“The New Testament does not describe the torment of Gehenna or portray Satan as the lord of Gehenna. These are later literary accoutrements.” —Anchor Bible Dictionary, S.V. “Hades, Gehenna”
“Theologically, Hell is out of favor now, but it still seems more ‘real’ to most people than Fairyland or Atlantis or Valhalla or other much imagined places.” —Alice K. Turner, A History of Hell
Mind you, I’m a Christian, so if you’re hoping for a skeptical slam at religion or Christianity, this post will be a letdown. (My view of Christianity would be nothing like what you would expect, either, in that case.) On the other hand, it is fair to ask why, if I don’t believe in hell, I keep going on about it. Yawn.
I keep writing about hell because, as the Alice Turner quote above says, so many people are living their lives in terror of it. This is especially true of people who have had a distressing NDE. And the group that may be in the worst fear consists of those who come out of error-ridden fundamentalist Christian teachings.
I’ll tell you why we must question the teaching of hell. The very name and character of God is at stake!
Even if you’re an agnostic or atheist, it’s worth knowing what it is we’re talking about, so read on. Today’s post is mostly for readers who are Evangelical Christians trying to move beyond a no-exit belief in hell.
My intent is to point to some biblically coherent exit signs, ways out of the impasse that is our cultural fear of hell. In brief, here are two online sources I wish I had known about when writing my book. As an efficient overview of how we got to our ideas of eternal physical torment, these are excellent summaries. Note that although I am in general agreement with the originating websites, I do not necessarily endorse all their views; nevertheless, the scholarship behind these articles is solid and unmistakable.
- From the Winter, 2011 issue of the magazine Vision comes “Hell: Origins of an Idea.” Brief, well written, and to the point, this article makes the important and usually overlooked observation that it was the turn from Jewish to Greek thought that produced hell as the West came to know it. http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/origin-of-hell/41044.aspx
- A comprehensive site about the difference between the teachings of Jesus and what became Christianity is Yeshua before 30 CE, from which comes an assortment of fascinating articles, including “The Church’s Development of the Hell Myth.” I have never read a clearer or more succinct history of the development of Christian thought; in addition, the article builds its case with a wealth of quotes from early sources. http://30ce.com/developmentofhell.htm
As clear as both those articles are, they will not meet the need of truly committed Evangelicals who come from a background of a literal and inerrant reading of the Bible. Those questioners require more specifics about how it is possible to understand particular Bible verses in a different yet genuinely Christian way. For them I strongly recommend another work I have recently discovered, the highly readable yet thorough Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire.
This is a book as remarkable for the passionate faith of its author as for its patient scholarship. Issue by issue and proof text by proof text, word by word, Julie Ferwerda, a believing Evangelical, has done her homework and demonstrates how the evolution of hell across centuries and translations has distorted the Bible’s original meaning. It’s an astonishment, to be sure. Again, I do not agree with all her theology; yet I think that for Evangelicals, this book may be a life-changer. In her own words:
You may ask, is it safe to challenge over 1,500 years of traditional theology-in-the-making on matters such as whether or not there’s validity to the doctrine of hell? You may also be wondering what difference does it make whether or not we believe in hell if we all agree that salvation only comes through Jesus. I’ll tell you why we must question the teaching of hell. The very name and character of God is at stake! What if, by not questioning and not taking the time to get to the bottom of these matters, we are guilty of completely misrepresenting God’s character and intentions to the world? In my opinion, it’s not safe to NOT question.
Without a doubt, this book will likely challenge many core orthodox teachings you’ve been taught in church, yet my hope is that your Bible will be illuminated like never before… No longer will you have to ignore seemingly contradictory passages or do painful contortions to make the pieces fit. My desire is that, through the pages of this book, your God will become more unlimited, more powerful, and more loving than you ever dreamed possible. Of course, He is the same today as He was yesterday; what will change, with perspective, is you.