Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Does Jesus Say So Much About Hell?

The Valley of Gehenna
According to author Benjamin Corey, there was no Hebrew word for hell in first century Israel, but Jesus had more to say about Gehenna in the gospels than he did about heaven.

Why is this, we may ask? Isn't Jesus supposed to be all about kindness and compassion toward everyone?

Cory notes that the word Jesus uses, "Gehenna", literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom just outside of Jerusalem, a God-forsaken place where garbage--sometimes including unwanted dead bodies--was disposed of in a continuously burning fire.

Jesus' references to Gehenna are a part of his tough-love warnings to his audience, a way of making a powerful point about the danger of ignoring or countering God's plan for bringing salvation and healing to the world. For example, in Matthew 23:33 we hear him issuing the following message to the wealth- and status-loving religious leaders of the day:

“You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How can you escape going to Gehenna?”

I note that in my reading of the Gospels that Jesus never gives these kinds of warnings to the hurting and the weak but always to the complacent and powerful, the religious and self-righteous. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets he is making the strongest case possible about the need for all to repent and turn their self-centered lives around, lest they become subject to God's wrath.

In a similar vein Jesus warns those who offend ("sin against") vulnerable children by saying it would be better for such if they had "a millstone fastened around their neck and be cast into the depths of the sea." Strong words indeed.

It is certainly clear that the real Jesus is not simply the nice preacher saying reassuring things to people in power, but in the tradition of the prophets is incensed and outraged by the way people ignore the poor and fail to offer hospitality to the stranger.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel describes these Hebrew prophets as "some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived," and adds,  

"Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he (the prophet) is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and the affairs of the market place. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum... What if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? ...Why such inordinate excitement? Why such indignation?"

Heschel then adds, "The things that horrified the prophets are daily occurrences all over the world."

Jesus, in addition to being our deliverer and redeemer, is just such a prophet, with just such a sense of indignation.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Post script: Here's a note I just sent in response to someone who was surprised and disappointed that I would post something so controversial and so unlike his vision of a loving God: 

"Regardless of how we interpret texts regarding a future judgement, one thing that's really clear to me is that if in this life we have lived selfishly and "fared sumptuously every day" while the Lazaruses of the world were starving, there will be a day when we will seriously, terribly regret having lived the way we did. We may even get to that point in this life, for that matter, when or if our economy crashes and/or the world's hungry nations rise up and destroy us."
Post a Comment