I remember a strange encounter I had with a young man in one of the last years of my ministry in the local church. He was probably in his late thirties and had been attending our church in Irvine, California for several months by himself. Although he always sat in the very back of the church near an aisle, as if ready to make a dash, he always made certain to take the time to say hello to me before he left the facilities. One day as he went out the door, he asked if he could make an appointment to speak to me privately. I said certainly, and we set up a time.
When he arrived he was obviously nervous and he had a hard time getting to the point. I did learn that he was a professional in the medical field and he had lived in this country for over twenty five years. He had been raised a Muslim but had married a Christian American woman who apparently attended a more conservative church. I suspect that he was in our church because we hosted a Mosque congregation in our church. I had recently been invited by an Imam to speak at the dedication of a new Muslim School and to be honored for my efforts to publicly condemn the growing prejudice against the Islamic community after 9/11. I’m not certain what kind of message his wife was hearing in her church.
We had a very long chat about progressive Christianity and Jesus as a prophet and a teacher. He told me that he appreciated the fact that our church had a Jewish congregation and a Mosque holding weekly services there. He told me that he had been listening to my messages very carefully and he liked the idea that Jesus was talking about compassion as a path to an experience of the Holy or Sacred.
But then he got to the point. He said that it seemed that I believed that God did not punish people or send them to hell if they were not believers who followed the rules. He wanted to know if that was really what I was saying. “Don’t you believe in hell?” he asked with a bit of desperation.
I certainly do not believe in a hell after death where one is tortured forever, I told him. I would have no interest in a God that would do that for any reason. And I added, “Quite frankly, there is very little biblical evidence that Jesus believed or taught such a thing.” I told him that I think that we humans can create our own hell here on earth and unfortunately we often do. But that is what the Jesus story of new life is about…moving from our own hell to new life.
My young friend could only shake his head. Finally, after some quiet, he looked at me with a real sadness, and said, “I don’t think I could be a good person if I did not think that I would go to hell and be tortured eternally after I die.“ I was astounded. By this time I knew enough about this young man to know that he was a good family man, he was in a helping career, he was generous and he seemed to be extraordinarily honest. Certainly he was with me. All I could do was stammer, “But you are a good person.”
I never saw him in the church again, although we did have a couple of strained encounters in public places. But I thought a lot about him and was very sad. Is this still the kind of thing our children are growing up within our more conservative churches? Is this what Muslim children are being taught? Do they grow up believing that without the right belief or the correct actions they will go some “place” after they die and be tortured and burned forever? And do they grow up thinking that without that threat they cannot be a good person? They cannot be a precious child of the Universe?
The fact is that there is no clarity in the Bible about what we now almost casually refer to as hell. First off there is a whole language issue. There are three different words in the Bible that have different meanings that are all now translated as hell in English Bibles. In the Hebrew Scriptures Sheol, a word now translated as hell, originally most likely referred to a place underground where bodies are buried. The ancient Israelites had no concept of life after death or resurrection. Their immortality was gained through the growth of the tribe, a people, and through their offspring. There was some vague sense of something like a ghostly existence under the earth that remained but it was not considered life.
Of course much had changed by the time Jesus was born and clearly things had changed when the evangelists wrote the gospels. Israel had been occupied by the powerful and influential Romans for over 100 years by that time. The Greek culture with its emphasis on mythology, along with the dualistic Mystery Religions of the surrounding areas had a profound impact on the Jewish culture. When you think of dualism, think Plato and Aristotle; think shadow and light; imagine good and evil in a constant struggle. It was here that the concept of the separation of the dead was merged into the thinking of the remnants of Israel, and the nucleus of the new Christian movement.
The only word that was consistently translated as hell in the Christian Scriptures was Gehenna, literally the Valley of the Hinnon or better known in its time as the Jerusalem city dump where everything from garbage and sewage, to unclaimed bodies were disposed of. Clearly the people of Jesus’ time would have known where that place was and what it was like, often smoldering with fire. It made for a powerful metaphor and frankly Jesus references to Gehenna make more sense as a metaphor than they do as a place where you are actually going to go after you die. It is far more likely that the Jesus of compassion was metaphorically referring to a life that has gone astray and when one cannot seem to repent and change, rather than to some place where his loving Creator was going to torture one for eternity. Ironically I believe that Jesus saw through the dualism of his time and our time. Once one has had an experience of Perfect Unity, or Oneness the dualistic universe disappears. That is why scholar John Dominic Crossan writes of Jesus’ practice of radical egalitarianism.
So why do we have these kinds of ideas being promulgated you might wonder. Why do so many religions have this dichotomy, these needs for correct belief or severe punishment…the idea that some are in and some are out? I am afraid it is what it has always been. It is about power. Religions, particularly those considered Religions of the Book have always been about power rather than about love, about compassion and an experience of Sacred Unity. It does seem like we spend a lot of time and energy trying to get out from those shackles in order to find our way to the holy, the sacred, the Unity that we all yearn for. Power and fear do that.
I wish I could have somehow made that clear to my young friend who asked me if I believed in hell. I am afraid he is already experiencing some kind of the hell, just worrying about it. How sad…