Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Descending into Hell?
Knowing that certain progressively-minded, culturally corrupted and neo-Darwinistic Christian denominations have teaching personalities which dismiss hell from modern terminology by saying… “There ain’t no hell.”, we answer, “The hell there ain’t!”
As we begin to track the meaning of the word “hell”, we find that it is a Germanic or Scandanavian term translated from earlier languages. In these earlier languages translated to our bibles we read of this place in the Old Testament. In one account we read of it described as the “pit”. Of the great city, Jerusalem, a prophet warned…
"For thus says the Lord God: When I make you a city laid waste, like the cities that are not inhabited, when I bring up the deep over you, and the great waters cover you, then I will thrust you down with those who descend into the Pit, to the people of old, and I will make you to dwell in the nether world, among primeval ruins, with those who go down to the Pit, so that you will not be inhabited or have a place in the land of the living. I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more; though you be sought for, you will never be found again, says the Lord God." (Ezekiel 26:19-21)
Thus it seems, for an early time there was not hell at death, but just nothingness as a void and cessation of existence. In an earlier context, however, we read of what had happened in Sodom and Gomorrah, hellfire and brimstone likened to a natural volcanic eruption are recorded. The temporary fire and conflagration came causing the eternal nothingness of death. Natural hellfire caused death which was She'ol. In the Hebrew bible, our Old Testament record of Job laments.., “Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good. The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while thy eyes are upon me, I shall be gone. As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him any more.” (Job 7:7-10)
So it was for the Hebrews (hapiru) people, nothingness was named “She’ol. It was a place of stillness and darkness, cut off from God. We die as a result of human sin, and no matter how we die, they said we go away to stay. But the idea of nothingness soon became transitional. It seems that we humans did learn somethings about death… but slowly.
While the Hebrew word for the place of the dead remained as “She’ol”, the place is spoken of differently in the later Old Testament book of Daniel, It is the grave and a “resting place”. This resting place, however, became temporary. A person of faith resides there until judgment comes. Daniel 12:2 proclaims "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt."
Aha! Hellfire punishment arose in the annals of Hebrew theology amid the concept of She'ol. Thus She'ol, though initially translated as "grave", "pit", or "abode of the dead", was eventually described as the underworld’s temporary housing, The change in purpose for the place as a “temporary storehouse” for some of the dead was likely a descriptive acquired from the Egyptian religious pantheon, In Egypt, it was a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of moral choices. However, based upon nature’s harvest and planting cycle, the powerful Egyptian nature god of the crop annually experienced death and life, and those temporary states became simply celebrated each agricultural year. It is of record that the early communities would “sacrifice:” a child of the tribe, offering the god some body and blood to help the new crop get started. We see also that the wealthy would try to "keep" a dead inhabitant of the nether world preserved until life could once again lay hold. We see that “life” according to later Hebrew scriptures, thus did not despair of remaining in She’ol. Resurrection was seen as possible! Sheol residents, who were previously the "shades" (rephaim), entities without personality or strength, acquired in roughly 500 BC-70AD a more diverse understanding. She’ol became the home of both the righteous and the wicked, but these were separated into respective compartments, and God would clearly “rescue” the pious elect and faithful servants.
Later, when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into the Greek “Septuagint” writings in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, the word "Hades" was substituted for Sheol. In Greek lore, however, Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of the evil god it represents. Therefore, a Greco marriage of death and evil hell merged. The dispersed Jews who lived out amongst the Hellenist Gentiles, found their faith interpretations of heaven and hell influenced by this Greco-Roman thought world. Thus arose the new concept, and the new name of "Hades" for fiery lower regions emerged.
Thus Judaism at the time of Jesus birth held much controversy about Hades, which became generally known in Israel by the popular Aramaic name of Gehenna. Some teachers of the day proposed that Gehenna is not She’ol.. Instead Gehanna (Hades) is a place of eternal torment, not just nothingness. It is where one was sent after She’ol, when the sinful dead are judged as horrid, based on life's deeds. Strong and differing opinions existed on the matter due to Hellenistic influence, for there were the Pharisees that believed in good deeds that earned “eternal” life and escape from hell, yet Sadducees were old school and did not believe in either resurrection or eternal hell. This tension is evidenced in New Testament questionings to Jesus. “In the afterlife, whose wife will she be…” was a Pharasiac question put to him not just about inheritance, but trying to trap Jesus concerning his thoughts on heaven, hell, and resurrection. His answer fueled the controversy by saying the woman would belong to no man, and reveals His position as afterlife endorsing. Thanks to Jesus, we started to truly get the idea.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, therefore, we know that heaven and hell were commonly described geographically. Hell was the Valley of Hinnon. The place Gehenna was a garbage dump that was adjacent to Jerusalem, the saintly and heavenly city. This lends us to the thought that in the pre-scientific age, the concrete renderings of this solid, geographical place were more popular to the public than the more abstract thinking of the educated priestly caste. Apparently, since the dump contained much that was combustible, the fires seemed to burn continuously both day and night… somewhat “eternally”. Described in the earliest gospel, recognized by most authorities to be “The Gospel According to Saint Mark”, we find the Aramaic word “Gehenna” describing this “hot, everlasting hole in the ground!” In the street language of Judaism, therefore, one could go to the grave and simply remain out of sight from the Divine, and eventually a proved evildoer would be cast both out of sight, and burned eternally in hellish Gehenna. Those who were buried in She’ol in priestly fashion within the faith works of the heavenly city, however, waited in She’ol, but fit for the final resurrection. Heaven was described also in concrete terms as spatially up in the clouds with God, where our Creator was envisioned by earlier prophets during the “Wars of Jehovah” (YHWH). He rode there in similar fashion to the ancient “thunder” god Marduk, going to the heavenly court to render judgment on those in buried in She'ol.. For Israel of Jesus day, Yahweh is the one true God who reigns riding on high with cherubim and seraphim attending. Yahweh would not forget the tombs of those who died and were properly buried in She’ol.
