THE FLAMES OF GEHENNA
Beside the city of Jerusalem, beneath the south walls is a rocky cliff known as the Gehenna during our time. Here, offerings had been made to the pagan god, Moloch and ever since this place was cursed by the prophet Jeremiah, it was utilized as a dump site.... At dusk, the residents of Jerusalem would pass through the gate called Garbage, carrying all their trash, leftovers, dried branches or dead animals, to be thrown off the cliff. Then, sulphur would be sprinkled over the rubbish and it was set on fire...
Peter: I wonder where all this filth comes from! Look at that blaze!
Philip: Damn, I hope the wind doesn’t blow toward this direction. We might all burn!
Susana: Cover your noses..... this stinks like the devil!
Leaving behind the huge flames of the Gehenna, we crossed the other valley, called Cedron, by way of Bethany. It was already dark when we reached our friend’s tavern where we stayed....
Lazarus: At last they’re here! Martha, Mary.... our Galilean friends are here!
I’m sure they’re starved!.... But that’s no problem. Here in “Palmera Bonita” they’ll be treated to the specialty to the house: lamb’s head broiled on low fire!
Peter: Look, Lazarus, don’t remind us of fire nor dead animals as we just passed through the Gehenna, where they have the same specialty as you do!
Mary: C’mon, guys, go wash yourselves first; dinner is ready. C’mon, c’mon....
Peter: I tell you, Lazarus, I almost burned my face! I won’t ever pass through that wall again, more so when they burn all that trash!
Lazarus: So, what’ll you do Peter, when you burn yourself in hell.... when the devil grabs you by the hair and hurls you into the Dump Site of Eternity?
Peter: Ha! That won’t ever happen! By then, I shall have lost all my hair like Nathanael! Being bald could also be a blessing, don’t you think?
We, the whole group, with Jesus and the women, plus the other Galileans who were staying with Lazarus and his sisters, were all seated around a dilapidated and greasy table. It was placed in the inn’s patio, and it reeked of rancid wine. Nothing was left of the lamb’s head. A couple of oil lamps hanging on the walls formed mysterious shadows from the faces of everyone gathered that evening....
Peter: Believe me guys, while watching the flames in the Gehenna, I became scared stiff, like those crabs when you put an ember on their eyes.... Then I felt I was having some cramps here on my back.
Philip: I felt worse when I saw what they did to a friend of mine...
Mary: What did they do to him, Philip?
Philip: That was horrible. They tied up his hands and feet, and gagged him to silence him. Then they took him to the topmost part of the wall. There was a candle below. Four men swang him like a sack of flour, and at the count of four....... plash!....... It was horrible.
Nathanael: Don’t be a liar, Philip. You just made up that story.
Philip: I made it up, Nat? Okay. When the candle gets extinguished, why don’t you go down to the dumpsite and collect his charred bones?
Lazarus: At least, in the Gehenna, the candle gets extinguished. They say that in hell, the flames just continue to burn, and burn and burn... it’s like sticking a smoldering ember on your tummy which never dies out.
Susana: May God Almighty protect us, amen and amen!
Mary: My goodness, Philip and Lazarus, can’t you talk of something else?.... Has the food upset you or something?
Lazarus: I liked the food very much. How ’bout you, Philip?
Philip: So did I. Of course it wasn’t good for some.
Mary: For whom?
Philip: For these poor lambs that we’ve eaten. If only they could speak, then we would have known how it felt to be hit on the bones and get roasted over fire!
Lazarus: Well..... I don’t mean to rub it in, but they say that even the devil has a fork this big, which he uses to hook the damned ones and roast them over low fire.
Philip: No, man, that’s not so. What he has is a pot, forty feet high, where he cooks his friends in boiling oil.
Nathanael: Either you all go to hell or you shut up once and for all! I’m having goose pimples even underneath my armpit!
Mary: My teeth are gnashing too!
Sadducee: ......Ha, ha, haaaa....!
The boisterous laughter came from a corpulent man whose face was infested with warts....
Mary: Hey, you, what’s so funny, may I ask?
Sadducee: Ha! I’m laughing at all your stupidities! I don’t believe in anything you’re saying at all.
Mary: You don’t say! You mean, you don’t believe in hell, compatriot?
