Shocking title, right? Depending on where you came from and what kind of religious experience you may have endured, this phrase “fire of hell” can really get you going, or not. The more I come to know Jesus the more I “giggle” at the misuse of this concept. The more I am aware by the revelation of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is in His Father and I am in Him and He is in me…well the more I know His love and redemption and restoration and forgiveness and mercy and grace and salvation and kindness and patience and understanding and tolerance and reparation and renewal and….well so much more. He came to save us and has saved us and is in the process of making that real in our lives. Love keeps no account of wrongs. He isn’t in the ledger and accounting business. He is in the NO-judgment business. The Father made the Son the judge and the Son doesn’t judge or condemn but saves. Yes I may have a suitcase or travel trailer or house full or ocean full of junk in my life that needs to be dealt with, but He is the savior. He has saved me from the power of that junk. Now He is revealing His Father to me through the Holy Spirit and I am coming to know my adoption where I cry Abba Father!!! In that place the junk has no place. In that place I have freedom in the knowledge of the truth…I am a child of God! And so are you, every single breathing or not breathing one of you for now and in the past and forever. He is that good. Yay!
Don’t you love the butts? I don’t. Nothing good comes out of butts. Still there are some around butt not like you thought. Want to see some one of those butts?
Sorry, my wife says I am a real dork. I guess it is true..butt she could be wrong.
In 1991 I had just been promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade (1st LT for the Army types) and had joined my first squadron. We were headed to the Mediterranean Sea. So as a guy who had really been nowhere outside the US and spent most of his life in the south, east of the Mississippi river, I was off to strange new places. I had studied geography in school just like everyone else. It intrigued me because of the mystery and fantasy of “far away places.” Still I was really afraid of actually going somewhere. Now I was going and there was no getting out of this deal.
My first “Wow!” moment was when we entered the Mediterranean Sea. There is a giant “rock” you may have heard of and have seen on the commercials as an iconic image for an investment firm. It is called the Rock of Gibraltar. I had seen that cartoon image so many times but now, as we floated past, I saw it up close. Wow! I had no idea what to expect. They made an announcement on the ship’s intercom that we were going past this natural wonder, so I headed up to see. Seeing this image in real life changed my understanding of its significance. I had just spent two weeks sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. That is a big ocean. We had some weather along the way and spent may days further from land than our aircraft could fly (without air refueling). So the immensity of the Atlantic really hit me. Now as we steamed past this great guardian of the Mediterranean, I could imagine the joy the sailors must have experienced to be “coming home.” After such a long journey through some rough water in likely bad weather and small boats…there it was. They must have been elated to see such a familiar and welcoming beacon of safety. Yes the Med is pretty rough itself, but you are in “your backyard” so to speak. Oh yeah, the Mediterranean is really awesome. Every place to go along the sea is so beautiful. The history comes alive. The geography now has a memory and an experience. All the geography that was just ink on paper before is now living and real. I can relate to the stories and mythology and legends and battles and heartaches and tragedies and triumphs. Wow is right.
So what does that have to do with Hell? Everything.
The word Jesus used most often that we translate as Hell was Gehenna. Here is a fairly famous verse:
Matt 10:28 28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna). (ESV, amplified)
Sadly it has been misused. The purpose of Jesus statement is to set up the next few verses. He is telling the disciples, that He is sending out, it will be rough. They will be persecuted. There are people out there who will hate them. They will try to hurt them and maybe even kill them. The ones who should be feared the most are the religious leaders themselves. Check out this post for more details.
Still there is this disturbing image that comes to mind when Jesus uses this kind of language. Here is another use of the word Gehenna:
Matt 5:22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell (Gehenna) of fire (ESV, amplified)
So now the geography lesson.
Gehenna was a valley south of Jerusalem. This valley was also called the Valley of Hinnom. There is a lot of history associated with this valley. In the time of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet is warning the people about how far they had run from God. They were even sacrificing children in this valley:
Jer 32:35 They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (ESV)
Jeremiah also warns them that “judgment” is coming. They have invested poorly, sown wrongly, not trusted God, taken things into their own hands and even have fallen into mythological g.o.d. worship including the sacrifice of children to these g.o.d.s (penal substitution anyone?). Now Jeremiah says the day is coming when there will be so many people killed by the Babylonians that the bodies will have to be thrown into this valley and burned.
