A while back I pointed out one of the sayings of Jesus that seems to put him firmly in the hell-is-eternal-suffering camp, because he said it was better to go to heaven blind or maimed than to go to hell with a whole body. That’s an advantage that only makes sense if you stay in hell forever, because otherwise he’d be saying it’s better to be blind and maimed in heaven for all eternity than to be whole in heaven for all eternity after a relatively insignificant time in hell. Since the latter alternative is nonsense, it’s a lot more reasonable to count Jesus as someone who believed in eternal punishment.
Someone named brenda offers the following rebuttal:
“Obviously, that’s nonsense.”
Yes, it is nonsense. That is why only atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible literally. Atheists and snake handlers make a such loverly pair of clowns.
Oo, that one hurts, eh? It’s a good thing she never interprets the Bible literally, by believing, say, that Jesus is literally God Incarnate and literally rose from the dead. But what’s missing from this response? That’s right: she hasn’t told us what the correct/non-literal interpretation is supposed to be. And for good reason—the result is the same whether you take the story literally or not. Kinda takes the punch out, doesn’t it?
Of course, the first question we should ask is whether brenda is correct about the story not being intended literally. This looks to me less like a parable or metaphor and more like ordinary garden-variety hyperbole: Jesus is using an extreme example to illustrate his point, but there’s no indication he thought that heaven and hell were merely symbolic concepts rather than literal places. Nor does it make much sense to say that it would be better to go to heaven with a hand that was only figuratively cut off, as opposed to going to hell with a body that was, um, figuratively (and literally) whole. Either way you’d still be unmaimed, which kind of spoils the point of the story.
The point of Jesus story is that we ought to be willing to make sacrifices, even extreme and irrevocable sacrifices, in order to avoid going to hell. Granted, he probably didn’t intend for people to go around actually cutting off body parts (though there are a certain number of voluntary eunuchs on the list of saints, precisely because of this verse). That’s not the point. Jesus wants us to be willing to literally maim ourselves if that’s what it takes to get to heaven and avoid hell, because hell is forever. Yes, voluntary self-mutilation is extreme, but a whole body is of no use to you in hell, nor can we expect to experience the benefits of wholeness at some future point in heaven after having been sent to hell, at least in Jesus’ eschatology.
So either way, whether you take Jesus as advocating literal self-mutilation, or only some sort of metaphorical self-sacrifice, his point remains the same: hell is not a back door into heaven. It’s better to go to heaven via the only door there is, even at a substantial and permanent cost, than to go to hell with a complete set of body parts and then never be able to get to heaven. The whole story, whether taken literally or figuratively, makes no sense if hell is actually a good thing that purges us of our sins and then sends us on, perfected, to heaven.