I’m not sure that people who say they believe in Hell really believe it.
In fact, I think that most believers don’t really think much about Hell at all. And in some ways that’s absolutely right; if a believer perceives that he has been ‘saved from Hell’, then why even think about it?
But as a sincere believer I have indeed thought long and hard about it, because I know that, to the outsider, it is the single most repulsive idea in all of Christendom – meaning, all that is to do with the Kingdom of Christ. And the thinking is not pleasant, because I am caught between two stools – either I offend people I love by apparently undermining one of (what seems to them to be) their central doctrinal tenets; or I have to believe in it in all its full horror. I would have to believe that the all loving God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is capable of the unfair torment of literally billions of precious people for all eternity, all at the same time as the ‘elect’, those who are ‘saved’, are living it up in Heaven and knowing full well that all that suffering is going on ‘somewhere else’. And if that’s not a repulsive idea, then I don’t know what is. In fact, because Jesus made everything along with Father God, it follows that Jesus – the same Jesus Who said ‘Father, forgive them’ – made Hell as part of Creation and plans to torment people there forever, presumably while also being the General Manager for Heaven at the same time. How’s that for repulsive? And who would want to believe in, let alone love, a god who is capable of such unfair barbarity?
But just consider it for a minute. If Christians really did believe in Hell as presented in that doctrine, then it would HAVE to be the central doctrine of Christianity; it would be *every* believer’s central mission in life to warn people of it. The primary point of the Gospel would not be salvation; it would be Hell. Not to love, bless or help people, but to keep them out of Hell. Not out of love, but just out of sheer compassion, which is not the same thing. Not to preach the Gospel of Jesus reconciling us to God (2Cor 5:18). We would have to preach Hell all the time, not help the poor, not aid our neighbour, not even worship or go to church (for also what god who builds/allows places like Hell would be worthy of our worship?). The first thing that should spring to mind for anyone who is considering whether or not the Hell doctrines are true would be to search the Scriptures, hoping (at first beyond hope) if there’s any way at all that they can demonstrate that their precious, loving, holy and merciful God could in no way blacken His character by inventing such an unjust system. (But they don’t so search the Scriptures; they just read them through the lens of what they’ve already been told). There would be nothing they would not do; no lengths they would not go to; no Scripture they would not turn over to ascertain whether or not this terrible doctrine was true; no evangelism programme they would not support. They would be up all night praying for the ‘unsaved’, in fact they wouldn’t even be doing that, they’d be praying for the souls of those in their families who died ‘unregenerate’, in the faint, vain hope that their god would in his ‘mercy’ somehow give those people a second chance to hear. But of course, they would ‘know’ that, according to the parable of Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) – which they should not take literally because it’s a parable, but they do so ‘just in case’, and definitely according to Heb 9:27 (KJV) (… it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment…), there is absolutely no chance of salvation after death and so they live in despair because those people are lost forever. In fact, according to some doctrines, we would be able to watch those people – including our loved ones – burn forever and glorify god all the more because of his justice.
Surely this exposes what a sick, twisted system the Hell doctrine really is, and how much those who profess it do not really believe it! In fact, if we really believed it, and if it was known to be true, and knowing how many people are rapidly and unstoppably going there, then the only logical conclusion is that we would go instantly and immediately insane.
If Hell really is how the standard evangelical doctrine portrays it, it would have to be the absolute central doctrine of all Scripture. It would be the most important thing there is, even more important than the knowledge of God’s love. There would be room for nothing else than Hell, Hell, Hell, because the thing of very first importance would be to ensure that not one single soul ends up in such a terrible place.
But the Old Testament does not actually mention it by name; Jesus mentions it only in a very few passages where it can be shown that actually we have His meaning wrong anyway; the Gospel of John does not mention it even once; and Paul is almost entirely silent on it. The emphasis on Hell in Scripture is nothing like what it should be if it were actually real, because, as we have seen, it would be the single most important thing that Jesus would ever have to tell us.
Churches would have to preach it all the time, but all the time knowing they are fighting a losing battle because the rate of deaths in the world right now is exceeding the rate at which the ‘gospel’ is being preached. So they would quadruple their efforts: no more potluck social events, no more fundraising for the church roof. We’d all have to be out on the streets and door-to-door all the time. But instead Churches use it as a threat to their own members, as a means of control, so they can dictate what hairstyle or clothes girls can wear; what sort of music we can listen to, and all under threat of Hell fire if we fail to comply. What nonsense!** So you either have to ignore it all, practically, to all intents and purposes, or you would, as I’ve already said, go insane. Or dilute it down to become a set of Rules to be followed by church members, under threat of Hell if they disobey those Rules, and at the same time nullifying all that Christ accomplished for them on the Cross.
