Hell may just be a valley outside Jerusalem, not the other thing

Hell may just be a valley outside Jerusalem, not the other thing April 4, 2019

So why are we still having this conversation?

This occurred to me as I read a blog post on Patheos’ Progressive Christian channel titled, “There is no such thing as a plain reading of the Bible.”

bible atheism hell jerusalem
WELCOME TO HELL: View west from outside the Old City of Jerusalem, looking across the Hinnom valley. This valley’s name was corrupted to “Gehenna” and became associated with “hell,” the place of torment for the wicked dead. This is likely because the valley was used as a garbage dump in the Second Temple period and fires constantly smoldered in the refuse. (Ian Scott, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The author of the post, All Set Free blogger Matthew J. Distefano, wrote it in response to being pelted with criticism from more fundamentalist Christians after posting an article opining that “interpreting” the Good Book’s words, not just accepting them at face value, is just fine.

The ‘Word,’ upper case

But, it seems there are Christians — many, many Christians — who still insist on believing that every Word is the inerrant “Word of God,” which is why “Word” is always capitalized by the faithful in this context.

Bible literalists, therefore, disdain anything but a “plain reading,” as one of Distefano’s trolling respondents wrote recently about his earlier article:

 “There is no ‘interpret the Bible,’ there is only the plain reading of the text by honest men who have a good conscience towards God. The motive for anything else is ALWAYS cowardice.”

This reminds me of various ancient Christian church fathers, like Anselm, who preached that first one believes — “I believe so that I may understand” — and then seeks confirmation of the truth of that belief in their hearts. Indeed, Protestant Reformation gadfly Martin Luther once famously said that scientific reason used to interpret God’s message was “the greatest whore of the devil.”

The question is why in the 21st century AD, not the 1st, do devout Christians still question why one should ever question the “plain” meaning of the Bible.

God didn’t ‘stop’ the sun

Answer: because the meaning is far from plain. We know that because many proclamations of scripture have been demonstrably proven to be false, such as in Joshua 10, when God supposedly said,

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon … [and] The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”

For one thing, the sun can’t be “stopped.” For another, it doesn’t “journey,” or move across the sky; it just seems that way due to the earth’s rotation on its axis and how the sun appears to us earthlings from our spinning vantage, as though it is moving across the sky.

That’s what science does. It distinguishes fact from fiction, no matter how sublime the fiction might be

This small piece of information about the Bible’s manifest errancy thus should encourage us to closely assess — to interpret, as it were — not only what the words in it mean, but where it is provably fanciful or simply wrong in reality, and where, if anywhere, it may be historically accurate or not.

To accept at face value something that has been confirmed to be completely mistaken in numerous places is, in my view, a kind of willful spiritual malpractice. The label of “cowardice,” as referenced in the blog comment above, should be applied not to those who apply reason to the Bible but to those who discourage it to protect their own apparently fragile sensibilities.

God’s Word, translated

In his blog post, Distefano makes two salient points in defense of interpreting scripture: (1) everyone reads it through their own esoteric understanding of the world, and (2) it’s predominantly now available in English, whereas the Old Testament was written originally in Hebrew, and subsequent versions of the Bible in various languages, so there’s always the serious problem of translations skewing meaning.

“Everyone reads the text through the lens of their own culture, theology, philosophy, and phenomenological experiences. And while we can do our best to transport ourselves into the various cultures the Bible comes from—the Bronze Age, Second Temple Judaism, and so on—we can never fully grasp what it would have been like to actually live in these time periods,” Distefano reasonably concludes.

He emphasizes how the fact that most moderns read scripture in translated English is problematic:

“News flash: English isn’t a language spoken by any of the characters or writers of the Bible, nor any of the earliest Christian theologians. Torah was written in Hebrew. Jesus spoke Aramaic. Paul wrote in Koine Greek. Augustine’s Greek sucked so he wrote in Latin. English wasn’t on the scene until 1066, and even that variety looks nothing like it does today (if you don’t believe me, just try reading Beowulf in its original form).”

I have, and it’s nearly impenetrable.

Oh, that  ‘hell’

Regarding the problems of translation, Distefano relates an interesting bit about the term “hell” that was sprinkled about in the Gospels. He said Jesus warned wayward people they would end up in “hell” if they didn’t change their ways but that the prophet was likely referring to the ill-reputed Hinnom valley just south of Jerusalem where Babylonian conquerors purportedly burned dead Jews. Distefano says Jesus used the Aramaic word Gehenna, which translated into Hebrew “best translates to ‘the valley of Hinnom.’”

So one needs to think about these things when reading the Bible. There’s nothing “plain” about it. This seems obvious. Less apparent is why anyone would still insist that even trying to interpret the meaning of the Bible is somehow almost sinful.

Indeed, what really seems plain is that the 1,264 words Distefano felt he needed to argue for a rational reading of scripture were excessive if not completely unnecessary.

So, I ask again: Why are we still having this conversation?

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