Fire & Freedom: Reasons To Doubt The Existence of Hell
This post is not meant to be an extensive analysis of the doctrine of Hell and its history within Christianity. (Sources that do provide a deep dive into this topic are quoted throughout this post, or are otherwise listed at the end.) I’m not a theologian, historian, or priest. I have no “official” credentials, other than a working brain and a curious heart. However, I am someone who was deeply impacted by this teaching, and up until recently, I knew very little about its origins.
I want to share what I have learned with you, as well as offer encouragement to anyone else who may be questioning this troublesome doctrine. Let’s dip our toes into the theological pond together and expose what I believe are some major issues with this teaching as a whole.
It Isn’t “Revelation.” It Developed Over Time.
It’s hard to pinpoint when I was first taught about Hell. It was always presented as a given whenever matters of salvation and faith were brought up; you had to accept God in this life, or you would suffer eternally. Signed, sealed, delivered. Period. End of story. There were no other options.
But when the origins of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) are explored, you start to see that this idea is but one of the possibilities proposed by Christians throughout church history when it came to speculations about the afterlife.
There were several theological schools which existed in the centuries following Christ. Out of these schools, only one taught the idea of ECT; most of the others believed in Universal Reconciliation (1). The Church fathers who did teach ECT (such as Augustine) did so “by going beyond the biblical statements and adding to them the notion of universal immortality” (6) (an idea which comes from Greek philosophy). In addition to Universal Reconciliation and ECT, there was the theory of annihilationism, which holds that the wicked will not be punished forever; they will simply be destroyed:
“The ultimate penalty for sin itself will be the eternal literal death of soul and body and the eternal loss to immortality. That is what the Bible means by their eternal punishment. It is not the “punishing” that is eternal but, rather, the ‘punishment’…When the Bible talks about eternal judgment, or eternal damnation, or eternal destruction, it’s in reference to the result and not the process.” (7).
I think it’s important to emphasize that these theories didn’t only exist in antiquity. They are still hotly debated today. The matter of Hell isn’t as “settled” as we have been led to believe. Infuriatingly, this information isn’t something pastors don’t know about. They learn about it in seminary, and they simply choose to not inform their congregations. It’s details like this that make me question the whole structure of Christianity, an institution that claims to exist for the betterment of souls. It makes one wonder if the people who propagate ECT have control, rather than salvation, in mind.
A quick digression here, if you will allow me: I think it’s worth noting that there are only four words in the Bible that are translated as “hell,” and they are not equivalent to the Christian notion of damnation. They are “Sheol,” “Hades,” “Tartarus,” and “Gehenna.” “Sheol” and “Hades” were the Greek and Hebrew words for “underworld,” also translated as “pit.” “Tartarus” is used once in one of Peter’s letters. It is in reference to sinful angels, who are placed there by God to await judgement. Then there is Gehenna, the word most often used by Jesus in the Gospels.
“According to the Bible, the Canaanites had a custom of sacrificing children to a god call Moloch…Whatever the sacrifice amounted to in reality, the Israelites were horrified by the concept of child sacrifice…According to this anti-Canaanite propaganda, the Canaanites performed these sacrifices to Moloch at a placed called Tophet, located in a particular valley known as Geh ben Hinom…sometimes translated as the ‘Valley of the Screaming Son’…’Geh Hinnom’ devolved in the Rabbinic period into ‘Gehenna.’” (4).
In other words, Gehenna was a physical location, reviled for its debauchery and used as a symbol of wickedness. It would be like me referencing the Grand Canyon to people in Arizona. The locals Jesus spoke to would have been familiar with the terrain. It seems strange that they would have made the leap from real-time geography to a spiritual realm of eternal torment, especially since ECT isn’t really a solidified concept in Judaism.
“The bottom line: There isn’t one definitive understanding of life after death or heaven and hell. As the saying goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.” So, believe what you want, because ultimately Judaism doesn’t care what you believe, but rather what you do.” (9)
Fear-Based Doctrine Isn’t Biblical
Brainwashing entire generations into thinking that leaving your organization will lead to eternal torment is an excellent way to keep asses in pews. But if you’re going to make a claim like that, you need to back it up, especially if you’re going to simultaneously declare that God is ultimately good. And let me tell you: the Ecclesiastical Powers That Be have spent a good deal of time bending over backwards in order to convince us that Hell makes sense within the context of a loving God. The argument goes something like this:
While Hell may sound harsh, it’s actually a demonstration of God’s perfect justice. (This priest even states that Hell “has to exist for God to be a good dad” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-hTfkMrET0.) After all, God doesn’t force Himself on anyone. In order for love to exist, so too must the possibility of rejection. The people who choose God’s love will spend eternity with Him; the ones who don’t get to spend their afterlife being tormented like unlucky chicken breasts in a fiery crockpot of despair and anguish. And this is just, because God gave them plenty of opportunities in this life to choose Him.
Of course, when you really sit down and think about this less-than-satisfying explanation, the whole thing falls apart rather quickly.
What counts as a fair “choice,” for instance? What about people who have never even heard of Jesus? What about a young girl who is abused by a pastor and who, as a result of this abuse, can’t enter a church, or even think about God, without having an anxiety attack? What about the honest intellectual who simply can’t reconcile a loving God with childhood cancer, rape, murder, incest, or the countless other evils which exist in the world? What about the child who only ever heard Jesus’ name associated with racism, violence, or discrimination, and who has no other lens of interpretation? What about the gay son who was turned out of his home by his parents in the name of Christ?
