The Absence of God: A Kinder, Gentler Hell?

These days Christians rarely assert that hell is a place where people get burned alive. It’s become de rigueur for Christians to instead say that hell is “the absence of God.” We’ve all heard that a million times; Christians—especially of the emergent/leftist/progressive persuasion (my peeps!)—fairly love saying it. The idea is that existing outside of the presence of God is a kinder, gentler fate than is having one’s mortal body burned alive.

The problem, though, is that the new Christian line does not describe a kinder, gentler hell. If anything, the “absence of God” defines a hell worse than the old fire-and-brimstone one.

Saying that the old version of hell is cruelly passé and that the new one is somehow more humane is like saying that things have really improved since cops stopped beating suspects with clubs and started Tasering them in the balls. Sure, it’s a new approach. And it’s definitely less messy. But it’s hardly a preferable way to suffer.

If you’re a Christian then you believe that God, who is love, informs and sustains our world. You remove God from the world, and you necessarily have the worse hell imaginable. Because then there’s no force in the world to oppose evil, which can then run rampant. Maybe, since humans without even the capacity for love must become animals, what results is violent, horrifically degrading, never ending chaos for all. Maybe in this new hell everyone ends up naked, in the dark, cold and utterly isolated from all other humans.

Maybe everyone ends up being burned alive.

It doesn’t matter. Torture is torture. It’s all the same. It’s a world defined by evil–which means it’s a world in which innocent people suffer the worst torture imaginable.

Hell is the absence of God. That’s how hell has always been defined. It’s not so much that you’re burning in hell–it’s that you’re burning in hell forever. Why? Because no God. So now love, compassion, hope. Just … the horrible suffering that separation from God must be.

“Hell is the absence of God” reminds me so much of that wretched other new Christian standard, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” It makes the person who says it feel better. It sounds spiritually evolved. But it’s nothing but the same old poison in a brand new bottle.

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  • Dammit John! I was going to write about this next week in light of a comment on a recent post I wrote. Then you go and do it better than I will. Bah!

    I’m totally with you. When you start talking about eternal punishment, it doesn’t matter how you dress it up. It’s the ETERNAL part that is troubling. Because I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot longer than anything bad you did here. And if most of us (rightly) cringe when we hear about someone being tortured for a few years, why is it okay for God to do it for ETERNITY? Why is God’s torture good?

    Anyway, fantastic post, as usual.

  • Veeri

    I like John Shore, and I enjoy reading his blog. There’s a lot of things he writes that ring true to me, and I’ve greatly respected him thus far for being far more loving and kind than many Christians you see in the world today, especially when it comes to LGBT issues and other ones the church often dismisses.

    However, I cannot agree with this post, and can’t help feel slightly disappointed. He doesn’t believe there’s a hell. That’s fine, and a legitimate view, even if it’s one that I don’t hold. But I can’t help feeling that he hasn’t really considered this view, and is lashing out at people he doesn’t understand, just like all the Christians he often says he’s more enlightened than.

    My view, like the one he has just demonized, is that heaven is eternal union with God, while hell is a state of eternal separation, and that a person enters either state upon death. Separation from God really is hell, and absolutely horrible. It’s eternal, and it’s impossible to be happy in it.

    However, Mr. Shore seems to have left out one crucial thing. What that view is saying is not that, if you’re a Muslim say, you automatically go to hell. No, I believe Muslims are capable of reaching heaven- if you’re genuinely seeking the truth and God, by whatever name you call it, I don’t think a loving God would turn you away just because you didn’t pick the right book or building. You don’t get to hell just because you were Muslim, or gay, or anything like that.

    You get to hell because you chose it. Because, in your life, you willfully rejected God, did not want him, and WANTED to be separated from him forever. In that case, hell isn’t a punishment, it’s something you choose. And yes, it’s horrible. And yes, it’s eternal.

    But go ahead, Mr. Shore. Beat us over the head and make us feel small for daring to think something like that (which I personally think is fair, considering you choose where you go) might be true. Just remember that you are using your doctrines to “thump like mad” at us, and in this post, there was no love in it.

  • Elena Porcelli

    If there is no kind of hell, should we think everyone has the same fate, after death? Then our life choices would have no real meaning. What we do doesn’t matter, if we’ll all, including Adolf Hitler, end up in heaven anyway.

    What happens to people who have willfully made really awful things (e.g. murder, rape…)? Some are victims of circumstances such as being born in a criminal culture (children of Mafia members, for instance), but some choose to be evil. And some people who are born from terrible, evil parents choose to be good. It’s possible than seeing the face of God, everyone realizes the truth about their choices and repents. But the consciousness about how bad one’s choices were must hurt like hell. We catholics call this “purgatory”.

    Also, a love that imposes itself is not love. One must, at least theoretically, be free to refuse God’s love and go to hell. Of course, we can’t possibly know if anybody except Satan made such an absurd choice, and hell may be empty and purgatory very crowded. But i do believe in hell and purgatory, because my choices do matter! (sorry for any mistakes, i’m not a native english speaker)

  • I didn’t say a single thing in this post about whether or not I personally believe in hell.

  • Why is the fear of being punished if you don’t necessary for you to do good?

  • textjunkie

    ???? Well, we know you don’t like gluing wings on pigs… Or hanging out with unevolved people. Or putting old vinegar in a new bottle… Or being unfair…The betting money is on the idea that you don’t believe in hell being something that happens forever after you die.

  • textjunkie

    P.S. It’s not true there is no love in this post. Anyone who can think through what separation from God is like, who can empathize and put themselves in that situation and describe it, really *picture* it–there’s a chestload of compassion there.

  • I agree with both Elena and Veeri. John, I don’t understand your adamance on this issue. Obviously, none of us knows if there’s a hell, or if so, what it’s like, but your passionate belief that there’s no such thing (and you’ve written about that quite a bit), and anger at those who believe otherwise, just doesn’t make sense. If, as Elena says, our actions in this life actually matter, mustn’t they have consequences? And if, as Veeri says, anyone who’s sincerely seeking God – and bearing the fruits of the spirit – is “choosing” eternal union with God (while those who aren’t are “choosing” eternal separation), where is the injustice? Why does this idea make you so angry? I’m honestly just trying to understand.

