For anybody perusing this website that may be troubled by the nonsense they were taught as a child about there being an eternal hell of pain and suffering for non-believers - please know that it is a notion totally WITHOUT biblical support. True story - Hell, as Christianity commonly teaches, is simply NOT supported in the Bible. Read about it for yourself.
The author of this article, Jon Headley, quotes that 54%-85% of Americans believe in a physical Hell (I live in Australia where 'only' about 38% of people believe in Hell) - that must be a lot of troubled souls out there for Christians who can't believe what they are told they have to believe. I hope access to articles like these go some way to helping anybody out who may be troubled by this stuff - I once was, but I worked my way through it by learning about and understanding the errors in much Christian teaching on the matter.
I've included the link below and have reproduced the article just in case the link ever fails, but for reasons of brevity (it's a long article as it is) I have deleted a number of quirky cartoons and pictures that were included in the original article.
Hell, & How I Let It Go
The History, Evolution & Deconstruction of Eternal Damnation
By Jon Headley
Once upon a time, when I was just beginning my journey of being a human, a group of taller, older, suit-wearing humans told me that I should believe in God, or He would send me to Hell after I died.
Hell was a real, physical place; a place of incredible horror and pain, where the souls of sinners would be tortured for eternity. According to the tall humans, every person in the world deserved to be in Hell; it was only through the grace and love of God, and the sacrifice of Jesus, that we could avoid going there. Even though we were miserable sinners, if we just gave our lives to God, He would show His incredible love for us by not sending us to burn forever in eternal torment.
The humans who told me all of this seemed pretty smart, and they spoke in really confident voices; and all the other humans around me seemed to trust them, so I figured I should probably pay attention.
The more these tall humans told me about Hell, the more frightening it seemed. I wasn’t only scared for myself; I was scared for my friends at school. I had to warn them! So I told my best friends that they should seriously come to church with me, because otherwise they would burn in Hell forever. I prayed for them every day, and continually tried to invite them to church and tell them about how much God loved them.
If any of those friends happen to be reading this: I’m fucking sorry. I hope I didn’t pass on any nightmares to you. All I can say in my defence is this: the tall humans told me it was all real, and I didn’t want my friends to go to Hell.
A few years ago, I began to seriously reconsider my lifelong beliefs. It began with a series of questions and doubts, and ended with me leaving my old Christian faith behind. One of the first dominoes to fall was my belief in Hell; and I was surprised to realise just how foundational this belief was to my entire worldview.
The whole idea of Hell fascinates me. Where did it come from? Is there actually any proof that Hell exists? Did the people who wrote the Bible even believe in it? It’s pretty intriguing to me. Maybe I’m just a strange person.
Except that according to surveys, I’m not. One selection of opinion polls collected here shows that between 54% and 85% of Americans believe in a physical Hell. Obviously it depends on who you ask, but whichever way you twist it there are still many people in our modern world that still claim to believe in a literal place of fire and brimstone where bad people go when they die.
I’ve met many other ex-Christians who still struggle with a deep fear of Hell, and with the worry that perhaps the Devil has tricked them into letting go of their old faith. For some of us, it takes many years of hard work and therapy to fully get past that fear.
For me, it took a long, hard, rational look at the whole concept. That’s what this article is about: I’m going to look at the science, history and philosophy of Hell; talk about the ways in which it has been used; and explain how I was finally able to let it go.
The popular image of fiery lakes, creative torture, and a pitchfork-wielding Devil is probably the Hell that first comes to mind for most of us. It’s the version used in countless books and films and television shows; my favourite example being Futurama’s ‘Robot Hell’, where the Robot Devil and his servants perform extravagant musical numbers.
