Have you ever attended a Christian funeral for someone who died an atheist? I did once, and it was the most curious mix of narrative distortion and preachy denial I had seen since…well, since the last time I had attended church, come to think of it.
I suppose it could have been much worse. If they had stuck to their theological guns and remained consistent with what they said they believe, they would have all been agonizing over the loss of a friend to eternal damnation. They would have spent at least a few moments outwardly reflecting on the horrors of a fate worse than death amidst a final destination wherein, according to Jesus, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (more on that in a second).
This guy had lived a full life and had made so many good friends, most of whom were at least nominal Christians if not sincerely devout. So naturally when it came time to pay their respects to their departed friend, they disregarded what the man actually believed and assured each other that deep down he believed exactly the same things they do. Because evidently there was a time around a campfire when the guy mentioned God once.
I mean what are afterlives, anyway, if not blank canvases on which we can project our ultimate hopes and fears? Unless I am mistaken, that is literally all they are. But I digress.
A lifelong friend of the deceased stood up to tell a joke in his late friend’s honor. It was one of those old cajun jokes about a guy named Boudreaux who dies and makes it to the pearly gates to meet St. Peter, who then asks him some question he has to answer in order to gain admission. Eventually Boudreaux’s wife passes as well and she becomes the butt of the joke and everyone has a good laugh at how many marriages reach the end with both people barely tolerating each other because what else are you gonna do?
The speaker then turned to the widow of the man whom we were mourning and he seamlessly transitioned into reassuring her that she, too, would get to see her husband again at the pearly gates alongside St. Peter. She smiled and nodded and wiped away a tear, never noticing that they just took a punchline from a joke and made it completely interchangeable with an actual theological belief to which they hold dearly. Religious beliefs are weird.
The Birth of Hell
The old canard about St. Peter standing at the pearly gates is a familiar one, and it gets appropriated often from the pulpit. But when pressed, most pastors worth their salt will tell you that there’s no clear biblical warrant for believing that when you die you will appear on a cloud in front of giant literal gates guarded by a bearded guy with wings and a halo. That’s an image which evolved more in popular culture than in anyone’s sincere theological study.
But despite its noncanonical origins, the image of St. Peter at the pearly gates still gets used an awful lot, doesn’t it? No one seems to care whether or not it has a chapter-and-verse prooftext because it’s more of a rhetorical device than anything else. It’s not perpetuated by ministers because they want you to believe you’ll actually encounter that sight the moment after you die. It’s just an image on which to hang some other idea, or even just a lighthearted joke. That’s all it is.
I believe it’s quite possible Jesus used Hell in exactly the same way. Now hear me out.
For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that Jesus was a real historical person (because I believe he was), even if he wasn’t magic and couldn’t walk on water or levitate up into the sky or predict things ahead of time, like the world ending during his own lifetime (that was incorrect anyway, which makes me think that part wasn’t made up at all).
From what I can tell, Jesus was a guy who lived and taught and died during a transitional time in the history of the Jewish people in which a lot of Greek ideas had bled over into their theology because they had become so spread out across the Roman empire that even their views of the afterlife had become thoroughly hellenized (no pun intended).
Previous to the Second Temple era of Judaism, rabbis maintained some really vague ideas about the afterlife that involved going to the grave (Sheol) in order to dwell in Abraham’s bosom, whatever that means. For most of ancient Hebrew history, you lived on after you died only through your children and grandchildren. That was the kind of afterlife they envisioned.
But in time, the Greek idea of an underworld began to seep into Jewish thinking, and by the time Jesus appeared on the scene in the backwater villages of Galilee, it had become a feature in the popular culture of his day. People talked about the burning trash heap outside of Jerusalem as if it were the place you would wind up if you didn’t honor your parents and eat your greens, so to speak.
Did they really believe that’s where they would go after they died? Does it even matter? It seems to me it’s just as likely that Gehenna (lit. “Hell”) was as much a rhetorical device as is St. Peter with his wings and his halo, standing at the pearly gates. Jesus appropriated this gruesome image from the common parlance of his environment in order to make a point. And more to my point, what he did with it was lost entirely on us because of what the church eventually made of this idea.