And Hell is the very worst thing there could ever be. There is nothing worse than Hell, if it is indeed real. Imagine every bad, evil and horrible thing, person, act, deed, situation you’ve ever seen, add them all up, and amplify that a million-fold, and then make it last for ever and ever and ever. In fact, it is so bad that the Good News (the Greek word ‘Gospel’ translates literally as ‘Good News’) would have to be called the Bad News – simply because, according to the belief in the Hell-doctrine, the vast majority of all the people who have ever existed will end up in Hell. This is because generally the people who believe in the Hell doctrine also believe literally that “… small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Mt 7:14) and other such parables (again misinterpreted in my opinion) – ‘Life’ in this case being taken as meaning ‘Heaven’, or at least not Hell (which would be eternal death).
The doctrine means, in other words, that most of humanity are to be condemned to eternal conscious torment because their circumstances, for whatever reason, dictated that they did not hear, receive, believe and act on/live out the ‘good news’ (hah!) before they died. This interpretation and combination of both the Hell doctrine and the ‘narrow way’ doctrine would mean, in fact, that actually we are not only fighting a losing battle but that we are indeed doomed to failure before we even begin. Most people will indeed be lost to Hell, according to that doctrine. The Bible says that ‘few are those who find it’, so why would we feel there is any point in fighting against that? Maybe to pluck those who can be saved from the fire, but still – what a wasteful doctrine! Do you really think that God would create, lovingly, (see Psalm 139) loads of human beings only to consign/condemn 99.9% of them to eternal torment?
Nah. That’s not the God I know.
The whole system is completely unfair, so religious people to whom you speak about it will come out with all kinds of ill-thought-through excuses, counter arguments and Scripture bombardments that are, quite frankly, just more and more complex and tying-up-in-knots as time goes by. They speak of things like the ‘age of responsibility’ (where young people get a ‘get out of hell free card’ because they are too young to ‘choose for Jesus’). Or there are those who say that a person who has not heard the gospel will be ‘judged on the revelation they received’, so maybe that means that they get out of Hell because they followed their own local religion ‘properly’. Which makes a mockery of the idea that Jesus is the Way to Heaven (Jn 14:6). And the peculiar doctrine that those who did hear the Gospel, if they did not ‘choose for Jesus’, then they are condemned; in other words, hearing the Gospel brings judgement on people – death rather than life. Which really is bunk; Jesus came that they might have life in all its fulness! (John 10:10) Or what about soldiers who die in battle, or people who die in their hundreds in disasters like the recent tsunamis, or indeed the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001? Imagine if a person was seriously wanting to follow Jesus, but thought that if he was to believe, then he would also have to believe in Hell. Let’s say his mother has just died. Do you really think that he’d want to believe in Jesus when he perceives that in order to do so, he must also accept the doctrine of Hell in all its ugly entirety and therefore there’s more than a fair chance that his mother’s just arrived there?
So, what’s the answer?
It would be completely immoral if I finished this article without shining a bit of light into this dire, horrible news. So I want to offer you some hope, then.
I, along with many other Christians, believe that the standard doctrine of Hell is completely incorrect. This belief comes from honestly examining the Scriptures and the background of the Hell model currently preached as standard.
You see, the doctrine originates from several sources. The main source is, of course, the Bible – or, at least, in the way the Bible has been interpreted. There are many learned people nowadays who sincerely believe that we have been wrong all along about Hell; that the passages in the Bible that appear to say that there is this place of fiery torment, where the souls of the ‘damned’ experience terrible suffering such that there is ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, have not been interpreted properly. This place of suffering is usually named ‘Hell’ in, well, at least the King James Version and also in some other versions too.
The problems are: a) that most of these passages were either never meant to be interpreted literally (for example, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that I mentioned above); and b) that the words translated as ‘Hell’ are actually different words referring to different ‘places’. The main four words are: Sheol, the Hebrew word for the ‘grave’, or the place where the dead go in Hebrew thought; Hades, the Greek word meaning the same as Sheol; Tartarus, a word of uncertain meaning used in 2 Pet 2:4 (KJV) and where its translation is ‘Hell’ only by tradition as opposed to a definitely-known meaning (and in any case the passage refers to angels, not humans); and finally the most popular word, Gehenna. This word refers to a former rubbish dump, a place that actually exists south of Jerusalem. The word Gehenna is the Greek spelling of the Hebrew words ge hinnom, meaning “valley of Hinnom.” Some pretty horrible things happened in this valley in the Old Testament (do a concordance search on the word ‘hinnom’ for some examples), and it’s easy to understand how it came to be thought of as a horrible place by the Jews of the time. But to make the jump to calling this place ‘Hell’ is surely a leap of, well, something, but it’s not faith!
