Perhaps the most disturbing idea in Christian dogma is the notion of hell — a place of unending torment for the detestable souls who don’t qualify for a blissful eternity with God and the angels in heaven. Who are these horrible people who are condemned to agonizing, eternal punishment? Those who don’t believe in Jesus. That’s it. Merely failing to believe in Jesus means you are one of the loathsome vermin who must suffer forever, with no possibility of a respite, and not even the prospect of a welcome oblivion.
The Bible’s most famous verse is John 3:16, which in context lays out the bleak picture in Jesus’s own words:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
[John 3:16-18, NIV]
This idea is, or should be, repugnant to any decent person. Indeed, there are many Christians who deny the doctrine or seek to soften it somehow. This is difficult, though, because Jesus himself refers to hell repeatedly and in graphic terms. An example:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’
Far from hoping to soften the doctrine, some Christians actually seem to delight in it. Tertullian and Thomas Aquinas wrote of the pleasure the saved would take in viewing the sufferings of the damned. Jonathan Edwards notoriously exulted in the prospect of the gruesome spectacle, writing “the sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever.” You can also sense the relish when he writes
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.
[From his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, 1741]
Such creepy people aside, there are many Christians who are uncomfortable with the idea of hell but feel forced to accept it, given that Jesus himself mentions it again and again. C.S. Lewis wrote
There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than the doctrine of hell, if it lay in my power. But it has the support of Scripture and, especially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by the Christian Church, and it has the support of reason.
[From The Problem of Pain]
In the comments, I’d like to discuss the attempts of Lewis and others to rationalize this odious aspect of Christian doctrine. I’m hoping that our Christian readers will weigh in and describe how they, personally, deal with this difficult subject.
If I remember correctly, Dante had a place (limbo?) for souls who lived and died before Jesus was born, so couldn’t have believed in him. I don’t think those folks were actually suffering or being punished, but they couldn’t ever get to heaven either.
Right. Limbo was actually a prominent part of Catholic eschatology, because they needed some way to avoid the unfairness of sending everyone to hell who had the misfortune of dying before Jesus came along.
Limbo was also the place where unbaptized infants were sent, since it clearly wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t been baptized before death. It was obvious that they shouldn’t be punished for something their parents failed to do. Or couldn’t do, if the child died too soon after birth.
It’s another of those weird ideas that Christians felt compelled to adopt because of things Jesus said. He didn’t refer to Limbo specifically, but he did say this:
Christians didn’t want to believe that Jesus was condemning unbaptized infants to hell, though he was evidently ruling out heaven as their destination. They needed Limbo as a place to deposit the poor little kids so that they wouldn’t suffer.
My own guess is that if Jesus actually said that, it was because he hadn’t thought things through and didn’t realize he was throwing unbaptized kids under the bus.
I just learned that the word ‘limbo’ derives from the Latin limbus, meaning edge, border, or hem. The idea was that you weren’t really in hell, you were just sort of straddling the border.
Hell exists on earth, too:
Earthquake death toll tops 33,000
I guess God works in mysterious ways.
According to the great internetz, “The Quran states that God will judge each individual by his or her deeds and that heaven awaits those who have lived righteously and hell those who have not.” Jesus is not involved. We can only hope those earthquake victims lived righteous lives, since most of them do believe in an afterlife.
Richard Swinburne, whose arguments for the soul I dissected in another thread, attempts to rationalize hell in a book chapter called “A Theodicy of Heaven and Hell” (PDF available here).
He draws the line at the idea of hell as a place of eternal physical pain:
It’s good that he recognizes the barbarity of that, but I wonder what he makes of the words of Jesus I quoted in the OP?
I know Swinburne is a member of the Orthodox Church, but I don’t know his position on the veracity of the gospels, so I don’t know whether Jesus’s words are problematic for him.
Swinburne really struggles to explain why some people end up in hell. Here’s a remarkable passage:
What Swinburne fails to explain is why such a person should be made to suffer at all. What has he done wrong? Does Swinburne really see no other options than 1) admittance to heaven or 2) consignment to hell? Why isn’t there a separate paradise for people like the Buddhist, who might not fit into heaven (which is questionable in itself) but aren’t deserving of eternal punishment?
There’s also Swinburne’s stupid statement that “the Buddhist does not want to be doing anything”, which is simply ridiculous.
Christians believe that God loves his children — all of his children — so they have to tie themselves in knots explaining why God sends some (and even most) of his children to eternal torment. That is the antithesis of love.
One of the uncharitable aspects of this is that there are no second chances. You get judged upon death, and that’s it. Your fate is sealed. You either go to heaven or you go to hell.
This makes no sense. Why should death be the point beyond which no reconciliation is possible? And why is God so unloving that he refuses to offer second chances?
The irony is that Jesus himself told the parable of The Prodigal Son, in which a rebellious and sinful son is welcomed home by his father with open arms. It seems that God can’t even live up to the standard set by the father in Jesus’s own parable.
