When I went to Israel and Palestine last month, I knew that I’d be meeting activists and agitators as our group studied conflict and just peacemaking. I knew I’d be walking in the places where Jesus walked, seeing the Bible’s geography come to life, I knew I’d be praying in places that mean a great deal to me and to the many of the world’s great faith traditions. And all that was awesome.
But there was also this one side hope of mine. I used to be an avid runner, I still run a little bit. And I love getting outdoors and hiking. So even though I knew our trip was mostly urban and very busy, I was hoping there might be an opportunity for one little outdoorsy adventure. One of you, Eduardo, actually promised to pray for me during the trip that this would happen.
And it actually happened twice. At the start of the trip, I had the chance to hike and run up and down the beautiful hillsides of Haifa, and see the sunrise over the Mediterranean, amidst all the little stray cats of that city. That was special.
And then later, in Jerusalem, even better, I had the chance to run to Hell and back. Yeah, literally.
Welcome, my friends, to the upper slopes of hell.
I know, confusing, right? It’s a big, lush olive tree, on a grassy slope. What kind of hell is that?
Well, friends, this is something I would like to explore today.
I’d like to tell you about my pilgrimage in and out of the Valley of Hinnom, in Greek known as Gehenna – the word that in the New Testament of the Bible is most frequently translated as hell.
And as I share about this place, I’d like to talk a little bit about what I think hell is and isn’t. I preached about this topic like three years ago, and I heard a lot of you found it helpful, so we come back to again, from another angle. Today, I want to talk a little bit about the words in the Bible behind this concept of hell, what it is or isn’t from my perspective, and how when Jesus talks about this experience that our English Bibles often call hell, he’s not trying to make us judgmental or terrified. He’s trying to help us and liberate us.
So let’s go to Jesus, first. In the middle of Mark’s writings about this life, Jesus says:
Mark 9: 42-50 (Common English Bible)
42 “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake.
43 If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out.
45 If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet.
47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two.
48 That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out.
49 Everyone will be salted with fire.
50 Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.”
Alright, Jesus is getting feisty here, isn’t he? He could have just said: Watch out! Be careful. But instead, he goes on about cutting off hands, ripping out eyes, and mentioning something our translation calls hell three times.
I was trying to remember this week the first time I heard this word “hell” when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure at first I just knew it was a bad word and that sometimes I heard grownups using it when they were angry.
Later on, I picked up the idea that some Christians think different people go to this place called hell when they die. Growing up, I realized that some Christians had lots of ideas about hell: how bad it was, and exactly who was going to go there after they die.
Weird thing is they didn’t agree. Even weirder thing is that I never heard anyone ever wonder if they were the ones going to hell. It was always someone else. I never trusted these judgy, doomsday certainties. But I did always wonder what Jesus meant when he talked this way.
Here Jesus is in his adopted hometown, the poor village of Capernaum, by the shore of the big lake of Galilee. Jesus didn’t grow up there, but it seems that he moved there when he began his ministry as a rabbi. It was the hometown of some of his students, Peter and Andrew, probably also James and John.
Jesus is talking to a group of kids in the neighborhood there, hanging out, and some adults come along and interrupt them, and try to get Jesus to talk about stuff that interests them. Adults can be so rude, right? – interrupting kids left and right. Well, Jesus humors them for a minute, and then he brings the subject back to kids and grownups, and says the words of warning I read for us today.
Jesus is like,
grownups, if you hurt a kid, that’s like the worst thing you can do.
And to bring his point home, he gets vivid about just how bad this is. He’s like:
hey, if you hurt a kid, you’re better off dead, as far as I’m concerned.
He calls hurting kids a big, big sin.
And then he goes on with this interesting bit, where he’s like,
figure out what parts of you are making you sin, and deal with them, because you’re better off practicing self-control, healing, and keeping yourself from hurting people, especially hurting kids, than not dealing with your issues, causing all kinds of problems, and then suffering bigger consequences later.
Makes sense, right? Deal with your issues. We all need to deal with the bad parts of us, because we can hurt people. The bad parts of ourselves can mess up lots of people’s lives, our own included.
Makes sense. The intense part here, though, is the language about these consequences – Jesus talking about “hell” in English at least, and this place with fires and salt and undying worms.
Gross, I know. Sorry. But what does Jesus mean?
Can we take a minute to swirl back around to that?
So, hell – first off, that word is not in the Bible. The Bible is written in Hebrew mostly, Aramaic (a couple itty bitty parts) and then the New Testament in Greek. And none of them have a word that really matches the English idea of hell. That kind of got filled out, even made up, later. White people making up scary stories over the ages.
There are, though, three different words and phrases, in the Bible, that sometimes get translated or thought about as hell.
