“You travel over land and sea to win a single convert ..." (Matthew 23:15)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)

Why did Jesus say they 'travel over land and sea'?

Over the centuries, missionaries have traveled by boat and by land, and now by air to distant locations to convert those of other beliefs to their particular doctrine. By Jesus’ statement, we know this was also taking place during his time among the institutional temples.

Historically, Judaism was spread throughout the Middle Eastern region. After the Jerusalem temple was destroyed around 587 BCE, there was a rebuilding of Judaism in the region. This is often referred to as the Second Temple Period, and lasted between about 516 BCE to about 70 CE - after the Jerusalem temple was again destroyed, this time by the Romans.

During that Second Temple Period, Judaism expanded, partly through the missionary activities of temple priests and Pharisees.

During the life of Jesus, these missionary activities focused on the conversion of people into the temple organization and their acceptance of various rituals.

Jesus rejected this focus on rituals by the temple priests, just as Jesus' teacher, John the Baptist did. For example, we find these verses in Matthew:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Matthew 3:7-10)

What about later missionaries?

We can also draw lessons from Jesus' statement with regard to some of the missionary expeditions that have been done in Jesus' name over the centuries, also done "over land and sea."

If we consider these missionary efforts, we find that some incorporated violence and intimidation to convert natives in foreign lands. This was often followed by confiscating lands and commodities from native peoples. As a result, over the centuries, native cultures have been damaged or severely diminished.

For example, we find that in the 15th Century there were several edicts issued by the Roman Catholic Church that encouraged missionary expeditions that confiscated lands and enslaved natives. In 1452 Pope Nicholas V issued the Dum Diversas papal bull that allowed Portugal's mission led by King Afonso V to conquer lands and convert "pagans and any other unbelievers to perpetual slavery."

In 1455, the Romanus Pontifex papal bull authorized Afonso to expand this seizure of land, which encouraged the enslavement of West Africans.

European missions eventually used these kinds of authorizations to conquer lands in the Americas and the Pacific island nations, enslaving many of those peoples.

These activities also provided the foundation for the slave trade from Africa to the Americas and Europe. (Though in fairness, later papal bulls tried to discourage slavery.)

Some of these missionaries apparently did not accept or realize that many native peoples were already worshiping the Supreme Being in their own manner. For example, we find many North American Native tribes honored The Great Spirit.

While some may have sincerely desired to bring Jesus’ teachings to others, there were many others who simply utilized these missions to take advantage of foreign lands and their peoples.

Many of these 'missions' resulted in violence, and the slaughter of thousands of native peoples around the world over the centuries.

Were these 'missions' what Jesus wanted his followers to do? Certainly not. As we can see from Jesus' statement above, there is a wrong way to preach to others. This includes forceable conversion.

What did Jesus mean by 'a son of hell as you are'?

Jesus confirms that these 'missions' of the Pharisees and temple priests were degraded, and their converts were not benefited. This is confirmed by the Greek phrase υἱὸν γεέννης, which has been incorrectly translated to "son of hell."

The more appropriate translation for υἱὸν γεέννης would be a follower of those who will suffer.

The word υἱὸν has been incorrectly translated as son. While υἱὸν can mean 'son' in the context of a father and his physical son, this is not the correct context. This context indicates the translation, as confirmed by the Greek lexicon, υἱὸν should be "used to describe one who depends on another or is his follower." So a person who becomes converted by one of these hypocritical Pharisees becomes one of their followers.

The next word in the phrase is γεέννης. γεέννης has been translated to "hell," and this is not altogether wrong, but Jesus' concept of hell should be clarified.

The Greek word γεέννης, transliterated as 'geenna,' is an allegorical reference to a location south of Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom, called 'Gehenna.' Here there were ghastly sacrifices of children and animals to an idol called Moloch. The animals and children were thrown into the fire.

This place and its practice were abhorred by the local people, and they used a reference to this as a place of suffering, where people followed a demoniac god and suffered as a result. Therefore, this place (Gehenna) became referred to allegorically as a place of suffering. This has since been expanded to mean some kind of underworld.

Many people have been lulled into a concept prognosticated by sectarian teachers that hell is an underground world where a fiery devil named satan lives and tortures people who are chained up on cavern walls. This imaginative teaching has even been taken to the extent that the entrance to hell is through volcanoes.

This has been proven wrong by those who have explored volcanoes, and by those who have drilled many miles deep into the surface of the earth. There are no caverns where people are being chained to walls and tortured.

So where is hell then?

