Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Myth of Hellfire Part 4: Gehenna

Mark 9:43 “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to have two hands and go into hell [Gehenna], to the unquenchable fire.” (NET Bible).

I used to play a video game called Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines. In this game you play as a vampire in modern day LA. A big part of the story was Gehenna. Vampires in the game are scared of the impending vampire apocalypse where everything will be consumed in a fiery explosion of blood, violence and death. Many descriptions of Gehenna in this video game used fire imagery; in fact, a lot of the lore in game is influenced by the Bible. In the above verse, as well as every reference to hell used by Jesus, the word used is gehenna. I’m sure that the makers of Vampire were aware of this when they decided to call the vampire apocalypse gehenna. Anyway, if you haven’t figured it out, gehenna will be the topic of today’s post on the Myth of Hellfire.

First, it’s important to realize that there is a lot of debate among bible scholars about whether Jesus actually taught about hell in terms of the afterlife. I will leave that debate for a future post and, for now, assume that Jesus really is talking about the afterlife when he mentions hell. The word hell appears many times in the New Testament. What is interesting is that there are actually four words that are translated to hell: sheol, hades, gehenna and tartarus. When Jesus teaches, the word used for hell is gehenna. As mentioned above, I will focus on the word gehenna in this post.

According to interpretation that sees Hell as a place of literal fire, the word gehenna is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom. This valley was where the people living in Jerusalem threw away and burned their garbage during Jesus’ time. It was constantly on fire, infested with maggots and stunk badly. Apparently, since Jesus is using this word that refers to a place that was constantly on fire, then Jesus obviously meant that hell is a place of literal fire that never goes out. Can Jesus be any clearer?

There are a few problems with this interpretation that I have discovered through some research. The biggest problem is that scholars just aren’t sure if this valley really was a garbage dump. Some scholars say that there is no evidence that this place ever was a garbage dump, much less one that was constantly on fire**. That’s the first problem; the second problem as to do with the image of a garbage dump. Many Christians that I know have built up this image as much as possible, making it sound like a blazing inferno that you never wanted to get close to in fear of being consumed as well. The problem with this image is that it is inaccurate. A garbage dump back then wasn’t a blazing inferno, but more like a smoldering pile of junk where flames rise only when new garbage is added***. How is this image supposed to support the idea of a fiery inferno consuming a never ending source of flesh? It seems like we are reading more into the text than we are supposed to with this image of a fiery garbage dump. In fact, I don’t think this was Jesus’ point at all when he referenced Gehenna.

What did Jesus have in mind when he referenced the Valley of Hinnom in his description of hell? Whether the place was a garbage dump or not, I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when referring to this valley. We also have to remember that Jesus was born into a Jewish culture and speaking to an audience who was immersed in Jewish culture and history. When Jesus refers to this Valley of Hinnom, he already knows the history behind it and is counting on his audience to know the history as well. This Valley was notorious in Jewish history because it was used by Israelites to sacrifice humans to pagan gods in the Old Testament. See Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5-6, 32:35 for some examples. If this is the case, then we can easily see the connection. The Valley had a horrible reputation; in essence, it was a place full of shame and disgust because of what happened there in Old Testament times. This is the more likely image that Jesus had in mind when he was teaching on hell. Hell will be a place of shame, disgust and dishonor in the same way Valley of Hinnom was to Jesus’ audience. When Jesus refers to Gehenna in his teaching on hell, his point is that it will be a place of shame, dishonor and disgust. Physical torture, pain and fire are clearly not the point of Jesus’ use of the gehenna imagery.

What do you think?


*See for example, Surprised by Hope by New Testament Scholar N. T. Wright

**Here’s a blog that mentions some of the scholars and provides references to the sources.

***See What in Hell is Going On by JP Holding

The Myth of Hellfire Part 3: The Undying Worm

“It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” Mark 9:47-48 (The NET Bible)

This verse contains what used to be one of the most puzzling descriptions of hell for me. Here Jesus is clearly referring to hell and speaks of hell as a place where “their worm never dies”. The word “their” likely refers to those thrown into hell. Today I plan on providing an explanation of this particular description. I will not write about the fire imagery just yet.