The first is Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek. Two different cultures and languages, but big picture, close enough to the same thing. Both words – Sheol, Hades – are names for an ancient, pre-scientific idea about the land of the dead, like a place deep under the earth where people’s bodies or souls go. Now for much of the history of people and thinking in the Bible, that was it. People didn’t really think much about any afterlife, other than it’s a bummer to not be alive anymore.
But over the few centuries before Christ, what in the Bible we could call the intertestamental period, in between the empires of Babylon and Rome, more and more Jews thought, maybe death is not the end.
Maybe there are places or experiences of rewards or punishment in the afterlife. And there are two phrases in the New Testament, each only used a very few times, that might connect with this.
There’s this one phrase Jesus uses a few times, pretty much only in the Gospel of Matthew, this phrase
“weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew quotes Jesus saying this six times, Luke once, that’s it. So it’s small, but it’s memorable. Each time Jesus is saying there are ways to be included in the Kingdom of God, the reign or family of God, what we call the Beloved Community.
But Jesus says,
there are also times when because you don’t trust or honor God, you end up outside. You don’t belong.
It’s not totally clear if Jesus is talking about exclusion in this life or the next after we die, but the idea is if you blow off God’s invitation to love and wholeness and justice, you suffer for that.
Try something, think about people you know or have learned about that are in the second half of their lives – over 40 or 50 – and they seem to have just stubbornly resisted invitations to love, grace, mercy, and justice. Don’t say their name out loud, but think about them. Hateful, stubborn, unloving, unkind, unjust, mean people. They seem sort of like the opposite of a God-responsive person.
Maybe it feels judgy to speak this way, but if we’re honest, we can all think of people. Well, there may be parts of them we don’t see, which is why God judges, we don’t, but maybe these are people who are outside God’s Beloved Community right now. And this stubborn resistance to God, this stubborn resistance to grace and goodness and love and justice, this makes your life junk – a life of gnashing of teeth – suffering and violence. And if you’re this person and you somehow meet the righteous, loving Spirit of God after your death, maybe on that day there’s more weeping than joy, at least at first.
I don’t know if that’s hell or not, like I said it’s just a few mentions, but this is one way Jesus has of warning people. Respond to God now, don’t wait until you realize you’re outside the circle, and you’re weeping and gnashing your teeth.
Alright, so Sheol/Hades – death or the underworld. That’s one. Weeping and gnashing of teeth – that’s the second phrase.
And here’s the third. Jesus talks about this place called Gehenna a few times. In Hebrew or Jesus’ language of Aramaic, this Greek word Gehenna is the Valley of Hinnom. And it’s where I was last month. This is the word that’s in the Mark 9 passage we read today, three times.
If you’re sinning,
and especially if you’re hurting kids, put in the work to get better. Salt yourselves, he says later. Salt is a metaphor for judgment here. Jesus says:
judge yourselves – notice the hurt and hurting, bad parts of you and ask for help and work on them, so you don’t face their worst consequences, so you don’t end up metaphorically or literally in Gehenna, this valley of Hinnom.
What is this place?
So Gehenna is a long valley that winds around the city of Jerusalem. It’s like a mile long, and it’s really steep. I know, I ran down it and then back up. In Greater Boston, there is no hill this long or this steep. Gehenna’s more like running up and down a small mountain.
The first time this place shows up in history it’s just a borderland, sometimes still is. Millennia ago, it was a tribal borderland, and at some point a family named Hinnom owned a lot of it. Lucky them, it’s a great place for growing olives. As recently as the 1960s, it was a border again, then between the countries of Israel and Jordan.
What’s underneath these olive groves is really interesting though. There’s a whole lot of history, and a whole lot of hurt under these slopes.
This place is infamous, as it turns out, for grownups hurting kids. Centuries before Jesus, for decades, some people started sacrificing their children by fire in this valley. Yeah, child sacrifice is the ugliest element of a number of ancient world religions. And it happened in this valley, by fire. Seventh century BC. So maybe not surprising this place and the mention of fire comes up when Jesus warns people about hurting kids.
This isn’t the only connection of death with the Valley of Hinnom. Gonna get gross here for just one second, OK? Because it’s a borderland, and right outside the city, this valley was sometimes (we think) a burning trash heap, and a mass gravesite. During the Babylonian destruction of the city in the 6th century BC, during the Roman attack in the 1st century, and one other time a historian told me during a Persian attack, this may have been a mass gravesite. Running along near the bottom of the valley, I peeked behind a little stone wall at some point and saw an abandoned animal carcass – super gross – but it seems like this has always been a place to dump things and a place of death.
Midway down the valley, there’s a church and monastery too that not many tourists go to. And I asked our tour guide later, what was that church, and he’s like oh, it’s the church that marks the Field of Blood, where Judas died after betraying Jesus.
