Monday, July 29, 2013

What the Hell?

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            If you were in worship last Sunday, you heard me preach about Colossians 1:15-20 where the Apostle Paul declares, "and through [Jesus Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. . ." The thrust of my sermon was about how we, the church, play a part in God's reconciliation and how it is necessary we work for racial reconciliation in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman trial. Yet, I also touched on a number of other deep theological and scriptural issues such as the method of God's salvation (does God really need a bloody sacrifice in order to forgive us?) and the nature of eternal life (does God desire to reconcile everyone and everything or just some?). Both deserve more attention, but I thought I'd take on a part of the latter question by talking about Hell in this week's column.
            When I teach a college class on the Bible, I try to illustrate how the theological thinking present in our Bible evolved chronologically through history. Rather than being a book written by a single author at one time and place, we have a library of writings written by authors who lived in different cultures, wrote in different languages, existed in different centuries and who were influenced by various other cultures and religions. A survey of different passages dealing with life after death reveals a surprising variety of ideas.
            The earliest writings in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians often call the Old Testament) have no idea of life after death; when you die that's all folks. There are a few people like Enoch and Elijah who are taken up to heaven, but everybody else just dies. Texts from a few centuries later speak of "Sheol" as the abode of the dead where the dead exist as mere shadows of their mortal selves. In the New Testament or Christian Scriptures, this idea continues and takes the name "Hades" from Greek thought. It is not until the second century B.C.E. that we get the first mention of a postmortem reward for righteous acts; that occurs in the apocalyptic book of Daniel, but that reward is given to the few who resist persecution on behalf of their faith. It is not until the first century C.E., around the time of Jesus, that the Jewish writing Wisdom of Solomon (present in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but not Protestant ones) speaks of the "soul" being eternal. Wisdom of Solomon is an outlier, however, because if Jews in the time of Jesus believed in life after death (many did not) they believed in a general resurrection of the dead that would happen sometime in the future. In other words, you were dead until God raised everyone to receive God's judgment.
            Jesus' teachings in the Gospels, Paul's writings and other writings of the early church do not speak uni-vocally about Hell either. Jesus speaks of a final judgment with those who are unworthy of reward being sent to the "outer darkness" where there is "wailing and gnashing of teeth." He also speaks of "Hades" and "Gehenna," the trash dump outside Jerusalem. Yet, these images are vague rather than concrete. Paul speaks of a general resurrection of the dead and the defeat of evil and the Devil, but what exactly the "wrath" of God looks like for those who will be judged negatively remains elusive. Other early Christian writers are similarly vague, and don't get me started about the confusing imagery of Revelation.
            It is not until the second century C.E. that Christians develop a more concrete understanding of eternal punishment-a picture that looks a lot like Greek conceptions of the dead being tormented in the Underworld (think Homer's The Odyssey). Most of our contemporary images of Hell have more to do with Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost than they have to do with scripture and church teaching. (People of my generation, I'm convinced, have a concept of Hell based on the Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoons.)
There are a number of good books out there on the history of Hell that are worth a read, but for a good discussion of the scriptural passages in question, I like to recommend Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell, an evangelical minister, who resigned from his Michigan mega-church after he wrote the book due to backlash, takes the Bible on its own terms and very seriously combs through the passages pointing out their incongruities. Bell may be saying something new to Evangelicals, but his thoughts have been commonplace among mainline Christians for over a century or more. Yet, what Bell shows conclusively (for those who bother to read him before condemning him) is that contemporary readers often read their conceptions of Hell back into the text rather than gaining their picture of Hell from the Bible.

Most importantly, Bell also does a good job of pointing out the inconsistencies of many Christians in their understanding of what kind of God sends people to Hell. What kind of loving Father stands ready to love us for eternity unless, of course, we run out of time in this life to accept God's love? Does God say to us, "I'm sorry, but it's too late. If only you'd been here earlier, you'd get to go to heaven?" What kind of God is it that says God loves us on the one hand but gladly sends billions to eternal torment on the other? Bell's questions go on. They are good questions. When pastors ask good questions in some churches, they lose their jobs.

Consider this a brief introduction to Hell as well as a recommendation for your further reading. In this column, I didn't get around to describing my own thoughts about Hell (or the lack thereof), but that will have to wait for another occasion.

Grace and Peace,

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