See, if it hadn’t have been for Jesus memorializing the concept, the notion of everlasting punishment could very well have faded away into obscurity. It was the result of a syncretistic blending of ideological worlds that had little to do with each other. But after his death Jesus became the focal figure in a new religious order, which in time discovered that the notion of Hell could be used to scare the wits out of children and adults alike for centuries to come. It was an invaluable tool for keeping people in their place under the watchful control of a powerful ecclesiastical machine that thrives on keeping people scared of things they cannot see, nor prove or disprove because how would you go about doing that?
The Purpose of Hell, According to Jesus
People before Jesus would use Hell to reinforce the established hierarchies of his day. Religious people cared most of all about their personal purity: they followed all the scripts they were given, they observed all the rituals, and they accrued the prescribed blessings of health and wealth that their worldview had told them they would receive in return. Or at least they did if you squinted enough. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.
Poor people, on the other hand, along with the sick and the weak were receiving in their lives the penalty for doing something wrong. Or maybe even their parents or their grandparents did something wrong. Whatever it was, the point is that these rewards and punishments followed a prescribed set of expectations with which everyone around Jesus would have been quite familiar. In their living days, people received a punishment or a reward for their relative spirituality, and by extension they could look forward to an afterlife which extended this state into perpetuity.
But that’s not how Jesus used the idea of Hell. In his hands, Hell became a warning for the rich, for the powerful, and for the religious leaders of his day. Jesus’s use of Hell was subversive in the extreme, making it sound as if anyone who died still rich would go there because they failed to use their wealth to benefit the neediest and poorest of their fellow men (see Luke 16:19-31).
For Jesus, Hell was a useful rhetorical device to invert the social values of his surrounding culture, situating him thoroughly within the ancient prophetic tradition in Judaism which called the people of God back to its moral center. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus was fond of quoting. As best as I can tell, that was the heart of his message, and Hell was appropriated in order to add teeth to his point.
“So you guys are worried about Hell? Fine, let me tell you what kind of person deserves to go there. The answer may surprise you…”
In other words, Hell was like Jesus’s clickbait to get people’s attention so they would reconsider what it was that they were supposed to be about. He was trying to get people to care about the poor and the marginalized.
Scaring People into Staying
But that’s not what eventually became of Hell, is it? In the hands of the massive ecclesiastical structure which eventually grew up around this figure, Hell became a place you go if you don’t stay pure enough. Or if you’re a child of Luther, you go there for not believing the right things. Or if you’re a Baptist, you go there for being sexually aroused by the wrong gender. In other words, Hell is now a place reserved especially for the poor and the marginalized. Jesus must be rolling over in his…wait…nevermind.
The price of admission changes from culture to culture but the purpose of the image remains the same: Scaring people with Hell is an effective way to keep them inside the tribe.
I once watched an entire movie built around the idea that a community would intentionally devise a bogeyman just to scare people into never leaving the village. It was called, well…The Village. I’m not a huge fan of M. Night Shyamalan movies, but this one had Opie’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, in it as well as Joaquin Phoenix before he went all Andy Kaufman and stopped bathing for a couple of years. Incidentally I would feel worse about spoiling that movie for you just now except, as I mentioned, I’m not a huge Shyamalan fan, so I feel very little remorse. And don’t even get me started on what he did to The Last Airbender.
My point is that, as is so often the case, a biblical image that was intended for one thing got repurposed for something entirely different, something more suited to the aims of an establishment with an empire to protect. Because that’s the way it always goes, in the end.
According to the biblical prophets themselves (including Jesus as well), the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was meant to condemn inhospitality, not gay sex. But that’s not what it’s become about today, is it?
And have you ever heard a preacher during a tithing sermon telling you that it’s better to give than to receive? Did you know that the only place that phrase appears in the Bible was in a passage in which the apostle Paul was imploring preachers NOT to make their living off of their congregations? Go read it for yourself if you don’t believe me (see also Acts 20:17-38 for the whole speech).
Ultimately texts come to mean what the communities that preserve them say they do. And in the hands of the Church, Hell came to be something reserved for the very people Jesus was trying to get others to care about: the outsiders, the foreigners, the infidels. Too bad he couldn’t stick around to make sure his words retained their original meaning.
I don’t for a second believe that Hell is a real thing any more than I believe in the pearly gates guarded by a man with a white robe and a little gold hoop hovering over his head. But I still find it fascinating to see how the concept’s purpose changed over the history of the institution that made it into what it is today.
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