Like 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.