Monday, August 27, 2012

What The Hell Is Up With Hell. (An Excerpt)

(Another, and probably the last I will post here,excerpt from my book)
 What the Hell Is up with Hell?   The Doctrine of Eternal Judgment

When I was in the midst of having the worst of my anxiety attacks, a friend asked me to read a book for him because he wanted to know what I thought about it.  The book was called The Last Word and the Word after That by Brian D. McLaren.  The book shares a fictional account of a preacher, who begins to question the church’s traditional teaching on the doctrine of eternal punishment.  The book isn’t designed to give the reader any answers, but instead to get the reader thinking and asking questions about the subject of eternal punishment. 

The book did for me exactly what it was trying to do, and after I read it, I began to ask a whole lot of questions.  Reading this book was truly a pivotal moment in my life.  I had never seriously thought about the doctrine of eternal judgment and its effect on my life, not to mention its effect on my views of God.  I had heard about Hell my entire life, and if you hear enough people telling you there is eternal punishment, you believe it.  I never considered whether or not that doctrine really made any sense; I simply accepted it as fact.

Mr. McLaren’s book rattled me deeply as a result.  Not only did I have to admit that I had never really questioned the church’s thoughts on Hell, but I also had to admit to myself that I had never really thought about the church’s beliefs about much of anything.  For someone, who had the reputation of being a radical thinker in the church, I had to face the fact that I had swallowed most of the church’s doctrines hook, line, and sinker without really giving them any thought. 

One particular scene in the book really stuck with me. In this scene a preacher (who is the main character) and a friend of his visit a Holocaust museum in the Washington D. C. area.  As they view the displays, the preacher is struck by the horrific cruelty and evil committed by the Nazi regime in the concentration camps.  At one point he walks into a room containing the shoes of all the prisoners, who had been burned in the gas chambers.  The preacher sees the shoes of men, women, and children.  He is nauseated by the sheer number of shoes and the sheer horror of the fate, which befell the wearers of those shoes.  He has to leave the museum, run outside, and vomit.

If I remember correctly, the book draws no direct correlation between the evil of the Nazis and the judgment of fire, which God would eventually impose upon most people, but this horrifying correlation was all I saw in that scene.  What kind of God would send people to Hell to burn forever and ever?  The atrocities of Hitler and his henchman could never compare with what the Church taught God would one day do.  Even worse was the fact that God wasn’t just going to kill people in a horrific fashion; no He/She had devised a crematorium for people where they would suffer these atrocities FOREVER.  How could such a God be viewed as forgiving, patient, loving and a good parent? 

As I thought about these issues during the next several months, I had to admit that the doctrine of eternal punishment made no sense to me at all, but at that time I wasn’t capable of simply accepting logic. I had to have scriptural proof.  So I began to research Hell.  What I found truly surprised me.  First, I found that the Old Testament basically has no mention of Heaven, Hell, or the afterlife in any way at all.  This fact was very puzzling to me.  I began to wonder what Jewish people had historically believed about the afterlife.  I bought several books and began an in depth study.  Apparently, early Jewish believers saw death as final.  Their traditional beliefs contained no heaven, no hell, and no resurrection from death.  God doesn’t mention anything about this miasma one way or the other in the Old Testament, either. 

Then suddenly, just before the inter-testamental period, little hints pop up that the Jews were starting to think there might be an afterlife.  Historians think these beliefs sprung from two sources: the first source was the Persian Empire, which committed horrible atrocities against the Jewish people. These atrocities appear to have caused the people to start thinking that surely a righteous God wouldn’t let them be erased from history by the Persians.  Surely, a good God would either bring them back to life later or take them to a place where they wouldn’t have to suffer such atrocities anymore.  The second source of these beliefs seems to be the teachings of Zoroaster, whom the Jewish people would have been exposed to while in Persian captivity.  Zoroastrianism appears to be the first religion to include a belief in a Heaven and Hell.  While in captivity, the Jewish people seem to have adopted the parts of Zoroastrianism, which they liked.
These beliefs took root in Jewish teachings over time, but not all Jewish people accepted these new beliefs about the afterlife.  The debate about these new beliefs caused two different sects to develop within the Jewish religion: the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees were a hard-line, fundamentalist, by-the-book kind of religious group.  Because the Sadducees could find no proof of any type of afterlife in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Jewish scriptures), they refused to believe in any type of afterlife.  On the other hand the Pharisees came to believe that one day the righteous would be raised from the dead and live on the earth under the reign of the messiah.  Apparently, they also believed that once we died and until we were resurrected (or not), we would either be sent to Heaven (Gan Eden), or we would be sent to Hell (Gehenna). 

