More than a decade ago, I stood outside in a parking lot on a dark, October evening with a number of college students. I want to imagine that we were cold while we waited in line, but who am I kidding? This was Texas. Still warm enough, I think we were certainly intrigued and maybe a little nervous while we waited.
We had decided to go to a Hell House. This was becoming a bit of a phenomenon. Some churches were mashing up the genre of a haunted house with the fundamentalist theology of hell. Onlookers were invited to walk through the rooms where they would see dramatized versions of people committing terrible sins and then… they would end up in hell. (By the way, there was no nuance of complexity in the life situations, and I also don’t consider some of these things to be sin). We would also walk by their hellish fate and see that they were tormented for all of eternity. The clear message was, you don’t want to end up like them, do you?
This tour concluded with a room where members of the church were present to pray the sinner’s prayer with you so you would spend your eternity in heaven instead of hell.
We did not stay for that part. We ended up at this Hell House because we watched a documentary together with the same name, and we were curious to see it in action. We processed before and afterward. We were also from a church community, but we had a different view of this.
Last week, I read an interesting article in the New York Times by David Bently Hart entitled, Opinion: Why Do People Believe in Hell? He writes,
No truly accomplished New Testament scholar, for instance, believes that later Christianity’s opulent mythology of God’s eternal torture chamber is clearly present in the scriptural texts. It’s entirely absent from St. Paul’s writings; the only eschatological fire he ever mentions brings salvation to those whom it tries (1 Corinthians 3:15). Neither is it found in the other New Testament epistles, or in any extant documents (like the Didache) from the earliest post-apostolic period. There are a few terrible, surreal, allegorical images of judgment in the Book of Revelation, but nothing that, properly read, yields a clear doctrine of eternal torment. Even the frightening language used by Jesus in the Gospels, when read in the original Greek, fails to deliver the infernal dogmas we casually assume to be there.
On the other hand, many New Testament passages seem — and not metaphorically — to promise the eventual salvation of everyone. For example: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18) Or: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) Or: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) (Or: John 13:32; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11; and others.)
Hart believes that the concept of hell is psychologically alluring. (It’s for others, of course.)
I also think of my late friend and colleague, the Rev. Keith Wright, who wrote a book entitled, The Hell Jesus Never Intended. He looks at the Bible exegetically and also raises questions ethically. The concept of hell, as it was interpreted in that Hell House, isn’t found clearly in the Biblical texts as some would like to believe.
This is all on my mind because the Revised Common Lectionary, a calendar of Biblical texts to be read in worship, will soon include the section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks about adultery, lust, and anger and says things like, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Only in the Greek text, he says more literally, “It is better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.”
Gehenna was a forever burning trash heap on the outskirts of Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom. It’s this-earthly. And it makes me wonder…
Are there ways — a myriad of them — in which we find ourselves living a bit of a half-life, when instead, we are invited continually into fullness? And are there ways — a myriad of them — in which we create hellish conditions for some, right here and often systematically, when instead, we are called continually to participate in collective justice and wholeness?
I think so. And I’m glad those invitations remain.
If anything is consistent and eternal, perhaps it’s those. I’m going to keep pondering these things this week…