If one were to identify the doctrine that deters would-be Christians most, it would be that of hell: usually described as a pit of fire in which souls (dead people) who did not quite measure up are eternally and incessantly tormented in a fire that never consumes them. I don’t think anybody has any doubt that this doctrine practically prevents us (Christians) from ever truly loving God: we can only be scared of him; thus, our so-called religion is, in fact, irreligion because religion is supposed to be conducive to our loving God. How did this bizarre concept creep into our religion?
Religious institutions have no police force to keep their followers in check; not to mention that the afterlife is somewhat remote, and most people naturally tend to ignore anything that is not imminent. So, how do religious leaders make believers behave in this life? They first tell them that God knows everything and keeps records of all wrongs, and then they threaten them with a horrendous punishment in the afterlife. This might work to some extent in practice, but it has the great disadvantage of distancing us from God who, indeed, loves us unconditionally: like the best of parents love their children. They figure that if people are not threatened by punishment, they go out of control. In fact, I hate to imagine what would happen in our cities if there were no police force to keep control: we would probably experience murder, rape, and looting in every street corner. But God is not like that: he is best portrayed as the father in the parable of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11–32)
Hell in the Bible
Now, where do we find this concept of eternal punishment in a fiery pit? Not surprisingly, we find it in the Bible—the assumed source of all our supernatural revelation. Although the vast majority of Christian denominations deem the Bible inerrant, in my book Is the Bible Infallible?, I show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that this is not the case. It is not the scope of this article to prove it anew: it is enough for the reader to have a quick look at my article “Science in the Bible” to see that it is only about 50% right scientifically. Indeed, in this article I shall not even question whatever is written in the Bible and still show how and why we have been misled by our church to believe in the Christian hell.
It might come as a complete surprise to most Christians that the Hebrews, who were the authors of the Bible’s Old Testament, did not even believe in an afterlife almost until the time of Jesus (the New Testament). It’s not that the concept did not occur to them because their next-door neighbors, the Egyptians, buried their kings in pyramids together with their belongings so they could be comfortable in the afterlife: no, the Hebrews simply believed that immortality belongs to God alone. In his book The Hell Jesus Never Intended, Presbyterian pastor Keith Wright affirms,
“Not until the period beginning 300 years before the birth of Jesus [c. 300 BCE] did the Jews begin to develop a concept of an afterlife that included both punishment and reward.” (p. 45)
The turning point was around the harsh religious persecution the Jews experienced from the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire, which occurred between 175 and 164 BCE. The Jews realized that those who obeyed God’s laws (the Mosaic Law) meticulously ended up dead, while those who disobeyed them (apostatized) got to live another day. God’s justice, therefore, demanded some other form of ‘life’ after death in which everyone is rewarded or punished according to one’s actions in life. Hence, in the book of Daniel, written between 167 and 164 BCE, (NAB, p. 1065; Wright p. 46) we read,
“Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth [died] shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (KJV, Daniel 12:2)
This is probably the one and only reference to an afterlife of some sort, we find in the Christian (i.e., Protestant) Old Testament.
The question of the afterlife was still unsettled in Jesus’s time. In fact, in his book The Antiquities of the Jews, first-century-CE historian Flavius Titus Josephus reports a contemporaneous difference in opinion between three Jewish, religious groups: the Pharisees and Essenes on one side and the Sadducees on the other. (Josephus, bk. 18 ch.1 §§ 2–5; Wright, p. 46) Josephus tells us that the Sadducees still did not believe in the immortality of the soul; we are also told the same thing about the Sadducees in three Gospels (Mark 12:18; Matthew 22:23; Luke 20:27) and in the Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 23:8)
Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus speaking about the Last Judgement, (Matthew 25:31–46) in which he ends by saying,
“Then shall he [the Son of Man] say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’ … And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.” (KJV, Matthew 25:41–43, 46, emphasis mine)
Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus telling the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, (Luke 16:19–31) in which the rich man is depicted ending up in ‘hell’ and Lazarus in ‘heaven.’
