Yes, Virginia, The Bible Does Teach Hell

Slacktivist, my favorite progressive Christian blog, has been reporting on how the religious right has been in a tizzy over the news that prominent evangelical pastor Rob Bell may no longer believe in eternal damnation. (I know, I know – he doesn’t believe that God will torture billions of people in a lake of fire for all eternity? Horrors!)

This is a view Slacktivist himself holds, and to defend Bell, he quotes three passages commonly used to support belief in Hell, Luke 16:19-31 (the parable of Lazarus and the rich man), Matthew 25:41-46 (the sheep and the goats) and Revelation 20:11-15 (the book of life and the lake of fire), in order to critique the standard interpretation:

…these passages’ references to a “lake of fire” or “eternal fire” or torment in “Hades” cannot easily be read as teaching that this is the proper understanding of the cartography and logistics of the afterlife. That’s not what these passages are about.

…The point of these passages, clearly, is ethical instruction and I don’t think they can really be made to accommodate any other reading.

Now, I’m all for this position on ethical grounds, as I wrote in my post about Carlton Pearson. I applaud anyone who has the decency to reject the idea of Hell as a sadistic fantasy. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I have to disagree with Slacktivist on textual grounds. It isn’t the case that this idea can’t plausibly be found in the Bible.

I can cheerfully grant his point that the hellfire imagery in these passages is there as a rhetorical device to draw readers’ attention to the ethical lesson taught in all three, which is about helping the poor and needy. I also agree that this fact is probably embarrassing and awkward for the right-wing believers who usually quote these passages, since those people’s favorite pastimes are slashing the social safety net and cutting aid to the poor in the name of Jesus (not to mention flatly turning away people who need aid and compassion).

But here’s the problem: Just because the threat of Hell is invoked to get people to follow a moral commandment, it doesn’t follow that the moral commandment is the only meaningful part of the passage or that the threat is merely metaphorical. If a Soviet text said, “The Great Leader banished a dissident to the gulag in the icy wastes of Siberia, because that dissident disobeyed Marx’s teaching about giving to each according to his need…” – you might say that the point of the passage is about following communist teachings, but that doesn’t mean that the incidental details about Siberia are fictional. On the contrary, you could very plausibly argue that if there was no Siberia, the entire passage would be hollow and would lose its point.

For what it’s worth, Slacktivist also overlooked another commonly cited passage:

“So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

—Matthew 13:49-50

This passage is harder for his argument to accommodate, since it isn’t a detailed exhortation to ethical behavior, as with the other three passages, nor does it use hellfire as a framing device for a larger parable. It just states a plain, declarative fact: the wicked are going to be cast into a furnace of fire to suffer. Sounds rather, well, hellish.

And then there’s this old mainstay, which is especially difficult for the universalist view. It clearly states that not only is there some kind of undesirable fate awaiting in the afterlife, but that most of humanity goes there:

“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

—Matthew 7:13-14

Both these verses are spoken by Jesus, also, which causes problems for the universalist view that “we should look at the larger context of the character of God as revealed through Jesus Christ” (quoted from here).

For what it’s worth, I agree with Slacktivist’s contention that the doctrine of the Rapture is a modern invention, created by stringing together vague and unrelated verses from different parts of the Bible. The proof of this is that the Rapture is a very recent belief in Christianity, with few or no historical antecedents before the 1800s. But this isn’t true of Hell, which does have an ancient vintage. Some of the oldest noncanonical Christian books, like the Apocalypse of Peter, take sadistic delight in describing the torments of the damned. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and in this case, the undeniable historical truth is that Christianity has always included belief in Hell. I wish this weren’t true, and I wish there was decisive scriptural evidence against this wicked idea, but it just isn’t so.

As much as I like Slacktivist’s writings, he’s fallen into a common trap for religious liberals: the dangerous belief that the way we should decide what to believe about any theological topic is by figuring out what the Bible says about it – and therefore, if we want to reject any religious doctrine, we need to find an interpretation of the Bible which supports this. He says that his view is based on the character of God as revealed through Jesus, rather than through a proof-texting approach which plucks out isolated verses to support a specific position; but ultimately, it’s just a more roundabout way of achieving the same thing. However well-intentioned this is, it always results in an endless game of dueling interpretations, and since no one can prove the superiority of one interpretation over another, this means that the poisonous, misanthropic views of fundamentalists can never be decisively refuted.

