MANY PEOPLE HAVE been given a very tame and uninteresting version of Jesus. He was a nice, quiet, gentle, perhaps somewhat fragile guy on whose lap children liked to sit. He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colors, freshly washed and pressed, holding a small sheep in one arm and raising the other as if hailing a taxi. Or he was like an “x” or “n”—an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in a cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.
The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures. And nowhere was he more defiant, subversive, courageous, and creative than when he took the language of fire and brimstone from his greatest critics and used it for a very different purpose.
The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews—especially those of the Sadducee party—had little to say about the afterlife, about miracles, about angels and the like. Their focus was on this life and on how to be good, just, and successful human beings within it. More liberal Jews—especially of the Pharisee party—had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighboring cultures and religions, especially the Persians.
To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgment. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.
To the west, the Greeks had a more elaborate schema. Although there were many permutations, in general souls were sorted into four groups at death: the holy and heroic, the indeterminate, the curably evil, and the incurably evil. The incurably evil went to Tartarus, where they would experience eternal conscious torment. The holy and heroic were admitted to the Elysian Fields, a place of joy and peace. Those in-between might be sent back to Earth for multiple reincarnations until they could be sorted into a final category.
Then there were the Persian Zoroastrians to the east. In Zoroastrianism, recently departed souls would be judged by two angels, Rashnu and Mithra. The worthy would be welcomed into the house of Ohrmazd, the Zoroastrian version of heaven. The unworthy would be banished to hell, the realm of Ahriman, a Satanic figure.
A large number of Jews had been exiles in the Persian Empire in the 6th century B.C.E., and the Persians ruled over the Jews for about 150 years after they returned to rebuild Jerusalem. After that, the Greeks ruled and tried to impose their culture and religion. So it’s not surprising that some Jews adopted Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife. In fact, the Pharisees may have picked up their name from the old word for Persian—Parsi or Farsi. For Jews who embraced some mixture of Persian and other ideas into their vision of the afterlife, the heaven-bound could be easily identified. They were like the Pharisees—religiously knowledgeable and observant, socially respected, economically prosperous, and physically well-off. The hell-bound were just as easily identified: the opposite of the Pharisees—uninformed about religious lore, careless about religious rules, socially suspect, economically poor, and physically disadvantaged.
Jesus clearly agreed with the Pharisees that there was an afterlife. Death was not the end for Jesus. But one of the most striking facets of his life and ministry was the way he took the Pharisees’ understanding of the afterlife and turned it upside down and inside out.
Who was going to hell? Rich and successful people who lived in fancy houses and stepped over their destitute neighbors who slept in the gutters outside their gates! Proud people who judged, insulted, excluded, avoided, and accused others! Hypocrites who “strained out gnats and swallowed camels!” In other words, who was going to hell? People just like the Pharisees! The judgment they so freely pronounced on others, Jesus turned back on them.
And who, according to Jesus, was going to heaven? The very people whom the Pharisees despised, deprived, avoided, excluded, and condemned! Heaven’s gates opened wide for the poor and destitute who shared in few of life’s blessings; the sinners, the sick, and the homeless who felt superior to nobody and who therefore appreciated God’s grace and forgiveness all the more; even the prostitutes and tax collectors! In other words, all the people the Pharisees were careful to avoid were exactly the ones who would someday be welcomed into heaven! Imagine how this overturning of traditional language of hell must have shocked everyone—multitudes and Pharisees alike.
AGAIN AND AGAIN, Jesus took conventional language and imagery for hell and flipped it. We might say he wasn’t so much teaching about hell as he was un-teaching about hell. In so doing, he proposed a vastly different understanding of the afterlife. But far more important and radical, he proposed a transformative vision of God. God isn’t the one who condemns the poor and weak. God isn’t the one who favors the rich and righteous. God isn’t the one who ordains the rich to be in the castle and the poor to be in the gutter. God is the one who loves everyone, including the people the rest of us think don’t count. Those parables we’ve used to scare people about hell, it turns out, weren’t intended to teach us about hell: They used the language of hell to teach us a radical new vision of God!
Jesus used fire and brimstone language in another way as well. He used it to warn his compatriots about the catastrophe of following their current road—a wide and smooth highway leading to another violent uprising against the Romans. Violence won’t produce peace, he warned; it will only produce more violence. If his compatriots persisted in their current path, Jesus warned, the Romans would get revenge on them by taking their greatest pride—the temple—and reducing it to ashes and rubble. That’s why he advocated a different path—a “rough and narrow path” of peace and reconciliation instead of their broad highway of hate and violence.
The Pharisees rejected both Jesus’ alternative portrayal of God and his warnings about a violent uprising. In fact, the Pharisees joined with the Zealots and became leaders in a rebellion against the Roman Empire in 67 C.E. Their grand scheme succeeded for a time, but then in 70 C.E., the Romans marched in and crushed the rebellion. Just as Jesus warned, Jerusalem was devastated and the temple was destroyed. The nation was even worse off after its revolution than before.
And that’s when the Pharisees changed. In many ways, after their failed revolution, they followed a path more like the one Jesus had taught, and they showed that it wasn’t too late for even Pharisees to change.
In that outcome, we see the real purpose of Jesus’ fire-and-brimstone language. Its purpose was not to predict the destruction of the universe or to make absolute for all eternity the clean-unclean categories of us andthem. Its purpose was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change—using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace.
Sadly, many religious people still use the imagery of hell more in the conventional way of the Pharisees. Like Jonah, they seem disappointed that God’s grace would get the final word. If more of us would re-examine this fascinating dimension of Jesus’ teaching and come to a deeper understanding of it, we would see what a courageous, subversive, and fascinating leader he was, pointing us to a radically different way of seeing God, life, and being alive.