The Conservative Bible Project, Jesus, and Hell
There is a conservative project to translate the Bible to reflect a conservative ideology. Among other things, it wants to end inclusive language and put more emphasis on the existence of the devil and of hell. Why? We do not worship the devil. Satan did not live, die, and rise from the dead for our salvation. Lucifer does not sit at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us. Beelzebub did not teach an ethic of radical love.
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Moreover, the Bible does not speak of hell as some kind of fiery furnace where we will burn in eternal torment. The Bible speaks of life and death. It speaks of the grave. It speaks of the place where the dead live. It speaks of a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where trash was burned. It speaks of life eternal and existential nothingness. We live or we perish. When the Bible speaks of the lake of fire or of the separation between the poor man Lazarus and the rich man, there is nothing to indicate eternal torment. We have read Dante's Inferno back into the biblical text. This, however, is a problem for theologians and for Bible scholars to work out.
Hell is irrelevant to the ethics of Jesus. Ethics asks two basic questions: what is right to do? How do we know? Christian ethics says we know what is right to do by following the teachings of Jesus. The ethics of Jesus is an ethics of radical love, a love that loves the whole word, including enemies. It is an ethic that requires fearless faith, a faith that washes away our anxieties about our material well-being, a faith that allows us to face physical death with serenity because we know we will live throughout eternity with God. The ethics of Jesus teaches generosity and compassion. It teaches self-examination. It teaches us to avoid judgment or condemnation of others.
The ethics of Jesus is inclusive. Women and men, the good and the evil, all peoples of the earth live under God's blessings of sunshine and rain. Therefore, our compassion ought to be inclusive. We suffer and celebrate with all who suffer and celebrate. The meaning of the ethics of Jesus is to live life in right relationship with God, humanity, and ourselves. Right relationship with God is not possible without right relationship with humanity and with God's creation. Right relationship with creation and humanity is not possible without right relationship with God. When we break relationship through our immoral acts, this creates a distance between us and God. This is where torment enters. Neither hell nor the fear of hell is torment. Fear itself is torment.
Some moral philosophers say that the right thing to do is doing the right thing for the right reasons. I say: within the context of Christian ethics, we ought to do the right thing not because we fear hell but because we love. Our right acts are praise to the glory of God. Our love is our witness to the existence and to the goodness of God.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.