Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hell: The Disgrace of Christianity

I recently ran a poll on an Internet message board I frequent, asking respondents to choose what they believe God will do with humanity at the end of time. Among the choices were the following:

1) All non-Christians will go to hell.
2) Anyone who doesn’t believe in God will go to hell.
3) People will get a chance to accept God before the final decision is made.
4) Only the most evil and unrepentant will go to hell.
5) God will have mercy on everyone.

I then asked them to choose what they would do if they were God. The same choices applied. My gut feeling was that some people would choose answers 1 or 2 in the first poll (believing that God would either send all non-Christians to hell, or at least all non-believers to hell), but that far fewer people would choose answers 1 or 2 for the second poll.

My assumptions proved true. For the first poll, two respondents believed that all non-Christians would go to hell, and one respondent believed that anyone who didn’t believe in God would go to hell. The majority, of course, chose something between answers 3, 4, and 5. Yet no one, when answering the second poll – the one about what they would do if they were God – answered choice 1 or 2.

What does this say about our conceptions of God? Could it be true that these rebellious, sinful, hopeless creatures called human beings are more merciful, forgiving, and loving than the very God who created them? If one abides by a traditional/evangelical Christian view of reality, this seems to be the only assumption one can make. We think God will send all non-believers, and maybe even all people who aren’t specifically born again Christians, to hell, yet if we were God ourselves, we would be much more lenient, merciful, and forgiving.

Something’s wrong with this picture.

By the standards with which we understand the terms, the very idea that an all-loving, all-merciful, all-compassionate God could even conceive of a place such as hell is counter-intuitive and nonsensical. You must redefine those terms in order to make sense of such a concept.

Yet, this is the prevailing concept within traditional/evangelical Christianity. God is love. God is merciful. But God will send you to roast for eternity in unimaginable torment if you don’t believe and do the right things.

It can’t be both ways. If you abide by traditional/evangelical Christian thought, then you must either acknowledge that God is not loving, not merciful, and not compassionate, by the standards with which we understand those terms, or you must acknowledge that the very concept of hell is flawed.

I personally believe that the hell doctrine is Christianity’s single biggest doctrinal disgrace. For centuries it has been used as a tool to wield power, scaring people into submitting to the will of the Church for fear of eternal punishment. It is certainly not worthy of the God we believe embodies love, mercy, and compassion, and it is not even biblical, if one understands the background against which the bible speaks of hell. Even if one makes the argument for the biblical veracity of a place called hell for sinners, such teachings would clearly fall into the category that the Episcopalian bishop, writer, and scholar John Shelby Spong would call a “sin of scripture.” It can stand proudly beside those other sins of scripture such as mandatory execution for homosexual acts, the slaughter of innocent Egyptian babies, and words of encouragement and support for beating and abusing wayward children.

I don’t personally believe in hell. I believe in a God of love, a God of compassion, and a God of mercy. I believe in forgiveness and acceptance. I don’t believe that anyone is completely guilty of whatever crimes/actions they have committed. No one is born evil, or born with a desire to do evil. We learn these things through society and culture, and usually a healthy dose of neglect, abuse, and bad influences. Even if someone is born with a mind seemingly pre-wired to criminal pathology, is it their fault they were born with such a mind? Did they ask to become a homicidal maniac, child molester, or serial killer? I believe in the concept of basic human innocence. We are born innocent, and anything that happens thereafter is a complex combination of psychological pre-wiring, nurture, and societal influence. No one can do anything other than attempt to make their way in the world with the set of parameters they have been given. Some of us get two loving parents, a nice house in suburbia, reliable cars, good schools, and positive influences. Others of us get an abusive mother, a drug-dealing father, dangerous schools, ghetto tenements to live in, and the stench of crack pipes to fall asleep to. Still others get the impression of stability in white suburbia, but grow up behind the scenes with sexually, physically, and emotionally abusive parents.

