In Search of the Loving God

A large excerpt from Chapter 15:

Defaming the Name of God - Eternal Hell

An illuminated letter W hile getting to know a neighbor of mine, we came to realize we had an interest in yoga and meditation in common. But when I used the word “God,” as I frequently do, she became quite hostile. “I don’t believe in God,” she said. I asked her what she did believe in, and she responded with a sublime description of a cosmic power of love which she was aware of when she meditated, when she sat on the top of a hill at sunset, taking in the stillness and beauty around her. It was a personal power to her, and it made her joyful and inspired when she took the time to inwardly commune with it. I don’t remember the exact words she used, but I do remember thinking it was an excellent description of God. I told her this, but she wasn’t impressed. She explained that God was someone who made you feel guilty about sex, and who threatened to send you to burn forever in hell if you didn’t do what He wanted. She said she was afraid of God until she realized He didn’t exist. She’d spent years getting over her Christian upbringing, and wasn’t going to get involved with all that again. She was even suspicious of my enthusiasm for God. Although she seemed to like me, she also appeared to be on guard against some hidden “nasty” which might pop up out of the woodwork as a consequence of my belief in God. I tried to explain that the church had given her a very unfortunate view of God, and that in reality the cosmic love she experienced was the essence of God, and was how I experienced Him. I may have sown some seeds, but they were not about to sprout in a hurry. I gained the distinct impression she resented having her very special and important cosmic power of love compared to something she loathed as much as “God.”

This woman’s attitude is not an uncommon one. I have met many people who find the concept of God distasteful, to the extent that they squirm at the very mention of the word, yet who lovingly help others, and are quite clearly looking for a spiritual side to life, even if they wouldn’t use the word “spiritual” to describe it. How did these people come to gain this impression of God? How has much of society come to see Him as a kind of “anti-Santa Claus” — a mythological tyrant people are pressed into believing in during childhood, who watches over their every move, noting down any mistake for eventual punishment, and never letting them know whether they are doomed to burn in hell forever, or whether they have not yet been quite so bad that they might not just be allowed into heaven on sufferance? Fear is the watchword for this concept of God: fear you will earn eternal torture in hell if you have too much fun, or don’t conform obediently to what those in authority expect of you.

How did the good name of God get defamed in this way? It almost seems superfluous to even ask this question. It is supremely obvious that the church has caused it — by preaching, over the centuries, of the sinfulness and shamefulness of sex, and of the wrath of God that results in eternal punishment in the fires of hell. A better question would be: “Why has the church defamed the good name of God in this way?” The short answer is that it was done to control people. The medieval church didn’t care whether people were happy. It didn’t even care what God wanted. It was just intent, in its megalomania, on controlling people, and making people bow down to worship it, and used whatever means it could to achieve this end. Although it used every physical threat and method of violence it could to enforce compliance, including the three degrees of torture and burning people alive at the stake, it found this was not enough. Not everybody could be controlled this way. Some preferred to die rather than sacrifice their integrity, putting their faith in a better life to come, either on this earth again or in heaven. The church also found it necessary to foster the belief that there was no second chance, and if you didn’t do what the church said you would simply be condemned to everlasting punishment in hell when you died.

The modern church has retreated from this “hell-fire and brimstone” preaching to some extent. The wife of a Pentecostal pastor I know even went as far as to say that there is no place for hell-fire teaching in the modern church. Many modern Christians bask in teachings of God’s love, and are rarely confronted with hell. Their attitude is often like that of a certain young woman, earlier this century, who wrote that, although her church believed in hell, she felt God really was friendly, and organized the world in such a way that things always worked out well in the end.[1]

But although the teaching about everlasting hell is not stressed, it has not been renounced by Christianity, and is still there in the background. This has two unfortunate consequences. Firstly, the impression of the public that the church believes in a God who punishes people forever in hell persists, even though the love of God is preached much more often than hell these days. Secondly, it leaves even the most forward-looking churches, where the love of God is held high, open to itinerant “hell-fire and brimstone” preachers coming in and sowing ghastly fears amongst their congregations. I was in a church where this happened. A visiting preacher played on the fact that we don’t know when we might die: it could be next year. Then a little later in the sermon he said it could be next month. Each time he returned to the point, the time grew closer: it could be tomorrow, or in five minutes. Hadn’t we better confess our sins and repent now, rather than run the risk of burning forever in hell? The normally happy and joyous congregation were greatly subdued after this service, and sour looks were on the faces of many.