“And he [the rich man] cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.’” (KJV, Luke 16:24–26, emphasis mine)
And again Matthew portrays Jesus telling his disciples,
“If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt [lame] or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.” (KJV, Matthew 18:8, emphasis mine)
At first blush, it really does seem that there is enough evidence in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, that damned souls are punished eternally and in fire. Moreover, the Gospels portray Jesus (of all people) saying these words: which obviously gives them more weight. However, one must keep in mind that Jesus never wrote a word in our Scriptures: these are the words of the evangelists; and, unfortunately, we don’t even know who these evangelists were (NAB, pp. 10, 69, 96, 143). So, let us have a quick look at some history of the Gospels. (I shall keep calling the evangelists by their traditional names to avoid confusion.)
There were many so called gospels written, but Christianity only recognized four as canonical (i.e., official), and they were written at different times and locations. In his book The Historical Jesus, biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan tells us that Mark’s gospel was written between 70 and 79 CE, Matthew’s gospel was written around 90 CE, Luke’s gospel was written between 90 and 99 CE, and John’s gospel was written between 101 and 125 CE. (Crossan, pp. 429–32) The New American Bible agrees with him to a great extent: it dates Mark’s gospel around 70 CE, Matthew’s gospel after 80 CE, Luke’s gospel between 80 and 90 CE, and John’s gospel between 90 and 100 CE. (NAB, pp. 10, 69, 96, 144) In short, the easiest way to remember when the four canonical Gospels were written is: Mark’s around 70 CE, Matthew’s around 80 CE, Luke’s around 90 CE, and John’s around 100 CE.
It also helps to keep in mind that sympathetic authors tend to mythologize their heroes over time, making them larger than they really were (like Robin Hood or Zorro), especially when there are no more eyewitnesses around to contest what is written because they all died by then. Consequently, generally, the earlier writings tend to be the more accurate, authentic, and reliable.
The three gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are very similar and the three together are therefore termed the synoptic Gospels. The word synoptic is a combination of two Greek words: syn meaning ‘together,’ and opsis meaning ‘sight’ or ‘view.’ This means that these three gospels saw the life of Jesus from a single point of view. (NAB, p. ) Matthew and Luke seem to have used Mark (which is the shortest gospel) as a skeleton account for theirs.
Needless to mention, not all translations of the Bible are the same. A translation of any literary work loses a lot of its original meaning and forcefulness, simply through the process of translating it—albeit faithfully—even if done at the same time when and in the same place where the original was written; let alone if it’s done centuries later and in a different culture. (In fact, the translation of the Koran from its original language, Arabic, is discouraged because of this phenomenon.) Indeed, any translation of the Bible has been compared to a lion in a cage: it is still a lion but its magnificence is far from that in the wild. Naturally, therefore, the best translations are those made directly from the original languages: not translations of translations of the original text—because some of the meaning is lost every time it is translated. It stands to reason that, in translating (and reading) the Gospels, it is also of primary importance to know the background knowledge and paradigms assumed by the evangelists when they wrote them in order to produce an accurate and faithful translation. Moreover, as far as possible, and as long as the idiomatic meaning is not compromised, it is best to stick to a literal translation of the biblical text. For this reason I have chosen the Berean Literal Bible in most of what follows rather than the King James Bible, which was significantly influenced by prior arguable translations.
Hell in the First Century CE
In his book Why I am a Catholic, Roman Catholic historian Garry Wills opines that the essence of the Apostles’ Creed can be traced back to a first-century declaration of Christian faith. (p. 300) In the Apostles Creed, Christians declare,
“I believe … in Jesus Christ … who … was crucified, died and was buried; He descended into hell; on the third day He rose again from the dead.” (Catholic Online, “Prayers”)
Now, it is ludicrous to conclude from this statement that Jesus entered and stayed in the fires of hell for three partial days between his death and resurrection. Admittedly, some might object that the Apostles’ Creed is not part of the Bible and is therefore not necessarily a source of the so-called Christian revelation. However, it is based on a passage from the First letter of Peter where we read,
“Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that He might bring you to God, having been put to death indeed in the flesh, but having been made alive in the spirit, in which also having gone, He preached to the spirits in prison [who] at one time having disobeyed, when the longsuffering of God was waiting in the days of Noah, of the ark being prepared, in which a few—that is, eight souls—were saved through [from] water.” (BLB, 1 Peter 3:18–20, emphasis mine)
So, what exactly did first-century-CE Jews understand by the word ‘hell’? As mentioned above, it is important to read the Bible in the context it was written, not through our modern concept of hell, because the evangelists took certain paradigms of their time for granted when they wrote the gospels.