  • denver

    Thank you for the person who said “purgatory”. I don’t think I believe in an eternal hell anymore; but the idea of purgatory rings true. It would be the place where people realize what they’ve done, and repent. And THEN can get into heaven.

    I believe once we move on to the next life, we’ll have that universal understanding about things that we don’t generally now… people will be able to say, this horrible thing happened to me because I was on earth to learn x, y, and z and that couldn’t have been accomplished otherwise. And they won’t hold accountable the person who did the horrible thing, because it was a necessary teaching tool for their spirit. So I don’t think the person who did the horrible thing would be eternally condemned for it. They might feel guilt and repent… and then be forgiven. Because I believe forgiveness is what it’s all about.

  • As one who used to use the phrase in question quite readily in discussions of “Hell,” I never once said it was kinder or gentler. In fact, I believe the description I used was that “being outside the presence of God is a fate so horrible we cannot even begin to imagine it.”

    For me the reason I began using this concept was my desire/need to move away from a medieval cosmology that required a literal “lake of fire” located somewhere in the bowels of the earth. In the same way I don’t describe “streets of gold” when discussing heaven.

    Mind you, I get your point, that some folks may see this as a more “tolerant” hell, but not all of us.



  • Again, I didn’t say anything in this post about whether or not I personally believe in hell. If you want to discuss those posts wherein I have articulated my personal convictions about hell, that’d be great. (Honestly, thought, except for one FB status, once, I don’t think I’ve ever said whether or not I personally believe in hell. That’s just too small a field to play on. What I try to do instead is what I believe I’ve done here, which is to examine what people are actually SAYING when they talk about hell.)

  • Ok. I do have to wonder. Maybe I’m wrong on this, but isn’t the concept of hell minus God rather like the concepts of hell believed by more ancient religions? The greeks had the torture for the wicked down cold. The Zorastiarans did to, but for them it wan’t eternal, just a few thousand years or so. So what is fresh and new the absence of God thing?

    Then there is this pesky question. If Everything exists because of God’s presence, wouldn’t that mean that His absence mean non-existence? Meaning. oh wait, God ain’t here. you is no more?

    I ask that sorta thing all the time.

  • Linda B

    I think that we make our own heavens and our own hells right here in this life. And that is enough punishment for anybody. 😉

  • Yes, that is a great point to make. I’ve not known any Christians who make the distinction you’ve here noted that you do, but … I don’t know them all! So I’m glad to meet you!

  • No, it really IS the point; in an early version of this post, I had this:

    “First, saying is that sentient life (whether physical or spiritual) is not dependent upon the presence of God. If you’re alive, and God is truly absent, then you obviously don’t need God to sustain your life.

    “So, theologically, that, right there, opens up one big can of … dead worms. Christians believe that God informs and sustains all life.

    “God may sustain life in this world, but apparently in the next life can go on without him.

    “So … right away our new hell necessitates a radical reworking of our entire concept of God.”

    But for the sake of brevity (what with it being but a blog post, and all), I jettisoned that entire line of thought, perhaps to be considered another day. But you’re right to note it.

  • Okay. But that’s … one tolerable “hell.”

  • I think what people fail to realize here is that 1). The word in the original language used to describe hell does not mean forever!! It means for a period or age. 2). There is no place where God is not for even David expressed this in the Psalms say, “Where can I go to escape your presence? If I lay down you are there. If I rise up you are there. If I go to the heavens you are there. If I desend into Sheol you are there.”

    An eternal hell is both unjust and totally against the very nature of the God of the Bible. Study it folks. Your being lied too!!

  • Don Whitt

    Yes Why do we need this concept? What does it say about us humans that we need the carrot and whip to justify being good?

    If God is anything, God is the cycle of creation – all things pass and are reborn. God abides. I don’t think that there is any room in that cycle for stasis, for eternal ANYTHING other than the immutability of the cycle itself. Nothing is discarded. Nothing suffers eternally. Nothing escapes the great crucible of life for too long.

    Hell is a fantasy that keeps us from understanding that we are all ultimately redeemed, regardless of who and what we are and were, in one way or another.

  • My question is, if we must believe in a literal hell at all, why not a literal lake of fire?

  • Jeremiah 32:35 And they built the high places of Baal which are in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom [Gehenna], to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I did not command them, *nor did it come into My mind that they should do this abomination,* to cause Judah to sin.’

    Most who use the ‘hell is the absence of God’ line also assert that God is everywhere. Truly, if God is omnipresent, there is no where He is not, including whatever “hell” is. I am of the belief that whatever it is, it is redemptive and accomplishes a good purpose which is similar to the “chastening” described in Hebrews 12.

  • RayC

    Or as Sartre implied in No Exit. Hell is Other people! 🙂

  • Bill Williams

    beaten old ladies are shat upon?

    John, as I read your words, i often laugh out loud.

    @others: I don’t see John’s blog necessarily as a forum for John stating his own beliefs, as most of his repliers need to do: Repliers need to see their own stated beliefs on the screen. Maybe they haven’t had a place to safely flesh out their own beliefs and find this as a great forum to disagree.

    I see Johns posts as a way to put up onto a shared space, humorously stated Christian ideas and the ramifications of the theology that many of us so piously claim to subscribe.

    This topic is a perfect example of posing questions to get us thinking: Why “burning” in Hell? Donte described the inner circle of hell as ice-cold: Hell as the *absence of heat*, which I personally find more appropriate. But the point is not what I think. The point is that we subscribe to schools of belief, which we often don’t think through to their logical conclusions.

    Ok, maybe *you* do in your own unique way but so does John and his blog does a great job helping us so humorously; explore these beliefs and where they lead us.

    How can you be more loving than that? takes the pressure off…and lets everyone flesh out what they really believe…there’s a lot of grace in such a collaborative approach.

    Finally, the absence of God *is* something to ponder as worse than burning or “screaming as music”.

    The absence of feeling can be worse than pain. A lot of us *think* we’d rather not have to face the things that we find so painful. So it’s good to be reminded why there can be purpose in pain. Hoping and waiting; having desire for something or someone not present is a painful experience that makes us want to give up. Yet in the midst of that very heart sickness, however painful, there’s God.

    “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.”

