HELL 9

This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.

Let’s take a moment to put our humanity into perspective.

If a person is microscopic when viewed from less than a few miles away and less than a nanoparticle when viewed from the moon, what is a person in a universe that is 46 billion times 5.8 trillion miles to its outer edge?

I hate to say it this way, but from a size perspective, we are nothing.

And if God created this universe, then is God not larger and even more pervasive than the entire universe? And if God’s very essence, God’s very composition, God’s very DNA is love, then is this love not even more immense and even more unbounded than the utter vastness and expansiveness of this universe?

Even more, if God’s love is that immeasurable, that unfathomable, that exhaustively immersive, then how do we, as nearly nonexistent human beings, measure up within that love?

If we are nearly nothing in relation to that love, can we really be that much of an offense to such an overwhelming love? Can we really be that deserving of an eternity burning in hell?

As those who are beloved, worthy, and valuable to this love, who are made in the image of this cosmically-sized love is this the answer is an unequivocal no.

From the very beginning of creation, God declared that this creation was good and that we were very good. And despite all the ways we have lived in relational disunion from God (sin) and then lived out of that disunion (sin), and even despite the ways in which we have each participated in and perpetuated injustice toward others, this love has always been patiently, mercifully, and gracefully welcoming us back into a relationship that restores that original goodness.

That is where this story has always been heading.

So it’s important for us to always be reminded who God really is and what God is really up to in history. Because once we lose sight of these truths, we can very quickly, and oh so easily, begin creating a god in our own image, a god that isn’t cosmically-sized in love with a heart for making all things whole and all things new, but a god that is very small, very conditional in love, and as punitive and vengeful as we are.

The questions that each of us need to continually ask ourselves are, “What God am I seeking and pursuing? What God am I trying to find in the text and in the stories? What God does my heart really want to discover?”

In the parable of the Sheep and Goats, if you want to find an angry, retributive god that sends the unjust to eternity in Hell, you will find it. But if you trust that God is more than a monstrous caricature, and actually the God that we see in the life of Jesus, then maybe there is more to the story.

The most important Greek phrase in the Sheep and Goat parable is kolasis aiónios, which is translated into English as eternal (or everlasting) punishment. The traditional understanding of that phrase, as you may surmise, is that a person is cast into Hell for eternity.

There are two problems with this translation and then the subsequent belief.

The word aiónios does not mean everlasting or eternal. It means an age.

The former indicates an unending duration of time, while the latter indicates a definite duration of time.

My favorite example to prove this, and to show again how biased the translation is toward what they need it to say, is Matthew 28:20.

The verse reads, “I will be with you even until the end of aiónios.

The translators were forced to actually translate aiónios accurately as “age,” because there is no such thing as the “end of eternity” or the “end of everlasting.” Because neither eternity, nor everlasting has an end.

The word aiónios means age and it has a definite duration.

So at the very worst, punishment (kolasis) for the unjust is for a definite period of time. It is not unending. It is not for eternity. It is not everlasting. It is not forever.

So what exactly is the nature of this punishment (kolasis) for the unjust?

According to David Bentley Hart, “The word kolasis originally meant ‘pruning’ or ‘docking’ or ‘obviating the growth’ of trees or other plants, and then came to mean ‘confinement,’ ‘being held in check,’ ‘ punishment,’ or ‘chastisement,’ chiefly with the connotation of ‘correction.’”

Kolasis implies a punishment for the sake of growth. It is not retributive.

So if the parable of the Sheep and Goats is indicative of some sort of future punishment for the unjust, it is a corrective punishment for a definite duration with the ultimate hope of restoration.

But the parable suggests that the punishment of the unjust will be in fire. How does a fire equate to corrective punishment with the hope of restoration?

In a previous post, we discussed the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, the parable of The Unmerciful Servant, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. What we discovered was that when one faces the refining fire of God’s love, it reveals the truth of who we are and how we have treated others. But, it is a punishment, not for the sake of retribution, but for the sake of individual transformation and the full restoration of a person into a right relationship with God and with others.

This does not mean that it won’t be painful or that it won’t elicit a consuming sorrow.

It absolutely will.

Facing the truth of one’s life, especially the truth of an unjust life, in the light of a love that is more immense and immeasurable and immersive than the entire cosmos, in the light of a love that swallows each one of us whole as a microscopic piece of dust in the universe, will absolutely produce immeasurable sorrow and regret.

In religious circles, this would be referred to as repentance. But there is significant religious baggage with that word that has completely distorted it and made it unrecognizable in its original form. To understand the true restorative heart of God, it is essential that we see clearly repentance (Greek metanoia).