Actually, even in the church I grew up in, I was taught that this whole idea was kind of silly. Instead I was told that Hell was much more like the next picture:
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Yep, don’t worry kids! Hell isn’t that silly cartoonish place you see in the movies; that’s just ridiculous. Actually it’s going to be eternal darkness and isolation, where all you can hear are the far-off screams of other tortured souls, and you never again get to experience real contact with another person. Don’t worry though: there’s still fire. It’s just going to be invisible fire, and way more painful than the ordinary variety. And don’t forget, this will last FOREVER!
Pretty terrifying stuff. Possibly even worse than the first version.
But also quite interesting! We’ve barely started and we’ve already seen at least two different versions of Hell. This makes me wonder: how many more may be out there?
Actually, I already know the answer: loads. In fact, Hell is not even originally a Christian idea; it’s been around for way longer than that. It’s a concept that is shared by many religions, both modern and ancient. Let’s take a look at a few early examples:
#1 — Ancient Persian Hell: The Chinvat Bridge & The House of Lies
In the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, after you die you must traverse a narrow bridge that crosses over the ‘House of Lies’.
At the far end of the bridge stands a woman. If you have lived a righteous life, the woman appears beautiful; if you have lived an immoral life, she appears to you as an ugly old hag. If you’re unfortunate enough to see the hag, the bridge will tip sideways and send you tumbling down into your punishment.
The House of Lies is one of the most gross versions of Hell I came across, as people are forced to eat corpses and various bodily fluids. They must also suffer the intense loneliness that I described in my Christian ‘pitch black Hell’ earlier. The good news is that the torment doesn’t last forever; eventually the damned are set free to be reunited with the friends who crossed the bridge safely (which I imagine would be fairly awkward for everyone involved).
#2 — Babylonian Hell: Irkalla
In ancient Babylonian mythology, Irkalla was the place all people went after they died, regardless of how they had lived. It was a pretty hopeless idea of the afterlife, and was similar in some ways to the Jewish concept of ‘Sheol’ (more on that later).
To get to Irkalla, you first have to pass through seven gates, paying a toll to seven gatekeepers, usually with a piece of your clothing. I guess it’s like strip poker without the cards, and you always lose.
When you finally arrive in Irkalla, naked and probably quite tired, you just kind of hang around, decompose and eat dust for a while. It’s a bit lacking in imagination to be honest, so let’s move on quickly to something a bit more Nordic.
#3 — Viking Hell: Helheim
The first key point here is that ‘Helheim has objectively the coolest name out of all the Hells I researched.
The second key point is that being a good or bad person didn’t really matter much to the Vikings. Instead, their version of Hell was reserved for anybody who didn’t die a glorious death in battle. So, if you were boring enough to die of old age or bog-standard sickness, it was down to Helheim for you.
The biggest difference between Helheim and most other Hells is that it’s freezing cold instead of burning hot. Also it’s guarded by an impassable river and a monstrous hound called Garm; which makes me wonder, if the river is already impassable, is the hell-dog really necessary? Oh, those good old Vikings! You can always rely on them to go over the top.
#4 — The Aztecs: The Road to Mictlan
For the Aztecs, Mictlan was the place where most people went after death, and it was morally-neutral and not particularly nice. But the journey to get there was a Hell in itself: a four-year long treacherous trek over raging rivers of blood, through massive deserts, and between cliffs that grind together. There were also freezing knife-storms, jaguars, and a yellow dog who helps you on the way (I’m not really clear on how the dog helps, or why he’s yellow).
In other words, it sounds like an awesome idea for a video game, and is therefore my ‘Favourite Hell Ever’.
These few examples show us two key points: firstly, that the concept of the afterlife changes dramatically from culture to culture. Ideas that seem terrifying and nightmare-inducing to one group of people may sound comical and ridiculous to another. There may have been generations of Viking children who grew up with an unhealthy fear of Garm; they would probably react with indifference and laughter at our modern Christian concept of Hell.
Secondly, the general concept of an eternal place of punishment after death is a fairly common theme that’s been present in some form for thousands of years. It’s certainly not unique to Christianity, and actually pre-dates it by a long shot. These common ideas of afterlife judgement and punishment seem to have influenced and become tangled up with the Christian religion. What I want to do next is attempt to untangle the mess and see what we’re left with.
