October 19, 2017

Mark Shea: The Hell you say, part II

From a 15th-century Doom painted above the chancel screen at North Leigh’s parish church, England. A bishop and a queen rank among the damned. PHOTO: Fr Lawrence Lew OP

Last time in this space I told the tale of my conversation with an amiable Lefty who took for granted the claim that Hell was invented by the Church to control people with fear. As that conversation wound down, we could agree that morally serious people believed that actions had consequences. I concluded by pointing out that all the Church is saying is that those consequence can extend, not merely in the future or into the lives of our descendants (as, for instance, the consequences of American slavery are still being felt today), but into eternity. In short, unrepented sin can destroy our contact with God and others and result in damnation. At that point, another reader entered the conversation:

There are consequences in life. I don’t recall Jesus speaking of a fiery underground where a “bad” person who didn’t get saved burns for eternity. Not from his lips. There are good and evil on earth. I see Trump standing for all those evil things. That is not connected to a place called hell. They are two different subjects.

Jesus doesn’t give a location for hell because he’s not silly. Hell occupied the popular imagination as being “underground” because that is where the grave is and that is where “Sheol” (the place of the dead) was in Hebrew imagination and that is where Hades was in Greek imagination. Dante provide much of the modern imagery of hell.  

But yes, Hell is from his lips. Jesus is, in fact, the sole source in the gospels for every warning about hell. He speaks of it repeatedly:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (Mt 5:21–22).

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.† And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Mt 5:29–30).

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28).

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell* of fire. (Mt 18:8–9).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?(Mt 23:29–33).

Analogous quotes are recorded in Mark and Luke too, where Jesus describes hell as that place where “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”. (Mk 9:48).

Also, in one of his most famous parables–the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)–which expresses his identification with the downtrodden more powerfully than anything else he said (“Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me”) he concludes with these stark words for the goats:

Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”(Mt 25:41–46).

The truth is, virtually every mention of Hell in the New Testament comes from the lips of Jesus himself. Only occasionally and rarely do his apostles speak of it. The myth that Jesus never talked of hell and the Church only cooked it up later is flatly contradicted by the evidence.

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