Hell on Earth
Hell. We hear the word a lot, often in this context:
- “That exam was hell.”
- “Waiting on line was hell.”
Then there’s “pure hell.”
- “Visiting with my in-laws was pure hell.”
- “Sitting through that lecture was pure hell.”
I’m guessing that “pure hell” is worse than regular hell.
There’s even a hardcore punk band called “This is Hell,” and there was a 1970s band named “Pure Hell.” I haven’t listened to either, but I hope that neither one was referring to the experience of listening to their music.
Blogger Dan Scotti writes in The Elite Daily that being a Mets fan is “literally hell on earth.”
Levels of hell?
What got me thinking about these various levels of hell (and I’m not talking about Dante’s Inferno) was a recent ride on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
I recently became a senior citizen, and BART offers a whopping 62.5% senior discount to its riders. But there’s another benefit, especially useful on a full train: priority seating. Signs near these seats state, “Please yield to people with disabilities, seniors and pregnant women.” I usually sit in a “regular” seat anyway. But one day as I boarded to head home from work, there were none available. So I sat in a priority seat.
I was on my laptop, not paying attention to the fact that, as usual, the car had filled to standing-room capacity. Then I heard someone ask, “Can I sit here?” I looked up, and a young woman was standing over me, awaiting my reply. She was pregnant.
So I gave up my seat. And I stood, the whole way home – a senior entitled to a priority seat with nowhere to sit, crammed tightly together with the other standing passengers. I thought, This is hell.
No, that’s not hell
But really? I don’t have a disability and I’m fully capable of standing for the 50-minute commute. What was the great inconvenience? That I couldn’t watch Netflix on my laptop? I am as guilty as the next guy in labeling things “hell” too glibly.
By contrast, there are some truly horrendous experiences that you or those close to you may have had to endure, for which hell may be an apt metaphor.
Suffering is a major part of our history as Jewish people. Whether it was serving Pharaoh in Egypt, being led into captivity in Babylon or suffering persecution in the shtetl, no one would dispute that our people have suffered more than our fair share of hell here on earth.
The “hell” front and center in the minds of most Jewish people is, of course, the Holocaust.
Hell and the Holocaust
If my mother’s mother, my grandma Bessie, hadn’t come to America from Vilna, Lithuania, as a child, I wouldn’t exist. My great-grandfather brought my grandma and her brother to the United States in the early 1900s. He had hoped that my great-grandmother and their other children would eventually join him. But my great-grandmother thought she would lose her religion if she moved here. So my great-grandfather returned to Vilna. Grandma Bessie went on to marry and have eleven children. Her mother and father died natural deaths several years later. But the rest of her family back in Vilna? All except one, who immigrated to Israel after the first World War, were killed by the Nazis.
The Holocaust was the epitome of hell on earth. Many have spelled out the atrocities; I won’t rehearse them here. I will say that years ago, when I was already in my early forties, I thought I knew pretty much all I needed to about the Holocaust. Then, during a business trip, I took time out to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. I was never so glad to walk out into the sunlight as I was after viewing some of the hell I had not been aware of until that day. And I’m sure it was far worse than what I saw or can imagine.
It is only natural for us to think of the earthly “hells” our people have endured. We are less conversant, however, with the hell spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures. Like our earthly “hells,” it is an experience, but it is also a place. The experience is eternal separation from God. The place is referred to by various Hebrew words; one is Abaddon. Job, a man whose name is synonymous with suffering, says, “For that would be a fire that consumes as far as Abaddon” (Job 31:12).
Who was that man?
The Hebrew Scriptures also speak of a man who would endure an earthly hell. King David wrote of him, with the sufferer speaking in the first person:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
(Psalm 22: 14–18)
Did someone come to mind when you read that passage? If so, you might be amazed to learn that King David wrote that psalm around 700 B.C.
The New Testament says that Yeshua (Jesus) came so he could identify with us in our own experiences of hell on earth, both great and small, and then pay the price – sacrificial death – to spare us from the ultimate suffering: eternal separation from God in the very real place the Bible (both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament) calls hell.
Real hell and how to avoid it
No matter what we experience here on earth, it isn’t hell. Hell is total separation from God for all eternity. Jesus made it clear that this outcome is far worse than anything we might experience here: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
As casual as we are at times tossing around the term “hell,” God created it for final judgment and justice. He can destroy both soul and body there. But if we turn to Yeshua for forgiveness of our sins, then we are spared the judgment he has already taken upon himself.
Right now, on a hot day, I am riding home on BART again. Apparently, the air conditioning is out in one of the cars, because I hear the train operator announce, “For the person calling about the hot car, you have to move to a different car. I can’t control the air.”
Which car are you riding in to your final destination? It’s never too late to move to the cooler car – from condemnation to salvation in Yeshua.