October 20, 2019 A Religious and Political Commentary

Gehenna

Jesus was a master teacher, often using stories, illustrations, and object lessons to make his spiritual points. One of Jesus’ most memorable sayings, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” was spoken as he and his disciples were walking through a vineyard one evening on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus’ illustration was not only memorable, but a vivid way of describing a disciple’s connection to the Lord.

On another occasion, outside of Jerusalem, Jesus said: “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell… (Luke 12:5).” The word translated “hell” is actually “Gehenna.”

Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom, was a dale just outside the walls of the city with a terrible history. It had been a place in the Old Testament where children had been murdered and sacrificed to the pagan god Molech.  Later, in an effort to atone for and memorialize past sins, King Josiah converted it into the city garbage dump and sewer. The sin of that place would never be forgotten. Fires burned there continuously and acrid smoke and stench hung in the valley. It was a cursed place.

So Jesus used it to teach – as an illustration of hell: that place of cursing, outside the gates of heaven and God’s presence, where the fire is never quenched.  Jesus connected truth of the unknown to what was known and learned from history. It was a powerful lesson for Jesus’ hearers. They could almost see and smell hell.

Years ago my wife and I visited the Dachau concentration camp just outside of Munich. There is no adequate way for me to describe the horrors of that tour. We read every plaque and looked at every photograph in silence and in tears.

Upon leaving, there is a large monument with the famous quote by philosopher George Santayana:

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I’ve thought of that quote recently as I watch the frenzy unfolding around us – statues removed in the dead of the night, threats if they aren’t, memorials vandalized, schools having names changed, amusement park flags removed, even sportscasters finding themselves on the outs because of “unfortunate” names.

I won’t weigh in on whether Confederate memorials are a healthy thing for a community or not. Perhaps voters should dialogue and decide that together. Perhaps we should trust our history teachers to help us put them into perspective.

But I will weigh in on the importance of history.  The Germans used to call the Bible Heilsgeschichte – salvation history. What they meant was that the Bible is the story of God dealing with humans in time and space. The Old Testament happened in certain times and places with particular people.  Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus’ incarnation took place at a certain time and place.

Not all the history in the Bible is pleasant. Children were, in fact, murdered in the Valley of Hinnom. The Bible is replete with wars, violence, politics, and greed…because it is full of humans. Even the great heroes in the Bible are shown warts and all (with the exception of Jesus). None of this was whitewashed. It was accurately recorded for posterity. We read of their successes and failures, ostensibly to learn from both.

It is good to remember. The word “memorial” means just that: belonging to memory. God uses memorials all the time. He calls the Sabbath a memorial for humans to remember creation.  The rainbow is a memorial of God’s promise to Noah. God instructs Israel to erect a memorial after crossing the Jordan River so they would always remember. The great Jewish feasts and festivals are all memorials. For Christians, the cross is the most beautiful memorial of all. God wants us to remember…the good and the bad.

As an old man, Peter told the church: “So I will always remind you of these things…I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live…(2 Peter 1:12-13).” Some history must be remembered for its horror.  Some for its heroism. But we can’t erase history and we can’t forget, lest we repeat it. And we shouldn’t destroy memorials. ISIS does that.

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