I tried to look around for various explanations the undying worm. Some take this literally; Jesus meant that, in hell, worms will be feasting on the damned for all eternity. However, this sounds more like something out of a crappy horror movie to me. I see no reason to take this description literally, especially since it comes at the end of a passage full of hyperbole that no one takes seriously (like the command to gouge out your eyes). It is up to the person insisting on a literal interpretation to show why the description of the worm (and even the image of the unquenchable fire) should be taken literally in a passage littered with metaphor and hyperbole.

The most important thing to note here is that Jesus is quoting the Old Testament, Isaiah 66:24 to be exact. The verse says that “they will go out and observe the corpses of those who rebelled against me, for the maggots that eat them will not die, and the fire that consumes them will not die out. All people will find the sight abhorrent.” (NET Bible). In my last post I mentioned that ancient near eastern people (Israel included) lived in a society permeated by honor and shame. What is interesting is that leaving your corpse unburied or worse, having maggots consume them was extremely shameful and dishonorable*.For a person who valued honor above all else, this was the worst kind of death.

Once we unearth this honor/shame skeleton, we can now hang the rest of our interpretation on it. By alluding to a passage about corpses infested with worms,  Jesus describes hell as a place of complete shame and dishonor. The image of the undying worm very clearly suggests that those in hell will forever be shamed and dishonored; their shame will never die. What do you think?

*See What in Hell is Going On by JP Holding. Verses like Deuteronomy 21:23 and Psalms 25:2 support this idea of the shame of a corpse and the shame of defeat.

The Myth of Hellfire Part 2: Wailing and Gnashing

“It will be this way at the end of the age. Angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:49-50 (NET Bible)

According to many Christians, hell will be a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. There are seven places in the Bible where the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” comes up. Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30, Luke 13:28. Now it’s debatable whether these verses are actually describing hell; however, for this series I will assume that they do. In addition, this post will focus only on the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

I’ve always wondered what this phrase means and how it relates to hell. I’ve been told more often than not that this “gnashing of teeth” refers to someone grinding their teeth when experiencing a very sharp pain. In effect, the people in hell will be in so much pain that they will be grinding or “gnashing” their teeth. As a result, this verse is then used to show that hell will be a place of extreme physical pain, the worst pain you can imagine. Many other traditional interpretations state that “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a reaction to some kind of physical pain.

While this explanation sounds plausible on the surface, I want to offer a different interpretation. In my research, I’ve learned that the culture of the Bible was built on honor and shame. Honor was basically your public reputation. Anytime you were dishonored or lost a bit of your public reputation, you were shamed. In this culture, people would compete for honor because it was probably the most important thing to have. Honor determined your rights, where you would sit at banquets, and even who you could speak to in public. There is much more* that can be said about this, but for our purposes this should be enough. New Testament scholars have written that “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is an expression used to describe the reaction of people who have been publicly shamed or dishonored**.

If this is the case, then we have a new understanding of this expression. If hell is a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” then this actually refers to the experience of shame and dishonor rather than pain. When Jesus describes hell like this, his point is that hell will be a place of shame and dishonor as opposed to pain. Does this mean that there will be no pain in hell? I’m not sure. Perhaps people in hell will be experiencing pain as a result of their shame and dishonor, I don’t know. But physical pain is clearly not the point of the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Whether there will be fire, heat, darkness, etc, will be left to future posts. All we can say right is that hell will be a place or maybe even a state of shame and dishonor. What do you think?

*For more on this topic, see the book, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture by David DeSilva

** See for example, page 371 of Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh

The Myth of Hellfire Part 1: Intro

“The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow.”

From the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards

I’ve been wanting to write about the Christian doctrine of hell for some time now. Because it’s such a big topic, I’ve decided make it a series. Think of this post as the intro. I don’t plan on going into much depth with this post; I just want to set the stage for later posts on hell.

Many Christians believe hell is a place of literal fire where people will burn for eternity. I also believed this while growing up; that’s what I was taught in church. I never questioned this interpretation of hell as a place of literal fire, sulfur and brimstone. As I grew up and really began to study the Bible, certain things stopped making sense. I wondered how hell could be a place of fire and darkness at the same time, why being burned should be a punishment for not believing in God and why the whole thing sounds more like something you find in a horror movie instead of in the Bible. Click here to see an example of what I’m talking about. Be warned, the video is pretty creepy and somewhat graphic.I began to do some research on my own and see if the Bible really teaches that hell will be a place of literal fire.

