I spent last night with two of my favorite thinkers, Ben N. and Josh B. These men are prophets and storytellers, whose lives are rooted deeply in living out a kingdom narrative that puts flesh on the hope found in Isaiah 61 (to proclaim good news to the poor and freedom for the captives, to comfort all who mourn, to renew ruined cities, to turn shame into rejoicing and mourning into praise). As it does when we get together, our conversation took a turn into deep, theological waters, particularly encompassing the discussion of universalism, wrath, and hell. This is such an important part of my theological construct (and, given its power over morality, ontology, and how one views God), I want to use this space to open up the conversation on (to borrow from Brian McLaren) the last word…and the word after that.
To begin, we must understand the difference between Hebraic cosmology (that is, how the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures–the Old Testament–viewed the physical world around, below, and above them) and that of first century Palestine, the world inhabited by Jesus. For the ancient Hebrews (Father Abraham and his many sons), the earth was created as a place of shalom (peace, well-being, wholeness, fullness) and consisted of the physical space (the ground, trees, rivers, mountains, etc.) surrounded by “the deep”–the primeval waters separating the dwelling-place of men from the heavens above. Below the earth (and this is key) was sheol–the pit, the grave, the final resting place for the body, not a fiery pit for the damned. In Hebraic theology, the nafesh (the God-infused man) went back to the dust from which he came, without a vision of afterlife and long before Plato would introduce the idea of the soul into philosophical discourse. In other words, for the protagonists of the Old Testament, one’s eternity was lived through the blessing and birthright passed down from fathers to first-born sons in this life, not in one after. The idea of a place of eternal torment designed for the suffering of one’s sins was not in the theological discourse of the inhabitants of the Old Testament. What they did understand was that, at one time in their story, God had shaped a vision of wholeness, blessing, filling, and flourishing, a vision that had been lost but not forgotten. The work of the kingdom of Yahweh was to bring to fruition the olam haba, the world to come in this life that restored the vision of shalom, oneness, nobility and intimacy that had been established in the beginning. This work was the work of tikkun olam, the act of repairing the world through justice, mercy, and covenant (especially for the displaced, the marginalized, and those without a voice). It was a vision of bringing this world back into the full vision of Yahweh’s blessing, a vision that contained a work to be done by those called to speak an alternative culture to the imperial powers that held far too many in slavery, bondage, and oppression.
Where, then, does hell come in? How do we go from this vision of shalom, fulness, blessing and tikkun olam to the very real presence of a life after death that may or may not contain fiery damnation? The answer is as complex as it is historical, and it begins in the intertestamental period between the final page of the Old Testament and the first of the New. About 300-plus years before the birth of Jesus, another key, instrumental thinker steps onto the scene, one whose vision of a life well lived would have far-reaching implications for thousands of years. His name is Plato. Between the time of Hebraic cosmology and that of first century Palestine, Plato formulates his conceptualization of body/soul duality, saying that the world we inhabit here, with all of its mortality, aging, decay and death, is but a shadow to another realm where things exist as themselves in truth for all eternity. This “land of the forms” held true Beauty, Virtue, Justice, etc., the shadows of which we can only barely make out here (for example, I could say of my wife, a painting or a mountain vista that they are all beautiful, but even I recognize that they are not the absolute Beauty that “beautiful” references). This eternal land of the forms was transcendent and beyond this world, and could only be reached by devoting one’s life to the study of wisdom (philo–love/sophia–wisdom). If one attained this state of philosophy, his body would perish, but his eternal soul would find its rest in this transcendent, “heavenly” world. In other words, Plato introduces the idea of the soul long before Christianity, in a world not cross-pollinated with their Hebraic neighbors.
How then, does Platonic dualism come to the land of Jesus? The answer is Rome. About a hundred+ years before the birth of Jesus, the Roman Empire marches in conquest over much of the known Western world (including Greece), taking with it Greek mythology (which they use as their own by merely switching the names of the gods–turning Ares into Mars, Zeus into Jupiter, for example) and Greek philosophy, including Platonic Dualism. By the time of Jesus, the Roman empire stretched from North Africa to Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland and included the lands of Judea. That is why, by the time we open the New Testament, Rome is already well-ensconced in power, might, coinage and ideology in the world of Jesus. Thus, by the time of Jesus, the Greek concepts of Platonic duality, an afterlife achieved for the soul, the body as a prison for carnal (fleshly) delights, etc. are already well in place.
So this gives us the soul and the afterlife, but what about hell? Jesus uses two words for “hell” in the New Testament, two words that his readers would have connected with the reality of the world they inhabited and understood. The first word is Hades, the Greek concept of the Underworld. Given the heavy influence of Greek cosmology in first-century Palestine, it should come as no surprise that Hades is used as one concept of life after death. The other word used is Ghenna. For his audience, this word carried a tangible, horrific, tragic weight. Ghenna, located at the base of Jerusalem, was in Jesus’ day the place where the trash, refuse and waste was burnt; “an unquenchable fire” where the smell of sulfur, waste, and excrement was thick. It also held the memory of a greater horror, the place where, several centuries before, child sacrifices were made to the pagan god Moloch, a place full of the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” of mothers as they watched their children burn on “demonic” altars. This, then, was the “hell” of Jesus’ day, a place full of destruction and damnation whose smoke could be seen clearly when Jesus swept his hand towards it as he says, “It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna” (Matthew 18:9).
From this early conceptualization of hell, we have to move forward a few hundred centuries to Medieval Catholicism, who turned hell into Hell, a place of eternal suffering for sinners unable to pay the ecclesiastical Pardoner, who offered a “get-out-of-hell” pass for the right price (of course, if the poor yeoman farmer could not pay, he would be taken by the Summoner to Ecclesiastical court, where any number of awful tortures awaited to usher him from this life into the next). And the money taken from this selling of indulgences? The vast majority went to fund vast parties of wine, women and song held in the Vatican by the very corrupt Popes Martin Luther would later claim needed reforming in his protests of 1515. That the modern-day picture of Hell looks more like that of Dante and John Milton than that of Jesus is also not without worthy note.
So then, where do I stand in this discussion? To be honest, I (like anyone engaged in this discussion) must only use my skills as a scholar, thinker and theologian, for I will have to wait for first-hand knowledge for another time. For me, I do believe in hell, for I have seen destruction, chaos, damnation, and the “demonic” powers of oppression, injustice, and power bring far too many people’s lives (myself included) to ruin. I have seen families fall apart, children abandoned, lives ruined to addiction, babies tossed aside, marriages destroyed, dreams dashed and hopes shattered. I do very much believe in hell, for I have seen it, and it is indeed an awful, ugly, terrifying thing.
But I have also seen heaven. I have seen marriages rebuilt through humility, vulnerability and newfound trust. I have seen abandoned children given new homes full of love and support. I have seen addictions surrendered and lives healed by the breath of God. I have seen barrenness turned to fruitfulness and mercy shown to the broken. I have seen the winds of heaven blow through the dark places, and I have felt in my own life the power of the God who says, “Behold, I am making all things new!” Is hell real? Yes, wherever brokenness, abandonment, destruction, addiction, and folly hold sway, but the beauty of the kingdom is that hell is not the last word. The cross is not the final statement. Good News has come to the captive, the bound, the orphan, the one who feels the flames of shame and doubt and suffering. God was, is, and will be about the business of bringing heaven to the darkest hells, and that is enough for me.