So we see that it can be shown from the Scriptures that the original words translated in the King James Version as ‘Hell’ are actually entirely different places, if indeed they exist at all. For more on this, see Rev. Roger Harper’s book ‘The Lie of Hell‘, where he takes the literal words used by Jesus and shows what they really mean. In addition, the words translated as ‘eternal’, in the context of ‘eternal suffering’ or ‘eternal torment’ does not in fact mean that it lasts for ever. Some theologians believe, then, that any torment will last for a finite time, either to purify or to annihilate those in Hell. For more on this, as well as more on the meaning of the ‘Hell’ words, check out ‘The Fire That Consumes‘ by Edward W. Fudge, and ‘Wrong about Hell‘; the reference is included at the bottom of this piece.
In actual fact, the modern concept of Hell as a place of unending torment is actually more from the work of medieval fiction known as ‘Dante’s Inferno‘, than from the Bible. It’s more from Islam than Christianity, in that it borrows very heavily from Islamic ideas of Hell as depicted in the Q’uran. And it’s more from elements of literary ideas that have come in from Greek mythology rather than Hebrew thought; Hebrew thought is, of course, the ‘gold standard’ for the interpretation and understanding of all thinking in the Bible, because the Bible was written mainly by Jewish people. In other words, the concept of Hell may as well have been written by J.R.R. Tolkien or even Tom Clancy, such is the actual link between what the Bible actually says (unless we read stuff into it based on our preconceptions), in that most of the imagery and concept is based on sources that are not Biblical in any sense.
In short, the concept is based mainly on fiction, or at the very least, on non-Biblical sources, and the doctrine relies on the apparent (and incorrectly applied) support of Biblical passages that just happen to look like the Dante/Greek/Q’uran picture rather than what would originally have been understood by Jesus’s audience in the early First Century.
To me, this is sufficient evidence to be able to virtually discount the entire doctrine.
But what about free will? Surely, God will not force someone into Heaven if they don’t want to go in there? Indeed He won’t, but to say that that person then goes to Hell is a big leap once again. There are other ideas about what happens to such people, again most of them Scriptural. Personally I believe that death is not the last point at which someone can come to God for ‘salvation’. More on this in my article here. Of course, there are many other questions too, such as ‘what about God’s justice; what about His holiness? What about those who choose not to enter Heaven, for whatever reason? Doesn’t God’s justice demand punishment?” All these and other questions are not technically germane to my current argument, which is more about whether or not the currently-held doctrine of Hell is correct. Answers to these other questions can come later; for now, I’ll stick to my main point.
If you are not a believer in Christ, and you have read this far, then a) you have my deepest admiration and b) don’t worry. God is far, far bigger than this awful doctrine and He loves you more than you could ever think possible. If you are a believer who believes in the Bible, and you consider that it is from the Bible that you have formed your doctrines, then please can I respectfully suggest something. You remember I wrote earlier about how believers should diligently search the Scripture to find out if these things are true? and that I mentioned that the passages about Hell in the Bible can be interpreted in a different way? Then you owe it to yourself, your unbelieving friends and indeed your very sanity, as well as your honesty, to find out the truth.
In discussions about Hell with other believers, my fellow debaters say something like, ‘Listen, I really want the horrible doctrine of Hell to be not true. I just can’t accept it’s not true, because I believe what the Scripture says’.
That looks great on the surface. But is it, really? How many of those people are actually honest enough to be able to look into the Scriptures on Hell: their context, their original language, the cultures in which those Scriptures were written – just as they would with any other doctrine they hold dear. Actually, they don’t do this at all; they would rather simply accept the English translation at face value, along with all the problems this entails. It’s almost as if they want the doctrine of Hell to be true, or at least they don’t want to be proved wrong because then maybe they fear that the whole edifice comes crashing down. But breaking one (faulty) doctrine does not destroy the whole structure of the faith. If you wanted to believe that Hell does not exist, at least in the classical sense of eternal conscious torment, then you would go to any lengths, grasp at any straw, seek to have to be totally convinced that such a horrible place could possibly be the product of a loving god, or of his justice, or whatever. To not seek to try to disprove it is in my opinion just as bad as agreeing to believe it, which is in fact what they are doing. They can prove anything they like from the Scriptures, by the way they use them; why don’t they try to disprove this doctrine, if indeed they care so much; if they want the doctrine to not be true? Surely a doctrine as huge and momentous as this one needs to be properly tested and investigated thoroughly?