The underworld, or the netherworld, is another word for what was thought to be the ‘place of the dead’: that is, where dead disembodied souls were believed to keep on existing like zombies; it was also known as Hades in Greek mythology. Greek was the language in which practically all of the New Testament was originally written; it stands to reason that its authors were highly influenced by Greek culture. Hades was technically the god of the underworld, but the underworld later took his name. (Wikipedia, “Hades”) This is probably where the concept of hell being underground on this earth originated from. The underworld, the netherworld, and Hades were, and still are, often mistranslated as ‘hell’ in our Bibles.
Another name for Hades or the underworld is the Hebrew Sheol; the word Sheol also was, and still is, often mistranslated as ‘hell’ in our Bibles: yet, it is just another name for the place of the dead. The souls in there supposedly experienced no feelings of joy or pain, and everybody, good or bad, went there after death. The word Sheol was also used synonymously for the grave or metaphorically for despair. For example, in Psalms we read,
“For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those descending to the Pit. I am like a man without strength. I am forsaken among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You [God] remember no more, who are cut off from Your care [influence (NAB)].” (BSB, Psalms 88:3–5, emphasis mine)
Notice that in this quote “Sheol” is synonymous to the “grave” or the “pit.” It is important to realize then that, in the Sheol of the Bible, people were supposedly totally disconnected from and forgotten by God. (Wright, p. 43) Recall also that prior to 300 BCE, in Jewish scriptures we find no concept of punishment or reward after death.
However, the Douay-Rheims Version (which is based on the official Roman Catholic Bible—The Latin Vulgate) renders the original word “Sheol” as “hell.” For example the above passage is rendered as,
“For my soul is filled with evils: and my life hath drawn nigh to hell. I am counted among them that go down to the pit: I am become as a man without help, free among the dead. Like the slain sleeping in the sepulchres [tombs], whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cast off from thy hand.” (DRC, Psalms 87:4–6, emphasis mine)
This is where Jesus allegedly went to, according to the Apostles’ Creed and First Peter, for the three partial days between his death and resurrection. In actual fact, therefore, Jesus was simply dead before his Father resurrected him: just like Jesus’s friend Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was dead for four days. (John 11:1–44) In fact, for several years right after the Second Vatican Council, Catholics changed the above verse from the Apostles’ Creed slightly to “He descended to the dead” instead of “He descended into hell.” (I think “He descended to the dead” renders the original concept better, but for some strange reason it was lately changed back.)
The word ‘Gehenna’ is the English rendering of the Hebrew phrase Ge-Hinnom, meaning ‘valley of Hinnom,’ which was a small valley west and south of Jerusalem where all of the city’s garbage was burnt. Prior to its becoming a garbage dump, child sacrifices to the Ammonite god Moloch and the Canaanite god Baal were performed at that location in the time of the Hebrew king Solomon in the tenth century BCE and Judah’s kings Ahaz and Manasseh between 700 and 600 BCE; (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online & Wikipedia, “Gehenna”) thus prompting Jeremiah to portray God cursing that valley. (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2–6)
Now, let us examine some gospel quotes involving Gehenna. (I shall use the Berean Literal Bible translations in this section for better accuracy and fidelity.) Matthew portrays Jesus saying,
“I say to you that everyone being angry with his brother will be liable to the [local (NAB note)] judgment, and whoever shall say to his brother ‘Raca’ [Imbecile/Blockhead (NAB note)], will be liable to the Sanhedrin [highest Jewish religious court]. But whoever shall say, ‘Fool!’ will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” (BLB, Matthew 5:22)
Notice the progression of culpability in the above quote: Gehenna seems to be the ultimate punishment for Jesus. (NAB, Matthew 5:22n) But then, one might ask, why would a valley near Jerusalem be a place of ultimate punishment? The same chapter, of the same gospel, portrays Jesus adding,
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and cast it from you. For it is better for you that one of your members should perish and not that your whole body should be cast into Gehenna. … If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and cast it from you, for it is better for you that one of your members should perish and not that your whole body should depart into Gehenna.” (BLB, Matthew 5:29–30, emphasis mine)
Later, the same gospel portrays Jesus making threats that are almost identical to the above quote, but try to detect the most significant difference in the following quote.