In Greek mythology, Kairos was the god of opportunity portrayed as a man with winged-feet who was always on tiptoe, indicating constant movement. Kairos was adorned with a long, single lock of hair that extended from an otherwise bald head. It was understood that as Kairos, or opportunity, passed by, there was a fleeting moment in which one could seize Kairos by the lock of hair before the moment, or opportunity, passed.*

The deeper meaning was to seize the opportunity at the right moment before it was lost, or before it passed.

However, when opportunity was missed, a shadowy, cloaked goddess named Metanoia stood in the wake of the missed opportunity. Metanoia symbolized the regret of missing the opportunity at the right moment. But there was also something more that Metanoia offered to those who were left in the path of a missed opportunity and the regret that accompanied it, a chance to reflect and then transform.

Metanoia, Greek meta-”after” and nous- “mind,” is an afterthought or reflection of a missed opportunity, which can elicit a feeling of regret, but that can also result in a change or transformation in one’s mind, in one’s heart, in one’s life. While there is an obvious element of regret inherent in metanoia, it does not come as a result of threats or shame or damnation.

Metanoia comes from self-reflection and contemplation after missing an opportunity and then facing the truth of one’s life in light of God’s loving kindness.

That is where transformation begins.

The refining fire of God’s love does not confront in hostility or wrath. It surrounds us in compassion and mercy to reveal the truth about ourselves with the hope of transformation.

But we all must face it.

Some will face the fire of the Spirit in this lifetime and be transformed, but others may not. Either way, you will ultimately face the refiner’s fire. Facing the fire is not for the sake of torment by a wrathful God. Facing the fire is done in the hope of one’s transformation and restoration into a right relationship with God and others.

This understanding gives us insight into the fires of Gehenna that Jesus referenced a handful of times throughout the Gospels.

Gehenna is an Aramaic rendering of the Hebrew word Ge-Hinnom. It was a valley, a real physical location, southwest of Jerusalem, where tradition states worshippers of the pagan deities, Baal and Moloch, sacrificed children by fire.

Interestingly, when this location was translated by King James in the Old Testament, it was left as Hinnom, indicating a physical location. However, when it was translated by King James in the New Testament, Gehenna was translated as Hell and somehow made the leap to mean an eternity of punishment in the fiery flames.

The problem with the connotation of Gehenna as eternity in Hell is that the two leading rabbinic schools of thought at the time of Jesus, Hillel and Shammai, each believed that the idea of Gehenna symbolically meant the place of punishment and purification for a limited duration.

The concept of eternity in Hell would have never entered their minds as the possible meaning of Gehenna.

So the fundamental question is, “Was Jesus talking about an eternity in Hell when mentioning Gehenna? Or, was he using Gehenna to speak to the prevailing belief at the time that it was a place of punishment and purification for a limited duration?

Being that Paul never once mentions Gehenna, or anything resembling eternity in Hell, a single time in his writings, but only that one must ultimately face the refiner’s fire to test one’s life, one must conclude that Jesus was not talking about eternity in Hell, but something else entirely.

While it’s clear that eternity in Hell is not supported by the biblical narrative, it’s unclear as to whether all will be restored.

In my opinion, God can’t override the free will choice of any single individual. So there is a distinct possibility that there will be those who, despite experiencing the love-essence of God and facing the truth of their lives, are not consumed with sorrow and who shake their fists and resist the open-armed God who welcomes them into a life of shalom. And for those who adamantly choose non-life, there is nonexistence.

However, as one who imagines that this narrative is truly the greatest story ever told, and as one who believes that no one can ultimately resist the cosmically-sized love of God, and as one who has hope that the accomplishment of God’s love through Christ is more impossibly beautiful than anything we could ever in this lifetime comprehend, I believe that there will be a restoration of all things, that includes even the hardest heart and the vilest offender.

And I have a great argument to back it up. Read HELL 10 here.

Peace and love…

Brandon

 

*Myers, Kelly A. Metanoia and the Transformation of Opportunity. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 1–18.

HELL 8

This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.

I recently read an article from a guy who said that Jesus was the “Great Theologian of Hell.”

The problem is that hell is never once mentioned in the Bible.

I know this may be a shocking statement, because that is what you have heard your entire life. But the idea of being punished for eternity in hell did not develop until the 5th Century and it was by a bishop from Hippo name Augustine, who began to paint a picture of a retributive God that sends the unrepentant to the fiery underground.

And as you know, fear can be an effective method in controlling people.

Enter the Roman Empire and Roman Catholicism.

The government and the church.

