I couldn’t have been much older than about seven or eight when I first became aware and quite frightened of the prospect of going to hell. It was on a dark winter’s afternoon when Sr Mary of the Angels read out passages from the Old Testament of the Bible which left her class in no doubt that if we did not live a good Catholic life we would go to a place of eternal fire and torment after we died. I suspect some of you my age and older may have had similar experiences?
Is there such a place as Hell? I don’t mean a hell here on earth but Hell after we die? For some people, the fact that Jesus refers to ‘hell’, as he doe in today’s Gospel, is enough for them. They feel if he said it then it must be true. But did he mean by ‘hell’ what we were taught all those years ago and some of us in fear go on dreading?
Jesus mentions the ‘hell’ in today’s Gospel where he is speaking to his first missionaries. As he sends them out, he calls on them not to be afraid of opposition but to preach the message clearly. They are to fear no one but God alone. While their opponents might be able to physically harm them, they will never be able to touch their souls. So he wants them to trust in God’s provident care, as Jeremiah does in the First Reading. The only one to fear is God who has the power to ‘destroy both body and soul in hell’.
The word Jesus uses for ‘hell’ is Gehenna. It was a valley outside Jerusalem where ancient Kings of Judah sacrificed children. Thereafter, the place was understood to be cursed. As the years passed, a sense of foreboding hung over the valley and people began take offal and garbage there for burning. It was a rubbish dump, stinking to high heaven and always smouldering with pockets of fire scattered throughout.
In the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – Jesus uses the word gehenna 11 times in all. There is no mention of it in St John’s Gospel (written up to 50 years later than the other three). In the Synoptics he always uses it as a metaphor for the prospect of not belonging to the new community he was founding, the Kingdom of God. As I understand it, he never meant gehenna as an afterlife punishment. He was using it as the standard image of the time for how people might suffer a terrible fate. God has the power, he says, to consign people to such a fate. No human has so don’t fear any human: fear God alone.
But what does Jesus mean by ‘fear’?‘ The word is a poor translation, I think, of what Jesus actually means. We wants us not to be terrified of God but to be in awe of God, to be filled with awesome reverence and respect for God, the One who created and controls the universe. This is a God, Jesus teaches, who is Father who is not to be feared but loved. So for Jesus the ‘fear’ or awe of God in this sense has a positive meaning, and it resonates with the Psalm that declares ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’.
Perhaps the following two analogies may convey something of what Jesus means:
Every parent has to teach a child to have a healthy fear of fire. But this does not mean that children cannot go on to learn how to light a gas cooker or BBQ to cook. It’s just that they have to learn how to have a proper respect for the power of fire – which can be terrifying in the wrong circumstances. A similar fear or respect is required for water in lakes and oceans but it does not stop us from learning how to swim or go sailing.
The same holds true in our relationship with God. Jesus wants us to be in awe of and have respect for the power of God who can save or destroy. But we are not to forget that while God has the power to cast into Gehenna, he knows and cares for each one of us – he uses the image of the sparrows here – so there is no need to be afraid.
So that’s the origin and context of Jesus’ reference to Gehenna or ‘hell’. All other concepts of what we understand by ‘hell’ and possible divine punishment do not come from Jesus but from subsequent generations and, in many cases, from wild human imaginings.
Holy name, Jesmond
21 June 2020