This spatially restricted and natural thinking brings us forward to the time of Jesus death by crucifixion. In the Apostles' Creed, which came stated about several centuries later though the church, was still chained into a pre-scientific age. In it we rightly state that Jesus is described as one who “descended into hell, and on the third day rose again” But, we know from the scriptural record that Jesus body certainly was not thrown into Gehenna, but rested in the tomb of Joseph or Arimathea. Jesus was in She'ol. Then what do they mean by saying Jesus descended into hell? How and why was Jesus said to descend from She'ol into a hot garbage dump for the sinfully dead and condemned?
First we must consider that for the church, both heaven and hell became not only physical and geographical, but abstract in Greco-Roman relational terms. Heaven and hell were certain and concrete, but also abstract. Just as Heaven was above the clouds in the ancient world, and hell was the garbage dump, the location of where we are, or end up, indicates where we are in abstract relation to God. Thus those ancients who resided in either She'ol or Gehanna were not abandoned, but their faith which pointed ahead in time to Christ's advent, was a saving faith. As well, upon the face of the earth, the living Christian exists as synonymously sinner and saint. Since the Creedal times then, we moved away from restricting God to the physical clouds and the Satanic to the underworld, instead we of the church find them indeed always present locally in the here and now. Though we say that the future holds permanent hell for those who are not accepting of Jesus Christ’s free gift, we are living spatially in both heaven and hell,. The situational effects one may experience, however, depends on our faith-strength relationship with Almighty God.
Consider this! We may be undergoing imprisonment as a sinner caught in the worst Vietnamese jungle pit upon earth, a virtual hell; but if God is known as near by us, we yet are in heaven for that is where we know God resides. For Jesus has said in scripture, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
As well, however, we can be in natural wonderment in senses and because we are unresponsive of spiritual contact with the One who creates all that exists… we recline eating grapes of wrath in hell. What is worse for this latter state, is that we may be mortally deceived by these worldly comforts. The difference between the two realms is then… do we now faithfully hear, or have we heard God’s voice speaking to us through his holy Word?
Therefore, when we consider the early Apostolic Creed of the church, we consider that it is faith given by the Spirit, expressed in the power of the Word which is Jesus the Christ. This is Jesus who descended into hell to save our predecessors and ourselves. He descended into hell. He is the eternal Word, described as the Alpha and Omega (beginning and end). He shows that there is no realm of time or space that is forbidden him. He indeed descended into our concepts of nothingness and hellish despair after we buried him in the tomb, and then he rose again. He experienced being out of the Father’s gaze, surely hell, yet not forgotten by eternal, loving Divine memory. Thus the Creator of all brought our Lord back to wholistic, physical and spiritual life, resurrected after three days. He was a “new creation”, having known and mastered both heaven and hell, and he is alive forevermore. Surely, when he spoke to the sinful thief on the cross we heard him say, “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise.” Thus we know that because he lives, in faith we shall also live eternally with him.
It is my contention therefore, that heaven and hell are real places, and reside not just in the future realm. Hell can be presently known in this life, felt by us from birth since we are born in sin and often separated from God in this mortal coil. However, heaven is also very real. It is given to us freely at baptism. Can we be in both places? Surely! A saint of the church that I know is presently experiencing “shingles”, and its hellish result presses hard upon her. But she also know that this hell is seen by God, who in heaven is always beside her. Even in her pain, therefore, God is near. She is therefore surely a citizen of heaven though experiencing hell.
Heaven cannot be earned. It cannot be bought. It is that wondrous place that allows someone like Mother Teresa to work in the most hellish conditions upon this sinful orb, yet know the comforting company of a wondrous forgiving God who has established for her the heavenly realm… and established it forever. This is the Trinitarian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who makes eternal heaven out of chaotic nothingness and hell. Thanks be to God.