Hell: What it is, What it isn’t

The Gospel paints a vivid picture of Hell.

Many of us have different ideas in our minds when we hear the word Hell. When I was a hospital chaplain intern, and on occasion since then, I have heard people say that they knew they were going to Hell—and they were scared. It is an important subject and I want to take this opportunity to talk about what Hell is, and what Hell isn’t.

Gary Larson

Gary Larson

Hell has inspired artists and writers—especially during the Renaissance: Dante’s Inferno, Hieronymus Bosch’s painting called the “Garden of Earthly Delights”—which is far from delightful. Most of us have a picture in our minds of Hell as a fiery place—perhaps even filled with devils and pitchforks. I always imagine a vaguely Southwestern landscape with sulfurous pools.

But once we have that picture—what do we do with it? It makes us uneasy… What if there IS a Hell?
What if I’m not good enough?

The fear of Hell is a powerful motivator. People have been told to believe, or behave, or pray a certain way—or else! We can over-emphasize the idea of hell—feeling guilt, unworthiness, spiritual insecurity, or worst of all, Christian smugness. We can trivialize the idea of Hell—something which is common in our culture.  I looked up some old Gary Larson cartoons—he often uses Hell as a backdrop. My favorite was a frame divided in half. The upper half showed people lined up, with an angel saying: “Welcome to Heaven, here’s your harp.” The lower half showed people lined up, and a devil saying: “Welcome to Hell, here’s your accordion.”

The Far Side, by Gary Larson

The Far Side, by Gary Larson

Then there’s another favorite: an image of hell complete with flames and devils. Two people are standing in front of a table with a large coffee urn, and one of them is looking into his mug saying: “The coffee is cold. They’ve thought of everything!”

A better source to learn about Hell is scripture. The Greek word in the New Testament for Heaven is Ouranos, and it is found in every book except for eight of the Epistles. In the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, nineteen use heaven language, while only eight use hell language. There are several different words which are translated into English as Hell: Gehenna (which appears twelve times), Hades (ten times), Abyss (nine times), Outer Darkness (three times), and a few others which appear once each. An interesting point is that Gehenna was an actual place—a dump outside of Jerusalem where garbage was continually burned. In total, all of the hell language combined occurs only 37 times. The word Heaven appears 273 times. There is a much greater emphasis on Heaven than on Hell in the scriptures; none of Paul’s writings (which make up half the books of the New Testament) nor the Gospel of John make any mention of Hell at all, nor do they have any doctrine of Hell.

In the Gospel story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus tells a story about Lazarus the beggar (whose name means God Helps, because clearly no one else does). Lazarus is destitute and ill, lying at the Rich Man’s gate, longing for the scraps of bread used by the rich as napkins to wipe their fingers during a meal. The Rich Man wears imported linen, and a robe dyed with the prohibitively expensive Phoenician purple. Every meal is a banquet; every day is just another day in paradise. When both die, the Rich Man goes to Hell, and Lazarus goes to Heaven to be with Abraham. The Rich Man, who still doesn’t understand the new order of things, calls across the abyss and asks/orders that Lazarus come to bring him water—though he certainly never offered even water to Lazarus! When that fails, he begs/demands that Lazarus go to warn his five brothers of the fate that awaits them if they don’t mend their ways. One of the most important parts of the story is who Jesus was speaking to—the Pharisees. This story is part of the ongoing theological debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about life, wealth and Torah—one of a series about how it is not possible to serve wealth (as a god) and also to serve God.  Why did Jesus say that the Rich Man had five brothers? Instead of one or three or ten? There are five books in the Torah—a subtlety characteristic of Rabbinic debate. The scenario depicts the great reversal prophesied by Mary: God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich are sent away empty.  The story is a critique of an economy with an ever-widening chasm between the poor and the wealthy. In God’s household we are to take care of our brothers and sisters.

Why is the concept of Hell a notion we accept when what we are about is proclaiming the Good News? For one thing, it serves the purpose of institutional control. It is said that “the fear of Hell populates Heaven,” but that traditional belief can be a de-motivator. Does one really want to serve and worship a God who would eternally and horribly punish those who do not respond? And perhaps it connects with our self-doubts. We can imagine why God may not be pleased with us. Each of us knows we have faults, failings, sins. One important part of our Sunday Liturgy is confession—we confess that we have done what we ought not to have done, and have not done what we ought. Our world is one of complex systems of injustice and oppression, and we participate in and benefit from those systems whether or not we are even aware of them.  The theologian Karl Rahner said that you can’t even by a banana in Berlin without participating in unjust systems—the social injustice and exploitation that keeps the banana picker living in poverty.[1]

Our image of Hell may even serve our purposes.  We may even want to imagine a place of eternal punishment, because there are people we want to put there. We are pleased when God forgives us, and offended when God appears to reward those other people who “do not deserve it.” That is creating God in our image, rather than the other way around. If Grace and Love, and incessant pursuit of the lost are essential to God’s nature—why do we imagine that there is a time when God calls the deal off? Do people really do the right thing in order to gain a cosmic gold star, on the one hand, or to avoid being eternally grounded on the other? Don’t we do the right thing to align with God’s will, vision and hope? Don’t we want to live into God’s dream for Creation? Do we really need more to motivate us?

The Rabbis tell another story about Heaven and Hell that makes the point with a different view of the landscape: the Midrash of the Long Spoons. It is said that Rabbi Haim of Romshishok was transported to the afterlife. He found himself in Hell, and saw people gathered at a table around a magnificent banquet.  The people seated at the table were starving and moaning with hunger. As the Rabbi drew closer he saw that each person’s arms were tied to a splint so they couldn’t bend them. They were holding long spoons, and could reach the food but couldn’t feed themselves. Then the Rabbi found himself in Heaven, and saw a similar setting: a banquet with people sitting around the table—but these people were well-fed, and relaxed. He was surprised to see that these people too had arms tied to splints, with long spoons.  As he watched, a person dipped into a dish and fed the person across from him. The person he fed returned the kindness and fed the first man. The Rabbi went back to Hell and went up to one of the starving people: “You do not have to go hungry!” he said. “There is a solution! Feed the person sitting opposite you, and they will feed you!” The man snarled at him. “You expect me to feed that terrible person across the table? I would rather starve than give him anything to eat!”

The language of Heaven and Hell is about Justice. God is just, and God judges how we act and how we treat each other.  The Bible tells us that you and I and our community are actors in a drama that began long before we arrived, and will continue after we are gone. What we do now matters in an ultimate way—to us and to God, which is why Jesus told the story about Lazarus and the Rich Man. And as you ponder all of this–when you think about Heaven and Hell–remember the word we hear from God and God’s messengers over and over throughout scripture: Do not be afraid.


[1] Karl Rahner Foundations of Christian Faith,  p. 110-111.

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