OPINION: Hell is not a necessary evilFor some, Christianity is about the here and now
By: The Rev. Kristi McLaughlin, Anew United Church of Christ, Mitchell
The punishment of hell has long been used in certain circles of Christianity. People are threatened with eternal damnation based upon one’s innate biological sexual orientation, one’s reproductive choices, and one’s religious convictions or lack thereof. “Turn or burn” becomes the mantra and liberally stated as if the user has a direct line to God, a God whose immanence and transcendence keeps this God always as mystery.
This turn or burn God is quite condemning of certain segments of the creation — a creation that is believed by others to be a direct manifestation of the Creator. Is the concept of hell as simple as this? Is there a need for people to have punishment as their motivation for being loving, giving and caring creatures? In some circles of Christianity, it is not believed to be so.
Many Christian scholars know that no definitive concept of hell is within the Bible when it is read, researched and understood in the context of its original societies and languages. The ancient Hebrews did not have a “hell” concept. Instead, they held a “sheol” concept, which was the land of the dead or referred to as the place where dead bodies resided. In fact, more commonly understood in ancient Hebrew thought was the idea that immortality was found through one’s offspring, one’s community or one’s tribe, which is much different from an idea of some “place” that one is sent to after life on earth and is based upon our belief system.
In Jesus’ time, things had evolved somewhat as the Hebrews found themselves immersed in the Roman and Hellenistic cultures with Plato and the philosophy of dualism: light and dark, good and evil, always in some cosmic struggle. “Gehenna” is the most common word used in the Christian Scriptures translated as hell, but it was an actual place outside Jerusalem more like a city dump with garbage, refuse, unclaimed dead bodies and smoldering fire. When quoted within the Gospels as being said by Jesus, the original audience would have known this, and it would have held a powerful image for them, but would it have held the same connotations that are now being used in some circles of Christianity that seem to want to lord over others as a threat of eternal punishment?
Maybe some need to have such a place of punishment as motivation to love God, one another or take care of each other, to emulate the way of Jesus or else burn, but others do not. For us, loving God and following Jesus is not based on whether we are eternally punished or eternally rewarded. Rather it is based on the belief that we can experience God deeply, love all and engage right now in societal transformation that truly begins to emulate God’s dream for the world: a world where harmony is sought among all God’s creatures regardless of status, ethnicity, geographic location or religious persuasion and where generosity and unity abound — a world where none go without and a world in which we truly begin to see ourselves as brothers and sisters all on a pilgrimage of discovering how to be the most human we can be under the love of God.
For some of us, following Jesus and loving God is based on the belief that we can experience life in all its sacredness right here, right now on this beautiful Earth with all of its complexities and diversity. For some of us, Jesus showed us how to do this, and our following is not based on fear of punishment. Rather, it is based on love.
Kristi McLaughlin is the pastor of Anew United Church of Christ in Mitchell.