What the Hell?

gunI usually don’t post about the concept of Hell because I’d much rather post about ideas that I have a higher chance of changing my mind on.  But it’s a concept that should be talked about because many people still believe in the idea and many are haunted by it (most of them believers – at least the ones that are humble enough to realize that they could be wrong about their worldview, or humble enough to realize that because they are human it’s possible that their sincerity of belief may not be pure enough to surpass the level they imagine required).

There are a growing number of believers who have more nuanced versions of Hell which aren’t really all that bad.  Some say that Hell is just a description of what life on earth could be like when we don’t act in kind and loving ways.  The Universalists say that Hell is a place that will be empty because all roads, no matter what, lead to a God who loves and cares for all of his created beings.  A growing number of intelligent, well-studied believers who hold strongly to a high view of scripture have found that annihilationism is strongly supported after a proper in-depth study of the original language and context of the bible (my own view related to the bible is shown in the comments that Travis and I wrote on this post.)  And some believe that everyone will always be able to choose love/heaven, even after death, and that the only people who will be left in Hell are the ones who eternally want to remain completely hateful and don’t want anything to do with love.

But there are still some who believe in the idea of eternal torment for all who don’t choose a certain belief before death.  The concept of Hell comes in different forms – real fire, some kind of physical pain, or just the complete lack of love – all things which are horrific ideas.  I can’t make any sense of an all-powerful being who creates creatures and loves all of them yet will allow any of them to be in a place like that (and who even knew that would happen before creating them).  There is another idea that I can’t make sense of – the idea that even though this type of Hell is real, we shouldn’t think about it, and we should only concentrate on the fact that a God exists who loves us and wants us to be with him.

Imagine if I had proposed to my wife like this:

Me: Honey I love and care about you so much and I want for the two of us to be together forever.  Will you marry me?

Potential wife: Um, why is there a man pointing a gun at me?

Me: Oh honey, why are you concentrating on insignificant side issues like that?  All you need to do is concentrate on how much I love and care about you.  The choice is completely yours – will you marry me?

Potential wife: No seriously, what’s the guy with the gun for?

Me: It’s totally not important, but if you really want to know – he will kill you if you say no.  But again it’s so insignificant when you realize how incredibly strong my love is for you and how much I care about you and wish the best for you.  Will you marry me?

Potential wife: Um, uh… oh, I just realized I forgot something really important in the car outside – I’ll be right back to answer your question after I get it.

I think the story speaks for itself.

I feared the idea of eternal sadness for many years:  when I was first introduced to it by my friend in high school, while I was a Christian with doubts, and many years afterward.  If you still fear this idea I recommend this post, as well as Charles’ post.  The first link is a more general post related to angst about ultimate questions, but Charles’ post goes into specifics of the Hell concept.  His post and all of the comments there are very instructional and helpful, and you can learn more about my own thoughts on the concept of Hell by reading my own comments there.

(image credit: fineartamerica.com)



46 thoughts on “What the Hell?

  1. Yeah, the concept really is stupid when you compare it to your engagement example. It’s a shame that it’s so immobilizing for so many people.

  2. The good news is that I don’t really think about hell much anymore. It just sounds absurd now. Yay!

  3. Hey Nate,

    It is a shame, and I’m very glad that I’ve been able to keep my kids clear of the idea (they’ve heard of the word hell, but don’t know the details). They are too young and tender hearted for that concept – my son was literally afraid of his own shadow a few years ago, and my daughter recently saw a movie that has her convinced that her dolls will come alive to kill her – it has had her scared for a couple of months now.

    Has the idea of hell ever come up with your children? If so how have you dealt with it?

  4. Yeah, it has come up some, especially with my daughters (just because my son’s only 6). They’ve been bothered by it a little, which is understandable since it’s such a scary concept. My wife and I have mostly dealt with it by getting them to think about the nonsense of the idea. As you said, if God loves us, why would he resort to a threat of torture? I’ve also talked a little about the evolution of Hell in the Bible, but much of that is still over their heads. I know it’s something we’ll have to continue discussing for years to come, but I feel like we’re doing okay with it so far. I just wish the belief in it wasn’t so ubiquitous around here. :/

  5. Glad to hear it’s going well so far Nate. I feel for you – it doesn’t get much “deeper south” than where you live. 😉

  6. @charles — I completely agree! 🙂

    @Howie — thanks! And yeah, I’ve been reminded of just how “deep south” I’m living by my recent Facebook feed. As a friend said, last week was really tough for bigots! 😉

  7. For me, hell got annihilated the same time god was. This days when I think of it, it is only to ask goddites questions why they think an omnibenovelent being would need hell

  8. I hope you keep asking the question Mak, because I think it’s the toughest concept to deal with in the bible, and believers need to think about it instead of brushing it aside like they would prefer to.

