Afterlife? What about that other place?
Quick Introduction Video:
Hespeler, 7 May, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Revelation 20:4-10, Psalm 6, Mark 9:42-49
decided that this year, in this season after Easter, I wanted to focus on the whole idea of an afterlife. For many people the promise of heaven is what the Christian faith is all about. In fact there are Christians who will look you straight in the eye and tell you that Christian faith and practice is something that you just have to put up with now for the sake of a tremendous reward later.
I mean, they
may not say it in so many words, but the message seems to be: “I don’t
really like all of this churchy stuff and I hardly want to be good and moral
all the time. In fact I’m kind of miserable, but it is only because someday,
after I die I’m going to be able to go to heaven and that will make it all
worthwhile. Heaven, in other words, is supposed to be the carrot that entices
us to be good and that there really is no other good reason to be good.
I have met many Christians over the years that seem to take that approach and I’ve got to say that I have never found it compelling. For me, we shouldn’t have to wait until someday and after we have died in order for this to be worthwhile. I’m not saying, of course, that our faith should never challenge us by making us uncomfortable or lead us to do what, in the moment, we don’t feel like doing, but the blessings that Christ promises us must be for this world, not just for the next. For that reason, I have often not wanted to dwell on the afterlife and have not preached on it often. This is not because I don’t believe in it – I do – but merely because I feel that we have been inclined to put too much emphasis on it.
But now, I wanted to counterbalance that tendency by spending some time focussing on the meaning of the afterlife. But, of course, when you talk about the afterlife, you can’t just focus on the carrot – the reward that is supposed to be waiting for us in heaven. There is also, in the Christian tradition, a stick. Again and again Christians have used the fear of another place – a place called hell – not to entice people to be good but rather to scare them out of being bad.
Now, hell, fire and brimstone have not generally been the major themes of the churches that I have attended over the years. But I do remember one time when I was in the United States and went, with a group of friends, to visit a Church on a Sunday morning and I had to sit through about an hour long sermon that was essentially an exhaustive description of all the pain, terror and suffering that was surely waiting in Hell for all of those evil people in the world who did not believe the same thing as the good fellow who was preaching the sermon that morning.
So I’m not naive. I know that hell has been a major theme in Christian preaching for a very long time. For centuries preachers have used imagery of Hell to frighten people into behaving in certain ways. But not all of that imagery comes from the Bible. Traditions of and descriptions of Hell have grown and changed dramatically through the centuries. For example, much of our idea of what Hell is like comes not from the Bible but from a fourteenth century book called Inferno written by a man named Dante. Why the word hell itself is not even a biblical word, it is an Old English word. It was the name for the place that pagan Anglo-Saxons believed people went after they died. So the question is what does the Bible actually teach about the place that we affectionately call hell?
So, as I say, hell is not a Biblical word. So what is the Biblical word? There are a few. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that is used to describe the place of the dead is Sheol. It is not entirely clear what Sheol is because no literal descriptions are offered. One thing that is clear is that they saw it as a real place underneath the earth. They imagined the universe in very simplistic and primitive terms. The universe was like a triple layer cake. The top layer was Heaven above, the middle layer was the earth and the bottom layer was this place called Sheol. This description of the universe is taken for granted in many places in the Old Testament, and we should not read it as some kind of divine revelation of the actual shape of the universe but rather as the Bible speaking in terms that the people of that time could relate to.
But, in addition to being a literal place, ancient Hebrews also believed that Sheol was the place where people went after they died – all people apparently. Sheol for them was not a place of punishment or torment, but neither was it a place of reward, it was just kind of a place where you went. We read about their attitude towards the place in our Psalm this morning: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” It hardly sounds like much of an existence, does it? No remembrance, no ability to speak, you are just there. So Sheol doesn’t really have much connection with our modern concept of hell, for that we need to turn to the New Testament.
Jesus, in the New Testament, does indeed talk about a place called hell. Or, at least, he uses a word that got translated into that Old English word hell in our Bibles. So, in our reading this morning, Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” So what kind of a place is Jesus talking about when he says that?
Well the word that Jesus actually uses there is the word Gehenna. Even though the gospels were written in Greek, Gehenna is not a Greek word, it is an Aramaic word. Aramaic was the language that Jesus actually spoke so that means that the gospel writers did not translate the word into Greek but retained the actual word that Jesus probably said. That does not happen often in the New Testament and it is always important when it does.
So what did the word Gehenna mean to first century Aramaic speakers like Jesus? Well, that is the puzzling thing because we know exactly what it meant. Gehenna was an actual place – I mean a real earthly geographical location that you could actually visit and can still visit to this very day. Gehenna literally means “the Valley of the Son of Hinnom” and was an actual piece of land, a valley that had once belonged to the family of a man named Hinnom. The valley can still be found to this very day in the City of Jerusalem. It is the valley that is found on the southern and western side of Mount Zion where the temple of the Lord once stood and where the Dome of the Rock stands today.
