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Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx by Joachim Patinir, c. 1515–1524. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Photo courtesy Wikimedia

Younger Christians may be ditching doctrines of fire and brimstone – but will Christianity ever get rid of hell entirely?

Kathryn Gin Lum teaches American religious history at Stanford University. She is the author of Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (due in August 2014).

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In December 2013, a hoax began circulating on the internet claiming that Pope Francis had called a Third Vatican Council that, among other things, purged a literal hell from Catholic doctrine. ‘This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God,’ Francis purportedly said. ‘God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace… Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.’ The piece quickly went viral on Facebook and other social media platforms – minus the element of parody. The remarks did not seem too out of line with the new Pope’s own attitude of embrace over condemnation.

This January, an article in the US online magazine Religion Dispatches offered some clues as to why the story took off so dramatically. ‘Millennials Invent New Religion: No Hell, No Priests, No Punishment’ went the title. The author, the Rev Candace Chellew-Hodge, described how her students at a community college in Columbia, South Carolina, when tasked with inventing a new religion, uniformly avoided ‘a concept of hell, or any form of punishment for not following the prescriptions of the religion’. When asked why they had avoided hell, one student replied that ‘Religion today is so ... judgmental.’ Chellew-Hodge took this to mean that her students lacked a ‘full-featured understanding of religion’, and so overlooked ‘the core ideas of human suffering, the concept of discipline, and the very real threat of punishment’.

Chellew-Hodge’s understanding that punishment is an essential feature of religion, and her students’ confidence that it need not be, might seem to represent a simple generational divide. That so many young people in the US identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’ at least partly results from their impression of organised religion – particularly the Protestantism that has long dominated the US religious landscape – as judgmental, exclusive, and punishing. This longing for a feel-good faith with a friendly deity might help to explain why so many fell for the Pope Francis parody and why they were so disappointed that it was untrue. But the longing for a hell-less faith cannot be attributed to a contemporary generational shift alone. Time and again in the history of western Christianity, this longing has surfaced, only to be subdued and hell reaffirmed as not just scripturally but also morally necessary.

Christian ideas about the afterlife drew from and expanded on ancient traditions that conceived of the afterlife as a single, neutral zone where everyone ended up, regardless of their behaviour in this life. The ancient Jews had no concept of ‘heaven’ as a place of rewards, or ‘hell’ as a place of punishment, but instead held that all humans went to a shadowy and monotonous afterlife after death: Sheol. Rewards and punishments accrued to people in this life, not in the life to come. Similarly, the ancient Greeks believed that everyone went to the lethargic and gloomy underworld of Hades.

The contingent realities of human existence – that the righteous can suffer and the wicked can prosper – spurred the emergence of rewards and punishments from the undifferentiated Sheol and Hades. The concepts of heaven and hell recognised moral gradations between individuals and promised the righting of wrongs in a future life. In other words, while some today think of hell as a morally unsophisticated, pre-modern doctrine that has survived long past its prime, the emergence of hell could be seen as offering, rather than obstructing, ethical nuance.

Despite purgatory’s problems, the notion that the living could assist the dead offered a modicum of comfort

And yet the idea of hell did not go uncontested. People argued over its duration, with some advocating a temporary instead of eternal hell. They debated the purpose of its punishments, whether corrective and purifying, or vengeful and vindictive. And they have bickered over its nature, with some arguing for hell as a metaphorical mental state as opposed to a physical and literal place.

As early as the second to the third centuries AD, at a time when the Church’s doctrines were still being hotly debated, the scholar Origen of Alexandria (c 185-254 AD) argued against a concept of eternal hell in favour of apokatastasis, or ‘restoration’. Origen taught that God creates everything in love and, through that love, ultimately brings all of creation back to him. In Origen’s scheme, eternal souls would be punished for wrongdoings, but punishment would occur as the soul inhabited successive bodies – whether demonic, human, or angelic – instead of in a permanent and everlasting hell of fire and brimstone. ‘For if… souls had no pre-existence,’ Origen asked in On First Principles, ‘why do we find some new-born babes to be blind, when they have committed no sin, while others are born with no defect at all?’ Over time, souls would learn from their mistakes and eventually be reunited with their perfect creator.

Some have wondered whether Origen might have been influenced by the concept of reincarnation in Eastern traditions. The idea of karma explains the status of every being – divinity, human, animal, ghost, or inhabitant of hell – as a consequence of its own earlier actions. As in the ancient Mediterranean, so in India, the concept of hell, as a region to which the wicked could be reborn, emerged to offer ethical nuance. Karma once referred primarily to a sacrificial system. The living could offer sacrifices to benefit the dead, who all went to the same netherworld, presided over by Yama, king of the deceased. Under the influence of ascetics who emphasized ethical behavior, the netherworld evolved into regions of reward and punishment, and Yama became king of hell. But unlike the Christian God, Yama did not condemn people to hell: they were reborn there as a result of their own bad karma, and could be reborn out of hell as well. In the Buddhist tradition, textual discussions of hell as punishment have been dated to at least the third century BC, if not earlier, predating Origen's views by centuries.

Origen’s views did not prevail as Christian doctrine became standardised. Instead, the ideas of another early church father, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), carried the day. In contrast to Origen’s dynamic afterlife where souls could rise and fall until they eventually reached their creator, Augustine said that humans had only one life, and only in that life could they choose their actions and beliefs. On the basis of their choices, humans’ eternal status would be decided at the moment of death, when they were swept up into heaven’s endless bliss or hell’s ceaseless suffering.

In addition to offering what would become accepted orthodoxy on the fixed nature of heaven and hell, Augustine also introduced elements that eventually coalesced into the doctrine of purgatory. For Augustine, the flames of purgatory were not intended to punish or save those who’d already made bad choices on earth. Instead, their purpose was to purify those already destined for the perfection of heaven.

Over time, the Catholic Church warmed to the idea that purgatory was an actual place, akin to heaven and hell. Just as the bifurcation of the afterlife seemed to offer more moral nuance than a single shadowy underworld where everyone ended up, so the emergence of purgatory seemed to offer more moral gradation than the stark either/or of heaven and hell. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, most people assumed that they would end up in purgatory after death, since few were good enough for immediate entry to heaven or bad enough for automatic consignment to hell. People’s fates were still decided at the moment of death, but at least they had time to make amends for earthly transgressions if death struck prematurely. Despite purgatory’s problems – the allegation that the rich could afford more masses and alms to shorten their stay – the notion that the living could assist the dead nevertheless offered a modicum of comfort.

While purgatory’s punishments – both in pain and in duration – could be daunting, they were also different from hell’s in that they were only temporary (even if they lasted for thousands of years) and ultimately purifying (even if excruciating). Purgatory addressed some of the questions surrounding the western Christian hell by reserving its terrifying eternity for the worst of the worst alone.

‘It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin’

Some scholars have suggested that the biggest impact of the Reformation for ordinary people was the ‘death of purgatory’. Once reformers had pared back the afterlife to the two destinations of heaven and hell, Protestant laypeople were back to the terrifying prospect of eternal damnation on the basis of this life alone, without the ability to atone after death and without the possibility of assistance from the living. Protestants, of course, argued that purgatory was an unscriptural concept that placed a burdensome and impossible responsibility on the sinner alone to atone for sins. Only Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to save, they said, and in any case this switch should lighten, not increase, the burden. As long as people repented and accepted Christ as their saviour, they could rest assured that they would end up in heaven.

But this was easier said than done. The agonising uncertainty of whether they were truly saved haunted the Puritans, who in the early 17th century left their native England for America due to concerns that it wasn’t reformed enough. The Puritans’ God was an absolute sovereign so perfect that even one sin was sufficiently odious as to merit eternal torment. But this God also became an easy target for Enlightenment intellectuals who increasingly emphasised human ability and perfectibility over innate depravity. A God who could consign his own creatures to eternal torture for seemingly minor misdeeds struck them as despotic and unjust.

By the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century, colonists were arguing not just over the wisdom of waging war against England, but also over the justness of eternal punishment. Attracted by Enlightenment ideas, some members of the founding generation critiqued the British monarchy and the Calvinist God as tyrannical dictators both. As Jefferson put it: ‘It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.’ Some freethinkers departed from the concept of hell as literal and eternal fire and brimstone in favour of a temporary hell where individuals would be punished in proportion to their crimes before being admitted to heaven. Others abandoned hell entirely, arguing that a loving and merciful God would save all of creation for heavenly bliss.

And yet, a hell of fire and brimstone still had staunch defenders, who brought back the ghost of purgatory to accuse critics of being closet Catholics. A temporary hell, they argued, was nothing but purgatory all over again. It made Christ’s sacrifice meaningless, putting the onus squarely on humans to redeem themselves through suffering after death. Those in favour of universal salvation were nothing more than ‘Origenists’, a denunciation that, by the 18th century, denoted dangerous heresy.

