A couple of recent books have hit a main nerve in the Christian body of meaning. Their argument undermines the idea of a place of eternal torment as punishment for sin, suggesting the traditional Christian concept of hell is misconceived at best and harmful at worst.
Sharon Baker called out the fire marshal against hell's flames with her Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught About God's Wrath and Judgment. But it is Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived that has the full brigade tearing out of the station, at least it seems so if we are to judge by conservative evangelicals desperately blocking the road. When advance publicity about his book alerted the media it briefly became one of the top trending topics on Twitter, with Bell denounced by some for heresy.
I have every sympathy with neutralizing this standard piece of pulpit bullydom--we all remember sermons on the mind-boggling endlessness of suffering awaiting the sinner. There is simply a stark implausibility of a God of love keeping his private torture chamber going for interminable ages when at any time he could reverse the situation with a nod. But the danger in dropping the concept is that the scriptural passages from which it is derived lapse to the level of meaninglessness and embarrassing rhetoric. What after all was Jesus saying when he warned about Gehenna?
Just about everyone knows that the word refers to the smoldering fire of Jerusalem's trash dump, situated to the south and west of the Kidron valley. (And if not these books will be sure to enlighten.) No one imagines that hell is to be found there, literally, at ground zero just outside the Holy City. So at once we recognize Jesus was using a metaphor or trope. But for what?
Jesus did not think in a Greek other-worldly way. He was not talking about a metaphysically split-level cosmos as is now second nature to Christian consciousness. Heaven was simply where God lived. And the key issue for him was the direct reign of God in and on the earth, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven (God's realm) here. More importantly still, not only did he preach this kingdom but he enacted it, he made it happen with everything he said and did.
But what would happen once he had introduced the kingdom and people did not respond? The result could not be business as usual, but an enormous rolling crisis, one that he helped precipitate by introducing the kingdom in the first place. Gehenna, therefore, is Jesus code for a a distinct human possibility, the historical and existential reality of violence devouring humanity both externally and internally if it refuses the good news of peace.
Mimetic anthropology has enabled us to see this in analytic terms. But it is Jesus himself who is the driving force.
Take the passage at Matthew 5:21-22. "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire" [conveniently rendered 'hell of fire' in the translations].
Jesus' ascending order of consequence would normally be reserved for what we would call "serious crime" like murder or blasphemy, but he relates it simply to interior anger and its verbal expression. I have never ever heard a preacher say people would go to an eternity of torment for calling someone a jerk--that would just be too much to believe!--but it makes perfect sense if the fire he is talking of is the self-consuming fire of human anger and violence. And the ascending consequences which are this-worldly (the judgment of scribes and then of the full Sanhedrin) mean the fire is logically the same: this-worldly. Moreover, when we step back to view the teaching historically we can see that his actual teaching has consistently turned our attention to the human springs of violence and their absolute consequences.
But not only did he teach, he went to his death as the innocent victim of collective violence and in doing so he exposed its age-old mechanism for all to see. He showed us--by not retaliating--how violence is indivisible, and yet we seek all the time to blame and kill the other so we can feel falsely in the clear.
However, once Jesus unmasked this self-duping mechanism and made us recognize that all victims are innocent, violence itself comes into crisis. It begins to lose its "natural" cultural force, and it must--and can only--redouble its efforts to impose its old power: just as an addict's drug waning in effect has to be used in ever greater measure. This redoubling violence is in fact the fire that does not go out, the one that burns endlessly, exponentially.
In our contemporary era we know exactly where the exponential fire has led--to the limitless terror of nuclear war and the limitless war on terror. Rene Girard in his latest book, Battling To The End , assembles a persuasive argument that the direction of our world history tends inevitably toward a cataclysmic end--"the implacable law of escalation" as he calls it. In other words Gehenna is at the gates, waiting for us.
At the same time Jesus did not make a distinction between this-world relationships and relationship to God (as for example in the Lord's Prayer to the Father--"forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors") so it's evident also that the fire of violence encompasses an "interior" personal state--of alienation from the Father. We can see, therefore, how the fire of actual violence can also be an internal existential state, and one that can accompany us even to death.
The point of death may be experienced as an absolute violence, one afflicting the individual and which at the same time the individual levels reciprocally and hatefully against life. At this point we are up against a drawn curtain. We can see no further than this possibility. At the same time we must also count in here the New Testament teaching of universal resurrection, of the righteous and unrighteous together. What I would personally judge is the possibility of bitter self-annihilatory violence must be granted, but alongside the enormous magnetic power of a reconciled nonviolent creation revealed in resurrection. Without the freedom to refuse there is no freedom to love, and yet with the triumph of the new creation it's hard to conceive of even a negative echo remaining.
At any rate the concrete historical sense of Gehenna is now increasingly clear. Because of mimetic anthropology, but also plainly because of contemporary history, we clearly see as hell recedes in our imagination violence moves to the fore.
What would it mean then if evangelicals could jettison their inheritance of a fixed metaphysical eternity of torment for an historical existential sense of the violence which we generate both within and outside ourselves? What if they were to realize that they are still conceptually in thrall to medieval Catholic doctrine? That they have found a way to be free of it (being "saved") but it is this that they are saved from, and so they are not truly free! That in fact the narrow doctrine of salvation stands against Roman Catholic works as the nicotine patch stands against cigarettes. It's a great deal cheaper and possibly better for your health, but still basically the same chemical formula!
So, again, what if evangelicals were to put the considerable effort they expend in trying to save souls from hell into combating war, greed, fraud, poverty, destruction of the environment, precisely as the hell that Jesus is seeking to save us from? What would the earth possibly look like then? I think if they did the revolution in Egypt would look like a mere break in the clouds in comparison to a day of full sunshine. Would it not mean anything less than the rebirth of first-century Christianity in a twenty-first century world?
Tony Bartlett, Theologian in Residence