[Editoial note: I’m going to continue writing about my journey and struggles to come to grips with the idea of hell over the next few weeks. However, it will probably be on an on-again-off-again basis.]
I have previuosly mentioned that most of what scripture tells us about “hell” comes from the teachings of Jesus and, more particurlarly, those found in the gospel of Matthew.
The word that Jesus almost always uses for “hell,” however is NOT a direct reference to an otherworldly place of eternal torment. Instead, it is a garbage dump.
Outside the Southwestern gate of Jerusalem is a valley that was known as Gehenna. Pagans once used the valley to offer child sacrifices to Molech. Thereafter, it became a garbage dump, probably because of its dark history. During Jesus’ day, fires were known to burn there continuously (“fires that are never quenched”?), consuming the most undesirable refuse of the Holy city.
Vicious dogs would reportedly lurk about the fires, waiting for scraps of food or bone to be tossed toward the flames. When the dogs would fight over the scraps, their teeth clashed together, making what was no doubt a very unpleasant, frightening sound. Thus, this hot, stinky garbage dump had a reputation as a place where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
As I have started taking a closer look at the idea of hell in recent days, this has been a startling (and liberating) revelation to me: Jesus’ references to a place of fire, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” were conjuring images of an actual, physical location, rather than an otherworldly place of eternal torment. That doesn’t resolve the question of whether Jesus’ use of Gehenna is symbolic of such an otherworldly place, but it does leave room for argument that he is talking about something much different than our traditional, Dante-esque notions of hell.
More to come.