We’re going to start with some word study. Let me hear you say YEEAAAHHH!
The Evolution of Hell
Every time you happen to be reading a Bible, and you come across the word ‘Hell’, I want you to immediately clear your mind of the fiery scary devil-Hell concept you’re probably used to. That’s because there are actually four different words in the original languages of the Bible that were later translated into the single English word ‘Hell’. ‘Hell’ as we think of it today simply wasn’t a popular concept when the Bible was written.
Let’s take a closer look at those four original words.
#1 — Sheol (Ancient Hebrew)
Any time you read the word ‘Hell’ in the Old Testament, ’Sheol’ is the original word. Sheol is an ancient Jewish concept, and described the place where they believed all people went after death. It didn’t matter if you were Hitler or Mother Theresa (the classic examples of good and bad people), you would end up in Sheol.
In some circumstances the dead in Sheol could be contacted by the living; there’s an Old Testament story where a witch brings back a dead prophet called Samuel so that the King can ask him for advice. (This story always confused me as a kid, because it seemed to go against what I had heard in church about Heaven and Hell, and even against other things I read in the Bible. Now I see it as another example of the way that cultures and belief systems shift and evolve over time, even within the pages of the Bible; which actually makes the Bible seem more interesting to me.)
Later in Jewish history (in the period between 500BC — 70AD) new ideas about the afterlife were developed, but at the point of the Old Testament writings, the idea was a single place for all the dead (who were known as ‘shades’, which is a pretty cool name). Hell as we think of it today did not exist in the writing of the Old Testament. This was a big revelation for me, and the complete opposite of what I’d always been taught in church.
To get a better idea of the concept of Sheol, you can compare it to the second word, which described a very similar idea:
#2 — Hades (Ancient Greek)
This was the Greek name for both the underworld where every person went after death, and the God who ruled over it. The word ‘Hades’ is translated as ‘Hell’ ten times in the New Testament.
Hades and Sheol are actually very close concepts, from two different cultures and languages. Again, in Hades there was no divide based on a person’s morality; it was simply the one place that everybody went after death.
#3 — Tartarus (Ancient Greek)
This word only appears once in the Bible, but it’s also interesting because it’s an example of a Biblical writer directly referring to Greek mythology. In the ancient stories, Tartarus was the deepest dungeon of Hades, used as a prison for the Titans and a place where the wicked were tortured.
So why is it so cool that Tartarus is in the Bible?
Because it’s a direct example of the cross-pollination of ideas between cultures. If you have a Bible nearby (check the top desk drawer if you’re currently in a hotel), you can see it for yourself in 2 Peter chapter 2, verse 4 (although it will likely be translated as ‘Hell’ or the ‘lower hell’… those damn cheeky translators).
If you’re not in a hotel room right now, here’s the verse with the original word still in there (from the Weymouth New Testament):
This is a reference to another ancient piece of Hebrew writing, 1 Enoch, in which God is said to be the god of Tartarus, where he imprisons rebellious angels. This isn’t the kind of thing you hear many sermons about on a Sunday morning, but it’s right here in the New Testament: an author writing a letter to Christians, referencing an ancient Hebrew story that itself referenced a legend from Greek mythology. This is what happens when different cultures and people groups interact with each other: ideas are adopted, changed and placed in a new context.
While we’re on Greek mythology, it’s interesting to note that it was Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher and one of the most influential thinkers behind all Western culture, who introduced in 380BC the idea that moral people were rewarded after death, while immoral people were punished and tormented (see the ‘Myth of Er’ that concludes his Republic for more on this.) That single idea has influenced beliefs throughout the entire world, including Christianity, for centuries.
#4 — Gehenna (Ancient Greek)
‘Gehenna’ is the word most often translated as Hell in the New Testament (although it still only appears 12 times), and it also seems to cause the most disagreement, so we’ll need to go a bit more in-depth here.
