38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Throughout history, the Christian church has been fascinated with the concept of hell, understood as a literal place where people burn and torment forever. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said that the fire of hell is not imaginary or metaphorical but a literal reality. Dante illustrated that idea in his Inferno as he travels through the depths of hell and describes what exactly it will look like and feel like and ultimately be like. Everyone in Dante’s hell is in torment.
Some of us may have grown up with a particular idea of hell, or perhaps with a fear that we will end up there if we don’t get our choices right. Personally, I have never really been worried about hell that much, but I have had other people worry for me. Maybe I grew up quietly wondering why a loving God who would go as far as dying on the cross would turn around and cast us into eternal torment.
Still, today we have a lectionary reading in which Jesus is on about hell. What did Jesus mean when he talked about hell? Where is hell, and what relevance it has for the modern world? To quote Jesus, hell is a place “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. (V48)”
It’s easy to dismiss something in scripture as just being “metaphorical” In this case, however, we find that Jesus was describing a literal material reality. Not a literal place of the afterlife, but a literal place of first-century Israel. Hell was a place that the people of Jesus’ time could literally go and see.
But hell is not the right word. The word Jesus uses (in Greek) is Gehenna, which literally means “The Valley of Hinnom”. The Valley of Hinnom was the garbage dump place outskirts of Jerusalem where people used to burn their trash. Like any other landfill, it was a place where maggots never seemed to die. So much trash was burned there that the fires never seemed to go out. It was a place where the bodies of dead soldiers would pile up during the war. It was a place where the bodies of executed criminals were dumped because criminals did not receive a proper burial under Roman law. But there was something else that made it even worse, particularly for the Jews. It was also the place centuries before Jesus where the followers of Canaanite gods have practiced human sacrifice. Prophet Jeremiah claims that “The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord.” They built a temple to practice human sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, burning “their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind” (Jeremiah 7: 30-31).
Jesus’ audience was not thinking about Dante’s Inferno or an angry God. They would not have heard the word “Gehenna” and thought of our concept of hell– they would have realized Jesus was talking about an actual place outside the city. They would have taken it as a literal warning about their pending risk to be burned in the Valley of Hinnom. They must have been thinking about the landfill of waste and stench, symbolizing the worst that our kind can do to each other – violence, destruction and death.
Jesus issues a warning that it is better to control yourself now than to participate in things that can lead you to Gehenna, where our destruction of each other and our waste of human life never seems to end. In other words, it is better to take drastic action on yourself now than to end up there.
It is that emphasis on “yourself” that is easily overlooked. It is easier to see that the warning is for other people who might be seen as going to hell. Something is wrong with other people. It is the other who need fixing. It is those outside our circle who are deemed dangerous. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” The disciples see a threat from outside their community. Threats from people outside their control. Threats they want to stop and do away with.
We can hear it in public discourse when people blame what is wrong with our cities or suburbs on ethnic or racial or religious differences. On people who are different from the groups, they belong to. It’s the other people who are dysfunctional. It’s the other people who are hell, as Jean-Paul Sartre observed in his 1944 play No Exit. But Jesus warns his disciples that good can come from the outside just as easily from the inside. Whoever is not against us, he says, is for us.
And yet, the concern of any human group is to worry more about the threat from the outside of its boundaries than from corruption that happens from within. Maybe Jesus uses such strong language to provoke drastic actions: If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. Perhaps, Jesus is using such strong language because he knows human tendency of scapegoating others for our problems. That, how easy it is to blame others for our shortcomings. To name “them” as the problem.
Well, that is the path according to Jesus that leads human beings to Gehenna. The place where the casualties of our scapegoating pileup. The site “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” The challenge for the followers of Jesus is to try to focus on ourselves, our actions, our thoughts, our sins, our shortcomings. It is to get rid of the human proclivity of scapegoating others for all our ills.
In a way, this is what the church community is for - to show the world a different kind of neighbourliness. One that leads to life instead of Gehenna, a place that symbolizes the worst humans do to each other. This is what our faith is for - to help us live a different way of living and being in the world than acting in ways that lead to Gehenna.
The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (Cornell University Press, 1993).