With the concept of hell flourishing within those two great superpowers of the world at the time, and also subsequently spreading into Protestantism much later, it is no wonder that hell quickly became the pervasive belief in Christianity throughout the world.

But eternity in hell is not a belief original to the Early Church.

Understanding this context helps us see how biblical translations can be significantly influenced by what people already believe at the time they are translated.

And since the belief of a retributive god that punishes people for eternity in hell was the predominant theology in Christendom from the 5th Century, then that would be the obvious lens one would use to translate the Bible.

Enter King James.

When the Bible was translated into English in the 16th century, the Olde English word helle (pagan word for the abode of the wicked after death) was the single word used in place of four completely different Hebrew and Greek words, each with differing meanings.

Those words are Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartaroo.

These are the original words from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. You will notice that it is not one single word being translated as helle, but rather four distinct words, each with different meanings and cultural contexts, that were combined to construct the idea of eternity in hell.

Interestingly, of the four words mentioned above, only one word is from Hebrew. It is Sheol.

Even more interestingly, Sheol means grave.

And what we find is that it is a place where both the righteous and unrighteous dead go upon death (because both righteous and unrighteousness people die and are buried).

That’s why there is no Jewish conception of eternity in hell. Because the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible (our Old Testament) does not conceive of such an idea.

One ought to pause at this fact alone.

If the tradition in which Jesus was born and raised did not even have the belief of eternity in hell, did the “Great Theologian of Hell” just invent it?

The answer is no, because the notion of eternity in hell is a man-made fiction.

Even more disturbing is the selective bias of the King James translation.

While the word Sheol is mentioned over 70 times in the Old Testament, it is only translated as hell half of the time.

Why is that?

Because it does not fit the already developed idea of eternity in hell.

If both the righteous and unrighteous dead go to Sheol, what does a translator do when the passage suggests that there are righteous people there? Do they translate it as hell? Do they really put the righteous people in Hell?

Of course not. They translate it as grave.

Here is a perfect example of the problem (among many) and the inherent bias of translation.

In Genesis 37, it states that when Joseph died, his father, Jacob, exclaimed, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in Sheol.”

Is Joseph in hell? Does Jacob long to go to an eternity burning in hell? Of course not.

It can’t be grave sometimes and eternity in hell at others times. It is disingenuous. There are not two meanings. It is just grave.

To add to the madness, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek language, the word Sheol was translated to the Greek word Hades. And in the Greek world, Hades was widely known as the mythological god of the underworld who ruled with his wife, Persephone, in the “house of Hades.”

I know they did the best they could, but translating Sheol to Hades picked up a lot of extra mythological baggage. But it should not be lost on us that the original Hebrew word, Sheol, still means the grave. It is the dwelling place of both the righteous and unrighteous dead. And it signifies the singular problem that ultimately needs to be resolved- death.

So when you read the verse in Revelation that says, “Then death and Hades (read Sheol or the grave) were thrown into the lake of fire,” it is indicating that the last thing to be finally conquered and defeated is death.

That is why early believers in Christ knew that their ultimate hope was a deliverance from DEATH, not a rescue from an eternity being tormented in HELL. Even more, they knew that their future hope was, not going to a spiritual heaven when they died, but resurrecting to new, physical life at the renewal of all things.

That is why the parable of The Sheep and Goats is so fascinating. Because it gives us insight into the resurrection of all people, both the just and unjust, and God’s judgment and punishment at the renewal of all things.

The parable tells of a future in which Christ gathers the nations together and separates them into two groups- the sheep and the goats, the favored and the unfavored, the just and the unjust.

But according to the upside-down justice of God, those who are determined to be truly “just” are those who gave hospitality to the stranger, those who clothed the naked, and those who visited the sick and imprisoned.

And it is to the “just” that the King will say, “Come, you blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the cosmos.”

But here is the kicker.

Those who actually perceived themselves to be “righteous” and “just” are actually the goats, or the unfavored, because they are those who ignored the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned during their time on earth.

It is this group of “goats” who will not be welcomed into the Kingdom, but will “go away to eternal punishment.” For the King will say to them, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

This parable ought to be eye-opening for everyone, especially the religious.

Is this passage suggesting that the “eternal fire” is an eternity in hell? Do those who practice empty religiosity and ignore the cause of the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned burn in the underworld with the wicked, the devil, and the fallen angels? Based upon what we know about the nature and character of God, is this “eternal fire” a retributive punishment, or could it be a refining fire that leads to the restoration of a person? Is Jesus really the “Great Theologian of Hell” or the “Great Restorer of All?”