I did not actually start out trying to debunk the idea of a literal fiery hell; I just wanted to know what exactly the Bible teaches. What I found actually surprised me and made me rethink the doctrine of hell. It also made me wonder why I never learned about this before in church. Now, I’m not saying I have learned everything there is to know about hell, but I hope to open up discussion about hell. I see no problem with discussing and questioning assumptions and interpretations about hell in order to learn more about the Bible. And this is exactly what I intend to do.  However, this series isn’t meant to be the definitive treatise on hell. There is so much more that can be said and so much more for me to learn. I only wish to write about what I’ve learned so far and  to open up the discussion.Hopefully, I’ll be able to spark the curiosity of my readers and learn from those that will inevitably disagree with what I write.

Christians Need to Question the Bible

I grew up with an evangelical Christian background. I learned about all the usual things you hear about Christians believing. Jesus died for your sins because he loved you so much. I learned that dating was bad and Christians should only court one another. I was told that we are living in the end times and the rapture could happen at any moment. The Antichrist is coming and so is the new world order. Obama is the devil. Most people on welfare were implied to be lazy and unwilling to work. The churches I went to had no pastor. We had a group of older men called elders that guided the church more than led. Sex was never really talked about. Evolution is just a theory. The King James Version of the Bible is the ONLY true Bible. The earth was created 6,000 years ago in six literal days and much more. I hope my tone doesn’t make you think that I think everything I was taught is wrong. Instead, I want to show you the kind of background that I grew up in, with a bit of my tongue-in-cheek. This is the background I grew up in.

My parents taught me the best they could. I don’t blame them at all. In fact, my dad even encouraged me to question everything. This was the one thing I took to heart. I questioned everything while growing up. One of the first things I began to question is that God created the earth in 6 literal days about 6,000 years ago. In middle school, I was introduced to evolution and the Big Bang. Obviously these concepts and theories began to conflict with what I learned about Genesis growing up. I started wondering what was true; did the Big Bang and evolution create everything or did it happen like it says in the Bible? I asked people at church, older men who I thought knew everything. I don’t really remember specific answers; I do remember the general implication I got from the people I asked. Basically, we Christians believe the Bible to be perfect and correct; therefore, anything that contradicts the Bible is wrong. Evolution and the Big Bang contradict the Bible so both must not be true. That didn’t help at all. In fact, it made me think that I only had two choices. Either I could believe the Bible and stay a Christian or I could believe what scientists are learning about the origins of life and the age of the earth and reject Christianity. I never really made a choice. Puberty caught up with me and I started worrying about other things.

This tension was never really resolved. Yet, a year or two ago, I began to learn about other interpretations of Genesis. I’ve learned a little about Old-Earth creationism (The days in Genesis actually refer to long periods of time). I’ve read a little about Theistic evolution (God using evolution as his means of creation). One scholar has even argued that that the Genesis account is an example of ancient cosmology and is not referring to the material origins of the universe (The Lost World of Genesis 1 by John Walton). What I found out is that there are actually plenty of theories and interpretations out there on the creation account. Many of these interpretations try to see how Genesis fits together with what scientists are learning today.

What bothers me is that I didn’t learn any of this in church or from other Christians. I had to go out myself and find out about these various interpretations. I’m not saying any of these interpretations are correct. I’m just wondering why the churches I attended and the people I knew never talked about them. If they are all wrong interpretations, why wasn’t I shown that? I was simply led to believe that all Christians believe in a literal 6 day creation about 6,000 years ago. Finding out that many Christians actually have different interpretations (some better than others) made me feel cheated.

This goes for many other things related to Christianity. I learned about the “genocides” and the “questionable” laws in the Old Testament. I learned that some Christians don’t believe we are living in the end times, that there will be no Anti-Christ or coming satanic New World Order. Some Christians believe that most of the book of Revelations was already fulfilled around 70 AD. There are many other interpretations out there that differ completely from the things I learned growing up.

Many Christians I know and grew up with are in the same boat; they too have never heard of alternate interpretations. It makes me think that Christians are almost afraid to question their own interpretations of the Bible or even question the Bible. But honestly, why shouldn’t we question, examine and critique the Bible or our interpretations? What is wrong with that? I believe that the Bible can stand on its own; therefore, we shouldn’t be afraid to examine, question and critique it. But what if we find out the Bible really is a bunch of fairy tales written by ignorant barbarians? Well, what’s wrong with that? If the Bible really is a bunch of fairy tales, then wouldn’t we want to know that?