I have a better idea: Who cares what the Bible says? Even if it taught the existence of Hell as clearly as daylight, it would still be a morally monstrous and revolting belief supported by no real evidence. Instead, why don’t we appeal to people’s inherent reason and sense of compassion to persuade them to reject it? I don’t believe that this is a futile task – the flickers of conscience so often seen among theists prove it. What we need to do is to give them permission to doubt, permission to believe that the Bible is not an absolute authority and that its claims can and should be rejected when they clash with science, common sense, or human decency.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.gothicatheist.blogspot.com Cyc

    As much as I like Slacktivist’s writings, he’s fallen into a common trap for religious liberals: the dangerous belief that the way we should decide what to believe about any theological topic is by figuring out what the Bible says about it – and therefore, if we want to reject any religious doctrine, we need to find an interpretation of the Bible which supports this.

    Luckily for such religious liberals and just about anyone else looking to support their claims, the bible (and most other religious texts for that matter) are such amalgamates of differing texts that all one has to do is look hard enough and one can support nearly any belief.

    I believe that this is one of the reasons religions with such convoluted texts have endured so much better then internally consistant ones. As with such a wide variety of views so many differing peoples can find something to their liking. So in an odd sense, the bible’s many contraditions may very well increase its popularity with the masses.

    Granted such contraditions have been a constant source of people deconverting but this requires one to analyze the text for themselves. Something that, sadly, humanity in general is not overly known for.

  • Rollingforest

    Yes, the Bible does teach that there is eternal punishment in Hell for the damned. But the problem is that many Atheists think that if we force Christians to either believe in Hell or give up Christianity that they will be so horrified by Hell that they’ll abandon their faith.

    But this isn’t how things work. If a person is comfortable as a Christian and you destroy anything between Fundamentalism and Atheism, most people will cling to Fundamentalism because it allows them to still be Christian which is the only thing they’ve ever known. The chasm between Fundamentalism and Atheism is long and deep and most people are frightened to jump it.

    If we want people to come to Atheism, we need to provide little platforms for them to walk across. Turning a Fundamentalist into an Evangelical is a victory. Turning an Evangelical into a mainstream Protestant is another victory. Turning a mainstream Protestant into a liberal Christian is also a victory. Turning a liberal Christian into an Agnostic should be celebrated. And turning an Agnostic into an Atheist is the final prize. None of this would have happened if we require everyone to take the all or nothing jump between Fundamentalism and Atheism.

    It isn’t just religion. It works for politics too. Small gentle steps is how to change a person’s mind, not ultimatums. You may not be able to change a person’s mind completely in one generation. You might need to have the kids start in the middle of the spectrum and finish the work of their parents. But that is the road to success.

    Instead of criticizing Slacktivist, we should congratulate them on giving up their belief in Hell and focus on them giving up their belief in other false things rather than trying to force the matter of faith all at once.

  • http://abagoffruit.wordpress.com Simon

    It might be somewhat incidental to the point of this essay, but I’m interested in following up on your comment about the threat of punishment in Siberian gulags being defanged if the listener knows there’s no such place as Siberia.

    What happens if the listener is unsure? Is it then a serious threat? I think this is the sort of tactic that parents sometimes tend to use on young children, but with the knowledge that this particular choice of tactic can only work temporarily. Still, I think it might be temporarily effective. And, maybe that’s what some more liberal Christian pastors are working with. (The evangelical ones, unfortunately, seem to lack any uncertainty.)

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    The point of these passages, clearly, is ethical instruction and I don't think they can really be made to accommodate any other reading

    And what exactly is the point of the ethical teaching? Did Jesus teach it just because it was the right thing to do? Or did he teach it because judgement was coming soon?