Depending upon our consciousness, hell can be right here. We can be living in hell right now. The question is to what extent we are suffering in hell. This physical dimension simultaneously supports relative degrees of hell, depending upon our past activities, and our consciousness.

Do we think that a person who is starving is not in hell? Is a woman who is repeatedly raped at gunpoint not in hell? How about a person in the grips of war? Are they not in hell? How about someone being tortured or murdered in a Holocaust? Are they not experiencing hell? Or how about someone in prison, subjected to being beaten or raped? Are these circumstances not hellish enough?

Hell is where fear reigns. Hell is that place where God is forgotten. Hell is that place where people fight over money. Hell is where people become angry and violent because they are afraid others may take what they have. 

This means that hell can reside among those who are violent towards others. Those who harm or abuse others are residing in hell, just as those they harm and abuse.

Hell is a consciousness, but it is also that place where the consciousness of fear, anger, violence and hatred plays out in physical reality.

Is this because of what we have done in a previous lifetime?

The question is whether our life in the physical world is the result of actions taken in a previous lifetime. Consider this question, asked of Jesus by his disciples:
"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:1)
Why did Jesus’ disciples (note multiple disciples) ask this question? This question was very logical because some people are born normal and others with deficiencies. Why is one person born blind they asked? Why is one person born in more fortunate circumstances than another person?

The question arose from an understanding of Jesus’ teachings. At one point Jesus said to someone:
Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)
In other words, they understood that there were consequences for sinning.

And in this case, Jesus' disciples assumed that before the man was born, he had the ability to sin, and this sin caused his current suffering.

In order to have the ability to sin, the man must have had a previous physical body. Why? Because as Jesus also taught that sinning was an activity executed through the flesh. In other words, the person must have had a prior physical body in order to have sinned before he was born.

Note also that Jesus did not ridicule or criticize this question. He accepted it. He did not say, “that cannot happen.” What he said was:
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of Him who sent me.” (John 9:2)
In other words, Jesus accepted that a person could suffer in his next life from sins of the past life. This means that we do have previous lifetimes.

This is also confirmed here in Matthew 23:15, as Jesus confirms that the Pharisees will suffer, and so will their converts. Jesus is not threatening a fictitious place called hell. He is simply telling them that they and their followers will suffer in the future for what they are doing now.

Does he mean they will suffer during this lifetime? That would be impractical since they were living within a system that continued to support their practices. Therefore, Jesus could only be referring to a future lifetime.

Why are there consequences to our actions?

Jesus is indicating from his teachings that there are consequences to certain actions. Especially bad consequences for harming or misleading others. Why are there consequences?

We can look around us each day and see how in the physical world there serves up a reaction for every action. All of us suffer our particular situations for the activities we did in the past. Consider a person sitting in jail. They are in that hellish situation because of their past activities. Or a person who has lung cancer after smoking for 40 years. Their smoking addiction caused their current suffering.

Or a person who is beaten up by another person after starting a fight.

All of these indicate that the physical world is a place of consequence. Everything we do has a consequence here: Good or bad.

Does this mean that God put us here to suffer? Actually, God set up the physical world as a place of learning. This is a rehabilitation center, where we have the opportunity to grow.

Why? Those of us in this physical world are here because we turned away from our relationship with the Supreme Being. We no longer wanted to be His loving servant. We wanted to enjoy separately from God - rather than love and serve God (our natural constitution).

So we were sent down to this physical world and given virtual temporary physical bodies in order to 1) exercise our right to try to enjoy independently from God and try to pretend to be God, and 2) to learn.

And since these bodies are temporary virtual shells, the miseries they suffer are also virtual. We might compare this with an icon in a video game. The icon may get shot, but we are still sitting there handling the video game controller.

This virtual world has a purpose, however. We have been sent here to take on these virtual physical bodies because God wants us to learn once again how to love. He wants us to return to Him and His loving kingdom because He knows only this will make us happy.

In order to return, however, we must have a change of consciousness. We must be willing to give up the idea that we are going to enjoy ourselves independently of God. We must give up the idea that we are superior to others and the world revolves around us. We must learn what it means to love and care for someone other than ourselves.

Isn't this what the physical world constantly teaches us? That loving and caring for others brings happiness, while self-love and selfish behavior brings us misery? Is this a coincidence? No. It is intentional. God programmed the physical universe to teach us about love.

The ultimate source of pleasure for us is to love and serve the Supreme Being because when we love and serve God, we become truly fulfilled. And when we love the Supreme Being we automatically love all of God's children. These are the real teachings of Jesus:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment.” And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)