Ever seen people picketing on the street corner holding a sign with something about hell written on it?
I remember a time a few years ago in Colorado Springs when I saw a "Christian" who was picketing, holding a sign that said, Burn in Hell
Sinners as he yelled venomous messages of hatred to passersby on the
street, justifying it by saying that the prophets of old spoke of
destruction and ruin and so should we.
"Aren't we to call people to repentance?" he shot back at me when I had asked him why he was doing this and if he thought it was effective.
"Hell is about repentance!" he said confidently.
This is why the world knows more about what Christianity is against than what it is for.
Ever done a study on the word "hell" in the Scriptures? The past few weeks I've been doing a word study on it.
I'm not sure why I have never done a word study on hell before. Maybe its because I've always believed in the fact that there is a hell - ultimately believing that it is eternal separation from the presence of God Almighty. But I've also been embarrassed by the ways that Christians have abused, misinterpreted and misrepresented hell.
As I was doing this study I had the image of this picketer in my mind's eye.
What I found during this study surprised me.
Here's what I found...
Euphemism for Hell: Sometimes when Jesus taught he used a euphemism for hell, which he
described as a place where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Jesus used that euphemism six times in Matthew (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13;
24:51 and 25:30) and one time in Luke (13:28). Each of those times were
when he was telling stories - and almost entirely when speaking to his
One of the biblical words for hell is gahenna, which refers to the
Hinnom Valley just outside of the city walls in Jerusalem. When I
studied for a semester in Israel I spent many an afternoon running
around barefoot in the lush grass playing Ultimate Frisbee with other
students.It's a beautiful park today, but thousands of years ago it was an awful place. Absolutely awful.
The Hinnom Valley was said to be a place where trash and refuse was
taken outside of the city and where there were fires burning at all
times. It was also at this place where pagans went and sacrificed their
infant children in this valley to the gods, specfically the god Molech
as an act of worship - a detestable place! Shouts and screams and
shrieks would come from this valley, as one would only imagine in
seeing and hearing infants sacrificed and thrown into fire by their own
parents!Historians recorded that wild animals would wander around eating the remains. It was said that these wild animals would gnash their teeth together as they would wander around looking for food.
A place of fire...where there is weeping...and gnashing of teeth. The Valley of (ben) Hinnom. Check out these references to the Hinnom Valley in the Old Testament. When Jesus used the phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth" it would have drudged up horrific images in the minds of those Jewish listeners who knew exactly what he was referring to... Jesus intended to make a graphic, detestable point that turned the stomachs of those who were in earshot.
Other words for hell: In addition to the Hinnom Valley or gahenna, there are other words that have been used for hell. One is the Old Testament word sheol (translated in the Revised Version as "lowest pit," "pit" or "grave" and found many times in Genesis, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Deuteronomy and the Psalms). Another word used for hell has been hades.
Explicit mention of hell in the New Testament: Explicitly, hell is mentioned only fourteen times in the Bible [twelve times by Jesus in the gospels - Matthew (7), Mark (3), Luke (2) - and once in both James and 2 Peter].
Here is the context around each of those fourteen references of hell:
-Mt 10:28: Jesus is teaching the disciples
-Mt 18:9: he teaches the disciples again
-Mt 23:15, 33: the famous "Woe Chapter" - Jesus rips the Pharisees a new one.
-Mk 9:43, 45, 47: Jesus speaks again to his disciples by way of intruction
-Luke 12: he's speaking to the disciples and a religious crowd
-Luke 16: uses narrative to address the Pharisees' complaint
-James 3:6 speaks of hell by talking about the destructive nature of the tongue
-In 2 Peter 2:4 Peter addresses false teachers in this section.
Reflections on the explicit mention of hell: Here are some conclusions that can be drawn from the passages I just listed.
-when Jesus spoke about hell he used it mostly to teach and instruct (nine times he used it to teach as a rabbi to his disciples) not to rebuke or call people to repentance.
-he uses it in story format when talking to the religious experts
-He was most emotional around the religious. The only time he talks about hell when ripping on people was with the most religious people in the land - the Pharisees.
And finally - catch this - Jesus never mentions hell to those who are irreligious.
Not once. Yeah, seriously. Look it up.
Not to the women caught in adultery, nor the woman at the well. Not the lepers. Not to Zacchaeus nor the other oppressive tax collectors eating at his house. Not to the man who cut himself, lived in a cave and was demon-possessed. Jesus spoke about hell only around those who are religious; those who thought they had their act together, who were striving to have all of their religious ducks in a row, who dotted their spiritual i's, who carefully minded their moral p's and q's.
Which has some seriously implications for those of us who are attempting to follow in the ways - and The Way - of Jesus and raises many questions regarding how we speak of hell to those who are far from God.
Makes me want to say to the picketing guy on the street who thinks he is doing something that honors God: put your sign away.
All this makes me believe that we might need to rethink our approach to hell.
Do I believe there is a hell?
Do I think we need to be soft on repentance or we need to shy away from it because its politically incorrect?
No, but I do think that we need to understand our context and communicate the message of Jesus that gives a clear and accurate portrayal of who he was - with compassion and truthfulness.
But do I believe that as Christians that we need to rethink our approach to this topic?