    Reading the individual Christian works in the order that they were composed shows that impending judgement was the teaching of the earliest Christians, and this is why they harped on the ethical teachings. It wasn't ethics for the sake of ethics, it was ethics so that you get in god's good graces before judgement day. And you'd better get ethical fast, before it was too late.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    You wrote,

    I have a better idea: Who cares what the Bible says?

    Even if it taught the existence of Hell as clearly as daylight, it would still be a morally monstrous and revolting belief supported by no real evidence.

    Instead, why don’t we appeal to people’s inherent reason and sense of compassion to persuade them to reject it?

    But then liberals would have to agree the Bible’s picture of God is morally repellant.

    Some do, but many are very loathe to admit any such thing.

    They prefer to pretend that it is so only given mistaken, over-literal interpretations.

    You know.

    Interpretations such as pretty much every Christian who has ever existed has been committed to.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    Did you know that Malebranche wrote dialogues in defense of Christianity in which he defended eternal punishment by appeal to the idea that the appropriate punishment depends not only on the nature of the crime but of the victim?

    The victim of sin, of course, is God.

    And since God is infinitely good any sin – well, any sin officially accounted mortal, anyway – against him deserves infinite retribution.

    So there.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    The problem, Ebonmuse, is that you are dealing with people who do, in fact, care about what the Bible says. What your asking is the equivalent of asking Kantians or Stoics to not care about what Kantians and Stoics wrote if they come across an interpretation that seems contradictory. And that’s not what’s done. What’s done is that we all sit down, examine the texts, and try to find a reasonable interpretation, and argue for that.

    For the record, I don’t think that those who simply don’t believe in God and who don’t follow the right rituals will go to hell. But I do think that if I’m going to argue about that, I have to do it theologically and with reference to the Biblical texts. Otherwise, I’d simply be ignoring the relevant fields and works and simply asserting my own view, totally disconnected from the audience that I’d be talking to. Which seems rather silly …

  • Jeff

    Liberal Christians continually claim that fundamentalism is a relatively recent development. My reply is always that fundamentalism as a movement is only a little over a century old, but the core beliefs of fundamentalism – substitutionary atonement, salvific exclusivism, eternal damnation for everyone outside of the fold – reflect what most Christians have believed for most of the past 2,000 years. They’ve pretty much defined Christianity; liberal theology is the innovation. Occasionally, a group or an individual come along and attempts to argue for a more inclusive agenda, but whenever that’s happened, they’ve either been marginalized – as was the case with some of the early Church fathers – or exterminated (e.g., the Albigensians). Of course, today, about all they can do (apart from defrocking someone) is to hurl at the perceived offender the most offensive insult of which they can conceive – “Universalist!” – as they are now doing to poor Bell. Which says a great deal about them as individuals and as a subculture.

    I’m convinced it’s a neurological deficit, not merely the result of poor education or early childhood indoctrination, and the small but growing body of research data is beginning to bear this out. In short, they will never change. The only thing we can do, for the sake of human continuity, is to breed them out of the genome – and that sure as hell ain’t gonna happen. That’s why we’re screwed.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that not all Xtians believe in Hell, e.g. the JWs.

    (They also reject the notion of the Trinity.)

    They take it as a point of pride that they are not so silly as to believe in an apocryphal superstition, which came to fruition during the Middle Ages. (Of course, that didn’t stop them from falling for the Bible and Xtianity and the Devil and demons.)

    They think it is one of the markers, which distinguishes them as the One True Religion, in contrast to the rest of Christendom.

    And, the JWs devote themselves to Biblical exegesis. So, it’s not like they don’t know what the Bible says.

    Of course, they are just as bogus as all the rest, but they do get this one point right.

    I’ll give them that.

  • Quath

    I think the concept of hell is a great argument against Christianity. For the most part, when I argue morality, the Old Testament has the most ammunition. However, most Christians tend to dismiss the Old Testament for one reason or another (like Jesus changed it all). So I try to relink back the New and Old to try to get the point across. Like someone who believes in the Trinity should conclude that Jesus (who is God) also issued all those horrid laws in the Old Testament.