Yet clearly, when Jesus refers to this place called Gehenna, he had more than just an ordinary valley outside of Jerusalem in mind. He speaks of it, in fact, as the very last place you would ever want to go – a place that you would be willing to pay an arm or a leg (or an eye) not to have to go there. I mean, I have heard of cities that have bad neighbourhoods but that sounds a little bit extreme!
What’s more, Jesus describes Gehenna as a place of “unquenchable fire” and a place “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” What would that have to do with what is today a fairly ordinary looking valley in the heart of Jerusalem? Clearly Jesus is using this valley as a metaphor for something. Somehow this valley carried a meaning that gave people a picture of some truly horrible fate that awaited some people after they died.
The most likely explanation seems to be that, in Jesus’ time, this particular valley just happened to be the place in Jerusalem where people left their garbage. It was the Jerusalem municipal landfill, the garbage dump. That would certainly explain why Jesus would speak of it as a place that people would certainly not want to go – the kind of place that you would give your right arm to not end up in. People did up living on the local trash heaps, you know. In fact, in some places people still do. They somehow manage to eke out an existence living off other people’s garbage but it is not the kind of life that anyone would choose.
It also explains the imagery of ever burning fires and worms continually feasting on rotting organic matter. That is exactly the kind of description that you might take away from your average ancient city dump.
Obviously when Jesus talks about people ending up in Gehenna, the Jerusalem city dump, he doesn’t mean that people were going to end up in that literal location. He is using that place – and it does indeed appear to have been a pretty awful place – as a metaphor for something that might happen to some people after death. But what, exactly, is that metaphor supposed to be? Of course, traditionally, the interpretation of that passage has been that Jesus was saying that, after some people died, they would be sent to a place where they spend the rest of the eternity in continual fully conscious torment. I suppose that is possible. But is that really the only thing that Jesus could have meant by referring to such a place?
If I were to say to you, “You’re going to wind up in the dump,” and you knew very well that you had no business there and that I was not literally sending you on an errand to the Waterloo Regional Landfill, how would you understand me? Would it seem that I was consigning you to an eternity of conscious suffering, especially if I happened to mention that there had been a tire fire burning in the dump non-stop since last week and the place was full of worms feasting on the garbage? Well, perhaps. But isn’t it equally possible that I might be rejecting you in some other way – essentially calling you a piece of garbage or suggesting that you were useless. Without more information and some context, how could you be sure what I meant?
And that is the problem with symbolic language; you can’t quite pin it down and know what exactly a speaker means. For two thousand years Christians have been thinking about and adorning the idea of hell with their own imaginations of the worst kind of torment in this never ending quest to create a stick that they can use to goad people into behaving in certain ways. But when you go back and try and load all of that onto a few brief references that Jesus made to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, I can’t help but wonder whether we might be pushing it a little bit.
Is there a hell awaiting the wicked of this earth after they die? Well, I can tell you one thing, I don’t believe that anyone is going to be thrown into Dante’s Inferno or that horrible place of eternal conscious torment that was once described to me in a sermon. Those are simply examples of people trying to nail down the description of something that cannot be described in human terms.
I also do not doubt that Jesus warned us against going astray in this life – that there are actions you can take that you should avoid at any cost. I also believe that he warned that one of the consequences of such actions would be that you were thrown upon a garbage heap that I suspect represented rejection and alienation from God, but I am not certain he intended to mean to include eternal conscious torment. In other words, I would say that I believe in hell, I am just not entirely certain that hell means exactly what Christian tradition has said that it means.
But more important than that, I do not believe that the God I have come to know through Jesus Christ is one who is all that interested in motivating us to be good through a carrot and stick approach. Yes, he is looking for certain things from us and rejoices when we trust him, act in faith and work for the kingdom of God in this world. But God, like any good parent, knows that the threat of punishment can only do so much to shape a child’s behaviours and is not actually all that helpful at teaching the child to internalize the values of the parent. God doesn’t just want to control our actions, he wants to transform us. That is why he sent Jesus, that is why he raised him from the dead and promised that we would be raised too. It is all about grace and love and God believing in us, not about him scaring us into behaving in certain ways with the threat of hell.
That is why I would say that, whatever exactly it means, hell or Gehenna should not be at the centre of our thinking about the afterlife. The Christian life is not about avoiding punishment. It is not even really about a heavenly reward. It is about meeting a God whose love for us (made real in Jesus Christ) is so powerful that it can transform our here and now.