Sunday, September 25, 2022 | Trey Comstock
There is a literal highway through literal Hell. No, this isn’t a joke about Hell, Michigan. They’ve been through enough. This is about actual Hell, or at least the place that gets used an analogy for eternal torment. The Valley of Hinnom or, through various layers of translation, Gehenna is what the New Testament authors use, when the English translation uses Hell. It’s a real place in Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah records child sacrifices occurring there at a time when God’s people were particularly far from worshipping God and instead sacrificed innocents to foreign would-be deities.
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. (Jeremiah 7:30-32 NRSV)
God’s people committed a major breach, and it marked that spot forever. Over time, there’s some indication both that Gehenna became a garbage dump for the Temple complex with fires burning to incinerate the bull carcasses and that it served as a place where the Romans cremated their dead during the Roman occupation. Gehenna is a cursed place of garbage and fire. In later Judaism and Christianity, it became the agreed upon stand in for the idea of eternal burning punishment.
What do modern people do with a place of burning Hell fires? We put a highway through it! When I was in the Holy Land, I found this endlessly amusing. We would get on the highway that runs between the Temple Mount on one side and the Mount of Olives on the other, through Gehenna, and I would break into, “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. I found myself hilarious. However, as you drive along Hell’s highway, you don’t see Hell at all. You see the Temple Mount, which in the time of Christ, would have supported the Temple itself – the home of the Holy of Holies, the seat of God on earth. One’s at the bottom of the hill, and one is at the top. It’s the distance of a few hundred yards from the place of the greatest holiness and the place of eternal cursedness.
In modern Christian thinking, we put Heaven, the most holy, and Hell, the most cursed, on entire separate plains of existence. The Book of Revelation drives some of this portraying Heaven as ethereal and far, Hell as deep and buried, and the Earth as the battle field. However, to the authors of the New Testaments, the earthly stand ins stood within shouting distance of each other. They bear no resemblance to each other, but they aren’t far.
This is setup for Luke 16:19-31. Our tormented rich guy can look up, across the chasm, see Lazarus in paradise, and talk directly to Abraham. He can’t get to paradise, but he sure gets a full and constant view of it. With them so physically close, it drives home for us that the spiritual and emotional distance between the two is far less than we would like to admit. The rich man is not some comic book villain. He’s just a rich guy that totally missed the point. The setup for this parable is about the love of money, but it becomes a mediation on what one is going to believe. The rich man pleads for Lazarus to be sent back to speak with the man’s brothers, but Abraham shuts down the rich man. “He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31 NRSV)
Just as we like our Heavens and Hells far apart, we like to think of evil as so recognizably different than good that we can be certain which is which. However, the purveyors of evil have much more subtle tools. Satan, in his temptation of Christ, does not offer cartoonishly diabolical options to Jesus. He quotes Scripture, offers Jesus a way out of suffering, and a way to rule the world as Christ would see fit. None of it sounds that bad. Christ would have been a great emperor. Who doesn’t want to avoid suffering? He’s using Scripture for crying out loud. Part of what makes a temptation tempting is that it’s desirable and often doesn’t seem that bad.
We catch another glimpse of this in Revelation 13. The Beast, and the Second Beast both emerge powered by the satanic dragon of the previous chapter. The first beast has the over-the-top evil look with horns, heads, feet of a bear, and mouth of a lion. The Second Beast is something else entirely.
Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. (Revelation 13:11-16)
This guy looks like a real winner. He does miracles. He deceives by being enough like a Messiah that people feel drawn and impressed. You can see how someone might get drawn in and carried down the radically wrong path. Obvious evil is out there, but there’s also subtle evil that looks a lot like the good but isn’t. The distance isn’t always as far and as stark as we would like.
God gives us what we need to resist evil of any kind, but we have to learn to rely on God and not ourselves. Perhaps, our rich man’s real sin has nothing to do with money and everything to do with not feeling a need to seek God. His money clouded his eyes, and when those scales finally fell away, the clock had already struck past his time. This partly explains why the message of church life comes back so often to investing in your personal relationship with God. It’s a source of strength in dark times, a source of hope, when we feel far from where we should be, and a source of power to overcome whatever obstacles that we face. Getting to know God, through worship, study, prayer, etc., also gives you a better shot at resisting the wilier temptations because you’ll know of the voice of God, when you hear it and when you don’t.