The metaphor-dilemma of Hellfire

The dilemma: Hellfire is either a metaphor or not. If not, it seems like an arbitrary punishment and so something chosen from a list of possible options. God stoked the fire as opposed to doing something else. Ridding your idea of God as a torturing tyrant becomes very difficult. If not, it is taken as being a metaphor for some sort of spiritual pain, but this conjures up a sort of vagueness that seems contrary to the whole point of having the graphic metaphor in the first place.

Hypothesis: Hellfire has always been a metaphor: Gehenna is the intersection of the fire that the Moabites threw their sacrifices on and the fire that the Jews used to burn trash after they converted the place to a dump. Hellfire is a way of speaking of the liturgy of human garbage. This is in one sense spiritualized, but only in the way any liturgy is. The full horror of the liturgy culminates in a sensible pain for which all the ritual cutting, child burning, filth-wallowing and Aztec temple offering was only a shadow.

But why no ultimate vindication? Why doesn’t “love win in the end” by conquering all this? Because this is not what one does for garbage. It’s not an object of concern or even attention. It is out of sight and out of mind. The most one can think of it is by negation – in the end we are in the clean, well kept place.


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