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I find that people are utterly puzzled when I tell them I don’t believe in hell, and over the past few weeks it has become increasingly evident to me that I need to flesh out my position on this topic. So if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes, I’d like to lay out the information I learned which caused me to abandon my former belief in a fiery afterlife.
1. We tend to think of the underworld as an Israelite or Jewish “revelation” that was passed on to Christianity during the first century, however this is not true. The concept of an “underworld” existed long before the dawn of the Israelites’ religion and is also found in ancient Mesopotamia, Zoroastrianism and Greek myth. When people buried their deceased loved ones, they often wondered what happened “down there” under the dirt. This concern and curiosity caused people to theorize, and even prompted the development of such intricate afterlife companions as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Humankind has always developed ideas about the next “life” or “world(s)” to help cope with the uncertainty involved in death and dying.
2. The concept of the afterlife (Sheol) that has been recorded in Jewish/Christian scripture probably emerged from the Israelites’ contact with the ancient Babylonians. This would not be the first religious concept to be borrowed from their neighbors. It is widely known that the Ten Commandments, the Genesis creation account, the story of Noah, and other things were heavily influenced by the culture in which the Israelites lived. Furthermore, Sheol is not “hell.” It is a shadowy pit without fire or demons… It’s a place where everyone went upon death. (Click here to read a rabbi’s exploration of this topic.)
3. In the New Testament, the word hell masks a ton of metaphor. We are often unable to see this because we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated by a literal/traditional reading of the text. I wrote about this last summer, so instead of rehashing it all here, I’ll suggest that you read how the concepts of fire, Hades (which is a product of Greek myth), and weeping/gnashing of teeth can be alternatively understood.
4. Torturing someone for eternity is not “justice.” Neither is “banishing them from God’s presence forever.” I like Rabbi Max Weiman’s observation that in true justice, the punishment fits the crime. The punishment for a human moral infraction could never logically be eternal because we are not capable of committing eternal sins. Jesus (a Jew) made reference to an ancient concept of justice that involved “an eye for an eye”, which brings to mind the degree to which many (but obviously not all) Jewish people believed that the “scales” should be balanced in the process whenever possible. What’s most interesting is that Jesus went on to teach that holy justice meant abandoning even the eye-for-an-eye idea because in his mind, God would be much more gracious than that– and would expect the same from us.
5. The concept of an all-powerful deity who expects me to forgive 70X7 times when he clearly is unable to do the same is simply beyond my imagination. Frankly, I just can’t believe it. If you read my blog, you know I’m no theologian, so I’m not interested in stringing together a bunch of patristic theory or half-hacked scripture to prove that God tortures people. If there is a God, then surely, his ability to reason, carry out justice, and love us will far exceed any theory or practice we can concoct in this life. And, I don’t think we need a torture theory in order to highlight the beauty of forgiveness.
6. I’ve become convinced that we are attached to the hell doctrine because we don’t know what else to believe. However, from my view that’s not a good enough reason to promote a co-opted theory about an abusive deity in an arguably fictitious underworld.
7. Finally– telling someone to worship their torturer is abuse. I don’t care how you slice it and dice it. It doesn’t matter what kind of package you wrap it in or what kinds of pretty songs you sing about it. There is something unhealthy about a religious experience that has fear at its center. There is something wrong with a religion whose adherents are afraid to leave it because their deity might torture them. And there’s something equally wrong when it isn’t okay to come out and say that to people without being afraid of the consequences. I think we should re-examine the religious construct we’re offering to people and question whether it’s healthy… whether it’s something we truly want the next generation to believe… and whether we believe it because we want to– or because we’re afraid not to.
So that’s it y’all. These are the reasons why I’m a proud, card-carrying, hell-free heretic and proud of it. I hope it clarifies my position on this topic. Thanks for reading.