Does anyone really believe in heaven and hell anymore? After all, its just an old-fashioned superstition, an out-moded scare tactic to get people to church.
In the Middle Ages the threat of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell held so much power over people’s imaginations, they were both fascinated and afraid of it. For instance, the most popular book written in the medieval period, Dante’s Inferno [link], describes in vivid detail the punishments used to torture sinners for eternity in the depths of hell: corrupt politicians are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, thieves are pursued and bitten by snakes and lizards, while blasphemers and homosexuals are trapped in a desert of flaming sand where fiery flakes rain down from the sky upon them. The nastiest punishments are reserved for those who committed the worst possible crimes. They are condemned to the bottom most depths of hell where, Satan, depicted as a beast, is held in chains. Satan has Judas in his teeth and rips at Judas’ skin with his claws. Pretty gruesome. Thank God, we’re beyond all that superstitious thinking…. or are we?
Come to think of it, the medieval obsession with hell reminds me of our contemporary addiction to graphic horror films, tragic news stories and the like. Could it be we’re hung up on the same things? After all, our society still divides things up in very similar ways: rewarding good and punishing evil. In fact, that model is so deeply rooted in our cultural psyche, our world-view, which determines how we understand the created order, that its almost impossible to imagine another vision of reality. We just assume its natural.
Except that lately that order appears to be breaking down: the “bad guys” or the “monsters” don’t seem to know their place. For instance, in the movie “No Country for Old Men,” which won the academy award for best picture, the so-called “good guys” (the cowboy who finds the money and the sheriff investigating the case) are pretty powerless in the face of the ultimate “bad guy” who is totally unstoppable. He is literally the sheriff’s worst nightmare. Watching the film you can’t help but wonder, what on earth is this guy doing: wandering around and messing with regular people’s lives? Who let that monster out of hell? Needless to say, the movie is very disturbing…
One reason for this is that it breaks down the clear divisions which make people feel safe. Its not just a matter of locking up the really nasty criminals and throwing away the key, separating the “good people” from the “bad people” has always been one of the primary building blocks for ordering society.
So while many of us assume that in this present day and age we no longer believe in heaven and hell, it could it be that images of the fiery abyss are still so real for us that we’re really just living in denial. Maybe we never got over our fear of hell, we’ve just had a lid on it. As long as people play by the rules and don’t commit any crimes, they assume they don’t have to worry about it.
But what about all those actually condemned to the bottomless pit? All the black men in prison, out of sight and forgotten by mainstream society? What about the mentally ill wandering the streets because no one will care for them? Or the countless lives lost in Iraq, that the media refuses to talk about? What about the teenagers at risk, who are convinced the world around them could care less; or the elderly confined in nursing homes, without family or friends to visit them? When I think of the utter abandonment experienced by those who have been condemned, in one form or another, to non-existence, I wonder what on earth did they do to deserve such punishment?
We may be the lucky ones, with a good job, a home and a loving family, but can we ever feel entirely safe, when there are those around us, who are not so lucky? Indeed, the more we deny the abyss in our midst, the more power it holds over our imaginations, feeding those nagging feelings of anxiety and uncertainty that plague contemporary life. Until we can envision our world, and the social order structured in some other way, we will live in fear, conscious or not, that we could be the next unlucky person to slide down the slippery slope into its depths, unnoticed and forgotten by the rest of humanity. The result is that we too are held captive, both fascinated and afraid that somehow those “monsters” could get loose.
Contrary to common assumptions, parts of the New Testament actually challenge us to consider another vision of reality. It not only contradicts the old-fashioned understanding of heaven and hell, but exposes our contemporary superstitions too. In Matthew 14:22-33 [link to text] Jesus walked on the water. This action was more than a simple miracle; it was a highly symbolic gesture. For the ancient Jews, the watery abyss was the mythological equivalent to the medieval fiery depths of hell. In the Psalms, for instance, the sea appears as a synonym for the pit, the place of desolation and abandonment from which the writer of the psalms cries out to God for deliverance:
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead… (Psalm 88:4-5)
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me…
Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me. (Psalm 69:1-2, 15)
Belief in the watery abyss, was closely connected to the Hebrew creation story. In Genesis 1:6-8 the waters are depicted as the source of chaos, which God divided to create the dry land, the basis for the created order. For centuries people assumed that God accomplished this by slaying all the evil demons and throwing them to the bottom of the watery pit. Thus in Jewish mythology the sea was feared as the place where demons, monsters and ghosts reside.