I think many Christians would like not to have to believe in hell, but consider they must, because this traditional doctrine appears to be supported by a number of Jesus’ teachings in the Bible. My aim, in this chapter, is to help remove this burden from Christianity, by demonstrating that the support for the doctrine of everlasting punishment in the Bible is only apparent — a result of wrong translations from the Greek into modern languages, compounded by misinterpretations based on looking at the Bible in the wrong way.

In Chapter 11 I pointed out that the word “hell,” in the Gospels, is used to translate two different words Jesus used. In the Greek, these two words are Gehenna and Hades. Gehenna was the Greek word for the “Valley of (Ben) Hinnom,” a deep ravine south of Jerusalem which was used as the city’s garbage dump, and had been used in the past for child sacrifice. If you look at the map of Jerusalem in the back of most Bibles, you will see the Valley of Hinnom at the bottom of it. That this is what Gehenna was, and that Jesus was using it as a metaphor for something else is acknowledged by even the most conservative Christian authorities. Biblical Greek dictionaries define Gehenna as the valley of Hinnom, a valley near Jerusalem, used in a figurative way to refer to the place or state of everlasting punishment.[2] There is no evidence, though, that Jesus is using it figuratively to refer to a place of punishment after death, and it is much more reasonable to suppose he is referring to the corrosive state of mind people get into in the here-and-now when they sin. The main reason for my saying this is that Jesus never actually associates Gehenna with what happens after death, and on the one occasion where Jesus does talk about a place of punishment after death, in the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), he calls it Hades (the underworld), not Gehenna. There is also no mention in this story of the Rich man’s punishment being “eternal” or “forever,” although it is made clear he can’t avoid his punishment, and that he is in a fiery place of torment. This story does say there is an impassable “chasm” between heaven and Hades, which can’t be crossed by those on either side. Some take this as indicating punishment in Hades is forever, however this just doesn’t follow. There is also an impassable gulf between those serving a term in a maximum security prison and those outside. The prisoner can’t get out (at least that’s the intention), and members of the public can’t get in; the best they can do is very occasionally talk to a prisoner distantly, through a wall of glass, or a grille, rather like Abraham talks to the rich man in the story. This doesn’t mean the prisoner will not be let out at the end of his term, though.

The presence of fire and torment are the only two “hellish” attributes Gehenna and Hades have in common, except for the fact that medieval, and some modern, Bibles translate both words as “hell.” There is, however, one reassuring thing both have in common, and that is that there is no suggestion that the torment of either is an everlasting state. Having established this for Hades, let’s look at Gehenna. Most of the time Jesus simply refers to Gehenna without further describing it, as his listeners would have known what a hot, stinking wasteland it was — he didn’t need to elaborate on it. On one occasion, though, Jesus did say,

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell [Gehenna], where the fire never goes out.” (Mark 9:43)
The fire never going out has been taken to mean that punishment there is forever. However, there is a more mundane explanation for it. In fact, this merely accords with what is known of the Valley of Hinnom, that it had a garbage fire which literally never went out, from one year’s end to the next. There is no suggestion that peoples’ “punishment” in the state of mind figuratively referred to as Gehenna never ends, although the comparison with a place where the fire never goes out could be being used to reinforce the message that misery is unending while you remain immersed in sin. In relation to the other part of this passage, Jesus is not literally advocating that we cut off our hands if they offend us. There isn’t any physical part of our body which causes us to sin and live in the garbage dump of misery. Rather it is what our selfish motivations and bad habits cause us do with our hands which make us miserable, and it is these motivations and habits Jesus is advising us to cut away, even if at first we might feel “maimed,” not our whole selves, without them. The reward is “life” in the kingdom of God.

