Gary Swisher

Hell Bent, Part 2

In Christianity, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:23 pm

In his most famous sermon, Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher who shares credit for the Great Awakening, had this to say of God’s nature:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.

And this he said not to heathen but to his own congregation!

So often we hear the call to let the Bible interpret the Bible. And this should well be applied to an inquiry of hell. Jesus’ description of hell is comparatively subdued in light of such traumatizing fabrications. Christ said there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The phrase, “gnashing of teeth” is used several times in the Old Testament and simply communicates the idea of contempt or disdain. Let the Bible explain:

All your enemies have opened their mouth against you; they hiss and gnash the teeth; they say, We have swallowed her up. (Lam 2:16)

His anger has torn and hated me; He gnashes on me with His teeth; my enemy sharpens his eyes at me. (Job 16:9)

How is it that we have always been led to believe that such gnashing of teeth is the result of unspeakable torture, when scriptural precedent shows it is a sign of mere contempt? And what about weeping, or wailing as some translations say? Does this fit a tortured existence? Would your response to excruciating pain be to begin weeping? If I slam a hammer on my finger, weeping is not my response. I am more apt to scream at the shock of such consuming pain, yet this is nothing compared to the horrors of the popular view of hell, where we should expect nothing short of mind-piercing screams and blood-curdling shrieks! Weeping is a response to grief and great loss, not unfathomable torture.

I grew up thinking hell was an infernal region below ground. I was afraid if one dug a hole too deep he might be captured by Satan himself. Of course, I  failed to realize that hell was not Satan’s headquarters where he amused himself by torturing people. It was the pagans who created such false ideas that we associate with hell. The word hell, itself, is a mistranslation and a misnomer. While the original word “hell” means to conceal, cover over, the Greek word at its source has no such meaning. So many popular translations also confuse hell with hades—or the grave. Jesus descended into lower regions but never once did he set foot in hell. If your translation disagrees, it needs reformed.

The word in the Bible that is most often translated “hell” is Gehenna. But contrary to the meaning of the word hell, Gehenna was not a concealed, covered-over place. It was a wide-open, burning, garbage dump, spread out for all to see. This was a picture reserved for the Jews. The word Gehenna is never used with non-Jewish audiences. Paul never mentions it once, nor does the “gospel for gentiles” (John).

And what of the fire? Fire creates unbearable pain, of course. But is the fire of judgment literal, or could it be figurative? Surely Jesus was painting a picture of sheer, unspeakable agony. If you grew up believing in the age-old view of hell, it has to be literal. And surely the branches in Christ which bear no fruit will be burned with literal fire (even though they are not literal branches). By the same token, when Jesus says his Father prunes the fruitful branches, do we take this literally, as if pruning shears are used to cut off the limbs of Christians? Consider other occurrences of “fire” in the New Testament. Jesus said everyone would be salted with fire (not just the lost) and that the Holy Spirit would baptize with fire. Is the Holy Spirit to engulf us with burning flames? Is this literal or figurative?

I hope it is clear to all that the fire spoken of in Isaiah 42 is a figure of judgment and not literal fire, as it speaks of God’s chosen people being subject to flaming wrath, surrounded by fire and even burned. Not a word of it is literal.

Who gave up Jacob to those who took away his goods, and Israel to his attackers? Did not the Lord? he against whom they did wrong, and in whose ways they would not go, turning away from his teaching. For this reason he let loose on him the heat of his wrath, and his strength was like a flame; and it put fire round about him, but he did not see it; he was burned, but did not take it to heart. (Isa 42:24-25)

If someone mistreats us, are we to heap burning coals of fire upon him? Yes we are, but this is figurative speech as it relates to overcoming evil with good. This fire produces a good result. Yet I am sure many Christians throughout history saw this verse as a license to make hell hotter for their adversaries. Even so, the discomfort in the conscience caused by receiving good for evil can hardly compare to the pain of burning your enemy’s flesh. Perhaps this is the fire into which God’s enemies will be cast. God, himself is a consuming fire. He makes his ministers a flame of fire. Are they literal fires? Are his ministers in flaming agony? How should we go about deciding when fire is to be taken literally and when it is a figure of speech? Can death be a thing thrown into a burning lake?

Does scripture alone form our concept of God’s judgment, or do our ancestral preconceptions skew our interpretation of scripture? I would suggest the scriptures are not nearly as articulate, detailed or cruel as the pervading picture of hell we have, even today. I am also suggesting that hell has been embellished when it was most effective in scaring and controlling the masses. Scripture clearly shows God’s wrath. But God is not defined as wrath. God is (is equated to) love. Since love defines God, love must be the basis for all he does. Love includes judgment and wrath, but wrath does not define God.

Over the centuries the people whose foremost image of God was that of  a wrathful and vengeful tyrant, were the quickest to turn up the heat on those outside their fold. Their hardened hearts devised the most graphic embellishments of  the coming judgment, amplifying the pain and torment exponentially. If our judgments toward others will be used as a standard for us, we should be very careful. If we continue to see God’s highest passion as being a torturer of souls (especially those we dislike), our hearts will be likewise affected and our actions will follow suit. Fixating on wrath will condemn the believer and those in his world to an unmerciful, legalistic and vengeful kind of existence. Just check the past.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

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  1. One scripture I forgot to include:
    Dan 12:2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

    Shame and contempt are in harmony with the contempt expressed by gnashing the teeth.

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