  • Unfortunately, “eternal” punishment to a mortal has the same impact as “for the rest of your life” to a small child. Clearly it’s a very big span of time, but neither the child making a choice for the rest of his or her life, nor the adult opting for hell (however it’s portrayed) has the capacity to fully realize the impact of that decision. It takes an adult to understand the impact that “for the rest of your life” has on one’s mortal future, just as it takes some experience with eternity to comprehend what a choice with eternal consequences will bring.

    This is why we don’t permit children to make choices that affect them for the rest of their lives. They don’t pick their career, they don’t pick their spouses. They don’t drive motor vehicles. They do these things when they’re adults. And yes, horrible accidents can happen that have lifelong consequences, but those are accidents; the results are not deliberately chosen.

    Which is why God giving eternal punishment, as chosen by a mortal with free will, is wrong. It’s like giving a five-year-old the keys to your car and saying, “Sure honey, you have free will — you can drive the car! But there are consequences that might affect you the rest of your life, so you have to make a good decision sweetie.”

    No responsible parent in the world would give a child that option; and I can’t see a loving God punishing eternally based on choices made before we could truly understand the impact of a decision with eternal consequences.

  • Patiently Waiting

    I too feel the way Scott does. The “absence of God” version of Hell is probably worse than your body burning, not better. It is the only idea of Hell that has ever made sense to me because I do not understand the “lake of fire” idea. The reason it tends to be used by “progressive” Christians is that it gets away from the literal lake of fire, not because the idea of Hell is any better. I know many Christians who believe in the “absence of God” version. I just wanted to let you know Scott is not the only one.

  • Russell Mark

    Can any human truly conceive of an eternity without God? The very idea is a state of non-existense. And as to heaven or hell being a choice, well I want to meet the person that can make a truly informed decision about that. The reality is we can’t, so if that’s God’s schtick then we’re all screwed, because our brains can never fathom the truth of heaven or hell. More important than any of this debate is the greater reality of the personality of God (at the level we can grasp God). The concept of hell as the church historically holds is so far outside the God I worship that it can have no basis in reality. Now, do I believe in a hell on earth? You betcha – I’ve seen what horrors we can do to each other. Do I believe in a “place” beyond this life where we are all held accountable for our life here; a “place” where we grow and learn and are reconcilled to God? Oh yes I do. But as John points out, we don’t really know and won’t until we cross-the-river. If we truly hold to the unconditional love of God, then I believe we must hold to a truth that (to paraphrase the Marines) – no one gets truly left behind. Does that make me a universalist? Yep, but then I’m a Baptist minister and gay to boot – so to most of my “kin” my ass is fried anyway – so I figure I’ve got nothing to loses and am betting all my chips on Grace.

  • Patiently Waiting

    I think that you may be taking the phrase “absence of God” to mean lack of God’s presence, but I think many who use the phrase mean the lack of a connection to God. If you are without a connection to God, you and He still exist, but your existence may be infinitely more painful. It is not that God is no longer there. You and He just aren’t on good speaking terms.

    I think “absence of God” is one of those phrases that people interpret in various ways, so we must be careful when we extrapolate theology from such a phrase. I feel this way when people call the Bible the “inspired Word of God.” Inspired? Yes. Dictated to the authors? Probably not. Still, often I hear people use the phrase “inspired Word of God” to mean that the Bible is inerrant and was dictated verbatim to the authors. It’s a catchphrase for some Christians, but for others, it is just a way to describe how the Bible was put together by human hands and thus likely includes human errors. As a result, you cannot really tell much about a Christian by his or her use of the phrase “inspired Word of God.”

    I think Hell’s being the “absence of God” might mean the literal nonexistence of God to some Christians, but to other Christians, it means the lack of a connection with God. We must be careful to include multiple views in our discussions when attempting to extrapolate theology based on phrasing used by many different kinds of Christians.

  • Thank you, John.

    The “Separated from God/God’s love” line is only superficially palatable. It matters little how nice the eternal prison appears, as it is still an eternal prison.

    And I’m pretty sure ‘shat’ is not a word.

  • DR

    Why are you speaking about him and not to him? And John isn’t attacking you personally, he’s critiquing your belief. People need to toughen up a little bit.

  • Ric: Right. Thanks. (And, for what it’s worth, yes, it’s a word.)

  • Kevin Jones

    Every decision I make is loaded with meaning regardless of what happens to me personally after I die. With every word and action (and potentially every thought) I create a world that is more loving and grace-filled or one that is less loving and grace-filled.

    The times I speak/act in ways that create a less loving world it is because I am afraid of something and being selfish. If Hell is meant to motivate me to do good, it still motivates from a place of fear. This would then result in an action that is selfishly motivated (saving myself from future pain and suffering without regard to it’s effects on others) even if it is the “right” thing to do. And with the hundreds of times in scripture that God, Jesus or God’s messengers say, “Do not be afraid,” “Fear not,” or “Stop being afraid,” I have to think that God not find fear to be a suitable motivation technique.

    I’m also intrigued by the Hitler litmus test. How is it that the hell he created in this life for so many is meaningless without some punishment in an afterlife? Regardless of Hitler’s eternal status there has been and continues to be great amounts of meaning as a result of the Holocaust.

  • John,

    Could you share what your personal beliefs are about hell?

  • I believe whatever happens after this life is permanent. I believe this life is a filtering stage, a purification stage (in the metallurgical sense). Those of us who truly desire to be refined & made better will get the chance to progress. Those who reject it, those who worship the Self…well, they get what they want, too.

    I believe Hell is real, though whether Hell could better be described as a condition, an attitude, or some location outside of Time & Space as we understand is beyond me at this point.

    I believe the human concept of Eternity, particularly the Christian concept of Eternity being a Very Very VERY Long Time is wrong.

    I believe Eternity is always Now. An endless Now. An infinite Now.

    I believe that John 3:16-17 reflect very real consequences to choices we make as human beings in this life.

    Those choices have less to do with specific actions than the attitudes behind the actions.

    I don’t believe Christ would have preached on the danger of making unwise choices & being excluded from God’s grace if it was not a very real consequence.

    I look at the parables Christ used and as often as not the characters excluded from God’s grace are those who were not ready & willing to accept it when offered (the 10 foolish virgins, the wedding guests, etc.). Indeed, in the wedding guest parable, one of the people invited after the original guests refused to attend was ejected from the feast for not being properly attired. I believe this reflects an attitude problem — that he treated the invitation with contempt even though he accepted it — rather than the result of a specific act.