The here-and-now nature of Gehenna comes out clearly in this passage, and, as we shall see, this is true of all Jesus’ references to Gehenna. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

“You have heard that it was said to people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell [Gehenna].” (Matt 5:21–22)
Here Jesus draws two parallel comparisons between acts which bring a legal penalty, and behavior which, although not illegal, brings unfortunate consequences to the doer. The Greek word translated as “judgment” is crisis, which has the basic meaning of “separation.” The modern words “criminal” and “criterion” both come from it; a criminal is someone who is separated from society, and a criterion is a basis for separating things. Judgment is just one possible meaning of this word, which like many Greek words has a wide range of meaning, depending on context: in some contexts it simply means separation, with no sense of it being imposed as a judgment, and in these cases the translation as “judgment” is inappropriate. Murder would, of course, have been judged, and the most severe kind of separation was imposed on those found guilty of it: separation from their life through capital punishment. Jesus is saying getting angry with your brother is also a thing to be avoided, as this too leads to a type of separation, although not such a drastic one. Anger brings isolation from your fellow human beings, and separation from the peace of God’s presence. Anyone used to living in harmony with friends, and dwelling in God’s peace, who has given way to anger, can testify to this. I can myself. Days can pass before you regain that “peace of God which passes all understanding,” even after you have thoroughly repented of the anger, and the barriers created between you and the person you were angry with can last for years, and even be permanent. This is what Jesus is warning of here. He reinforces this with the parallel illustration of someone saying “Raca” to his brother. Saying this particular word (which may mean something like “empty head”) was an offense punishable by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court. But Jesus points out that saying anything nasty to someone else, such as calling them a fool, is to be avoided, even if there is no law against it, because it will set fire to your happiness and peace of mind, and land you in that mental garbage dump of misery Jesus likened to Gehenna. Jesus certainly seems to be talking about the here-and-now, on-this-earth, consequences of these actions, rather than any after-death punishment. He makes it abundantly clear that this is in fact what he is doing, when he immediately follows these illustrations with advice about the importance of being reconciled with people so you can pray well, and so you can avoid the retaliation which can come when people hate you — both here-and-now concerns:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matt 5:23–26)
Jesus goes on to say,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell [Gehenna]. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell [Gehenna].” (Matt 5:27–30)
This is similar to the reference to Gehenna we looked at in the book of Mark, though this talks about your “eye” causing you to sin as well as your “hand.” In fact the Mark passage goes on to talk about the “eye,” and even the “foot,” leading you into sin — I just didn’t quote all of it. Whereas the “hand” and the “foot” refer to motivations and habits which can lead us astray, the “eye” refers to the power of the senses to do so, and lead us into a life of depravity and misery. Again, Jesus is not suggesting bodily mutilation, as, after all, even a blind man can fall prey to lust. What he is admonishing us to “gouge out” is the lust itself: the extension of our senses and imaginations out into temptation in the world. Rather we should withdraw our senses into the peace within ourselves, and find the incomparable joy of seeking the kingdom of God “within.” The twentieth century Indian saint, Sri Yukteswar, had advice for his disciples which aptly illustrates this teaching of Jesus:
“Do not allow yourself to be thrashed by the provoking whip of a beautiful face. How can sense slaves enjoy the world? Its subtle flavors escape them…All nice discriminations are lost to the man of elemental lusts… “Conserve your powers. Be like the capacious ocean, absorb- ing quietly all the tributary rivers of the senses…Roam in the world as a lion of self-control; don’t let the frogs of sense weak- ness kick you around.”[3]
Further on in Matthew Jesus says,
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna]. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matt 10:28–31)
Here he is alluding to the fact that the depravity of living in a worldly way, in hell, rather than relying on God for our needs, destroys both the serenity of the soul, and the health of the body.

Matthew 18:7–9 is another “if your eye causes you to sin” passage, this time almost an exact repeat of the passage in Mark. Then, in attacking the pride and selfishness of the intelligentsia, Jesus says,

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell [Gehenna] as you are.” (Matt 23:14–15)
Since Jesus referred to these Pharisees as being “sons of Gehenna,” it follows they were living in Gehenna, or one way or another were being molded by it during their lives here on earth. This could only be possible if Gehenna were a here-and-now state of mind engendered through worldliness, rather than a place or state of punishment after death. With this verse the argument against everlasting punishment in hell could rest its case. There are, however, a few more passages which need explaining, and a number of issues which must be addressed, if there is to be a consistent Biblical basis for not believing in everlasting punishment...

This chapter goes on to address the remaining references to hell and to the concept of everlasting punishment which is shown to arise as a result of a mis-translation from the Greek. The Biblical basis for an "unforgiveable sin" is debunked in Chapter 11 of this book.

From: In Search of the Loving God by Mark Mason
Copyright © 1997.

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