With my app, I search the Bible for instances of the word “Hell.” I do this because I’ve been mulling a theory. Jesus is supposed to be the “door” Christians use to understand the divine, but I think the point of entry for a lot of people is Hell. Of all the Christian concepts, it’s the most shocking, the most horrific. A novice asks what it is and the next question becomes: how do I avoid it? It was the first thing that got my attention as a kid; if I’d had consistent access to church back then I would have worn out my knees praying not to go there.
I have this impression that the Bible is littered with references to Hell, especially the Old Testament. God of the Old Testament is a bit of a wildcard. He may love humanity, but he didn’t hesitate to wipe thousands from the face of the earth—some of whom were innocent. He wasn’t uncaring, he obviously cared very much, but his intensity turned on a dime to fury. I can see why Jesus was so helpful in clarifying God’s loves for us. He basically says: “I love you and God loves me, therefore, God loves you.” It’s like a mathematical proof. If you believe Jesus, there’s no room for doubt.
The search feature scans the text of the American Standard Version and presents a list. The first few references aren’t to “Hell” but to a word I’ve never seen before: “sheol.” I go through every item, and here’s what I find: not one instance of “Hell” in this translation of the Old Testament. The search engine has pulled up “sheol” instead.
I look up this mysterious word. It’s Hebrew and means “the grave” or more generally “death.” It’s a far more benign concept than Hell; it’s an afterlife destination for everyone regardless of the choices they made. To be sure, there are references to unpleasant places in the Old Testament, “lakes of fire” and such where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth, just no terrible underworld for the dead. In the King James Version, “sheol” has been turned into “Hell.”
Suddenly it hits me: we humans are so terrified of death, the thought of our own demise is Hell. It’s not until the New Testament that the idea of Hell, or Hades, officially enters the picture; its counterpoint—salvation—is referred to as “eternal life.” Having been given the gift of life, we obsess about holding on to it forever. All the while, insecurities about our worthiness have us preoccupied with Hell—we are unable to deserve this life, much less eternal life.
The people of Jesus’ time suffered similarly, and Jesus did everything he could to help. Over and over, he urges them: appreciate your life, be happy because you are living. He explains to them that they don’t have to do anything more than love and be joyful to feel worthy. He says, “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad;” “Ye are the light of the world;” “Take no thought for the morrow.” But most are too fearful to trust his words.