And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever [Revelation 20]. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in the lake of fire [Revelation 20]. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them [John 3]. Those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might [2 Thessalonians].
“What if I’m wrong, and what if this Christian thing is right? … I get to the pearly gates and find out that I’m wrong. “Say, well gentleman, I was mistaken.” Is God going to be a peevish theology professor and say “too bad you bastard you are going to fry”? If that’s God, then that’s a God not worth worshiping. I’m going to hell in someone’s dogma anyway, Nation of Islam or Johavos Witness for example.” [Robert Price]
This title is borrowed from a chapter in a book I reference often titled “The End of Christianity”, edited by John Loftus. And this piece is of the same spirit and done in commemoration. The first set of quotes shows how Christianity paints a ghastly image of judgment and hell that can reverberate in your soul (metaphor!), while the last quote aptly explains how I feel about hell.
Some ask me why I have an obsession with Christianity. I let them know that it’s because I have a drive to abolish falsehoods that haunt humanity, and Christianity is no exception. But what has perturbed me as of late is Christianity’s haunting doctrine of hell. Being judged and condemned to an eternity of punishment if you don’t follow the rules, that you may not have agreed to in the first place, is inherently totalitarian and doesn’t seem to be a fair system to say the least. This doctrine has affected members of my family – as they age, they seem to become more and more fearful of God’s judgement, or they become inordinately concerned with getting in his special favor. We should not be living in unnecessary fear. Some may argue that if it wasn’t for the potential wrath of God that man would sin egregiously and profusely. They may have an argument because I’ve seen what fear can do to us homo sapiens, but I’d prefer that people rely on themselves, others and punitive institutions to remain accountable for their actions and words.
I would like to shed some light onto this doctrine of hell and figure out if there is any merit to it because as an agnostic I’m committing a grave sin. But this is all very confusing since some liberal Protestants say I’m forgiven and will receive God’s grace regardless, while Catholics’ Catechism (book of doctrines), on the other hand, clearly states it’s a mortal sin (if not forgiven before death by repenting, I’m punishable to eternal hell). Pope Francis in 2013, by contrast, said Jesus’ redemption is for all, even atheists, justified by a passage in the Gospel of Mark, but later rebuffed by the Vatican. To be fair, in their attempt to be just, Catholicism even has legal jargon to explain what’s a mortal sin: it has to be grave in matter, committed with full knowledge, and have deliberate consent. Still these contradictions don’t surprise me as the Gospels and Epistles each have their own unique theology, and if you cherry pick, which all denominations do, then the end result is this rainbow of doctrine you see.
Play with our Emotions
Before I start on the particulars of hell, I thought the following quote by Michael Shermer sums up the possible evolution of monotheistic faiths and how religion can manipulate our emotions, especially playing upon fear.
Religion is a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community. Around five thousand to seven thousand years ago, as bands and tribes began to coalesce into chiefdoms and states, government and religion co-evolved as social institutions to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles and legal rules, and God became the ultimate enforcer of the rules. In the small populations of hunter-gatherer bands and tribes with a few dozen to a couple of hundred members, informal means of behavior control and social cohesion could be employed by capitalizing on the moral emotions, such as shaming someone through guilt for violating a social norm, or even excommunicating violators from the group. But when populations grew into the tens and hundreds of thousands, and eventually into millions of people, such informal means of enforcing the rules of society broke down because free riders and norm violators could more readily get away with cheating in large groups; something more formal was needed. This is one vital role that religion plays, such that even if violators think that they got away with a violation, believing that there is an invisible intentional agent who sees all and knows all and judges all can be a powerful deterrent of sin.
