Many people seem to think that salvation, viewed through the lens of the Christian tradition, is about getting to heaven and avoiding hell. But is this really the conception that we find in the teaching of Jesus?
Jesus only uses the word “hell” 11 times in the gospels, with most of those appearing in the gospel of Matthew. The term does not appear in John’s Gospel at all. Each time Jesus uses the term, the word in Greek (the language in which the gospels are originally written) is gehenna, a word that derives from the Hebrew name for the Valley of the Son of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. This valley, whose exact location is now disputed, is said to be the place where followers of Canaanite religion would burn children in sacrifice to their gods. As such, it was considered an evil and accursed place. Interestingly, in Jewish rabbinic tradition, gehenna was envisioned as a kind of purgatory in which souls would undergo a purification for their sins. Rabbinic tradition said that the maximum amount of time a soul could spend in gehenna was one year.
The fact that rabbinic tradition does not see gehenna as a permanent and eternal dwelling place for the wicked leads me to suggest that it is likely that Jesus did not view it that way, either. Though, admittedly, some of the passages in which Jesus uses the term seem to understand it as a place, not of eternal torment, but of destruction of both body and soul.
When the life and teaching of Jesus are considered as a whole, these verses in which Jesus uses the term gehenna seem outweighed by his other teaching and the way in which he lived his life. As a result, I remain unconvinced that, for Jesus, salvation was really about saving people from hell. Salvation, instead, appears as a healing of the soul, a healing of that duality that keeps us in a state of separation from everything around us, and from God. In the teaching of Jesus, that state of healing is what it means to be in the kingdom of God. In those few verses where Jesus does use the term gehenna, he uses it to talk about life outside the kingdom of God. And, in several of those verses, he suggests that anything that is keeping us out of the kingdom of God should be discarded and gotten rid of (see Mark 9:43–47, Matthew 5:31). Sometimes, I think that he uses strong language — like the term gehenna — to get our attention, to wake us up to what he is really talking about.
It seems clear from this teaching that whether I am in the kingdom of God or outside it depends on my choice. If I am willing to do the spiritual work necessary to enter the kingdom of God, and thus to abandon the duality of the egoic, or small, self, then that is what Jesus is inviting me to do. If I am unwilling to do this work, then Jesus warns me that remaining outside the kingdom of God is like being in a gehenna of my own choosing.
It reminds me of something St. Paul says: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phillippians 2:12b). This suggests to me that while God offers us salvation, that is, healing from our small self and the alienations that result from having our hearts centered there, that salvation is never forced upon us. God is not a God of coercion, but of persuasion. God invites, but does not force. Part of the spiritual journey is to choose to accept the gift of healing, to do the spiritual work necessary to live with our heart centered in God and God, therefore, centered in us.
Jesus said, “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’” (Mark 2:17a). He is, it seems to me, pointing us toward this idea that we have a spiritual illness that requires a physician to heal us, not a judge to punish us.