The Hell, You Say?

There seems to be some sort of fiendish delight many Christians get out of the thought that anyone not believing as they do is going to burn in hell for all eternity. The question is, does hell really exist, or not?

Biblically speaking, there is no reference to hell as way we think of it today—an eternal place of torment for all nonbelievers. The Old Testament does refer to ‘sheol,’ which is a sort of shadowy underworld where souls wander aimlessly in darkness, but not in an eternal hell of fire.

The word “hell” comes from the old English hela, which meant something akin to “hide,” or “cover up.” It could also mean a hole, as in “Cast into the hole.”  When Jesus referred to the hell of fire, he was referring to a specific place near Jerusalem called Gehenna. Gehenna was a trash dump that burned 24/7, and, as Jesus put it, “where the fire never goes out.” 

Gehenna was an actual place that began as a place of sacrificing children and babies. It later became a place for destroying trash, criminals, lepers, beggars, foreigners and classed as unclean. They were quite literally burned up in a hell (hole) of fire. When Jesus referred to the “hell of fire,” that’s what and where He was speaking of when He said, “29. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. {Gk [Gehenna]}.” (NRSV, Matthew 5)

If you think about it, it only makes sense that there is no literal hell. Many years ago I was a bachelor father raising three children alone (I had another child later on after getting remarried). They were my children and I loved them. There was no possible way that if one of my children messed up I would have ever burned them; not even for an instant—the whole idea is repugnant. Never could I have ever subjected them to that kind of horror.

As imperfect as I am, if I wouldn’t do that, what makes us think that God—the loving Father of us all—could possibly be that cruel?  It just doesn’t compute.  And, “Loving God” is the one continuous theme running throughout Christendom, as in this example of Jesus speaking to His apostles on His last night on earth: “34. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13, NRSV).

Granted that we fail miserably at keeping this commandment, but that's the thing about Jesus—He always set the bar just out of reach…it is what we’re to strive for…and if we did, what a marvelous, wonderful world this would be. Does baptism do anything.