Thursday, October 8, 2009

Heaven and Hell

The Beginning and the End, the Ancient of Days, the Satan, the Height and the Depth, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, the Sheep versus the Goats, the Third and Seventh Heavens, the Heavens of the Heavens, the New Jerusalem, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, the Alpha and Omega--what do all these eschatological words mean?

I've got the theological tomes The Flame that Consumes, The Dogma of Hell, The Sovereignty of God, Heaven, on and on, but here I am at 62 full of endless head notions theorized by countless theologians who've never been to either Heaven or Hell, so I am not going to regurgitate their speculations, at least not yet.

Instead, let's dive into Jesus' vivid imaged words. And remember, Jesus speaks in symbols, metaphors, and hyperbole. He is mainly concerned with our motives and actions of goodness, not how theologically, doctrinally correct we might be. After all the Scribes, knew the Bible better than any living humans yet they failed to live loving lives.

Also, let's try to forget everything we've heard or read about the End of Things. Too often people take Jesus literally and thus miss his message altogether. Too often the Good News Jesus came to declare and give to all has become bad news of the worst sort, even downright evil.

Matthew 5:29-30: "And if your right eye causes you to sin," Jesus says, "gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna."

One extreme statement of Jesus' many extremist statements. But what does it mean? The first point to see, based on an understanding of Jewish imagery is that Jesus is not talking literally. Beside, no disciple in the New Testament is ever spoken of having actually gouged out his eye or cut off his hand.

If Jesus is not speaking in prose, not in legal terms, then what is the message?

And what is Gehenna?

What ever Jesus is saying, it can't be what a lot of religious people (Christians and Muslims) mean when they speak of God hating sinners and destining them to Hell. Many Christian and Muslim leaders even claim that God preordained most humans to eternal damnation before the beginning of Time!

But in the same section of Scripture as Jesus' Gehenna statement, Jesus says we are to love our enemies like God loves all humans, that indeed to love others is the way toward perfection:
"I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he causes his son to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteoous...Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect."

Yes, God loves us deeply, limitlessly and is not willing that any individual should perish (11 Peter 3:9).

But what of Hell then? What is Gehenna for if not for humans as the Catholics and Reformers, and Muslims, and other claim?

First, Jesus' words in Matthew 25:41 say "the eternal fire" was prepared for the eternal destruction of evil (the devil and his messengers). And later in the New Testament, it says"the Lake of Fire" was prepared for the destruction of Death!

So why then does Jesus speak of individuals who don't help the poor and the hungry and the persecuted as being told to "depart" into the eternal fire?

Because when humans refuse goodness, even embrace evil, they identify with evil. And evil is bound for destruction if there is any justice in the Cosmos.

Another way of perceiving this is the outlook of Eastern Orthodox theology which emphasizes that God (like Scripture says) is a "consuming fire." The Orthodox church says God is the fire of eternal love which purifies and redeems all who willingly live in love.

In contrast humans who focus on, live in, selfishness, greed, lust, hate, and revenge--are consumed by those evil actions and cannot experience God's love as purifying because they refuse to love the truth.

Also, keep in mind none of this is literal! How could Death be thrown into Hell? That doesn't make any rational sense; it's not a factual statement of prose, of science. We are speaking here of spiritual truth in the language of metaphor and imagery.

But even beyond this, some followers of Jesus (such as Origen, C. S. Lewis, William Barclay, Keith Ward, etc.) have deep hope that since God is perfect love, that God will never give up on even the most evil-choosing humans, the ones utterly given to the seven deadly acts of depravity. Hopefully, at some distant point in eternity, even the most rebellious and reprehensible will come finally to the truth and be saved.

Let us look briefly into this term Gehenna.

To be continued

In the Light of God,
Daniel Wilcox


Rick Lannoye said...

Sounds like you're on to something, the original GOOD news Jesus tried to give, not some extremely BAD news about a God who intends to torture billions of people with no end!

I've actually written an entire book on this topic--"Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell," (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website:, but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it.

If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

True, there are a few statements that made their way into the gospels which place Hell on Jesus lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

Hystery said...

Another complication is that regardless of what Jesus may have believed, and regardless of what authentic sayings were preserved, those who wrote the NT had eschatological expectations of diverse natures. One of the reasons the bible is so difficult is because it is such a mess of various beliefs, theologies and christologies.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Rick,

Thanks for leaving a comment. I cybered over to website, read your bio, etc.

I agree that Luke 9:51-56 is so important. If Catholics and Reformers, etc. had listened to Jesus' words, the millions who were killed by them in the name of Jesus wouldn't have been hurt.

I would disagree with your view that Jesus didn't speak of Hell. Check out my further comments on my post.

Hi Hystery,

Thanks for commenting.
We probably have read some of the same modern biblical scholars. And I am filled with despair that so many Christians emphasize God predestines us to Hell. It is even getting into the mainline denominations:-(

But as far as the NT goes, I don't find it to be a mess. On the contrary (with the exception of Romans 9 and some of Revelation), I generally find Scripture to have a deep commitment to the good news of God's love for all.

In the Light,