as i’ve spoken of before, the “hell” topic was one of the main bones of contention i ended up having with what most evangelical christians consider “orthodox”.
i did a big study on it in 2004, and abandoned the idea of hell once i actually got my mind around what the bible actually does and does not say about it.
as i recall from my studies, hell as a concept is virtually absent from the old testament, and there are three greek words used in the new testament that were translated as “hell” in the NIV (the evangelical’s translation of choice).
together these three words are used a grand total of fourteen (14) times in the new testament.
all but two of these uses are by jesus himself.
paul never mentions it.
“hell” as christians today think of it didn’t really come to be a common christian teaching until nearly 200 AD â€” no one in jesus audience would have ever thought that you went there forever simply for having the misfortune of being born.
“gehenna” is the most commonly used word for “hell” in the NT, and while it is never “defined” explicitly, what jesus probably meant when he used it what was everyone else at that time meant by it: a place, under the ground, where there was lots of fire, and where the sun got its heat and light from as it traveled under the ground on its trip back to the east, after it had set in the west.
if jesus believed (perhaps because he had some special knowledge from the Father) that hell was not an actual, physical, place which was literally under the ground, he didn’t seem to clue his listeners in, and they certainly would have thought this was what he meant when he used the word.
at the time, it was generally believed (jewish or not) that when a person died they went into the afterlife, or hades (hebrew: sheol), where they might face some sort of judgment.
jesus’ particularly jewish audience at the time were likely to believe that the pious would get to exchange their ticket to hell for a ticket to paradise, which meant they now had TWO tickets to paradise (every one was born with one of each) and could go there, immediately.
people who had committed adultry or had led their neighbors into wrongdoing had their one paradise ticket taken away and got another ticket to sheol handed to them: no escape.
a common phrase in jewish teaching was that it would have been better to not have been born than to be one of these people.
(christians familiar with their bibles will recognize that phrasing: jesus borrowed it.)
people who had themselves sinned, but had not lead other people to sin had to spend about only about one (1) year in gehenna, and then got to go up to paradise.
note: this is not a biblical teaching, as the bible doesn’t actually ever say anything on the subject. i’m just relaying what most people who happened to grow up the descendants of nomadic desert tribes in mesopotamia happen to believe on the subject.
so, that was the belief of MOST of the people who heard jesus say:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, â€˜You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.â€™ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, â€˜You fool!â€™ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
this was RADICAL teaching on this subject.
but did he mean it, literally?
to the people who believed that gehenna was under their ground, and supplied the sun with fire, jesus said that if they are angry with their brother, they are going to go there.
surely he didn’t actually mean it, literally, right?
what about when he said: “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”
did he mean this literally?
so, then, in which of the three times where we have jesus quoted as talking about gehenna is he speaking literally?
if it isn’t those two, it must be this one:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. … You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
other times the NIV says “hell” are:
2 Peter 2:4 â€” “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;”
here, the word peter uses is “tartarus” â€” and is generally thought to be a big, dark, essentially bottomless hole.
James 3:6 â€” “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
the word used here is “gehenna”
Matthew 16:18 â€” “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
here, the word jesus uses is “hades”, rather than “gehenna”.
hades was believed in jesus’ time to be “the afterlife” â€” and did not necessarily imply someplace horrible, though it was believed to be rather gloomy, unless you happened to get to some sort of paradise.
so, there you have it: the entire new testament’s teaching on “hell” all summed up, with some history on what jesus’ contemporaries believed on the subject.
not one time does jesus ever mention being a christian.
not once does jesus lay out specific things one must believe in order to NOT go to hell.
not once does any other new testament writer.
the bible is more or less quiet on the entire matter of hell and who goes there or does not.
of course, this is NOT a view that is embraced 21st century evangelical christian culture, with its particular version of orthodoxy, where the text must be accepted as a whole: either all true or all a lie, right?
so, then, what about anyone who doesn’t poke out their own eyeball for enjoying checking out a hot chick?
anyway, when obama says:
“I think that the difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and prostelytize. There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they’re going to hell…I find it hard that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell…I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity…That’s just not part of my religious make-up.”
…i think you’ll find its actually a very biblical view.
its almost certainly the one jesus himself held, if we are to go by what we know of history combined with his teachings on the subject.