    But people still try to cling to the idea that the Old Laws were for the old culture and Jesus is for the new culture. And that is where the idea of hell is a great tool to show the horrors of Christianity.

    One thing I have noticed is that many Christians seem to be trying to lessen the horrors of hell. For example, some I have talked to believe in salvation from hell. (Which would easily invalidate Pascal’s wager and give almost no benefits to being a believer.) Others say it is just separation from God which is painful due to the feeling of loss. My response to that is to ask why God doesn’t remove these pained entities from existence or put them into a permanent coma. No good answers to that follow-up so far.

    I think Christianity is on the brink of being cast as a corrupt religion. Just look at the high profile cases of pedophile priests, adulterous priests, gay-hating homosexual priests, scam artist TV evangelists, etc. If it can be shown that some of the core ideas (going to hell; punishing the innocent for the guilty; suffering is the only way God can forgive), we could show that Christianity is not very moral.

  • jemand

    @Sarah, do JW’s believe in *no hell at all* or do they have a different conception of it?

    The adventists I grew up with like to pat themselves on the back and say they don’t believe in hell, it’s an awful doctrine, and *they* are moral enough people to see through it.

    But when they say that, they mean an eternally burning Dante-style conflagration. They definitely DO believe that all “evil” people, including simply nonbelievers, will be raised from the dead for no other reason than some cosmic “I told you so” from god, so they know the truth, immediately before being killed for all eternity. They are burned into dust– sure, it’s eventually *over* but the point of that pain? The point of raising people just to kill them again? That’s pretty much as bad as the eternal hell thing. Especially when you note that the people believing in eternal hell think it’s a logical necessity– souls *cannot* be destroyed. In the SDA belief, they believe a soul can be destroyed, but that god decides to raise it before hand for some pointless exposition and gratuitous pain, which comes across as pretty awfully immoral itself, especially in a people who is priding themselves on their relatively moral framing of the fate of the damned.

    So do JW’s decry *all* forms of hell, or do they follow some idea more similar to SDAs? I didn’t think they were universalists, and I’ve never met someone who wasn’t some form of universalist who didn’t have some pretty ethically dubious beliefs about the afterlife.

  • Sarah Braasch

    The JWs are the cease to exist / eternal separation from God variety of afterlife for the evildoers (non-JWs). The implication is (from what I learned growing up as a JW) unconsciousness. So, if you’re not aware that you are eternally separated from God, I’m not sure how much punishment that is.

    But their eschatological vision includes another fun bit –

    They believe after Armageddon, Resurrection Day, and Judgment Day, there will a a 1,000 year period of peace, during which the survivors will replenish and renew the Earth, and during which Satan and his demons will be restrained from doing evil in an abyss, and then, after the 1,000 year period is up, Satan and his demons will be released to do harm as they will and to try to dissuade the survivors from Jehovah God for a “short time”. After this “short time”, Satan and the demons will be destroyed along with the recidivists, and the rest of the righteous will get to live forever on a paradise Earth (except for the 144,00 who are in Heaven with Jesus Christ to help rule over the paradise Earth).

    I always took issue with that “short time” period after the 1,000 years.

    I was always like, ummm, really, you think after I live thru Armageddon, Resurrection Day, Judgment Day, and the 1,000 years, you think I’m really going to be dissuaded from Jehovah God, if that really is all true and comes to pass?

    It seems an unnecessary redundancy to me. Is Jehovah just trying to rub it in Satan’s face? Pour some salt in his wound?

  • jemand

    thanks for the clarification! Seems every sect has it’s own little interpretation…

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    I think a lot of this hell stuff comes from tortured childhoods and a bad case of “dog in the manger” syndrome. We think we can’t do or have something so we’ll make DAMNED sure you can’t either. The OT authors were human, after all.

    I don’t believe in a hell in the afterlife. I do think we can create a hell on earth. And I often wonder if the OT message at some level is really metaphorically referring to this hell on earth as consequence of sin.

    Satan, in midieval art often looks like Pan, half goat. Scapegoat. I think satan is a projection of ego, a scapegoat that allows us to shirk responsibility. We put it out there so we can hate it and then feel good about our cowardly selves.

