Visions of Hell

Visions of Hell January 27, 2024

“Go to Hell” is common parlance when one is disgusted with another’s behaviors. In our house, since I am a former pastor, “I am going to go to hell for saying that” is a joke we pass around quite often. Perhaps one of more trying theological and historical topics to preach and teach about was hell. In this discussion, I want to tackle a couple of notions of hell from several angles: misconceptions; the nature of hell and other religious orientations.  

One of the first myths to dispel with the word hell is that the word is not biblical as it is understood from the English word, “hell.” Consider this article from Patheos: 

As a word, hell was first used sometime before the 12 century. It is generally agreed that etymologically, the word originates from Middle English and Germanic origins. It roughly translates as abode of the dead. In Germanic, the definition leans more towards to conceal or hide. 

The Problem of Hell

A question to consider then is “how did this word become so powerful in Christian lexicon?” It is felt that church power structures have used this word as a weapon to emotionally control believers to maintain order in parishes, communities, states, and governments for millennia. As with other behaviors that Christianity has engaged in, the use of the word hell is a culturally appropriated notion from real ideas in the Jewish tradition. As a multicultural word, there are many understandings of what hell means. While there are overlaps in understanding, it is understood that each meaning is unique from the tradition it comes from.  

The problem of hell is an ethical problem in the Abrahamic traditions because of its conflict with the notion in the three traditions of a just, moral and all the omini’s(benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient) supreme being. It is also inconsistent with the idea of free will.  

Of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, the faith of Jesus, hell is the least restrictive. In Judaism, one’s soul continues to exist after death. During this time, the soul is subject to punishment and reward. This period is temporary and after this period, the soul is free to enjoy the light of God in the afterlife. Because of this temporary notion of hell in Judaism, it does not compare well to the Christian or even the Islamic notions of hell. Consider this article from 

Rather than spending the rest of the time in this post rehashing all the different ways “hell” shows up in the bible, I instead want to look at how hell has shown up in your life.  

Love Your Enemies

Too often, Christians use hell as place where the bad people go when they are not living up to their biblical ideals. Instead of loving our enemies as Jesus challenges us, we instead presume that a person is sinful, we try to evangelize them or scare the hell out of them as they would have done in my day and then when this fails, resign to the fact they are going to hell. This then historically has justified all kinds of heinous behaviors of untold cruelty.  

What does it mean to love your enemies? As with other approaches to understanding words, I turn to my contemplative roots and read that line from a lectio point of view. There are three words in this statement that we need to consider: love, your and enemies.  

Love is pretty straight forwards, or so it seems. I have preached on this topic, written on this topic many times. Love however in this context for me is considering the Christ nature in all of those around us. In my practice as a therapist, I do not talk about forgiveness much as it is so loaded emotionally. I do however love the concepts around cultivating acceptance, especially when you consider one’s Christ nature. We are all potential seats of Christ. God saw us in God’s final creation and said it was very good, and God seemed to be pretty pleased.  

Your. The word your is a possessive word. It indicates that something may belong to you, say, “your car,” “your house” and so on. When we tie it into the other word in this statement, enemies, we come across a conundrum, a possession of our enemies. In Buddhism, we hear that we suffer because we cling. If we consider one our enemy, then what are we clinging to? If we turn again to the previous word, love and understand a universal sense of this word, that God loves all of us universally and that all are potential seats of Christ, hopefully then this changes our orientation around how we see people we do not like or even disagree with.  

Finally, we come to the word enemies. I work with people for a living. There is a line from the Jimmy Buffett song, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” that says, “good times and riches and sons of a bitches, I have seen more than I can recall.” I get it. People are hard to deal with. People do horrible things to each other. 

Are we projecting our fears and failing to deal with our discomfort with people we do not like?

Jesus got it too. Peter was a back stabber; Judas was a betrayer and Thomas was a doubter. His religious authorities were undermining the very values he believed in as a Jewish man at his time.  

Too often, the enemy is inside you. It is your mindset, your latent or even on the surface beliefs, your fears and your ignorance’s that cause you see yourself other than part of the body of Christ.  

Rather than focus on where people are going, focus on yourself, focus on loving yourself, embracing the enemy of you mind. Nobody is going anywhere. We are all in the same boat. We all get afraid sometimes. We all have big feelings sometimes. Address these and you will combat the enemy within, learn to love yourself and you will learn to love others.  

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