So it cannot be avoided…The scripture this week (Mark 9:36-50) has Jesus saying the word that is translated as “Hell” three times, and ends with a rather graphic description of a place of fire and worms that don’t die. I have to tell you, I would so rather focus on the other parts of this passage, but this is an 800 pound gorilla that is in need of some attention.
Let’s start with some words. First, Sheol—the Hebrew word for going back to the earth. Fact is, if you look to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), you quickly discover that there is no talk of heaven and hell—at least not as we would understand it. The word used is Sheol and it essentially means going back to the dirt—from dust you came, to dust you shall return.
Now the Greek—Gehenna—which is the word that is used by Jesus in this passage. This is a place name, but it is not of another ethereal plane of eternal torment, torture, fire, etc. NOPE! It is the valley just South of Jerusalem—The Valley of Hinnom. So what gives? Why is Jesus talking about this place? For the last 1500 years or so, the assumption was that this was a symbolic reference to the last judgement (Another not completely Biblical concept) taking place outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Notice I didn’t say since the time of Christ. Yep, that’s right. This was not a thing when Jesus was saying what he says in this passage. What usually comes to mind when we talk about the word “Hell” has much more to do with Zoroastrianism, Norse religion (where we actually get the word Hell—she was a deity in the Norse Pantheon), Summarian Religion, Babylonian beliefs and Egyptian beliefs. Those things were then aided by some wildly imaginative “christian” writers like Dante and John Milton. One can only surmise that their motivation was to scare people into belief/church.
So if it is the case that Jesus is not referring to eternal torture in this passage, to what was he referring? Well, at that time in history, the Valley of Hinnom was essentially a garbage dump. It was literally a place where trash from the city was burned to ash. They kept fires going, and what didn’t burn was heaped into piles for the worms to digest—thus the graphic ending to this passage! This also happens to be a place where those who were considered unclean or who were outcasts tended to gather. Think about it—if you didn’t have the ability to access any of the resources of the city you live in, and didn’t have the means to travel somewhere else, but had to live on the fringes, where might you go to glean the scraps? Gehenna. When Jesus uses the word, he is talking about the place where outcasts are. He is talking about separation. He is talking about the people that society would cast aside and try to forget. In the context of the larger story of this passage, he is warning the disciples about their own behavior that is cutting people off from community—more on that in the sermon on Sunday.
So what do we take from all this? First—the idea of a Good and Loving God setting aside a plane of eternal torment is ludicrous! It isn’t biblical, it isn’t good theology, it isn’t a part of the good news of Jesus Christ. What is ironic and heartbreaking is the very people who claim to be biblical literalists are often the ones that hold most tightly to this completely nonbiblical concept. Sigh…
Second, this is not to say that the reality to which Jesus speaks—Hell—is not real. It does not look anything like the descriptions of Dante or Milton though. But that is part of why Hell is so insidious. We have been fooled for so long into thinking that this is about eternal punishment that we don’t see the literal Hells that exist around us all the time. We look past the person that is in the deep pit of depression—this is often referred to in the Hebrew Bible as Sheol—a very Biblical concept! We look past the person that has been shunned by family or community for their sexuality—ironically thinking that the “law” has cut them off, when in all actuality it is us who have put them there. We look past the poorest in our own city who live in the Gehenna of Albuquerque, because there is something in the back of our mind that assumes they must deserve their lot in life. We look past the survivors of abuse because their abuser couldn’t possibly have done the thing of which they are accused. We look past the person who is not like us, doesn’t speak our language, doesn’t go to our church or believe in the God we think we believe in, doesn’t have the same values, doesn’t (fill in the blank)…
Hell doesn’t exist because God desires a place for eternal punishment. Hell exists because we do…We are the ones who create the Valley of Hinnom in our midst, and most of the time it is in the name of what we know to be sad excuses. We, like the disciples in this passage, assume that we are doing God’s work in fencing our communities, but instead end up cutting off the very limbs that we need to do the work of God in the places we live.
Now I am sure I will get push back on some of this…anytime that you call out something of your tradition that is false and has existed that way for centuries, you will get push back. But the concept of Hell that we carry around with us is dangerous and needs to be confronted. The concept of Hell that has come to be prevalent in Christian circles blinds us to the real Hells around us at every moment of our day. The concept of Hell that we carry with us allows us to pat ourselves on the back while building bigger barriers to keep out those who we would declare should live in the Valley of Hinnom.
The greatest irony of all is that Jesus is warning against this very tendency in his disciples, and yet, we, his disciples, have turned this passage into the ultimate reinforcement of our backwards beliefs. Perhaps this is also where our tradition can come to save us as well. The line that so often concerns people about the Apostle’s Creed may actually be of help. You know the one I am talking about—“…[Jesus] descended into Hell…” You see, what is at the heart of what Christ has been trying to teach his foolish disciples for the last several chapters of Mark is that he is about to enter into the very Hell that he is warning about here. He is about to be cut off from his community. He is about to feel the depths of pain. He is about to be cast aside—even by his very own people. He is about to experience the worst that humanity has to throw at him. He will come out the other side resurrected, and he will be ready to go with us on our own journeys into our own personal Hells. But this time…Christ has the road map and he will be able to show us the way out.
You see, God is not in the business of eternal torment. God is in the business of getting us out of the torments that we place upon ourselves or place upon others. That is at the very heart of who Christ is. That is at the very heart of what Christ has been trying to teach his disciples. That is at the very heart of what Christ wants us to know in our own journey of faith. So whatever Hell you find yourself in, whatever Hell you see others in, whatever Hell that we continue to perpetuate because of our own indifference—Christ has been there. Christ knows the way out. And Christ will lead us through.