“If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; it is better for you to enter into life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire. … If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and cast it from you; it is better for you to enter into life one-eyed, than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire.” (BLB, Matthew 18:8–9, emphasis mine)
These last two quotes express practically the same concept, but notice how the first “Gehenna” of the first quote changed to “eternal fire” in the second quote: they are used synonymously by the author (Matthew). Now, recall and keep in mind that according to biblical scholar John Crossan, these passages were written around 90 CE. (p. 430) No doubt, this last quote was paraphrased from the following passage in Mark, which was written a decade or two earlier according to Crossan: recall that Mark’s gospel was written between 70 and 79 CE. (Crossan, pp. 429–30)
“If your hand should cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than having two hands to go away into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. … If your foot should cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life lame, than having the two feet, to be cast into Gehenna. … If your eye should cause you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (BLB, Mark 9:43–48, emphasis mine)
Notice how the phrase “unquenchable fire” in Mark’s earlier gospel was subsequently upgraded to “eternal fire” in Matthew’s gospel a decade or so later. “Unquenchable” means it does not stop burning until it burns itself out; “eternal” means it never ends. This is a big difference in interpretation, especially if a book is promoted to ‘divine’ status later. My question to the Bible-inerrancy believer is: which gospel would constitute the infallible Word of God, the former or the latter?
Moreover, the embedded quote at the end of Mark’s passage originally comes from the book of Isaiah, where we read,
“As they go forth, they will see the corpses of the men who have rebelled against Me [God]; for their worm will never die [cease], their fire will never be quenched, and they will be a horror to all mankind.” (BSB, Isaiah 66:24)
The embedded quote from Isaiah is repeated three times (for measure) in some manuscripts of Mark’s gospel: that is, in verses 44, 46, and 48. The New American Bible comments that verses 44 and 46 are “lacking in some important early manuscripts.” (NAB, Mark 9:44, 46n) Talk about trying to shove one’s opinion down everyone else’s throat!
However, all that Isaiah’s original verse means is that the corpses of God’s enemies shall lie dead outside the city walls in a filthy rubbish dump, where maggots and worms decomposed them, and where huge fires that were constantly burning eventually consumed them. Isaiah was talking about corpses, not disembodied souls. According to the Got Questions website Isaiah’s passage was written prior to 680 BCE: (“Summary of the Book of Isaiah”) at which time the Jews still did not believe in an afterlife. At that time, the worst thing that could happen to a person was not to be duly buried: that one’s corpse would be thrown among the city’s garbage, say, where it is eaten by scavenging animals or birds, slowly decomposed by worms, or burnt by fire. There was no end to worms and fires there—this was the Jews’ concept of hell back then.
Interestingly enough, although the synoptic Gospels normally repeat what Mark had said because they are based on Mark as skeleton, Luke totally omits this passage: which makes one think that, for some reason, he did not agree with it.
