Thursday, February 17, 2011

Concepts of Hell

The primary reason I left conservative Christianity as a teenager was my utter revulsion in the idea of hell and in a God who would send people there for nothing more than being born into the "wrong" religion. As I mentioned in my post Fear, Anger, Guilt, and God last week, total terror of hell was drilled into me from a young age and continues to haunt me to this day. However, even within the small churches my family attended, there was no single conception of hell. Ideas about hell differ as much as preferences for things such as music or food.

In this post, I would like to examine the ideas of hell I was exposed to as a child in a conservative Christian community. I realize that it will be in no way exhaustive of all the ideas about hell that can be found within Christianity, let alone the entire world. To examine every view of hell in all of human history, one would have to write an immense book, so I am just going to stick with my personal experience.

The three main views of hell I encountered are: Eternal Physical Torture, Seperation from God, and Annihilation.

Eternal Physical Torture

This is the most traditional view of hell in the Christian church. It is what appears in most people's minds when they imagine hell. It is the hell at the center of the Earth, home of naked, bright-red demons, blood-curdling screams, the smell of burning flesh, volcanoes of fire and brimstone, and rivers of lava. In this hell, the damned keep their bodies (and, of course, all sensation of pain) and are eternally and gruesomely tortured by Satan's demons, if not Satan himself, using methods scarcely imaginable to those still living.

This version of hell seems to be derived from Tartarus in Classical mythology. Tartarus was the ancient version of hell. While all dead souls inhabited the underworld, the underworld itself contained a deep pit, where the wicked were harshly punished for their sins. Much of our imagery for this hell comes from Dante Alighieri's Inferno, where Dante himself takes a journey through hell with the ancient poet Virgil as his guide. The idea that hell has distinct levels and punishments for different types of sinners comes from the Inferno.

This form of hell is the most common in Christianity and Islam. It is, in my opinion, also the most vile. As a universalist, my one and only creed is that God is love. Although I do not claim to fully understand God (not even close), I know that God would not, and could not, do such a thing to creatures He loves. All sins, no matter how depraved or evil, are still finite. Yet, this version of hell condemns man to infinite punishment. To put it simply, that punishment just does not fit the crime.

Separation from God

This view of hell is becoming more and more popular lately. It is a more "metaphorical" take on hell. Instead of souls being actually physically tortured, souls are sent into a dark abyss, to a place of tremendous mental and spiritual suffering. While not being subjected to physical torment by demons, they are totally separated from God for all of eternity. Some describe this hell as less of a place and more of  a state of being.

Although this hell is marginally better than the hell of Eternal Physical Torment, it still involves God eternally torturing a person. Any type of eternal torment is unjust because of the finite nature of human sin. Again, I do not believe a God of love would allow His children to be subjected to eternal damnation. It makes God out to be a monster who cares nothing for justice but a reveller in the agony of lesser creatures.


The doctrine of annihilation holds that, instead of eternally tormenting the wicked, God will just permanently destroy them. Some annihilationists believe evil souls will first be punished in the hell of Eternal Physical Torment before being annihilated, while others believe that they are annihilated upon bodily death, since the soul is not immortal.

Again, this version of hell is slightly less revolting than the last. At most, malevolent people will only endure a finite punishment before ultimately being destroyed. It would be as if they never existed in the first place. Nonetheless, if I reflect on this for too long, it makes me nauseous. The thought of God just snapping His fingers and the offending person is instantly gone is sickening. What if that were me? I must admit, the idea of losing my consciousness to pure oblivion is quite scary to me. I do not know anyone who is not somewhat afraid of that, although many pretend not to be. How could a loving God do such a thing?

For me, the answer is simple. He cannot. Not because He does not have the power, but because He could never discard one of His beloved children, no matter what they had done.

Please do not get me wrong, I do not think bad people get a free pass. There are consequences for harming other people. Yet, an eternal hell is not the answer. God loves all of us too much to lose even a single one of us. Heaven could never be heaven unless everyone made it there eventually. For, how could a good person in heaven be happy knowing someone they love is forever suffering in hell or just simply gone? How could God ever be happy or satisfied knowing that He had failed some of His children?

Hell is mostly a human creation. As a species, we are obsessed with "fairness". Obviously, people do not always get the punishment they deserve in this life. Hell is a handy way to comfort  people who have been harmed by awful people. Unfortunatly, hell has morphed from being solely a place of punishment to a place of vengeance. Hell has been used by ambitious men to gain power. They threaten their followers with hell for disobedience and teach that anyone outside their little sect will burn forever. Most of the time, these groups are small and radical enough that they are classified as cults. Occasionally, however, they can become leading sects or denominations in one of the world's major religions with the ability to influence thousands, if not millions, of religious believers.

