Word search: Hell

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.

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Holy app!

A few weeks after I started this church-going experiment, I woke up in the middle of the night and grabbed the new “smartphone” off the bedside table. Since my husband had given it to me as a birthday present, I’d been carrying the phone everywhere, toying with it constantly. I was awed by its capacity. It seemed like a magic window onto the world, equipped with hundreds of possible applications (or “apps”) to aid in various aspects of life such as strengthening my memory with brain-challenging puzzles or encouraging exercise by counting all my steps.

Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I like to explore what it can do.

In this particular instance, it was about 4 am and I was awake enough to have grabbed the phone off the bedside table, but dream images were fresh in my mind. I was staring into it when a note popped up: DOWNLOAD YOUR BIBLE APP!

I hadn’t touched anything to prompt this message; I didn’t know a Bible app existed.

It promised to be “easier and more powerful” with “performance enhancements” and “faster help.” I had this bleary moment where I thought my smartphone was actually a portal through which to interface with God. Through it, I could receive instant divine assistance. I had miraculously received this message, hadn’t I? It’s just the sort of immediate personal connection for which each new incarnation of Christianity seems to strive.

Then the fog lifted and I hit the download button. What did I have to lose? It was free.

This app has the full texts of about 20 translations of the Bible—and that’s just the English versions. It’s also got the Bible in every language imaginable, including Arabic and something called Malagasy, which Wikipedia explains is the national language of Madagascar. The best part is the “word search” feature. You go to the translation you want and type in a word or a phrase and it scans the entire Bible and then presents a list of every section where this word or phrase appears. The actual text is highlighted for quick reference.

It starts innocently enough: I pick an English translation at random and type in the words “mustard seed.” I’d first heard reference to the mustard seed at my week-long stay at the monastery. In a gospel reading, Jesus is explaining what the kingdom of heaven is like and he says, “…it is like a mustard seed that has been planted and develops into a bush.” He’s not talking about the seed alone, which contains all the information the plant will ever need; he’s talking about the realization of the seed’s dormant potential with the proper care and nourishment. I find it such a simple and powerful idea. I think he’s saying that the kingdom of heaven is life—the actual process of living and growing. My app tells me that Jesus uses this analogy six times throughout the gospels.

Then things take a darker turn: I search for the word “hell.”

Sometimes I struggle

At home, I open the good Christian workbook that the church of Christ minister gave me. The introduction reads, “No subject or principle bears upon the Christian’s life more than sin.” It provides a laundry list of Biblical references to sin and Satan with bits of interpretation. Sin is a “deceitful force” (Hebrews 3:13) that “kills the sense of shame” (Philippians 3:19) and “pays wages” (Romans 6:23). Satan is a “coward” (James 4:7) and “father of lies” (John 8:44) who “does not appear as he really is” (2 Corinthians 11:14). I go over those pages again and again.

In the middle of the night, when I can’t get back to sleep, my thoughts turn to the Bible. I found the primary message of the New Testament gospels to be so much simpler than I had assumed before I began this journey; Jesus says the ultimate goal is to love ourselves and each other and be joyful.

The next morning, when I return to my workbook, this pops out: those in the world are of the devil until they obey the gospel. Is it possible that the “devil” isn’t some crazy boogeyman lurking in a dark alley, but the force inside ourselves that tells us we aren’t good enough, that we don’t deserve this life we’ve been given, that we have no right to experience joy? How can we love anyone else when we can’t love ourselves? A voice deep inside me shouts, “Yes, that’s it!”

With fresh eyes, I go back over the workbook’s references to sin. It says the meaning of sin most commonly used in the Bible is “to miss the mark.” This clicks. Sin is the voice inside my head that prevents me from hitting the bull’s-eye of love and joy. The booze or the sex or the drugs—those aren’t the sins. Those are just the tools a person might use to perpetuate the missing of the mark, the addictions we might put in place of the struggle to find the love and joy. They could just as easily be television or video games or food. They could be anything we use to anesthetize ourselves, hoping to stop the throbbing pain of unworthiness and put off finding the bravery to accept and love ourselves so that we can share that love with others.

So maybe this interpretation of “sin” is right, or maybe it’s wrong. That’s the thing about the Bible: some people understand what’s written one way and others see it another.

The ex-cop Baptist minister said he wanted to clarify something about “judgment day.” Some people think that when Jesus comes back, he will judge every soul that ever walked the earth to decide who is saved. This is incorrect, he said. Rather, those who have already secured eternal salvation will be listed in the “Book of Life.” Jesus will only judge those whose names do not appear in the “Book of Life.” Everyone in the congregation nods, but I feel like standing up and saying, “Hey, minister, here’s another idea: what if everyone who’s ever lived will be listed in the Book of Life? What if that’s the whole point Jesus was trying to make? That each of us is inherently valuable by virtue of having lived? I mean, it is called the book of LIFE. Maybe Jesus would have us stop obsessing about living forever and focus on the miraculous gift of being alive right now. If we did that, we might cultivate a life filled with joy and love and compassion.” Then I would sit back down and shrug. “Just another possibility,” I would say.

I try to enter each church with an open mind, but sometimes I struggle. The last stop on my list of fundamental churches is listed as “Baptist/disciples of Christ.” Double whammy, I think. On my drive there, I can feel my defenses forming. As I park, I feel them going up. I approach the door to the pretty brick church, and mentally prepare: judge not, I tell myself. I take a deep breath and walk in.

I’m greeted by the most unexpected sight: a female preacher and pews filled with old academics and artsy-types. Here’s a church that also considers itself true to the essential teachings of Jesus, only it takes a different approach to its fundamentals. I feel my shoulders relax, and I can’t help but smile.

Just when I think I have it figured out, it’s time to throw my assumptions out the window.