So, how did Christian Hell become such a gruesome concept? It didn’t start out like that. Let’s reach far back into time. Some four thousand years ago. In “The History of Hell” by Alice K. Turner we have a resource that shows the beginnings of the concept of an underworld. At least, the first accounts about an Underworld that were put into writing in the area of the Middle East and Mediterranean.
Image via WikipediaThe Sumerians [and the Babylonians] write of a goddess, Inanna, who visits her sister, Ereshkigal in the underworld. Inanna arrives from the world above and descends through seven gates to confront Ereshkigal. The sisters fight and Ereshkigal is the winner. She hangs Inanna on a stake for three days and nights. Inanna’s faithful vizier petitions the gods for Inanna’s return and Ereshkigal reluctantly permits her sister to return to the upper world provided Inanna provides a substitute or a ransom for herself. So, Inanna’s shepherd consort Dumuzi is given in ransom. [Geez, this all sounds so familiar for some reasonJ]
Do you see an eternal Hell here? I didn’t think so.
Classical Hades was the belief of the Mediterranean peoples for more than 1,000 years prior to the fifth century BC. There was a pantheon of gods and the gods had both good traits and bad traits. The Underworld was a place of mythological gods that came and went. There were monsters and demons that lived in Hades and punishment for wrong doing in the old Greek stories was not generally an after death affair. A handful of mortals went into Hades and come back out again.
Do you see an eternal Hell here? Me neither.
Amazingly, almighty God did not direct any one of the earliest writers from 4,000 years ago until 2,500 years ago to speak of eternal Hell. In the only areas that Bible God seems to know about -the Middle East and Mediterranean. [Let’s be real. God doesn’t seem to know that there is an arctic or a New World or even China.] It would seem like, if eternal, unending Hell was to be the keystone concept for the Christian faith, it would have gotten some attention immediately.
But the beliefs we hold today about God and Christianity actually rest solidly on the shoulders of the Old Testament. What does the Old Testament have to say about Hell? Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. In the Old Testament you went to Sheol.
“The Jews, judged solely by the evidence of the Old Testament, were either the least morbid or the least imaginative of the Mediterranean peoples. Unlike their neighbors, they had no relationship with the dead; they did not worship them, sacrifice to them, visit them, hope to reunite with them in an afterlife, nor anticipate any kind of interaction with Yahweh after death – quite the contrary…The dead were, in fact, unclean.” The History of Hell Alice K. Turner
And that is the way the Jews thought until the Apocryphal era. In Sheol you were just plain dead.
I ask again, if eternal, unending Hell is the most important reason to accept the Christian faith, why isn’t it mentioned in any form whatsoever until hundreds and hundreds of years after the Old Testament began to be written? Wasn’t the God of the Bible a bit remiss? Or is unending torturous Hell a modern concept that took on a lot of steam once the priests of the new religion of Christianity realized just how potent threatening people with unending torture after death really is? What a great psychological tool they had stumbled onto. But I get a little ahead of myself.
From the first century through the fifth century many Christians did not believe in an eternal Hell. Origen c. 185-c.254, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazanzus did not believe in eternal Hell. It was not until Augustine (354-430) that eternal Hell was solidified as a church doctrine. That is the fifth century. So, I ask again, if fiery and eternal Hell was THE important concept of Christianity, why wasn’t the concept of Hell widely incorporated into Christian belief immediately during or after Christ’s mission on Earth? So, though the concept of Hell as a torturous place had been introduced to the Christians by the second century, it was not necessarily a widely held belief nor was it considered eternal.
The beliefs we hold today about God and Christianity actually rest solidly on the shoulders of the Old Testament. What does the Old Testament have to say about Hell? Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. In the Old Testament you went to Sheol. The whole Hell concept started gaining momentum around the Middle ages with graphic paintings and tall tales written by gifted artists. No doubt the dire wars and the bubonic plagues affected people’s psyches as well. But here is what I want you to get out of this very brief synopsis on “The History of Hell” by Alice K. Turner. Hell was invented by humans. It started small and grew ever larger as time went on. The Old Testament was devoid of Hell. The Apocrypha of the centuries just before Christ barely mentions an afterlife. The earliest writings of the New Testament have little or nothing that can be considered eternal hell; only dire warnings of punishment. That is about it.
Why do I, an exChristian, still care about Hell? The reason is because so many people are still so worried or even down-right frightened by this horrid and much abused concept. People live in fear of going to eternal Hell; that their loved ones are going to eternal Hell; that strangers are going to eternal Hell. All of it is nonsense. In my first article [Hell-Revisited] I showed you why some modern Christians do not believe in eternal Hell. The word eternal is not used with punishment in the Bible. And the word Hell is never used at all.
My beef is with the Christians who use eternal Hell- this irresponsible and immoral concept – and use it to great effect. Christians who do not believe in Hell are sent packing. They are scorned by most Christians. Most of Christianity wants Hell as a doctrine. They can’t give it up. It is a tool of control; a weapon to keep those who join the Church from leaving; a motivator to get the sheeples to do as the pastor/preacher/minister/priest desires. I have no doubt that there are sincere Christians but I also have no doubt that Hell is a baseball bat aimed at the knee caps of anyone who would dare walk away. It is this concept of Hell that makes so much of Christianity a destructive cult. And it is this concept of Hell that makes so much of Christianity an abusive cult. That is what I want to talk about the next time we meet on the topic of eternal Hell.
In the meantime, to get over your fears of Hell, stay in the rational. It is not real. It is an exaggerated myth. Whether you are newly leaving Christianity and you are quaking in fear or whether this is just a niggling fear at the back of your mind, I say push through it and keep going forward. This is the only life that you are guaranteed to have, the life you are living today – so live it in the here and now.