Confirming what I am saying here, recall what Pastor Wright affirms in his book ,
“Not until the period beginning 300 years before the birth of Jesus [c. 300 BCE] did the Jews begin to develop a concept of afterlife that included both punishment and reward. (p. 45)
Now, it does not look like the concept of hell in the first century CE (i.e., in the 70s CE—Mark’s gospel—or around 90 CE—Matthew’s gospel) was much different either. Recall that first-century-CE historian Flavius Josephus reported a contemporaneous disagreement between three Jewish, religious groups: the Pharisees and Essenes on one side and the Sadducees on the other. We are told that the Sadducees still did not believe in the immortality of the soul; (Wright, p. 46) we are also told the same thing about the Sadducees in the synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:18; Matthew 22:23; Luke 20:27) and Acts. (Acts 23:8)
The word “Gehenna” was, and still is, often mistranslated as “hell” in our Bibles. However, it was simply a valley south and west of Jerusalem where the city’s garbage was dumped and where the fires that burnt the garbage never went out: there was always enough garbage being added on to keep it burning. This is probably how the concept of “unquenchable fire”, and subsequently “everlasting fire”, entered our modern concept of hell! Confirm what I am saying, the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online states,
“The imagery of the burning of humans supplied the concept of ‘hellfire’ to Jewish and Christian eschatology [last things] … a place in which fire will destroy the wicked.” (“Gehenna”)
Pastor Wright makes it even clearer in his book; he writes,
“In … these passages, the word Jesus uses for Hell is ‘Gehenna’—an area just outside Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and where the fires that burned that garbage never went out. This is possibly how the idea of eternal fires entered the concept of Hell.” (p. 28)
This is the kind of thing that happens over time: one loses the key connection with the culture of the place where and time when certain things were said or written. Then the church, centuries later, autonomously declares the Bible infallible: probably because it has no real source of divine revelation for a template to follow; finally one comes to believe in the literal faulty translation of that particular passage.
It is clear then, that in the above passages, Jesus is not talking about our present understanding of hell; he is just using a contemporaneous concept hyperbolically to accentuate importance. That is, if he ever uttered these words: I mean, assuming they are not just scare tactics orchestrated by the evangelists to keep their congregation in check.
Interpretation of Scriptures
In his book The Hell Jesus Never Intended, Presbyterian pastor Keith Wright opines,
“Jesus used the promise of Heaven and the threat of Hell just as the prophets of Israel and the Jewish leaders in the 1st and 2nd century BC had used them.” (p. 48)
He is not the only one who thinks so, of course. Commenting on the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) in its e-book An Introduction to Bible Prophecy, the Evangelical Christian denomination Grace Communion International has,
“It is not there to paint us a portrait of heaven and hell. It is a parable of judgement against the unbelieving Israelite leadership and the unkind rich, using common Jewish imagery of the afterlife (Hades and ‘being with Abraham’) as a literary backdrop to make the point. In other words, Jesus is not commenting on the validity of Jewish imagery of the afterlife; he was simply using that imagery as scenery for his story. Jesus was not satisfying our itching curiosities about what heaven and hell must be like.” (p. 104/154)
Moreover, in his book Eternal Life? Catholic theologian Hans Küng writes,
“The New Testament statements about Hell are not meant to supply information about a hereafter to satisfy curiosity or fantasy. They are meant to bring vividly before us here and now the absolute seriousness of God’s claim and the urgency of conversion in the present life.” (p. 141)
Although they strongly believe in the same Bible, marginal Christian churches like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the United Church of God do not believe in the Christian hell, either. Across the board, therefore, Christianity agrees that we cannot tell anything about the afterlife from what we find written in the New Testament: in other words, we cannot take it literally.
Now, let me give the reader just a rough idea of what eternity is. Imagine all the sands of the earth, from every conceivable place, gathered in one place. Imagine a bird picking a grain of sand every thousand years and placing it on the moon. When all the sands of the earth are thus transported to the moon, the first second of eternity has not passed yet! One may substitute a million, a billion, a trillion years, or any other time interval, for the thousand-year interval between any two sand grains being transported to the moon; the conclusion will always be the same: the first second of eternity has not passed yet.
