We need to talk about hell

Hell is the location of human violence, not God’s; “indeed, it did not even enter my mind.” (Jeremiah 7:31) (Listen.)

Some of us grew up with threats of hell, that burning lake of fire and brimstone into which the sinful will be cast at death to their everlasting fiery torment. Given how regularly hell comes up in many a church’s preaching and in popular culture, and given how graphically it is described, you might wonder why I never mention it. Am I avoiding all the nasty bits of the Bible? Well, no—but I think it’s time we had that little chat: we need to talk about hell.

When we hear the word, most of us think of a place of punishment and fire. We think, too, of an angry, vindictive, punitive God who throws all the people who refuse to be ‘good’ and all the people who don’t obey church rules and all the people who can’t conform to social norms into the fires of hell. This idea of hell has long been used to control people’s behaviour and threaten them into obedience. But I believe this use says much more about their image of God, and perhaps their lust for power, than it says about the God made known through Jesus Christ. To learn what Jesus means by hell, we need to shed a heap of preconceptions and go back to the Bible.

In tonight’s reading, ‘hell’ is mentioned three times; it’s three of only 13 mentions in the entire New Testament. When Jesus says what is translated as ‘hell’, he is saying the word Gehenna. Now, Gehenna is not an abstract idea or a spiritual realm or a destination in the afterlife. Instead, to Jesus and to his first listeners, Gehenna is a real place: a valley south of Jerusalem. And it is famous for one thing. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “In Gehenna they have built an altar called Topheth, so that they can sacrifice their sons and daughters in the fire. I, the Lord, did not command them to do this – it did not even enter my mind. And so, the time will come when it will no longer be called Topheth or Gehenna, but Slaughter Valley. They will bury their dead there until they run out of room to bury them.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)

Gehenna: a place of ritual child sacrifice, a place where children were killed to placate violent gods and ensure peace and prosperity. Ancient Israel was surrounded by nations who believed in bloodthirsty and capricious gods. These gods caused wars, droughts, famines, floods and plagues, and they could be appeased only by blood. The most precious blood was, of course, of one’s children. In return for that gift, the gods would stop playing their vicious games, and peace and prosperity would ensue—or so the people thought.

So child sacrifice was very common and, from time to time, people and even kings in Israel engaged in it, too. This is why there are explicit Biblical laws against it: because it was happening, just as our laws against child abuse exist to try and protect children who are suffering now.

With our cultural distance, it’s easy to be appalled; but the priests who slaughtered children on the altar at Gehenna believed they were doing the right thing. They were no different to the people now who suggest that violence is at times reasonable, justified and sadly necessary to preserve the peace and stability of our nation. Pre-emptive strikes, police brutality, immigration detention, astronomical incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders: these are all forms of state violence, employed to preserve the peace and prosperity of the privileged classes.

Regrettably, some children end up in immigration detention, or are killed or injured in drone strikes. Regrettably, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are sent to adult prisons. Regrettably, some children are used and abused by the priests and the powers that be; regrettably, very many children are born below the poverty line, despite our national wealth. These children and others are sacrificed on the altar of our national peace and prosperity: we regret this, we regret this very much, and we call these children ‘collateral damage.’

But “I, the Lord, did not command them to do this – it did not even enter my mind.” Gehenna, that place of child sacrifice, is an abomination to God. God does not demand human sacrifice; God does not light the fires of hell and cast people away and tear families apart. Instead it is people who build and maintain hell on earth, and who sacrifice others, especially children, in the name of their gods. It is people who insist on concentration camps and killing fields and torture chambers and re-education centres and an ever-growing prison population: all in the name of national security.

In the same way, it is people who demanded the torture and sacrifice of the ultimate innocent victim, Jesus Christ. For on the advice of the high priest, Caiaphas, and at the urging of the mob, he was whipped, stripped and hanged on the cross: for it is people who believe that it is better for one man to die than for the safety of the nation to be compromised.

It’s important to be clear what I’m saying here: God did not demand the sacrifice of his son in some sort of sacred bloodlust. We worship the God of Life, and having children killed is not our God’s pleasure or delight: “I, the Lord, did not command them to do this – it did not even enter my mind.”

Instead, God’s son sacrificed himself: and this is a very different thing. For through his self-sacrificial death, Jesus unmasked human, religious, and national violence; he descended into death to transform our death-dealing practices forever. He led the way to a new society which is not based on the sacrifice of others, but on the sacrifice of our own egos, desires, needs, and even lives, for the sake of others. Other gods, idols, values and systems sacrifice the vulnerable and pave the way to hell; our god sacrifices only himself, and offers abundant life and a true and lasting peace to everyone.

So what does all this have to do with the text from Matthew, and our ordinary lives?

First, it means absolutely nobody is heading to a post-death fiery furnace. Any hellish experience will be in this life, and at human hands; but there is no ultimate punishment by fire awaiting you, or anybody else, after your death.

Second, it transforms religion. We humans have a tendency to legalize faith: to turn a way of being into a set of rules. And so we end up with insiders and outsiders; define ourselves as insiders; and consign outsiders to burn in the fires of hell—or be imprisoned in immigration detention, or be trapped in cycles of poverty, loathing, incarceration or self-harm as they are scorned, shamed, attacked and mocked by politicians and media and, I am sorry to say, some church leaders.

But Jesus is not in the business of shaming and condemning; he does not threaten violence or engage in manipulative finger-wagging. Nor is he calling us to obey a more stringent set of rules. Instead, he is inviting us to be transformed into a new community, shaped in his image and incarnating his love.

And so his injunctions in the passage from Matthew are not threats. They are statements of fact. Quite simply, if you define yourself as holy by your religious practice, but in your self-righteous anger refuse to engage in the hard work of reconciliation with the real people around you, you are on a slippery slope of objectifying and othering them; and from there it is only a short step to a society gathered around the victims on the fires of Gehenna, united by hatred and bloodlust – but God does not send you there.

If you fantasize about people outside your marriage, or if you give nothing in your marriage but only take, you are turning people into objects of your desires; and from there it is only a short step to a society gathered around the victims on the fires of Gehenna, united by hatred and bloodlust – but God does not send you there.

But if, stepping back to the wider gospel, you love one another, forgive one another, reconcile with one another, and love your enemy; if you speak truth in all your dealings; if you value and protect all children and not just your own; if you sacrifice your own power and privilege to build a world that all can share; if you resist the violence of the state; if you refuse to unite around dancing flames and death: then you’ll become a new community: a community shaped by the cross. And this new community will overflow with God’s life in abundance, and a deep and lasting peace.

So let us continue to love one another in everything we do. Let us work through hurts, conflicts and disappointments when they occur; let us listen, forgive, reconcile. Let us uphold and honour committed relationships; let us uphold and honour the singles in our midst. Let our words be gentle and loving and true. And let us live this way, not because we are scared of hell. Instead, let us live this way because we can see the wide open spaces of heaven before us: indeed, we are entering them even now. Ω

A reflection on Matthew 5:21-37 given to Sanctuary, 16 February 2020 © Alison Sampson, 2020. Photo credit: Felix Weinitschke on Unsplash.

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