Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Re-Claiming Faith, Part II: What the HELL?
It's not what's inside of you, but what you do that defines you.
For most American Christians, hell is a very real place for people who reject Jesus Christ. Evangelicals usually dance around the rather 'judgmental' belief with witty sayings like this one from Rick Warren: "people who don't accept what Jesus said will end up where Jesus said they'd go." Throughout our own fundamentalist Christian upbringings, this 'inconvenient truth' was blatantly abrasive interpersonally, but we found comfort in knowing that we knew all the right things to know. Prophetic Christians, however, interpret the New Testament's hell passage quite differently, more at home in the world of 1st century Palestine.
When Jesus was born into the Jewish setting of the Roman Empire, many different brands of Judaism competed for the title of Yahweh's true people. The pharisees, saduccess, zealots, essenes and Heriodians (as well as others) were working out what it would take for Yahweh to come back to Mt. Zion (Jerusalem) to reign forever and ever. These Judaisms agreed that Yahweh's people were still in exile, relegated now to second-class citizenship in the reigning empire of the day. Jesus had the audacity to proclaim Yahweh's return to Zion ('The kingdom of God is at hand') through himself! He was a prophet mighty in word and deed, teaching and living with authority. He did what prophets like Isaiah, Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist did before him: he energized and criticized. As he gathered followers committed to his way, he criticized the Jewish and Roman leaders who, in many intricate ways, hoarded power and oppressed the masses.
This is the context that we read the daunting hell passages of the New Testament:
But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
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.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Jesus is using subversive language with his own disciples and the leadership of opposing brands of Judaism. When Jesus uses hell language in the Gospels, he always directs it towards representatives of God's people! 'Hell' is actually gehenna, the smoldering trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. It is where the unwanted, uneeded things of life go to rot forever. Only the useless things are reserved for gehenna! Jesus is essentially saying, 'Wake up and embrace your true identity: be the people of God who are a light to the world. Your unique vocation is to be a model, conscience and servant to the lost and broken ones!' Jesus called the lost ones to be found and the de-humanized ones to find their own humanity again as they took upon themselves the 'easy yolk' of God's true representative (Matthew 11:28-30).
So who is getting thrown into gehenna today? Those members of the people of God who confuse their vital, God-ordained vocation with status. The belief that only those who 'accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior' will enjoy eternal life in heaven...and the rest will suffer damnation in hell should be exposed for what it is: a farce. Hell is a metaphor that that should scare the hell out of Christians, not not the heathen! Christianity is a way of life, not a belief system or 'get-into-heaven-free-card.' Batman knew intutively what Jesus taught: it's not what's inside of you, but what you do that defines you. How else will the King divide the sheep from the goats at the end of time?
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’