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September 29, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about heaven and hell lately, as the last few posts indicate.  The concept I always had the most trouble with in Christianity is hell

First I will explain why it was so objectionable to me.  Then, hopefully, I will explain how it has been twisted over the years, and, God willing, explain the truth, and in a way that makes sense.

Having a place like hell, and having things in it that he created, it just seems…out of character for God.  Here you have a creator…the one that loves the thought of us so much that he brought us into existence, and suddenly you’re telling me he’s ok with the possibility of us suffering the worst fate possible, and it lasting forever.

Any way you think of it, that’s not like him.  Jesus’ disciples once asked him a very strange question, “Should I forgive a man seven times”?  That was the general rule at the time, according to their traditions.  They had traditions for everything.  Jesus said to them no, but seventy times seven.  In other words, you should be prepared to forgive so many times that you lose count.

That’s his standard for us….so how could there ever be a point where he is not prepared to forgive us as well?

Just the fact that Jesus exists…the fact that God knows what it is like to be tempted by wealth and power, to be helpless, to be hopelessly attracted to a woman…the fact that God went to all that trouble to reach us, to show us how to be a human, to achieve forgiveness for us…knowing that, it doesn’t make sense that he would ever let that go to waste.


It is certainly the case that a lot of things are true even if they don’t make sense.  But you look at all these things the bible says and they seem so consistent, except for this one part.  Add to this the fact that fear is such a common motivator for powerful people, and you start to think hey, something’s not right here.


And really, a lot of the most horrible imagery seems to have been invented in recent translations of the bible.  And there’s such a variety of beliefs regarding this, it’s worth it to look at them too.

The people Jesus is talking to in the bible, they still aren’t sure if there is even an afterlife, let alone what it would be like.  It’s still an ongoing argument among the religious leaders of the day.  Some of them insist that people live an afterlife, others think that basically people just rest forever.

Looking at Jesus’ words in that light, I think it makes them a little different.  He’s always warning people about hell, and the word he uses is Gehenna.  First, understand that to a people who were unsure of the afterlife, they felt that the worst thing that could ever happen to them was to have a bad name, that is, to be remembered badly.  The most reviled people in Jewish history were those who sacrificed their children to idols at this place called outside of Jerusalem called the Valley of Hinnom…which came to be referred to as Gehenna.

The next worst thing, I think, was for their nation to be destroyed.  And it happened before, several times.  Each time it was in response to idol worship, injustice, violence, adultery, all the things he was warning them about.

Going back and reading these things, it sounds like Jesus is not warning people about some eternal punishment, but reminding them of what all these things were leading to.  He says things like, “it is better to enter life with one hand, than to have two hands and go into Gehenna.”  This is a very serious warning.  But it’s a warning about being associated with the darkest times in their nation, a warning about doing all the things they were doing and thinking of doing, and what it was going to lead to, a warning about history repeating itself, and a command to live the way God intended them to.


And you know what, he was right.  Jerusalem revolted against Rome and was destroyed in 70 AD, just a few decades after Jesus lived on the earth, according to history.  By some accounts, more than a million dead.


Associating his words with fire and eternal punishment, it seems like that only happened a few centuries ago.  Before then, the prevailing notion was something much different.

To understand it, I think it’s worth looking at what Christianity really says about life after death, and also what other faiths say as well, including Judaism.

What Jesus says about the afterlife is pretty simple.  He says, God made us, and when we die we can either be with God or we can be away from him.  The imagery used for being away from God is pretty severe.  It’s referred to as, outside, in the darkness, a place where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

That last part is important.  Gnashing is done in anger and indignation.  And this is how Roman prisons were, outside the settlements, basically dungeons, not much light, separated from everyone.  Now picture someone in a prison, shut out of society, who has lost all hope of having all the things he once wanted.  And he’s gnashing his teeth, muttering about being a victim of injustice, lashing out in helpless anger at the judge and the ones who carried out the sentence.

If a man lived indefinitely in this state, his body never wearing out, would his heart eventually soften?  Would he eventually admit wrong and ask forgiveness?  I really don’t know.  But it gives the impression that God is always ready to forgive if we ask him.  I think it’s fair to say that when God is involved, justice is always done–for everything we do wrong, we are either punished or forgiven.  And both are available to us.  But it is definitely possible to hate God, to harden our hearts and not ask him to help us, because we feel he has been unfair to us.  That’s definitely been true in my life.  And that, I’m afraid, is the situation many people are in.

This jives with a lot of other faiths.  Not that it needs to, I think Christianity stands on its own, but I don’t think God would mislead people.  Catholics feel that a person may have to be purified after death, that they are changed, tested, prepared.  This may take a long time, but not forever.  Again in Buddhism, a person may be outside in the darkness a long time, but not necessarily forever.

The bible does talk about the ‘second death’ and I guess it is possible for someone to just decide once and for all that they hate God so much that they will never want to be with him.  But even then, it’s not an image of punishment forever and ever, that person will just cease to exist.  Simply an elongation of torture would benefit no one.


And you hear people point to the end of the bible, Revelation, to where it talks about the ‘lake of fire’ where people are tormented.  This is tricky, and I think the way we visualize it is again, due to a purposeful mistranslation meant to scare people.  I am not saying I know for sure, it just makes sense to me.

See, interesting thing about a molten or perpetually hot lake–if you were to think about it practically, what would it be used for?  Such a thing would be great for metalwork.  And the word ‘torment’ used there actually means, to test with a touchstone.

A touchstone is used to determine the purity of precious metals.  If you scratch 14 carat gold with a touchstone, it will leave a mark.  If you scratch 24 carat gold, it won’t.  So let’s read it like that: people that end up here, they are put in this forge where you put something to remove impurities, and then they are tested for purity.

I mean, wow.  That is *completely* different.  It sounds like it has a purpose.  It sounds more like the incredible measures God will take to redeem the ones he loves.  God has always been aggressive about purifying his people, but he has never ended them.

I think it’s plain to see, it’s never been the threat of punishment that truly changes us.  It’s always been love and forgiveness, the realization of the position we’re in deserve versus what we get, and trusting God when he tells us there are things we need to learn.  The bible says, God said he made the law not to condemn people, but that so that the whole world would be accountable to him.

And we are accountable to him.  But that’s all right because he is our ally, not our enemy.  He created us to be like him.  I think that is the purpose of all of this, for God to make us more like him, and that’s a great thing.  As I like to say, he is the happiest being in the universe!  He created us to be the object of his love, and that is what we are.

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