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Interpreting The Concept Of Hell


John Ryan
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How are progressive Christian to interpret the language in the Gospels of Gehenna, Hades in the writings of St. Paul, and the Lake of Fire in the Book of Revelation, with the notions of a loving God, and religious pluralism? Is the language deeply metaphorical and thus not in reference to a future afterlife of punishment, but a poetic language about our fate in this world? One thing that Marcus Borg said which has really stuck in my mind is: how people often misinterpret Jesus' words literally. Nicodemus mistook Jesus for literalism when he said that a man/woman must be born again. Am I wrong in interpreting the passages about being thrown into hell metaphorically as lost in the darkness of this world, in the dog-eat-dog, Nietzschean power struggles which combat the principle of Agape-Love (i.e. universal, sacrificial love)?

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I'm not certain of this, but I believe they all refer, in both the Hebrew bible (OT) and the NT as the "place of the dead". Our current concept of hell is relatively recent. In biblical times, I believe it was just a place man cultures believed all the dead went.

 

For me, hell is meaningless as something that occurs in an afterlife. I do not think that "heaven" and "hell" are places we are sent to in an afterlife. But then, I also don't believe in substituary salvation.

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The only hells I know are the ones we create here and now. The ones you mention, I think, are used for emphasis in story telling. The Lake of Fire is an apocalyptic image which appeals to people under persecution who hope the bad guys get their punishment in the next life.

 

Dutch

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How are progressive Christian to interpret the language in the Gospels of Gehenna, Hades in the writings of St. Paul, and the Lake of Fire in the Book of Revelation, with the notions of a loving God, and religious pluralism?

 

I think they have to be interpreted in relation to the time and context. Of course, the concept developed over time in Biblical Judaism. At the time of Jesus, and the next century or so in the NT, some of the language was almost certainly symbolic, but there were those at the time who did think of it as a literal after-life punishment. Bart Ehrman thinks that historical Jesus was apocalyptic in his theology. If so, he may well have thought that the wicked would be punished in the after-life. However, none of this, IMO, obligates a person today, 2000+/- years later, to accept the idea of eternal damnation.

 

It seems to me that literal concept of Hell is dying a death of benign neglect among main-stream, non-Fundamentalist Protestants. I don't know about Catholicsim.

 

George

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How are progressive Christian to interpret the language in the Gospels of Gehenna, Hades in the writings of St. Paul, and the Lake of Fire in the Book of Revelation, with the notions of a loving God, and religious pluralism?

 

Hi John and welcome,

 

It seems to me there is no particular way that a progressive Christian is compelled to interpret that language. While Dutch and George and Yvonne have answered as what is in my opinion commonly heard in progressive Christianity circles, there is no dogma or doctrine that a PC is held to other than the 8 points in principle. Each it seems is on a different point in their journey of self discovery and PC in general in my experience puts no dogmatic certainty on such issues. And i would add. i hope it never does.

 

Joseph

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IIt seems to me that literal concept of Hell is dying a death of benign neglect among main-stream, non-Fundamentalist Protestants. I don't know about Catholicsim.

 

George

 

In Catholicism (mostly) hell is definitely an after-life punishment - then there's pergatory, if you're not bad enough for eternal damnation you can be redeemed after so much time suffering; and limbo, where unbaptized babies go (not heaven, not hell). In the past, to spend less time in pergatory, one could buy indulgences. Many Catholics still practice "gaining indulgences", whereby certain prayers and practices reduce one's time spend in pergatory. Quite complicated, isn't it?

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Yvonne,

 

Thanks for the primer. Are there progressive strains within Catholicism in which Hell and Purgatory play no, or minor, roles? (Maybe the first question should be, are there progressive strains within Catholicism?)

 

I am not sure that traditional, non-Fundamentalist Protestants have officially taken Hell out of the playbook. But, it is my impression that it losing prominence in the theology and preaching (benign neglect). Also, wasn't there a recent book by a prominent evangelical that challenged the notion of Hell?

 

George

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George, that book is "Love Wins" by Rob Bell. He's caught a lot of hell for it, too!:mellow:

 

Yeah, that was the one I was thinking of. Thanks.

 

I don't recall, did he explicitly refute the existence of a literal Hell?

 

George

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I don't recall, did he explicitly refute the existence of a literal Hell?

 

I don't know, George. Perhaps someone else here does. I know of it because I follow a lot of what is happening within the Emerging movement (which Bell is not formally a part of, but popular with).

 

But from what I have seen of the reviews, Bell's stance is much more geared towards the notion that no one can ultimately hold out against the love of God, that there is never a point where God gives up on people, that God's love never fails. It's my opinion, from watching Bell's Nooma videos, that it isn't so much that he sees the atonement as something that changed God's mind about us, but that God's love has a way of changing our minds about Him.

 

Regards,

BillMc

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I'm not certain of this, but I believe they all refer, in both the Hebrew bible (OT) and the NT as the "place of the dead". Our current concept of hell is relatively recent. In biblical times, I believe it was just a place man cultures believed all the dead went.