According to the Pharisees, only those, who were perfectly righteous and pure, would enter directly into Heaven; most people would have to go to Gehenna for a time of punishment and purification.  Hell (Gehenna) was primarily described not as a place of torture, but as a place where we faced the evil acts we had committed during our lives along with the pain those evil actions had caused other people.  Once we had learned our lesson in Gehenna, we would be granted access to Heaven (usually this time of purification is described as twelve months in duration . . . maximum).
And then the “burning” question seems to have arisen of how the Jews could tell whether or not they were one of the righteous, who get to go straight to Heaven . . . or if they were unrighteous and would have to undergo purification in Gehenna.  So the religious leaders decided that the best way for people to tell was by how blessed they were in the present life.  If individuals were wealthy, owned lots of land, and had lots of children then obviously they must be righteous because why else would God bless them so richly?  This line of thinking apparently worked the other way, as well.  If people were poor, sick, homeless, and had no family, then obviously they were very unrighteous, or else why would they be so cursed by God? 

Inevitably, if something bad happened to a person or country, it was punishment from God because of unrighteous and sin.  When the Romans came not long before Jesus showed up on the scene and took control of Israel, the poor and sick (and thus, the sinful) would almost certainly have been blamed for the Roman invasion.  God was obviously punishing the people of Israel with the Roman occupation . . . kind of like the religious in America blamed homosexuals, drunks, and “bead girls” (how people could think that God could punish women for showing their breasts I will never understand)  for Hurricane Katrina.
So into this scene steps one radical Jesus, and he starts talking a lot about Hell (really, for the first time in the Bible).  But if you look at how Jesus talks about Hell, it seems likely that he is simply trying to deconstruct Jewish beliefs about Hell, rather than making a theological statement.  Just think of the text of the rich man and Lazarus.  In that story a rich man dies and ends up in Gehenna, while a beggar, who sat at the rich man’s door, dies and ends up in Heaven (Gan Eden).  How radical this teaching must have seemed to the people of Israel! 

Jesus seems to have been trying to turn the religious leaders’ beliefs back on them, not primarily teaching about Hell.  Perhaps he was trying to help the Jewish people to see that God was not concerned with how much wealth they had . . . but with how they treated people.  Another example of this deconstruction occurs in the text where Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.”  Jesus’ followers are so shocked by a view in such obvious opposition to their traditional teachings that they ask, “Who then can be saved?”  The meaning of their question is clear: if the rich (who are righteous) can’t get in, then who can?  Clearly, Jewish people thought that you could tell who was going straight to Heaven by how wealthy they were.  Jesus said that the rich were actually in worse shape than everyone else. All of Jesus’ teachings on Hell are more about getting people to see their actions—not their socioeconomic standing—as the true indicator of how they fare with God.

But even for the worst of people in Jewish belief there is hope.  The Hitlers, Stalins, and Dahmers of the Jewish people would only suffer in Hell for a period of time, not for all eternity. It is also debatable whether or not Jesus and his followers believed Hell was eternal.  Jesus refers once in all of scriptures to Hell as being forever, and this text can be translated as Hell being for a period of time just as easily as it can be translated forever.   Even the apostle Paul seemed to view Hell as a temporary place (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-5).  So, at the culmination of my scriptural studies, I began to see that the concept of Hell being eternal was not a solid, Biblical concept.  It appears that Jesus and his contemporaries saw Hell as a temporary place of correction, not a place of eternal punishment and torture. 

When Jesus handed the reins of the church over to its early leaders, his probable view that Hell was a temporary place of correction continued as the dominant view among believers.  The early church seemed to believe not only that Hell was temporary (this seems to be where the Catholic Church got the doctrine of purgatory), but also that eventually all people would go to Heaven (there’s pretty good scriptural support for this belief, as well).  One of the early church fathers, Origen, not only believed that all people would eventually go to Heaven, but he also believed that even Satan and his angels would eventually be taught the error of their ways, repent, and end up in Heaven. 

