Thursday, December 14, 2006

There is a Hell ...

I once heard a man engaged in a religious discussion proclaim, “There is a Hell. Anyone who doesn’t know Jesus will be there."

Here, I’ll break with the biblical literalists (those whom I term “bible-thumpers”) who espouse that particular point-of-view. “Anyone” who overtly and knowingly refuses the gift of eternal life … may suffer horribly. But the exact extent and description of that fate is still unknown.

As a quick background, there were seven different words (Hebrew and Greek) in ancient religious writings that were ALL translated in the King James Bible into the single English word “hell.” Each ancient word had a different meaning and individual connotation (for instance, one meant “narrow valley”, one simply meant “open hole in the ground”, and another meant “unlit cavern”). Yet, all seven words were blandly translated into “hell”, which -- thanks to Dante’s Inferno -- we now associate with an eternal torture chamber. But that was NOT intended by the original writers ... nor is it what was distinctly understood by the original audiences who heard first-hand the ancient religious preaching/teaching. Yet, we modern readers are stuck with an imperfect idea as a result of the poor translation (and one guilt-ridden author’s vivid imagination).

I certainly agree that hell is real … it is eternal punishment away from God. I just don’t think it’s the exact place with seven levels that Dante described in his opus.

Fundamentalist dogma to the contrary notwithstanding, the ancient Hebrews (and specifically the Israelites prior to the Exile, circa 600 BC) had no concept of an “eternal” life. They were adamant about the quality of earthly life -- which was all they understood to exist -- being directly related to their relationship to God. That is, a prosperous life meant an individual was “in God’s favor.” Problems (disease, poverty, etc) meant the individual was a sinner not “in God’s favor.” To the ancients, all reward and punishment occurred here on earth … the concept of life eternal was unknown. Upon death, the individual (not just what we call the “soul” -- which they had no concept of, either) was assumed to be relegated to a plain, gray, unlit, cavernous underground area … very much akin to the Greek concept of Hades. However, there were rare instances reserved for “special” men such as Elijah, who (without actually dying) could be physically “taken up” into God’s presence.

Nor did the ancient Hebrews have any concept of a “Satan.” Remember, the “serpent” in the Garden of Eden is never treated or described as a spiritual creature – demon or angel. It was just an earthly antagonist … who was doomed to an earthly punishment. The Israelites finally received the concepts of 1) an “anti-God” spiritual entity – Satan – and 2) “eternal souls” from the Babylonians, barely five centuries before Christ’s birth. None of the Patriarchs or Elders of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, Solomon, Elijah, etc) ever had any knowledge of a “Satan.” That concept was introduced to the remaining Jews (only Judeans – not Israelites, who no longer existed by then!) during the Exile in Babylonia.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the beliefs in “souls” and “Satan” were firmly entrenched in Jewish doctrine … but there was still no widespread agreement about hell. Some Jews maintained that it was that unlit cavern … some insisted that it was merely a simple hole-in-the-ground grave. Interestingly, when Jesus spoke of hell, he used the term “Gehenna” which referred to the Valley of Henom. Henom is a small gulley that runs southwest, away from the southwest corner of the outer wall of Jerusalem. The gulley was used as the city’s garbage dump, and that’s what Jesus was trying to impress his listeners with … hell was ostensibly the spiritual “garbage dump” for worthless souls.

Henom was also the source of the (much later) idea of eternal fire. The garbage in the dump was necessarily burned, and because there was a constant influx of daily garbage, the fire understandably burned more-or-less continuously. About 1450 AD (a century or so prior to the King James translation), an unidentified cleric picked up on the Hebrew idea of a “continuous” fire and turned it into “eternal” fire. We get the benefit of his interpretation …