Three More Bible Words That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

The response to my first “Bible words” post was quite positive, and so I offer this exciting sequel. Here are more words that have taken on new layers of meaning throughout the centuries and which may carry some unhelpful and counterproductive assumptions for many American Christians. Or, as in the case of our first word, we might have simply lost our view to the origins of an over-familiar term.

1. Christ

What We Hear: This is an example of a word that has taken on such a heavy load of theological meaning that its original setting is easily overlooked or forgotten. There are actually two extremes when it comes to a modern understanding of “Christ.” For most Christians, Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the object of Christian belief and worship. For others less familiar with Christianity, it might as well be Jesus’ last name: Jesus Christ, son of Joseph and Mary Christ, the Christs. The former is Christian doctrine, the latter is a misunderstanding. But the native context of the term “Christ” is not the Greek-influenced world of early Christian interpretation, but the Jewish world in which Jesus himself lived, operated, and died. “Christ” may now mean much more than it did in its ancient Jewish setting, but it can never meaning anything less. If we proclaim that Jesus is “the Christ,” we should probably do our homework and understand the term as fully as we can. 

But Consider This: While there’s no doubt that Christians proclaim the Christ to be the Son of God, that is not what the term specifically means. The Greek christos is an analog to the Hebrew moshiach, “messiah,” and both literally mean “anointed one.” At its most basic level, this word is associated with a claim to the throne of Israel. You could replace instances of “Christ” in your New Testament with “king” and not be far off the mark (in fact, Wright’s Kingdom New Testament has actually done this in many places). When Christians identify Jesus as “Christ,” they are usually intending to make a claim about his divinity and cosmic supremacy, but they are also making an implicit claim about Jerusalem politics. Jesus was one among many would-be moshiachim, those who claimed to bear God’s anointing for the rescue and restoration of David’s throne. All of them promised eventual peace and prosperity, but usually at the price of great aggression and bloodshed. To call a crucified peacemaker “the Christ” is revolutionary to the point of absurdity, a challenge to our very notions of kingship and power. This is the true heart of Christian faith, but it is something of which we very easily lose sight.

2. Heaven

What We Hear: Heaven is a realm – for some another dimension, for others a physical place somewhere in our universe – where God lives and whereto humans may hope to be swept up or transported one day to live forever with Him. There is no pain or sadness in heaven, and its citizens are like angels, worshiping God for eternity. The closing chapters of Revelation (and thus of the Christian Bible) are understood by many to describe heaven in specific detail, from its cubic dimensions (oddly tiny at just 1400 miles wide) to its twelve gates, each made from a single giant pearl. Questions abound regarding the physical and social realities of the eternal heaven experience. Will we have solid bodies? Who will be there? Will we recognize our family and friends? Will we eat and drink? Will we still have free will? Won’t we get bored? On top of this has been layered a great deal of pop mythology: St. Peter as heaven’s bouncer, harps and clouds, and guardian angels watching over their earthly loved ones from above.

But Consider This: There are two primary senses to the word “heaven” in the Bible. Often it merely describes the element of our world that is not “earth,” namely the sky or “the heavens.” This is the literal meaning of the word. Sometimes, however, it carries a conceptual meaning that relates to God and a divine side or aspect of reality. Heaven is where God is, but it’s usually far more close and immanent than our historic traditions have imagined. Sometimes it’s a poetic way of talking about a God’s-eye perspective on human events, and elsewhere it’s an extraordinary spiritual reality that seeps into our mundane experience. Sometimes in the Bible the curtain is pulled back briefly and humans glimpse symbol-laden snapshots of heavenly machinations. A few times, human figures are said to be “taken up” into this reality, but notably absent from the Bible is a scene where a mass of people (or their “souls”) travel up to heaven. In fact, the biblical end-game is not a human exodus from earth to heaven, but a climactic marriage of both sides of reality. Those final chapters of Revelation are not about a lucky human remnant “going to heaven,” but a description of earth after heaven has pervaded and flooded into it. “New Jerusalem” is not a code word for heaven above, it’s a city here on earth. There are still “nations” and “kings” in the world after the New Jerusalem comes, suggesting that heaven does not represent an end to human activity on earth, but a new era of true peace and prosperity when God makes a permanent home inside the world He loves. Consider how this affects a Christian understanding of what is important and worth working for here and now.

3. Hell

What We Hear: Hell is a realm, in another dimension or possibly at the center of the earth, where unworthy, unredeemed, or unsaved humans will pay the ultimate price for their sins and errors. There are soft and hard versions of this doctrine, the softer version involving the fiery annihilation of sinners, the hardest form carrying the charming label of “eternal conscious torment.” Both claim to reflect the “justice” of God, with proponents of ECT going so far as to say that God will be eternally “glorified” by the screams and smoke rising from hell. Pop culture depictions of hell often portray the devil as its host and master, but disgraced megapreacher Mark Driscoll famously corrected this perception, insisting that Jesus himself will personally oversee hell’s torture stations. In many traditional conceptions, hell is the default destination for all human souls unless they make the appropriate religious arrangements.

But Consider This: A small but important technicality to get out of the way: the English word “hell” comes to us via Germanic mythology and refers to a distinctly European concept of a dark realm of the afterlife. Many diverse words and ideas are translated as “hell” in our English Bibles, and none of them genuinely lives up to that term. There is no particular conception of an afterlife in the Hebrew Scriptures, though the prophets and poets often speak of she’ol, the grave or the resting place of all the dead. The New Testament approximates this idea with the Greek term hades. Christians often point out that Jesus speaks of hell more than anyone else in the Bible, but it’s more appropriate to say that Jesus often speaks of judgment, and the illustration he prefers is that of Gehenna. Gehenna is a geographic location outside Jerusalem, the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, an infamous and cursed valley where ancient kings offered child sacrifices to pagan gods, and where the bodies of the dead were amassed after wars and invasions (see Jeremiah 7). Gehenna was a byword of temporal judgment, amplified by Jesus, where those who embraced violence and injustice would inevitably perish if they did not repent of their ways. Elsewhere in the New Testament, various other images of death and judgment are employed in poetic, apocalyptic, and parabolic settings: a “lake of fire”, the “abyss”, “outer darkness,” and Paul’s “second death”. Nowhere are humans said to be tortured for eternity, though the closing visions of Revelation depict the satanic “dragon” and its monstrous cronies being tormented forever. There are various “judgment day” scenarios imagined in the New Testament, but the basis of judgment is never religion or belief but character and charity.

Bonus Fact: The phrase “heaven and hell” never appears in the Bible. “Heaven and earth” is all over the place, but heaven and hell are not often held together in contrast or duality. So maybe we should stop doing that.