To hell and back

Even before it was an Audie Murphy war movie or a Maven Morris country song, the phrase “to hell and back” had a certain meaning: “I’ve been to hell and back, and I survived, so don’t mess with me.”

Well, I’ve been to the gates of hell, not to mention the battlefield at end of the world, and I’ve lived to tell the story. My story is part travelogue, part history, part geography, and all gospel, though maybe not the distorted gospel that you may be used to hearing.

Before we go to hell, let’s go to the site of what some people think is the battle at the end of the world. It’s mentioned once by name in the book of Revelation (16:16). It’s Armageddon. In Hebrew, that’s Har-Megeddon. It means Mount of Megiddo.

Trouble is, there is no mount at Megiddo. There are several mountains visible in the distance, but the ancient city of Megiddo is on a large flat plain. The only mountain here is a tell, a pile of ruined cities 20 or more deep. Why would anyone think that a decisive battle would be fought here?

This is where geography comes in. Here’s a map of the ancient Near East showing the Fertile Crescent. This is where human civilization begins because here the conditions are right for large-scale agriculture.

The fertile crescent stretches from the Nile Valley in Egypt to the fertile lands around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. At both ends of the crescent, great kingdoms flourish – Egypt to the south and to the east Sumer and Babylon and Assyria and Persia.

As they grow larger and jostle with their neighbors, these kingdoms often clash. They have no common border, only some space in between that’s occupied by a small kingdom called Israel. When they come to Israel to fight each other, they follow a road along the Mediterranean Sea called the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea.

The road is guarded by the fortress city of Megiddo, shown here by a red dot. Given its location, Megiddo is of great strategic value to any superpower in the Mideast.

Thutmose III and The Battle of Megiddo – Battle of Megiddo Facts

It is said that more battles have been fought here than at any other place in the world – 34 battles, by one estimate. The earliest recorded major battle in history took place here. About 1,500 years before the time of Christ, Pharaoh Thutmose III of Egypt led 1,000 chariots and 10,000 foot soldiers to a decisive victory over a coalition of Canaanite armies.

That was just the beginning. Joshua attacked Megiddo during the Israelite conquest of the Holy Land. Israelite heroes Gideon and Barak and Deborah fought major battles here. Israelite kings Solomon and Ahab built up the city’s fortifications. Israelite kings Ahaziah and Josiah died in battles here. Napoleon fought here in 1799, and remarked that it was a splendid place for a battle. British Gen. Edmund Allenby defeated the Turks here in 1917. Israelis used it as a base during the war of 1948.

Twenty times the city was built, and 20 times it was destroyed and rebuilt, one city on top of another. One day people said, “Enough. It’s just not safe to live here.” By the time of Jesus, Megiddo was a ghost town. But it was a symbol of great battles – a symbol like the Alamo, like Waterloo, like the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy.

Today it’s a popular tourist destination. Here are a few photos from my trips there. The tell is an oval covering about 15 acres at the top. It rises 70 feet from ground level. The ruins of 20 cities are compacted into that 70 feet. You begin your ascent along an ancient stairway.

From the top you can see the vast plain of the Jezreel Valley and the mountains beyond. Jezreel means “God sows.” The Jezreel Valley is a vast and bountiful cropland. The road at the base of the photo here follows the route of the ancient Via Maris, the Way of the Sea.

You can see the ruins of the stables where a thousand or more horses could be kept, and some of their stone feeding boxes.

If you’re sure of foot and don’t mind enclosed spaces, you also take a stairway 120 feet down to a long horizontal tunnel leading to a spring. This secure water source is the reason Megiddo is where it is, and it was carefully protected from enemies who might try to block it during a siege.

Looking out over the Jezreel Valley where God sows, you can see why it was such a storied place, and perhaps understand why it’s favored as the site of a final epic battle in the book of Revelation.

Though the name is mentioned only once, the battle itself is mentioned several times in Revelation. That’s because Revelation is not, as is so often thought, a straightforward, continuous, narrative. It’s a narrative that circles back on itself several times to tell the same story over and over again from different viewpoints.

And the reference to a final battle is not necessarily to be taken literally. In fact, very little in Revelation should be taken at face value. It’s all symbolic. That’s what John of Patmos announces in the very first verse of his account. He says that God made everything known to him through symbols. God “signified” the message to him, the best translation says – that is, relayed it through signs and symbols.

If you read Revelation carefully, you’ll notice how carefully John says that what he sees in his visions are “like” this or that. Not that they are this or that, but that they are like them. They are symbols of reality, but not literally that reality.

Though Revelation mentions it by name in chapter 16, the battle at Armageddon isn’t narrated until chapter 19. The armies of evil line up against the armies of good led by Jesus on a white horse – but there is no battle. Jesus simply declares victory. There’s evidence of a great slaughter, but no battle. Jesus conquers by the sword of his mouth, the sword of his word.