    My view of sin is simply missing the mark, acting ignorantly or without integrity in a way that is hurtful to self or others. Do it enough times or with enough force and it leads to death, kills off your life.

  • Sarah Braasch

    There are actually a lot of similarities between the JWs and the Seventh Day Adventists, because they are both descendants of the Millerites and the rest of the Millennialists from the Great Awakening (I think that’s what that period was called) during the mid to late 19th century, which also gave rise to the charlatan and snake oil salesman, Joseph Smith.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Instead, why don’t we appeal to people’s inherent reason and sense of compassion to persuade them to reject it? I don’t believe that this is a futile task – the flickers of conscience so often seen among theists prove it. What we need to do is to give them permission to doubt, permission to believe that the Bible is not an absolute authority and that its claims can and should be rejected when they clash with science, common sense, or human decency.

    Naturally, we strongly encourage people to reject the concept of hell (as well as similar concepts, like a just God which commits genocide) on the basic demerits of the idea itself.

    However, this approach doesn’t seem to have much (if any) effect on the fundamentalists and other “true” believers. They find ways to continuously dodge the question and re-justify hell by other means. Fellow commenters have mentioned some of those ways already.

    The truly strange part is that even if you try to attack hell from the approach of the core text, as Verbose Stoic suggests, your argument is typically not considered convincing so long as the counter party can find some slight shred of counter “evidence”. Yet, as Cyc said, the text itself is so convoluted and inconsistent that it’s nearly guaranteed that there will be something — however faint or laughable — to counter your claim.

    Not everyone is so stubborn as the fundamentalists, of course. Yet even among the moderate sorts who have only loosely attached themselves to the concept of eternal punishment, it can take a long time to see a truly meaningful shift in their beliefs. I think it is exactly the more pragmatic concerns of “science, common sense, or human decency” that tend to sow the deepest seeds of doubt in the long run. We may be spending far too much time trying to address the issues based on moral philosophy and theology when there are indirect yet more persuasive methods available to us.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    Sarah, methinks that there was indeed an awakening in the late 19th century which produced the likes of the Christian Scientists, but I think the greater awakening and the one that preceded Joseph Smith was the mid 18th century. That was the one that saw the likes of Jonathan “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” Edwards.

  • Leum

    While I agree that Hell can be read from the Bible, I don’t think that was Fred Clark’s (aka slacktivist) point. Rather, Fred’s point was that Hell does not need to be read from the texts in the same way that God does. His point was that there are alternative interpretations of those passages that mention Hell and that based on his understanding of the life and works of Jesus Christ, those alternative readings were more justified. In this understanding, the Bible is not the authoritative word of God; Jesus is (though, as a flaw in the theory, it must be admitted that Jesus’ life and works are known only through scripture).

  • karen

    They believe after Armageddon, Resurrection Day, and Judgment Day, there will a a 1,000 year period of peace, during which the survivors will replenish and renew the Earth, and during which Satan and his demons will be restrained from doing evil in an abyss, and then, after the 1,000 year period is up, Satan and his demons will be released to do harm as they will and to try to dissuade the survivors from Jehovah God for a “short time”. After this “short time”, Satan and the demons will be destroyed along with the recidivists, and the rest of the righteous will get to live forever on a paradise Earth (except for the 144,00 who are in Heaven with Jesus Christ to help rule over the paradise Earth).

    This doctrine – or something very close to it – was taught to me in fundamentalist “End Times” churches as well. That 1,000-year period is known as the “millennium of the Christ” or some such.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    (though, as a flaw in the theory, it must be admitted that Jesus’ life and works are known only through scripture).

    Leum,

    Scripture is a compilation of what were then contemporary works. Could it rather be said that virtually everything that WAS written about Jesus has found its way into that compilation? I’m also thinking more along the lines of the way the Jesus Seminar looks at the NT, namely that some of it was better or more authentic than the rest.

    Fred may be looking at scripture yet as divinely inspired. But there are also potentially degrees of divine inspiration, dependent upon how much the viewer allows for human error in the reception of the inspiration.

