Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Images of hell

The Bible uses several different metaphors for hell. Unless we understand the metaphors, we won’t understand damnation.

1. Fire

This is, of course, the dominant metaphor in historical theology and pop culture. This carries with it two dangers:

i) Overemphasis on the fiery metaphor eclipses other, neglected metaphors for hell in Scripture. That leads to an unbalanced view of hell.

ii) There is also a danger of misunderstanding the fiery metaphor. I’ve explored the meaning of this metaphor in the past:

There’s a popular stereotype of the hellfire preacher: a heavyset evangelist with beady eyes, mopping his sweaty brow with a hanky as he gleefully depicts the damned writhing in hell. No doubt there are some preachers who play into the stereotype.

2. The lost

I’ve discussed this image in a recent post:

3. Death

The Apocalypse describes eternal punishment as a “second death.” That plays on the connotations of death. So what’s the emblematic significance of death?

An obvious suggestion is that death signifies loss. Ultimate loss. Total loss. Irrevocable loss.

One of the most illuminating passages in that respect is Eccl 12:1-8, with its famous, poignant evocation of old age.

Solomon uses the image of a dilapidated house to portray the aging process. Due to infirmity and sensory deprivation (imbalance, loss of sight, loss of hearing), the elderly suffer from increasing social and resultant emotional isolation. The steady, involuntary withdrawal from the world. Forced isolation, due to a mind trapped inside a body that’s become a prison.

Blindness is a common affliction in the Mideast, with its unremitting glare. 

The elderly outlive older relatives (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles). They outlive their spouse. They outlive childhood friends. And in the ancient world it wasn’t uncommon to outlive some or all of your children.

They are shut-ins. They don’t venture outside very often because they are unsteady on their feet. Because they can’t see well. Because they fear muggers. They are weak. Defenseless. Easy prey.

Time has passed them by. The world has passed them by. Yet they linger on.

Outside, the lifecycle repeats itself with another spring and summer. The almond tree blossoms anew. But life is autumnal or wintry for the aged. Outside, the younger generation is doing what they used to do at that age. Children laughing, shouting, playing in the streets. Young lovers. Shoppers haggling in the town market. Women at the well. Palestine is a sunny, outdoor climate.

Separation is a type of loss. Death separates us from this life. Sooner or later the damned lose everything. They begin losing what they cherish in this life. Friends. Family. They may wax wistful about the past. Lost youth. The past taunts them. Something they miss. Something they vividly remember, yet it lies just out of reach. Tantalizing.

Conversely, heaven represents reunion and restoration. Reconnecting the past with the future.

4. Forgetfulness

The Bible depicts death as a state of forgetfulness. Of course, death isn’t equivalent to damnation. But forgetfulness can signify the state of the lost.

Forgetfulness can be taken in different directions:

i) The elderly are often forgetful. This may begin with a less retentive short-term memory. But it can also erode long-term memory. They lose track of time. Forget what day it is. Forget what year it is. Forget where they are. They may ask to be taken “home,” when their old home is long gone.

ii) Forgetfulness can be both a blessing and a curse. Ideally, we like to remember the good things and forget the bad things. By the same token, we hope to be remembered at our best, not our worst.

iii) Then there’s the specter of being forgotten. Take elderly men and women who outlive everyone who was ever close to them.

Five years ago I got a phone call from a member of my high school reunion committee. She was an old classmate. I hadn’t spoken to her since we graduated. Yet we were able to pick up where we left off, 30 years ago, without missing a beat. There was that instant recognition when I’d mention an old teacher or fellow student or the school building.

What happens when there’s no one left in your life who shares your old memories?

It’s like a man who goes on an ocean cruise. He may be surrounded by hundreds of passengers, but they are strangers. He eats by himself. No one knows who he is.

If he falls overboard at night, no one will notice that he’s gone. Nobody will register his absence.

He will splash around in the dark, watching the lights and sounds of the ship recede into blackness. He shouts for help, but no one hears him. He’s left alone, in the darkness. In the chilly waters. He will die alone.

It’s a terrible thing to be a missing person. In a way, it’s worse to go missing, and no one misses you. Not just that no one cares. No one is even aware.

To be forgotten is to be forsaken. That’s a common fate for orphans and widows in OT times. And that’s still the case today.

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