If I had to name one thing that people struggle with the most when leaving or rethinking their evangelical faith, it is the fear of being wrong and going to hell. Even years after leaving the church many still struggle with fears of demons dancing in their heads.
As a father, hell was a concept that gave me pause. God said he loved me and yet, if I didn’t do exactly what he said I’d be cast away from him into an eternal fire. I couldn’t imagine doing something so horrendous to my own children, no matter what they had done. It seemed cruel and sociopathic. I decided I no longer wanted to serve that God. So I set out on a course to learn more about my faith and the dualistic theology of unspeakable love and unimaginable cruelty.
The concept of hell is not unique to Christianity, but unlike most other religions it was historically used as a tool to convince people they needed to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Religious historian, Bart Ehrman, says early converts were positioned between believing in Jesus and living eternally in utopian bliss, or burning for eternity in a lake of fire for refusing to do so.1
Like much of the Jewish and Christian faiths, the ideology of hell evolved over time. Ancient Jews did not believe in an afterlife.2,3 Judaism, like Christianity, split into many sects and the concept of hell was introduced through the influence of cultures and other religions.
Satan, as seen in the Hebrew Texts, literally means an adversary or accuser and the term was almost always used in the context of a human military, political figure or legal opponent.4 As a celestial being, which can be seen in the book of Job, Satan was not God’s opponent, but a part of God’s heavenly council.4 A Pantheon of gods, or collective group of gods, was a common concept in ancient history and existed in Judaism before texts were rewritten to represent a single God.5
The concept of hell began to evolve around 4,000 years ago.6 Stories in early civilization are earlier versions of Christianity, which include the triumphant savior hanging from a stake, spending three days and nights underground, and the lord of the underworld asking for a ransom to release the person he’s holding.6 Of course the names in the stories changed to fit the specific myth or religion which adopted them.
During the Hellenistic period, when Greek culture had its greatest influence, hell, demons, and the fight between good and evil is more fully defined and adopted into some of the great religions. It’s not far-fetched to see how, when the New Testament books were written, Greek culture would have a tremendous influence on concepts relating to good and evil.
However, there are no direct references to hell in the original texts of the Old or New Testaments. There are instead inferences based on cultural interpretations. 4th century Bishop, Augustine of Hippo, credited for defining Christianity, wrote, “hell, which also is called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire, and will torment the bodies of the damned.”7 But Augustine had adopted one of Plato’s ideas that humans possessed an immortal soul.7
The idea of eternal punishment makes no logical sense. While it might deter behavior in the short term, the negative effects of fear affect our physical health, memory, mental health, and even how our brains operate.8 There are no positive long-term effects and it does not motivate us toward devotion or love. A parent who controls his children with fear will raise neurotic, emotionally stunted, socially inept, shame-filled kids with a lot of secrets and compulsive behaviors.
“Fear does not instill confidence, independence, and productivity. What it does well is create followers who ask very few questions, and do what they are told. While it might produce loyalty, it doesn’t provoke feelings of love and security. Fear is an excellent tool for dictators, oligarchs, and authoritarians, but it isn’t an option for a God who represents eternal love and unending grace.”9
1Ehrman, Bart, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Simon & Schuster, February 13, 2018
2Bradly, Heath, Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation, Wipf & Stock, 2012, (p 35)
3Ehrman, Bart, The Afterlife in the Hebrew Bible: Sheol, The Bart Ehrman Blog, March 29, 2017, https://ehrmanblog.org/the-afterlife-in-the-hebrew-bible-sheol/
4Dolansky, Shawna, How the Serpent Became Satan, Bible History Daily, Biblearcheology.org, October 13, 2017. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/bible-interpretation/how-the-serpent-became-satan/
5Aslan, Reza, God: A Human History, Random House, November 7, 2017
6Turner, Alice K., The History of Hell, A Harvest Book, 1993
7Burky, Richard, Anderson, Jeanette B., Hell: Origins of an Idea, Vision.org, Winter, 2011, http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/origin-of-hell/41044.aspx
8Towey, Susan, Impact of Fear and Anxiety, Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing, 2016, https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/enhance-your-wellbeing/security/facing-fear/impact-fear
9Rymel, Tim, Rethinking Everything: When Faith and Reality Don’t Make Sense, CK Publishing, (Release date Fall, 2018)