Gehenna is real. I mean that it was the name of an actual, physical place outside of Jerusalem. ‘Gehenna’ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word ‘Ge Hinnom’, which literally means ‘Valley of Hinnom’.
Want to see what Gehenna looks like today?
Pretty nice! So if you’re travelling in Jerusalem and somebody tells you to ‘go to hell’, they probably just mean ‘have a nice day at the park’.
But what did the place look like back then? Well, Gehenna had kind of a dodgy history. And by dodgy, I mean ‘burning children alive as sacrifices to an evil god’. Pretty dark. Specifically it had a reputation as a place of child sacrifice to the god Molech.
There’s another theory that Gehenna was used as a kind of rubbish dump where all the trash of the city was burned, in a constantly blazing fire that was later used for cremation; but as interesting as this idea is, I couldn’t find much evidence to support it.
Either way, the point is that Gehenna would have been completely known and familiar to everyone who heard about it back then. It probably had dark and unpleasant connections in their minds, but it was still a real place that everyone was aware of. Later, a mystical tradition of Gehenna began to develop in Judaism, and it became a way of talking about a kind of purgatory, or after-life waiting room, where you are intensely aware of all the bad stuff you’ve done in your life. In this tradition, the longest a person can remain in Gehenna is 12 months, which is not even close to eternity.
So, while this word seems to be a possible starting point for the later development of Hell, it’s still a long way from the fires and eternal punishment and demons and massive red goat-man we have today.
Let’s sum up what we’ve learned so far. The Bible, which we might imagine to be full of warnings about Hell and damnation, really doesn’t talk about it much at all; and never in the sense that we think about it today. The Old Testament never mentions it, and the New Testament mixes Greek mythology with some dark imagery about a site of child-sacrifice (and even then, it’s barely mentioned).
There is one other part of the Bible that has been especially influential in the development of the Hell idea. It’s the trippiest, weirdest, most open-to-interpretation Biblical book that exists, which may be why it’s saved for right at the end of the Bible: the book of Revelation.
This would be an awesome piece of work to do a full article on, because it’s batshit crazy. It’s also one of the most widely debated and discussed portions of the Bible, and has inspired everything from beautiful paintings to the evangelical ‘Left Behind’ novels to heavy metal album covers.
Funnily enough, the book of Revelation wasn’t even included in the Bible until 419AD. It was the last book to make the cut, and even then not everybody accepted it as canon. Some churches still reject it today, and doubts have consistently resurfaced throughout history over whether it actually deserves to be part of the official Bible.
Why all the debate and doubt, you ask? Well, maybe this simple picture illustrating some of the stories of Revelation will answer that question.
Yep, this is the book written by a guy on an island who had an epic vision one day, where he saw many strange and wonderful things that include the following (see how many you can spot in my incredible work of art above): the four horsemen of the apocalypse; a mountain falling into the sea; angels blowing horns; all the souls of the dead kept under a chair; a leopard with seven heads; a pregnant woman being chased by a dragon; and most importantly for our current discussion, a lake of fire.
Here’s the part of his vision concerning that lake of fire:
Okay, now this sounds more familiar. The lake of fire is probably the most Hell-like imagery you can find in the Bible, along with the devil getting thrown in, and all the dead getting judged and chucked in there too. Maybe here we finally have some definitive evidence for the belief in Hell being a part of the Bible.
On closer inspection though, it seems to me that people have blown this out of proportion a little.
Firstly, as we’ve already said, this book wasn’t even in the Bible until 400 years after Jesus lived, and there has never been full agreement on its inclusion in the canon. It often reads like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist or apocalyptic cult leader, with lots of numbers and codes and vague language, like this: “The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.”
Secondly though, even if you do accept it as an important book, and even if the vision was real and accurately recorded, it’s still packed to the brim with metaphor and imagery and context, and is in no way a literal picture of what is going to physically happen at the end of the world. For fucks sake, there’s a dragon chasing a pregnant woman around, and a seven-headed leopard!
