Is “Hell” a key tenet of the Christian faith?
Quite a number of you have mentioned the current controversy about the PR surrounding a book by Rob Bell, a prominent pastor in Grand Rapids. Since neither I nor almost anyone else has read the book (“Love Wins”), which is just being released today, I have no interest in pretending I know exactly what he says.
What I do want to respond to is the claim of several prominent Christian teachers that eternal torment in “hell” is a key tenet of genuine Christian faith. If it is, the writers of the New Testament didn’t know it.
“Judgment” and “justice” are key biblical issues, and a key part of the Judeo-Christian hope is that God will bring a final judgment—ie., a re-ordering of society so that the relationships between people are what they ought to be in the broadest and most wholesome sense of that hope.
However, “hell” as a word describing separation from God is a very small part of the imagery the biblical writers use to describe the future of those who reject God’s re-ordering of human society.
The word “hell” appears 16 times in the NIV. Three are a mistranslation of the word “Hades,” which means “the place of the dead.” In the other 13 instances, “hell” is probably a terrible translation of the word “Gehenna” (literally, “garden of Hinnom”), which actually referred to a place just outside the walls of Jerusalem. In my next blog, I will recount the history of how this garden became a garbage pit, and I want to also note some of the other imagery used in the Bible to speak of separation from God and from one another. In this post, I just want to note the tragic misrepresentation being fostered by those who say “hell” is crucial to New Testament theology.
Of the 13 uses of “Gehenna” in New Testament writings, seven are in Matthew and are all spoken from Jesus’ mouth. Jesus would have walked by this location periodically when he was in Jerusalem. There are three uses in Mark—all are repeats of the Matthew passages—and there is one use in Luke, which is also is a repeat. (John’s gospel contains no uses of the word “hell.”)
So, we have seven unique instances in the gospels using “Gehenna” as a warning by Jesus not to turn one’s life into “garbage.” Of these seven, three are in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where they are part of a section contrasting what the current church moralists/preacher/scholars (the Pharisees) taught as “righteousness” with what Jesus taught is faithfulness and righteousness. One instance is in a warning to the 12 apostles—again, a warning to church leaders (Matthew 10). One is in a warning to those who “want to be greatest in the kingdom of God”—again, a warning to church leaders who in their pride may destroy God’s “little ones” (Matthew 18). And, the final two warnings are also warnings to the current church leaders and Bible scholars—the Pharisees—whom Jesus scorches in Matthew 23.
In summary, Jesus warns of “hell” seven times, and all seven are in their contexts warnings to church leaders. Rob Bell is a church leader. So, are all his prominent critics. So, am I. Perhaps, we should all draw some conclusions from when Jesus used the word “Gehenna” as a warning about our role and our pride?
There are only two other occurrences of “Gehenna” in all of the New Testament. James 3 refers to the damage the human tongue—especially the tongue of Christian teachers—can do right now with words that are “set on fire by hell.” In 2 Peter 3, “hell” actually refers to the place rebellious angels who have chosen separation from God reside, but the context is again a warning to church leaders who would use their role and power to use and abuse and seduce people.
In all, eight of nine unique occurrences of “Gehenna” in the New Testament are primarily warnings to church/religious leaders not to end up in the garbage pit of history. The other unique reference warns all of us, but especially Christian teachers, that we can light the fires of hell right now by using our words loosely and hurtfully. And, yes, there are other images describing separation from God in the New Testament. Let’s look the imagery of Gehenna itself and the other New Testament imagery involving separation from God in the next two posts.