Kicking the can into hell?—A meditation written during the extreme heatwave in the UK

“An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell”—a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450–1516) 

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 

(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)

—o0o—

Although I realise it’s very different for many other people, the fear of hell played little part in my own liberal Protestant upbringing. But this week I found myself very much in hell thanks to the truly distressing but, this time at least, mercifully brief, extreme heatwave we have just gone through in the UK. The experience served to remind me of Christianity’s idea of in what consists hell and how and why this idea has helped drive climate change. 

The basic mistake Christianity made was to encourage people to believe that the really-real, those things that really counted (including God I might add), were always to be found in another world or realm, either teasingly promised to us, like the joys of heaven (about which I won’t speak today), or frighteningly threatened, like the torments of hell. 

In the English-speaking world the most influential translation of the Bible has been the King James Version (KJV) in which the word “hell” appears 64 times. The place it seems to be describing is never pleasant and one of its major characteristics that has entered fully into the popular imagination is that it is a punishingly hot and fiery place. 

The first of the two Hebrew words always translated in the KJV by the English word “hell” is “Sheol”. It’s a poorly defined word but, in its most basic sense, it simply means something like “the grave” or “the pit.” In the New Testament the word is translated into Greek as “Hades” due to certain similarities with Greek ideas associated with the underworld, that cool and dark graveyard of the dead. The key point to realise is that it is not a place of eternal, punishment beyond our world — it’s certainly not a fiery place! — and, therefore, Sheol should never have been translated into English with the already heavily loaded Anglo-Saxon word, “hell.”

The other Hebrew word translated in the KJV throughout the Old Testament and New Testament as “hell” is “Gehenna” and, remember, in the New Testament, the word is not translated into Greek but simply transliterated as γέεννα. Once again it is important to note that it is not a place of eternal punishment beyond our world, in fact far from it, because Gehenna was, and is, an actual place, namely, a valley to the south and west of Jerusalem called Ge-Hinnom. The theologian, writer, philosopher, and religious studies scholar David Bentley Hart reminds us that:

“Scripture and tradition say that the Tophet was there, the place of child sacrifice for worshippers of Moloch and Ba’al, a practice attested in Leviticus, 2 Chronicles, 2 Kings, Isaiah, and Jeremiah; and while there is as yet little archaeological evidence supporting the claim, the association of the Ge-Hinnom with the sacrifice of infants to evil gods was well established long before the Christian period. There is also some small evidence in the valley’s southwest reaches that it might have been a place of tombs and (after the arrival of the Romans) of crematory grounds. There is as well a mediaeval tradition, which may be based on older accounts, that the valley served as a rubbish tip and charnel ground, where refuse was burned and where animal and human corpses were left as carrion, but again the archaeological evidence for this is lacking.”

Given the foregoing, it is obvious how this real, and often very hot place, became a major inspiration for the “kingdom of ingenious tortures ruled by Satan” that, as Hart also notes, “took ever more opulent and terrifying mythical shape in later Christian centuries.”

Now, my point today is that in pushing hell away from our world and ever further into a mythical metaphysical realm, Christianity played a powerful role in creating a global culture that was increasingly able to kid itself that all bad, problematic, destructive, dangerous, life-threatening behaviours — such as the excessive burning of fossil fuels and various other forms of brutal violence towards our common home, the planet Earth — that all theses behaviours and consequences could, somehow, be “off-worlded” or, to use another metaphor, could forever and ever be kicked can-like down an endless road, without us ever needing to deal with the this-worldly consequences of those same behaviours. But for the Jews and early Christians in and around Jerusalem, Gehenna was not associated with a species of abstract, theoretical thinking about some kind of post-mortem, off-worldly place of torment but was, instead, a real-world place where, just beyond the city walls, you could experience, first-hand, a hellish, pre-mortem torment. In short, Gehenna stood as a tangible and salutary warning that we all needed to do everything we could to ensure that the rest of the world never became like this awful place.

With these thoughts in mind, as I lay as still as I could in a darkened room on the two days of just below and above 40-degree celsius heat here in the UK, I took a look at the weather in Gehenna and discovered that the ancient Jewish-Christian hell itself was chillin’ at a mere 33 degrees. Never has the phrase “hotter than hell” been more true in my own life. Frighteningly, it is becoming hotter than hell regularly everywhere across the globe, even at the North and South Poles.

Although Christianity has repeatedly tried to suppress it, the message of its founding figure and one of Judaism’s most radical figures, Jesus, is that endless can-kicking is impossible and that there is for us no off-world realm. His call was always to seek first God’s Kingdom and justice in this world by loving our neighbours (which, today, we know includes all sentient and non-sentient beings), and loving them not tomorrow but today (cf. Matthew 6:33-34). In modern eco-activist terms I think we can say that Jesus was saying in his own way something like there is “no planet B”, there is for us only this world and, depending on what we do here, it can become for us heaven or hell.

Last week, along with millions of other people across the globe in recent years, here in the UK we made a quick two-day excursion into hell, Gehenna. Let’s not waste the exceedingly precious, if challenging gift of being given back an ancient, grounded understanding of in what consists hell and use the experience to help us return to “Jerusalem” with our much kicked and dented cans prepared, finally, to speak truth to power by demanding, and making ourselves, radical and permanent changes to the way we are living. As I argued last week in connection with the figure of Job, speaking truth to power is both our most potent power and our highest form of prayer.

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