    There is also the possibility of very simple inspiration, meaning that the authors of the NT were inspired to write in the very human and normal way of wanting to write about a topic or person. I don’t think that any of the NT authors thought they were writing scripture when they wrote it. Others decided that after the fact.

  • Tacroy

    Scripture is a compilation of what were then contemporary works. Could it rather be said that virtually everything that WAS written about Jesus has found its way into that compilation? I’m also thinking more along the lines of the way the Jesus Seminar looks at the NT, namely that some of it was better or more authentic than the rest.

    It could, but unfortunately that hypothesis flounders on the shores of all the apocrypha we’ve found and also the fact that as best we can tell, it wasn’t until 180 ish that anyone compiled a real New Testament – about a hundred years after everyone involved in the original events would have died.

    The only way to get around that and claim that even then the Bible still contains only the truth about Jesus is with special pleading (e.g, divine inspiration) mixed in with a healthy dose of blindness to the contradictions that still show up.

  • Leum

    Here’s one suggestion of how to reconcile the verses suggesting Hell in the New Testament with universalism.

  • Alex SL

    Complete and total agreement with this post. Excellent!

    Judging from his posts, the Slacktivist is a very nice guy, really. Fun to read. But what I never get is how somebody who is as educated and intelligent as he is can still think that wishful thinking and going “lalala I can’t hear you” at every piece of info contradicting his preconceptions are legitimate ways of deciding what is true and false. I mean, this is not somebody saying: I have looked at the universe and, you know, I actually think that it makes more sense to assume that there is some kind of mysterious creative intelligence behind it. No, this is somebody saying: I know what the real meaning of the bible is; I know what the supreme being in the universe wants us to do. What I find most bizarre is how he twists the petty and gory revenge fantasy of Revelation into a message of hope. Come on! With a talent like that, he should really work in a cherry orchard, if you get my drift.[/rant]

  • Badger3k

    I read Slacktivist regularly, and love his Left behind readings. Very interesting and informative (and entertaining), but my jaw dropped at the dissonance (I believe this is the correct term for this) reflected in this post (http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2011/01/fantasy-role-playing-games.html). The line about abortion/slavery can (and should be extended) “It’s a game of make-believe, of dress-up and pretend.” and the last line takes the cake – “Let’s pretend we are not who we actually are. Let’s pretend that our lives are not what they actually are. Let’s pretend.” Exactly. He doesn’t seem to get that his own beliefs are in the same realm.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    The only way to get around that and claim that even then the Bible still contains only the truth about Jesus is with special pleading (e.g, divine inspiration) mixed in with a healthy dose of blindness to the contradictions that still show up.

    Tacroy,

    I’m not claiming that the NT contains only the truth. I’m claiming that it contains most of whatever contemporary works were available at the time it was declared to be scripture, right or wrong. And I was suggesting to deal with the contradictions the way that the Jesus Seminar did.

  • http://www.cammo2009.wordpress.com/ affirmedatheist

    @ Sarah Braasch: The JWs have also contorted their translation to make sure it fits what they believe. They really are an odd lot, but they’re very well drilled on internal propaganda; in fact, they’re probably better at it than most of the Christian denominations.

    It’s the “end of the world is near” episodes in their history that give me the most epic lulz. Seriously, “Jesus showed up, but he was invisible”. Yeah, we’re really buying that one guys. After you’ve read about that stuff, you can’t take them seriously any longer.

    Hell never actually scared me that much when I was a Christian, although I did worry about the whole blaspheming the holy spirit thing alot (I no longer do, and have done so in my own time).

  • kennypo65

    Given a choice, I’d prefer to go to hell. It would be populated with far more interesting people than heaven. As a matter of fact, going to heaven, for me, would BE hell.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    I’m claiming that it contains most of whatever contemporary works were available at the time it was declared to be scripture, right or wrong.

