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Hell – Joseph Emmanuel N/SSF

Joseph Emmanuel N/SSF

Joseph Emmanuel N/SSF

Hell = Love.  Reading such a statement one might be forgiven for making two immediate deductions: that I have been reading the works of Philip Larkin or that I belong to a grim Calvinistic sect which takes an unholy delight in consigning those with whom I disagree to eternal torment.  Both deductions would be wrong.

However, I would suggest that the above statement is, in fact, the best way to understand what we refer to as Hell and that any attempt to deny its existence or to mitigate its reality is, however well meant, wrong.  Indeed, I believe that the existence of Hell is one of the many powerful signs of God’s all-present all-giving love.  In order to pursue this rather surprising statement further I want to look briefly at two questions.  The first is what is Hell; what does the term actually mean (as opposed to what do people think it means)?  The second, which raises questions of theodicy (God’s justice), is to ask who might be there?

Although conceptualizing the physical nature of Hell has been something which has inspired many of our finest artists, composers and writers to great effect one would have to say that references in the Bible are, in fact, few and far between.  To make matters more difficult, various Hebrew and Greek words have been carelessly rendered as ‘Hell’ in English translations of the Bible although the meanings of the different words are quite different.  Despite this uncertainty (or perhaps because of it) people have tended to extrapolate a great deal from comparatively little.  Our Lord refers to a place of fire and punishment (see, for example Matthew 13.42), a theme which is continued in the book of Revelation (21.8) but I would contend that, in the past, there has been an over-literal interpretation of and disproportionate emphasis on these particular passages.  In the original language texts the majority of references to what is referred to as ‘Hell’ in English are made using one of two words: Gehenna (Matthew 5.29 etc) and Sheol (Ps 9 etc).  In the case of the Greek word Gehenna it is a combination of two Hebrew words gay (or valley) and Hinnom (a proper noun) meaning literally the ‘valley of Hinnom.’

Although we cannot be absolutely certain to what (or to whom) Hinnom refers, it seems likely that this refers to a geographical region to the South or South West of Jerusalem now known as the Wady al-Rabâby.  In various references to ‘the valley of Hinnom’ in the Hebrew Scriptures it is made clear that it was seen as a place of impurity and human sacrifice (2 Kings 16) and above all an extremely unpleasant place of exile and hidden-ness.  But where did the idea of perpetual fire come from?  If Gehenna/Sheol is not, in fact, a sulphurous lake, why did Jesus speak about Gehenna as a place of fire?  In order to answer that question we need look no further than the writings of the medieval rabbi and exegete David Kimhi (1160-1235) known in Hebrew as the RaDak who described the physical area of Gehenna in the following terms:

“Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and in which fires perpetually burn… on which account, by analogy, the judgment of the wicked is called ‘Gehenna’…”. (The Longer Commentary of R. David Kimhi on the First Book of the Psalms, trans. R.G. Finch, London, 1919)  Although Kimhi was writing many hundreds of years after Jesus there is no reason to suggest that the valley’s use had changed radically; it was, in essence, the municipal rubbish dump and incinerator for Jerusalem.  We might see Gehenna, then, as a geographically unpleasant place of exile far away from civilisation rather than a sulphurous lake of eternal torment.

In the case of Sheol one obvious reference may be found in Psalm 9.17 “The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God” (RSV).  Yet here, too, there is no information about what will actually happen to the souls who are consigned to Sheol; it seems from the context that they depart into a place of eternal exile (which should not surprise us for a place of supernatural wandering was common in the mythology of the time).  Yet again the notion of exile comes across strongly.  It would therefore seem sensible to suggest that the original texts point us towards an understanding of Hell as a place of exile rather than the blistering furnace so powerfully evoked by writers like John Milton in Paradise Lost or medieval artists painting dooms in their parish church.  A brief glance at the writings of theologians through the ages would also tend to support this view for although traditional scholastic theology admits that there is an element of poena sensus (physical torment) for those souls in Hell, the emphasis is clearly on poena damni – a pain of exclusion or loss (see volume 27 of the Summa Theologiae by St Thomas Aquinas).  Moving to modern mainstream theological writing it would seem that this view of Hell as a place of ultimate exclusion rather than a place of punishment is also supported.

But, even if Hell is ‘merely’ a place of ultimate and eternal spiritual exclusion how can we reconcile this place of exclusion with the actions of an all-loving God?  What sort of perverse Creator would create human beings in His own image in order to consign them to exclusion?  From the evidence of the Scriptures and above all by the testimony of Christ, we can state confidently that God would not and does not want to reject us; but what if we choose to reject Him as is our right under free will?  A love which has no choice or which is forced is no love at all, as the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England noted in its document The Mystery of Salvation (Church House, 1995):

No-one can be compulsorily installed in heaven, whose characteristic is the communion of love.  God whose being is love preserves our human freedom, for freedom is the condition of love.  Although God’s love goes…to the uttermost…the possibility remains for each human being of a final rejection of God…. (p.198)

This points us towards what I believe to be the truth of Hell: it is a place of exclusion made by God for those who ultimately choose to reject Him; yes, Hell is a place of eternal exclusion but it is a place of self-exclusion.

Is it conceivable that, at the last, anyone would wish to reject the ultimate beauty of God and eternal peace of Paradise?  Is it possible that Hell exists (because the notion of an entirely loving God demands it) but that it is, in fact, empty because of the unlikelihood of people rejecting the God who seeks to enter into communion with them in Christ before, during and after their death and whose salvation awaits even those who come at the last moment (Matthew 20.1)?  I cannot and will not answer that question for it is not, ultimately, for me to answer.  f

Before joining SSF, Joseph Emmanuel was in parochial ministry in Tottenham and Croydon.  He is currently based in Glasshampton Monastery.