2- The Lake of Fire

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We cannot understand our views on Hell until we understand why we want Hell to exist. We must pause and access that portion of our thinking that gets angered or offended at the idea that people “worse than us” could have the same eternity.

Last week I showed how Gehenna (Greek word for Hell) was the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, which was the city dump just outside of Jerusalem known as the valley of Hinnon. The same “inside/outside” imagery is used in Revelation 22:15 when describing the “New Jerusalem” or heaven.

Like a typical light switch, binary language creates contrast to illuminate concepts that are hard to grasp. Maturity moves us into a (dimmer switch) framework. Our concept of Heaven and Hell must also mature similarly.

In a binary way the Kingdom of Heaven was contrasted in parables with weeping and gnashing of teeth, so the Book of Life is contrasted with the Lake of Fire. Similarly, the scripture views the Lake of Fire as a repository for all things false. It’s the contrasting place to those in the Book of Life (Revelations 21:27).

The binary interpretation focuses on the extremes of Heaven and Hell but misses the bigger story of Truth. Biblical images point to something bigger than the images. God is Truth. Within perfect Truth, falsehood cannot exist. The scripture uses the Greek word (Pseudos) for lie, deception or falsehood.

What if every living being is known completely by their (True) name given by their Maker? Isn’t perfect Truth a synonym for the knowledge of God (Psalm 139:16)? Thus the “Book of Life” (perfect Truth) cannot contain a pseudonym. Ultimately the False Self  (name not written in the book of life) cannot exist. Furthermore, everything based in falsehood cannot ultimately exist either (Revelations 21:27).

This is why the Lake of Fire exists. It is the only logical place for such falseness. Every false thing is to be consumed by fire. Truth destroys falseness, light destroys all darkness (1 John 1:5). Consider this, death and Hell itself are ultimately thrown into the Lake of Fire (Revelations 20:14) too. All pseudonyms are thrown there too, leaving only perfect truth.


Once we move into a ternary (three) framework, scripture begins to open up. Everything false is punished and destroyed in the presence of Truth, but the true self emerges. (note: Many Christians approach this by way of holiness instead of Truth. Love also works as a framework to see this. The Bible uses all three in stories.

Scripture repeatedly uses fire to purify and cleanse. Like the metaphor of the crucible (Zechariah 13:9, 1 Peter 1:7), the fire purifies the gold by burning off the slag. This  imagery depicts a person finding their true self. We go through Hell to find ourselves.

What about our deeds? Do they matter? Yes. We are told each one is examined on the day of judgement (Revelations 20:12).  Not a single deed is missed. Contrary to popular opinion, sinful deeds do not make us into sinners. Instead, we sin because we are sinners. The meta-narrative of scripture says we are born into a context of sin. We are born with a pseudonym into a (pseudo) system.  If we do not exchange the (pseudo) system for the kingdom (truth), we become defined by the system. This system imprisons the true self until the fire (suffering) releases it.

Reformed anthropology (Calvinistic) views humanity as totally depraved. Rousseau is a philosopher that saw humanity as good but corrupted. Both anthropologies require repair and the theology ensues. Any theology that camps out on one side is too small. We ARE both and we potentiate both thus Heaven and Hell are within us (Zechariah 12:1, Luke 17:20), they are states of consciousness here and now.

What makes us think we will go to Heaven one day if we miss it here and now? What makes any of us think we can escape a purifying fire?

Thus judgment day is TODAY! It’s every moment of awareness. Nonetheless, scripture uses the notion of a future “Day” to anchor us into a self critical awareness. This helps us when our faith is young, but as we mature, the future day is less vital because we remain more and more in the presence (present moment). Saying this another way, we posses the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), or we live by the spirit (Rom 8:4), so we don’t fear judgment (Rom 8:15).

So what does the Bible actually say?

“— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

1 Corinthians 3:12-15


1- Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

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IMG_0137Like many of you, my faith was based upon the Heaven and Hell duality. Heaven was up there and was reserved for only “saved” people and Hell was down there for anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus. The less I knew about scripture, the more certain I was about this idea.

Then something happened that completely altered this framework for me. The Bible.  I’ve now read it cover to cover over 40 times and some books more than 100 times. With every reading, my Sunday School faith eroded slightly more.

This might shock you, but most Christians do not read their bibles. Though many claim the bible as the ultimate authority, few take time out of their day to learn how it actually applies to life.

Regardless of your view of the bible, can I ask you to withhold judgement on what I’m about to say until you’ve had a chance to check it out for yourself.  Don’t let your certainty on either side of this topic cause you to miss something.  I’m not dogmatic on this. I’ll reflect what I’ve observed and submit it for your consideration.

This series will explore the metaphors, idioms, and ways the scripture describes Heaven and Hell. Seeing these in a different context can empower us to draw new conclusions. We desperately need new ways of seeing things.

Let’s start with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a vivid term used exclusively by Jesus. Matthew records it six times and Luke records it once. In all but one example, the term is used in a parable (fiction story) to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s used once in a prophetic context in Matthew 24.