In HELL 9, we will look at how a better understanding of Gehenna will help us understand, not what is typically translated as and believed to be, everlasting punishment, but something entirely different with the hope of restoration at its very heart.

Peace…

Brandon

HELL 7

This series must be read in order. Begin with HELL 1 here.

One must understand the end toward which we are moving with God in order to interpret and understand the points along the biblical narrative’s trajectory.

In other words, if a person believes that eternity in Hell is the end toward which the majority of people throughout history are heading, then it is only natural that they would interpret specific words, phrases, teachings, and parables in the Bible toward that end.

But, what if there is an end toward which we are moving that isn’t eternity in Hell?

And what if this end is the interpretive lens that will help us understand specific words, phrases, teachings, and parables in the Bible differently?  

I would suggest the end toward which we are moving, that is in line with the prophetic vision throughout scripture, has always been the restoration of all things.

It is the realization of a renewed cosmos in which God will be all in all, in which death will no longer prevail, and whole and healed individuals and relationships will flourish.

It is the belief that, at the right time, all things in heaven and earth will be brought together into perfect unity in the Christ, also known as the reconciliation of all things.

And this makes the goal of God’s justice restorative in nature, rather than retributive.

When I was in college and dating Jenny (who is now my wife), there was a Friday night in which we were planning to hang out. As the minutes, and then the hours, began to pass, I became increasingly impatient, frustrated, and angry that she was taking so long, not answering my phone calls, and basically ruining our Friday.

But after several hours of waiting in my room with no response, there was finally a knock at my door. And as she walked in, my anger was evident. I was fuming mad and peppering her with a litany of questions.

Where have you been?
What have you been doing?
Why are you so late?
Why didn’t you answer my calls?

I am certain I wasn’t listening to anything she was saying. There wasn’t an answer that would satisfy my anger.

But then, instead of trying to answer my questions, she just handed me a card.

And it wasn’t just any card.

It was a card that she had meticulously and patiently and lovingly crafted for me over the three previous hours. And it detailed, in overwhelming specificity, all the memorable moments we had shared together as a couple and how much she loved me.

I got very silent.

Like stick-my-foot-in-my-mouth silent.

And then, despite my anger and bewilderment, and the fact that it would have been easier for her to simply withhold the card, or just break up with me because I didn’t come close to deserving the card, she demonstrated her unwavering love by giving it to me anyway.

My anger turned to regret.

And it was her kindness, not her justified retaliation, that made me see my ugliness. It was her kindness, despite how I violated our relationship, that changed my heart.

When you are confronted with the reality of an undeserved kindness, it can be transformative.

And that is what we find in one of the most misunderstood parables of the Bible- The Rich Man and Lazarus. Many have used this moral story as a definitive proof text for eternity in Hell, but it is far from it.

In the parable are two characters- the rich man and Lazarus.

From the grave, or after his death, the rich man is confronted with how he treated Lazarus, a poor beggar, during his life. Upon facing the truth of how poorly he treated him, he was filled with sorrow.

So what do we know about this parable?

The rich man represents Israel. We know this because, in the last line, Father Abraham says to the rich man, “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded, even if someone rises from the dead.”

And like the majority of Jesus’ parables, this parable is an indictment of the arrogant religious leaders of Israel for how they viewed themselves and how they viewed and treated others. But more importantly, the parable is teaching them the necessity for living righteously in the present.

A few things to note.

In this parable we find words like Hadestorment and suffering.

So it seems pretty obvious that this parable is telling us about what eternity in Hell is like, right?

Not so fast.

What if I told you that, in facing the truth of his life, the rich man is being tested and refined? And what if I told that he is not being tormented by a wrathful God, but transformed and restored into a right relationship with God and others? And what if I told you that what he is experiencing is not suffering, but rather the pain of regret and the consuming sorrow of facing this truth about himself?

Well, that is what the biblical text actually suggests.

The rich man is experiencing odynáō, which is a Greek word that means consuming sorrow, not physical suffering.

More importantly, the word básanos, which is translated as torture in this parable, means a touchstone. A touchstone is a black silicon tablet, like slate, that is used to test the purity of soft metals.

To me, this implies that there is a process one goes through to determine the quality of one’s life.

Absolutely fascinating.

This reminds me of Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he writes:

Each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it is revealed (or tested) by fire, and the fire will prove what kind of work each person’s is. If the work that someone has built endures, he will receive a reward; If anyone’s work should be burned away, he will suffer loss, yet he shall be saved, though so as by fire.

Interestingly, this is exactly what we find in another parable referred to as the Unmerciful Servant.

