In Texas these days it really is hotter than hell. We do the best we can. We know that relief will come one fine day.
Years ago a TV evangelist told me I was going to Hell. Appropriately concerned I looked up what the Bible says about that. “Hell” is an English word used to translate the Hebrew word “Sheol,” the Greek word “Hades,” and the Hebrew word “Gehenna.” In the Hebrew Scriptures the word Hell appears 31 times in the King James Version; in the original Hebrew it’s not there at all. The original word was Sheol, a dark watery place under the ground. Dig a hole. The deeper you go the darker it gets; eventually you’ll hit water as well. Six feet under is a safe depth, except in Venice or New Orleans. So in the Scriptures that Jesus knew and loved, the Bible he preached from, Sheol (where we go after we die) was not a place of fiery torment. For Jesus and the Jews, the afterlife had more to do with this idea in Psalm 139: “Where can we go away from God’s presence? If we go up to heaven, God is there. If we go down to Sheol, God is there.” Dark and watery down there in “hell.” A far cry from the 103 degrees we hit today in Austin.
In the New Testament whenever you find the English word Hell, the original word was usually the Hebrew Gehenna or the Greek Hades. All I know about Hades is what I heard in Greek Mythology 101. Hot stuff, as I recall. But I do know something of Gehenna. I’ve been there twice. To get to Gehenna all you have to do is walk from the heart of the ancient walled city of Jerusalem out through the Dung Gate; which should give you a clue about what the valley of Gehenna was used for in ancient times, why it was always burning, why it stank, and, perhaps, why you might be motivated to behave if your parents threatened to send you there. Ancient peoples practiced pagan sacrifices in Gehenna; or went there to consult with sorcerers and wizards. Yep—all the Bible. Back then Gehenna was an evil place indeed. According to weather.com they’ll only see a high of 90 degrees there tomorrow. Sorry neighbors, Austin is hotter than Gehenna, too.
It’s a sad truth about humans that we are so keen to judge and condemn each other. We did it all through the Bible. Even Jesus was judged and condemned. But in John 3.17 we learn something wonderful about God: “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” All through scripture God said, I require mercy. While dying on the cross Jesus forgave the very people who crucified him. In the earliest days of the Christian movement Christians believed that Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world, that everyone would be saved. Look at the Nicene Creed, the earliest official statement of what Christians believe, adopted in 325 C.E. Find anything in there about hellfire and damnation? How about the Apostle’s Creed? Nope, not there either. But there’s a noteworthy line right after the one about Jesus dying and being buried. The line says, “and he descended to the dead.” The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth once said, if anyone went to Hell it was Jesus; he went there to bring everyone out.
What might this mean for us? For me it means that I can trust Jesus’ Bible when it says, go up to heaven or down to Sheol, either way, God will be with me. God is everywhere and God is love. It also means, if the Christian Creeds are to be believed, that Jesus and only Jesus will be my judge. And that’s really excellent news, as much as that may upset that TV evangelist who took such pleasure in damning me to hell all those years ago, God love him. No matter how hot or hellish life may get sometimes, I know and trust that relief will come one fine day.
Be well and cool,
david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin. for more about faith church, click here.