    I’m sorry, but historically this is just wrong. The texts that ended up in the NT were selected because they promoted a view of Jesus that the proto-orthodoxy wanted. If a work did not depict an “orthodox” Jesus, then it was discarded as “heretical”. This is why you don’t read the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of the Ebionites, 3 Corinthians, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Peter, The Apocalypse of Peter, the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, The Egerton Gospel, and myriads of other Christian works that the Roman church deemed as “heretical”.

    The New Testament contains very few of the contemporary (that is, c. 180 CE, the earliest “orthodox” witness to a set of authorized books) written works and traditions about Jesus.

  • hf

    @Badger3k: What beliefs? I probably haven’t looked that closely, but I’ve never figured out exactly what Fred Clark does or doesn’t believe about God and afterlives. For all I know he defines the word “Christian” the way I might define “steampunk”, by community and use of tradition. In that case I’d prefer that he call himself an atheist Christian for the sake of honesty and politics, but the argument for this seems fuzzier than the argument for not believing in a Christian God.

    As for the OP, I said most of this at the patheos site: That seems like an ugly passage to me, sure. Even the context looks like a nasty fantasy. But it consists of Jesus explaining parables where people throw something away. Fire suggests “destruction”, not eternal torment.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I think Fred overstated the case back when he said you couldn’t find any account of eternal Hell in the Bible. His current claim seems closer to mine: you can’t form any coherent doctrine of Hell based on the Bible, because the authors never had that goal in mind. And this may hold true even if you ignore the part about throwing Hades into Hell as too obviously metaphorical.

    Also, while the parable of the fish and the nearby, almost identical parable of the weeds don’t define evil, the same chapter does have a parable of seed sown among thorns. Jesus here calls the thorns “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches,” which “choke the word”. Presumably we should remember this when he talks about angels throwing “all causes of sin and all law-breakers” into a fiery furnace. First of all, this makes the furnace sound more metaphorical (at least in the online translation). I don’t know how you’d go about throwing “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” into fire. Second, it sounds a bit more like everything else Jesus says in these stories, a bit more like this.

  • Alex

    The OT has only a vague, benign underworld of sheol, a place of unconsciousness, non existence,where everyone went. [the Hebrews just hadn't got round to thinking about it]. The Greek mythology of 800BCE seems to have had a similar vague underworld of Hades which people further developed to include a dungeon, Tartarus, where the damned gods suffered eternal torment. The Titans were thrown by Zeus into Tartarus to suffer such punishments as rolling huge spherical stones up hills only for them to roll back down again and need pushed back up again. It was Plato who came up with the idea that humans who has done criminal acts could also spend some time in Tartarus before their soul maybe returned to The Source, The One
    When the Septuagint was translated in 300BCE by Alexandrian Jews. The Hebrew word Sheol was replaced with the Greek word Hades. This probably led to confusion and Jewish people started to accept Platos ideas about Hades and Tartarus.
    I think that the bible is the story of the Hellenization of the Jews. I have read that Hades/Tartarus came in during the Maccabee period 200BCE. If you look at 2 Peter 2v4 in the Greek text you will see that it uses the word Tartarus. Why do they speak of a mythical greek dungeon in Hades as if it was a real place? Because those people didn’t have a grip on reality, they couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction.
    The early church fathers actually were Platonist philosophers who ‘converted’ to christianity.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I think that the bible is the story of the Hellenization of the Jews.

    That’s an excellent way of putting it, Alex. Christianity is basically what you get when you mix Jewish purity and sacrifice laws with Greek ideas about the afterlife and god-men, with a dash of mystery-cult soteriology – all of which were ideas that met and mingled precisely at the time and place where Christianity arose.

  • Grady

    Ebonmuse, your Straw Man misrepresentation and mixture of fringe Jewish and Greek history is quite amusing.

    It reminds me of kind of a pop conspiracy theory approach to history.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Grady, Ebon was merely agreeing with Alex’s more detailed comments directly above his.

    One has to realize that the Jews were not living in a bubble during the Babylonian and Hellenistic eras. There was undoubtedly some cross fertilization going on. Not only with Hellenism, but also with Persian Zoroastrianism, which was also monotheistic and emphasized conflict between good and evil.


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