More importantly in the new, monarchless US, defenders of hell argued that the threat of eternal punishment was necessary to ensure the morality of citizens. Even a temporary hell, they claimed, would give humans leave to commit socially harmful transgressions, from lying to cheating to murder, since they would still eventually end up in heaven after paying for their crimes. Indeed, the social argument in favour of eternal hell anticipated the arguments we hear today in favour of the death penalty. Both are supposed to serve as ultimate deterrents against crime.

Even European intellectuals, who had been questioning hell since at least the 17th century, recognised its social utility for the masses. Voltaire, favourite of American rationalists and bane of evangelicals, acknowledged in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) that: ‘We are obliged to hold intercourse and transact business, and mix up in life with … vast numbers of persons addicted to brutality, intoxication, and rapine. You may, if you please, preach to them that there is no hell, and that the soul of man is mortal. As for myself, I will be sure to thunder in their ears, that if they rob me they will inevitably be damned.’

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Debates over the scriptural basis and social utility of hell would continue to fester over the course of the 19th century, even as new voices entered the conversation. New religious groups such as the Mormons, Spiritualists and Adventists offered their own views on what hell might entail, if it existed at all. Mormons offered a multi-tiered afterlife. Just as the bifurcation of Sheol and Hades and the addition of purgatory added moral nuance to the afterlife, so the Mormon conception of the ‘sons of perdition’ and the telestial, terrestrial and celestial spheres offered shades of grey to accommodate circumstances ranging from true evil, to those who ‘died without the law’, to the righteous and the just.

These alternatives to the either/or of eternal heaven and hell, as well as those of the Spiritualists and Adventists, have remained vital. With time, the challenges of Darwinism and the devastation of human violence – from the American Civil War to the world wars to Vietnam – led some away from hell entirely (along with any number of other scriptural doctrines) and others toward the view that life on earth was hell enough. In response, liberal theologians expanded on the ideas of hell as metaphor, hell as temporary and proportional punishment, and immortality as conditional.

But the orthodox hell of literal, eternal punishment has continued to hold strong to this day. So strong that when the US evangelical minister Rob Bell made an argument much less radical than Origen’s and hardly even new in the second millennium, he was met with an outcry of epic proportions. The bespectacled and charismatic Bell, founder of the Michigan megachurch Mars Hill, had begun to question the justness of an eternal hell and a theology where even Gandhi would end up there. In his book Love Wins (2011), Bell claimed that:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better . . . This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.

To judge by the reactions to Bell’s book, it was as if no one had ever questioned hell before or emphasised God’s love over his wrath. Many evangelicals were appalled. The viral effects of social media magnified the outcry, with supporters and opponents jumping in to offer tweets of praise or condemnation. In the wake of the controversy, Bell left the church he’d founded and in 2013 told The Grand Rapids Press he would start a ‘spiritual talk show’ in southern California. The book’s publication also led some 1,000 members to leave the church, according to a report in The Christian Post in 2013.

Believers in hell thrive on a sense of opposition and injustice – to affirm the stark either/or of heaven or hell requires it

But Bell never actually denied that there might be a hell after death, even as he also affirmed that hell could begin now in the violence humans enact against each other and the earth. In a video interview with The Washington Post in 2011 he said: ‘I believe in hell now, I believe in hell when you die. I believe God gives people the right to say no, to resist, to refuse, to reject, to cling to their sins, to cling to their version of their story.’ Still, Bell has been vague when pressed to describe what kind of hell this might be, allowing his opponents to read into it anything but the eternal hell of fire and brimstone that many continue to espouse.

The outcry over Bell’s book was perhaps all the more surprising given recent poll numbers in the US. A 2013 Harris Poll found that while 74 per cent of US adults believe in God and 68 per cent believe in heaven, only 58 per cent believe in the devil and in hell, down four percentage points from 2005. One might think that, with supporters of hell on the decline, defenders of Bell might have easily silenced the opposition. Yet only 25 per cent of US adults polled actively do not believe in hell, while another 18 per cent are unsure.

And numbers can hardly tell the whole story, anyhow. Believers in hell thrive on a sense of opposition and injustice – to affirm the stark either/or of heaven or hell requires it. Where Bell sees the violence humans enact against each other on earth as already a kind of hell, those who support eternal hell argue that it alone can make up for the world’s violence and suffering, and act as a deterrent against future forms of human-on-human brutality. Others say that there has to be a hell, if only for Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, or Saddam, or Osama bin Laden.

These kinds of arguments have sustained the idea of eternal punishment for generations. Supporters of Hell have always claimed to have morality and justice on their side, even as its opponents have said the same. As much as some people might thirst for a hell-less faith and a hell-denying Pope, others eagerly participate in hell and judgment houses designed to frighten and convert attendees into belief. Poll numbers might fluctuate, but one thing’s for certain: in the US, hell isn’t going up in flames anytime soon.

Read more essays on evil, metaphysics and values & beliefs


  • notmike64

    Well written history of hell. Thank you ...

  • Oliver

    The Mormon history of hell reflects the same struggle between those espousing fixed eternal punishments, and those who argue for eternal progression toward godhood. Interestingly, it can be difficult determining what the doctrine actually says. In a "revelation" given through Joseph Smith, God tells Martin Harris that hell is only temporary, but that God often uses language to imply eternity otherwise people would sin and run wild. In other words, it's okay to lie about the severity of hell to maintain order.

  • rsanchez1

    Kids today are too concerned with being judged. Everyone is judgmental and everyone is judging you. Get over it.

    I think the reason why the hoax was believable is because they claimed the Pope said it. American Protestantism is too concerned with hell as a deterrent rather than promoting the true message of the Church, that Jesus is the way and the life and salvation is through him.

    The hoax does make sense otherwise. Every instance of punishment in the Bible stems from the soul willingly separating itself from God, and that because Satan tempts the soul away from God. We can always choose to request from God through the Son and our Savior Jesus Christ salvation from this temptation. Not doing so leads to the isolation of the soul from God.

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    In Gananath Obeyesekere's book "Imagining Karma" (which is about rebirth eschatologies) he explains that where there is an afterlife belief combined with a morality of right and wrong, that the afterlife will inevitably bifurcate into a place of reward and a place of punishment.

    • LennyH4747

      Makes sense.

  • Joe0924

    Just to round out the record: There are several Jewish conceptions of the afterlife, ranging from complete denial of it to a fairly conventional heaven/hell.

    One very different idea from the Christian views in this article comes from Kabbalah, which sees all creation--and humans in particular--as differentiated pieces of God. After death, we return to God. My impression is that this is the most popular concept of the afterlife among Jews, although many do not realize its Kabbalistic roots.

    Judaism has always focused more on life than afterlife, so there has never been much discussion or unanimity on the topic. Jews emphasize the importance of doing good things on earth. We may argue about what those good things are, but almost all of us agree they should be done for the sake of doing them, not for a reward before or after death.

    • JenJen10

      It would be interesting if you would go into more detail as to which groups of Jews believe which concepts of the afterlife.

      • Joe0924

        This is a difficult question to answer, because, as J.F. Moore said,
        "Any attempt to systematize the Jewish notions of the hereafter imposes
        an order and consistency which does not exist in them." As I said
        above, Judaism is much more focused on life than on death, so Jewish
        concepts of an afterlife aren't very detailed and are very inconsistent.

        I'll take a shot at it and probably annoy people in the process.
        Much of what I know about this comes from "What Happens After I Die," by
        Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme.

        The earliest Jewish idea of
        the afterlife was that after death, the soul went to Sheol, where it
        existed until Moshiach (the Messiah) came to earth. Then those who had
        lived righteously, would be resurrected and the earth would be
        transformed into Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). Others would go to hell

        Some Orthodox still hold to this belief, but many
        others, accepting the belief in the immortality of the soul, have
        rejected the idea of bodily resurrection. Instead, they believe the
        soul moves on to some kind of reward in the afterlife.

        Conservative movement has a surprising clear concept of reward after
        death. For them, after death we either go on to Ha-Olam Habah (the
        World to Come), or to Gehenna, based on how well we have lived. Ha-Olam
        Habah is Heaven, or Paradise, or Gan Eden, but again no one knows what any of that means.

        Conservative concept of Gehenna is much more interesting. For them,
        Gehenna is not a place of punishment, but instead a place where people
        repent their sins. Then, on the Yom Kippur after they have repented
        fully, they can rise up to Ha-Olam Habah.