Regarding this “no second chances” business, Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland writes the following in his book The Soul:
That’s preposterous. He is seriously claiming that no one — no one — who dies and is condemned to hell would want to embrace Jesus and leave that eternal torment. And that no one who dies in a state of unbelief would change their mind after discovering that they were wrong.
Say you’re a woman in Tibet who knows a little bit about Christianity but thinks it’s bunk. You die, and in the process of being judged and condemned, you learn that Christianity is true after all. Does Moreland seriously think you wouldn’t change your mind at that point? And that no one in your position would do so?
It’s pure rationalization. He’s looking for excuses for why his God sends people to hell who don’t belong there, and why he offers no second chances.
Here’s C.S. Lewis, offering a similar rationalization:
It’s just as preposterous as the Moreland rationalization, and for the same reason. Does Lewis really think that if the Tibetan woman of my previous comment dies in unbelief, it’s only because she has stubbornly refused to accept Christ despite being given every opportunity? That’s ridiculous.
And what about a tribesman in the central highlands of New Guinea who hasn’t even heard of Jesus before he dies? Has he been given every opportunity to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior?
That tribesman is SOL, according to Jesus:
That’s an immoral stance, but it is in Jesus’s own words (at least according to those who believe the gospel accounts), so Christians like Lewis and Moreland feel compelled to rationalize.
Nonetheless, and ironically enough, there ARE people who cannot change their mind. The more they are shown their error, the more fervently they cling to it.
Here’s a memorable rationalization of hell from C.S. Lewis:
We don’t choose to play the game. The game is forced upon us by God. And then, when he doesn’t get his way, he declares that we’ve lost and sends us to eternal torment.
I don’t know about Clive, but when I lost a game as a child, my parents didn’t torture me at all, much less for eternity. Love meant something to them. They could teach the Christian God a thing or two.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned
Thats one of the problems I have with the whole business. I may sincerely want to believe but try as I may, I just cant ‘turn on’ belief at will.
My guess at how the brain works is that belief comes from some deep place that is not subject to conscious control.
The outlook for me is not looking good.
Another J.P. Moreland rationalization:
What Moreland doesn’t seem to realize is that earthly life already is superfluous. If God is omniscient, he already knows who’s going to end up in heaven or hell. Why not just create each person in their final destination? Why bother with this “earthly life” charade?
That caused me a lot of anxiety as a kid. I wanted to believe, and mostly I did, but doubts would inevitably arise. I feared that I might end up in hell simply because I wasn’t able to suppress those doubts.
Hell is a nasty doctrine to teach to a kid.
Haha. Nor for me. Look me up when you get down there. We can have a beer, at least before it boils away.
Here’s an interesting question for those Christians who think that belief is required in order to gain entrance into heaven:
You presumably would agree that there are more believing Christians as a percentage of the population in Alabama than in Tibet. The reasons for that are obvious. It’s also obvious that many of those Alabamian Christians would not be Christians had they been born in Tibet, and that many of those non-Christian Tibetans would be Christians had they been born in Alabama.
Would you seriously argue that it’s fair for those Alabamians to gain admittance to heaven, but for those Tibetans to be condemned to hell, merely because the former were lucky enough to have been born in Alabama while the latter were unlucky enough to have been born in Tibet?
This should go without saying, but if Jesus actually thought that people should be tortured for eternity merely for failing to believe the gospel, then he was definitely not the kindest, most virtuous person who ever lived.
Moreland, to his credit, understands that it would be ridiculously unfair and immoral for God to send someone to hell merely because they’d never been exposed to the gospel. However, he’s taking an uncomfortable stance, because Jesus’s own words make his position clear:
That New Guinea tribesman who has never heard the gospel or been baptized has not been “born of water and the Spirit”. The poor guy is out of luck, according to Jesus, even though every decent person, apparently including Moreland himself, knows that this is immoral and inexcusable.
For the curious, here’s what the top half of that Jan Van Eyck panel looks like, from the skeleton on up:
It’s a diptych, and the first panel depicts the crucifixion:
I guess I should include this, because there’s more nastiness going on here than in the snip I included at the top of the OP.
ETA: I like how he pointedly included a few guys in clerical hats. Hell won’t be empty of the clergy.
I’m disappointed at you keiths. The only reason why we have bad people claiming to be religious, like DNA_joke, is because they figured out there is no hell… They know it or they are willing to take a chance it is fake…
Yes, I think we should promote falsehoods in order to manipulate people. Especially children. Sit your kids down and tell them stories about hell. Describe the screams of agony and the smell of burning flesh. Emphasize that it’s eternal and that the suffering never ends. Keep them awake at night, afraid that if they die during the night they are doomed.
It will make them better people.
Are you angry? If yes, why?
Yes and no. If someone truly believes in hell, then warning children about it can be an act of love. But I do feel some anger toward people who buy into that stuff uncritically and end up frightening their kids for no good reason.
Does someone’s belief make it true? Come on, keiths!