It is highly symbolic then that Jesus not only walked over the face of the watery abyss, he chose to do much of his ministry on or next to the sea. He also chose fishermen as his disciples, those whose life circumstances forced them to live daily on the edge of the abyss. This also explains why the disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus approaching them from across the water: they thought he was a ghost. Jesus immediately responded, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” For when Jesus walked over the water, it was not merely to perform a miracle or demonstrate that he was Lord over its depths, but more importantly to offer a new vision of the created order itself.
Even so, the disciple’s fear of the pit was still too powerful. When Peter got out of the boat (out of his comfort zone?) and tried to walk to Jesus over the water, he became afraid and immediately began to sink into its depths. After reaching out his hand to save Peter, Jesus scolded him for his lack of faith; not because Peter did not believe in the miracle, but because Peter still believed in the power of the abyss and the sort of god which creates order by rescuing some and condemning others. Thus Jesus realized that to destroy the power the abyss held, and continues to hold, over people’s imaginations, he had to go one step further.
Unlike Genesis 1:6-8 or even Moses at the Red Sea, Jesus did not divide the waters, he did not create order by condemning all the sinners to hell, or casting some new demon into the abyss. Instead Jesus allowed himself to be sentenced and executed as a criminal, and actually descended to the depths of hell, to the very bottom of the watery abyss. He intentionally took the role of the one condemned to the pit in the Psalms, and suffered all the pain and abandonment experienced by those forced to reside there. As my past professor Tony Bartlett says, Jesus’ own cry from the abyss, is not one of “defiance or despair, but [of] yielding up, the letting go, the for-giving and release of the spirit, his breath” (Bartlett, Cross Purposes, 246). He did this to expose once and for all the presence of the abyss as a false basis for social order, and to blow the lid off our denial, by demonstrating that the abyss does not really contain demons or monsters, but holds captive all those who have been sentenced to non-existence.
For an important exploration of “the abyss” and Jesus’ “abyssal compassion,” see Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes, especially chapter one [Link].
Indeed, the abyss is the domain of all those who have been forgotten, but who continue to lurk in our imaginations, in popular horror films, in urban legends. Jesus breaks the power of the abyss by demonstrating what it really is; kind of like shining a light under the bed only to discover a dirty sock instead of a monster.
Thus Paul could say that Jesus answers those who cry out to him from its depths:
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” [link to text]
Just reaching out his hand and pulling Peter out of the water, as “a hand proffered from on high, (Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes, 24), would not have been enough. It was only by descending to its depths that Jesus is able to rescue anyone. And it is precisely for this reason that Jesus is able to respond to every person, no matter their past failings, or their supposed crimes. No plea goes unanswered. As Bartlett says Jesus’ gesture in the abyss is “available to everyone who suffers or feels compassion for suffering.” (Bartlett, 237)
It is for this same reason that Jesus could claim that he had come to set the captives free [See Luke 4:18]. By destroying the power of hell, he released all those, who over the centuries had been condemned to eternal punishment in its depths. But lets not forget, its not just the monsters and demons which require deliverance. No longer held captive by our fear, we too are liberated in the process.
Released from its grip, we do not need to live in denial. We may even find that we have the courage to approach the abyss, and with compassion to rescue others. By dissolving the power the abyss holds over our imaginations, we are finally free to participate in a created order free of its threat.
As Paul Nuechterlein points out on his website [link], its important to notice that the Book of Revelation ends with the following:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” [Revelation 21:1]
If we could actually give up our old-fashioned superstitions about heaven and hell, and could finally lay all the monsters to rest, I wonder what would the world look like? Its difficult to imagine… but I have a feeling it would be a much safer place for all of us. - Sue Wright