        As far as I know, the Reform and
        Reconstructionist movements have no clear concept of an afterlife,
        although they do assume somehow we live on. I recall from
        a Reform service I attended when I was very young a vague statement
        that our departed "Live on in God's shadow." I don't think they've ever
        gotten any more detailed than that. I've never known a Reform Rabbi to say anything about Hell or Gehenna, or even Sheol.

        As I said in my first post, I
        think a plurality (probably not a majority) of Jews are comfortable
        with the Kabbalistic viewpoint I described. But remember, Judaism does not
        emphasize the afterlife and chooses to focus on what we do before death. We Jews think of doing good works as the path to immortality. Our good deeds are what truly live
        on after our deaths, and they are our true immortality.

        Finally, a personal statement. I believe in a just God. I cannot believe that there is anything that someone could do--in the brief time we live on earth--that would justify eternal torment. So, I think that somehow, regardless of our misdeeds, there must always be a way for us to return to God.

        • JenJen10

          "We Jews think of doing good works as the path to immortality. Our good
          deeds are what truly live on after our deaths, and they are our true
          Sounds very Buddhist. If I remember right, the Budda said that believing or wanting to be immortal was one of the sins, or perhaps it wasn't called a sin. If I remember the quote: "To die and not be forgotten is immortality."

          I always liked that idea.

          I was raised with the Baptist church where hellfire & brimstone was thrown at us in the services. I could never understand why people would believe that. Or would want to. I finally realized that I believe we make our own heaven & hell on earth, and if there is an afterlife, obviously we won't know until its too late to do anything about it. All the focus on it doesn't make any sense to me.

          Have you read the "Book of Enoch"? The descriptions there make me think of the hellfire idea, and I wonder if that's where it originally came from.

          Is there a Jewish version of the Book of Enoch? I know it was in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The copy I read came from Ethiopia. Mine reads like an unredacted version, it's not polished, which is a good thing.

          Do you believe that fleeing Jews/Christians hid many original Jewish writings in Ethiopia to save them from the Romans?

          • Joe0924

            It's not surprising to me that there is some convergence between Judaism and Buddhism. Both deal with the importance of how we live. However, Judaism and Buddhism diverge (if I understand Buddhism properly--and I may not) on the acceptance of suffering and the elevation of poverty as a path to enlightenment. Judaism does not accept suffering as a normal part of life and views it as humanity's failure to complete the work of creation.

            Judaism does not believe that poverty enhances spirituality. Instead, it is seen as a condition that interferes with spirituality. (Judaism also does not elevate extreme wealth, the Koch brothers not withstanding.) It is our responsibility to alleviate poverty. Thus, the Hebrew word for charity is "tzedakah," which translates literally as "righteousness."

            My understanding of the Book of Enoch is limited to what is on Wikipedia, so I can't say much about it. My understanding is that pieces of it survive in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so it's likely that it had Hebrew sources. I wouldn't be surprised if there are other caches of sacred books (deliberately hidden or just forgotten about) that are waiting to be found.

            Finally, your comments on your Baptist background touched off another line of thinking for me. Often I am asked if I think I would go to Hell if I didn't follow Jewish law/custom. The answer to this question lies in our covenant with God. We don't do these things to get God to like us. We do them because that's our side of the contract and because we trust that doing them will make our world a better place. Our belief in our covenant with God is why Jews have not needed to believe in Hell.

          • JenJen10

            I've never studied a comparison of Judaism with Buddhism, but I remember thinking once when I was reading Jesus that he sounded more Buddhist than Jewish. And then a friend told me her college religion professor believed that the years where Jesus was out-of-the-picture in the Bible, so to speak, he may have been traveling to the east and learning about Buddhism in a monastery in the Himalayas, where there is a story of a holy man from the west who spent about 12 yrs studying Buddhism. It made sense to me.

            You say it's a responsibility of Jews to alleviate poverty, how do you do that? Is it organized, like giving to charities, government programs, or is it personal giving like supporting a friend's family in need? Here in the US we have constant arguing about whose responsibility it is to help the poor; the Republicans say publicly they think private organizations need to help the poor (like churches) but in fact I live in a Republican state and they don't like helping the poor in any way. The Democrats want to use government programs to help the poor. I think this country would do better to make charity an imperative because somewhere along the way we stopped thinking it was a personal responsibility to help others.

            I've known richer people who look like they're trying to find a cause or person to support that's "perfect', but there is no such thing.

            The best form of charity is still mentoring. I don't think we do enough of that here.

            About the Book of Enoch, you can buy a copy online cheap, I think I paid $12 for mine. Mine is the 1917 translation from the Ethiopian, Greek Syncellus, & Greek Akhmlm version which it says is in the Giza Museum in Cairo, translated by RH Charles. I have another version but it is a literally awful. This version is unpolished, it has the Book of Noah included, as well as "The Book of the Courses of the Heavenly Luminaries", which is basically a description of the times & seasons. Since there were copies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, I am sure it was common in the era of Jesus, that's where I first learned it existed. I was surprised when I looked up Enoch, I found he was the most revered of the early Hebrews. In Christianity, they never talk about him.

            When I read the Book of Enoch, I realized that parts were in the Torah, but only a little, the rest was completely left out or just summarized. You can tell that different parts were written at different times, some are preachy & talking about dividing people up into the righteous & the dammed, others are descriptive. Enoch says he was taking by "the Holy ones" on trips where he was shown different areas of the earth. On one trip he was taken into a building made totally of what he called "crystal", and another made of ice & fire, things he tried to describe for future generations that he said current generations would not be able to visit or understand. He said they were explained to him as he was shown them so that he would understand them, & he was given the task of going back & passing this on to the future human generations. He describes what sounds like the pyramids in central America, and flowing magma, a great sea of fire flowing toward the sea, things that weren't in the Middle East. He talks of many different mountain ranges & ravines & many different types of plants that were not local, he describes them as being similar but different from something he knew. He talks about 'angels' by name, telling what learning specialty each was an expert of, and the "Son of Man" and the 'Head of Days" an the "Elect One". Some of it reads so strange I can't make any sense of it, other things sound like physical descriptions of real places, but not places he would've been able to reach on foot. There are long parts about dividing the just from the unjust that are so repetitious & boring I just skim them.

            There is a section in the Book of Enoch on the resurrection of the dead, I just found it again, he's talking about when a messiah comes. "And in those days shall the earth also give back that which has been entrusted to it, and Sheol also shall give back that which it has received. And hell shall give back that which it owes. For in those days the Elect One shall arise, and he shall choose the righteous and holy from among them: For the day has drawn nigh that they should be saved...."

            The book has a lot of condemnation for the angels who were living on earth, the "Watchers" who broke their laws & took human women for wives & sired "giant" children who were taught all their secrets of medicine & science & used it to gain control over other men & consume everything close to them; then when they had run out, they started taking from everyone else, and another angel stepped in & helped the victims to make armor & defend themselves against the sons of the watchers, causing war. Enoch says the Watchers asked him to intercede for them with their former bosses to let them come back, but the answer was a harsh & emphatic 'no'.

            It's surprising to me that modern-day Jews don't read the Book of Enoch, it was part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are sections that sound familiar to me because they're in the Torah, but condensed. The whole chapter about the Watchers is condensed into just one paragraph.

            Lastly, I think the Book of Enoch talks about the origin of your belief in having a covenant with god. Enoch said he & his family were told they were chosen to be messengers to the rest of mankind for the gods (or whatever you call them). His job was to make sure the future generations didn't forget. I see what you're saying about not having to make god like you, that is a problem in Christian beliefs today here in the US. I remember being taught that we are born in sin & have to be 'saved'. It is a very different outlook.

            I like discussing how people think differently. As long as I'm not being pushed to accept beliefs I don't believe. One thing I fault the Baptists on is pushing children to accept their beliefs when they're just 14-15 yrs old, no one at that age is mature. Southern Baptist churches push their children to publicly say they accept the church's creed & be baptized long before they're capable of understanding what it truly means. It's not just a problem here, too many parents of many religions push their children to accept their own beliefs. I read that an orphanage in Lebanon segregates babies according to their parents' religion.


          • Joe0924

            Hi, Jeni,

            I also have heard the hypothesis that Jesus spent some time in India. It's a fascinating hypothesis, but I don't think we'll ever know.

            I tend to be a skeptic, and I avoid the mystical whenever possible. So, I get uncomfortable with stories about angels, etc. I prefer to think in more down-to-earth terms. Nevertheless, the truth of all these stories--including the Book of Enoch--is not in whether or not they happened, but the meanings that we give to them.