  9. If we are to ponder such cosmologies and our potential place within them, then it seems to me that we ought best enquire of ourselves just what this putative ‘soul’ is that transmigrates across these same cosmologies. The human soul is taken as a given in such doctrines, for we have known this word since we were children, and like all words, it has its referent in actuality – or does it? If we make no test of the matter within our own lives, as in a rigorous phenomenological reduction, then it becomes all too easy to adopt ideas akin to a Pythagorean transmigration of the imagined soul. We do not have to believe in any god to hold to such theories and beliefs, we simply have to believe that we are what we are not.

  10. Hariod, excellent points, and it relates a lot to that last comment you left me on your blog a few weeks ago which I’ve been thinking a lot about. I sometimes use the word “soul” but I use it only as a word that encompasses the personality of a person, which does change in some ways over time, and I would guess is gone after one dies. And you are right about not needing to believe in any god for such beliefs – any belief one may have regarding a soul or lack thereof could be believed independently of a belief in gods, which is something a lot of people don’t think much about.

  11. I’m on a bit of a kick with this idea … there is a definition of what love is in the Bible. You often hear it at weddings. If that is love, and God is supposedly loving, why do God’s Biblical actions not fit the Biblical definition of what love is?

    I think this applies to the idea of Hell as well.

  12. But you know surely that the Christian Hell is simply a church construct? There is no such thing in the bible and Jesus never taught it.
    The word does not even feature, it being a mistranslation.

  13. Thanks for linking to my article Howie!

    You’re engagement example is a good one. Straight to the point. Although believers can rationalize anything. Seriously anything!

  14. That’s exactly the way I feel Jason! My recent posts on morality and “extreme divine command theory” touch on that exact idea. The old testament and several passages in the new testament describe a God whose actions just don’t match up with the bible’s own definition of love, and most definitely don’t match up with the vast majority of the earth’s understanding of what love means.

  15. What do you mean by that Ark? I think the Christian Hell is something that is pieced together from a few passages in the bible. But the picture of what afterlife is from the bible is a mashup of several different concepts. The old testament especially contains very little about it (maybe one verse in Daniel which is the latest book of that canon by far).

  16. I mean there is no such thing as the Hell as described as a fiery place of eternal torment a la Dante’s inferno.

    The words in the Bible were Sheol and Gehenna, neither place was remotely like what supposedly awaits non – believers.

    In other words, it was made up.

  17. You’re welcome Zach! And you are so right that anything can be rationalized. Since the topic is not about math or logic it all becomes a game in semantics. Simply redefine the word love in a more complex way and you can get a lot of nasty stuff. As I’m sure you’d agree, there has to be some practical limit to that though otherwise we’d go nuts, and the kind of rationalizations that some Christians make are the kind they wouldn’t for one minute accept from those of Islam or other religions.

  18. Ark – Some of the passages about Hell in the gospels and Revelations may actually end up coming close to that kind of description, but obviously there can be other interpretations of those passages.

  19. Sheol basically means grave. Gehenna was the place outside Jerusalem were the rubbish was burned and in times past child sacrifice was supposedly practiced. This was what the character Jesus referred to.
    When the bible was translated into Greek, the word Hades was used and we know what this became when it was translated into English.
    Jesus never taught the Hell as taught in Christianity, just as he never taught Original Sin.
    It was an alien concept to Judaism and Jesus was a Jew and so was his audience.
    I wouldn’t trust Revelations any more than I would trust that lying SOB, Saul of Tarsus , or whoever made him up.

  20. Hi Ark,

    I think you’re right on the etymology of those words. But even the gospels have a couple of verses that imply the traditional view of Hell, like Matt 25:41:

    Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’

    I think Hell is one of the biggest problems for Christianity. For one, the very idea of eternal torture is very problematic. But beyond that, it’s hard to get a clear picture of what the Bible even says about it. There may very well have been different views among the various authors.

  21. A lot of it goes back to Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. If you have to use a bunch of semantic tricks, and ad hoc defenses, there might be a problem with your theory. One thing I find very annoying is that Christians usually don’t grasp the difference between a hypothesis and a conclusion. Because of that, plausibility is the threshold for most of their ad hoc defenses. Then they build on that unproven hypothesis, form more hypotheses, and create a whole web of interconnected, unproven hypotheses which are presented as facts.

    For instance, a friend of mine claimed that the apostles used scribes to write the gospels; since they were illiterate. Of course, at best that explanation is barely even plausible, as Erhman has argued. But even if it were plausible, it is terrible reasoning to act as if that explanation is more plausible than the alternative.

    But alas! ‘Tis the nature of religious reasoning.

  22. Zach, your analysis of religious reasoning is spot on. I do find that a lot of apologists build their “web” of a worldview exactly as you described. Some of it has to do with having an aversion to uncertainty.

  23. Yes. It’s a very absolutist, and non-scientific approach to truth. The good philosophers and scientists are very comfortable with uncertainty. Theologians on the other hand are much more comfortable with chalking contradictions up as ‘mysteries’, while considering true mysteries to be ‘facts’.