Do none of these things matter? Are we really going to act like everyone has the same upbringing, the same emotional and intellectual capacity, is raised in the same environment, and is exposed to the same chances that might allow them to “make” that choice honestly and sincerely? When people leave God, are they not simply leaving harmful ideas or experiences (since no human words can ever accurately describe an Essence which is ultimately beyond us)? And if so, why would a truly loving God hold that against them? Can we ever really “leave” God, who is supposed to be ultimate Being itself? Or do we just leave harmful institutions that do shitty things in His name, institutions who try to make us believe that leaving them is the same thing as leaving God? Scripture claims that only God knows the heart. Since this is the case, who are we to decide who’s “in” and who’s “out” (which often boils down to nothing other than, “you think differently than I do”)? It’s an arrogance that borders on delusional.
There is also the fact that the current teaching on Hell relies heavily on fear, which makes it blatantly anti-Biblical. The Bible itself repeatedly tells us not to give into fear (Isaiah 41:10, Psalm 23:4, John 14:27, Isaiah 41:13, Luke 12:32, Luke 12:7). We are even told that love and fear have nothing to do with one another (1 John 4:18). Yet one of the major tenants of Christianity has been formed on precisely the idea that God is to be feared and also — -somehow — -loved. At some point, we’re apparently supposed to just “get over” the reality of Hell and turn trustfully to the deity that permits it to exist. Richard Rohr puts it best when he states:
“A torture chamber was an unfortunate metaphor to keep people from never loving, trusting, or hoping. I am not sure it ever really worked because you cannot threaten people into love.” (8)
It Causes Harm
The goal of any doctrine should be to enhance love and minimalize harm. Does the current teaching on Hell do this? If we define harm as actions, then yes, perhaps. Scaring people into good behavior is practical and effective. But what about the motivations behind that behavior? How “pure of heart” will a person be if they have been raised on a platform of fear? What about the emotional and psychological damage that can result from being told you will suffer forever if you don’t toe the right line? Is there any “good” in that? If we took this teaching out of circulation, what would happen to the human family as a whole? Would we start murdering and raping each other? Let me tell you, if the only reason you aren’t doing those things is because you fear Hell, you should seek therapy.
I don’t want to discount the good intentions of sincere believers, though I may question what exactly they are attempting to communicate about God. But I absolutely call out the wider institution that refuses to re-examine this doctrine in the light of mercy and love, preferring instead to perpetuate a cycle of psychological and emotional duress among the flock it’s supposed to care so much about.
With all this being noted, I do have one positive thing to say about our current teaching on Hell: during my deconstruction phase, and the ensuing years of despair and doubt, it prevented me from ending my life. Suicide was a mortal sin worthy of damnation, so I never really considered it as an option. Instead, I found myself wishing that death would just happen to me. That way I could escape the agony in my soul without technically being responsible. I could get hit by a car. I could have a heart attack in my sleep. I could get shot.
But in the end, here I am.
Strange, isn’t it? The Church that claims to have my best interests at heart is the very same Church that drove me into the darkest wells of despair with its own teaching, and then refused to give me a proper way out.
Ultimately, we don’t know what happens after we die. All we know for sure is that we are alive, here and now. And regardless of what label we claim — -Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Agnostic — -I think we can all agree that this life is worth experiencing. If there is an afterlife, we have no way to define it; if there isn’t, there are still plenty of reasons to work towards goodness, justice, and love in this world.
“Maybe it’s not that there are two places beyond the door of death, heaven and hell. Sometimes I wonder if hell is just what heaven feels like for those who haven’t learned in this life what this life is intended to teach. — Brian McLaren” (8).
FURTHER READING SUGGESTIONS
(1) “How and When the Idea of Eternal Torment Invaded Church Doctrine,” https://medium.com/@BrazenChurch/how-when-the-idea-of-eternal-torment-invaded-church-doctrine-7610e6b70815. *This post is part of a series on Hell and how it infiltrated Christian thought; I highly recommend you check it out.
(2) Four Views on Hell (second edition with new contributors and part of the “Counterpoints” series), Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr., Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls. Edited by Stanley N. Gundry and Preston Sprinkle. *The existence of this book proves that scholars, at least, are aware of the differing views on Hell. This information is withheld from the average churchgoer. *
(3) Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire, Julie Ferwerda.
(4) Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World: How the Israelites and Their Neighbors Treated the Dead, Rachel S. Hallote.
(5) Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, Bart D. Ehrman. *This one and Hallote’s book shed some light on how the Jewish view of the afterlife was influenced by their pagan neighbors — -and these influences leaked into Christianity too.*
(6) “History of Hell: Hell Before Augustine,” Dr. Glenn Peoples, https://www.afterlife.co.nz/articles/history-of-hell/.
(7) “Unquenchable Fire Won’t Burn Eternally,” Babu G. Ranganathan, https://bgrnathan.blogspot.com/2010/04/unquenchable-fire-wont-burn-eternally.html.
(8) “Choosing Heaven Now,” Richard Rohr, https://cac.org/themes/hell-no/.
(9) “Do Jews Believe in Hell? Jewish Belief in Hell: True or False?”, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi , https://www.jewishboston.com/read/ive-always-read-that-jews-dont-believe-in-the-concept-of-hell-is-that-true/.