            I would disagree with you about how Baptists teach their faith to their children. I'm about as far from a Southern Baptist as I can get, but it is inevitable that parents would socialize children into their faiths. How could a parent not teach a child something they hold dear? My children had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at age 12 and 13. They have since gone on to be their own people, identifying more or less with Judaism, by putting their own unique twist to their beliefs. That's as it should be.

            By the way, if you want to hear an alternative to Southern Baptists, you might want to check out http://www.ethicsdaily.com.


          • JenJen10

            I also tend to be a skeptic, and I also avoid supernatural ideas, but the word "mystic" to me conjures up an image of a holy person who spends his life getting deeper into philosophical questions than most people do, so I envy them.

            The "angels' in The Book of Enoch are not supernatural beings, they're human, but different from the ones who wrote the book. (I know they were human because they mated with them.) These "Watchers" were seemingly people who literally observed the people in Enoch's tribe, like scientists would do today with a primitive tribe, watching from a distance.

            When I read accounts like this from the past, I try to imagine what it would be like literally living in that time, so to me this is an account of 2 groups of very different peoples, one technologically very advanced, comparatively speaking, having the power of fast transportation & weaponry & knowledge of the natural world, the other simple herders & nomads. I don't ascribe supernatural aspects to the story in any way.

            The Watchers who took human women for wives broke a law in their own society & were made outcasts as a result. The Torah says they were forbidden from returning to their society, & their children wreaked havoc on the earth. They taught their wives & their children the secrets of their technology, the skills they had, evidently skills their bosses didn't want them to teach the nomads, like the use of fire, medicines, etc, so their children had a technological advantage over other people on earth. In the Torah, the account of this just briefly says they took daughters of men as their wives & their children were 'giants' who 'ruled the earth'. Until I read the Book of Enoch, I had no idea what this passage meant, it's just thrown in there like it's self-evident, but in the Book of Enoch, he writes their individual names & what each of their specialties were, and how they saw the wars they had caused & wanted to leave & go back to the society where they had come from, so they asked Enoch, because he was in contact with their bosses, to intercede on their behalf. And he did, but they were again refused permission to return, and they had to remain here & live & die among the primitives whose lives they had interfered with, with the chaos & the war.

            I've studied some other societies of this time, all of them were undergoing a lot of change & turmoil. Something was happening on the earth, all over the earth, disrupting everything. Seasons were changing, the earth's rotation changed. It was something physical, it had nothing to do with anything supernatural. To my mind, there is no such thing as a 'supernatural' world, only things we don't understand.

            I think we read things into what we don't understand. Enoch's words in this account read like a man trying to describe something he can't really understand, but he's trying because he was told it was very important. The words in some places make sense to me from a technological point of view today, but people even a hundred years ago wouldn't have understood it that way. He said at one point that future generations would have to understand it because the present ones couldn't. That was his covenant with his gods, to tell the story of what was happening. (I use the word 'gods' here because his society formed this idea later, not because I believe the society the Watchers came from were supernatural.)

            Over time, stories change, covenants change, I see this book as the beginning of the Jewish way of life. I think the Book of Enoch is literally the 1st book of the Jewish people, everything else after it was built on this. I'm surprised that more people don't see it this way. I'd never heard of it until I saw the name in a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The fact that the Essenes (or whoever) left these books in caves to be protected shows how important they were to them. Jesus would've read this, he referred to the "Son of Man" in one account, that comes directly from this.

            Anyway, I could go on & on about this. I think it's important.

            The idea of hell may have come directly from the scenes of disaster that Enoch describes in this. There were places where pits of fire were burning, seemingly without end, to me they sound like exploded missile silos, though of course we can't know exactly what he was seeing. But later generations would know nothing about a technology that they could not see, so they had no way to even picture what Enoch was talking about. Everyone ascribes what they already know to what they read. He used comparative words, but even so, the words have changed, meanings have been lost.

            Parents teach their children what they know & believe. We build on what we're taught. Children can't help but be affected by their parents, and with good parents, this is a healthy thing. What I disagree with is when parents let their children know that if they don't agree with them, they'll reject them. I got the feeling in my Baptist church that if I didn't join the church at age 14 (or near that age), there would treat me as though there was something terribly wrong with me. It was a terrible pressure. No child should be forced to decide on a religion at that age. I think perhaps from what you've said that you have a much more tolerant attitude than my church did. My church was not evangelical, but it was definitely Southern Baptist. I left that church a couple of years later feeling like they had abused me. I would not want anyone to go through that.

          • G

            I would differ slightly on the interpretation of suffering in Buddhism. From what I understand, the Buddhist belief is that suffering is inherent in life as a result of desire, and the alleviation of desire is the alleviation of suffering. One of the goals of meditation is to rise above desire, while at the same time gaining compassion for others.

            An element of common ground between Buddhism and Judaism appears to occur here: in both traditions, suffering is to be overcome and is not considered inherently good in some moral sense. Whereas in Christianity, Jesus' death on the cross is seen as setting an example in which suffering can be an expression or outcome of one's relationship with God; something that to my mind carries all manner of risks as we have seen through developments such as Calvinism.

            The Jewish idea that you're already 'right with God' and obligated to live up to that relationship, would seem to produce a healthier outlook than the Christian idea that you may or may not be 'right with God' and won't know until after you die (plus or minus Evangelical beliefs that 'rightness with God' arises solely through an act of faith). And yet some degree of a sense of uncertainty would seem to me to be ideal in that it acts as a check and balance on behaviour.

            Your description of these ideas in Judaism is one of the most clear and understandable that I've encountered in recent years, going right to the 'big picture,' which is more easily grasped directly than it might be extrapolated from starting with details such as the history of the Jews as a people or details of Jewish scripture. Getting the big picture makes the details meaningful.

            This is timely for me as I've been thinking about what Israelis are going through right now with the attacks by Hamas, and what French Jews are going through such as with the attacks by mobs against one or more synagogues. The fact that thousands of French Jews are leaving France due to the rise of neo-Naziism and other factors in France, is of serious concern to anyone who cares about human rights and about all of the well-understood history of the 20th century.

            Somehow, thoughtful people of all beliefs, have to come together on common ground and overcome the widespread thoughtlessness that leads to violence.

          • Joe0924

            Thanks for your comments. I'm glad that I was clear, although the imp in me says that if it was understandable I must have gotten it wrong. :)

            Thanks also for the clarification about Buddhism and suffering. Your version is more nuanced and I think a much better description than mine.

            I'm not sure what you mean with being "right with God." What I think of as being right with God is that we wholeheartedly accept the covenant with God and do our best to fulfill it. The problem (but also the beauty), is that we Jews all have different understandings of the nature of the covenant and how to fulfill it. I think this diversity in belief is what has truly enabled us to last as long as we have.

            Finally, you are absolutely right that we all have to come together to overcome violence. While I support Israel, she has not been blameless in this mess. The uptick of antisemitism in Europe is deplorable, but not surprising. It is also no worse than anti-Muslim sentiment in both Europe and the US.

            Most people don't really understand what monotheism means. If I believe there is only one God then all humans are God's creation. Therefore, regardless of who we are, or how we believe, or how we look, or who we love, we are all equally acceptable to God. So, all of humanity owes it to God to make the world a place that is free of hatred and violence.


          • JenJen10

            The idea of being "right with god" is the one the Baptist's embrace, it means you're born "in sin" and flawed, and you have to fight your inner nature to be bad & force yourself to embrace god to become good. It's the idea of 2 roads to travel, and the hard one is the only right one.

            In Christianity, there are those who are 'saved', and those who will go to hell. Belief is everything. The Catholics started this with their idea of receiving forgiveness for sins, you were told you could confess your sins to a priest & their weight would be taken off your shoulders. Of course, the mobsters used this and never stopped killing & stealing, etc.

            I asked my mother once why she didn't stop doing something & if she didn't think she would be doomed for it under her belief system, she said as long as she "believed in Jesus", she'd go to heaven.

            Your attitude is the better one, hers let her keep 'sinning'. She never thought she had to change, she only had to believe.

    • G

      VERY interesting. I have to admit I have not yet encountered the variety of Jewish belief in which humans are seen as 'differentiated pieces of God' who 'return to God' after death. It seems to me this has something in common with some of Asian philosophy but I can't quite put my finger on it.

      As far as you know, are those ideas unique to Kabbalistic Judaism, or do you see even roughly similar ideas elsewhere?

      • Joe0924

        I haven't seen it anywhere else, although I would think--like you--that other traditions would have said something similar.

