Hell is more Greek than Christian

I started talking the other day about hell in my cell meeting and one person in our meeting decided that holding a traditional view about hell, the place God created to eternally torment people that did not follow him in this life, was paramount to her theology. It was a crucial part of it, and if it were changed, the whole thing would crumble. So let’s talk about hell a little bit.

Where did it come from? Simply, it came from people like Dante, Michelangelo, and John Milton. Socrates, the Greek philosopher, and his protégé Plato influenced it quite a bit too.

More than just the philosophers that introduced the idea of hell to Christians, it also came from coercive preachers who were trying to get a result. Just like Obama wants to start a war in the Middle East (and he has for a few months now), he finally got his way when he showed us how bad ISIS really is. Fear-mongering is one way to get the result we want.

Here’s how the hell doctrine got ruined. I’m not alone in this thinking, in fact I borrowed much of this post from Rod, another one of our pastors. And it’s not just Rod and I, there are a lot of other Christians that agree (N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, and others). When Christianity was getting going and spreading in the Mediterranean, the main philosophy that opposed it was Greek. By the time the early church was moving, Greek philosophy had been influencing the world for 400 years. The writers of the New Testament used Greek, the normal language of the day.

The Greek culture influenced Christianity more than it should have. Hell is one of those wrong ideas that leaked into Christianity. The Greek idea is that the spirit of a person transcends their body and while the body dies, the spirit doesn’t. Socrates called death a “friend” because of this immortality.

Jesus conquers death, and doesn’t befriend it. Jesus wins resurrection for all of us. Death tries to swallow him and it can’t. The Bible writers do not separate the mind, heart, body, and spirit. At the end of John when Jesus resurrects he shows us this. He eats breakfast with his disciples, in his resurrected, physical body. He’s not just a spirit.

We did not exist until we were given life as earthly creatures—this is different than what the Greeks think (and Hindus and Mormons too). We will not die if we are related to God—that’s the promise. Our everlasting life in not innate in us, it comes from God.

The Greek idea that influenced Christians is simple: if you can’t take away the soul, it needs to go somewhere after we die.

In general, the idea that God would pour out his eternal wrath to torment people just doesn’t work in the postmodern culture. People have issues because they don’t want to be judged by anyone, even God. People expect God to love them as much as they love themselves. If there is a God, he should love me, and because he’s God he should love me more. So if he doesn’t, to hell with him too!

Moreover, what is with this idea that God loves humankind enough to die for them—for anyone that would ever be born—with an endless and everlasting love? But if they don’t believe or do the right things, he can reverse that everlasting love to hate and punish them with it? The loving God will take the righteous into the restored earth forever, but if you are damned, he’ll plunge you into the depths of a cosmic concentration camp. I don’t buy that, and I’m fighting it. That’s a personal reason to do it. So we have an emotional reason that people resist hell, and a logical reason. That’s enough for me. But here’s one from the Bible.

Let’s see where hell comes from in the words of Jesus.

Here in Mark is one place where the English word “hell” is used to translate what Jesus is quoted as saying. The English word, “hell,” was likely contributed to the language by Norse invaders, It comes from their word for “hole.” The Norse goddess, Hel, who lived in the ultimate hole, was not known for having a nice time in her dark, scary caverns. The New International Version uses that word to translate what Jesus says.

He starts out by talking about some people who might make one of his “little ones,” sin or fall out of relationship with him. “Little ones” does not just mean children here, but also his disciples like us. A person who did such a thing would have been better off getting killed before he had a chance to separate someone from Jesus. It’s all about being connected to Jesus.

Jesus then makes his dramatic body statement. If your hand causes you to sin, cut if off. If someone else causes you to sin, he’s getting drowned using a millstone. If your hand does, cut it off. It’s better for you to have your feet cut off then to burn in hell. He’s being dramatic, but he’s connected our sin to our bodies not our souls.

Another way you could say it is: “It would be better to be crippled than to be out of relationship with me.” Ultimately, it’s about being connected to Jesus, and the kingdom of God can’t be separated from the person of Jesus. He’s the king of the kingdom. He is the center of the kingdom of God. In the kingdom, no one has any places to hide from the king, you only live there by permission.

Not relating to the king, not obeying the king, not following the king’s ways is how you get thrown into hell.

But this passage is not about hell, it is about relating to Jesus and maintaining our connection and devotion. In that relationship we are safe from any fear of what’s going to happen to us. It is worth anything to stay intimate with God.

But along the way, Jesus basically says, “If you don’t stay with God, you could end up thrown into hell.” The word Jesus is using “Gehanna” and that refers to The Valley of Hinnom, a ravine outside of Jerusalem where refuse was burned and the bodies of executed criminals were sometimes dumped. The question is, when Jesus is talking about Gehenna, does he mean all the things that have been plugged into the word “hell,” since he was teaching us? I don’t think so.

The people Jesus was talking to would have thought of the trash dump where the fire never went out when Jesus mentions this word. The fire never went out because people kept dumping things on it and it was always smoldering. If the fire did go out, somebody would have to go start it again so the stuff would burn up. By the time of Jesus, Gehenna had become a well-known metaphor for destruction. So it also became a metaphor for destruction after you die.

He is trying to get people to connect with him so that they can be reconnected to God and have the image of God restored in them and their life renewed. People who turn away from Jesus commit themselves to another way that is a way of death and they end up drained of the image of God and their rightful life.

At some point that God decides, there will be a final judgment to see who is with Jesus and who is unrecognizable, who has turned into the light and who hasn’t. I’m not in a position to judge who those people are, or to measure the limitlessness of God’s grace.

I don’t think anyone in the Bible thinks they know exactly how this works. So it is no surprise that lots of people have added their two-cents’ worth over the years, until we have a few thousand dollars’ worth of opinions. I don’t exactly know all about the afterlife either, of course.

But I do know that the life comes from God. We don’t manufacture it with good deeds or just have it innately. We’ll have to stick with Jesus.

4 Replies to “Hell is more Greek than Christian

  1. Writing an article about hell is a brave thing. Good thinking here. Your education is going to continue to serve a lot of people well, especially if you keep seeking after what it is you think people need to know more about. I’m sure you will.

  2. Right on Jonny. The picture for the afterlife that we have from God IS JESUS; not a selection of eternal places or states of being. He was born, lived, died, and resurrected, and resurrection is our fate too if we follow him. There’s no alternative, every other alternative is a fantasy. The risen Jesus (or else nothing) is what’s here for us in this life and the next.

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