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

by Kathryn Gin Lum

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

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).

3,000 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

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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.

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