There are endless ways of interpreting the book of Revelation, developed in different historical contexts over almost two millennia. But to say that the dragons and chimeras are simply metaphorical imagery, while this single verse about a fiery lake is completely literal, and then to build the entire concept of a real, eternal Hell on top of it seems ridiculous to me.
Based on the amount of solid information I learned about Hell as a kid, through Christian preachers, books and media, I would have expected a lot more source material to draw from in the Bible. If you ask anybody to name things that a Christian believes in, the existence of Hell would surely be high on the list; and yet it’s basically nonexistent in the foundational scriptures of Christian belief.
In order to figure out where we really got this Hell idea from, we need to leave the Bible behind for a while, and look at what happened next.
The Apocalypse of Peter
The Apocalypse of Peter is an early piece of Christian writing from the 2nd century, and an important step in the evolution of Hell during the centuries after Jesus; oh, and it’s completely bonkers.
It describes Heaven and Hell as real places where people are sent after death, and unlike the actual Bible you can clearly see how the ideas within it have become part of our cultural understanding of Hell.
Heaven was super-white (in every sense of the word) and covered in flowers, and all the people spent their time singing choral prayers together. Hell, on the other hand, was super-dark and featured a variety of creative punishments for the damned. This has become a key part of our Hell-concept ever since, as seen in many examples of modern entertainment:
These punishments were unfortunately a lot darker than being fed an unlimited supply of donuts. In the Apocalypse of St Peter, you can read about the following:
Blasphemers are hung by the tongue.
Money-lenders are made to stand knee-deep in a lake of blood and shit.
Lesbians are forced to climb to the top of a cliff, where they are violently thrown from the top, and have to endlessly repeat the cycle of climbing and falling.
The worst punishment by far, and this is genuinely upsetting now, is for women who have had abortions. They are made to stand up to their neck in a lake of blood and gore collected from all the other punishments, while the spirits of their unborn children torment them.
I hate to even write that last part down, but it’s important to see how messed up this stuff gets. The crazy thing is, some people thought that this book should be part of the Bible. Imagine if Christians were reading this and hearing it preached from the pulpit every week. How freaking scary would that be? People are serious enough about Hell already. Luckily that never happened, and the book was even banned from being read in certain churches.
But the damage was done. It wasn’t the only Apocalypse going around, and it wasn’t completely original, but it is a perfect example of the kinds of writings that began to develop the idea of Hell within the Christian religion.
These weren’t all original ideas. Many of the ideas in The Apocalypse of Peter were taken from pagan sources, and came from Homer, Plato, Virgil, and other traditions. We can see Hell becoming a hodgepodge of traditions and horror stories taken from various cultures and times.
There’s an important question to ask here: why was the story of Hell developing in the first place? What could possibly be the use of spreading an increasingly terrifying idea about a place of eternal torment for everybody who doesn’t behave in the right way? I’m sure you can guess the answer.
The Fear Motivator
At this point in the story I’m going to bring in some guest speakers from the past to explain why the idea of Hell is quite useful. Some of these quotes (and they are all real quotes) are going to get a bit dark, and so for that reason I’m going to insert some cute kitten pictures to lighten the mood.
First off, here’s Polybius, an ancient historian, talking about the idea of eternal torment (this was long before the Christian idea of Hell ever evolved):
I mean, you can’t get much clearer than that can you?
And here’s the famous Greek geographer Strabo, again talking about an early idea of eternal punishment:
Here’s the philosopher and historian Seneca:
According to these great thinkers of the past, the idea of eternal punishment has been used for thousands of years to keep people restrained and law-abiding and under control. It’s interesting that all these quotes date from before Christianity started developing a belief in Hell, yet they could all be talking about the exact same concept: punishment inflicted upon offenders; the ‘infernal regions’; ‘terrors’; ‘the darkness’; ‘the prison’; the ‘river of flaming fire’; the ‘judgement seat’. All of these are images that we associate with the Christian version of Hell today.