Where would you be, if you had been given scenario number two or three in the paragraph above?

I’m not suggesting I believe that crimes should go unpunished or that serial criminals should be allowed back on the streets. What I am suggesting is that when it comes down to ultimate truths and ultimate realities, we all have innocent souls. Therefore, how could anyone be worthy of a place like hell? Don’t forget – hell is not just a place of temporary punishment where you get to burn in utter agony for a few weeks in order to pay for your crimes. Hell is a place where you burn in utter agony, without dying, for all eternity! No crime/action/inaction in life could possibly justify such a punishment – especially not the crime of believing in the wrong religion, or choosing not to believe at all.

The ancient Jews did not really have any unified or structured concept of hell. The closest thing to an afterlife to the ancient Jew was the place called “Sheol,” which was more or less the underworld – the world of shadows, under the ground, where all people went when they died. It had nothing to do with eternal torment, or any sort of reward/punishment cycle.

Hell came into being along with the birth of the Christian church. If you open your bible, you won’t find any reference to hell until the New Testament. During the time of the birth of Christianity, there was a garbage and refuse dump outside of Jerusalem, called Gehenna in Greek, which was routinely on fire as the city’s waste was burned. The early Jewish Christians combined their understanding of the spiritual place called Sheol, with their knowledge of the physical place called Gehenna, to form the concept of hell. It was a way for them to makes sense of the tragedies and persecutions that they suffered, and it was a way for them to satisfy the basic human idea of reward/punishment.

Although the gospel writers (writing several generations after Jesus’s life), attributed words to Jesus that included talk of hell, most scholars do not believe the historical Jesus would have had any concept of hell as we understand it, as the concept was not developed until long after his death. If Jesus ever spoke of eternal rewards and punishments, it would have been in a metaphorical sense – in other words, to live apart from God is to doom yourself to eternal suffering through being separated from the source of your being; to live in union with God is to live in perpetual exaltation with the source of life and love. Which sounds better to you? I know I would choose the latter.

For the kingdom of God to be realized in the present, I believe Christianity must jettison outdated and immoral doctrines like the doctrine of hell. If God is all-loving, all-merciful, and all compassionate, then all human beings have innocent souls, and all are equally deserving of eternal communion with God.


deine schwester :) said...

Wonderful. You should write a book about this stuff.

Anonymous said...

As expected in cases related to religion, I disagree with everything that you say. However, I have neither the time or talents to write a formulative response (or 'musing' if you will) to someone of such high intellect and writing prose. To the thousands that read this gifted writer's essays each weeek...just know that there are other educated schools of thought.

Scott said...

Well, there are other schools of thought, and some of the people who abide by those schools of thought may have educations, but those schools of thought are intellectually dishonest on every level, as I've attempted to illustrate in this article.

Patti said...


What if the Deity exists as shown in the Bible? What if he really is a vicious monster who enjoys the sound of humans in pain, and who will use any means he can justify to himself to torture them? What if he really thinks that torture for all eternity is just?

Anonymous said...

Once again, either you believe Christ you don't. He was who he said he was or he wasn't. Why create some spiritual new age religion that makes you feel good by using some things he said but not all? If I thought that Christ was a lunatic, I'd be at a strip club right now, cheating on my wife and getting trashed, while stealing money from my employer or an outright bank. By insisting that your way of thinking is right and that everyone else is dishonest (lying), you make yourself as close minded as the conservatives that you despise...other than myself of course. Don't you just love this? It's a shame we didn't do more of this in college.

Scott said...

Patti: If your scenario is right, then I'll see you in hell :)
Hooch: So you are saying that you have no sense of morality, beyond what your concept of God teaches you to have? What I mean is, if you weren't a Christian, why would that mean you'd be at the strip club, cheating on your wife, doing every immoral thing you could think of? Morality and religion are mutually exclusive. Morality doesn't come from a religious belief. It is an inborn emotion. You either choose to live an upstanding and moral life, or you choose not to. Religion has very little to do with it. As for claiming that its as simple as either believing Christ or not believing Christ -- no, it isn't that simple. The lack of simplicity, I would think, is illustrated by this article. How can God be all-loving, and still damn the majority of his creation to eternal torment and suffering? There is nothing simple about Christianity, unless one makes the conscious choice to bury one's head in the sand -- something that most Christians, in fact, do.