Whatever it may mean for the future, this story has a personal meaning for all of us. Armageddon is symbolic of all battles between good and evil that we all fight every day. Armageddon isn’t just a battle at the end of time. It’s an everyday battle of everyday people. God wins when we recognize that Jesus is on our side, and any victory belongs to him.

Now it’s time for us to go to hell. I’ve been there, too. Well, to the outskirts of it, anyway – the gates of it, you might say.

The word “hell” does not appear in the Bible. It may appear in your Bible, and if it does, it’s because of a serious mistranslation. I don’t care how many sermons you’ve heard about hell from fire-breathing preachers, the word “hell” was invented long after the Bible was written.

Jesus never said a word about hell – not one word. What Jesus refers to several times is Gehenna. That’s a way of saying the Valley of Hinnom. It’s one of the many valleys in and around Jerusalem.

Here’s a photo of what it looks like today – a rather pleasant place, don’t you think? This is as close as I’ve gotten, and as close as most tourist guides will take you. But there’s a small part of the valley that has been cursed for thousands of years.

On a narrow ledge above a rock cliff is the Convent of Onuphrious. It was built in 1892 on the site of the Akeldama, the Field of Blood. It’s called that because it was purchased with the blood money paid to Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus.

Judas hanged himself here. Originally a field where potters dug for clay, it became the burial ground for those who had no one to bury them.

The place was cursed a long time before that. Down in the valley below was Topheth, where children were burned to death as a sacrifice to pagan deities.

How do you remember a thing like that without honoring the memory of it? It’s a question we ask ourselves today when we think about the horrors of slavery in this country and statues honoring those who fought to maintain slavery.

The great reformer King Josiah knew how to mark the memory of murderous idolatry. Before he got himself killed in a battle at Megiddo, Josiah turned this place into a garbage dump. This is, as Jesus later said, the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where “the worm never dies and the fire never goes out” (Matthew 8:12, Mark 9:48).

Got some refuse that you need to dispose of? Haul it to the ledge over the Valley of Hinnom. Over it goes! Got some sewage you don’t want to pour out in the street? Take it to Gehenna, and over it goes! Got a corpse you don’t want to bury? Off to Gehenna, and over it goes!

That’s probably what happened to the bodies of the two criminals who were executed with Jesus. It’s probably what would have happened to Jesus’ body as well, if Joseph of Arimathea hadn’t sought permission to bury it. This is also where the bodies of thousands of residents of Jerusalem were thrown after the Romans destroyed the city 40 years later.

Gehenna was a horrible place with a horrible reputation. I have some friends who were stationed in Japan while in the military. They say Tokyo once had – may still have, for all I know – a burning dump like Gehenna, and when the wind is in the wrong direction, life us, uh, hell.

The fire has gone out, but Gehenna is still a nasty place today – almost impossible to get to, guarded by a tall chain-link fence, and a depository for filth from the cliff above.

This is where you’re bound, Jesus says, if you call someone a fool. This is where you’re bound if you don’t rid yourself of a hand or a foot or an eye that causes you to sin. Don’t fear those who can merely kill your body, he says. Rather, fear God, who can toss your body and your spirit into fiery Gehenna. (Matthew 5.22, Mark 9:43-47, Matthew 10:28.)

Jesus often speaks in colorful, exaggerated metaphors, and sometimes it’s hard to know how literally to take him. One thing’s for sure. Whether it happens in this life or the next, you don’t want to go to Gehenna.

Sometime a few hundred years after Jesus, the idea of Gehenna got mixed up with pagan notions of Hades and Tartarus, and we wound up with the notion that when you die you either go to heaven or to a place of everlasting torment that’s called hell.

As I said, hell isn’t in the Bible. If you’ve ever heard a sermon about hell, probably very little of it came from the Bible. Probably most of it came from The Inferno. That’s a vivid and perverse 14th-century epic poem by Dante Alighieri. Many pastors preach Dante thinking it’s the Bible. It’s not. Many pastors use the notion of hell to scare people into faith. That’s theological and pastoral malpractice.

Like Armageddon, Gehenna is a metaphor for a spiritual reality. We condemn ourselves to Gehenna and live in outer darkness when we fail to love as we were made to love.

We could talk about that a lot more, and maybe will somebody, but now it’s time to bring to a close this travelogue that’s a lesson in history, geography and gospel.

Have you heard the gospel in it?

Don’t you know that the armies of good and evil march with you every day, and the place where you struggle is called Armageddon? Don’t you know that bad decisions can

And don’t you know that the key to victory is keeping your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1)?

Well, now you know. Don’t say you haven’t been told.

This message was delivered November 15, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas. After four months of in-person worship, the church now closes until at last the end of the year because of a surge in coronavirus infection in our area.

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