Saturday, November 24, 2012


Gehenna (Greek γέεννα) is a place outside of ancient Jerusalem, one of the two principal valleys surrounding the Old City.  Known in the Hebrew Bible as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, the site was where apostate Israelites and followers of Ba'al and Caananite gods such as Moloch sacrificed their children by fire. 

This sacrifice by fire went against the Hebrew teachings.  In the Book of Jeremiah (the prophet, not the bullfrog), we are told that Jehovah said, "The sons of Judah have done what is bad in my eyes.  They have set their disgusting things in my house in order to defile it.  And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, in order to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart" (Jeremiah 7:30-31).

"A thing that had not come up in my heart."  I learned this today from my friendly neighborhood Jehovah's Witnesses, who told me that they don't believe in the concept of hell, at least as a place where the souls of the condemned are cast into a lake of fire to burn for all of eternity.  "Such a thing had not come up in my heart," Jehovah told Jeremiah.  If he didn't want children sacrificed by fire, they explained, why would he want their souls to burn for all of eternity?

It was a coincidence that they had brought this up.  This very morning, I was reading an article in The New Yorker about Rob Bell, a megachurch pastor who challenges the traditional Christian belief in hell.  In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples, "If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell."  However, the word translated as "hell" is Gehenna, the Valley of the Son of Hinnom.  Pastor Bell takes the view that by the time of Jesus, Gehenna had become the city dump: “There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash.” It is a metaphor for the terrible consequences of rejecting “the good and true and beautiful.”  But in particular, Bell seems to be saying, it was a metaphor for the devastating historical consequences for Israel of straying from their calling and identity to show the world God’s love.

The Jehovah's Witnesses were very pleased that I was able to relate that passage to them.  They agree with Pastor Bell, at least on that one point, and interpreted the passage as meaning if your eye causes you to sin, it is better to pluck it out than to let your errant ways lead your life to ruination.  They maintain that when Jesus was talking to his disciples, that all knew exactly what Gehanna was and what went on there, and understood perfectly well what he meant.  It is confusing to us today, as we're now fortunately free of the practices of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom.

Or are we?  The Wisconsin folk rock band Bon Iver included a song called Hinnom, Texas on their latest, eponymous record.  It's hard to accept that songwriter Justin Vernon wasn't thinking about the Biblical meaning of Hinnom, when another song on the album is titled Calvary.  The lyrics are ambiguous as to whether Vernon thinks Texas is hell (or if it just feels that way in the summer).

What's interesting to me here is that Gehenna, the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, the very symbol of a fiery hell, is considered by Pastor Rob Bell to be nothing but a metaphor for ruination, not eternal damnation, and that the Jehovah's Witnesses take it one step further, noting that upon looking at the human sacrifices by fire that once took place there, Jehovah said that such a thing never came up in his heart.

Buddhism does not have a fiery hell similar to Christianity's, but it does speak of "hell realms" where the  unfortunate are reborn due to their wicked past lives.  It is sometimes referred to as the insect realm, that nasty, short and brutal existence of constant devouring (and of being devoured).  However, unlike other religions, one does not remain in the hell realms forever, but can be reborn back into higher realms once all of the evil karma is worked off.

Do I believe that the hell realms are real?  Well, yes, I do believe in the existence of insects, having seen ample proof of them all my life.  But not having died yet, I don't know what happens after death, and remember: anybody who tells you what happens after you die who are not themselves already dead are just speculating, and have no more authority on the matter than you or anyone else.

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