“It is not the will of God that even one of the least of these be lost.”
How can we accept the idea of ecclesia if some folks are going to be separated from God and everyone else to exist in unending torment? How do we trust in the existence of a loving God or a benign Universe where such a thing could happen? Thankfully, we don’t have to as Jesus made it pretty clear that God does not wish for anyone to be lost and God gets to have things His Way. But then, how do we make sense of hell? Classically, hell is the “you’re going to burn in fire forever if you don’t shape up” theory. No one gets saved from hell, everyone there is tormented in separation from God, forever. But how could that be if it is not God’s will that any be lost? Besides, it seems so unlike a loving God’s plan and there is so much testimony from people who have had NDEs and from mediums that this is untrue, that people often ricochet into a “there’s no such place at all” philosophy. If you are a Christian, however, you face the dilemma of running into language in Scripture, again and again, that seems to describe being condemned to everlasting torment. You may be told that it’s “God’s justice” or a “mystery” and you have to just accept it. What if you can’t?
There is a story about Galileo first observing Saturn through his primitive telescope and perceiving Saturn’s rings as smaller planets or moons that never changed in their aspect to the larger Saturn. Except when they disappeared completely. Only to pop back into his sight at other times. Unable to explain this phenomenon – “Eventually, the frustrated Galileo decided never to look at Saturn again.” If you cannot accept the idea of hell and you also cannot escape the concept in Scripture, you are in danger of deciding that Scripture hardly merits your attention at all. Can you stay a Christian and just decide to only believe Him, sometimes? Do you decide that Scripture is just mostly not true? Then how do you know what is true? Pretty soon people aren’t just ignoring parts of the sky, they are tossing their telescopes into the trash.
Now here’s a thought: What if we can trust Scripture and also trust Jesus and also trust ourselves and have it all make sense? What if, on careful examination, we see that: Jesus never said anyone was going to hell. That is, Jesus never said anyone would end up suffering forever in a state separated from God from which there is no exit. What if, instead, those verses have some really good information about the interaction between this life and the next?
In early times, the Hebrew people didn’t believe in much of an afterlife at all. The ancient Hebrew cosmology depicted the universe as multistoried: heavens, earth, underworld: the underworld consisting of an ocean and the abode of the dead: Sheol. The Hebrews didn’t think of humans as incarnated spirits, but as animated flesh. When the life force sent by God, the ruah, left, life was over for the individual. For a large part of Hebrew history, the underworld, Sheol, was a place where the dead just, well, lay around. “The state of the deceased in Sheol is one of utter inactivity; it is less a positive picture of survival than a picturesque denial of all that is meant by life and activity.” This was death: an endless state of being from which there was no escape, a place of emptiness and darkness. It was not, however, punishment.
In the Old Testament, dying young per se is considered a punishment for sin, as in the warning in Proverbs 5 against adultery, that tells us the adulterous woman is already on the road to Sheol. But there is not yet any conception that people are punished after death. Punishment (and reward) happens in life, with the burdens of illness or misfortune, the greatest punishment being to die early in life. When you wished someone good fortune, you wished them long life. You also wished them many children and grandchildren, the individual’s survival after death was in the memories of the living.
Over the centuries and with the mixing of cultures, ideas about life and death evolved. Psalm 49 says that all end the same way: the wise man and the fool, the rich who love money and trust in their wealth, all go down to Sheol. But, the psalmist goes on to advise us not to “fear when others become rich,” people may praise them when alive, but when the rich die they will “join the company of their forebears never again to see the light.” Here is the classic conception of death, but with the idea that Yahweh can overcome even death and rescue the righteous from Sheol.
Once this idea is introduced, then where does someone go if rescued from Sheol? In Hebrew cosmology there were only three “places” in the universe: the heavens where God lived, the earth, and the abode of the dead, Sheol. If God rescues one from Sheol, then they only have two options, to come back to earth or to go on to heaven. In the second chapter of 2 Kings, Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, by-passing Sheol altogether. But Elijah was a great prophet, what is the fate of everyone else after death? What could the average man or woman hope for?
If we understand Sheol as an endless state of consciousness of nothingness, we can see why the men in Wisdom preferred to believe in no after existence at all. One hundred years before Jesus, we have as afterlife options: 1) Sheol, 2) non-existence and 3) God rescuing you and taking you to live with Him in heaven, but you had to be a pretty great guy for the last. So, there was still no conception of punishment after dying, but there could be reward for some. (Compare this to believing that someone wins the Lottery as a reward from God. Even if you do believe such a thing, you don’t believe God is punishing you by relegating you to the middle class.)
