So if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! You would be better off to go into life crippled than to have two hands and be thrown into the fires of hell that never go out. (Mark 9:43 CEV)
If that title didn’t capture your attention, then maybe this next statement will. I think that it might be time for a new metaphor in regards to hell. While Gehenna and fire are wonderful, biblical word pictures, I do not know that they really capture the reality of hell in our culture.
To oversimplify matters for the sake of space, when Jesus was referring to Gehenna, He was referring to the local dump. At one time, this was the place where human sacrifices were offered to Molek. When Jesus was speaking, He was talking about where people disposed of their trash. For Jesus’ listeners, this would have been a very real picture of eternity separated from God.
But we have nothing like this here in the West. Here in America, when it comes to our trash, we throw it in a can and it goes away seemingly magically. Most of us never even see our trash once it has gone out to the curb.
Then there is the issue of fire. Fire is, for the most part, entertainment for us. Some of our favorite movies abound in explosions. In the winter, we light the fireplace because it is pretty. But a fire that never goes out? For us here in the West, this is unheard of. But this was a very real sight for Jesus’ listeners. The fires at Gehenna never went out. There was always something being tossed on the pile to keep it burning. We don’t have a big, burning pile of trash to give us a glimpse of what eternity separated from God might be like.
So what do we do? Do we continue using words to describe something that no longer make any real sense and have no real impact on our listeners, or do we try to make the doctrine of hell relevant? I am not suggesting a total change in the doctrine of hell, but rather that we look at it in a different manner for the sake of those who we are trying to reach with Jesus’ message. And you know what? Maybe that is the whole point of this excercise.
Maybe it is not just a new metaphor for hell that we need, but rather we need a whole new way to share the whole gospel. It is completely a waste of time to walk up to someone who has never been to church in their whole life (and there really are many of these kind of people) and ask them if they have been washed in the blood of the lamb. They are going to look at you like you are some kind of whacko. Why? Because they don’t understand the metaphor. Do we Christians even understand that particular metaphor?
The same holds true for hell. A place where the fire never goes out and the worm never dies is a ludicris idea to most. And all except the most cold have a real hard time seeing a God who claims to be merciful personally punishing people for all of eternity for not believing in Him and for never having the opportunity to do so. We Christians hear this metaphor and we have an almost impossible time reconciling this with His love (unless we are so cold as to see hell as loving), and the non-Christian hears this and doesn’t even try to reconcile it, says it’s a contradiction, and the reality is completely ignored.
Most of modern Biblical scholarship agrees that the fire language about hell isn’t even literal. The consensus is that hell is much worse than that.
I propose today that we find a new metaphor for hell. And I propose that each of us must do so individually to reach the culture that is present around each of us.