For Me The Angels Sing

by David Taylor (reply to Jonathan Clatworthy, Jan 2004)

from Signs of the Times, No. 14 - Jul 2004

Mr Clatworthy has drawn us an intriguing picture of hell, but there is one point on which I feel he has misled us. "Like much of classic Christianity, the doctrine of hell is widely attributed to the Bible, but in fact dates from a later era." I don't think we can really criticize those who insist on a Biblical basis for the doctrine of hell; though on the other hand, the better sort of Christian - readers of Signs of the Times? - will be reassured to learn that it can probably be detached from the teaching of Jesus himself.

Conservatives will find this claim dishonest, insisting that the defining(!) picture of hell comes straight from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke xvi. While this is true, it can easily be shown that the story is almost certainly an anti-Christian Jewish fable; so it was rather dim of Luke to have included it as a parable of Jesus. Sadly, within the limits of this article, I do not have space to convince those who are reluctant to accept this view. But as Americans nowadays say, "Later - kay?"

It is much more necessary to consider what are called the geenna passages in the gospels. There are eleven of them in all, one in Luke (xii.5 - Luke mostly comes across as a man after the liberal heart), three in Mark (all at the end of chapter ix, so all three essentially a single passage), and the remaining seven in Matthew - and most of us would observe how that is absolutely typical of the man. But all of them, even the seven in Matthew, look to be authentic, and none of them strike the modern reader as being very nice.

To begin with, this geenna is usually described as hê geenna tou puros - 'the hell of [the] fire', and again, Matthew in particular seems fond of the idea; but the defining passage for geenna is probably the Marcan one:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:42-48)

The word is here unquestionably connected with punishment, and punishment of a very nasty kind (though gratifying to the conservative interpreter, who likes to keep things at the level of the literal meaning). It is possible, therefore, indeed it is likely, that the tradition, even by the time the gospels were written, was viewing this geenna in much the same way that Mr Clatworthy attributes to classical Christianity: that is to say, as the punishment of being condemned after death to burning for ever in an unquenchable fire. But if we consider what the word geenna meant in Jesus' time and in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, a lot of this begins to look doubtful. (I stress the point of 'the neighbourhood of Jerusalem' because, although Mark himself may have been familiar with that neighbourhood, Matthew and Luke were not - nor, probably were any of the readers for whom these gospels were originally intended.)

Geenna is a Greek corruption of the Hebrew ge'hinnom - 'the valley of Hinnom'. It lay just south of Jerusalem and was notorious as the location of Topheth (or possibly 'the topheth') where, throughout the monarchy, the sacrifice of children had been carried out. It was deliberately defiled as part of King Josiah's reform (II Kings xxiii.10), and it was presumably from this date that it began to be used as the rubbish dump for Jerusalem, which it still was in Jesus' day. The Marcan phrase which I have italicized is a quotation from Isaiah lxvi.24 (which may itself be itself a description of Topheth) where decay (the undying worm) or incineration (the unquechable fire) were the obvious and unceasing destructive processes to be observed at the site. It is likely that all the authentic Jesus references to geenna were made in sight of the actual location, with Jesus was actually pointing to it at the time.

Bearing this in mind, look again at the excerpt from Mark's gospel above: "it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to geenna - over there - take a look at it." 'Life' is a key word in Jesus' preaching, and though the church has tended to interpret this life as 'life after death', that is not the explanation that makes best sense of it. The Bishop of Durham has recently pointed out that in Paul's writings there is no life after death; those who die are utterly dead until Jesus returns to earth to raise them out of death - and it is clear that in his early days (I Corinthians xi.30) he was not expecting faithful Christians to die at all before Jesus' return. He can't simply have made these ideas up. It makes best sense of many of the gospel passages to interpret 'life' as meaning what we would call 'quality of life', and it is more than likely that is what Jesus always meant.

If Jesus were alive today, he could not fail but be struck by the requirement modern society places on us to impose what he would regard as unnecessary burdens on ourselves; he would point out that we are typically sacrificing our lives in pursuit of a standard of living. That is precisely what he was criticizing when he observed that "the life is more than the meat, and the body than the clothing". Nothing is more important than life, not even hands, feet, eyes; if we were threatened with death and could avoid the threat by the loss of a limb, Jesus assumes that most of us - with a sense of horror, no doubt - would nevertheless agree to the exchange. Geenna, for Jesus, is simply the opposite of life: he is not speaking of a punishment that awaits us in a future life; he uses the place as an image of what too many of us have chosen for ourselves in this life.

David Taylor worked in publishing and is now retired and living in North Wales.