    I believe God is quick to forgive, eager to forgive. I believe as we forgive, we are forgiven, and not because God is keeping score but rather because until we purge/refine our hearts/minds/souls of the selfish desire for retribution we can not be truly free.

    I believe there is no justice, not in the retributive/restorative sense. I believe justice occurs before the act, when we decide to behave justly no matter what. Nothing done after an act can ever truly restore to victim to their state before the offense occurred; at the very least the memory of having been victimized, the emotional shock will remain with that person no matter how well they cope.

    As such, punishment is useless & futile; it serves only the worse nature of the victim, a thirst for retribution/revenge. It does not change the heart of the offender. (That being said, I have absolutely no problem with locking up people who commit harmful/violent acts against innocent victims; that’s isolating a danger, not punishing a wrong doer.)

    I believe 99.99% of what we “know” about Hell is derived from Dante, who in turn got it from folk religion & pagan sources. As a work of phantasmagorical allegory, The Divine Comedy is genuinely inspired literature; as a textbook/guide book, it’s no more real than a map of Dogpatch USA.

    I believe it is possible to be both too fascinated by the concept of Hell & to be too dismissive of it. I even think it’s possible to be both simultaneously (i.e., not really believing in it while dwelling on the more lurid aspects of depictions of it).

  • Hell is honestly something I’ve not deeply considered. Oh, I’ve considered it in passing, and more often recently because you keep bringing it up, John. (Stop that! Really! 😛 ) The responses so far have some interesting points. If “hell” really exists, if we consider hell to be the lack of a relationship with God, then it would logically follow that upon the passing of the soul from this world to the next stage, we would be filled with the truth and knowledge of our Creator and as much understanding of Him as we are capable. I would think that it would be nearly impossible for any person, in the presence of God, to be able to dismiss His existence or to escape the wholly loving nature of the relationship He offers. Is hell, then, the place where a person rejects that relationship despite its beautiful truth? God present, loving, but the soul existing by choice outside of the relationship? Considering the redemptive nature of God’s love, I can’t imagine it would be an eternal state, I would think that the door to relationship with Him would be always open for those who chose to enter. You’ve definitely given me something to think about.

  • RayC


    My question to you is what does Hell mean for those like me who do not believe in God? More distinctly, those like me who don’t believe in God not because I chose not to believe in God due to some kind of desire not to believe in God, but does not believe in God because nothing given as a means to belief thus far has been anywhere near convincing to me that I ought to believe in God. In other words, a heartfelt atheism. It’s not that I consider myself a hater of God, otherwise known as misotheism. No, that would imply that I believe that God, as conceived of by religions, exists. I don’t believe in any of the anthropomorphized conceptions of God. In a sense this is my qualified atheism, as ultimately, I consider myself an agnostic when it comes to ultimate reality where there is the possibility that a greater being exists.

    Am I going to Hell? even though I don’t consider myself as one who has chosen to go against God. I mean, how could I do that when i don’t even believe in Him? I know a lot of Christians are looking forward to the day when they can relish my eternal torment with a “we told you so” reverie. Does this describe your position on the matter?

  • Audrey Smith

    C.S. Lewis is one Christian thinker/writer who popularized the idea of hell being “the absence of God”. If I recall correctly, though, he believed that every one chose to either be present with or absent from God, and this choice was made AFTER death at the judgment seat when we allegedly “know as God knows”. I also recall that Lewis’ hell was a redemptive, transformative place more akin to purgatory than evangelically-defined Hell.

    He believed like Rob Bell that Love Wins. 🙂 I do not understand how fundamentalist and evangelical Christians can claim Lewis as one of their heroes when they so obviously have never read his work beyond Mere Christianity…

  • Elena Porcelli

    If whatever you do has the same consequences in front of God, can you say something is really wrong?One could say any choice (e.g. murder or respect life) is equivalent in the eyes of God. And he clearly stated it’s not.

    Even for my own sins, I don’t want to be told “it doesn’t matter.” My choices, right or often wrong, matter a lot in God’s eyes. If God were indifferent to moral choices, I’d still do what I believe to be good, but I would be indifferent to Him, like He didn’t exist. If what I do didn’t matter to Him, why should Him matter to me? I believe he will forgive me, because I beg for his forgiveness, but I want the freedom to refuse it to exist. I want to choose. A love you can’t choose is not love.

  • Wes

    I question if we can truly be separate from God. Paul says that, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28). Then in Ephesians 4:4-6, he says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” So, if God is how I move and have life and if God is over all, through all, and in all, how could He/She/It possibly be separate from those who do not or did not believe in Him(insert your preferred pronoun) ? Even a “sinner’s” very existence is not possible without God. A person cannot sin without the power of God giving him life to do it.

    If we subscribe to the belief that all souls or spirits are eternal, we have to believe that they are eternal through the power of God. How could a soul exist apart from God? Therefore, I believe no one can be separate from God. Am I making sense?

  • DR

    Before he does Brian, perhaps you could give the courtesy of those you are talking to in other threads and confirm if your personal beliefs about homosexuality are reflected in your comment to Zach below. You’ve not yet answered that question.

    Brian said:

    “Zach, if you have a Bible based belief using the historical – grammatical hermeneutic method and you then state that God’s plan is that marriage / family / sex was intended to be exclusively male – female (that’s how the plumbing works) in the bonds of marriage and any other way is not the way God intended, you’re a narrow-minded, homophobic, bigot. It’s that simple. Liberal apologists have always attempted to “revise” biblical interpretation in order to “soften” or out-right remove God’s condemnation of sin.”

    Here is the thread for reference:

  • I’m hoping that my comment here: qualifies as something entirely different.

  • DR

    Elena there are thousands of people who don’t believe in God everyday but doing good matters to them. It matters because it’s our responsibility as a human being toward one another. They choose love all of the time. I actually do believe in some kind of place that is separate from God but it has absolutely no bearing on whether or not I choose to do good or not.

  • John, I love this!

    I have always wanted to sit and contemplate about what Hell is or isn’t, but it’s a little scary to think about. In fact, when I was little, I asked my mom if every religion and every person had their own Heaven and Hell so that no one would have to suffer. I didn’t get a very clear answer on that, and to this day, still don’t have one.