Sadducee: No. Let the dead bury the dead. The rest are stories to scare the children. When you die, that’s the end of everything.
Philip: Oh, I see you’re a Sadducee.
Sadducee: And so? I meditate on things, and I think a lot.
Mary: And what is it that you have so much thought about?
Sadducee: What another fellow has said: “Eat, drink and be happy, for tomorrow you die.” The rest is all nonsense.
Lazarus: But, how can you speak that way, compatriot?
Sadducee: I can prove it. Listen: I knew of a woman who got married and shortly after, her husband died. Then she married again and the husband died again. Again, she married and again, and again and again.... That woman was widowed seven times, after which she too, died.
Mary: And what does that mean?
Sadducee: That there can’t be another life after this, otherwise, with whom, of the seven husbands she had, should the woman stay?..... C’mon, tell me... It can’t be..... This simply proves that there’s no resurrection from the dead.
Peter: No, man, that’s not the point here. It only shows how unfortunate that woman has become!
Sadducee: Well, I insist that that is an overwhelming proof.
Peter: I’d say that’s sheer stupidity!
Sadducee: There’s neither heaven nor hell, fellows.... nothing at all... No one believes in this anymore!
Tobias: I do. How can I say there’s no hell.... I’ve just been there, myself!
We all turned to look at Tobias, the old cameleer, who had not uttered a single word the whole night. He was a thin but brawny man, with sun-burned skin. He seemed to be made of strong stuff...
Tobias: That’s right, guys, I just came from hell. For four days I was there, and I hope never to go back ....
Nathanael: What.... what happened...? C’mon, tell us....
Tobias: It was like this. You know, I always take the route of the desert, from Bethshittah to Hebron.....
That night, the cold wind was blowing from Teman. I had not slept for many days and so I got off the camel, rolled myself in my woolen blanket and fell asleep on the sand... While I was sleeping, the camel was frightened by the whistling wind, and got lost in the night....
Tobias: Where the devil are you, beast?!...... Camelllll..... Camelll!... Damn, wait till you come back... I’ll have your hump cut off!
But the camel never came back. The only companion I had in that interminable road had deserted me. So went my jug of water, my food and my lamp....
Tobias: Camelll!.... Camelll!....
I felt so helpless in that immense darkness. I could not even see the palm of my hand..... Then I began to walk, not knowing where to go, sinking in those mounds of desert sand, inhabited by scorpions....
Tobias: Camelll!...... Camelll!...
I was thirsty, hungry and tired.... But that was not the worst part of it. The most terrible thing was that I was all alone. Dawn came, but there was no one nor anything around me. I continued walking... Night came. The moonless night was like a tombstone to me. I ran, I screamed, there was no response from anyone.... I was a completely lost lonely soul.....
Tobias: So I was in hell for four days and four nights.
Peter: How did you get out of it, paisano?
Tobias: I was saved by the stars. The most faithful friends a cameleer can ever have. Gradually, I was guided by them, until I could make out, from afar, a small village called Gerar. I swear, my friends, that when I finally saw a person, I rushed to him, threw myself down at his feet and kissed them. I was shouting with joy. I was no longer alone. Believe me, I’d rather be burned in the Gehenna with somebody, than be in that place again with no one beside me. Because that’s what hell is: to be alone.
When Tobias, the cameleer finished his story, all of us heaved a deep breath, as if we had just come out of the desert too... The oil lamps continued sizzling on the walls of the inn...
Peter: Pff!... Hey, guys, why don’t we talk of something else, huh? I still feel the lamb’s eyes somersaulting here in my tummy...
Susana: No wonder, Peter. With so much hell that we’re talking about here... Say, why don’t we go up to heaven for a little while? At least, no one will ever feel alone in that place, I’d say....
Philip: I dunno, M’am, but the widow with seven husbands will at least know who to choose from, is that right, Sadducee?
Sadducee: Leave my name, damn it! What I said was if there was heaven, then I wouldn’t know how the widow would be able to figure it out for herself!
Lazarus: If indeed there is no heaven at all, then what do we do with all these angels, huh? And where do we put the little angels, tell me?
Philip: Yeah, remember, there are male and female angels too. So, where do we put all of them?