The other day, I found that obscure little website I mentioned before called wrongaboutHell.com – a site in which a chap who believes in Biblical infallibility and all that, looks into the real meanings of the Hell passages. And even he is forced, in his honesty, to conclude that we have the thing entirely wrong. Take a look, then, at the Scriptural basis of the doctrine and see what you think. I have collated his chapters into a single PDF file which you can download here.
With this in mind, can I please encourage you to research this subject for yourself? At least keep an open mind, anyway; I actually hesitate to ask people to look into this sort of thing because of course Hell is a very dark subject. Paul exhorts us in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things“. I don’t think that Hell falls into any of these categories, do you? But actually the belief that the traditional version of Hell is in fact false, leads to a place of real freedom. And another important point is that you don’t have to believe in Hell to be a Christian. That’s not what the Bible says at all; quite the contrary. Belief in Jesus is all that is required; how have some people managed to twist it round so that you have to believe in Hell instead?!
Maybe you could begin by visiting wrongaboutHell.com and/or reading the PDF ebook version of it (linked to below). Read George Macdonald; read Paul Ellis and Jeff Turner – subscribe to Jeff Turner on Facebook. Don’t take my word for it – read and research! More links are included below for you to start your research from. You will find that there are Bible-believing, honest people out there who are just as strong believers as you are, but who do not believe in the standard Hell doctrine.
And they are much happier people for it!
I have a friend who is a street evangelist. He and his wife put life and liberty at risk on a daily basis preaching the Gospel to passers-by in the street, and praying for healing for those who need it. They are a couple who are dear to me, and I’m afraid that this article will certainly offend them. I am so sorry about this, but I cannot honestly leave unsaid the things I believe I have discovered on this subject, because it is in my opinion so damaging to my Father’s reputation, and to the Gospel as a whole.
And so, if Hell does not exist, does this meant that my friends would be out of a job? By no means; the Good News looks even better when it is not presented with the deadly backdrop of a god who invented a fiery eternal torment and yet is depicted as being ‘all-loving’! The Good News is that God loves us and wants to spend time with us; He wants to draw us into the Kingdom with love rather than threaten us into the Kingdom with thoughts of Hell.
Hell exists in this world; it does not need to exist in the next.
The sooner we can ditch this disgraceful doctrine, the better.
Links and further reading:
Roger Harper – The Lie of Hell – a review and summary by David Matthew
Edward W. Fudge – The Fire That Consumes – a review and summary by David Matthew
A good sermon by Lee O’Hare describing why he doesn’t believe in Hell, quoting from the above article. 52 minutes long but well-worth listening to. It takes place in a coffee bar, so there si a bit of background noise.
A page of Photographs of Hell (Ben Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem)
Link to an excellent little book, ‘Raising Hell’, by Julie Ferwarda. On that page, there are links to buy it on Amazon as an ebook or as a paperback, and Julie also offers a free PDF download of the book on that site.
Scared of Hell? (It’s not what you think) – a lovely, down-to-earth set of articles by Debbie, a lady who has really thrashed out and researched what she believes and why she believes it.
Bob Faser on ‘A Well-Kept Secret’ – that actually Christians are increasingly reaching a point where they no longer believe the doctrine of eternal punishment.
The Collected Works of George MacDonald – Kindle edition (only 49p at time of writing!) – begin with the section ‘Unspoken Sermons’
Roger Wolsey’s article, “To Hell with Hell” – an article describing how the pagan concept of Hell has inviegled its way into Christian thought.
‘The Great Eternal Auschwitz‘ – a great piece by Rob Grayson
* Standard Evangelical Christianity’s doctrine holds that everyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ in this life (i.e. before they die) will spend eternity in Hell, a place of conscious, permanent and ongoing fiery torment from which there is no escape. The doctrine implies that Jesus made Hell (because He made everything (Rom 11:36, Col 1:16, Jn 1:3) and that the justice of a righteous god demands punishment for sin – either by eternal torment or by removing forever from his presence those who are not worthy to be there – which amounts to the same thing as once someone has seen God in all His glory; to be forever removed from that Presence would bring everlasting regret and torment in and of itself. Most evangelicals – at least, those who have made the effort to at least think about it just a little – believe something like that. I know this because I too used to believe in that doctrine and I explored it in depth at the time. And at that time I was convinced of its correctness, and that of god in instituting it. How wrong I was…
**And see Colossians 2:16-23 and 1Cor2:15
One further observation: As a professional scientist (I work in a chemical analysis laboratory in the pharmaceutical industry), I have to say that all, yes, all of the artwork depicting Hell that I have ever seen is incorrect. If it is supposed to represent a lake of burning brimstone – the archaic name for what we now know as Sulfur – then the flames should be blue. Sulfur burns slowly and quietly with a gentle blue flame, not roaring sharp orange flames. Artistic licence? Naaaah. Revoke them all!