The word hell conjures up an image gained more from medieval imagery than from the earliest Christian writings. Just as many who were brought up to think of God as a bearded old gentleman sitting on a cloud decided that when they stopped believing in God, so many who were taught to think of hell as a literal underground location full of worms and fire, or for that matter as a kind of torture chamber at the center of God’s castle of heavenly delights, decided that when they stopped believing in that, so they stopped believing in hell. The first group decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of God, they must be atheists. The second decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of hell, they must be universalists.
There are of course better reasons for becoming a universalist. Many who occupy one off those positions have gone by a much more sophisticated route than the ones I just described. But, at least at a popular level, it is not the serious early Christian doctrine of final judgement that has been rejected but rather one or other gross caricature.
The most common New Testament word sometimes translated by hell is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the southwest corner of the old city of Jerusalem. There is to this day a valley at that point that bears the name Ge Hinnom… As with [Jesus’] talk about heaven, so with his talk of Gehenna: once Christian readers had been sufficiently removed from original meaning of the words, alternative images would come to mind, generated not by Jesus or the New Testament but by the stock of images, some of them extremely lurid, supplied by ancient and medieval folklore and imagination.
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. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else. His message to his contemporaries was stark and (as we would say today) political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) whose resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalmen into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” that is the primary meaning he had in mind.
It is therefore only by extension, and with difficulty, that we can extrapolate from the many gospel sayings that articulate this urgent, immediate warning to the deeper question of a warning about what may happen after death itself. The two parables that appear to address this question directly are, we should remember, parables, not actual descriptions of the afterlife. They use stock imagery from ancient Judaism, such as “Abraham’s bosom,” not to teach about what happens after death but to insist on justice and mercy within the present life. This is not to say that Jesus would have dissented from their implied picture of postmortem realities. It is, rather, to point out that to take the scene of Abraham, the Rich Man, and Lazarus literally is about as sensible as trying to find out the name of the Prodigal Son. Jesus simply didn’t say very much about the future life; he was, after all, primarily concerned to announce that God’s kingdom was coming “on earth as in heaven.” He gave (as we have seen) no fresh teaching on the question of the resurrection apart from dark hints that it was going to happen, and happen soon, to one person ahead of everyone else; for the rest, he was content to reinforce the normal Jewish picture. In the same way, he was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on postmoretem judgment apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horizontally anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation.
photo © 2007 Gareth Saunders | more info (via: Wylio)
We cannot therefore look to Jesus’s teaching for any fresh detail on whether there really are some who finally reject God and, as it were, have that rejection ratified. All the signs, of course, are that he went along with the normal first-century Jewish perception: there would indeed be such people, with the only surprise being the surprise experienced, by sheep and goats alike, at their fate and at the evidence on which it was based. And the early Christian writers go along with this. Hell, and final judgment, is not a major topic in the letters (though when it comes it is very important, as for instance in Romans 2:1-16); it is not mentioned at all in Acts; and the vivid pictures toward the end of the book of Revelation, while being extremely important, have always proved among the hardest parts of scripture to interpret with any certainty. All this should warn us against the cheerful double dogmatism that has bedeviled discussion of these topics — the dogmatism, that is, both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn’t “going to hell” and of the universalist who is absolutely certain that there is no such place or that if there is it will, at the last, be empty.
… I remember, in one of my first tutorials in Oxford, being told by my tutor that he and many others believed that “though hell may exist, it will at the last be untenanted” — in other words, that hell would turn out to be purgatory after all, an unpleasant preparation for eventual bliss. The merest mention of final judgment has been squeezed out of Christian consciousness in several denominations… by the cavalier omission of verses from public biblical reading…
But the worm has turned, theologically speaking, in the last twenty years. The failure of liberal optimism in Western society has been matched by the obvious failure of the equivalent liberal optimism in theology, driven as it was by the spirit of the age. It is a shame to have to rerun the story of nearly a hundred years ago, with Karl Barth furiously rejecting the liberal theology that had created the climate for the First World War, but it does sometimes feel as if that is what has happened. Faced with the Balkans, Rwanda, the Middle East, Darfur, and all kinds of other horrors that enlightened Western thought can neither explain nor alleviate, opinion in many quarters has… come to see that there must be such a thing as judgment.
(cont’d next post)
- What do you think of Wright’s understanding and usage of Gehenna?
- If you know much of Wright’s arguments in this book about the afterlife, how does that differ from how you have been taught that?
- The next post will continue to deal with the issue of justice, but how can you envision that God’s justice may be different than the standard view of hell?