9.3 Hades vs. Gehenna. Are We Really Listening?


The “First Week”: Week Nine/Session Three.

Theme: The Causes and Consequences of Sin.

Our reading for today: Matthew 13: 36-43, 47-50.

Jesus dismissed the congregation and went into the house. His disciples came in and said, “Explain to us that story of the thistles in the field.” So He explained. “The farmer who sows the pure seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the pure seeds are subjects of the Kingdom, the thistles are subjects of the Devil, and the enemy who sows them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, the curtain of history. The harvest hands are angels. The picture of thistles pulled up and burned is a scene from the final act. The Son of Man will send His angels, weed out the thistles from His Kingdom, pitch them in the trash, and be done with them. They are going to complain to high heaven, but nobody is going to listen. At the same time, ripe, holy lives will mature and adorn the Kingdom of their Father.”

“Are you listening to this? Really listening?” (Matthew 13: 36-43 MsgB)

St. Ignatius recommended to those who journeyed with him through his Spiritual Exercises to take plenty of time to mediate on the long-term consequences of unrepentant sin. For Ignatius, that meant a sobering look at a subject that our generation tends to ignore…the subject of hell.

The Bible, as you probably know, has numerous references to what happens to us in the afterlife, and does clearly define this place that we now call hell. But before we go on our meditative journey on ‘sin and hell’ with Ignatius, a careful word study is needed here, because some of the original Hebrew and Greek words we so commonly use when defining hell just don’t mean what we think they do.

Let’s take the word Hades for example.

In our culture, Hades is just another word for the damnation of hell. Right? But in the New Testament, the word hades takes on a different meaning. Let me give you the story.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sheol appears most often when referring to this underground place in the afterlife that we choose to define as hell. But unlike our English word hell, sheol simply meant “the grave,” where all are sent indiscriminately after death. (see Genesis 37:35, Numbers 16:30-33, Psalm 86:13, Ecclesiastes 9:10). Ezekiel (31:15) describes sheol as a place situated below the ground, while Job (10:21) defines it as a place of darkness, silence and forgetfulness.

By the time of Jesus, the Hebrew word sheol had evolved a bit, becoming not only the place where all of us await the resurrection of the dead, but sheol was also divided into two segments, with some waiting in comfort (i.e. at the bosom of Abraham), while others wait in torment. The Hebrew word gehinnom (named after a valley near Jerusalem used for human sacrifices to the idol Moloch) was used when describing this unique place of waiting in sheol where fiery torment prevails.

In the New Testament, the Greek word gehenna is most commonly used to describe a unique place in the afterlife reserved for hell-fire and damnation. The King James translation of today’s text in Matthew 13, for example, defines this hellish place (gehenna) as “a furnace of fire,” where “there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” In the medieval days of Ignatius, images of fire, smoke, sulfur and tears were common when describing this place the New Testament Greek refers to twelve times as gehenna.

So, to review…in the New Testament, the Greek word hades is used eight out of nine times to simply describe “a resting place for the dead” (see Acts 2:31, Revelation 20:13), not that place of fire and damnation we all dread. The lone passage that describes hades as a place of torment, is Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the rich man (see Luke 16:19-31). Here the Master depicts a wicked man suffering fiery torment in hades, which is contrasted with the bosom of Abraham, and explains that it is impossible to cross over from one to the other. Some scholars believe that this parable reflects the intertestamental Jewish view of hades (or sheol) as containing separate divisions for the wicked and righteous. It’s interesting that in Revelation 20:13-14 hades (the place of the afterlife or the waiting place for all of us as we await the second coming of Christ) is itself thrown into the “lake of fire” after being emptied of the dead! Hallelujah!

So now, let’s continue our meditation on sin and hell, but let’s know that the New Testament writers generally viewed gehenna as the place of permanent damnation and utter darkness; a place so remote and permanently removed from the love of God, that weeping and gnashing of teeth seem to be the highlight of one’s day.

So…where do I choose to spend eternity? With Jesus, standing in the full light of God? Or hanging out by myself, in the utter darkness of gehenna?

C.S. Lewis, in his classic The Great Divorce, states it this way…

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.

Yikes, now that I look at it this way. Father God, hear me knocking on Your door today! I choose You!

My prayer: Father God, the gates of hades are wide, and apparently we will all experience a taste of that place in our death, but I need not choose, out of my selfishness and sin, the final destination of gehenna. I prefer rather to walk alongside Jesus of Nazareth, following Him on the pathway through hades, to the bosom of Abraham, and finally, into the glories of Your Kingdom. For Your name’s sake. Amen.

My questions to ponder: So how have I mis-interpreted the biblical worldview of hell and damnation? Am I allowing my culture to shape my views of hell or am I allowing the fullness of God’s Word and the promptings of the Holy Spirit to teach me about such things, so that my hope for both today and tomorrow lies completely in Christ alone?

So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together The Ignatian Adventure?

Over an eight month period, you and I will be working our way through the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. For more information on our journey and how to begin…click here!

To go onto the next journal entry…click here.

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