The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.
Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.
From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.
A good metaphor gone bad can do a lot of damage. Like a loose cannon. Hell is a bad neighborhood for metaphors. Taken literally Hell can be hell. So it is that many evangelical Christians are abandoning the concept. Jumping ship on the Manichean outlook that has policed bad behavior for two millennia now. A recent article on National Geographic by Mark Strauss discusses why many leading conservatives are now casting Hell into the pit and looking for ways to make God look better. Like many metaphors, Hell best resides in a world of black and white. A dualistic world where there are no shades of gray (certainly less than fifty of them). A world where any behavior can be understood as good or bad, forward or retrograde, never neutral. You’re either for us or against us. There’s no Switzerland in this geography. That’s precisely why so many people want to keep Hell on a leash.
Hell probably never would’ve become such a motivator for good had Jesus not mentioned it. Prior to its encounter with Zoroastrian beliefs, Judaism held that the dead quietly resided in Sheol, a dreary place, true, but hardly fiery real estate. You worked out justice here on earth because that was the only chance you had. The dead were sleepier than early morning commuters and they received neither rewards or punishments. It was a much more egalitarian view of things. The dualistic Zoroastrians saw paradise and torment as a great image to explain evil in the world. The sorting takes place after this life is over. Jesus used such language as well, and the image became canonical.
Evangelicals are now starting to think through the implications of all this. A God with the kinds of anger issues that condemn people literally forever might be problematic. Sure, we may get angry at our enemies, but only the most truly heartless person has no pity on their suffering. What does it say about God if his anger lasts for eternity? Some, therefore, are trying to put the metaphor back into Hell without losing the strict divisions for which the good news crowd is famous. Instead of full-time Hell, perhaps there’s part-time Hell with time for repentance. Or simple annihilation. Metaphors lose their power when they come to be taken literally. Hell is such a loose canon. Doctrine among the doctrinaire is often non-negotiable. Although some may try, as a whole, the fires of Hell can never be extinguished. At least to those who understand figures of speech as statements of fact.
Rabbi and author A. James Rudin, in an op-ed piece in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger, tolls the warning bells for traditional brick-and-mortar religion in the western world. We live in a virtual world where nearly any need may be met through the Internet. You may satisfy your hunger by ordering out online, and consult a virtual nurse online later when you don’t feel so good. Holiday shopping is a breeze without having to do anything more than tap out a wishlist on your keyboard and then click your mouse. Why should spirituality be any different? Rudin points out that many classics of western religion used to be confined in research libraries, but are now freely available online. Any number of self-appointed doyens of spirituality offer the truth in electronic form. What need have the faithful of starting the car on a cold morning, facing bitter winds and blowing snow, to march into a half-deserted house of worship when God is only a few keystrokes away?
There can be no doubt that the Internet has changed views of religion. Exposure to exotic or unfamiliar practices and beliefs is common. American religion has often been compared to a marketplace, and the best place for comparison shopping is online. This is not, however, cause for alarm. Ancient religions, including the early Judaism that will give birth to Christianity, accommodated other belief systems they encountered. There is no pristine form of religion that preserves the exact original recipe. The change took place more slowly in ancient times, but take place it did. Judaism, for example, moved from a basic, colorless Sheol to a fully populated Hell in Christianity, complete with lakes of burning sulfur and trident-wielding demons. These views were not indigenous to Judaism, but after rubbing shoulders with the Magi, such ideas eventually worked their way in.
All that the Internet has done is speed up the process. Without the web, people took longer to encounter and learn about different religions. Some of us took university degrees to figure out as much as we could. Now it requires little effort and minimal time. Like most e-commerce, if you don’t like what you’ve bought somebody else is offering something similar just a server away. What web-culture has done is to hold up a mirror to our bizarre shopping attitude towards religion. We can see in fast-forward what appeared smooth and organic in real-time. Religions change and the methods of selecting religions change as well. My observation is that clergy who take courses in web-casting will be at the front of the class until the next technological revolution comes along.
Yesterday I received an email in my Rutgers account with the title above. It was difficult to determine if the message was directed at me or was a piece of spam that had gracefully navigated around the powerful university filters. In either case, the sender had mapped out to an impressive degree the goings on in the afterlife. I am not qualified to comment on the correctness of the assertions, having never been to the Underworld myself, but I was hooked by the preference for the name Hades over Hell. This particularity took me back to revivalist sermons I heard as a youth when preachers, apparently fearing the swear-like quality to the word “Hell” – which the church gave us – deferred to the use of “Hades.”
As I have described in one of my podcasts, Hell is a Christian construct derived from Judaism’s confrontation with Zoroastrianism. The idea is distinctly Christian in its formulation: Hell is the afterlife for those who side with Satan and his angels and therefore are blocked from Heaven (also based on Zoroastrianism). Nobody wishes to go there, but those who choose the powers of darkness will be sentenced to an eternity of burning and torment for their choice. The idea is so odious that eventually its very name came to stand for a curse-word in many Christian contexts. In the pietism of the Evangelical tradition, the word itself is to be avoided. Thus I heard sermons warning of the somehow softer sounding Hades.
Hades is not Hell. I tell my mythology students that the classical Greek conception of the afterlife is not necessarily a punishment. It may be for some notorious sinners, but generally it is the fate of all the dead, like Sheol in the Bible. The choice of Hades as a stand-in for Hell is not in keeping with standard Christian teaching. Hell is Hell. Hades is somewhere else. Both lie underground, but they inhabit completely divergent conceptual worlds. I wish to thank my sender for this carefully crafted Underworldly roadmap, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must insist that a Hell be called a Hell. Hades is best left to Pluto and his retainers, so Satan needs a realm of his own.
Podcast 18 considers the perceptions of the world of the dead, according to Ancient Near Eastern sources. Specifically the question addressed is can the dead return from the underworld, based initially on the story of Samuel’s return from the dead in the Bible — this leads to a description of the underworld based on ancient sources. The Zoroastrian connection is encountered in the development of the realms of heaven and hell.