Pervasiveness of Hell
The concept of an afterlife in general is present in some way or another in most religions, with hell in particular being present in most modern religions with the exception of early Judaism and early Hinduism. I don’t know the inter-dependencies of these religions, but it’s fascinating to note that most have some form of what we would call “hell”. The best attempt I’ve seen at explaining the pervasiveness of belief in an afterlife is by Michael Shermer in his book titled, “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.” To touch only on the religions with an influence on Christianity, Judaism, for example, like the notion of their heaven, has an ambiguous version of hell. There is Sheol, where the spirits of the dead go, and Gehinnom, which is a dump that was constantly burning to which became a place for sinners – not until much later does hell become a place of actual punishment. What’s unique about Judaism in contrast to Christianity’s concept of hell is that the punishment is temporary not eternal. In Greek mythology, there is an underworld, also known as Hades, containing a component known as Tartarus, which is the place where torment and suffering takes place. So Tartarus is to hell as Hades is to Sheol. Christianity recycles these words and usage can be a bit different, but the point is that hell is referenced frequently and vehemently, in fact over twenty times in the New Testament. It was a vivid belief back then, and it still thrives today in most denominations.
The Necessary Ingredient, Soul.
As a confession, I do not accept scripture as divinely inspired by the holy spirit nor as it being inerrant. In fact, the more I study the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament the more I view it as a very human book indeed. A descriptive analysis of what hell is to most Christian denominations includes a very unpleasant place of fire and torture, unlivable but yet mostly ongoing, and has an element of punishment for committing grave sins. The details across denominations of how one goes to hell vary so much, which is typical, that it boggles the mind how anyone can conclusively agree with one over the other. Besides, like most religious truths, this is all based on a prior reasoning or top-down deductive logic. This is where one’s conclusions are based on premises, in a more or less closed system, derived on reason alone – that is, there is zero empirical evidence for hell. Not that truths can’t be ascertained deductively, like mathematics or syllogistical reasoning, but if the premises are false, then your conclusions and rationale are nothing more than fairytales.
To get back to how one gets to hell, we must first understand the concept of the soul. For brevity, we’ll look at just how key denominations view the soul and see how it’s integral to the understanding of hell. For starters, the concept of mind-body dualism and the immortality of the soul is completely foreign to the Bible; the immortality and separation of the soul from the body is a Greek phenomenon, espoused by Socrates and Aristotle. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) uses the word soul (nephesh) to mean “life” or “vital breath”, and there is no equivalent English version of the word soul in Hebrew. Moreover, the Jews believed in a whole body resurrection not an ascension of the soul. However, the Hebrew bible does say that the soul – a vague concept of life itself – can die and does go to Sheol upon death, regardless of status with God. Also some have argued that the biblbe has a notion of duality, see Luke 16:19–31 on Lazarus, 1 Samuel 28 and Luke 23:43. Regarding the New Testament, it is a little more complicated and uses the Greek word psuche, which means “life”, while the word spirit is used interchangeably. The apostle Paul generally describes death as “sleep” awaiting the final resurrection. Although much is spoken about eternal life, no where is there teaching of the immortality of the soul or of that of an explicit duality existing between mind and body. These concepts were introduced by the Greeks and incorporated into church doctrine by the church fathers Origen of Alexandra and Augustine of Hippo and by the philosopher Thomas Aquinas.
How does it work?
So if you are a biblical inerrantist, then there may be some challenges to accepting the Greek’s version of the soul, for, conceptually, it is not found in the bible at all. And yet it is one of the more popular beliefs of Christianity. Changes to scripture or needs to establish doctrine are usually made to overcome common objections or to solve theological problems. Although I can only widely speculate as for the need for immortality and duality of the soul, it is possible that it allows for immediate judgement, i.e., suffering, or exaltation, of the individual upon death since bodies don’t raise from the dead, which was the common expectation of the time. Moreover, since the second coming has yet to come (and never will come), where universal resurrections would occur, this duration of time can pose a problem as the body does decay and disappear, so raising an immaterial, immortal soul would be a solution to that problem. A universal resurrection is when all the dead from past to present get resurrected by Christ at the last judgement: see John Chapter 5:28-29. And eschatology, so we know the theological discipline, is the the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind [Webster’s Dictionary].
