Hell has been getting bad press in recent times. How can a place of eternal damnation where people are supposed to be tortured forever possibly get worse press, you ask? The answer is that people are finding it hard to believe in it and have started thinking that it does not exist at all. If you are trying to frighten someone, the worst thing that can happen to you is for people to stop believing you exist, as happens with little children and monsters. When a mainstream publication like Time has on its cover the question What if there’s no hell?, you know you have a problem. And it gets worse. Recently even pope Francis has said that atheists can go to heaven. True, he seemed to suggest that one had to be good also but the fact that one did not have to accept Jesus to get into heaven was a major step away from orthodoxy. There was even a disputed interview where he seemed to suggest that there was no hell.
Joanne Pierce discusses how the concept of hell evolved, influenced by Jewish, Christian, and Greek traditions, and getting worse with time
Beginning in the fourth century B.C., after the Greek King Alexander the Great conquered Judea, elements of Greek culture began to influence Jewish religious thought. By time of the first gospels, between 65 and 85 A.D., Jesus refers to the Jewish belief in the eternal fire of Gehenna. Elsewhere, he mentions evildoers’ banishment from the kingdom of God, and the “blazing furnace” where the wicked would suffer sorrow and despair and “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus also mentions the Greek Hades when describing how the forces of evil – “the gates of Hades” – would not prevail against the church.
In early Christianity, the fate of those in hell was described in different ways. Some theologians taught that eventually all evil human beings and even Satan himself would be restored to unity with God. Other teachers held that hell was an “intermediate state,” where some souls would be purified and others annihilated.
The image that dominated in antiquity eventually prevailed. Hell was where the souls of the damned suffered torturous and unending punishment. Even after the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, the wicked would be sent back to Hell for eternity.
By the beginning of the fifth century, this doctrine was taught throughout western Christianity. It was reaffirmed officially by popes and councils throughout the Middle Ages.
I paraphrased a decade ago the argument put forward by David Lewis and Philip Kitcher that people who believe in such a hell are terrible people, because the punishment inflicted by their god in sending people to hell is worse than any atrocity that has ever been committed by any human being, even Hitler.
Since the eternal torment (which is undoubtedly torture on the worst possible scale) that god supposedly prescribes for those who do not worship him is worse than any evil ever carried out by any human, Christians (and other believers in god) should reject the entire concept of eternal torment in the afterlife. Otherwise they forfeit any respect from others because they have become evil simply by virtue of admiring and worshipping a god who is committing a massive evil. In other words, if religious people do not reject the idea of an awful divine retribution, then they are declaring themselves to be evil too. In fact, the more devout and religious such people are, the more evil they should be considered.
That hell is problematic even caused evangelical fundamentalist preachers like Rob Bell and Carlton Pearson, who had their own megachurches, decide that there could be no hell. But when they started preaching a hell-free Christianity, they lost much of their flock. Fundamentalists sure love their hell.
Pearson’s case is interesting. He was a black Pentecostal preacher, a protégé of Oral Roberts, who built a huge multi-racial congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a significant achievement in that segregated community. But seeing the tragic images of the Rwandan genocide, he decided that he simply could not accept that all the people who died there had gone to hell simply because they had not accepted Jesus as their savior. His new message of universal salvation did not go down well and almost all the white people and a lot of the black people abandoned him. I wrote about his case back in 2011 following listening to a 2005 episode of This American Life that dealt with his story.
This American Life in collaboration with Netflix has now produced a biopic of Pearson’s story titled Come Sunday. Because of my interest in this story, I watched it a few days ago. It stars Chewitel Ejiofor as Pearson and Martin Sheen appears as Oral Roberts, portraying him in a sympathetic manner as an avuncular mentor of Pearson, ignoring his reputation as a luxury-loving fraud.
Here’s the trailer for the film.