    Do you know exactly how the “absence of God” theory came about? And when?

  • Elena Porcelli

    Neither it has for me. Instillating fear of hell to make people do good (or more often to follow the Church’s teachings without questioning them) was one of the worst ideas the clergy ever had, along with other pretty bad ones (witch hunth, persecution of free thinkers etc).

    Yet you have not answered to my main objection: is God indifferent to our choices? And, if he isn’t, what happens to those who make awful choices by their own will?

  • Sarah Liu

    I too go around telling people that I think hell is eternal separation from god and I do think it is a horrible thing, and no it’s not any better than an eternal burning lake of fire (it’s just a little less fairy story).

    And I would have problems reconciling that to a God whose greatest desire (I believe) is the redemption of His children. I don’t know, but I understand the “eternal” aspect of hell in a different way.

    For me, it has to do with blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – a theological problem which has always bothered me. When I became a Christian I had nightmares that I might accidentally blaspheme the Holy Spirit and then be damned and unforgivable. But as I studied I realized, it’s not something that you can do by accident. There is only one unforgivable sin – complete and utter rejection of God’s offer to us of redemption. KNOWING about redemption in spirit, mind, and body, and still rejecting it. Because if you believe in free will at all then God cannot override your will to remain unforgiven. This is the only thing which leads us to “hell” and our spirit which we have already separated from God remains separated.

    Still the problem is the eternal part. And the problem is that we as humans confined by space and time cannot even begin to fathom “eternal”. Eternal is not like “a really really really really times a billion long time”. Eternal is not even a measure of time. Eternity is existence free from the restraints of time. There is no later, there is no before. There is only eternal now.

    And in that eternity, our spirit – which has already made the choice is eternally saying “no, no, no, no, no” to God.

    If we were to say yes, yes to spiritual life, yes to redemption, yes to grace, in that instant we are received by God and the best part is IT’S ETERNAL – it becomes as if we had never said no at all.

    I have a whole lot of theological and circumstantial reasons why I believe all that. But it makes sense to me.

  • Sarah – it makes really good sense to me too, thanks

  • Wes,

    Yes, makes sense, I think we can be separated from some attributes of God. In the here and now, all humanity is the recipient of some of God’s blessings – “he gives rain to the just and the unjust”, however when we willfully reject the free offer of salvation and eternal life through His Son Jesus Christ, we will then be separated from all His love, goodness and blessings when we die A person will get exactly what they want, I life free from the goodness of God

  • C.S. Lewsi however, was not a universalist like Bell, he believed the “fire and brimstone” descriptions of hell were metephorical, not literal.

  • DR,

    My personal beliefs are that heterosexuals and homosexuals are equaliy in need of the Gospel and it is freely given to all people, the above post was to Zach and was dripping with sarcasm…..and finally you do enjoy enjoy answering my questions adressed to someone other than you, which I suppose you’re free to do.

  • John could you elaborate some on what your personal convictions are about hell?

  • In this context, I believe we should say, “shatith upon”

  • I’ve read almost everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote and he simply can’t be pigeon-holed. He is no more a “liberal” Christian than a “conservative” Christian. He is both. And neither. Anybody who claims him is okay by me.

    Lewis wrote a lot about hell, but I like this particular musing from a letter to a friend:

    “About Hell. All I have ever said is that the N.T. [New Testament] plainly implies the possibility of some being finally left in “the outer darkness.” Whether this means (horror of horror) being left to a purely mental existence, left with nothing at all but one’s own envy, prurience, resentment, loneliness & self conceit, or whether there is still some sort of environment, something you cd. call a world or a reality, I wd. never pretend to know. But I wouldn’t put the question in the form “do I believe in an actual Hell.” One’s own mind is actual enough. If it doesn’t seem fully actual now that is because you can always escape from it a bit into the physical world – look out of the window, smoke a cigarette, go to sleep. But when there is nothing for you but your own mind (no body to go to sleep, no books or landscape, nor sounds, no drugs) it will be as actual as – as – well, as a coffin is actual to a man buried alive.”

  • Allen

    as a side note: I find it interesting that we assume that the life “after this life” goes on forever. Not sure where we got that idea. I don’t see why the next life couldn’t be a lot like this one: we have a clue, but don’t really understand fully. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we see through the air, I know. But it doesn’t mean we are there forever, necessariy. Jesus did say he was going to prepare a place for us — but he didn’t say how long we get to stay. If eternal damnation doesn’t sound reasonable, why does eternal bliss?

    Yes, I know this sounds like it’s heading towards reincarnation theology. Not claiming a theology here, just noting a general shared wish among humans that, after this life, no worries ever. Thanks for yet another pot-stirring post, John!

  • DR

    Brian? You aren’t honest. The end.

  • Hi, Brian. I do plan on soon spelling out my ideas on what happens in the afterlife; thanks for asking.

  • Should make for some wonderful reading, you have a gift of the pen, that’s for sure.

  • DR

    Is God indifferent to our choices? No, I don’t believe He is. What happens to those who make awful choices deliberately, knowing those choices will cause harm? Delighting in those choices and the harm that the choices create? I don’t know, I think that’s the point of John’s post. What I do believe is those choices destroy us right now – they destroy our ability to experience love or peace. They rob us of any ability to be honest. They destroy us which I think God cares tremendously about and wants to stop.

    What happens after we die? I don’t know. Does that make God indifferent to our choices? I don’t understand the connection you’re making. I know that God is just. How He provides that justice after we die? I don’t know. I think we get a tremendous amount of that here while on earth.

  • Veeri

    No, RayC, I don’t think that automatically qualifies you for hell. You’ve obviously thought about this, and are looking for the truth. If you were convinced that there was a god through whatever evidence, then you would accept him, yes? And since the evidence to you seems to say that there isn’t one, you don’t, although you’re not malicious about it. If God exists anyways, how could God blame you for that?

    Furthermore, I would even say that the choices you make in this life aren’t the end matter- although that does have a bearing on what you’d choose later. This part isn’t as well-nailed-down as the rest of my beliefs, and I’m still thinking about it and testing it. But what seems to make sense to me for now is that, when you die, your soul will live on and be confronted with the reality of God. It’s in THAT moment that you can choose to accept him for what he is, and go to “heaven”, or reject everything that he is, and go to “hell”. There will be no agnosticism or anything else then, because the truth will be evident, in a way human minds could never have processed back on mortal earth.