Self-righteous individuals even take great pleasure in "knowing" someone is going to hell. The famous fire and brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards said that "The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven." Think about that quote for a moment. Really think about it. He is asserting that if you go to heaven, you will spend some of your time gazing at the damned souls in hell and enjoying their severe suffering. It's beyond disgusting.

Hell has done nothing but traumatize children and cripple adults with fear. It has driven genuinely good people away from God. I do not claim to have the answers. I am not even sure I am asking the right questions. All I know for sure is that my God would never harm one of His children in such a savage way, nor throw them out like yesterday's garbage. My God is a God of love, who will not rest until every last one of His children has returned home to Him.


  1. Nice (not sure that's an appropriate word) summary! Maybe: a well-done summation is more appropriate.

    How are you doing? Hope things are better.

  2. Sammy, I always enjoy a thoughtful piece on Hell and this one certainly was. I do agree that Dante's Inferno was a big influence on popular thinking about Hell. The quote from "fire and brimstone" preacher Edwards is of course both vile and stupid. But noticeably absent from your discussion are the words of another fire and brimstone preacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Christians cannot in good conscience ignore that.

  3. I guess I was going less for a scholarly description of different conceptions of hell, with quotes to support them, and more of how these versions of hell seemed to me. I put in the Edwards quote because I have a distinct memory of hearing it in church once and disliking it so much.

    What the Bible says about hell is also so controversial. All three concepts I wrote about have Biblical quotes that are interpreted to support them. I was afraid if I dug into what the Bible, and Jesus specifically, says about hell, the point of my post might get overshadowed. Instead, I am planning to write a post sometime soon just focusing on hell and the Bible.

  4. Sammy,

    As part of your research for your future post I offer you a biblical case for everyone going to heaven (

    While God wants all of us to repent and to live for Him, and while we will benefit both in this life and in the one to come if we do this, nevertheless everyone is going heaven.

    Living for God does not mean going to church. It means honoring Jesus as the omnipresent Lord who sees our hearts and wants us to do the right thing for no reason other than that it pleases Him. In other words, we are to live in the fear of God, not the fear of man.

  5. This is from something I wrote on hell:

    I think there's Biblical room to see judgment as something that happens while we are in this life. Jesus taught that we will reap the consequences of our own actions, and Paul said that we will be rewarded in this very body for the deeds we have done - good or bad (2 Corin. 5:10)! I also believe that God's chastening is redemptive in nature.

    I believe that heaven and hell are indeed very real; very literal, but described in metaphorical terms in Scripture. I believe that they are both here on this earth - present realities, ways of living we can enter into here and now. Paul taught that the Kingdom of God IS peace and joy, and Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of Heaven is at hand - so close we can reach out and touch it! I think hell on earth is created when we are consumed by the flames of our own anger and hate, tortured by desires which are never satisfied, and tormented by never-ending fears (1 John 4:18). In this manner, hell is created, chosen, and lived in. In this hell of our own making, the smoke of our torment does ascend up forever and ever (continually!) and no rest can be found day or night. Moreover, we live in this condition in the very presence of the Lamb (Rev. 14: 9-11) oblivious to the rest and peace presently available to us in the Kingdom of Heaven!

    What do you think?

  6. I definitely think we can make heaven and hell on Earth, both individually and as a species.

    As individuals, we can be selfish and hateful, alienating ourselves from everyone else. Someone who thinks they deserve everything, be it wealth, power, prestige, whatever, is never going to be happy because what they have will never be enough.

    As a species, our greed and lust for power have created hell on Earth for those we considered inferior. The United States created hell for countless black slaves. The Nazi's created hell for the Jews. Right now, many places in Africa could only be described as hell. And it will keep happening as long as groups of people consider themselves superior. Once you decide a group is inferior, you can easily dehumanize them and then it is only a tiny step to exploiting them.

  7. @Doug I'm not convinced that Jesus Christ actually said every word that has been ascribed to him, for one thing. Secondly, you may need to educate yourself with regards to "translations" and the motives behind translations. For instance, in Revelation, the word that is translated "torment" is "basanos" (from the Greek). Do you know what basanos is? It is a touchstone! A touchstone was used to strike metal against to see how much gold was in the metal, since gold is soft, it would leave a mark on the touchstone. Now, how on earth do you arrive at "torment" from a Greek word that is a touchstone? That's my point about translations.