Jesus is describing a place, but remember, each reference is a parable. A parable is a tool to help us see something we usually miss. Jesus is describing a place of sadness and ruin. Scholars agree this is a reference to Hell and that makes perfect sense. The word for Hell is “Gehenna” and is used twelve times. It is literally a place known as the “Valley of Hinnon”. This was the city dump where trash, and dead carcasses were burned just south of Jerusalem. It’s important because we need to recognize who and what is there in order to grasp the meaning. It’s too easy to import Hollywood or Dante’s Hell into the bible.

Gehenna is the place of ultimate poverty. Only the diseased, dying, criminals and outcasts would live there because they were not allowed anywhere else. They could rummage for scraps and barely eek out survival. Wild dogs and animals would gravitate there due to the stench. This is likely the reference to the gnashing of teeth, referring to the desperation of starvation and how it causes nice beings to lash out. It’s a hopeless place and this idiom reflects how someone here could not contain his or her anger.

Only by burning the heaps could they purify, reduce and contain the Valley of Hinnon, thus fire was going night and day. Is it any wonder that this cultural, historical and geographical place was used in the poetic language of scripture to describe a place of suffering or fiery furnace? Ask yourself what is the role of the fire. In the context of Gehenna it isn’t to torment but to purify.

So who or what goes to this place?

In Jesus stories, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth is where the antagonists to the Kingdom of Heaven are sent. A misunderstanding of the Kingdom of Heaven will lead to a jacked up view of Hell. Antagonists are not merely “unbelievers” as the church would say. They aren’t infidels as Islam would say. They aren’t gentiles as the Jews would say. They aren’t those who do bad things as a moralist would say.

In each of the parables, that which goes to this place is that which is false. An antagonist of the kingdom is any falsehood. This is the place for pride. Pride always stands against truth and this principle is on display within each of Jesus’ stories.

Essentially, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven (which is here, which is among us, which is within you) is a place of expanding Truth. Pride cannot enter such a place and as such must be purified by the fire of humility and suffering. Until we suffer and give up our pride we cannot know the kingdom. Anything false cannot be known by perfect Truth and ultimately does not really exist. Pride and all that is false is utterly burned and consumed leaving only that which is lasting and true. Only a false life of severity and disconnection (Gehenna) remains for the proud.

Pride goes down with a fight. It dies with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Thus Hell is not a place of future torture, but the perfect description of the proving grounds for the proud here and now.  With this lens, I invite you to re-read the parables. Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30 and Luke 13:28.

Liberation despite Sin

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Last week I framed the metaphor of the three-sided cage in a poetic style to open us to experience rather than cognition. The universal power of liberation is accessed via leaving experiences, not through strategy and theory. Easter is a story of letting go.

For many Christians, everything is filtered through a Jesus-O-meter.  On Easter, it’s pegged in the red zone as pastors try and prove the historicity of the substitutionary atonement story line. Contemporary christianity sees Easter as Jesus dying for the sins of those who believe. This creates what I call “Teeter-Totter” faith: in order to exalt Jesus on one side, sins are piled higher on the other.

The problem is that every honest believer knows their sins still remain and no amount of faith or religious activity has freed them (Romans 7:24-25). Thus liberation from sin is jettisoned to the afterlife and “shampoo” faith sets in: sin, wash, repeat.

What if Easter is not liberation from sin, but liberation despite sin? Jesus’ death was not to evacuate us from a sinful humanity, but to model a way back into true humanity. For many, this sounds too good to be true, or just plain wrong? I’ll come back to this in a minute.

The power of Easter is not in the doctrine of the atonement, but in the experience of leaving a tomb. I’m not denying the atonement. Jesus’ death is the means of atonement for everyone, but not its purpose. It’s purpose is to liberate the captive.

Life abounds with countless systems that entomb and control us. Jesus life was no exception. His mission was liberation (healing). In scripture this is called the Gospel. It comes from Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 which define it as the opening of the prison doors, the liberation of the captive, good news to the poor, and the favor of the Lord.

The establishment is always disappointed in Jesus because he doesn’t fit into its “Messiah” molds. The Jews defined liberation nationally. Modern Christians define liberation spiritually. Jesus defines liberation individually as seen in stories of the blind, lame, poor, zealots, religious leaders, centurions, widows, women, tax collectors, fishermen, kings, lepers, and adulterers.  They all gained something on the inside that changed the outside. That is the entire point.

Jesus is subversive because liberation is subversive.  His message stands right in the face of institutional power as well as the marginalized. Liberation meant something different to each person, but the same work was done within each. He called them out of the framework that imprisoned them.

Liberation (healing) is the movement from system to kingdom. Scripture calls this change in our mental framework “metanoia” or repentance.

Now back to sin.

Religion makes repentance exclusively about sin. Pastors all over are telling us that if we don’t repent, we will not be free or forgiven by God. Jesus didn’t seem to see it that way. He only required the religious to repent from sin, everyone else he was content to liberate and by default their sins were forgiven (Mark 2:8).