Meanwhile, if a soul happens to be in hell, it is allegedly suffering unbearable pain in fire—every single second. Can we, as humans, fully understand and commit a sin that deserves such a punishment? Not to mention that some of the sins deemed grave by the church seem so trivial (e.g., masturbation, non-abortive contraception, and missing Sunday Mass). Obviously, the punishment does not fit the crime. Do you think God could be so cruel? Or, maybe, we are more compassionate and merciful than God? In his book, Pastor Write asks whether we don’t honestly feel, deep inside our being, that something is wrong with this kind of reasoning—that we might be more compassionate than God. (p. 14) The idea that God is capable of punishing people forever is a serious obstacle to the concept of a loving God and is inconsistent with many Bible passages that describe God as all-merciful, for example,
“Then the LORD passed in front of Moses and called out: ‘The LORD, the LORD God, is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion and faithfulness, maintaining loving devotion to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.’” (BSB, Exodus 34:6–7)
Moreover, we have corroborating evidence of God’s kindness in our everyday life too. Pain is necessary to force us to protect our bodies from harm, but isn’t it strange that when someone is extremely hurt physically, one goes unconscious and doesn’t feel anything anymore? This seems to me a sign of kindness on God’s part: it seems he cannot stomach seeing us suffer excessively. By the same token, I contend God cannot take seeing us suffer burning in hell for all eternity if he cannot take it for more than a few minutes. So, even the evidence from life makes me seriously question the reality of the Christian hell.
In order to find the truth about hell, we cannot refer to mainstream Christianity: I think it’s a good idea to use reason in evaluating the beliefs of marginal Christian denominations. The United Church of God, for example, is a marginal Christian Church that does not believe in the eternity of hell. Although, like most of Christianity, the United Church of God believes in the infallibility of the Bible, it still rightly asks whether the concept of a loving God could be reconciled with the concept of a God punishing many eternally in a fiery hell.
In its booklet Heaven & Hell, it asks us to imagine lighting a match and try holding a finger on the little flame for just five seconds. The pain will be unbearable, not to mention the physical damage it will cause—which (strangely enough) supposedly is not the case in hell. Then it asks us to imagine ourselves being trapped in a fire and feeling such pain all over our body for a minute, a year, a lifetime, and eternity. It is horrible to imagine that God, whom we adore and respect, could do something like that to any human being, let alone to a multitude of people who die every day: people who probably tried their best to obey his commandments for most of their life but failed sometimes. How then, it asks, some of us can reconcile such behavior with the infinitely loving God described in the Bible? It concludes that something must be amiss. (Heaven & Hell, p. 15) Naturally, the United Church of God’s answers to these questions are far from what mainstream Christianity teaches; Jehovah’s Witnesses agree with the United Church of God’s doctrine, and so do I.
However, at the same time, the United Church of God is quick to point out that, still, it does not mean that God’s justice will allow the wicked to go unpunished, and it quotes the book of Revelation to this effect.
“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (KJV, Revelation 21:8, emphasis mine)
The ‘first’ death is the death we are familiar with; the “second death” supposedly corresponds to God’s total annihilation of the person, byburning the wicked person in fire after a temporary resurrection. After this “second death” one cannot be resurrected again: one is annihilated. As the United Church of God goes on to explain in its booklet,
“This verse and others like it show that the doctrine of universal salvation is false. Not everyone will be saved. Some will, in the end, refuse to repent—and they will suffer punishment. But that punishment is not to burn in fire without ending. Rather, it is to die a death from which there is no resurrection.” (Heaven & Hell, p. 26)
I think this makes much more sense than what mainstream Christianity teaches. In his book The God of Hope and the End of the World, theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne writes,
“If hell is the place where the divine life has been deliberately excluded, then some have thought that its inhabitants will eventually fade away into nothingness, because the divine Spirit [‘the giver of life’ (Nicene Creed)] has habitually been denied its sustaining work in their lives. There is some persuasiveness in this notion of annihilation … though it would also represent the final creaturely defeat of the divine purpose of love. It is hard to know what to think.” (Polkinghorne, p. 137, emphasis mine)
In other words, annihilation of the damned soul makes some theological sense. If hell is a place where the Holy Spirit, who is also described as the Spirit of Life, is deliberately denied its sustaining work, then the inhabitants of hell will eventually fade away into nothingness: they are annihilated. This would be the creature’s final defeat of Divine Love, so to speak—which does not make much sense either. So, like Pastor Wright, I believe that God’s love will always be victorious in the end: consequently, hell will eventually be empty (p. 115).
