Belief in an afterlife – and the summary belief that eternity can be one of either eternal reward or punishment – is inextricably linked to historic expressions of Christianity.
And as you also might have heard, rejection of the doctrine of eternal punishment – hell – is apparently being thoughtfully questioned in a new book by pastor Rob Bell.
This particular debate (which, as many have pointed out, is at least as old as Origen’s rejection of hell) is being heralded as a watershed moment in American evangelicalism – perhaps even a Scopes monkey trial within the Christian subculture.
It’s not fruitful at this point for me to engage this debate. As much as I’ve tried to engage other people on this particular issue, it seems we only leave the conversation further assured of our own positions.
In all honesty, I am a particular fan of Rob Bell – not for what he says as much as his ability to express it succinctly, provocatively and in a way that is refreshingly devoid of religious jargon. I don’t know what he’ll say exactly, but I have an idea – and it’s one that I think is worth sharing.
In Bell’s second book, “Sex God,” he tells the story of a close friend who talked openly of his ability to charm women for his own ego and exploits. Over time, a conversion process began to occur – and one that formed him into a monster, a shell of a man.
Fast-forward a few years later, and the same man heard an impassioned speech on sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. He then made the trip – to run missions under cover of darkness, rescuing women from the very kind of exploitation he once perpetuated.
Bell wryly states, “He’s charging into hell and bringing heaven with him.”
Long before the present debate over heaven, hell and eternity, Bell suggested there are situations – evil, pernicious, life-stripping, humiliating, torturous situations – that may well be hell on earth.
When Jesus spoke of hell, he most often used the word “Gehenna,” which was, as best as scholars can determine, a reference to a physical place – a trash heap outside of Jerusalem where rubbish burnt perpetually and the worm never died.
By many traditions, Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom, was a particularly worthy site for a trash heap because it was once a place of child sacrifice for Canaanite cultures – the place the Hebrew Bible speaks of where children “pass through the fire.”
It is, as some scholars have suggested, entirely possible that when Jesus spoke of hell, he used this physical place as a metaphor for everlasting torment.
It seems equally possible that Jesus meant it as a literal place of destruction, abandonment and annihilation pointed toward his political and religious nemeses, the Pharisees.
A friend of mine who lives in Uganda recently posted this video. It tells the story of the people living in the Masese slum and the recent dumping of hot boiler ash from a local industry there.
The dumping ground is along a major trail that women and children walk frequently. Though the ash occasionally smolders, few realize the temperature of the soil until they have already stepped into it.
In the last few weeks, dozens of people have been treated for severe burns. A child died after being unable to escape the trash heap.
It’s hard for me to conceptualize traditional interpretations of hell, but I’m quite sure this would be a decent equivalent. The tragedy of a child burning to death seems somehow worse than any torment Hieronymus Bosch could have ever painted.
The issue currently being debated in the blogosphere is whether an eternal heaven and hell exist. What is viscerally real is that in our very midst – in the wake of tsunamis and earthquakes, meltdowns and trash heaps, we’ve got a whole lot of hell on our hands already.
When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, it often sounded like the in-breaking of a whole new world – “heaven come to earth,” as so many poets and songwriters have said.
Could it be that we hold the potential of heaven within ourselves – and that through our efforts, we might charge in and make a heaven of hell? Is it possible to pray, to campaign, to fight for those who walk through hell simply because of their social location? Is it possible for the love of God to so transform a heart that it can ransom that which it once capriciously exploited?
And perhaps more than all of that – beyond the words and debates of a million well-intentioned people – could the in-breaking of God be happening, and we missed the chance to help put out the fire?
Trey Lyon is associate pastor for faith development at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga. This column appeared previously on his blog.