Where Renee and I and our two sons live in Victoria, Australia, it gets hot. Like, splitting-the-atom hot, and often for days on end. Here, we have to take the danger of bushfire very seriously. As summer approaches, we start thinking about ‘safe zones’ we can evacuate to in the event of emergency, like air-conditioned shopping centres, well removed from bush land. So when another cataclysmic fiery tempest like the Black Saturday fires descends upon us, turning our house into matchsticks, we can sit comfortably in the food court, sipping flat whites and eating raspberry and white chocolate pastries from Muffin Break. But at least we’ll be safe!
In the last piece, I wrote about what happens when we confuse the Kingdom of God with ‘going to heaven when we die’. Here’s the opposite side of that coin: seeing the Kingdom as little more than the ‘safe zone’, the place to escape the flames of hell ever lapping at your heels.
‘Traditional evangelical’ (and well meaning) American churches ,like the ones I grew up in, have long employed the notion of hell – a place of unspeakable suffering, where an endless, raging inferno and flesh-eating worms torture the souls of the damned, without so much as a games room or a pool table to help pass the time – to strike fear into the hearts of kids like me and drive us into the waiting arms of the Lord. ‘You don’t want to go to hell, do you? Reach out while there’s still time and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and saviour. Act fast before it’s too late!’
This theology persists in many Christian enclaves, especially in North America, insisting that our one chance to escape the crowded ship of fools sailing headlong toward the underworld is to leap overboard as the S.S. Jesus passes by in the other direction. And when we’re securely aboard, what then? Kick back on the lido deck with a mixed drink, maybe, or while away the hours playing Trivial Pursuit: Bible Edition…but at least we’ll be safe!
That’s the problem with a view that equates the aim of life with sidestepping eternal damnation, via a single decision. It makes these lives we live too small, because it makes them all about us. It virtually ignores our call to engage with the world. It ignores the Master’s instructions to seek and pray for the Kingdom of God to come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. And it robs us of lives with any present, meaningful purpose or impact. Why would we strive to better God’s world, to make peace, to feed the hungry, to alleviate poverty, to provide clean drinking water, to improve people’s education, or their employment opportunities, to help people mend relationships, to serve communities, to work in agriculture, or in social justice, among other things, when everyone around us is likely destined for hell anyway? Why produce art, or music, or literature, or drama, or for that matter, food, or clothing, or shelter, or improvements of any kind for a population that’s slowly circling the drain?
Yet if we took a second look at our concept of ‘hell’, it might irrevocably alter our perspective.
‘Hell’ and Gehenna
‘Jesus talked about hell more than he talked about heaven.’ I heard that often as a child and maybe you did too. Happily, this statement is incorrect in (at least) two ways. First, Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God far more than he talked about either hell or heaven. Secondly, our Bibles have frequently translated as ‘hell’ Jesus’ regular references to ‘Gehenna’, the Greek word for the Hinnom Valley south of Jerusalem.
The valley had a reputation from Israel’s idolatrous history as a place of child sacrifice and by the first century, the citizens of Jerusalem used it as a rubbish dump. They routinely discarded and burned waste and refuse, dead animal carcasses, and yes, even unwanted or unclaimed deceased humans, in the Hinnom Valley, so that it was constantly smoking and smouldering. It did become a euphemism for death and destruction, but we shouldn’t conflate ‘Gehenna’ with our notion of ‘hell’ as a place of eternal punishment. Our picture owes more to the imaginations of western theologians, writers and painters of subsequent centuries.
Doing as the Romans Do
A danger nearer at hand than one’s post-mortem destination occupied much more of Jesus’ teaching. The Palestine of the first century was a powder keg just waiting to explode. The Romans didn’t conquer the Mediterranean world by being nice to everybody and their heavy-handed and often culturally-insensitive playbook of occupying rule stirred up animosity among the masses. This animosity was easily whipped into frenzy by revolutionary hot-heads.
Jesus saw the writing on the wall. He counselled the nation to turn from the path of violence and vengeance. He advocated a peaceful resistance, acting in love toward enemies and living as children of God’s Kingdom, praying expectantly and working and waiting patiently for its ultimate arrival. But he recognised the heartbreaking truth that his warnings would go unheeded.
As [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.”
Luke 19:41-44, NRSV
This painful prediction came to pass roughly 40 years later in A.D. 70. Militant revolutionaries gathered in and assumed control of Jerusalem and of course, a Roman army, commanded by future emperor Titus, responded. They laid siege to Jerusalem. The people of the city experienced a very real hell on earth. As they were slowly starved by the Romans, many resorted to suicide, others to eating their own children. Hundreds who fled the city out of hunger were crucified in grotesque postures (this was the soldiers’ way of amusing themselves) in full view of those remaining inside the walls. And they, along with countless others in Jerusalem indeed ended up burning in Gehenna, as the Romans utterly destroyed the city.
Invitation, Not Escape
When we return Jesus’ words to their first-century context, we find little or no priority for our vision of punishment without end, of a fiery furnace of doom, where everlasting torture is meted out with over-the-top ferocity. Certainly, he urged his hearers not to hold the Kingdom at arm’s length and thus refuse to enter. Maybe we too need to soberly ponder the awful possibility that a person could stubbornly refuse God’s order and reign, refuse to be part of God’s new humanity, of God’s restoration of the world, and thereby resist God’s love and grace.
Whatever the case, at least we can be sure that the Kingdom of God is never presented as the heavenly escape hatch we squeeze through as the inferno consumes everything and everyone around us. Instead, it’s an invitation to join in something much bigger than ourselves. It’s an appeal for us to participate in God’s redemption of everything that’s good in the world, through the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah.
The Kingdom of God is the key focus of scripture and the message of Jesus. That’s why I’ll be writing exclusively about the Kingdom for the next year. You can view all of the the pieces in the series on this page.
- Feature Image: Black Saturday fires (from news.com.au – http://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/96789d466a9203c9e66ac808d6ff9aac)
- The Hinnom Valley (from Wikimedia; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4452832)