For decades I used to think that God, in his kindness, might give sinners a choice between existence and non-existence; but, in fact, we are given no choice in being born. Some Christians, trying to defend God and their church’s doctrine, maintain it is better to exist in a fiery hell for all eternity than not to exist at all: so, they argue, people (or souls, rather) would prefer to suffer eternal punishment than be annihilated. Nobody can deny that defiance and hatred are strange motivators for choosing existence to annihilation; but personally, I must totally disagree with such a hypothetical choice: I think it is simply nonsense—in the long run (eternity) one will have to give up.
Vengeful Wishful Thinking
Christians who suffered harsh persecution for their faith often consoled themselves that God would even things out in the afterlife: so, the concept of an eternal fiery hell as punishment for these unbelievers resonated with them. Christians who were tortured and killed must have thought: “We suffer now, but your turn will come in the next life when God will even things out, and he will pay you tenfold, hundredfold, thousandfold … no, eternally.” Thus, the concept of eternal punishment in a fiery hell sprung from the vengeful wishful thinking of persecuted Christians. And what manner of punishment will God use? The most painful and scary to both humans and animals—fire. Thus, a fiery hell in which sinners and unbelievers are punished eternally was created: clearly, however, the concept existed only in their minds—Christianity is not a truth factory.
Some readers might think this is only my fantasy running away with me. Lest the reader think so, let me quote from the United Church of God’s booklet again.
“Other aspects of the traditional teaching of hell simply offend the senses. One such belief is that righteous people, who are saved, will be able to witness the torments of the wicked. As one author [Walker] explains the view some hold, (Heaven & Hell, p. 18)
“Part of the happiness of the blessed consists in contemplating the torments of the damned. This sight gives them joy because it is a manifestation of God’s justice and hatred of sin, but chiefly because it provides a contrast which heightens their awareness of their own bliss.” (Walker, p. 29)
“This scenario is especially revolting for several reasons. According to such twisted reasoning, parents would inevitably witness the suffering of their own children and vice versa, relishing in it. Husbands and wives would feel joy in seeing unbelieving spouses tortured forever. Worst of all, the doctrine paints God as sadistic, cruel and merciless.” (Heaven & Hell, pp. 18–19)
The concept of evil people suffering may fly high in our imagination when we think of extremely evil people, people who persecute us because of our religion, or even our enemies, but not for our family and friends. Keep in mind, however, that God loves everyone, good and bad: he lets the sun shine and the rain pour on everyone, good and bad; (Matthew 5:45) not to mention that evil people were once innocent children, toddlers, and babies. God loves them like their mother loves them. (Isaiah 49:15; 66:13) He hates the evil they do, but he still loves them: like a parent hates a disease oppressing a child, but still loves the child.
The sad fact is that the concept of eternal punishment in a fiery hell has turned Christianity into a religion of fear, and I intend to fight the concept of the Christian hell until I die. Had Christianity stuck to an equitable punishment for one’s lifetime evil deeds by a just and impartial God, it would have cut a much better figure since, deep down, most people (if not all) are willing to pay a fair price for their shortcomings. It would also have been much more attractive for outsiders to join in, but that is the way we want our God to be—violent and vindictive like us.
It seems that little does Christianity care that by teaching an eternal fiery hell, it is distancing believers from having a personal relationship with God; which is probably what we are here on earth for—the whole meaning of our life on earth—as I argue in my book, Is God a Reality? (pp. 361–68) Believers become so intimidated by God that it is impossible for them to love him freely. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists, “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him.” (p. 221 ¶ 1033) How can one “freely choose to love” a God capable of creating a fiery hell to punish people eternally? One can only fear him, but fear and love do not mix well: love cannot be forced. If hell truly existed, one would practically be forced to comply: there would be no freedom of action. It is similar to torturing someone during an interrogation or a trial: one cannot be sure of the truth.