    I feel I should also clarify- I don’t view hell as torture, or a place, or any of that. It’s more a state of existence, a state of loss, and yes, suffering because you’re not with God (it should be mentioned that there is more than one word for “hell” in the old and new Testaments, and Sheol describes the grave, not the afterlife). It sucks, yes, but it’s not because God is torturing you- God isn’t there, and I don’t believe he wants anyone to be in that state. It’s because someone who has reached that state has done it to themself- they knowingly, willfully rejected God, in a way you haven’t, RayC, and WANTED to have no part of God, for eternity.

    On the subject of eternity, I have to agree with one of the other commenters ,and wonder why everyone thinks that applies to linear mortal time as we perceive it, in that it can go on for, say, three years and stop, or that it can go on for years and years without hope of respite. There are no years. There’s no time as we know it. It’s just a state of being.

    Sorry, I know this response has gotten long, but I seem to have gotten a lot of flak, and wanted to be clear. And also that I do respect Mr. Shore, and like the majority of what he writes. I just wish he had actually considered this viewpoint as the people who believe it look at it, and thought he was a little harsh there at the end. A lot of commenters have said it better than I have, though, and demonstrated that not all of us view it the way he portrayed it, so I’m willing to leave it at that (although I’ll clarify more if anyone else asks questions).

  • I never understand what this means.

    I have PTSD. I live in a kind of hell. Everyday. My life sucks. I’m just now getting over being suicidal; a large part of my will to live has come from rejecting Christianity and God. I would hope God, if he exists, and is all knowing and full of grace, would understand that.

    Whenever I see someone post about how we make our own heaven and hell in this life, I just want to say, “Thank you for implying that this is all my fault.”

    I’m not jumping on you exactly, my victim-blaming meter just goes off every time a Christian says those words. And I’ve had Christian friends basically say that they are blessed and loved by God because God gave them wonderful cushy lives (so by the same logic, I am cursed and hated by God) and it gets exhausting at times.

  • DR

    I’m glad you said this, it’s so important. (I’m also so glad that you’re finding some peace. I hope that continues).

  • Thank you. 🙂

  • Shat is a word. I’ve seen it used before in context. It’s not used often, more people might say “take a dump on.” If you want my opinion, “shat” is fairly eloquent a word as far as scatalogical references go.

  • No, Hell is other robots.

    You see, in the future, there will be a Hell. It will be for our robot citizens and it will be located somewhere in New Jersey.

    (Yes, I love “Futurama.” )

  • Reading and skimming some of the replies here regarding the “Carrot and Stick” aspect of beliefs in Hell (or Heaven) got me to thinking…

    I wonder if there are just certain stages in mental/spiritual development that people must go through. Maybe some people really need to “think of the consequences” at a certain stage in life, then other people… not so much.

    As I read, I started thinking about stages of my own life. I have a distinct memory of being four years old and wanting gum that my mother wouldn’t buy me – so took a pack of gum off the shelf by the checkout and carefully hid it. I thought I was being so clever and sneaky. I knew it was something “wrong” but I wanted that gum! I unwrapped it in the back seat of the car and my sister caught me and made me confess. My mom and my sister told me that “next time” they’d call the cops on me and I would go to jail! (Now, as an adult, I know that the police aren’t going to imprison a four year old child for anything, let alone stealing a pack of gum from a supermarket, but I didn’t know that, then). I spent the rest of my childhood petty-crime free.

    Contrast that to… last week and my almost-32 year old self (my birthday was yesterday). I was… well, undergoing a period of wrestling with my spiritual doubts – I mean, to the point of worrying if I might have a defective brain because I “can’t make God go away” to become a “more realistic” thinker. Yeah. It seems like I can’t become an atheist even during times when I think I should. I also was undergoing a bout of depression – I’m full of self-doubt in those. Well, last week, I ran into a situation where I had to risk my life if I was to do what I thought was right (literally, it was a life-threatening situation). I was thinking, while in this situation, “If I die tonight, maybe I’ll go to Heaven or somewhere. Or, I might not. There might really be NOTHING on the other side. – Okay, I’m doing the right thing, anyway.”

    I survived, unhurt, but the point is – I really thought “maybe there is a good consequence/maybe there isn’t and my risking my life would be ultimately meaningless.” – Yet, “doing the RIGHT thing” was so important to me, in and of itself, that it was the only thing that mattered at that time.

    I like to believe in/hope there’s a Heaven, but I know now that those people who say that “people who believe in such things ONLY do good because of that” are DEAD WRONG in at least my case – and I couldn’t feel any more pleased with that.

    So, I think, maybe some people at certain stages need that “carrot and/or stick” mentality to hang on to to motivate them, but at some point, if things go right, we’ll move beyond that mentality and internalize “right for right’s sake,” damn the consequences.

  • Don Rappe

    Happy Birthday, kiddo!

  • shaw

    the concept of heaven is itself an insult to the idea of existence. god gives you this AMAZING gift of life and you squander it trying to get to the next one? look. this is heaven. you made it. if you want to be infinitely happy, you can be infinitely happy! if you want to be sad, you can have that too! its a playground and a paradise but its also what you make it. thank god that you’re alive and that you have this thing and please STFU about imaginary non-existent places in some proverbial sky.

    same goes for hell.

  • Don Rappe

    OK, hell is not the absence of God, hell is the absence of you in God. I’ll be happy to thump you with a Bible any time! Don’t take that the wrong way. I identify as straight.

  • Don Rappe

    Boy, I hope that was clear. Missing out on eternal life is hell. I do not believe that heaven is an extension of my conscious experience through infinite time.This notion of heaven seems to me indistinguishable from the common notion of hell.

  • Don Rappe

    Yes, Thump!

  • Don Rappe

    Sola gratia. Cool!

  • Don Rappe

    I/m pretty sure the tenses are shitteth, shit, shat. Thus, he who still shitteth hast not yet shat. Or oh shit! Didst I step in that? How now, foul odour?

  • I’ve been in the hell you’ve described for most of my life because of my abusive upbringing (that I thought was normal). Everyone was a criminal because I didn’t trust anyone. I was in self-imposed cold, dark, emotional isolation because of this mistrust.