The answer to this dilemma was “resurrection.” McKenzie tells us “The Hb [Hebrew]conception of man made it impossible for any idea of the afterlife to arise which was not a restoration of life to the body.” He also tells us that the idea of resurrection cannot clearly be traced either in, or outside of, Biblical sources. By the time we get to the New Testament, there is a developed but controversial belief in bodily resurrection combined with an idea of a “last day,” as we recall Martha saying in John 11:24 “I know he [Lazarus] will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Resurrection was not an idea accepted by all the Jewish people, but was common among the Pharisees, apparently.
We know some of what other people said, but what did Jesus say? What did He actually reveal about the afterlife? What did He say about punishment and reward? Is there some place of fire and torment God will send us if we break one of the rules or all of them?
The word “hell” as we use it never appears in the Bible, though some translations of Scripture have freely substituted “hell” for other words. But many Christians still believe that Jesus described hell as a place where we would be tortured endlessly. A reasonable belief based on standard translation passages like this:
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not care for you?” …. “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The Greek word aionios translated “eternal” can mean: no beginning, no end, no beginning or end. It can carry the connotation of something “from the most ancient time” or “before time was.” This is an adjective that describes something about the punishment, rather than the length of time one will be subject to it. That is, Jesus said: this is the consequence that has always existed and always will, not: “This is the punishment the person will experience forever.” If you leap from a five-story building you will be hurt. Your injuries are not “punishments” for jumping, this is simply the consequence that has always existed for a physical body: throw it onto a hard surface from a height and it breaks. Similarly, Jesus is explaining how the universe works. It has always been the case, from the beginning of Time and will always be the case, that certain actions have certain consequences beyond physical death.
What is the “eternal life” that He speaks of here? Didn’t we say that life was just always eternal? That we don’t “end” in any case?
“Life” here is not “existence,” which would be fuxh psuche, but zwh zoë which might simply be defined as ultimate joy. The way things work and always have is that ultimate joy has always existed and some will attain that from this lifetime and some will go to another consequence that has always existed: kolasij kolasis. Appearing in many standard translations as “punishment,” kolasis is a form of a root word that can mean “to lop or prune,” “to check, curb or restrain” or “to chastise, correct, punish.”
Being uncharitable has always been and always will be a condition in need of correction, not as in “beaten with a stick until you learn better.” But as in, “take away the part that doesn’t work.” Whenever we see Jesus using “eternal,” we can understand that in terms of His explaining to us the system by which the universe operates: the choices we make here have consequences beyond this state of existence. Our destination is reached, our goal attained, only by certain choices and not by others. You cannot get to the moon by doing jumping jacks in a mineshaft; you cannot get to zoë, (more specifically defined as absolute fullness of life in God or a genuine life blessed in this world or the next) by some system other than the one Jesus reveals to us. Jesus doesn’t say we will never get there if we make that choice, He says we will need correction.
If the concept of a place of torment we never get out of is discarded as a misunderstanding, how did it arise in the first place? Possibly, it more correctly arose in “the second place.” Christianity was for the first few hundred years, scattered, unorganized, repressed and persecuted. But it existed. for the most part, in the Roman Empire, the writings and teaching interpreted by people in terms of their overriding cultural influence. When Constantine won a great battle and became Emperor, he also established Christianity as the state religion.
The classic, if not earliest, conception of hell, of the afterlife generally, resembles nothing so much as the Roman conception of Hades. Hades wasn’t hell, it was the place all people went to live after death and it comprised a variety of “lands.” You ended up in one or another depending on what kind of person you were in life. Remember what we call Roman “mythology” wasn’t mythical to them, this was their religion and they had a well-developed and ancient set of beliefs.
The Romans believed that in Hades the dead live in a counterpart of material, earthly existence. The righteous live without pain or problem in the Elysian Fields, ruled by the god Cronos in peace and everlasting light. There is “Hades in general” where most of us will stay. But the wicked are tormented in Tartarus, (also the name of the god who rules there) a deep, sunless abyss. Tartarus is probably the only word reasonably translated “hell” in the New Testament. Used only once in Scripture, in the form of a verb tartarow in 2 Peter 2:4. From the KJV:
“For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them to chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; …”
The NAB has done this with the word, which could be either the name of the God or the place:
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but condemned them to the chains of Tartarus and handed them over to be kept for judgment; … ”
Whichever translation you prefer, it sounds very much like a sentence written by someone who believed in the Roman version of afterlife. As scholars place the writing of this letter in the mid-second century and as it is “ascribed” to Peter who had been martyred in Rome, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine this letter as coming from a Roman writer. If what Jesus said is reported accurately in Scripture, and if we are still operating under a very old misunderstanding of what He said, then just what did He say?