        • the biophysicist

          This person claims that this is truth that has been hidden in all major religions. That we reincarnate until we reach unity with god. http://www.iawwai.com/EternalLife.htm

      • the biophysicist

        This person claims this is the hidden truth in all the major religions. We reincarnate until we rejoin god. Some interesting stuff on the site. Very idealist though. http://www.iawwai.com/EternalLife.htm

    • EdS

      Re: "as differentiated pieces of God."....were as the Essenes, which Joshua Emanual the Christ (a God-Man) was, ...taught that Humans are emanations of God taking on a human form....IOW God in its "Multiplicity" and not "differentiated from God the source" in any way. The same in Quality but not yet in its Quantity ( emphasis here on the "yet") Nor- does Human Being-ness ever "return to God"...Because it never left God/Source. This is a mis-conception / or mis-understanding / of the simple precess or dropping the three bodies, physical / Psychical / Noetical. Cycling "emanating out and returning too, again and again until Theosis and then making the decision to stay there Or take on Human form again ...As in the True meaning of "those who letdown their life for their fellow man". (John 15;13) Thanks for sharing the "Kabalistic root" it helped to understand where the three Abrahamic religions got so off track and destructive.


    There is nothing quite like debating the inherently unknowable. I've long felt Christianity to be roughly equal parts comfort myth and revenge fantasy. If you can win people over with heaven, threaten them with hell.

    • Tim F.

      Of course, dear ORAXX, religious people do not agree with you that there is nothing that can be known about the afterlife. Hence our ceaseless debating:)

      However, I must note that as someone who seems to claim that the afterlife is "inherently unknowable", you seem to have some pretty defined ideas about it: Namely, the trusty old naturalistic conviction that the afterlife (and ultimately all religion) is merely a product of psychological defense mechanisms on a collective human scale.

      Obviously psychology proper is not in any way suited to "test" or "verify" this kind of intuition about the nature of the world we have inherited. Neither are the pseudo-historians that glibly apply psychological terminology onto wobbly, overwrought generalizations about a wide spectrum of human cultures from the distant past.

      Unfortunately, intellectual tomfoolery on this level goes woefully undetected in the minds of hasty atheists and agnostics, who are usually quick to co-opt the language of pop psychology in ill-conceived attempts to lend a patina of academic authority to their own (fundamentally religious) convictions about the universe we live in.

      • ORAXX

        The most absurd thing about your statement, is the implication your debate actually matters. If truth was the product of belief, we would be living on a flat earth at the center of the universe. It simply does not matter what you believe. Be it the afterlife, or the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, your conjecture is just that...conjecture, and it's utterly meaningless. You may be patronizing and call me "Dear ORAXX", and otherwise pretend to a knowledge you simply do not possess, if you wish, but if you really think you understand this issue, then go get all your fellow believers on the same page.

        • Tim F.

          I meant the “dear” part to be more playful than patronizing but upon reflection I see how it could come across as condescending. Sorry about that.

          I’ve never heard a religious person claim that "truth is the product of belief". That truly would be an absurd statement. Nor do I think that I "really… understand this issue" in the sense of having some crystal clear picture of the afterlife.

          My intention was simply to point out the basic contradiction in the stance you are taking toward the historical debate about the afterlife: On one hand you claim that truth about the afterlife is “inherently unknowable” then on the other hand you proceed to invoke a set of things you seem to “know” about the afterlife, most prominently that the afterlife does not exist and secondarily additional historical speculations about how belief in the afterlife came to be invented in the first place. Can you see the discrepancy there?

          • MCCohen

            Tim, I do not see the discrepancy, personally. I think the problem is that religious and non-religious people tend to view knowledge differently. To many non-religious people (myself included) each "fact" or piece of information one has comes assigned with a probability that one's knowledge is correct. For instance, I'd say I'm essentially 100% certain that unicorns don't exist, but I can't give a rigorous proof so maybe it's more like I'm 99.999999999% certain. I feel pretty sure that global warming is happening, but if I'm honest, I'm slightly less sure of that than I am that unicorns don't exist. At the same time, I'd still feel confident saying "I know global warming is occurring."

            Most people who say they don't believe in god or an afterlife, if they're honest, will admit that there is a small chance (perhaps very very small) that they are wrong.

            My experience so far (and maybe it is not generally correct) is that religious people tend to express absolute certainty that there is a god and an afterlife, despite the fact that they do not have any evidence that they can point to and despite the fact that they cannot in any objective sense be absolutely certain about these things. So, yes, the afterlife is not something we can prove or disprove (or know with 100% certainty that it occurs or does not), given the fact that one can only prove it by dying and then going to heaven/hell and one cannot rigorously disprove it. At the same time, all scientific evidence points to the fact that there is not some "soul" that is separate from the body and that the afterlife, as envisioned by most religious people, does not occur and so, given this, I feel quite fine with someone saying that they "know" that the afterlife does not occur, but one should always see knowledge in this context of having a probability that is close to one attached.

          • LennyH4747

            I ride a unicorn to work everyday.

          • robertlfrisch

            Josiah . although Jacqueline `s stori is surprising,
            last week I bought themselves a Chrysler from having made $5060 thiss month
            and-in excess of, 10/k last-month . it's realy the easiest-work I have ever done
            . I started this 4 months ago and pretty much straight away was bringin in at
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          • G

            I'm inclined to believe that the correlation you observe is a coincidence and the relevant factors are different.

            The view of 'life, the universe, and everything' in which beliefs of whatever kind are expressed in probabilities rather than in certainties, is a product of a good scientific education and/or being raised in a science-oriented culture. One part of it comes from the quantum theory where measurements are (and thus our knowledge is) inherently probabilistic. Another part comes from statistical methods where significance is expressed in probability. Both of these are sufficiently well assimilated into the general culture as to be easily adopted when one learns of their theoretical foundations.

            Those who express beliefs in terms of certainties tend to be of two types. One, persons with little to no exposure to the scientific paradigms of probability. Two, persons who are ideological extremists of whatever type, for whom the emotions of belief are self-evidently true on their face.

            The belief in the certainty of the existence of a deity, on the part of religious persons, is of a different type. In their intimate personal experience, wholly subjective but none the less real to them, they seek out and develop an inner relationship with their deity. Asking them if they believe that a deity exists is like asking them if they believe their spouse or best friend exists.

            But just as theists vary, atheists vary as well, from those who simply see no need of the existence of a deity in their understanding of the universe, to those who are quite certain that a deity does not exist.

            In the end, the proposition about the existence or nonexistence of a deity is empirically untestable. But the variation in beliefs arises from variations in neurophysiology that are entirely natural.

          • Gustavo

            Yeah, I wouldn't take the non-existence of (earth) unicorns out so many decimal places...that's just mean to unicorns' possible existence.
            I have faith that you'll one day see that 99.99999% is sufficient.

      • Gustavo

        it's possible to know something about knowledge; it's possible to know if something is "inherently unknowable"...
        here's a macabre example: I am thinking of a color, then I instantly experience brain death, then my corporeal body is vaporized before someone can invent a machine to reformulate my last thoughts...what color was I thinking??

        (answer: electric blue, same scintillating blue you might see defining the high-elevation granite ridges in the CA Sierras an hour before twilight)

        regarding psychology...
        am a descendent of millions of survivors, lucky, resilient, survivors nonetheless. imagine all the hardship and loss and grief my great-great-(times 10 thru 20)-grandmothers endured. or picture hominids around the time of Lucy that could experience high clan and group mortality rates from one season to the next. how do sentient and increasingly empathetic beings survive and thrive under such circumstances? psychology and brain chemistry perhaps, forgetting...
        Yes, I think there's something to genetics and evolutionary psychology.


    • Lester Barnes

      Pick up those dice and roll 'em. What do you have to lose?

  • Tim F.

    The historical scope of this article was moderately interesting but the commentary on present day Christianity was sorely lacking. Kathryn Gin Lum subverts her attempts at insight when she trots out the tired old trope about "younger Christians" ditching the idea of hell. This is probably the hundredth article I've come across online in the last five years that examines the ostensibly changing religious attitudes and beliefs of American "millenials", as if this demographic is in some way important to the future of religion.

    The aspect that seems to most trip up pieces like this is the apparent inability of an author to place their informal research in proper demographic scale, allowing instead the most near and most familiar to eclipse the big picture. This piece is no exception: First world religion is in crisis and steep decline. To generalize, the denominations that are growing (or shrinking least) tend to believe in hell. Globally, the places where Christianity is rapidly expanding tend to have a robust belief in hell.

    Consequently, first-world religious identity crises notwithstanding, a proper reading of the demographics is blindingly obvious: No, Christianity will not be getting rid of hell anytime in the near future.

    I won't pretend to have crunched the numbers but in all statistically likelihood, the belief in hell is more alive now than it ever has been in all of human history.

