Thursday, June 2, 2011

To Hell and Back

I've been thinking about hell and eternity lately.

Maybe not just about hell. Really, more about the CONCEPT of hell. The tradition of it. What we think about it, how it works, what it is. And mostly, what Jesus said about hell, and what the Bible says about hell.

Traditionally, I think most of us evangelicals have a similar concept of hell. It's the standard place people go when they die (unless they've been saved). It's pretty much eternal agony and flames. Punishment forever, apart from God. You don't want to be there. The concept is fairly cut-and-dry, even though a good many of "secular" people don't really like it. Right?

However, so many different things I've been reading, and people I've been talking to, have caused me to question how our view of hell managed to get to what we think about it today. So let's take a moment to go back to the Bible, and what Jesus said.

There are a couple of different words in most versions of the Bible that get translated into the word "hell." Let's take a look at what they are.

Sheol: This is a Hebrew word used often in the old testament. It means "grave" or "depths" or "the deep." The King James Version of the Bible translates this word (incorrectly, most would agree) as "hell" 31 times.

Gehenna: Jesus used the word "Gehenna" a number of times, and it is what is generally translated into "hell" in the gospels. Gehenna (or Ge-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom) was a real, physical place outside the southern part of Jerusalem. It was where old-time pagan religions had sacrificed their children by fire. It was used as the town dump, and was generally on fire. It was a lot of smelly, burning trash. Not the kind of place you'd want to go.

Hades: The word "Hades" is used a few times in the New Testament, and translated as "hell." It's a Greek word, derived from the the name "Pluto" (Hades), who the ancient Romans and Greeks believed was the god of the underworld, the realm of the dead. It was a pagan concept.

Besides those three terms, there is also one other interesting Biblical term that perhaps has wedged itself into our 21st-century minds in a different manner than was originally intended.

Aeon is a Greek word that is commonly translated into "eternity" in the Bible, and what we would consider "forever." But I've read that aeon also means "an age" or "the ages" or "period of time" or even "an intensity of experience." Jesus often used the phrase that could be translated as "this age" and "the coming age" or "the age to come." Does that mean "eternity, forever" the way we think of eternity? I don't know. Maybe.

Ancient Hebrew and Greek were complicated languages. Actually, it wasn't that they were necessarily more complex than our modern English -- The issue generally is that they were much simpler. Especially in Hebrew, there were many, many fewer words. Only a fraction of the number of words that we have today. So some words had multiple meanings. That's why we have issues where words like "ouranos" get translated as "heaven" or "the heavens" or "the sky." And "pneuma" gets translated as wind, spirit, or breath.

This little words study with these four words is just the tip of the iceberg. I don't have the depth of knowledge to write a term paper on the subject. I do know that it's important to question the ideas and "traditions" we have in our mind, because sometimes they can evolve over time into something they weren't meant to be. (I blame Dante. And years of bad movies involving a red, horned Devil holding a pitchfork beside flames and underground rock formations.)

For instance, one popular question that I've heard from multiple people: Does God torture and punish people eternally for finite sins?

I suppose it's in my best interests here to point out: I'm not saying I've decided that hell doesn't exist. I'm simply saying perhaps sometimes, it's a good idea to look at things from a fresh perspective. When looking at Biblical passages, it's good to know who the audience was, and what they were thinking at the time. That's tough to do.

Now: Discussion time. What do you think? Is the standard doctrine of "hell" untouchable in the church? Is any of this information even relevant? And most importantly: Was it a bad idea for me to open this can of worms?