Have you ever read the Gospel of Mark—straight through? It’s only 20 pages long and takes about 45 minutes. You’ll be jarred on every other page by this strange command of Jesus: “Shush…don’t tell a soul!” What’s up with this?
All reputable Scripture scholars agree that Mark’s gospel was the first attempt to tell the story of Jesus. It was written in Greek for ‘Jesus-Jews’ who had just endured the invasion of Roman troops from the year 66AD. to 70AD. The Roman Emperor had sent Titus to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. All Jews -whether Jesus-Jews or Torah-Jews, whether in Jerusalem or in Rome itself—were scared to death.
Mark wrote a gospel of hope and a gospel of caution for frightened people.
It was a gospel of hope because it clearly outlined the power and promises of their messianic hero and made him come alive on the pages of the scroll. This was the man they could trust; this was the man who could lead them into the Kingdom of God. Don’t worry, Jesus had said, even though the Romans begin to tear down your house, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God come in power.” (Mk.9:1)
But it was also a gospel of caution: ‘Can you keep a secret?’ Mark’s gospel is only 16 short chapters, but it contains over 13 commands to “keep it secret.” Every time Mark records a demon who recognizes Jesus, the demon is told to shut up. When Mark describes Jesus and his miraculous healings, the lucky recipients are ordered to ‘tell no one.’ Even the wonderful parables are said to keep outsiders from learning the secret.
What’s up with this? We have two alternatives:
Until 1901, most Christian writers called this the messianic secret, and taught that Jesus himself felt that his Jewish followers would never be able to understand his messiahship until after his resurrection, and therefore he told them to be quiet about what they were seeing, and remember it later.
In 1901, a Lutheran pastor named William Wrede, said “Wait a minute; that doesn’t make sense!” Wrede maintained that it wasn’t the followers of Jesus who needed to keep their faith a secret; it was the readers of Mark. Jesus and his disciples were racing up and down Galilee proclaiming the good news and they wanted it to be talked about. What preacher gives a sermon and then says; “please don’t repeat this!” What entertainer puts on a show and then demands that the producers take it off the air? Why wouldn’t Jesus want everybody to hear about his message and his healings?
On the other hand, forty years later, Mark’s readers were being persecuted by the Romans for their Jewishness and they needed to be cautious. They were also running into problems in their own Synagogues with all this ‘Jesus-talk.’ “Therefore,” said Rev. Wrede, “I think these are not the words of Jesus to his followers, but an addition by the author of Mark for the benefit of his readers.”
I like that. I never did like the messianic secret theory. It just didn’t make sense that Jesus would want to keep his fabulous message a secret, but I accepted it because that’s what I was taught. But then Rev. Wrede opened up a whole new way of looking at it.
What if Mark and the other Evangelists were ‘inspired by God’ to take the message of Jesus and make it real for their readers? Who’s to say they couldn’t do that? I think that once we begin to examine when the Scriptures were written and by whom and for whom, all sorts of possibilities emerge. And once we admit that inspiration does not force God into just one literary form, (the historical) we can begin to enjoy the true beauty and breadth of the Scriptures.
Who’s to say we can’t do this?
We have several delightfully hellish phrases in English: “Oh hell!” “The hell you say.” “It’s a hell of a lot of work.” And of course: “Go to hell.” However, none of them have anything to do with an everlasting fire of punishment. Nor should they!
The idea of a physical fire burning a spiritual soul forever is an oxymoron only religious fundamentalists could conceive. But conceive it they did, and they proceeded to infect millions of innocent minds—especially children’s—with this horrifying spectacle of what awaits people who die with “sin on their souls.” And, of course, they based their fire and brimstone sermons on their English translations of Sacred Scripture.
110 times our English Bibles use the word “hell” as a translation of either Sheol (or Tartarus) in Hebrew or Gehenna (or Hades) in Greek. Neither place is the hell of our evangelistic sermons. Sheol is a dark place to house everyone’s ghost (nephesh) after death. There was no distinction between good ghosts and bad ghosts in Sheol, and no fire either.
Gehenna, however, was a fiery pit. It was situated right outside the Dung Gate in Jerusalem and was used to sacrifice children to the god, Moloch. The fire of Gehenna became one of the symbols of death. The other symbol, of course, were the worms or maggots in the open grave. The Prophet Isaiah combined both symbols in the last words of his book (66:24): “their maggots will never die; their fire will never go out.”
This same symbolism is quoted by Mark (10:44-49) (and eighty-six more times in the New Testament) where Jesus says it’s better to have no hand or foot or eye that causes your downfall rather than to enter into Gehenna (death) intact, where “the worm does not die and the fire does not go out.” Again, it’s pure symbolism; you can’t have both fire and worms at the same time. And it refers to death—not to some everlasting physical pain inflicted on a spiritual essence. I remember as a child sitting in a Catholic “mission” (Protestants would call it a Revival) where the Missionary priest preached on hell and damnation for over an hour. The picture he painted was so real I could feel the fire. I knew for sure I was going to hell, and I’d never get out. The fire would be unbearable and never stop burning me. I would beg God to rescue me but he would turn away and say: “Too late!”