    • JenJen10

      You fell into your own trap there. Yes, she seems to be "allowing instead the most near and most familiar to eclipse the big picture". Then you end saying you think "the belief in hell is more alive now than it ever has been in all of human history." Your belief.

      Don't put down examining how religious beliefs are changing in different generations. "millenials" are the people of the future, they will still be here after we are gone.

      • Tim F.

        Dear JenJen10, I am not trying to evaluate or "put down" the content of American millennials' beliefs about the afterlife. Rather, I simply want our attention to those beliefs to be set in the context of a "big picture" in which young Americans are a small minority of the young Christians living in the world today, most of whom apparently have no ethical dilemma reconciling a compassionate God and a literal hell.

        The demographics tell us that young American Christians, as sincere as they may be, will not be the ones shaping the future of Christianity. So, by attempting to paint a broad brush historical survey of Christian beliefs about hell, up to the present day, without considering or discussing what the largest, vibrant, fastest growing sectors of young Christianity have to say about hell, the author has obscured a very important topic with ignorance and myopia.

  • RockBlocker

    What Really Is Hell?

    WHATEVER image the word “hell” brings to your mind, hell is generally thought of as a place of punishment for sin. Concerning sin and its effect, the Bible says: “Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) The Scriptures also state: “The wages sin pays is death.” (Romans 6:23) Since the punishment for sin is death, the fundamental question in determining the true nature of hell is: What happens to us when we die?

    Does life of some kind, in some form, continue after death? What is hell, and what kind of people go there? Is there any hope for those in hell? The Bible gives truthful and satisfying answers to these questions.

    Life After Death?

    Does something inside us, like a soul or a spirit, survive the death of the body? Consider how the first man, Adam, came to have life. The Bible states: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) Though breathing sustained his life, putting “the breath of life” into his nostrils involved much more than simply blowing air into his lungs. It meant that God put into Adam’s lifeless body the spark of life—“the force of life,” which is active in all earthly creatures. (Genesis 6:17; 7:22) The Bible refers to this animating force as “spirit.” (James 2:26) That spirit can be compared to the electric current that activates a machine or an appliance and enables it to perform its function. Just as the current never takes on the features of the equipment it activates, the life-force does not take on any of the characteristics of the creatures it animates. It has no personality and no thinking ability.

    What happens to the spirit when a person dies? Psalm 146:4 says: “His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” When a person dies, his impersonal spirit does not go on existing in another realm as a spirit creature. It “returns to the true God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) This means that any hope of future life for that person now rests entirely with God.

    The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato held that a soul inside a person survives death and never dies. What does the Bible teach about the soul? Adam “came to be a living soul,” says Genesis 2:7. He did not receive a soul; he was a soul—a whole person. The Scriptures speak of a soul’s doing work, craving food, being kidnapped, experiencing sleeplessness, and so forth. (Leviticus 23:30; Deuteronomy 12:20; 24:7; Psalm 119:28) Yes, man himself is a soul. When a person dies, that soul dies.—Ezekiel 18:4.

    What, then, is the condition of the dead? When pronouncing sentence upon Adam, Jehovah stated: “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19) Where was Adam before God formed him from the dust of the ground and gave him life? Why, he simply did not exist! When he died, Adam returned to that state of complete absence of life. The condition of the dead is made clear at Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, where we read: “The dead know nothing . . . In the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (New International Version) Scripturally, death is a state of nonexistence. The dead have no awareness, no feelings, no thoughts.

    Unending Torment or Common Grave?

    Since the dead have no conscious existence, hell cannot be a fiery place of torment where the wicked suffer after death. What, then, is hell? Examining what happened to Jesus after he died helps to answer that question. The Bible writer Luke recounts: “Neither was [Jesus] forsaken in Hades [hell, King James Version] nor did his flesh see corruption.”* (Acts 2:31) Where was the hell to which even Jesus went? The apostle Paul wrote: “I handed on to you . . . that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, yes, that he has been raised up the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4) So Jesus was in hell, the grave, but he was not abandoned there, for he was raised up, or resurrected.

    Consider also the case of the righteous man Job, who suffered much. Wishing to escape his plight, he pleaded: “Who will grant me this, that thou mayest protect me in hell[Sheol], and hide me till thy wrath pass?”* (Job 14:13, Douay Version) How unreasonable to think that Job desired to go to a fiery-hot place for protection! To Job, “hell” was simply the grave, where his suffering would end. The Bible hell, then, is the common grave of mankind where good people as well as bad ones go.


    Could it be that the fire of hell is symbolic of all-consuming, or thorough, destruction? Separating fire from Hades, or hell, the Scriptures say: “Death and Hades were hurled intothe lake of fire.” “The lake” mentioned here is symbolic, since death and hell (Hades) that are thrown into it cannot literally be burned. “This [lake of fire] means the second death”—death from which there is no hope of coming back to life.—Revelation 20:14.

    The lake of fire has a meaning similar to that of “the fiery Gehenna [hell fire, King JamesVersion]” that Jesus spoke of. (Matthew 5:22; Mark 9:47, 48) Gehenna occurs 12 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, and it refers to the valley of Hinnom, outside the walls of Jerusalem. When Jesus was on earth, this valley was used as a garbage dump, “where the dead bodies of criminals, and the carcasses of animals, and every other kind of filth was cast.” (Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible) The fires were kept burning by adding sulfur to burn up the refuse. Jesus used that valley as a proper symbol of everlasting destruction.

    As does Gehenna, the lake of fire symbolizes eternal destruction. Death and Hades are “hurled into” it in that they will be done away with when mankind is freed from sin and the condemnation of death. Willful, unrepentant sinners will also have their “portion” in that lake. (Revelation 21:8) They too will be annihilated forever. On the other hand, those in God’s memory who are in hell—the common grave of mankind—have a marvelous future.

    Hell Emptied!

    Revelation 20:13 states: “The sea gave up those dead in it, and death and Hades gave up those dead in them.” Yes, the Bible hell will be emptied. As Jesus promised, “the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear [Jesus’] voice and come out.” (John 5:28, 29) Although no longer presently existing in any form, millions of dead ones who are in Jehovah God’s memory will be resurrected, or brought back to life, in a restored earthly paradise.—Luke 23:43; Acts 24:15.

    In the new world of God’s making, resurrected humans who comply with his righteous laws will never need to die again. (Isaiah 25:8) Jehovah “will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.” In fact, “the former things [will] have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) What a blessing is in store for those in hell—“the memorial tombs”! This blessing indeed is reason enough for us to take in more knowledge of Jehovah God and his Son, Jesus Christ.—John 17:3.


    In the King James Version, the Greek word Hades is rendered “hell” in each of its ten occurrences in the Christian Greek Scriptures. The rendering at Luke 16:19-31mentions torment, but the entire account is symbolic in meaning. See chapter 88 ofThe Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    The Hebrew word Sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and is rendered “hell,” “grave,” and “pit” in the King James Version.

    • a2326805

      The amount of energy, time and lives humanity has wasted during it's short time on this earth dealing with the delusion of religions and gods is appalling. If those resources were truly spent focusing on the betterment of mankind we would be much more advanced spiritually, mentally and socially. Issue like ego, greed, fear and the sharing of resources would be under control by now. Let's move on already people! Why are we all so afraid to see the light (pun intended)? Way too much to discuss here. Any suggestions on how we can clean up this mess anyone? We can't just cut it out as it would shock the system and have a negative impact on so many of the people who are currently helped and supported by many of the good services many religious organization provide. Some real alternative with a superior foundation needs to be created and adopted / transitioned too. Lots of deep thinking and debate to truly come up with real alternatives.

      • Harold

        Well then I'll give you something that will really gall you.

        There was an article on science.com about 2 years ago concerning the acceptance by modern physics of a universe of from 7-11 dimensions. The Bible claimed multiple dimensions several thousand years ago.

        You and I occupy "time/space." The further dimensions are also occupied by "beings." Those beings are what WE call angels [good & bad] and Gods.

        You and I also have ONE aspect of these further dimensions which is outside the time/space that loose connection with the further dimensions is called the "soul OR spirit." Being outside "time/space" it is "eternal."

        In a billion trillion years [OF COURSE we will THEN be primarily outside time/space as "spirit" occupants] NOTHING else will matter to you EXCEPT these 11 words.

        YOUR UNDERSTANDING of 1-4 In the beginning God AND
        WHAT YOU DO WITH 5-11 "Who do you say that I am?"

        This BLINK OF AN EYE life is ONLY a test! A test of what you do with those 11 words. That is IT!!!

        Jesus asked why we worry about things that do NOT MATTER!

        You were warned, "man does not live by bread alone BUT BY EVERY WORD that comes out of the mouth of God."

