“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.
AMEN, Nancy!! I came from a fundamentalist background, but then it slowly dawned on me…. there is no such thing as hell as everlasting torment. Amazing how many fundies will fight you tooth and nail (and even quit being your ‘friend’) because you no longer believe in this god-awful doctrine.
Nan Bush says
Amazing, and very sad to think they’re living in such fear that they won’t even look at competing evidence. I’m glad you found your way out.
Rev Rod Walton says
Thank you for writing a very much needed article. I have been a Christian for 37 years and a Priest for 7 years. For the last 4 years I have been a Christian Universalist. I have been researching NDEs for the last 35 years, and now use the NDE research to help heal those suffering from bereavement.
Since my change to Christian Universalism the NDEs make much more sense, it all comes together.
The book “Hope Beyond Hell” was what opened my eyes to the the error that I had believed for many years, see link
Thanks again for a very timely article.
Nan Bush says
And thanks to you. “It all comes together…” Isn’t that such a great realization!
Dave Woods says
When I forget to do something, or mess up bad enough that my wife gets mad and says “Damn you! you stupid ass! you can go right straight TO HELL!!, my answer is yuh mean this isn’t it?
Nan Bush says
LOL You got it, Dave!
Ken Vincent says
For a “hell of a good read” try my: The Salvation Conspiracy, How Hell Was Made Eternal
There are a number of very excellent books on Universalism. but to me, the absolute best is John Wesley Hanson’s UNIVERSALISM, THE PREVAILING DOCTRINE OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH DURING ITS FIRST FIVE HUNDRED YEARS, originally published in 1899, but back in print and can be found FREE on the web with a little searching.
Nan Bush says
Ken, how good to hear from you! Thanks for the additional references. Hope all’s well out your way.
//apologies in advance for sounding like a 14 year old girl// Oh my goodness. That’s sooooo neat that You are reading this blog too. Much love, Ken!
Hello Nan, and Ken Vincent (your name sounds VERY familiar….It’s going to bug me for a little)
Might I suggest and EVEN OLDER text, written by our vary own Edward Beecher (brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe), and it’s free to read online!!!
THE HISTORY OF OPINIONS ON THE SCRIPTURAL DOCTRINE OF RETRIBUTION.
Nan Bush says
Joshua, that is–no surprise–simply brilliant! Those Beechers and all their ilk of 19th century scholars make us hang our heads. (My paternal grandfather was one of that generation, and to read him now is a marvel.) The most striking thing to me is that SCHOLARS HAVE KNOWN THIS! Why oh why has it taken so long to trickle down to the rest of us? Thanks so much for this. I really look forward to reading it. As for Ken Vincent, Google for his book titles on universalism.
Woah. Ken Vincent…THE KEN VINCENT…is reading this blog……woah.
Nan Bush says
Yep. THE Ken Vincent! Thanks, Joshua, for making my morning…and Ken, for all the support.
Thank you, Nancy. Like most of the folks I know, I was brought up under the “sinners-burn-in-hell-for-eternity-and-and-any-other-interpretation-is-the-devil-talking” doctrine.
Over the past few day’s I’ve spent most of my spare time checking out the resources linked to in this article, and now I’ve ordered the book Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire from Amazon. I bought the printed edition and the Kindle version. I’ve already started reading the Kindle download, and I intend to loan out the printed book to BunnyCat (my wife) and several of my friends. Come to think of it, maybe I should order a few more copies. Spreading the Good News about the myth of hell is an evangelical cause I can get my heart into.
If anybody wants to see the situation in stark relief, just compare the wording of the 5-star reviews against the 1-star reviews. Looking at the mentality of both camps is chilling, but not for the reason the 1-star reviewers would have you to think.
Nan Bush says
You’re making me really, really happy! xo
All my life i was in fear and terror of eternal torment in a lake of fire and brimstone upon my death,made worse by my nde in 2001 prior to hysterectomy. This web site has set me free. Thank you
Nan Bush says
Sheila, thank you so much for this. (“Thank you” seems not quite enough…) Every so often, as with this last post, the writing takes so long and gets my thoughts so tumbled, I begin to wonder if I’ve run out of coherent things to say. And then comes your comment, or one like it, and I am so grateful. There’s lots more for us all to say in this conversation. I am so glad this site has helped.