. A perfectly common agricultural practice, but the presence of these other such references lends this particular passage weight beyond its own poetical impact.
We all know that The Book of Revelation is a hundred-ninety proof strong dose of poetry, and many is the would be scholar who has been intoxicated by crawling into its pages and forgetting to climb back out. This unfortunate condition has led to the promulgation of many otherwise unsupported proclamations and attempts at doctrine.
It was this vision of “Eternal damnation,” in agony that gave Dante license for his nine descending circles of ever intensifying sadistic torture, along with our common cartoons of red-suited Sater figures with pitchforks overseeing forever agony among the flames of God’s unrelenting displeasure contributed to our folklore by Milton.
So yes, there are images in the Bible that get lumped together and spoken of as “Hell,” but these did not, originally mean the same thing, nor were they all actual threats of punishment for the deserving. But to have a context for these points to be understood more completely, there are a number of other often cited Biblical words that need to be explored, starting with what we call “Sin,” the Devil or “Satan,” Evil, as well as our Biblical portrait of God.
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