Go to Hell!
People sometimes like to say that Christians stole all sorts of things from pagans, like Christmas and Easter and Hallowe’en. The evidence for that assertion is a bit shaky, and the links are indiect and rather tenuous. But where the evidence is a great deal stronger is that the Christians stole Hell from the pagans. And the links are not at all tenuous. Strange that people say so little about that.
Hell was the Germanic goddess of death, and her name and realm were taken over by English Christians as the English translation of Hades, who was in turn the Greek god of death, also sometimes known as Pluto. Whatever doubts there may be about the origins of Christmas, Easter and Hallowe’en, there can be no doubt whatever that “Hell” and “Hades” were nicked directly from pagan mythology. They were used to translate the Hebrew concept of Sheol into English and Greek respectively.
I don’t usually think a lot about Hell.
On the rare occasions that I do think about it the picture that comes to mind is a TV film of over 40 years ago, called Cold Comfort Farm, where a girl from London decides to sponge off her country cousins, and Uncle Amos, taking her from the station in his horse and trap, tells her he is a preacher at the local church, and likes to conduct the hymns with a poker “to remind them of something hot”.
The book is a humourous one, and and pokes fun at and caricatures a stereotype of the Christian understanding of Hell. And in some ways the stereotype is not far off. Many Protestants do believe something pretty close to that stereotype.
But there is another thing that comes to mind when I think about Hell, and that is what St John Chrysostom said about it in his famous Easter sermon:
Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom hath been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon hath shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death hath set us free. He that was held prisoner of it hath annihilated it. By descending into Hell, he made Hell captive. He angered it when it tasted of his flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was angered when it encountered thee in the lower regions. It was angered, for it was abolished. It was angered, for it was mocked. It was angered, for it was slain. It was angered, for it was overthrown. It was angered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigneth. Christ is risen, and not one dead remaineth in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.
That is something a bit different from the caricature of the Protestant view of Hell, concerning which Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria, when asked to comment on the recent suggestion of Danish Lutheran theologians to consider hell and the devil a metaphor and to accept only the existence of paradise, had this to say:
The reality of the hell, its existence for sinners and even the possibility of its eternal existence don’t contradict the news of its abolition by Christ resurrected. The hell is really “abolished” in the resurrection of Christ, as it is not inevitable for people anymore and doesn’t have power over them. But those, who consciously oppose God’s will and commit crime and sin, restore destroyed and abolished hell as they don’t want to reconcile with God’s love.I’d like to stress it again: God didn’t create the hell, people created it for themselves, God destroyed and abolished the hell, but people restore it again and again. The hell is re-created every time when the sin is consciously committed and isn’t repented.
Hat-tip to Street Theologian for the link.
But Street Theologian also sparked off in me some other thoughts about hell in the comments on another post at street theologian: Appraising Liberation Theologies- Rev. R.D. Andrews. I commented on that, and referred to an article I had written on Orthodoxy and Liberation Theology. And Street Theologian said in a comment, “curious though as to whether you think it is un-Christian to tax heavily in order to re-distribute wealth”.
I had never thought of taxation in those terms, and it seemed to me to be confusing means and ends. I’d never thought of the purpose of taxation as being to redistribute wealth, and find it a strange way of thinking about it. But it could hardly be unChristian.
Never mind the redistribution, think about the distribution.
The only place in the Bible that I can think of where Jesus says “Go to Hell!” is in Matthew 25:41. And what terrible things had they done to deserve that?
They had done nothing. And all the things that they had not done had to do with wealth and poverty. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (xenophobia is a sin!)
And the other place where “going to Hell” is mentioned is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. And perhaps it is not without significance that one of the names for Hell is Pluto, which means a rich man.
The more I think about it the more it stands out: in the New Testament the one thing that is associated with Hell more than any other is the accumulation of wealth and the failure to redistribute it.