    And I’m still trying to trust God. I know that he is not the God I was raised to believe in, otherwise I would have never come out of that “hell”.

    Honestly, I believe that hell is an absence of God, because while you’re in hell, you don’t believe in God’s love. You believe in another God, a false god, and while you believe in that, well, that’s pretty serious stuff.

    But the true God never gives up on you. He keeps poking and poking in strange (and sometimes painful) ways until you get it. Until you *know* him. The true Him.

    So I think now I believe that hell is just an extension of wherever we are now — yes, for some it is the absence of God. But I do not believe that it is eternal. It lasts as long as it has to before you wake up to the truth.

  • C.S. Lewis believed that the sense of rightness was innate in all people. His “On Christianity”, written in wartime, is a bit dry, but focuses on this topic.

  • Bless you. I have just come out of PTSD myself. God is there, and he is helping you.

  • I’ve only read Narnia and Screwtape.

    If you want to know my tale of heroism – as such – it’s here. I wrote that blog post just after coming home from the incident.

    I have to think “I risked my life for a horse,” and wonder if people would think I’m just stupid for risking my life for “something below me/stupider than me.” Seeing some people’s online attitudes, I am left wondering if they’d risk themselves to save a *person* they thought of as “stupider than them” let alone an animal. In any case, I learned that I do have a measure of courage and feel pretty good about that.

  • Thanks.

    You know, I may be 32, but I’m pretty sure my soul is stuck on age 12.

    I got some birthday money from my parents, and since I was in rare form to not need it to spend on rent and utlities and could actually get something nice for myself…. what do I spend it on?

    Videogames. Yep.

  • I want Heaven because I want *more* of this amazing life.

    Also, perfect justice does not exist here. Too many bad things happen to too many good people and too many bad people get away with their wrongs. Can you deliver perfect justice? Do you even know how?

    That is why I persist in longing for Heaven.

    However, as illustrated below, I don’t *need* it to do the right thing. I’m beyond a *need* for it regarding personal justice, it’s just, I kind of want universal justice and do not see any way it’s going to happen in this life, especially considering the countless people who were given a raw deal by the world who have already gone to their graves.

  • DR

    Bell has said he is not a Universalist.

  • Laurel Hedge

    I do believe that hell is the absence of God, and I’m convinced that it’s the most horrific thing possible. I also believe (with all of my craven little heart) that God does not EVER EVER EVER withdraw from one, only that one turns one’s back on God. God is scary, and God’s love is scary, in that it is consuming, subsuming, and total; how does one continue to have a self in all of that? For me, that is faith; to believe that the eternal *I* will continue to exist, even when I have no separation from the “all that is, which is God.”

    Some C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce, in particular), some Andrew Greely, and way too much over thinking things; I am human, and scared, and I fear God’s Love. But I (hope) that I fear being separated from God even more. For me, being a Christian is very much connected to seeing Jesus as a bridge and shield in the getting from the separate to the whole.

  • shaw

    I think that personal justice doesn’t exist on earth because we haven’t created it. I think a big part of why we exist and why we aren’t just handed fairness on a platter is that in order to actually learn how to be good and moral people we need to be under the constant pressure of good and evil.

    The devil is an illogical idea that comes from a cannon of myth that the concept of God does not– the devil is man’s worst parts. God is everything that exists and the idea that it could and should exist in the first place.

    So if there is no personal justice, we have nobody to blame but ourselves, and perhaps this is the great lesson of our age. God is just because on a large scale “He” essentially leaves us alone.

    Falling and breaking your arm hurts, but it tempers you to greater dangers and teaches you the value of health. We should be so lucky that we have any life at all, even if it is a tortured one unfortunately, because even if struggle is painful it is a beautiful part of the human growing process. The good parent lets the child fall sometimes, its worth the risk.

  • Ok so if God is omnipresent, how can He NOT be in hell? That would mean that He isn’t omnipresent.

    Also as nothing exists without His hand in it, how can hell exist or anything within it, without His involvement?

    Which is the crux to my problem with the whole ‘hell is the absence of God idea’ Either He’s everywhere, or He’s not, either He’s a part of the hell thing or He’s not.

    Then there is can anyone who claims to love us so much stand the thought of anyone suffering so? To me someone knowingly allowing and sanctioning extended suffering sounds rather sadistic to me.

    It just doesn’t add up.

  • Diana A.

    I like this!

  • Diana A.

    I can agree with the idea that being left to a purely mental existence could be its own hell. In fact, I vaguely remember a “Tale from the Darkside” that explored this very possibility.

  • Diana A.

    “…so I figure I’ve got nothing to lose and am betting all my chips on Grace.” Me too!

  • Hell is cruel. I remember a sermon my former pastor gave about hell. He asked, didn’t we want to see murderers and child rapists that got away with it in this life get the punishment they deserve in the next? Of course you do! But of course, to believe that, you have to believe EVERYONE deserves that exact same fate. Okay. Infant hair-puller, 5 year old candy bar steal-er, and 40 year old murder – you all deserve life in prison. That’s REAL justice, right? After all, our sense of justice is perverted or something, right? That’s the only reason hell makes us uncomfortable. So let’s make things right. Life imprisonment for every infraction. Redemption will come if you bribe the court system with offering to serve them and do whatever they ask for the rest of your life.

    That’s exactly what it looks like from here. And it’s funny, too, my pastor’s appeal to justice, to the idea that we must *obviously* want this justice for those who commit evil acts. I wonder if pastor’s say these things (at least the pastor’s where I live; this is a cushy upper-middle class city) disconnect from the idea that anyone in the congregation has any experience with it. Because as said victim that apparently everyone wants justice for? I’m condemned to the same fate. You’re telling me I’m in hell with my abusers. Or actually not, because my abusers are all Christians – you’re telling me I’m destined for hell for rejecting God, and they’re destined for heaven. But *obviously* this whole thing is about justice for the innocent, somehow. The moral outrage of (usually) Christians when it comes to these things strikes me as humorous on my good days, because it’s to assuage their own fear and anger, not a victim’s,considering Christianity has constructed the perfect environment to keep victim’s silent.

    And that’s kind of what this version of hell seems like. It’s not a kinder, gentler version of hell for the sake of others, it’s so that the Christian can be okay while still believing in something that seems, quite frankly, evil. It’s so that they don’t have to give up, or really re-examine their beliefs or stance on the Bible, while still soothing their conscience that didn’t like the idea of a literal hell. It is all about them.

