Bible Workbench: Proper 21, September 27, 2009

Text:  Mark 9: 38–50

. . . go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. . . be thrown into hell. . . be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. Oh, hell. Just can’t avoid it here. But then, there’s a lot of hellfire and damnation in the New Testament, isn’t there? Well, actually, no.  There are only eleven references in all; seven in Matthew, three in Mark, and one in Luke. And, in fact, three of the references in Matthew are parallels from today’s Markan passage. So “hell” isn’t really common in stories of Jesus (or the New Testament as a whole).

Furthermore, this word translated hell in the NRSV is actually Gehenna, which literally means “the Valley of Hinnom,” a valley outside of Jerusalem. How it came to be an image for punishment in the world to come is a source of debate. Some say it was the garbage heap for the city, and was constantly smoldering. Others propose that it was the site of child sacrifice by burning as an offering to the god Moloch. Whatever the origin, by the time of the writing of the gospels, it had become a metaphor.

The trouble is, our word hell has been overlaid with so much imaginative elaboration that we assume that Jesus talked about it as luridly as a sawdust trail revival preacher. Over the centuries, the term has picked up images and descriptions from Dante to Doomsday. What comes to your mind when you hear the word hell? How have you heard it described; how have you seen it depicted? What place, city, or state of being would you describe as the town dump—a place of rejection, wickedness, and loss of hope? Read the text and substitute the name of that place, city or state of being for hell. What changes for you?

– Andy Kille

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2 responses to “Bible Workbench: Proper 21, September 27, 2009

  1. I just want to thank you for starting this website. I have often thought that BW would be a thousand times more useful if it was easily searchable online, for keywords, bible passages, readings, etc. Thank you!

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