Consequently, I believe the only punishment in hell is separation from God: simply because it cannot be helped if one decides to make such a choice; it is the nature of the beast: “One cannot have a cake and eat it too.” Jesus never intended to preach a violent, vindictive God to us. One thing we know he taught us, for sure, is that God is a loving Father: a loving father would not punish his children eternally; his anger would eventually subside. One would know this instinctively if one happens to be a good, loving parent. Not surprisingly, the United Church of God agrees with what I have been saying above: its booklet says,
“The idea that God sentences people to eternal punishment is so repulsive that it has turned some away from belief in God and Christianity.” (Heaven & Hell, p. 18)
I do not think anybody could question this statement. It adds that Charles Darwin was one of those who chose this route. I would say it is many people, not just some, that were and are being turned away from Christianity because of this repulsive doctrine—especially intelligent people. The sad consequence has been that, unlike the past, nowadays, most scientists do not even believe in God. And, if we keep this up, soon there will hardly be anybody left in our pews!
Separation from God
Separation from God is probably similar to the feeling of losing a loved one, being separated from a loved one, or being rejected by a loved one. The problem is that not everybody has had such an experience, and therefore not everyone can understand how awful it can feel. I suggest reading A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, to get some idea.
According to Christian doctrine, God is the only one who can ultimately really make us happy and satisfy all our emotional needs. Separation from God may be described as a continuous, gradual consumption or depletion of our very being. Perhaps, ‘burning inside by a non-consuming fire’ is the best imagery to describe separation from God: consisting of an interior and exterior consumption by despair and almost physical pain. It is probably the best description that approximates the reality and seriousness of the situation in hell—possibly one that some of us might understand.
Pastor Wright describes how religious affairs commentator Karen Armstrong, while she was a nun, struggled within herself to dispense with the love of and attachment to other people but was unsuccessful. Wright tells us, “She remembered that the theologians had said that Hell is not really a pit filled with fire.” (Wright, p. 88) He then quotes from Armstrong’s book Through the Narrow Gate:
“It is far more terrible than that [fire]. It is the endurance of oneself forever and ever with no alleviation at all. You’ve chosen yourself instead of God, so God gives you yourself. But this time without anything or anyone to distract you. Just you on your own.” (p. 137)
No doubt, it is a terrible situation to be in; but the ‘non-consuming fire’ is still symbolic, and I think most people would prefer it to the physical pain of burning in fire. Whatever it is, the church should be honest and straightforward about things—not try to scare believers—and it should revise and correct old misconceptions from time to time (quit being dogmatic). Of course, it is not wrong for the church to try to explain the intense psychological pain we might experience being separated from God; but at least its teaching would be consistent with the evidence we have from the grave: the body remains there, and so no physical pain is possible. Besides, it does not portray God as a merciless tormentor.
In conclusion, apart from the absence of physical fire in hell, another key difference between my concept of hell and the church’s teaching is that it is a voluntary separation, and therefore it does not necessarily have to be eternal. The soul decides, for some reason or other, to remain separated from God: God does not send it there because he judges it unworthy of his presence, but I do not preclude the possibility that a soul might judge itself to be unworthy to join God for a while, or simply refusing to join him. Recall the parable of the prodigal son: the father in the parable was always waiting for his spendthrift son to come back to him; in fact, he spots him at a distance. (Luke 15:20) Frankly, I concede I don’t know why it would take a soul so long, but then how can a spirit be reconciled with the concept of time? A spirit seems to exist in a fourth dimension, where time is another (fourth) variable (not fixed)—like the space we move around in: just as we can move around from one place to another, a spirit can move around in time (I surmise without changing things considerably). So, like Pastor Wright, I believe that hell will eventually be empty. (Wright, p. 115)
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