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What is Hell?

There's a lot of talk about hell on the lips those who believe in it, as well as those who do not. That's surprising, as the topic is mentioned only a very few times in the Bible, and then in ways that suggest the biblical concept is not the one people have in mind when they use the word today.

First of all the word rarely appears in the Bible.

A word search reveals that "hell" appears 17 times in the entire Bible (Revised Standard version). And from the context, it is clear that the word is being used metaphorically. You can check this for your self, searching for the complete list of passages where the word "hell" occurs. Here's how.

For example, in a passage from the gospel of Mark, Jesus is speaking about not wanting people to harm children. He says: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire."

Does he mean to suggest that a person who commits a sin should literally cut off a hand, have a stone tied around his or her neck and be thrown into the sea, or by the same token, be sent to "hell?" Given no evidence that early Christians applied such cruel punishments, a reasonable person might be expected to understand that Jesus was dramatizing his concern for children, rather than spelling out a list of punishments that might be applied to sinners.

A garbage dump outside Jerusalem, not a place of unending torment

Furthermore, the English word "hell" derives from the Hebrew "Gehinnom", which actually means "landfill." Hebrew landfills were basically garbage dumps where refuse was collected and periodically set on fire. These fires would burn for weeks or even months on end. In The New Testament the word "Gehenna" refers to one such landfill, in the valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. A fire of garbage burning for months on end might seem like an eternity to those living in the neighborhood. Hence, the image of hell being a place of fire.

Later on, centuries later, in fact, artists went wild with this image: adding the Devil, suggesting that "hell" was a literal place somewhere beneath the surface of the earth, and speculating that God would send "sinners" to such a place to suffer forever. These images are clearly the invention of the fertile human imagination, not divine revelation.

What, on the other hand, is heaven?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.