Consequences after death for actions in life was something Jesus often spoke of, and he very often used the analogy of Gehenna, a valley south of Jerusalem where refuse and dead animals were dumped and burned. However, you rarely find a translation of Scripture (the New American Bible is a notable exception) where the translator has used “Gehenna,” the actual place name Jesus used in His analogies. Instead, almost all English translations, Bibles have substituted “hell.” If we reinsert Gehenna, what can we understand Jesus to have told us?
Gehenna, which comes from an Aramaic word ge-hinnam, would be an abbreviated form of the full name of the place in Hebrew, “valley of the son of Hinnom.” Historically, Gehenna was the site of a pagan shrine where human sacrifice was practiced and it was cursed by Jeremiah. By Jesus’ time, it was so long an enormous trash dump, that the fires burning there had burned for decades, the fire smoldering deep under great piles of refuse. And so we have Jesus’ reference to the “unquenchable fire” in Mark 9:43. Because the Sheol of the Hebrews had long been described as an underground world of darkness, it is easy to see how they made the connection to descending into a valley continually shrouded in clouds of smoke and ash that kept in it a kind of “eternal” darkness.
Those who frequented Gehenna were the unclean, the criminals and the mentally ill, ejected by society, identified as suffering for their sins in life. In Matthew 8:12 Jesus is quoted as speaking of some being “driven out into the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Away from Jerusalem in the darkness of that valley, there must have been much wailing. Gehenna represented the worst possible outcome of one’s life, hopelessness and suffering, darkness and filth, rejection and isolation. Sounds like hell to me.
It was less the place that was the analogy for where some may end up after death, than it was the state of being of those that were sent there, being separated from other people and from what was holy. If you were a leper you could be relegated to Gehenna, to eat of unclean things in the smoky stench until you were cleansed of your disease. If you were a criminal, you might hide there forever, as in your whole life, unless you were forgiven or your debt paid somehow. The people in Gehenna were even outcast from one another, the criminal afraid of being contaminated by the leper, the leper afraid of being robbed or murdered, both afraid of the psychotic, often thought to be possessed by demons. So, for one in Gehenna, being able to go to Jerusalem to live, to worship in the Temple and be restored to society is a very good analogy for heaven, for this is all such a person could desire. To be made clean, healed, forgiven and to clear his debt. To be reconciled to God and to the people, the ecclesia.
We can see how ideas about sin and being outcast, about death and afterlife developed together with the history of the valley of Hinnom. In light of a very long cultural belief that punishment and reward were meted out during this life, if you were outcast, even if you were not a criminal, you must have done something wrong. Being outcast in a place of darkness and eternal fire and unholy things became the punishment, instead of the thing that sent you there, the leprosy or the madness, so punishment moved from something that happened to you in this life to something that happened after death. And because so many who were banished to the actual Gehenna died there, the idea came about that one could go to a place after death of never ending torment, as the torment of those in Gehenna lasted their whole lives. Soon, death/Sheol//Gehenna became interchangeable terms and conflated concepts, translated into English as hell.
But we always must remember in Scripture, especially in Jesus’ public teaching, that he spoke in parables, in analogies and symbols. If Jerusalem is the place of safety behind walls that cannot be breached, of the Temple and the most sacred Holy of Holies, the actual place where God dwells, then Jerusalem represents heaven, the city of the afterlife, the home of God the Father. And outside those gates? The road, the countryside, all with various amounts of trial and risk, and the worst place of all: Gehenna. If one is not in the afterlife, in heaven, then one is in Time: on the road toward the gates of the Holy City, stuck in the hell on earth that some live in, off in a dark valley, making little progress.
Jesus taught us The Way Things really Work, that we, by our own choices and behaviors, trap ourselves in a constant round of reincarnation to an imperfect state of being, the consequence of our action in life. Not everything outside Jerusalem was Gehenna, of course. People existed in a variety of ways and in varying lifestyles, some suffering more than others, some getting closer and closer to the gates. Jesus did not teach that we would be tormented endlessly after we die.
But isn’t there supposed to be punishment?