So, the Christians got on board with Hell and developed it over the next couple of thousand years. It was a fantastic motivator for people to believe in Jesus and to follow the Church and its teachings. And boy, did they let their imaginations run wild.
Some of the biggest influences on the popular concept of Hell were famous works of fiction, such as the great poet Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ and ‘Inferno’, and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. All of these works brought incredible imagination, ideas and imagery to the concept of life after death, introducing purgatories and circles of hell and the most awful kinds of punishment imaginable.
And the church used all of it to make Hell seem even scarier and more threatening to the masses. The following quotes are from famous church leaders during the past few hundred years, and as the darkness is going to increase, I will also increase the cute-cat level to maximum power.
Here comes the German theologian Johann Gerhard to start us off:
What kind of brain-washing would it take for a person to see their own dear mum burning in Hell and just shrug their shoulders and go ‘meh’?
But more than just a lack of feeling, the famous Thomas Aquinas took it one step further:
So, for Aquinas (a very influential thinker in Christianity), the good people in Heaven will have a constant view of Hell, and will actually enjoy themselves more because of it. That’s like going on holiday, and being excited to discover that your section of the beach is next to a huge open building site; except it’s a billion times worse, because all the builders are getting crushed and having their arms chopped off by monsters with chainsaws and stuff like that. How would that possibly make for a more fun time?
Next up, here’s a lovely bit of prose from the 17th century author and cleric Jeremy Taylor:
Or this seriously disturbing quote from a clearly unstable person (read this in your best Gollum voice):
Nope, there are not enough kittens in the world to lighten this up. At this point I’m getting really frustrated, because that quote is from a freaking children’s book! ‘The Sight of Hell’ was written by Reverend J Furniss C.S.S.R, and was described by one complete idiot of a vicar as containing ‘a great deal to charm, instruct and edify our youthful classes, for whose benefit it has been written’.
The book is awful. I know because I read it during my research. It’s full of imaginative visions of nightmarish punishment and torment and horror, all for the ‘benefit’ of children. How many people were completely messed up by reading this book during their most vulnerable and crucial years of development? It just melts my brain.
I’m not trying to paint all religious people with the same brush, and I’m sure that even most Hell-believing Christians would agree that this kids book was a bad idea. But the point of all these quotes is clear: the western world, led by Christianity, really ran away with itself on the whole Hell thing.
The final step was to bring all of these new ideas about Hell that had developed over the centuries, and retroactively tie them into the original Scriptures.
You’ve probably heard of the King James Bible; it was the third ever English translation of the Bible, and is still held up as a beautiful and incredible accomplishment of English literature. No argument there. It’s still massively popular, and according to this study is read by 55% of American Bible-readers, even 400 years after it was completed.
There is one slightly cheeky thing that the translators did though. Remember those four words we talked about earlier: Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna?
Well, when the translators came to those words, they decided that nuance wasn’t really important when it came to the eternal afterlife, and they translated every one of them as Hell.
Yep, every single one. You won’t find any of the references to Greek mythology, ancient Jewish mystical ideas of the grave, or the child-sacrifice valley. Instead, you find the simple word ‘Hell’. And for millions of people reading their Bible today, suddenly the idea of Hell seems a lot more concrete and obvious. I mean, it’s right there in the Bible! The mythology of Hell, developed over the last 1600 years, was now tangled up even tighter with the Christian faith, and became stronger than ever.
It’s as if Hell was a kind of Biblical fan-fiction, developed by imaginative authors and then placed back into the Bible to give their fiction some kind of legitimacy.
This was a key moment, and explains why the existence of Hell is still such a widely held belief. To be fair, some modern translations are now eliminating ‘Hell’ from the Bible, and returning to the original words; but many people are completely unaware of the history of the concept. I mean, I was a committed Christian for 25 years, deeply interested and invested in my faith, and I had never heard about any of this. I had to go out and find it myself.
