Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Hell is never a surprise waiting for a happy person, it's the full-flowering of a life that rejects love, forgiveness, and community.”
—John Shea

Our common conception of hell is interesting.  Undoubtedly the most common  image of hell is a place of eternal fire, perhaps a lake of fire as described in the book of Revelation.  Jesus sometimes referred to people being cast into Gehenna, the garbage dump in a valley outside Jerusalem where people burned their trash and—perhaps more to his point—conquering armies threw Israelites corpses.  These images are certainly biblical, but they are not the only biblical images of hell.
The truth is that the predominant image of the afterlife in the Bible has nothing to do with reward or punishment.  Sheol in the Old Testament, of which the Greek Hades is a companion concept, were not places of punishment but simply the place of the underworld where all dead went.
       But the biblical writers do use images that showed the consequences of rejecting God and his path of Life, and not all of them have to do with fire.  Images of being on the outside, of exclusion and exile, are every bit as common as images of burning, perhaps more so, and that really isn’t surprising when you consider that the result of Israel’s idolatry and injustice in the Old Testament was exile from the land and from God’s presence.  And the state of exile continued into Jesus’ days.  Even though the Jews had returned to their land a few hundred years before, the conditions of the Exile continued—there was no Davidic king on the throne, the land had been almost continually occupied by foreign armies for the entire time, and most importantly, Yahweh had not forgiven his people and returned to Zion.  Exile is the predominant image for the consequences of the people’s sin, and so it’s not surprising that was still used in the New Testament.
       Among other things, Jesus speaks of the consequences of rejecting God as being outside the wedding and the dance, as mourning and weeping and grinding our teeth,  as missing out on the banquet, as being outside the kingdom, as living inside a bitter and warped heart, and as missing out on life.  These are images of exile and exclusion, continuing the theme of the Old Testament.
The parable of the Prodigal Son presents this image in all its facets.  The younger son rejects his father’s care and sets out on his own, only to find himself in a distant land, broke and broken, hungry and lonely, lower than the swine he feeds.  Upon his return home and his father’s acceptance of him back into the family, his older brother remains outside, seething with resentment and self-righteousness, while everyone else is inside partying and celebrating.
In both cases the father’s posture is waiting and welcoming.  He did not send his youngest son off into exile, and was ever waiting and watching for his return.  And he did not exclude his oldest son from the party—indeed, he leaves the party and exhorts his son to join them.  In both instances the sons imposed exile on themselves, one because he flaunted his father’s generosity and grace and his own freedom without considering that there are consequences to his actions, the other because he mistook his obedience as somehow obligating his father to regard him more favorably than his brother, failing to realize that he always had his father’s favor.  They both found themselves in a hell of their own choosing—and a hell that their father never would have chosen for them but was forced to allow.
And that’s the reality of hell, regardless of what image you use to describe it.  God doesn’t choose hell for any us;  whenever we use God’s grace as license to pursue our own will or think that our religiosity raises us above the pack of humanity, we find ourselves outside, living in a hell of our own creation, conniving to steal a pig’s meal or burning with the eternal fire of resentment.  
       Meanwhile, the party goes on with an empty seat at the table, waiting for us to come to our  senses.

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