    It’s interesting – for a God that supposedly knows our hearts, judges us on our motives, sees every nuance and circumstance that brings about the complex mix of good and bad in every person, he’s like the densest fundy. What does seeing our hearts really mean if the end result is that it doesn’t matter action or intent, the same punishment is given?

    Speaking as someone whose life circumstances like to be used in sermons about hell – I don’t want eternal punishment for my abusers. I don’t think that’s fair. No, I haven’t forgiven them, and will probably be thrilled at their death (I already have for one!) but eternal hell is cruel and undeserving. If that is God, then God is evil, and Satan, as his adversary, is probably decent, so…bring on hell!

    But it seems very self-centered to say that eternal separation from God is kinder than a literal fire hell. It’s kinder to the Christian, and for the Christian’s mind – but the intent is exactly the same. God just becomes an abuser using neglect rather than torture.

    My 2 cents on it all.

  • Exactly. God is always there. We’re just not always aware of it. Thanks for illuminating this so clearly.

  • cat rennolds

    probly unpopular. but here goes. there IS hell, and it’s exactly as John described it. Been there. Lots of people live there. every day. could probably go on existing there after death. God IS there…but you don’t know it. you don’t believe it, can’t believe it , don’t understand it. Because you’d have to let go of preconception. You’d have to change.

    the whole thing about the unforgivable sin being heresy against the Holy Spirit? That’s cause if you have your spiritual hands over your spiritual ears, God’s going to let you refuse to listen. If you don’t want God to exist, s/he’s going to let you fail to see. God is not going to force anyone out of the hell they insist on living in. Or creating for others.

    But it’s NOT eternal. It only lasts as long as you believe in it. and all you have to do to get out is realize you can get out. How many of us were in hell because we believed them when they told us we were damned? That God didn’t love us?

    the part about those who will call him Lord, and he will say, “I never knew you?” That’s because you can SAY Jesus all day long without knowing Jesus. You can SAY love all day long without loving. Faith without works isn’t faith, because faith moves you to love. Works without faith isn’t salvation because if you just give to charity to show how wonderful you are, then all you get is looking wonderful. Not a relationship. Not love.

    if God is Love, and Christ is God, then Christ is Love; and if you Love, then you are saved. Regardless of name. Love is the way, the truth and the life.

  • Diana A.

    I like this one too.

  • JT

    The BIble says hell is eternal, its firey and NO God is not there with you in that place. John Shore saysand eternal hell is unfair. According to God, its not. So who is right, John or God?

    God is a perfect judge, his judgements are absolutely just. So I think there is a lack of understanding by the author of just how bad sin really is in Gods view and how much damage it does to oneself and others and how commiting sins encourages others to do the same wrecking more personal and societal havoc.

  • cranberry

    I like the way the author talks about Christians as though he is not one — contunually framing his arguements as one who is standing outside (and above) the brethren, continually finding one way or another to launch attacks on them. It seems to be his self appointed mission. Therefore I’d say he’s right on target in excluding himself when he speaks of them, as. “Satan is the accuser of the brethren.” He”s not Satan, but he’s being used as his pawn by him

  • cranberry

    and I don’t mean this article only, its pretty much all he does in everything he writes

  • jerman

    God can choose to limit himself.andhe is not inside unbeleivers as well, by his Spirit

  • Listen, fool: If you’re going to come onto my blog and rail against me, that’s fine. But even you can’t be dense enough not to realize that if (as you’ve done here today) you post your frothing babblings under DIFFERENT SCREEN NAMES (so far you’re “cranberry,” “jerman,” “J.T.” and “prisca”), it kind of eradicates your claim to the moral high ground, what with it proving you a cowardly liar and all.

  • MyNameIsNotEarl

    How about all the people coming up with their personal ideas of what hell is–IFyoure a believer–, just open up the Bible and read the New Testament.–you will find it described and its clear enough and repeated enough times throughout to correctly comprehend-its not veiled in mystery. Its hard to take whats described there, but thats the reality of it. according to scripture. Its a place of torment,where their ‘worm never dies” (eternal) . Its a place of fire where people are burned. According to God its necessary

  • MyNameIsNotEarl

    dear john –did you know a person can’t make a comment to any of your posts at huffinton post without having their comment not posted or without having their account deleted.? I bet you do know that. So since youre down with that, I would assume its the same way here at your blog. So taking precautions.I see its far more egregious an offense in your mind to post under more than one name than to attack Christians day and night.

  • (Folks: “cranberry” has now added “MyNameIsNotEarl” to its many identities. I’ll go block him/her/it now.) And I have zero control over what happens to or with comments to what of mine gets posted on HuffPo. I can’t even see the comments until they appear on the site.)

  • skosh

    uh oh we’re beng watched…………..

  • DR

    Spiritual leadership? Thy name is…….”cranberry”? hmmm.

  • DR

    I’m so embarrassed for you.

  • DR

    WTF are you talking about? This doesn’t even make sense, it’s just “whoops I got caught in a lie as I try to tell someone else he’s not christian enough”.

    Satan —> Father of lies. Look in a mirror, you’ll see a liar staring back. I’m sure the ends justify the means though, right? Of course you have an excuse for it. Thanks for once again, providing a reason why Christians can’t be trusted. Nice job.

  • masquerader

    The Christian Bible states and implies that we’re not eternal. 1.) Jesus came to offer eternal life to all those who would believe. 2.) In the book of Genesis, god expelled Adam and Eve from the garden saying, “lest they eat of the fruit of the tree of life and live eternally, as we do.” (yes, “we”). 3.) Revelations talks frequently of a “second death”. If it is not a finality, why is it called death? There are other verses in the NT to support the view that gehenna — the lake of fire — is indeed a purging fire, which destroys, instead of torments, while “torments” is the opposite of paradise, and simply a waiting place for the day of judgement.

    So, I agree with the OP — that this whole “absence of God” thing isn’t kinder, or gentler… naturally… scared the living daylights out of me when I first heard it. But, more than that, it’s telling of the underlying problems in Christianity today… which is that it’s full of lies and contradictions… things people make up to explain away the scary to keep the pews filled and the books selling.