I know the belief in hell is wrong. Want me to prove it? More so, are you ready or willing to accept it as recent converted atheist?
This could provide some entertainment while I wait for Flint and Jock to show up again in the ChatGPT thread.
OK, J-Mac. Tell us how you concluded that I am a “recent converted atheist” who needs to be shown that “belief in hell is wrong.” And then, by all means, share your proof with us.
You can only prove it or deny it. I don’t really care what you say on this blog about your beliefs.. If I sense something, I believe it. It is not proof.
Hell is wrong in many ways starting with justice. You are smart enough to figure out that human courts do not punish the worst criminals to the burning hell not matter what the offence. Why would God?
J-Mac, you asked me if I wanted you to prove it:
The answer is yes. I want you to prove it. I think your “proof” might be entertaining.
Then I’d like you to explain how you concluded that I am a “recent converted atheist” who needs to be shown that “belief in hell is wrong.”
Yet another interesting thread from keiths.
This thread lays out an interpretation of Hell that is widespread among orthodox Christians and I think keiths is mostly justified in his criticism. I found similar faults in the way I saw Christianity being portrayed. But my path has diverged from keiths’ in that instead of rejecting Christianity outright I found a more esoteric form of it that made much more sense to me than the orthodox portrayal.
In my opinion Hell should be considered as a state of being rather than a place. And creative souls such as Dante and Jan Van Eyck who had witnessed this state in visions had the ability to portray it in ways that suited their talents. Hell should not be thought of as a place where souls are punished for ever. Rather it is an experience within the eternal realm which transcends the temporal physical realm. Dante’s, ‘Inferno’ being the first part of the ‘Divine Comedy’, is an account of entering Hell and passing through it, eventually reaching the highest sphere of paradise to gain an understanding of the ultimate love of God.
The only thing stopping anyone from getting beyond Hell is their own self.
I wondered how (and if) hell fit into your worldview.
Is that because they are refusing to try, or is it because they’re unable? If the latter, can’t God help them?
As I see it Hell is a stage that everyone goes through. Dante, Giotto, Jan van Eyck, Bosch, Michelangelo and Blake have all given us their interpretations of their inner visions of this journey. The suffering beings they depict in their works are manifestations of their own unfulfilled base desires, feelings of animosity, and the like, which they need to take responsibility for before they enter the next stage which Dante depicts as Purgatory. We must descend into the depths of Hell and climb back out through our own efforts. It’s depicted as an Inferno as it is a trial by fire which will cleanse the soul. Obviously the more someone lives a life full of vice, the worse this experience will be for them. On the other hand, living a good life in order to make it easier for oneself in what is to come, is an act of selfishness, which would be counterproductive. Our motives need to be genuine.
I’m sure you will agree with Blake when he writes:
From an anthroposophical perspective, it is not only the Spirits of Darkness that we must be wary of (Ahrimanic spirits). We are also led astray by Spirits of Light (Luciferic spirits). Through unconditional love, Christ leads the way between these two extremes.
You have inspired me to study more deeply the likes of Dante and Blake. I will be paying more attention to the messages they bring.
My thoughts: To be born of water is to be born into this world. We pass from existing in amniotic fluid to being born into the world. Physical death involves a birth into the Spirit.
In my opinion the ceremony of baptism carried out by orthodox Churches these days are just tokens representing the actual baptisms referred to in the Bible. And no matter what some “born-again” Christians might claim, these token baptisms are not a birth of Spirit.
So revealing that CharlieM finds the god stuff appealing, but only after he has combed through it, chucking out the nasty bits.
I remember an interview about a year ago of Peter Hitchens, Christopher Hitchen’s younger brother, who, similar to his brother, was a militant atheist for much of his younger period, but who, unlike his older brother who died unrepentant, returned to the Anglicanism of his birth. When asked what prompted the change of heart, he said seeing the original of Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th century painting “Altar of the Last Judgment,” scared him back to Christianity. As the Jan Van Eyck at the top also shows, there must have been some type of toxin in the Dutch water system in the 15th century. However, Hitchens was being serious. Kind of a form of Pascal’s Wager. Classic “fake it till you make it.” As if God is really that shallow.
If an erudite person such as Peter Hitchens can be so easily manipulated by a cartoonish promise of eternal torment (in whatever form it is supposed to take) painted in the 1400s, think about its power to scare children and uneducated serfs into compliance with “the Faith.” As a refugee from Catholic grade school taught by nuns, I still carry the scars of this “promise” 60 years later. It still tugs at me from the deeper recesses of my psyche–“what if it is actually true?”
I always thought that conforming one’s behavior out of fear rather than loving spiritual acceptance was the single most odiously cynical thing about Christianity. In a theology rife with paradoxes and contradictions, it is by far the most repugnant of doctrines. The relish that many theologians take in the specter of hell is, in my mind, a clear indicium of a certain type of mental illness that afflicts or afflicted these men…..
I’m guessing that it is really all about the money, and the story he tells is merely what he wants other to believe.