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May 2003

WHAT THE HELL ........... ?
by Paula Peterson

Some folks are offended by the word "hell" and will find ways to avoid using the word, leaving it for the realm of clergy - or for less inhibited folk who apply it to emphasize their displeasure or frustration. Even those who don't believe in hell will use the word to give stronger thrust to their vocabulary, while others consider the word "hell" to be blasphemous - heaven forbid!

Others may be instantly troubled, having a strong emotional reaction when first seeing the word "hell" in the subject line of this newsletter.

Does it invoke fear? Anger? Disbelief? Repugnance? A distasteful childhood memory? Is it something to be hidden away - not discussed at all - because it brings up too many confusing and uncomfortable thoughts?

Years ago when I visited the tiny Caribbean Island of Grand Cayman with a group of scuba divers, we traveled to the little town of Hell - an actual location with a postal address. We bought T-shirts that said, "I've been to Hell and back - and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt."

There are folks who say they do not believe in "hell" but secretly worry that it exists. After all, if there is a heaven - or a peaceful, beautiful place where people go when they die - shouldn't there also be it's opposite?

Where do our words, definitions and interpretations come from in the first place? How do they find their way into our language? How do they become intrinsically woven into our societies and have the power to greatly influence cultural values?

As a writer, I have had a long term fascination with words and their origins. Many of the most frequently used words of today are hundreds of years old and are no longer suitable for our current societies. Nevertheless, we continue to use them - even inventing modified meanings to make those same words more relevant to modern times. It often seems that the slow, gradual evolution of words is somehow intertwined with the pace of human evolution in regards to consciousness.

Some common words die a slow death. One example is "horsepower." Why do we still use the obsolete term "horsepower" to describe the energy produced by mechanical motors - like the automobile? Of course, the usage of the term comes from using horses for centuries as the main means of human transportation.

But why haven't we invented another term to describe modern day mechanics? Does this imply that our culture as a whole finds it difficult to let go of some ideas that may conjure up memories of a simpler time? Does holding on to antiquated definitions keep us from moving ahead too quickly?

How about the word "diet"? As soon as many of us see or hear the word "diet", we automatically think of losing weight. This is especially true here in America. We may also automatically - and unconsciously - experience an emotion or attitude in direct association with that word - such as discomfort, boredom, depression, depravation, dislike, obesity, failure, restriction - just to name a few.

Interestingly, the origin of the word "diet" comes from ancient Greek which means "manner of daily living" and its root derives from the Latin word "dieata." It's intriguing how similar this word is to the Latin word "dieta" from which springs the word "deity" - the meaning for "the nature of God," the "Supreme Being," "Divinity," and so forth.

Within the ancient roots of the word "diet" we find a kinship in how we are to live our lives and our relationship with God - or whatever that Higher Power is to each of us. It hints at a time in our ancient collective past when we were much more attuned and harmonious with the laws of a spiritual-nature.

In modern times, however, instead of our daily sustenance coming directly from a Higher Power, our daily sustenance -"diet" - has now come to mean "the food and drink regularly consumed," or "a program designed to initiate weight loss."

I could go on and on about this because it fascinates me to no end. But what does all this have to do with that word "hell"? Well, it's really quite interesting.

Personally, I don't believe in "hell" as a place where all the bad people go and as a place where Satan hangs out - although, I once believed in it many years ago while being a regular church goer. It terrified me as a child to think of such a place, as I beheld horrid images of Dante's Inferno. Such ideas stopped making sense to me as I grew older and began to ask a lot of questions that were never satisfactorily answered by organized religions.

But let's look at that word "hell" to see where it originally came from.

The Bible as we know it today was originally written in ancient Koine Greek. The word "hell" was the early English translation of the word "Gehenna," which is the Koine Greek translation of the ancient Hebrew word "gehinnom" - which literally means, "the valley of Hinnom."

Hinnom was a ravine outside the ancient city walls where early inhabitants of the land - later to be called Jerusalem - routinely offered human sacrifices. These gruesome practices made the ground ritually unclean for Jewish purposes.

As a consequence, Gehenna - the valley of Hinnon - literally became the city dump of ancient Jerusalem: a place where trash and refuse was burned. It was a smoldering wasteland that reeked of putrid decay and sulfuric fumes. A very unpleasant place - indeed!

When the New Testament was written - in Koine Greek - the image of this hellish place (city dump) was used to describe what it was like to cut oneself off from the goodness of God. It was only meant to be a metaphor - an analogy - to help people understand the difference between living a good life in honoring God or living a wasteful life that ignored God.

Eventually, the term "hell" evolved into an actual location where God-less people were forced to go as their punishment upon death; a place that was opposite of heaven. The horrible image of "hell" was used to frighten the masses into being obedient and compliant, to lure them away from pagan practices, and to convert them to organized religions.

When contemplating a benevolent, loving God or Supreme Being it makes sense, then, that there is no such place where one is punished so brutally for all of eternity.

Since most of the long-standing, organized religions have continually referred to humanity as "children of God," what loving parent would ever decree endless pain and suffering for their child?

However, the word "hell" continues to illicit a wide range of emotional reactions - as well as stimulate certain thoughts and images. It is a cultural stigma that may take a long while before it fades away and ceases to strongly influence our use of language and effect our perspective of life - and death.

In the mean time, whenever you - or another - uses the word "hell" with trepidation or as a way to heat up an argument, just remember: you're only referring to the city dump!

Have a great day !!

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