The evolution of hell

January 20th, 2019

This scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (c 1275 BCE), shows the dead scribe Hunefer’s heart being weighed by the canine-headed Anubis on the scale of Maat. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart is lighter than the feather of truth, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the crocodile-headed Ammit. Photo from Wikipedia (public domain).

A nasty idea?

The idea of hell, a place of punishment in the afterlife, is a part of traditional Christianity and Islam, yet is rejected by some christians and reviled by most non-believers.

It isn’t a pleasant thought, and I don’t recall ever discussing it in any detail on this website before. But for some people it is such a barrier to believing in a loving God that I felt I must address it.

Where did the idea come from? And is it an essential part of christianity?

Let’s take a look.

Justice in this world and the next?

The word hell has a Germanic origin, appearing in such languages as Norse and Anglo Saxon. It referred to the place of the dead, an underworld, and sometimes as a place of punishment and suffering for evildoers.

Most religions have a similar concept of an afterlife in an underworld, either the same for all people (as in ancient Sumerian belief), or more commonly with rewards and punishments based on the merits, or otherwise, of each life (as, for example, in ancient Egypt, as pictured above).

We can see the attraction of this idea, at least for those who have lived a hard life with suffering caused by the wealthy and powerful – they may be downtrodden in this life, but the pecking order will be reversed in the next world.

Early Jewish and Christian views

The Jewish scriptures refer to Sheol, meaning the state of death, or “the grave”, but it was often seen as being a shadowy underworld where people still existed in some form. However in the couple of centuries before Jesus, Jewish thinking evolved to think there was a place of either (1) purging before entering into life in the age to come, or (2) a place where evildoers were judged and their lives forfeited, or sometimes (3) a place of ongoing punishment of evildoers, while the righteous entered straight into the glorious life in the age to come. The place where this happened was sometimes referred to as Ge Hinnom, actually the name of a valley outside of Jerusalem where refuse was burnt.

Jesus used the phrase Ge Hinnom (the Greek of the New Testament is Ge’enna) when talking about God’s judgment, and it is usually translated as “hell”. He seemed to use the term in sense (2), as a place of judgment and destruction rather than ongoing suffering. The rest of the New Testament says nothing about Ge’enna.

The early christians generally followed Jesus’ example and, if they talked about hell at all, most often spoke of it as an end of life rather than punishment. But weren’t very explicit about it.

Later Christian views

Apparently under the influence of Greek philosophy of an immortal soul that couldn’t be destroyed at death, plus some pagan religious ideas, the idea was developed of hell as a punishment that would go on forever. It became mainstream in the church based on Augustine’s teachings around 400 CE, and has been the main doctrine in both Protestant and Catholic theology since then.

Painters and preachers have at times in church history painted a lurid and fearful picture of hell, and “fire and brimstone” preachers have used it as an effective means of scaring people into obedience to the christian faith.

Modern developments

The concept of hell has moderated in modern times, for several reasons.

Modern conservative Protestants and Catholic still generally believe in hell as a place of ongoing punishment for sin and unbelief, with the doctrine often now defined as “eternal conscious torment”. But the days of fire and brimstone preaching are, mostly and thankfully, over.

However many “progressive” christians find that idea repugnant, inconsistent with a loving God and (most importantly) inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. So many have moved to one of two other doctrines:

  • “conditional immortality”, which sees those who refuse to seek God’s forgiveness forfeiting their opportunity for life in the age to come, or else
  • “universalism”, where hell is a place of temporary purging, or of short term existence until the person is repentant and seeks God’s forgiveness, but eventually all will be won over by God’s love and receive eternal life.

Meanwhile, the growing number of sceptics and non-believers in previously “christian” countries, influenced no doubt by a scientific understanding of the world and death, but also by a growing sense of humanity, now scorn the idea of hell. They don’t believe it exists, because they don’t believe in an afterlife or in God, and they would find it difficult to believe in a God whose punishment was so harsh that he penalises even a lifetime of unbelief and sin with an eternity of punishment.

The evolution of hell

So the idea of hell has come almost full circle. From an expectation that death was the end, through the idea of justice in the next world, hell reached its peak as a scary place of fire and torment somewhere around the Middle Ages, and is now in decline as an idea.

I don’t think it is a moment too soon.

Read more

I have examined the philosophical, ethical and Biblical aspects of hell in Does hell make it impossible to believe in God?. You can find a number of references there.

Is God a Jokerman?

September 8th, 2017

If you are sometimes troubled about the apparent actions of God, or if you are interested in the songs of Bob Dylan, this post may strike a chord.

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Light at the end of the tunnel for some of the world’s poorest people

May 2nd, 2016

Bithi started work in a Bangladeshi clothing factory when she was 12. Abject poverty and a sick father forced Bithi’s family to send the two oldest daughters to the garment factories to sew designer clothes sold mainly in North America. It was either that, or watch the girls slowly starve.

Now 15, Bithi helps create a minimum of 480 pair of designer jeans every day, sewing 60 pockets an hour. For this, she earns about $1 US a day.

If that shocks you, makes you angry, or even makes you cry, that is an appropriate response. But at last there is a glimmer of hope for girls like Bithi.

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Christianity – the good and the bad?

July 10th, 2015

CATHEDRAL

The good and harm done by christianity is a topic of much discussion and argument, and I have written on it many times (e.g. Does religion poison everything? and Do religious believers have better health and wellbeing, like, really?).

Keith Parsons is a US philosopher and atheist who writes about the philosophy of religion, and actively engages with christian belief via The Internet Infidels website and the Secular Outpost blog. Keith has made his assessments of christianity in two posts on Secular Outpost, and they are worth checking out.

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Slavery in the spotlight

April 15th, 2013

End it

When I was at school, we were taught about how slavery was abolished in Britain and the USA. This was obviously a good thing.

It came as a shock to find out, some years ago now, that there are more slaves in the world than ever before.

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The oppression goes on?

April 4th, 2013

Prisoner

Indonesia has, at various times over the years, been both the victim of oppression and colonial rule and the oppressor. For two centuries the Dutch East India Company virtually ruled the islands that comprise Indonesia as they profited from the spice trade. Later, the Dutch East Indies was a part of the Dutch colonial empire, and finally won its independence as Indonesia in the years after World War 2.

Since then, Indonesia has itself oppressed indigenous people as it annexed East Timor and West Papua. East Timor now has its independence, but the people of West Papua have had to endure massive immigration of Indonesians from crowded islands in their sparsely populated land, and significant oppression.

There are arguments on both sides of the question, of course, but there is little doubt that the indigenous people of West Papua have lost out and been treated badly. Countries like Australia support Indonesia in their annexation of West Papua, probably because we did the same to the indigenous people of Australia only two centuries ago, so how can we say anything? But the whole situation still rankles with many people.

Support two oppressed men

Amnesty International has recently reported that two Papuan men have been detained by police, allegedly tortured and held without access to lawyers or medical treatment.

You can read about it here, and sign an online petition seeking fair treatment for them. If you care, take the time, just do it!

Thanks.

Photo: Amnesty International

Atheism and freewill – the elephant in the room?

April 2nd, 2013

Prisoner

I have had an interest in the question of free will ever since a long and friendly email discussion with an atheist and determinist almost a decade ago. He was a researcher in artificial intelligence, and strongly believed that human beings had no free will, and that the only way we could have it was if dualism was true – which he rejected.

Recently I have had several more discussions, and they have left me with some clear conclusions about atheism and free will.

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