For context, Peter asks Jesus how many times a person ought to be forgiven. Jesus responds that we should not simply forgive seven times, but rather forgive “seventy times seven,” which is a direct reference to The Year of Jubilee within Judaism.

According to Jewish law, the Israelites were instructed to celebrate a Sabbath year at the beginning of every seventh year. This meant that every seventh year the land, animals, and people were to be given a rest from work. It was a time for rejuvenation and replenishment.

And then, after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years (49 years) the people would celebrate by proclaiming freedom throughout the land, returning land to their original owners, and cancelling all debts. The poor would no longer be oppressed and all slaves would be set free.

This was The Year of Jubilee.

It was a time of resetting and righting inequities and injustices.

So what about a cycle of 70 Jubilees times seven?

Theologian NT Wright writes, “That sounds like the Jubilee of Jubilees! So, though 490 years—nearly half a millennium—is indeed a long time, the point is this: when the time finally arrives, it will be the greatest ‘redemption’ of all. This will be the time of real, utter, and lasting freedom.”

So to Peter, Jesus is suggesting that we keep forgiving until all is restored, that we keep forgiving until all is made right, that we keep forgiving until all are made free, that we keep forgiving until all are redeemed, and that we keep forgiving until every debt is paid.

That’s when he tells the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

It is a story about a king who forgives the debt of a servant who owes him ten thousand talents, or about twenty years worth of wages. The servant then goes to a fellow servant who owes him significantly less money and demands that he repay it immediately. But because his fellow servant could not repay it, he threw him in prison.

Based upon the context in which this parable was told, with the Jubilee of Jubilees hovering closely in the background, where do you think this parable is heading?

How do you expect the king to now treat his servant who was unmerciful to the other servant? And if the king represents God, how do you expect God to treat those who unmerciful to others?

The way the story is typically translated and understood by Christians is that, like the King, God will torture people in Hell who are unmerciful to others.

But shockingly, guess which word shows up in this parable?

Básanos.

It says that the king, in his settled, controlled anger (orgē), hands the slave over to the inquisitor, not to be tortured, but to face the truth of who he had become and to test the quality of his life until the debt is repaid.

But see, that is the kicker. What debt needs to be repaid to God?

The only debt that needs repaid is love.

In the context of the Jubilee of Jubilees, or in light of the “greatest redemption,” we know that God is a God of forgiving all debts in love, forgiving until all is restored in love, forgiving until all is made right in love, forgiving until all are made free in love, and forgiving until all are redeemed in love.

And that is the thing about facing the refining fire of God’s love, or facing the inquisitor, or being salted with fire, it reveals the truth of who we are and how we have treated others. But, it is not for the sake of retribution and punishment. It is for the sake of individual transformation and wholly restoring a person into a right relationship with God and with others.

And to be honest, that’s why so many Christians misunderstand so many passages throughout the New Testament, because they read it as if the whole point is wrath and punishment rather than forgiveness, mercy, and restoration.

For instance, many Christians read Romans 9, not as a set of rhetorical questions that Paul is asking as a part of a larger thought, but as an apocalyptic horror story read without context in which God creates objects of wrath for the purpose of destruction.

I, however, read the larger thought of Romans 9-11 as a fitting end to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

It is about how God’s kindness and mercy will ultimately prevail and lead to Israel’s restoration, despite her unrighteousness.

In fact, Romans 11 ends by stating that, despite everyone’s disobedience and unrighteousness, God has “mercy on them all.

Imagine that.

Whether it is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus or the King and the Unmerciful Servant, or whether it is Jesus’ words about forgiveness and the Jubilee of Jubilees or Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, what we consistently find woven throughout every word and every account is a forgiving and merciful God who is always working for the restoration of people and relationships, who is always working toward Eden, who is always working toward shalom.

And it is this kindness of God that leads to repentance and transformation and whole and healed relationships.

Just like Jenny’s kindness when I didn’t deserve it.

It was her forgiveness and mercy that helped me see the truth of who I was and what I had become. Sure it produced a grief and sorrow within me that was painful to face. But it led to my own transformation and then to a restoration of our relationship… and then to a beautiful marriage with three kids.

The truth is that some people are able to discover the kindness and mercy of God, and then face the reality of who they have become. Some sooner than others. Some even be in this lifetime.

But whether it’s now or sometime in the future, we all will face the consuming fire of God’s love. But it’s not the fire of Hell for eternity we have been threatened with our whole lives.

I know a few of you were salivating and licking your chops, imagining that I left Hades dangling without address. No worries though. In HELL 8, we will finally get to HELL. Yes, we are going to go there. All the way.

Peace…

Brandon