“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matt 5:30)How could a God of love send people to a place called hell? Before I address this question, I want to give a biblical understanding of the word ‘hell.’ In early Christian writings, images of hell are drawn up to look like torture chambers, surrounded by suffering people in fire and extreme pain. During the Middle Ages, such images of hell are commonly used by the Church to pose the question: “Do you choose heaven or hell?” The powerful Church in Europe then was the de-facto religious choice for salvation for the common folks. Many come into the Church out of fear. Oxford Professor John McManners, writes that:
“For much of Christian history the condemnation of unbelievers and evil-doers to the eternal torments of hell has not only been a formal item of Christian belief but a powerful and vividly portrayed aspect of the way in which the church has sought to ensure conformity of belief and reformation of life.” (John McManners, ed, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Oxford: OUP, 1990, 566)Hell can be a potent political weapon for the establishment at that time, even now. Jesus uses hell very differently. In the New Testament, the Greek word for hell ‘Gehenna,’ appears 12 times. Out of these, Matthew registers an astonishing 7 times in total. That’s more than half in the entire New Testament! Two comments can be made.
Firstly, Matthew is written to a Jewish audience who are familiar with the history of the Jewish nation. They would have been familiar with a place called Hinnom, a valley south of Jerusalem. In this valley lies one of the most horrible scenes where the wicked kings Ahaz and Manasseh made human sacrifices to the pagan gods such as Molech (2 Kgs 16:3). The hearers would have known straightaway what ‘Gehenna’ stands for as it reminded them of Hinnom. In ancient times, Hinnom was referred to as the unwanted place, a garbage dump for the city. It is like a Jew who understands what Auschwitz represents or like a Cambodian who understands what ‘killing fields’ means. So, for the Jewish hearer at that time, ‘gehenna’ represents a place people will actively shun and avoid going to. Hence, it is a reasonable assumption that Jesus is telling hearers that the actions that lead to hell are to be avoided. He says such actions are to be utterly detested and not to be practiced. This refers to the breaking of fellowship (Matt 5:22), committing adultery (Matt 5:29), sinning (Matt 5:30, 18:9). In other words, the focus is on the direct emphasis of avoiding sin, rather than the indirect fear of going to hell per se.
The second thing is that Jesus makes references to ‘gehenna’ after promising true happiness in the kingdom of heaven. Incidentally, the word for heaven (‘ouranos’) appears 70 times in Matthew alone! If any of us are to claim that the exact opposite of hell is heaven, we will be hard-pressed to explain why there are 70 references to heaven while there are only 7 for hell. He begins the Sermon on the Mount with a lengthy treatise on the beatitudes, talking about the kingdom of heaven and all the benefits of being children of God. Mindful of the temptations that often beset an aspiring disciple, Jesus points out the need for his followers NOT to do the things that are clearly sinful. When he teaches one to let ‘yes’ be yes, and ‘no’ be no, he is strongly making reference to saying yes to the kingdom of heaven and no to sin (Matt 5:37). Anything else is of the devil (Matt 5:36). If one is not inside the kingdom of heaven, anywhere outside is plain hell. There is no halfway stand.
Gehenna: Future Concept or Present Reality?
While I believe that there is a place called ‘hell,’ there is a point in which our fear of hell becomes unhelpful, even unbiblical. This happens when we take Jesus’s use of ‘gehenna’ and blatantly apply them to fellow humans that if they do not believe in Jesus, they will go to hell. Who are we to judge people? Who are we to predict their future destination? If we judge a person fit to go to heaven or hell, then we are playing God. I am glad I am not the one to decide who goes where.
NT Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar argues convincingly that Jesus’s use of ‘gehenna’ is not a distant future concept, but a near present reality.
“The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life, they would burn in the next one.. . . It is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.” (NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, NY: Harper Collins, 2008, 176)Wright then points out the hellish environment in which the powerful Romans in the early centuries turned Jerusalem into a rubbish dump that resembled Hinnon. In AD70, Jerusalem was sacked, and its venerable temple destroyed when a rebel Jewish group fought against the Romans who eventually decimated the holiest Jewish place for their armed resistance.
I think Wright is spot on. If our present concept of hell is in terms of a futuristic torture chamber, many of us will harbor fears about our unsaved loved ones. We might even question our own faith about the love of God, like how can a God of love even create a place of eternal suffering? However, if we understand Jesus’ use of ‘Gehenna’ as another pointer toward growing closer to God, we will fear hell less and love God more. There is no fear in love. When Jesus uses ‘Gehenna’ in the gospels, he is not exactly telling the hearers new things, but a reminder of what they already know: Idolatry is sin. Sin has far worse consequences. In fact, the true fear is not the torture chamber, but the fear of eternal separation from God.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me state that I believe that there is a literal place called ‘hell.’ What I do not want is for people to use the concept of hell to strike fear into the hearts of people. If others want to prove that hell exists, fine. However, do not manipulate Jesus’ use of ‘gehenna’ in Matthew to justify that. Jesus is primarily concerned about drawing people close to him. Draw near in righteousness. Draw near by avoiding sin. Draw near fully and totally. Our duty? Focus on God. Focus on drawing people close to God. Cling on to Jesus, and Jesus will draw all unto him. Whatever is outside of God’s kingdom, let God be the true and fair Judge. He is the ultimate judge. Let us never forget that if Heaven is where God is, everywhere else without God is plain hell.
Jesus is no fear monger but a people lover. He judges fairly and justly from the standpoint of love, not fear.
THOUGHT: There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' (CS Lewis)