        I am an EX functional atheist and VEHEMENTLY ANTI-Christian, nothing you can say or think that I didn't, when I was IGNORANT as you are!

        • RM

          I don't believe you.

          • Harold

            OK...............which part?

          • RM

            I don't believe that you were an atheist. There's a difference between someone who arrives at atheism via reason and judicial examination of the best arguments and available evidence, versus someone who wasn't raised in a religious environment and wasn't familiar with the arguments. Regarding the former, I've never seen that kind of atheist convert to any religion. And that's after participating in these sort of discussions, fora and meetings for over 20 years.

          • a2326805

            Anythings possible, maybe he let fear get the best of him or maybe he is onto something in his mind. I was raised catholic but they never converted me and I never believed in their god or religion. Sure I was baptized and pushed through religion classes when I was young that made me contest their teaching even more. I wised up early and separated myself from something that made no sense to blindly follow based on their teaching and scare tactics. The more I looked into religion and searched for a deeper meaning of life the more it became clear that it was mostly a big scam to control me and get me to give my time / money to their cause with a false foundation based on a book of stories created by man inspired by their belief in a god.

            I still would like Harold to respond to my previous comment and would like to hear what he has to say. I feel I am more an agnostic atheist and still open to hear what others say. Do try to sell me on fire and brimstone because it will not work.

          • RM

            Every time I come across one these atheist-turned- headlines, I sincerely read the articles hoping that just this one time this person would explain the evidence that they found convincing. And every single time I'm let down. We're given a big fat nothing burger. They begin repeating the standard theist appeals to emotion that leads me to believe they were never atheist or else they'd understand that Christianese talking points don't amount to anything to us. They'd understand we're looking for verifiable evidence and sound reasoning.

        • a2326805

          I do remember reading the article or similar article of the acceptance multiple dimensions by modern science and am definitely open to such a theory. Science.com's search did not turn up any results for me.

          Ignorant words and limited thinking at times yes, but a mind that is willing to learn, explore and change that is still open to all things. I am willing to risk eternity in hell and deny my so called maker my soul if it will not allow me to question my existence and it's existence. Some say god gave us the bible. I feel that it was written by man inspired by their belief in god. Some accuracy for sure peppered in here and there, but all over the place with fictional stories and fair tales. I have even looked at one for over twenty years. I haven't the time to try to decider cryptic messages out of it that are most likely dead ends.

          Any references to back your 11 words? Please clarify your definition of "In the beginning God" and "Who do you say that I am?"

          In a Billion/Trillion years as you say when we will be spirit. We "I" still exist? will "I" be able to think and form thoughs in my mind space, have memories etc? If not I see no point whatsoever to care one bit what happens to my soul or my essence. As Carl Sagan stated we are all made of stars and one day we will be stars again. Well that's all nice and grand to think of it like that but if "I" do not exist to continue to learn and expand my mind / knowledge WHY SHOULD I CARE! "I" will no longer exist!

          I still have hope for some reason with a never give up attitude. Constantly searching and exploring to maybe just maybe if I am lucky find so real answers. Until then I try to contribute to this reality in a positive way and try to learn from people like you who are on similar path but maybe a little further along than I am. Until my last breath in this reality I will search unless I discover the answers sooner. Until then I will be an active participant in this reality and continue to expand my mind and experience life.

          • Harold

            SORRY! The wife didn't pay her part of the Time-Warner bill! Took THIS long to get back to you. I like your reply, shows willing thinking, NOW lets go for the rest.

            I didn't see any "ignorant" words. Some need for education, of course but well said. Remember for the middle 1/3 of my 65 years I was VERY anti-Bible & anti-Christian. BUT archaeology, history, linguistics, mythology AND YES, even science really do BACK UP Scripture! You have to dig.

            A "willing mind" He isn't interested in. Great minds tend to think they are smart. He is not impressed.

            A willing HEART is what He is interested in. One that, YES , is willing to learn, BUT one "attached" to a mind that does not think it is smarter than the Creator of 7 septillion suns. THAT is OUR [mine TOO] problem. NOT knowing anything but what we have here, We STILL think we know how to run a universe better than The One Who "dreamed" up DNA or Bumble Bees, or Black Holes or galaxies, or sex!

            I was one of the ones who used to say, "A loving God wouldn't do ......." Or "I can't believe "such & such"" happened. [I thought the Bible was full of fairy tales TOO!] And, as far as questioning, how about SCREAMING @ Him? Oh yeah! I have several times in my life been so mad at God I was walking down a highway SCREAMING at Him [wonder I didn't get arrested!] because something had happened to me. [DOES THIS LOOK LIKE AN ABUNDANT LIFE!? :( !!! ] He'll get over it . Yell at Him. Somewhere He will be saying; "Are you over your mad, yet?" He is looking for honest HEARTS!

            What He does to me, IS NOT MY BUSINESS! You need to crunch on that a while. He OWNS every atom in the universe. Does an electric light bulb have a right to TELL you, : "Put me in the kitchen NOT the bathroom." ???? THINK ABOUT THAT! And if this life is JUST A BLINK out of eternity, does it really matter???

            "In the beginning God." Gen 1:1 [King James & others] In other words you are being told this is His universe NOT OURS! "IT" is about Him not Me!

            "Who do you say that I am?" Matt 16:15 & Mark 8:29 & Luke 9:20 In other words; Who do YOU say IN YOUR HEART [!!!!] that Jesus is? That is what He wants to know. [us to PROVE!]

            "I am willing to risk eternity in hell and deny my so called maker my soul " 1st of all, "NO YOU AREN'T" Hell will be some literal SPOT in the multiple DIMENSIONS where you will REPLAY "Groundhog Day" IN HELL to NEVER END ! SECOND of all HE WILL STILL OWN YOU, that will not change. BUT you sure as HELL won't have any fun! BUT all you have to do is say in your HEART HONESTLY!!! something like I said;" I accept your sacrifice in my place." FOR STARTERS, He will do the rest!

  • stevemeikle

    The paradox is that those who deny Hell and appeal to God's love to do so are the ones that don't really believe that God can save anyone from Hell, so have to deny the hell they fear rather than genuinely accept the amnesty God has provided.

    That the puritans were tortured by the question of whether they were saved or not showed the smallness of their faith.

    So is denial of hell unbelief twisting itself to the nth degree

    • ichol

      The paradox is that those who believe in Hell and a perfect all loving God are the ones who think that only God's amnesty can save souls from Hell, denying the multitude of ways people can not accept the amnesty offered (ie, being born in a place that they would not hear of such amnesty, or with disabilities that would not allow them to have such agency to make the decision.) So the belief in permanent punishment for those who did not accept the amnesty of God in this brief lifetime is twisting itself to the nth degree.

  • enzomedici

    Will we ever get rid of religion entirely, that is the question.

    • Brad

      No. Never.

  • Tennessee Twister

    The late Iain M. Banks wrote an excellent novel about how some people will insist on creating Hell (for others, if not for themselves) by one means or another. The title is Surface Detail.

  • AB5FD

    I see many articles discussing "Parallel Universes", and similar ideas. How do you know those "Parallel Universes" being detected aren't Heaven and Hell? Your ideas are no more plausible or provable than mine! I've witnessed many things that can't be explained by science! We Swear there ain't no Heaven and Pray there ain't no Hell!

  • Josh

    "Believers in hell thrive on a sense of opposition and injustice – to affirm the stark either/or of heaven or hell requires it."

    I profoundly disagree with this statement.

    This reasoning provides a window, I believe, into the commonly held belief that a Christian has the God-given right is to condemn others and, short of that, hope that God will do the job for them (in the form of hell) if the Christian can't do it themselves. This seems to be a commonly held belief among those that have a strong distaste for Christians and, I will absolutely concede that *many* misguided Christians subscribe to this belief as well. Admittedly, we can at times perpetuate this myth in our behavior.

    The problem with the belief is, the moment I condemn someone else for their sin or offense, I condemn myself. My salvation is a gift given to me by God and a willful act on His part to disregard my many (read: MANY) offenses against Him and others. This is fully supported by scripture.

    The Christian whose heart is oriented towards loving others does not require or thrive on a sense of injustice or opposition. This kind of Christian mourns over the offense/injustice/opposition because it draws the child of God away from Him. This, again, is supported, even commanded, by scripture.

    To assume that the Christian revels in the "pleasure" of the offender receiving the justice of an angry God is, I think, myopic. I personally tremble at the notion of what I deserve based on my offenses and rejoice in the knowledge that I do not get what I deserve because of what Christ did for me. This leads me to offer grace and forgiveness to those that have wronged me. I am by no means perfect and grieve for the times when I have condemned Gods children. It was not my right to do so.