The view that hell was a temporary place and that all would go to Heaven was widely accepted in the church until good-old Augustine came along and wrote that universalism was heresy. Universalism (the belief that all people will eventually go to Heaven because Hell is only a temporary place of correction and repentance, or simply that all people will go to Heaven) fell out of favor with the church almost as soon as Augustine denounced it.  Universalism was officially labeled as heretical at the council of Constantinople, and as a result, many of the writings of the universalists were burned (once again, I was reminded of Nazis).  All this research helped me to see that not only did the doctrine of eternal judgment contain some logical problems, but it also had historical—and even Biblical—problems.  I was beginning to wonder if Hell was just a tool of fear used by the church to keep people in check. 

My changed beliefs on eternal punishment immediately began to improve every aspect my life.  I stopped feeling scared of God.  I stopped feeling like God was out to get me.  I stopped feeling the constant pressure to be perfect all the time.  I felt at peace with whom I was and whom I was beginning to think God was.  These changes helped me to see that even if I couldn’t prove it biblically, I knew this belief in eternal punishment was simply not a good belief.  If I was happier and more adjusted without the belief, then how could I ever return to the illogical, fearful place where I had been before?  I couldn’t.
Of all the beliefs I have jettisoned over the past three years, I am happiest about the doctrine of eternal punishment, and it is the one I needed to abandon the most.  The belief that there was going to be an eternal punishment in Hell was a purely destructive force in my life and the lives of my wife and kids.  I lived in constant fear of God and in fear of myself.  My entire belief system had been based upon fear.  No wonder I experienced anxiety and panic attacks all the time.  I was terrified of everything: God, myself, my wife, my kids; I mean, everyone I cared about could end up in Hell . . . almost everyone, who ever lived.  I could not accept that God would send the majority of the people, who ever lived, to burn forever and ever in His/Her perpetual crematorium; if He/She intended to, then I did not care to follow Him/Her, anyway.

As time has gone on, eternal punishment has made less and less sense to me.  What kind of God would let Jerry Falwell (an angry, bigoted man) into heaven but send Gandhi and Mother Theresa (yes, some Protestants think that even Mother Theresa was not “saved”) to Hell?  What about those individuals, who never heard about Jesus . . . are they doomed to Hell (some Protestants would say they are)?  What about the mentally disabled?  Would they burn forever because they were not capable of accepting Jesus?  What about victims, who were so abused in childhood that they grew to hate God and the church, and as a result, they never accepted Jesus’ “sacrifice for their sins?” What about all the people of Islamic, Jewish, Taoist, Buddhist, Mormon, and whatever other faiths?  Are they all condemned to Hell because they were very good people of the wrong flavor?  Do they burn forever and ever?  What about those people, who lose their faith because they were abused by someone, who was tied to the church?  Do they burn because their pain keeps them from being a part of Christianity? 
What kind of God are we really following if the answer to any of these questions is yes?  Is that God fair and just? Is that God truly holy?  Could you describe that kind of God as “love?”  We must take a serious, honest look at our beliefs—whether they are Christian, satanic, or atheist, and see what effects those beliefs create in our lives (and the lives of those around us).  Ask yourself, “Am I better off for believing what I believe?”  If your dogma hurts you or others, then why continue believing it?  No matter how sacred a belief seems, we need to question its validity.  If it only causes pain, problems, guilt, shame, hatred, and judgment of self and others, then it needs to be gotten rid of—no matter where that belief comes from. 

I think a lot of what Jesus of Nazareth was trying to do was the beginning of belief examination.  He tried to take the most damaging beliefs of his culture and turn them on their heads in order to set people free from religious oppression.  I think the same thing needs to be done with religion today.  We need to seriously investigate the things we believe, and if those beliefs are destructive and harmful, then those beliefs need to be dismissed, despite what any scriptures say.  Think for yourself!  Don’t let any book, preacher, teacher, or guru think for you.  Yes, we need to be open to listening to people, but we cannot simply believe everything we hear. If there is a God, then He/She gave us minds to think with, so let’s start using them.  I have started to think for myself, and I honestly think that the doctrine of eternal punishment is an evil doctrine . . . and any God, who could do such things to His/Her own people, would probably be evil, as well.


  1. I agree with you that this is a destructive doctrine. It has always smelled of fear-mongering to control people and, as you pointed out, it makes no rational sense when trying to align it to a God of love. I have read a number of times lately that "eternal" is a very bad translation for word in the original text. That in itself seems worth exploring before telling everybody they are doomed forever in the pits of Hell.

    Great job, Brent. Keep it up.