I’d say there’s two broad categories that sum up how the soul interacts with hell. For Catholics and Greek Orthodox, they believe that during the general resurrection and last judgment – when the second coming of Jesus Christ occurs to raise and judge all – those who are not worthy will be permanently separated from God and, of course, eternally punished for their sins. One’s soul dies after committing a mortal sin (grave) and is separated from God if they don’t repent beforehand, but the venial (slight) sins get purified in purgatory, which is supposedly a less severe form of a transient hell. And those lucky ones without any mortal sins go to heaven. Also, all this occurs at the last judgment, where the soul is reunited with the body, but, confusingly, this does not necessarily mean that those that die don’t get judged immediately as well, in what’s known as the particular judgment – double judgement? Most Protestants, on the other hand, believe in conditional immortality – that is, the soul does not live until the resurrection of the dead or second coming of Christ – so the soul dies with the body at death. This doctrine is more specifically known as Christian mortalism, and can be found as far back as the Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther and as recent as with N.T. Wright from the Anglican church.
A Damnable Doctrine
So far we’ve read about how Christianity sends horrific messages that we will be damned to an eternity of hell if we do not believe in him, obey the gospels or commit grave sins without repenting. I argued that it seems rather totalitarian to have to accept these terms without consent. But of course some will argue that any descent parent would punish their children for misdeeds without the child’s consent. And this is the part that I just can’t accept – complete submission to an authority that I have doubt exists. And, even if God did exist, I don’t understand this obsession with submission and worship. I suppose if God did create all that exists and is the very nature of existence itself, then reverence for him would be appropriate but not necessarily submission. Regardless, the real crux of the issue is how can a merciful God punish sinners. Again, the analogy of a good parent could challenge that, but, wait a minute, this punishment is for an eternity. And this is not in accordance with the Gospel of Matthew’s teachings on the Sermon on the Mount. For example, Matthew Chapter 5:38, one of the six antitheses, talks about how the Hebrew Law promotes peace and justice in a community by “taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” although he takes it a step further and suggests that one should suffer the wrong by not retaliating at all, by turning the other cheek. So, first, Matthew agrees with the Code of Hammurabi, which is about the punishment fitting the crime, but then builds upon it with a radical conclusion of non-violence. So if he believes in the Hebrew Law of justice, how could Jesus also agree that being damned to an eternity is just; that is, how could any crime ever warrant an eternity in hell if God is merciful. We know he’s just, but he’s also merciful and benevolent.
To compound on matters, Matthew discusses in the parable of sheep and goats, Matthew 25:26, that those that are charitable to others will inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven (God) has various interpretations by theologians and secular scholars, but it’s suffice to say for now that it is a desirable place if one is in God’s good favor. So Jesus’ parable is commanding you to be compassionate, and I therefore have great respect for it; however, it ends poorly by saying, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Avoiding the details of the parable, it’s essentially saying those that do not follow suite in charitable acts are damned to eternal punishment. Now perhaps this is hyperbole for effect, but this is not the way Christianity takes it. So in taking it how Christians take it, this does not sound, once gain, like a just and merciful God. Some may say that’s just God’s prerogative and leave it at that. I, however, when trying to square it aware with theological attributes ascribed to him, e.g., righteousness, love, merciful and so forth, have a difficult time taking the claim seriously. If the religion is taken seriously, by contrast, these claims of eternal hell frighten people and may possibly even work as a recruitment or retaining mechanism for the more than two billion worshippers. I, on the other hand, believe that people should be committing good deeds for the sake of the act in it of itself not for a reward such as the Kingdom of Heaven.
So the doctrine arguably doesn’t always coincide with scripture’s message, with a merciful and just God and is totalitarian in its structure. However, there’s been arguments proposed to counteract these objections, e.g., free will. Free will is the ability to freely choose between different courses of action. I think free will should be viewed on a continuum – with some behaviors and thoughts giving the person more freedom to choose over others – say the instinct to eat, on one extreme, versus the decision to go for a car ride or stay home, on the other extreme. I’d say it’s even more convoluted than that since genes, emotions, influences and so forth, make it even more difficult to really ever have a truly free decision. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be taking responsibility for our actions, for who else is going to? Many believe that God has given us this free will, and therefore we have the ability to choose him or to exclude him. As C.S. Lewis has said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'” I’d argue that why would God give us this freedom of our ultimate destiny in the first place if he knew we were susceptible to the wrong choices. The counterargument is that there had to be free will, so someone could chose to love him, and you can’t love someone if you don’t have that choice to do so. But I’ve always wondered why God has this obsession with wanting you to love him in the first place? Why can’t he just let go and be free?