Who Do We “Send” to Hell and Why?
It’s a good thing our fleeting intentions and hot-headed “orders” don’t usually come to reality, isn’t it? Like, “Go to hell!”
Just a figure of speech, you say? For many of us, yes…. But still not something we really mean in most cases. For other people, hell is indeed considered a reality… of eternal suffering, whether with figurative or literal flames. Yet they, too, seem to sometimes wish hell upon a person or group, at least fleetingly.
Who gets this treatment from us, at least in our thoughts? And why?
Now, I’m an analytic guy, interested in theological concepts, their history and such. So I’ll make a connection or two like that, but here mainly wanted to reflect with you on how theological hell may be related to emotion-driven hell.
So who do you think we typically “send” to hell? Who are they in relation to us? Isn’t it usually someone we are having an altercation with? Often someone even very close to us (think sibling, spouse, lover, offspring or parent, etc.)? Isn’t it when we feel insulted, frightened, blocked, etc., that “Go to hell!” comes flashing to mind, and perhaps to tongue? And is it maybe that the more we are connected to or invested in that person the more likely we are to think or say it? It’s not necessarily that we really want them to suffer, but we want them far away from us, at least at the moment. (And of course we must be “right” or “in the right”, so figuratively already “in heaven”, saintly.)
So what about applying that to biblical references (or scriptures of other religions) as to who may be headed to hell? Or to hell’s equivalent… being locked out of the presence of God/good? Do at least some of the references to damnation and banishment from God fit the general category of those who see or do things differently than whoever is writing? And yet no clear and vital moral violation may even be involved — more a different belief or set of rules?
In the case of Jesus’ references to “Gehenna”, there are unending controversies over whether he was referring to a place of eternal suffering or making a more temporal, figurative reference to being discarded as in a burning trash heap. Not a pleasant picture either way. But it seems very tough to use quotes attributed to Jesus (even with the assumption he actually made them all) to construct a “doctrine of hell”. Paul and the author of “John’s” Gospel develop the reasoning more systematically as to what they think God was doing and has done that requires God to exclude many (though not happily) from “his” presence, perhaps with intense suffering.
But the concept of such a place was not present in ancient Judaism, seemingly at least not prior to the return from Babylon in the mid to early 500’s BCE…. It appears both Persian thought and apocalyptic thinking leading up to the time of Jesus play into the creation of a hell. But what else was going on in that period that may have had an influence, in rough parallel to the personal emotional processes I’ve pointed to above?
Well, after the Jews (or “children of Israel”, including residents of Judea as well as the more dispersed northern tribes) returned from captivity, they were able to rebuild the temple, in some fashion. They enjoyed some degree of independence and peace, but only for a short period. Then the next big blow: Alexander the Great, a couple centuries later, led the Greek capture of Israel along with much broader territory. Talk about a build-up of frustration! (Read or re-read some of the exile-era and post-exile prophets of the “Old Testament” which are mixed also with great hope.)
This build-up came to a head in a bloody period when the Maccabean family
did manage to help the Jews break free from foreign rule again for a century until the Romans invaded in about 63 BCE. Emotions of frustration and anger ran high! Particularly so around that initial Maccabean revolt (160’s BCE) and Roman occupation again a century later. The expected (human) Messiah and the peaceful, prosperous Kingdom of God kept eluding them.
This was the period in which not only “hell” but a more detailed concept of the afterlife and “final judgment” by God was developing. It was intertwined with more detailed thought about life after death and the disposition of souls between death and the coming of God’s Kingdom. Thus developed the controversy in which New Testament era Pharisees believed in resurrection of the dead and Sadducees (actually the theological conservatives of the day) did not…. The doctrine had not been fully settled, like many issues of late (and presumably earlier) Judaism.
We should also remember that we must not superimpose on them our orientation toward “salvation” as individual and belief-based. To Jews at the time, it was more about community and nation and was loyalty-based. Repentance, at least for John the Baptist and for Jesus, was preparation for the Kingdom of God, not in order to individually “be saved”.
I often hear fellow progressives and various “spiritual but not religious” people or plain skeptics say that The Church invented hell as a means of gaining control over people. I find that way oversimplified and generally misleading. However, it probably has some truth in regards to subconscious motivation to “use” the threat of hell and promise of heaven. And further in this vein, is not any religious institution probably acting like a mere extension of each of us individually?
We want to rid ourselves of a trouble-making person by relegating them to hell. Mightn’t it naturally follow that a religious group would tend to do the same with their trouble-makers or resisters? And often the biggest religious trouble-makers are those most similar to a given group, or on the fringes… just like those most troublesome to us are often family, co-workers (or boss or employees) and friends. What if hell really is based entirely on our own flawed psychology (or our “depravity”)?