If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
--Psalm 139:8 NRSV
At times I've had the honor of teaching undergraduate classes on the Bible
(not bad for somebody who dropped out of a New Testament Ph.D. program). I
always begin the course by attempting to demonstrate that the Bible is not
one book written by a single author but rather a collection of 66 writings
(more depending on the denomination one is a part of) written by different
authors, in different languages and in different centuries. On some things,
such as idolatry or caring for poor people, the Bible is for the most part
consistent, but on many more things there is a diversity or at least a
development of thought by the various authors. The afterlife is one of the
In my undergraduate courses, I give them an overview of appearances of the
word "Hell" in the Bible. It's pretty brief, because "Hell" doesn't appear
in the Bible. Oh, it certainly appears in English translations of the Hebrew
and Greek, but the words we read as "Hell" really mean something different
than we realize.
death to exist in a shade-like manner. Everyone goes there, both good and
righteous people is depicted.
(Wisdom of Solomon appears in what Protestants call the Apocrypha and
exclude from their Bibles but Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches
include in theirs.)
time. Jesus and Paul sided with the Pharisees who believed all of the dead
would be resurrected for a final judgment. Until that time, your dead loved
ones apparently remain dead and not in heaven immediately like we speak of
so often today.
speaks in vague terms about "darkness," "gnashing of teeth," and "Gehenna"
the spot outside Jerusalem where people burned their trash. A couple of
times Jesus uses the term "Hades" the Greek term for the underworld or abode
of the dead.
be with me in paradise." Apparently that guy gets to skip the whole
resurrection of the dead thing at the end of time all together.
afterlife where bad souls are punished.
descended into the lower parts of the earth." These verses along with later
Christian tradition was interpreted to mean between Jesus' crucifixion and
resurrection Christ descended into Hell or Hades or wherever to stage a
cosmic breakout freeing all the souls who died before Jesus showed up. This
is stated in the Apostle's Creed with the line "He descended into Hell. . ."
Throughout Christian history, various theologians, thinkers and ordinary
believers have questioned whether a soul really remained in Hell forever or,
if there was another option like purgatory. More recent theologians (and a
few ancient ones) have questioned whether the idea of everlasting torment
as a consequence of what one did in a single mortal life, no matter how bad
that life was, is consistent with a God who is both just and merciful.
Others have gone so far as to reject the doctrine of Hell altogether.
Despite the impression given in most churches, TV preachers and popular
culture, there is a diversity of belief among scripture and tradition when
it comes to the afterlife.
If there is a Hell, of which I have my doubts, I like the way Frederick
Buechner writes about it:
Since the damned are said to suffer as dismally in the next world as they do
in this one, they must still have enough life left in them to suffer with, .
. Dante saw written over the gates of Hell the words "Abandon all hope ye
who enter here," but he must have seen wrong. If there is suffering life in
Hell, there must also be hope in Hell, because where there is life there is
the Lord and giver of life, and where there is suffering he is there too
because the suffering of the ones he loves is also his suffering.
"He descended into Hell," the Creed says, and " If I make my bed in Sheol,
thou art there," the Psalmist (139:8). It seems there is no depth to which
he will not sink.
Many Christians will err on the side of God's holiness, righteousness or
God's justice in their belief in Hell--they all seem to be certain they
aren't going there, but I tend to believe those appeals sound much more like
self-righteousness, pretentious holiness and a human desire for revenge
rather than justice. If I am going to err, I'm going to err on the side of
God's love, mercy and grace. If the Incarnation of God in Christ means
anything, it means there is no depth that God won't sink to in order to
reach the ones God loves, even death on a cross and maybe even a trip to
Hell, Hades or whatever.
I don't spend too much time trying to make sense of Hell, even though I know
most Christians do. I'm much more interested in the truth, that there is no
"hell" in this life where God is not present with us. No matter how much we
screw up, no matter how much we suffer or hurt, whether we can perceive it
or not, there is no escape from God. God is always with us offering us love,
mercy and grace.
That is good news indeed during these days of pandemic, social upheaval and
political uncertainty. Psalm 139 says if we ascend to heaven, descend into
the pit of Sheol or go anywhere in between, we will still find God there
waiting for us.
God is there in the isolated deathbeds of COVID patients,
God is there in the quarantined retirement home,
God is there with overwhelmed parents and kids at home during the pandemic,
God is there with essential workers on the job,
God is with you wherever you are.
Not even Hell is powerful enough to prevent God from being with you.
Grace and Peace,
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