Mary: There you go again, Philip. Big head, in heaven there’s nothing of that sort you’re thinking.
Philip: Oh, really? So what does one do, simply lick his fingers?
Susana: He must kneel before the Lord and worship him. That’s it.
Philip: Then what?
Susana: You go on worshipping him because the Lord is thrice as holy and in heaven, we shall all be such, with our hands joined in prayer before God’s throne, as we ceaselessly utter “holy, holy, holy” forever and ever.
Lazarus: Amen! Ahuuumm....! Pardon me, Mam Salome, but just the thought of eternity and uttering “holy, holy, holy,” makes me sleepy already.....
Philip: Say, fellas, isn’t there any better place to go? Frankly speaking, this place called heaven is a little boring...
Mary: There’s no other place, Philip. Either you go to heaven or to hell. Make your choice.
Philip: Well, in that case then.... when you bury me, will one of you put dice inside my pocket? Maybe, if I find somebody, a cherubim or a saint who is willing to play, then we can have a little session.... What do you think?
Jesus: I’ve got a better idea, Philip.....
Philip: Damn, Jesus, it’s high time you spoke up! C’mon, out with it!
Jesus: Why don’t you get the dice now so we can start heaven right away.... You don’t have to wait to die, man!
Peter: I agree with the Moreno! Where are the dice?
Philip: Here they are, guys!..... C’mon, who’s playing?
Lazarus: I am!
Nathanael: So am I!
Jesus: Hey, Lazarus, why don’t you fetch some jugs of good wine? Mary, oil the lamps so these rascals can’t cheat in the dark...! Martha, add more fuel to the fire, to keep us all from getting cold to the bones...! C’mon, c’mon!
Jesus cast the dice. All of us joined the game, from the Sadducee to the cameleer.
Philip: I bet five to one that heaven is exactly like this: a happy gathering of friends!
Jesus: Well, I bet fifty to one that it is something much better!
That night in Bethany, Jesus taught us that heaven was something like a big feast, an endless one... From then on, we wouldn’t be asking anything and no one could take away the fun from us.
The valley of Gehenna surrounds Jerusalem in the west. It is joined in the south by the valley of Cedron. “Gehenna” is the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Ge-Hinnom” (Valley of Hinnom). In the early times, human sacrifices were offered to the pagan god Moloch in this valley, and for this reason the prophets had cursed it (Jer 7:30-33). About two hundred years before Christ, it was the popular belief that in this place was found a hell of fire for those condemned for their evil deed and this hell had received the same name of the valley: gehenna.
Since the place was cursed, Gehenna became a public dumpsite for Jerusalem. Along the southeastern side of the walls was the so-called Garbage Gate, facing the valley. Through this gate passed all the garbage of the city. There were streetsweepers in Jerusalem who apparently cleaned the streets of the capital every day, and all trash ended up in the valley where it was burned. The job of the garbage collector was included in the list of “despised” occupations on account of its repugnant character.
For many centuries, the people of Israel believed that after life on earth, the dead went down to “sheol,” a place in the depths of the earth or underneath the seas, where the good and the bad languished together, with no feeling of joy nor pain. The “sheol” is mentioned 65 times in the Old Testament, always as a gloomy place, offering no hope whatsoever. Other people – like the Babylonians – likewise believed in a similar place (Job 10:20-22; Ps 88:11-13; Ecl 9, 5 and 10). Even the Revelation, the last Book in the Bible, manifests this idea, stating that it is Christ who keeps the keys to this abyss (Rev 1:18). It is only in the last part of the Old Testament that the Israelites have come to realize that after death, the good deeds shall be rewarded and the bad deeds punished. The book of Wisdom, written about fifty years before Christ, speaks of the same idea (Wis 3:1-10; 4:7-19; 5:1-22), by way of reflections which are spiritual and moral in nature. From the historical point of view, however, the anticipation of individual immortality of those who have died is found in the books of the Maccabees (2 Mac 12:41-46 and in 2 Mac 14:46). The most interesting contribution of these books insofar as this aspect is concerned is the following: when the Israelite warriors were confronted by death in their struggle for freedom from foreign troops, the people began to feel that these martyrs of national liberation would be resuscitated by God; that the just, who were victims of death would continue to live and be rewarded by God for their gesture of solidarity with the people and their cause. Those martyrs could not die. The book does not mention the resurrection of all people but of those who have died in battle. That is, the idea of resurrection in Israel springs from their history of insurrection, just as Israel came to know God as their “liberator” who saved them from their continued slavery in Egypt. Much later, about a hundred years before Christ, the Israelites came to know God as their “resuscitator,” realizing that the best of their men, who died in their struggle were “the very ones who would never die.”