Before we reach the conclusion of this already-long article, I think it’s important to take a look at the scientific evidence for the existence of Hell. I’m a big fan of the scientific method, and I think it’s always important to listen to what it has to say about our most closely held beliefs.
So, let’s get into it!
All The Scientific Evidence For The Existence Of Hell
Okay, let’s start bringing this investigation tanker into port. What have we learned?
The concept of Hell as most people think of it today is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, pieced together from a variety of myths and traditions going back thousands of years. The concept really got going in the last couple of millennia when it had the backing of the Church, and it has been used to terrify children and to keep adults under control ever since. There is no evidence whatsoever for its existence.
For many people, this is enough to dismiss the entire idea and get on with life. For others of us though, the indoctrination goes deeper than that. There still remains a nagging doubt about the whole thing: what if I’m wrong? What if the Devil is playing a huge trick on me? What if I’ve gone down a terrible path?
For me to fully let go of Hell, I had to begin by looking at the logic of it within my own religious context.
Most religions that have some kind of Hell-concept basically say that you must do a specific thing in order to avoid eternal torment. That particular thing varies from culture to culture; for the Vikings, the aim was to die bravely in battle. For many religions, it’s all about adherence to a moral code (which also changes between cultures and over time). For some, it’s fighting or killing non-believers to gain a place in Heaven. In modern Christianity there are so many differing opinions on what it takes to be saved from Hell: some say it’s through doing good works, others say it’s simply through believing in Jesus, others that it’s a subtle mix of the two. My own tradition believed that it was only by believing in Jesus that a person could avoid going to Hell.
Now, let me introduce you to Old Me. This version of me is about twelve years younger than Present-Day Me, has way shorter hair, baggier jeans and loves some good old-fashioned Christian rock music. Old Me would like to jump in at this point and say:
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This was how we made Hell seem more palatable: it was so easy to avoid! We were different to the other religions, because you didn’t even have to do anything; just accept Jesus and believe that He has saved you. The present-day me would have a problem with this:
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At which point, Old Me would probably notice Present-Day Me’s long hair and skinny jeans…
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My point here is that whether it’s ‘following-a-moral-code’ or ‘believing-in-Jesus’, there’s still ultimately some kind of criteria that people must meet in order to avoid horrible punishment, inflicted on us intentionally by a supposedly loving God. This didn’t seem to be the dramatic Good News that we all thought it was; rather, it had become just another way to create an ‘in’-group and an ‘out’-group, a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
This way of thinking brought up a lot of questions for me: like, what about people who literally never hear anyone mention Jesus? What about a devout Muslim or Buddhist or Atheist who lives with integrity and passion for what she believes to be true? What about people whose experience of Jesus and Christianity is a very negative one? To many people, not believing in Jesus is honestly the best moral choice. But according to what I was taught, they will still be sent to Hell automatically, simply because they didn’t pick the right option.
This reminds me of the famous ‘Pascal’s Wager’ argument. Pascal, a 17th century mathematician and theologian, argued that it was better to simply believe in God, just in case Heaven and Hell turned out to be real. If you believed in God and were wrong, you wouldn’t really lose anything; but if you didn’t believe and were wrong, you’d pay the ultimate price by burning in Hell forever.
This is an unbelievably gross and flawed argument. Firstly, Pascal assumes the possible existence of only one God. But what about all the other thousands of religions that have existed? For all he knows, the Vikings may have been correct, and all the modern religions of the world will find themselves trapped in Helheim for eternity. For his argument to work, you would have to devote your life to worshipping every single one of the judgmental Gods, all the while hoping that none of them noticed you praying to someone else behind their back.
Secondly though, and more fundamentally, the idea that a good God would prefer someone to believe in Him out of fear, in order to avoid eternal punishment, than to question things and have integrity in their personal beliefs, is ridiculous and disgusting to me. It’s the most pointless, horrible way to view God that I can imagine, and it does not match up with the Christian message of a God of love and compassion.
