Being that I’ve been to Italy a dozen times, as a student, a tourist, and a tour guide, I’ve seen lots of creepy, medieval depictions of Hell. The most arresting may be the doors of the Duomo in Orvieto, a detail of which is shown above.
Each of these depictions, however, is based on a cosmology that has long since been abandoned by Western intelligentsia. We now look someone curiously at earlier cultures, in which people believed that there was a physical place populated by damned souls and governed by demons. No longer can we say that Hell is “down” and Heaven is “up.” Whether you accept a theory of chaotic inflation of the universe or a cyclical model in which the universe repeatedly contracts to a single point and then explodes outward again, it’s impossible to think of Heaven and Hell as places in the universe as we know it.
Some get around that by thinking that Heaven and Hell are places outside of the present universe, while others argue that both will only really exist at the end of time, when God (re-)creates them. Until then, these latter folks argue, people who have died are in a state of “soul sleep.” Both of these conclusions once again raises the metaphysical problem.
But it raises an exegetical problem as well: Jesus held an incorrect cosmology.Yes, of course our cosmology is probably wrong as well, or at least incomplete, but that doesn’t make Jesus’ cosmology any more right. Both Jesus and John the Baptist seem clearly to have embraced the ancient Hebraic belief in Sheol/Gehenna/Hades — i.e., a physical place of fires that the bodies of the damned are thrown. It seems merely wishful thinking when Aquinas, arguing that Jesus had full and perfect knowledge of all things, wrote, “Christ perfectly knows all human sciences.”
So we’re left with this conundrum: What do we make of Jesus’ teachings on Heaven and Hell if he believed that he existed in a geocentric universe and lived on a flat Earth? This is not unlike the conundrum regarding the Gospel writers (and Jesus) diagnosing “Legion” with demon possession, when today we would most likely consider him beset by schizophrenia.
The only option I see is to relativize Jesus’ (and Paul’s and the Apocalyticist’s) teachings on Heaven and Hell. By that I mean we must put their teachings in conversation with what we now know about the nature of the universe and the cosmos. We have to make them relate to our current understandings. “Relativize” is a big, scary word to some Christians, but it’s exactly what we do whenever we take an ancient, biblical teaching and apply it to a modern setting.
If nothing else, our modern cosmologies at least problematize Jesus’ belief that there was a firery place somewhere nearby that bad people go…