This might shock you, but our sins are not what keep us from freedom, it’s our lack of faith despite them. Biblically speaking, sin is the opposite of faith (Rom 14:23). Religion makes it a part of its meritocratic framework. It’s not that the Kingdom has no sin, its that sin has no power in it. Remember the kingdom is here. It appears when we have the faith to leave the system.

Whether you are a fundamentalist like the Pharisee, or a skeptic like the invalid, whether you are close to Jesus like the disciples or distant like the crowds, whether you share his religion or have none at all, the result is the same. The bars that we cling to are no longer able to keep us in because the power that rolled Jesus’ stone away, rolled ours away too.  Easter means our captors (sin or otherwise) only have the power we abdicate to them. We can walk away if we want to.

If the Easter story is how Jesus bore the retribution of God for the sins of humanity, then God can no longer be in the retribution business. The opened tomb is proof that restoration and liberation are the design of Easter, not retribution and repentance. May our anthropology comport with Easter.

Today if you can see your cages, then know you can leave them. The Gospel is not that Jesus died for our sins, but that though our sins are many, they are not held against us (Psalm 103:10). If we will just trust the voice of freedom that calls us, we can let go of our bars and walk right out into new life, even as a sinner.

The Three-Sided Cage

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For those with eyes to see, the metaphor that I’m going to share can be a portal through which we access transformative power. Without overselling it, this is perhaps the strongest power in the universe.

The caveat is that this power is packaged in simplicity. This means some will dismiss my claim as impossible. Sometimes beauty is not always obvious or complicated.

The metaphor is that of a three-sided cage. Imagine a prison that has impenetrable steel bars on only three walls and where the fourth wall should be is only open space. Of course we chuckle because a prison of three walls is anything but a prison. This is precisely the point as well as the tragedy.

A dog crate with no door defeats the point of the crate because dog seeking freedom simply walks away. If we come across such a crate and inside is a dog that is too fearful to go and be a dog, then we begin to see beyond the metaphor. Eyes to see.

The human condition is such as the fearful dog.

Sometimes the cage is not our own. We are born into families, geographies, economies, and systems that imprint upon us a particular shape despite our unique dimensions. Deep within our most sober-minded moments we intuit something of our true form. I call this proximity and in its shadow we question the tensile strength of our walls.

Throughout life we find ourselves in a cage that claims ownership and threaten us. It keeps us fearful or at least distracted. What would become of us if we turn away from our bars and face the wide-open space?

Sometimes the cage is our own creation. We’ve been warned about the non-existent wall and out of the corner of our eyes we have glimpsed its vast expanse with all of its uncertainty. There is marginal safety within the bars. We cannot cross through them, but neither can anything else cross over to us. We like life predictable. We have been pressed into an identity that we have accepted as our own. It’s good enough. Better the known in prison than unknown freedom, right?

This metaphor is powerful and universal. Every category of life retells this deeply spiritual and personal story. The cage is where we turn loose of hope and settle.

  • It’s true in small ways like our addictions and prejudices.
  • It’s true in big ways like our relationships and religion.

The three walls around us are selling a message and a tattoo gun. If we believe their pitch we will engrave our lives with their slogans that mask the truth. Their goal is to keep us small, stuck, fearful, disempowered, broken, poor and discouraged.

  • “You’re not good enough, smart enough, and talented enough.
  • You’re ugly, bad, or unworthy.
  • You’re not one of the lucky ones.
  • Better play it safe in here.
  • You’ll be alone and rejected or punished if you leave.”

There is another voice. It comes from outside. It’s still and small by comparison. Despite it’s faintness, we all hear it. It seems confident in us. It seems to know that deep down cry within us that the three walls want us to forget.

  • “Come out!
  • It’s worth the risk.
  • Taste and see.
  • You cannot be you inside there.”

“Ek-Kaleo” is the Greek transliteration that means “The Called out Ones”. It’s the scripture’s word for Church. Didn’t see that coming, did you? Kind of redefines things doesn’t it?

This big story of the universe is true down to every particle. Religion tries to control it so it can wield its power, but it’s bigger than religious containers.  Coaches, educators, legislators and leaders try to leverage its community, but none of their systems can adequately possess it.

This metaphor is made of something other. It can’t be learned through dogma. It can’t be memorized in a creed or chant. It’s inaccessible to anything but experience. We can only point to it until we take action. The Good News is that faith is not a prerequisite for entrance but rather the byproduct of THE experience.

Leaving the cage to face the open space is each time a new birth. It’s what religion calls salvation. What will we become if we follow this voice to go outside? Only the awakened heart can know.

May we trust the voice that calls us out of our many prisons! May we never break faith with its guidance! A few steps beyond the cage and we enter the exile of freedom which enlarges us to where we can never go back. Our liberation enables us to see our many cages and that deep down cry within us changes from suffering to gratitude.

Then and only then do we learn that which leads us to our true self by definition cannot be us.