Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mark 9: Where is Hell?

Back from an extended hiatus for turkey and flu-like symptoms (in that order), I'm raring to dive into meaty material, and what could be meatier than hell? (Perhaps the National Cattlemen's Beef Association could pick that up as their new slogan.)

I begin with one of the Bible's earliest mentions of hell, in the ninth chapter of Mark. Today, hell is a robust and functional part of Christianity, especially conservative varieties. It is the lake of eternal fire where bad people go to suffer forever for cheating on their wives with Argentinian mistresses or soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom or paying off a paramour's family to save a political career or passing gay marriage bans while sleeping with male prostitutes or cheating on your cancer-stricken wife. (God bless you, Messrs. Sanford, Craig, Ensign, Haggard, and Edwards.)

But hell is undeniably a vexed concept in the Bible. Hebrew Biblical authors don't have truck with notions of hell. The best they can do is "Sheol," a dreary underworld much more similar to Homer and Virgil's Hades than Dante's Inferno.

Nor is the New Testament hell so simple a term as it might initially seem. It may be a place of punishment, an eschatological end-point about as desirable as a second screening of the new Twilight film. On the other hand , it may not be an actual "place" at all, but instead a clever rhetorical device grounded firmly in Hebrew Biblical ethical geography.

Jesus's hell-talk in Mark 9 goes like this: "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire" (43).

In this text, "hell" is actually the Greek "Gehenna," which my Oxford Bible glosses as "symbolizing the place of eternal punishment by fire." To an extent, I agree, though I also point out that Gehenna has not only a symbolic meaning but a literal one.

Gehenna, in Hebrew, is the Valley of ben-Hinnom, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. This valley is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, most prominently in Jeremiah 7:31, when God speaks, "And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire--which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind."

Topheth, as I mention in a previous column, is a place near Judah where child sacrifice was sanctioned as a form of religious worship. And God, as Jeremiah indicates, will not allow such pagan practices. Thus Topheth--and the Valley of ben-Hinnom--symbolizes not only "eternal punishment," but the worst excesses of extra-Biblical religious practice.

Thus, when Jesus condemns sinners to hell/Gehenna, I suppose it is possible that he is suggesting that God will re-establish a previously abhorrent religious practice in order to inflict a brand new means of punishment on the wicked.

But perhaps not. Because there's always the possibility that Jesus is just exaggerating here. God, as the Hebrew Bible firmly and repeatedly confirms, detests the rituals of Topheth, and it is unlikely that he would actually put sinners through a type of punishment that he so roundly rejects in Jeremiah.

And Jesus may refer to the flames of Gehenna not to establish a new afterlife destination--"hell" being a foreign concept to Hebrew Biblical thought--but instead to hyperbolically suggest that sinning is really bad. And that we should avoid it at all costs. In fact, that's exactly what he's doing in the previous verse of Mark: "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" (9:42).

And everyone understands this verse as a metaphor. Nowhere in the New Testament does a sinner actually get a big rock put around his neck and tossed into Lake Michigan. It's a figure of speech. So perhaps "Gehenna" is too.

But isn't it interesting that Jesus's "Gehenna" eventually gives us Dante's Inferno and the Pandemonium of Paradise Lost? And isn't it interesting that hell will become such an important part of Christian theology, despite the fact that it might be little more than a melodramatic idiom?

Maybe we just like our damnation fiery, not wet.


  1. It's really strange how one idea leads to another. For example, some people claim that they have heard screams from hell, apparently coming from a cavern somwhere inside the earth.

  2. I think the point is missed. It is not that, "is Hell a place or figure of speech?" but rather that there are consequences to our actions in the eyes of God. And remember that due to Adam and Eve 99% of humanity was born with original sin, which must be atoned for before entering the kingdom of God.


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