I have already written how frightened my wife was as a child, thinking that her father who refused to go to church, was certainly going to hell. She built a ledge over the flames where she could huddle next to him for all eternity. John G. Kelly, Jr. called this “child abuse,” and I agree.
I think we have to blame the great St. Augustine for this. 1600 years ago this Christian theologian and philosopher had tremendous influence on the development of Western Christianity. His two most important books that all of us had to read in seminary were: City of God and Confessions. I was very surprised to see that Billy Graham—in his 742-page autobiography—doesn’t quote Augustine; I know Billy used this theologian in his sermons.
Augustine, for all his brilliance, was a literalist. Maybe it was his dependence on Neo-Platonism and his rejection of the colorful Hebrew culture, but he completely missed all the metaphorical references in both the Old Testament and the New, which he read in Latin not in Hebrew or Greek.
Combine that with Augustine’s guilt-ridden conscious (he had lived a raucous, sexual life before his conversion) and we find Eternal Hell-fire breathing out of each nostril. He had a deeply damaged view of God’s love; to him eternal punishment was the primary function of the divine being. One of the early Church Fathers, Origin, had written about “universal salvation” and Augustine viciously tore him apart for his ridiculous tender-heartedness. Thanks to Augustine, we now find ourselves in one hell of a spot.
Okay. That’s my opinion. I know my literalist critics, who read their bibles only in English, will have other ideas and opinions and I respect that. However, I cannot respect the damage that Christianity—thanks to Augustine and others who followed him—has done to millions of people with this literal mis-interpretation of Sheol and Gehenna.
However, I learned long ago that I cannot argue about religion or politics; I can only lean back in my chair, sigh, and say: Oh, to hell with it!
”When my daughter, Gena, was 5 years old she’d climb up on my lap, snuggle in, and say: “Daddy, tell me a story.” And I’d begin: “Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who lived in a castle all alone …” “Why was she alone, Daddy?” And the story would build up from there. She knew the difference between that story and this: “Gena, your grandmother had to go to the hospital.” She knew the difference—even at 5 years old—between mythology and history.Last week I got an email from a friend in Denver, Colo. She said her big brother, who works in a town near-by, has begun going to Bible-Study and he has a question: “Since the Bible never says that Adam and Eve repented,” he asked her, “did they go to Heaven?” I read the email again looking for the punch-line to the joke. It was not a joke; her brother was serious. Now if my 5-year old daughter had asked the same question, she would have expected my answer to begin: “Once upon a time…”I get frustrated when my “literalist” friends insist that all Scripture is inspired by God and therefore all of it must be history. I guess that means that God is incapable of understanding (and inspiring) mythology and midrash and metaphors; he deals only with historical facts. But what about the parables?I count 49 parables attributed to Jesus. You remember: the mustard seed, the barren fig tree, the lost son, the good Samaritan, etc. They begin very simply like this: “A man planted a vineyard, and put a fence around it… etc. (Mk.12:1) Nobody asks: “What was the man’s name? Who was his daddy? What church did he go to?” Parables are like myths—they’re not historical. They tell mythical stories; stories of good and evil like Adam and Eve; stories of human envy and anger like Cain and Abel; stories of survival like Noah. People, not just children, have always needed stories like this. We have several unanswered questions that we’ve been asking since our Cave-man days and only stories seem to give us any closure. For example, we still don’t know how this universe came to exist. Did all these billions of galaxies jump out of the “black holes” 14 billion years ago, and was this the Big Bang? Or did Yahweh do it all in 6 days about 6000 years ago? We don’t have the historical answer -even with our advanced science –so we create stories.For example: Why is every human both good and bad? Are we basically good in our mother’s womb, and we learn to be bad when our little brother takes away our toy? Or are we evil by nature and must learn goodness as we grow older? The story of Adam and Eve was created to answer this question. But when people take it historically instead of mythically, they end up with more questions than they had in the beginning.And then there’s the big question: “What happens when I die?” 4000 years before Christ, the Egyptians were putting spears in the graves of men and cosmetics in the graves of women, and they were telling exciting stories about the after-life. Later on, the Hebrews had Sheol, a dark place under the earth where everyone’s ghost existed, and their stories morphed into the fiery pit of Gehenna where bad people would burn for all eternity. And of course, Christians have told hundreds of stories about heaven and hell, and even invented Limbo for the unbaptized infants. But does anyone know for sure what happens when we die? No. That’s the purpose of faith.Faith of all kinds – Egyptian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Agnostic and even Atheistic – give us stories to fill the gaps in our knowledge, and there are so many things we don’t know. Faith-stories are helpful when we’re sick and many times they’re necessary when we’re dying. They bring joy to our lives and peace to our hectic existence. Our problem today is when we don’t differentiate faith from knowledge, and we begin thinking that our faith-answers are not only factually true, but the only facts worth considering. I like this quote: “The wise man questions everybody’s faith, including his own. The foolish man questions only the others because his is right.”