    My hope in saying all of this is that the reader may have some, if only slight, change in perspective of what God's love is regardless of how we Christians live that out. Fortunately, God's love for each and every one of us is not dependent on the behavior of His followers.

    • Anarcissie

      According to many important teachers of Christianity, for example Martin Luther, salvation is by faith alone -- and only by the correct faith. There is some scriptural support for this belief, for example John 3:18. If so, Christians who consign everyone besides their own sect to Hell are only truthfully reporting the theology, not particularly judging anyone. In any case personal righteousness and works don't matter. This particular aspect of Christianity strikes me as extremely peculiar, because the ability to have faith in any particular thing is not willed ad-hoc. The non-believer is allegedly confronted with an impossible task which, if he fails (as he probably will) he will suffer unimaginable punishments for all eternity. (And, of course, God will have to suffer with him, since God is omniscient.)

  • ReadAlvinKuhn

    Jesus never existed neither did Mary, Joseph, Mary Magdalene, John the
    Baptist nor hell, heaven, purgatory...... Learn your religious history! The SUN sits for approx 3
    days before it begins to rise at winter on December 21/22. As the SUN
    rises, the constellation VIRGO THE VIRGIN is lying on her side holding a
    sheaf of wheat in a hand, so it is said the SUN was a virgin birth.
    This is why Jesus said "Eat my body" in reference to the wheat. The
    month of January is represented by the constellation Aquarius, the man
    with the water pitcher from which "Jahn" pronounced John is derived;
    hence, John the Baptist. The Xmas nativity scene is represented by
    Jesus lying in a manger. A manger is a place where food is placed for
    animals to eat. Again in reference to "eat my body" bible verses.
    There are also generally 2 lambs representing the constellation Aries
    the Ram. A ram is a full grown adult male lamb. There is a bull
    representing the constellation Taurus, baby Jesus represents the SUN,
    Mary the constellation Virgo the Virgin, Joseph Orion, and a donkey
    representing a star further out in the Milky Way. There is a lot more,
    but the Catholic Church has been so successful in duping humanity for
    centuries nobody believes this. They were successful in carrying this
    out via death sentences to anyone who would not acknowlege the Pope as
    GOD on earth. It was called the DARK AGES, and it took the CAtholic
    Church 500 years to stamp out the truth behind religion. Read up,
    educate yourself, and stop being a pawn of religion. Begin by reading
    Fox Book of Marytrs.

  • realist

    Good scholarly article by Professor Kathryn Gin Lum, but I would have liked to have seen a good honest summary on the reality of hell as told in the historical record of the New Testament by the founder of the Christian church himself--Jesus Christ.

  • Nick Hart

    Looked at dispassionately, the idea of Hell in times past was probably a good thing, because it helped keep the lid on the nastier aspects of human nature at a time when society was always just a step away from violent and destructive anarchy.

    Unfortunately, it was also hijacked by venal, corrupt and exploitative Roman Catholic churchmen as a means to extort money and obedience from the faithful (when the punishment for a real or perceived lack of faith was often a barbarous and horrible death).

    But now that all educated and rational people know that that God does not exist, there is no reason for Heaven or Hell.

  • http://reysciman.tumblr.com/ RS

    there is an even more difficult question: where does the idea come from? https://www.thedodo.com/for-the-first-time-chimpanzees-605888880.html --> in my live that s the biggest in step in evolution. ok. imitation is one form of learning, I think teaching also got a new dimension now. think about a chimp using a stone - even talking about ethics is more complicated now, isn t it?

  • MaineGeezer

    A discussion of the Universalist movement at the beginning of the 19t century would have been appropriate.

  • http://www.zazzle.com/nosacredcow NoSacredCow

    The napkin religion is the one true religion because it says so right here on this napkin. It has only one rule. Clean up after yourself.

  • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com/ The Sanity Inspector

    The Turks tell their People of a Heaven where there is a sensible Pleasure, but of a Hell where they shall suffer they don't know what. The Christians quite invert this order; they tell us of a Hell where we shall feel sensible Pain, but of a Heaven where we shall enjoy we can't tell what. -- John Selden, c. 1650

  • walterdaniels

    All of the arguments _against_ hell, boil down to one thing. If you "Love" someone enough, they will reform. Totally ignoring the simple fact of *free will.* IOW, if I don't _want_ to reform, you can "love" me all you want, and it won't happen. Real Evil is a deliberate choice. A deliberate denial of all good. Unless, and until, a different choice is made that won't change. Death is the *last* chance to change your mind.
    God *wants,* with a magnitude we can't even imagine, for us to join him. But, without denying us the same free will He gave us, He can't change our minds. By any definition, Hell is refusing Union with God. _Not_ His refusing Union with us. Young people "don't believe in Hell," because the media, and society have taught them. "There is no superior, no inferior (less than perfect). There is no reward for doing your best, and no consequences for not doing something, or doing wrong." There is "no difference between the dedicated athlete, and the couch potato. The person with an IQ of 140 is no better, or smarter, than a person with an IQ of 90." *Not* that they have _Equal Human Rights_, but that there is _no difference_. In such a "system," no one can survive. There is no reward for doing well, or punishment for being completely self centered.

    • Josh Atkins

      There is no free will on Christianity because Yahweh allegedly knows everything in advance (presumably excluding his own future thoughts and actions?).

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  • Stan Astan

    Eternal torture would require infinite energy. It's simply not productive or logical. Hell is a regrettable human product brought on by the most horrifying aspects of human nature. Some humans celebrate the notion. That's why we have prisons and like places to put them.

  • George Williams

    Hell is just another fairy tale unless you are talking about real hells on earth for the living.

  • pistachiowildebeest

    I live in a country far more secular than the U.S., and the vast majority of peop,e I've known are de facto atheists. But sooner or later, nearly every religious person I've known has casually informed me that I'll spend eternity suffering agonies in their deity's private torture chamber.

    Obviously it's not true and these people are completely barking, but it poses the genuinely interesting question of what it must be like to live with those kind of delusions. I have no idea what it must feel like. You'd think it would involve paralysing fear, but I've rally no idea.

  • Don DeHart Bronkema

    No--we must exterminate it, in curso ensuring the floruit of syntelligent H. transcendans c. 2085-2120 CE [vide Delphi projections].

    Jim--do revisit the ontological conundrum at your early convenience.

  • Raúl

    I liked the article, thanks for giving us a an historical account about the concept of Hell. It seems to me a critical matter in an ethical sense, considering the nature we ascribe to God, a benevolent one in my case. The idea of a literal hell is hard to process.

  • Rajat Nayyar

    In Greek mythology, River Styx had to be crossed to reach life after death. The only way to cross the Styx was in a ferryboat rowed by an old boatman named Charon. The boatman would only take a soul if their bodies had received funereal rites on earth. Charon the ferryman also demanded to be paid, therefore a small coin was placed under the tongue of a dead person for this purpose.

    Similarly in Hindu mythology, The 47th chapter of the Preta Khanda in the Garuda Purana talks about Vaitarni River, which must be crossed by the souls of the dead. It is incumbent on all mortals to witness the mighty river. Persons who had made gifts in their lifetime can cross it easily, otherwise they sink into it. Those who donate a cow to a Brahmin, they never fall into the Vaitarni River. Clinging to the tail of the cow, the helpless soul will be able to cross the river.

    One of my informant said during research in Varanasi (for my current film about the process of dying in India's holy city), "See 'tharana' is crossing. Vai means 'no', like Vaikunta refers to a place where there is no kunta or obstacles. Vaitharini, the river of the material world, is a symbolism for one that is too loathsome to cross.. So what is it? It is our own accumulated filth in the mind"

  • BlueMoney

    The problem I've always had with the doctrine of Hell involves what I would call its *unjust equivalency* with regard to sin/evil. IOW, stealing a cookie when you're 12 years old (and therefore at the *unscriptural* age of accountability!) merits eternal Hell just as surely as gassing six million Jews does, because "sin is sin" in God's eyes and both offenses will thus get the same punishment (eternal torture.) So much for "Hell" being useful for enforcing public morality, or God being anything but a cruel despot!

  • EdS

    Re"As much as some people might thirst for a hell-less faith and a hell-denying Pope, others eagerly participate in hell and judgment houses designed to frighten and convert attendees into belief."

    Yes indeed!! The cause of this simple, but extremely destructive mis-belief ...belongs to the insistence of the three Abrahamic religions holding on to their Vindictive God...as you well say "to frighten and convert". But the average level of Human Consciousness has now risen above the need for the "frighten them" and not so ironically, it is just so amy Priest, Rabbi, etc which are stuck in the "power over others habit"..and so they not advancing.