 

For me, hell is meaningless as something that occurs in an afterlife. I do not think that "heaven" and "hell" are places we are sent to in an afterlife. But then, I also don't believe in substituary salvation.

I prefer Christus Victor soteriology over any form of substitutionary/satisfactionary soteriology. Derek Flood sums it up nicely:

 

"Love entered our world and went to the broken and the rejected, the "throwaways", and told them they were loved. Purity touched the untouchable, and made them whole and clean again. In doing this Jesus directly subverted the societal and religious authorities of the time. By associating with those who were considered sinners and unclean he showed that these people did not need to let the authorities define their worth, because God has seen them, and called 'worthy' what the world called 'the least'.... the real "enemy", the New Testament tells us, is not any particular human, or group, or system, but the power of evil itself at work in all of our lives and our systems. Our real struggle is with our own images of false authority and power - with the spiritual and psychological power of lies to dominate and determine our identity and our worth."

Edited by John Ryan
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Yvonne,

 

Thanks for the primer. Are there progressive strains within Catholicism in which Hell and Purgatory play no, or minor, roles? (Maybe the first question should be, are there progressive strains within Catholicism?)

George

 

My first reaction to your question was a good chuckle. But, yes, believe it or not, there reaelly are progressive Catholics - a good number of them are nuns, too!

And yes, many Catholics reject pergatory and limbo, and some even reject heaven/hell. And *gasp* some advocate women priests!

 

John Ryan - thanks for the beautiful quote - all the more reason I think you would enjoy reading Morwood.

 

In keeping with the question about hell: Do you think we retain an awareness of self after death? My friend believes we do, because anything else would be complete annhiliation. I don't know what I think. If we do, and our self-awareness is also aware of our sins (that is, our physical self's disconnect from God and one another), could this be the definition of hell?

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I don't know, George. Perhaps someone else here does. I know of it because I follow a lot of what is happening within the Emerging movement (which Bell is not formally a part of, but popular with).

 

But from what I have seen of the reviews, Bell's stance is much more geared towards the notion that no one can ultimately hold out against the love of God, that there is never a point where God gives up on people, that God's love never fails. It's my opinion, from watching Bell's Nooma videos, that it isn't so much that he sees the atonement as something that changed God's mind about us, but that God's love has a way of changing our minds about Him.

 

Regards,

BillMc

 

 

Rob Bell - 'love wins' - i read it about a year ago so cant remember it all that clearly, but he basically looks at all the biblical references to hell and shows how they can be interpreted differently than the traditional interpretation. for example he says that when jesus talked about the fires of gehenna he was literally talking about the local rubbish dump, where there were constant fires and the 'gnashing of teeth' of wild dogs. he was illustrating 'hell on earth' while the kingdom of god was 'heaven on earth'.

 

I can remember thinking that he had some great arguments to start with but with some of his interpretations he was really stretching it. the problem is that rob bell believes (i presume) in bible inerrancy, so every reference to hell has to be dealt with and interpreted.

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I too read Bell's book about a year ago, and I do vaguely remeber thinking that Bell believes in a hell, just that people can choose not to be in it (at any time).

 

I Googled and found this article on a website called Christian Today.

 

http://www.christiantoday.com/article/rob.bell.hell.exists/27765.htm

 

The introduction:

 

Rob Bell, the pastor who wrote the book Love Wins that has been a lightning rod for criticism, stated clearly in a recent interview that he believes in hell.

by Jennifer Riley, Christian PostPosted: Friday, April 1, 2011, 16:41 (BST)

 

 

 

 

In a videotaped interview with Sally Quinn of The Washington Post, which was posted online this week, Bell responded to a question posed through Twitter and asked by Quinn: 'If there is no hell, then why did Jesus die for our sins?'

“I believe in hell now, I believe in hell when you die,” stated Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I believe God gives people the right to say no, to resist, to refuse, to reject, to cling to their sins, to cling to their version of their story.

“So the Bible, there’s a whole chapter in the book about hell, and I think we should take hell very seriously. I think it exists, and so, there being no hell isn’t something that I believe.”

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But, yes, believe it or not, there reaelly are progressive Catholics - a good number of them are nuns, too!

 

Yvonne,

 

Apparently you are right, there are some, at least for now. There was a segment tonight on the News Hour about the Vatican slapping the wrists of some (American?) nuns - they have the audacity to be "discussing" doctrine as given them by the bishops. The issues seems to be the usual; gays, abortion, birth control, and the like.

 

George

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Yvonne,

 

Apparently you are right, there are some, at least for now. There was a segment tonight on the News Hour about the Vatican slapping the wrists of some (American?) nuns - they have the audacity to be "discussing" doctrine as given them by the bishops. The issues seems to be the usual; gays, abortion, birth control, and the like.

 

George

I caught the story on MSNBC's Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell. They interviewed a current nun who actively dissents against the Catholic Church. An interesting statistic they provided was that 70 percent of Catholic favor civil same-sex marriages.
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