Patti said...

I'll agree with you, Scott, that morality is inborn, as our sense of the religious may be. Morals make it easier for us to survive, and so the meme itself survives and is passed on.

It's evolution.

And Anon, honey...I don't want to know you. If the only reason you aren't a criminal is that some Invisible Man is telling you that he'll barbeque you if you do those things, what would you be capable of in a moment of doubt?

Scott said...

Patti, Anon is capable of a lot of evil. He listens to show tunes, for god's sake.

Patti said...

For him, I'll make an exception about Hell..show tunes are definitely of the Debbil!!!

J/K (I hope you realize that without me typing , but you never know....)

Anonymous said...

Liar, liar, you're pants are made out of brimstone. The choices I make are out of a devotion to Christ, not a fear of hell. I want to live in service to Him because I believe that He gave His life for me so that I can live for forever. For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. I understand your point on morality, but to me if there is nothing past this life, there is not much worth living for. You just become a worm feast. This is a great argument however and we've not even brought up on why many Christians want to believe that hell is nothing but fire and pitchforks. We know about as much about hell as we do about heaven, and I don't believe that heaven is clouds, harps, and halos either. I think that best 'man' can do is to say heaven is eternal life with Christ/God and hell is eternal separation from him. Although I do believe there is suffering, as described by the Lazarus story in Scripture. Oh, and Patti, I'm really not that bad of a guy although I really do love showtunes. This has to be a musings record for snide remarks. Congrats!

deine schwester :) said...

Personally, I am very offended at the suggestion that because I'm agnostic I might as well be immoral as well. I don't steal, I try my best not to lie, I don't sleep with other people behind my partner's back, and I don't know if there is a God. That doesn't make me a bad person, and I resent the implication that it would. THIS is the reason that I continue to be completely soured on organized religion. I can't stand the smug piety of it all.

Anonymous said...

I NEVER accused you of being immoral or that you are that way. I was just stating how I believed. If I implied that is how you should be, I sincerely apologize. I did not mean to come across as smug in anyway. I thought this was a light-hearted discussion about religious issues and did not intend for anyone to get fired up, although I realize that can happen easily when discussing religion and faith. Trust me, Scott and I have almost killed each other at least five times that I can think of.

Scott said...

Hooch: Why does having no promise of eternal life through Jesus mean that life is pointless? The purpose of life is to survive. That's what species do. No, that's not comforting, but neither is the fact that young children get murdered every day -- but that doesn't change the fact that it's true. Either way, the "life is pointless without a God" argument doesn't address the implication that you (and, presumably, other Christians) lead moral, upstanding lives ONLY because of your hope in Jesus. I mean, wasn't Ghandi pretty moral? How about countless other non-Christian examples one could name? Morality and Christianity don't go hand in hand. I know as many immoral Christians as I know moral atheists/agnostics. There is no connection between the two. If you would lead an immoral life without belief in Jesus, then I say your morality is in vain, because it's faked. I don't need Jesus, God, or any other supernatural concept in order to act morally. I act morally because it is the responsible and human thing to do. Now, as for your comments about hell vs. heaven, I do tend to agree with you there...I do conceive of heaven as eternal communion with God, and Hell as eternal separation from God. But I don't conceive of those things as physical places, nor do I conceive of them as a means of meting out reward and punishment by a capricious supernatural fairy. We choose whether or not to be in communion with God or not be in communion with God. And those are broad definitions that can include many different personal spiritual philsophies. Human theologies have nothing to do with it, in my opinion.