I once read an analogy to what happens when we pass and get to the “pearly gates” – we have to empty our pockets of all the things that cannot be in the Presence of God and acknowledge they belong to us. We have to leave then behind. All the judgment and resentment and self-pity and anger.
But there is no punishment. John tells us so when he refers to “…Jesus Christ the righteous one who is expiation for our sins. And not just for our sins, but the sins of the whole world.” Expiation is atonement and reparation, the price paid. A thief will have the things he stole taken from him and returned to the rightful owner and then still have to serve time in prison as punishment. Jesus did our time, so, there is no punishment or John would have been speaking an untruth.
But we still have to give back the stuff.
There are natural laws to the universe and one of them is that there are consequences to acts. Bread cast upon the waters returns one hundred fold and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Some people call this karma. Whatever we steal, we must send back, sometimes called the “karmic debt.” In heavenly terms we must take back what we have given out that is negative and, in a feat of cosmic alchemy, transform that into what is positive. We can, and must, make darkness into Light.
Jesus gave us a symbol for the consequence of creating darkness instead of increasing light: Gehenna, a place where people were isolated, from one another and from what was holy. They were in a word, unreconciled. We can understand this fairly easily and begin to imagine how much we do not want to be in that position. Jesus brings us salvation, the release from the prison of Time, the power at the very gates of death to move safely inside the gates.
Physicist David Bohm, among others, conceptualizes the Universe working on the same principles as a hologram. One of the features of a hologram, is that you can store many, many images on the same piece of film. That is, you can put a picture of a dog over a mountain over a vase over a rainbow in the same area of the same physical object, simply by changing the angle of the laser slightly. Then, each separate thing will be projected in full three-dimensional seeming-reality, just by illuminating the image with a laser beam at the same angle. On the piece of film, you have one thing, a layering of patterns, all making one confusing-to-look at, random-appearing, mess of light and dark. Physics tells us that while light can act as both a wave and a particle, the only time light is a particle is when we are observing it. The patterns on film are only single “things” when we “observe” each with a laser, the things appearing separately because of the angle of the of the laser. That is, particles and pictures only come into existence relative to observation. Your life is only what it is, as you choose to perceive it, revealed by what kind of energy you bring to it.
This means that any number of realities for any number of people can exist at the same time in the same space. The Universe is essentially nonlocal. But in Time, our perceptions are limited to what our physical brains can encompass and we conceptualize in terms of place and order. We can understand a progression, a series of levels, a journey from one place to another. But in the nonlocal universe, one woman sitting at a desk is in hell and another woman at an adjoining desk is in some other “level” of existence. This is hell or some purgatorial level, in the pits or on the road, on the steps of the Temple, on top of a glorious mountain, or in the darkness of the valley. Life in Time is analogous to, as well as continuous with, life after dying.
We are not where we are because of where we are, but because of the angle at which we intersect the rest of the Universe. To be somewhere else, we have only to shift our perceptions.
Jesus continuing analogy for the structure of the Universe gives us a concrete way to conceptualize a nonlocal, holographic, impossible-to-comprehend-in-Time reality: Life outside the walls of the Holy City was dangerous and difficult in any case. At worst, Gehenna was out there. There was a wall around the Holy City, a place of demarcation, a barrier, but with passageways. People came and went from the city to the countryside. Some people in the city could go to the Temple. Based on sex and status, some could go further and further into the Temple, to be closer and closer to the Holy of Holies, to the place they believed God resided on earth, separated only by a curtain, a space that, by custom and belief, was inviolable.
It’s a great analogy. Jesus says over and over in parables that some will be cast out into darkness, into Gehenna, into a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth: wedding guests who won’t be admitted to the dinner, misers who bury their talents in the ground out of fear, those who simply will not forgive.
Time is the state outside of the wall, and we are all at some place in that land, in Gehenna or on the road, or standing at the gates of the city passing time with those inside. We may have been in one and moved to another. We may be leaping back into hell over and over because we just will not own that crap that keeps falling out of our pockets. SN 165-166 aionios – Often translated “eternal” in Scripture, 166 aionios is from 165 aion, both from 104 aei which indicates “duration” or an “age.” It can mean “regularly” as well as “always.”
In Luke 1:70, aionios is translated with the phrase “since the world began” in the KJV or “from of old” in the NAB. Thus, aionios can mean a variety of things in terms of spans of time: without beginning, without end, without beginning or end, always (as from the beginning of something), forever (as will never end).