This Gehenna valley joins the Kidron valley and they flow into the Dead Seas as the valley of fire. The Dead Sea wasn’t always “dead.” Before the whole Sodom and Gomorrah disaster the sea was open to the south and water could flow through. When all the “fire and brimstone” filled in the south exit, the sea “died” to fish and wildlife and drinking, etc. It was referred to as the “Lake of Fire” since the “fire” killed the lake. Oooos and aaaahs please. Now when the rains came everything from the valley of Gehenna would wash down into the “Lake of Fire” or Dead Sea.
In the Hebrew tradition it was very important to be buried with your ancestors. Remember the stories of Jacob and Abraham and their “land” and “caves” that were so important for their burial? Remember how Jacob made his sons promise that they would bring his bones back if they went down to Egypt? If they were not buried in the tombs of their ancestors they were in a no-place (Sheol) instead of “in the bosom of Abraham.” More ooos and aaaahs please. So now imagine these bodies in Gehenna, after this “judgment” of Babylonian conquest (they were actually calling in some debts), and now you can see something in the geography you didn’t see before. Dead people, not in Abrahams bosom (not in their ancestors graves), who are burned (out of necessity since there were not enough graves) and their ashes (what is left of their soul, identity, tradition, person) is washed into the Lake of Fire which is a “second death, lost for eternity.” OK, now some big oooos and aaahs.
So when Jesus is saying that “if you are even angry it is like the fires of Gehenna” can you “see” something different? Two messages are “buried” in the same statement. For one the religious leadership wanted a violent overthrow of the Romans. They had practicing guerrilla warfare for some time. They wanted a Messiah that would re-establish Israel as the world power it was in the past, using as much violence as required. Jesus is telling them, just like Jeremiah, “knock it off with the killing stuff….this is not my heart and you will bring the “judgment” of Rome against you just like Babylon all over again.” He is also saying that anger in our hearts is worse than any judgment YOU can imagine. He is not, absolutely IS NOT, threatening these people with an eternal conscious torment of everlasting fiya that burns off their skin while g.o.d keeps them alive forever in his torture chamber of horrors. Jesus is loving them. His is warning them just like Jeremiah. He is warning us just like Jeremiah. Our insistence on judgment and anger and violence and eye for an eye and condemnation and jurisprudence and all that forbidden fruit nonsense is what Jesus is trying to show us about ourselves. He begins the sermon on the mount with His heart, His nature, our childlike qualities in the Kingdom, our adopted nature as a child of God included in the triune circle of love. Can you see? Can you “see” Him pointing to this valley and drawing the people back to their own tradition and history and stories and memories? Can you see Gibraltar?
It is time we accepted our adoption. No, let me say that differently. It is time we just get over ourselves and our religion. We are adopted. We didn’t get a choice. Under the Hebrew tradition a natural child could give up his right to an inheritance and the family name. An adopted child cannot. We are adopted. He picked us to adopt. We cannot be rejected. The ones that find themselves “cast into outer darkness” are the ones that insist on everyone who isn’t like them burning in their version of the Fiya of Hell. Hell is a place for people who need a Hell. It is the place where the older brother is still condemning the prodigal son who has been accepted and is enjoying the party!!!
It is time to stop the judgment. Can you imagine for a moment a world where we weren’t pointing fingers and accusing like the devil (the accuser)? Some may say “if we did that we would all fly off into chaos.” My response is “stop it with the tiny little Jesus in your mind.” God is way bigger and way better and way “gooder” than having to roast people to feel better about Himself…really?
And now I hope I have shown you the geography, the Gibraltar, to guide yourself by, so you are not lost in the sea of stupid (ok, blindness is probably a nicer word) and instead embrace the joy of the Lord in the peace of Jesus.