I’ve heard countless sermon’s trying to explain God’s ability to send people to Hell by pointing to His holiness. The idea is that God is so perfectly good that He literally can’t stand the presence of even the tiniest amount of evil: it would be simply impossible for Him. But how could we ever say that that kind of God is good? What about the values of kindness, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and understanding? Aren’t they good in themselves? And is the only other option for a holy God to punish people with horrendous suffering and pain for the whole of eternity?
The idea that a loving God would send any human being to suffer and burn in Hell forever is one of the vilest ideas that religion ever came up with. The idea that He would do that simply because the person didn’t believe in Him is even worse. I mean, I wouldn’t wish that kind of eternal punishment on anyone.
Back in the middle of my Christian days, I tried to ignore these questions and think about something else. I wasn’t unaware of these questions, and I wasn’t fully comfortable with the Hell concept; but somehow I managed to avoid thinking about it for a really long time.
When I finally let go, I found an unexpected side-effect: I was able to be far more open-minded about other people’s beliefs. The whole reason for most of our Christianity was to convert more people to our way of thinking, because the stakes were so high! Eternity was in the balance. There wasn’t time or space for doubt, or questioning, or learning from other perspectives; we had to work hard and save people! Without that pressure, suddenly my entire faith was placed in a different context.
I didn’t need to be afraid of other perspectives. I didn’t need to guard myself against doubt, or hold on to certainty. I could learn from others, and offer something to the world today, without also needing to push my beliefs onto other people. I could simply let go.
Eventually, my path led away from Christianity altogether; and that’s completely fine. For the first time, I felt free to really question my entire worldview, to read and listen and learn widely, and to figure out what I really believed, in the deepest part of myself. I was able to embrace my own uncertainty and lack of knowledge, and enjoy not feeling like I was responsible for saving the entire world. We weren’t supposed to be the single answer to all the world’s problems: we were full of shit like everybody else, figuring things out, doing some good and making many mistakes along the way.
It turned out that Hell was way more of a foundational ingredient to my entire worldview than I had ever been aware of. It provided the reason, the urgency, and the need for certainty. When I took that belief away, everything else unlocked.
That’s not to say that there isn’t anything useful or powerful in the idea of Hell. It’s pretty clear to me that we can create our own ‘hell’ here on Earth, whether in our own personal lives or in the cultural realities of hunger, genocide, poverty and war.
I’m going to finish this article with a concept of Hell that I actually like. It comes from a story by an old Jewish Rabbi called Haim.
‘The Allegory of the Long Spoons’
…and it goes a little something like this:
A man is taken on a tour of Hell. When he arrives, he sees a huge feast taking place, a table piled high with the most delicious kinds of food imaginable, and all the inhabitants of Hell are sat around ready to eat. But instead of normal cutlery, they are all given spoons with incredibly long handles, and so whenever they try to feed themselves they are unable to bring the food to their mouths. Nobody can eat the mouth-watering food, and so instead they are forced to sit in starving torment.
Next, the man is taken to Heaven. To his great surprise, he sees the exact same scenario as he saw in Hell: a huge feast is taking place, with all of the same delicious foods piled high on the table, and all the inhabitants of Heaven sitting there with the same super-long spoons.
But there was one crucial difference: while the citizens of Hell were trying to feed themselves in hungry frustration, the people of Heaven used their lengthy cutlery to feed each other, and so everyone was able to eat and be fully satisfied. In other words, Hell exists when we stop looking after each other, become isolated and purely interested in our own needs.
Heaven and Hell aren’t far away physical places, but maybe they are powerful myths that can teach us about how to live on Earth today. Maybe the choice of which one we experience is up to us after all; and maybe the best thing we can do is to help create Heaven on Earth for as many people as we can.
Either way, if we could all just let go of Hell once and for all, some really interesting conversations might finally begin.