In the venerable tradition of making crap up as you go along, Christians have been trying to allegorize and sanitize the embarrassing fact that their loving God is planning to roast most of his creation in perpetuity. Unfortunately for them, we can read.
When I ask, how am I supposed to enjoy Heaven knowing that most of my fellow human beings are locked in a torture chamber, mostly for misdemeanors, I am told that Hell is no such thing. It is in fact a place of separation from God, or a place of darkness, or just eternal annihilation.
None of these description of Hades can be justified by the Christian’s primary text—the Bible. Nothing remotely close to “eternal separation from God” is ever mentioned in the New Testament. Darkness might be the very place one might expect to find God since he has been known to speak in it (Deuteronomy 5:22), make it is his canopy (2 Samuel 22:12), and to dwell in it (1 Kings 8:12).
There is some Biblical warrant for the notion of Hell as death—which is not scary for the atheist who has been expecting to die all along. Jesus says, “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’” (Luke 19:27)
That the Scripture writers saw no inconsistency in placing these words in the mouth of Jesus while simultaneously attributing the following to him is to say the least surprising:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same…. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:27-28, 32, 36).
Thus saith the Lord, do what I say, not what I do.
It is a little unfair to impose our modern worldview on the Bible. As L.P. Hartley rightly said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” However, since believers insist on infecting our present with this antiquated notion of justice, we cannot remain dispassionate about the plans that their king has for us. According to the Bible, these plans include not mere separation, not darkness, not even the mercy of nonexistence, but torture—conscious and perpetual torment.
In the end of times, Jesus is coming back to cast the unrighteous into fire:
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41-42).
The Bible vividly describes the torment in store for those who worship the anti-Christ:
“Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:9-11).
There’s nothing about any of these passages that indicates the existence of an allegorical or spiritual suffering. Jesus makes it clear that Hell involves physical torment. In a story often lauded for its lesson on economic inequality—a lesson ignored by Christians—Jesus tells us that the rich man is in such suffering that he begs for a drop of cool water:
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ (Luke 16:22-24)
The torments that await the damned is so bad that Jesus suggests that it is better to dismember your body than to risk it:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched (Mark 9:43-48).
Most Christians have not taken Jesus’s instruction too seriously. However, the fourth century theologian Origen is rumored to have castrated himself to avoid sexual temptation. And even today, a few Catholics, like John Paul II or members of Opus Dei, employ self-flagellation to subdue their sinful bodies.
The past is a foreign country, and for centuries Christians praised God for the existence of a place of eternal torment because they lived in a time where that would have been more palatable. That there are attempts to backpedal from these claims indicates that believers are equally subject to the moral zeitgeist of their day as everyone else. The attempt to clean up Hell reflects secular, post-enlightenment ethics. And while we should be grateful for that moral progress, we should not let them get away with rewriting their history.