What will become of all persons after death is something that has concerned every culture, and all peoples up to our days. The gospel is written by persons who were heirs of a series of ideas – some of which are more ancient and others, more recent – about this matter. Therefore, there is no consensus as to what the life beyond is. We are simply not given this data. Besides, the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection completely changed the ideas of those who called themselves Christians after converting from Judaism. Jesus spoke of the fire and the “gnashing of teeth” because he was the son of his time. He did not “dogmatize” on the matter though. He spoke in the manner of his time, influenced by the garbage man of Gehenna. If there is one clear thing in Jesus’ mind as he thinks of the death of the children of the Kingdom, it is this: for those who are just, who fight for justice and they love their neighbor, the “other”, their destiny is in God’s hands, just as is the fate of the sparrows (Mt 10:29). There is no reason to fear. Faith in God, Jesus’ Father, encompasses the certainty that we shall conquer death. In summary, the gospel makes of “after death” the object of hope. In the face of insurmountable death and God’s silence before it, Jesus’ word is: hope. The liberation that he is proclaiming will also triumph over the “ultimate enemy” which is death (1 Cor 15:26).
Jesus spoke of the “full” realization of the Kingdom of God, without calling it heaven. From experience, we know, however, that such plenitude is not of this life, since death and suffering always lurk behind. The following words of Jesus describe the future life awaiting us:
1. There will not be a distinction of “nationalities,” neither will there be barriers nor discrimination. There will be full equality, regardless of biological differences (Mt 22:3).
One must take note of this apparent – at first glance – “spiritualization” as pointed out by Jesus, in opposition to the ideas represented during his time by the group of the Sadducees. These were influential and powerful people who did not believe at all in life after death, for they had it so good in this life. Since they were close to the Roman authorities and enjoyed economic benefits from the situation, they had to defend in their “theology” that the reward could only be given here on earth, precisely in the form of good position, money and privileges. Their lack of “hope” in life after death was, therefore, understandable. That is why the Sadducees were ardent defenders of the established system and brazen collaborators of the Romans. Jesus rejected the Sadducees’ materialistic view as a yardstick to the plenitude of the Kingdom of God (Mk 12:18-27).
2. Jesus utilizes symbols when he speaks of the “new world”: people will come face to face with God, the inheritance shall be handed out, there shall be laughter, the family of God shall sit around the table of the God and there shall be breaking of bread, etc. Everything shall change: the last shall be first, the poor shall become rich, the hungry shall be satiated.... Obviously, this must begin here on earth, and only thus shall we have a glimpse of what shall be experienced after the fullness of life is reached.
3. Jesus promises the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, the salvation of the community. Within this perspective, the image of the banquet and the house filled to the brim (Mt 22:1-14) synthesizes Jesus’ words about the Kingdom. “Heaven” shall be an endless feast for the poor.
The images given of heaven and hell by some preachers pose a grave hazard to an authentic maturing of faith. Hell is pictured as a horrible place and God as a sadist who rejoices at the sufferings of the damned who were sent to burning torture chambers. On the other hand, heaven is too often pictured as a boring place where a proud God remains solemn and distant, wishing only to be contemplated, revered and praised on a majestic throne. Jesus is not presented as having spoken of a Father God who is filled with kindness, revealing his compassion for all weaknesses, mingling with everyone as one of us, enjoying himself in the feasts, and suffering with us in our pain. Heaven and hell are so near to us. Heaven is in the community that shares and rejoices in genuine love among all, in co-existence, in relationships, in being together and knowing that everyone loves each other, where no one aims to dominate anyone. Heaven is creativity, humor, good health, the willingness to live, a game.... Hell is being alone. Whoever denies being a brother or sister, fails to treat others equally, does not serve or share may possess money, fame and power, yet, they are digging their own grave.
(Mt 22:23-33; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40)