  24. @Nate

    Without knowing the original text ( language) I cannot comment on this passage with any degree of authority.
    But a similar passage in Mark 9 43-48 refers to Gehenna,

    …than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

    but is often dragged into the light by Christians as an example of eternal fire etc.

    Furthermore, there is much dispute about the character Satan and in some forms of Judaism the term means adversary and this adversary was human, ether real or simply the bad part of out nature, I am not sure.

    It must also be borne in mind that we only have the ”word’ of the gospel writer that the character Jesus of Nazareth said anything at all.
    As the writer of Mathew used Mark for the majority of his gospel how much are you willing t bet was not ”made up” along the way?

    I reiterate, it is crucial to remember that if Jesus existed he was, first and foremost, a Jew and in Judaism there is no ”Hell” so why would he teach it?

  25. The most vivid representation of Hell as seen as a place of fire and torture came from the Apocalypse of Peter. This was a well known book in the early Church and was considered for inclusion in the Bible.

    In the Book the Apostle Peter is given a tour of Heaven and Hell. In the tour of Hell he sees people being hung by the part of their body which was most used for sin and roasted over fires.


  26. Hey Peter – that’s both interesting and twisted at the same time! I think it’s clear that around that timeframe there were a lot of different afterlife views (which explains the confusion in the bible), and some of them definitely included actual physical torture for eternity. Sad stuff.

  27. An aspect I find twisted is the argument in some circles that ‘God’ sends no-one to Hell, people send themselves.

    A cop out to try to get ‘God’ off the hook for torturing people for all eternity for a even one mistake in this life if we don’t get the correct ‘Get out of Jail Free card’.

  28. I agree Peter. C.S. Lewis was famous for that view, saying that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. But if it’s such an awful place to be you’d think lots of people would be unlocking the gates to get out. And seriously, how many people want to be in a place of eternal sadness? It’s kind of absurd.

  29. It seems obvious that hell is a control mechanism. When I was younger, when I would have doubts, I would remember hell and quickly try to think of something else. The problem is that the control mechanism is only obvious once you no longer believe it.

    For me, it helped to learn about other societies’ versions of hell, and how different the paths were to them. No believer today has ever lost sleep worrying about not knowing the Book of the Dead’s path to Osiris’ afterlife kingdom, despite the anxiety of ancient Egyptians toward it.

  30. Good points SAP. The use of the concept of eternity makes it the ultimate of control mechanisms. Your second point is excellent as well – it’s amazing how strong the impact of the beliefs of those surrounding us can be.

    What resources did you find most helpful in learning about other societies’ versions of hell?

  31. Thanks Howie. For me, it was reading books on mythology: Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian, Norse, etc. I initially read them because I had heard that they contained a lot of source material for many modern epic fantasies. Many of those books described the afterlife of those ancient societies, including their version of punishment for wrong doers. (It pays to read from multiple sources. Some of the older stuff perpetuates Christian myths about those societies’ views on the afterlife.)

    These days, Wikipedia is a pretty good resource. And reading comparative literature on current world religions can be helpful.

  32. Thanks for the quick response SAP. I’ve always found it interesting how religions of the past become labelled as mythologies once they die away (although some very small percentage of the world still believes they reflect reality). If one lived back in the day when Greek “mythology” was rampant it would have felt much like that was truth in the same way that our current religions feel like truth to many. And yet they are much the same in their containing unbelievable stories of things like animals talking, sticks turning into snakes, people being raised from the dead, walking on water, etc.

  33. Well said. I found the many similarities between the various mythologies and Biblical stories striking, particularly for Babylonian myths. And I think anyone who can read that stuff and not come away wondering about their own traditions is carefully wearing mental blinders.

  34. The hell doctrine bothers me a great deal because it’s a form of blackmail that uses emotional torture. So many people suffer because of this belief.

    Good post. I liked the wife analogy.

  35. Thanks Mike (Godless Cranium). I agree 100% – the concept of hell bothers me quite a bit as well.

    I’ve been told recently that if I don’t believe in Hell then I shouldn’t be at all concerned about it. I agree in a sense on that point because I’m not concerned about going to hell given that I don’t believe it exists, but I am concerned about what the concept does to people. So that point is somewhat true, but it ignores the fact that there are millions of people who have a hard time believing that the Christian message is true but are not quite sure of themselves. I was this way for many years and the fear of hell in that period did torture me. I’ve met many people like this online. It also ignores the fear it puts in children. And furthermore, even people who profess belief are tortured by the concept because many secretly aren’t so sure that their belief is sincere enough to avoid an eternal scary place they’ve been told exists.

  36. I’m usually concerned if one or more people condone, wish for and support something awful happening to me even if that thing is unlikely to happen. They have no right to tell me I shouldn’t care.

  37. The engagement example is a really good illustration of how crazy it is that people who believe in hell also believe God is all loving, given the scenario he supposedly sets up.

  38. Yup Nancy. The traditional view of hell cannot be harmonized with the idea of an all loving all powerful God unless the definitions of words (like loving) are manipulated to the point that they no longer match their commonly understood definitions.

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