He’s like, not many people visit there. And I thought: I can see, cheery spot for a church.
So this Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, is a place rich in people’s imagination and experience, as a place of sin, and of sin of hurting kids, a hellish spot of decay and violence and death.
Even today, in a way. At breakfast later, I was covered in sweat and told a local Israeli friend where I’d been running and hiking. I was like I ran to the bottom of hell and back.
And he smiled, like wow, what a journey, and then he looked at me seriously, and said:
you shouldn’t go there.
And I was like:
yeah, yeah, I was joking about that going to hell idea.
And he was like:
no, I’m serious, you shouldn’t run there tomorrow, it’s not safe.
And he helped me see, this is still a borderland, marking the hells of racism, religious conflict, and violence. A place where people can get hurt.
See as you descend down the valley it changes.
Near the top of Gehenna today, you see this Gentrified Jewish neighborhood. There’s food trucks parked there, expensive housing with great views, great location. The food trucks are right next to this really cool seasonal music fest, where local Jewish Israelis can get a drink and eat outdoors and watch live music and all that. I don’t know, it’s sort of like a mini version of Boston’s Seaport neighborhood.
But then as you go down the steep road, past the olive groves and all those graves underneath, you end up in a most poor, pretty crowded Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem, segregated. The valley at that point is more dirt than grass, lots of trash everywhere since there aren’t city services, no food trucks either. It’s a place where people feel frustration over exclusion and neglect. People don’t go up and down that valley anymore – they stay apart.
I think Jesus thought about this valley often, when he thought about how bad life can get.
Powerful people can do horrible things and cause worlds of hurt to others, kids included.
People and families and nations can lust after bodies and land and resources that aren’t theirs and our souls become heaping messes of trash. We war with each other and rage in violence, leaving suffering and death in the wake of our unresolved anger and conflict.
In addition to talking about hurting kids, the two times Jesus most mentions Gehenna is when he’s warning people about the consequences of unregulated anger and lust.
Violent anger and greedy lust – these always unleash internal hell in our souls and sometimes violent hell in our bodies and communities.
Life can get really bad, Jesus recognizes. Let’s get help and do something about it when we get there. And should we ever find ourselves in hell in this life or the next, let’s call out to God for mercy and with the help of God and friends, let’s try to find our way out again.
Two last examples:
There’s a moment when Jesus is entering Jerusalem, and he’s high up on a hill, overlooking the whole city, Gehenna included, and he starts crying and says aloud:
O Jerusalem, if you only knew the ways that would lead to peace.
And he pictures this beautiful city’s destruction, which would happen a generation later at the hands of Roman armies. Perhaps he pictures the fires and graves of Gehenna, and he longs for people to choose peacemaking over violence.
I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot and wondering what would Jesus see, what would he cry over, what would he long for, standing on a hillside today, looking out over any of our great cities.
Say Jesus is up in Arlington Heights, looking out over Boston, what would he see? Why might he cry? How would he warn us? And what would he pray?
Greater Boston, if you only knew the way. Maybe he’d think about our unregulated desires as a people for more energy, more wealth, the ways we’ve trashed our rivers and our air, and our slowness to embrace the ways of peace and flourishing for our species.
After all, climate change is like warfare. It’s a place where Jesus’ triple threats of Gehenna meet – unregulated desire meets violence meets hurting kids. In this case, violence to the earth, and hurting our kids and grandkids and future generations.
Jesus might see the Gehenna we’re making and urge us toward change.
Gehenna, Hell, after all isn’t a curse, it’s a warning.
I’m summing up here.
Hell is not a place God sends us in anger because God needs to punish. No, hell is a place that we send ourselves and one another. It’s the bitter fruit in our souls and our communities and our earth of our collective sin. And it’s maybe even a metaphor for the distorted, violent, greedy, twisted condition our souls can end up in at the end of this life on earth.
So hell isn’t where God sends us. It’s where we send ourselves and each other.
And hell isn’t where God punishes, it’s where God saves us from, in this life and the next.
When our souls, our relationships, our societies turn toward any kind of hell – toward separation and harm and death and violence, we find ourselves in a place where we need saving from a God who loves to save.
Hell isn’t a threat, it’s a consequence. Jesus is like:
do what you’ve gotta do to not end up there. To not end up a violent, soul-scarred tragedy of a human being. Partner with God, get help to get better, get free.
We’ll talk more about that process next week.
And if that doesn’t work, and you find yourself in hell one way or another, in this life or the next, call out for the mercy and help of God, who is kind and strong to rescue and save.
Because there is nowhere that God is not, and there is no time that God does not love to rescue us all.
For a journalist’s own take on a tour of Gehenna, read this article too: