From Hell to Crazy Town

I recently gave a talk to this group, who asked me to address the question, “Is hell real?”

In all of the world, it’s hard to imagine any question easier to answer. Watch:

No one knows.

See? Easy-peezy.

We can think we know if hell exists; we can hope, trust, and believe that we know. About hell we can guess, assume, surmise, deduce, and speculate. But until someone returns from The Great Beyond with a video recording—or WikiLeaks gets really good at what it does— actual knowledge of whether or not hell is real will continue to be denied us.

We. Don’t. Know.

We don’t know what happens to us after we die, and we don’t know what (if anything) was happening with us before we were born. We exist in a continuum of consciousness bookended, at either end, by absolute blanks.

This fundamental not-knowing is fundamentally not good for us. We like/crave certainty—especially about anything as organically vital to us as what happens after we die.

And what do we do in the face of our forced ignorance on that subject? We do what we’re designed to do. We keep fighting. We keep struggling. We keep searching for certainty.

And for a lot of us—and certainly for Christians—that means turning to God.

And when, through prayer and communion with the Holy Spirit within them, Christians ask God what will happen to them after they die, what does God reveal to them? Nothing whatsoever. He remains utterly silent. God never answers that question for anyone. No monk, seer, prophet, holy man, guru, shaman or priest, anywhere in the world, has ever known one whit more about what really happens to people after they die than a biscuit does.

So where next do Christians turn in their quest to solve the problem of the afterlife? To the Bible, of course.

And what does the Bible say about what exactly happens to us after we die? Not nearly enough, mainly: it’s like a piece of Swiss cheese that’s mostly holes: there’s just not much substance there. And safe to say that what is in the Bible about life after death lends itself to myriad interpretations.

Again: not so much with the definitively helpful.

So over the centuries Christians did the only thing left them, which is decide what the Bible says about what happens to people after they die.

And what (Protestant) Christians decided is that after we die one of two things happens to us: we have an extremely good time, or we have an extremely bad time. Forever.

Upon dying everyone goes to either heaven or hell. If in this life you’ve been good, then upon passing you catch the up elevator; if you’ve been bad, then afterwards it’s all downhill for you.

And such a paradigm for the afterlife, grounded as it is in basic reward and retribution, makes sense to us. It feels right. Ultimately the good are rewarded, and the evil are punished. That works for us. Fair is fair.

But to this naturally palatable mix Christians then added an ingredient which, if you are not a Christian, sours the whole thing right up.

Christians decided that when it comes to making it into heaven, being good enough is not good enough. Being honorable isn’t good enough. Being righteous, loving, thoughtful, kind, compassionate, altruistic, and/or self-sacrificing isn’t good enough.

If you want to make it into heaven, decreed the Christians, then you must be a Christian. In fact, they decided, the only thing required to qualify as a denizen of heaven is to be a Christian.

Game changer!

With that, Christians were constrained to confess that the Muslim baby who dies is sent directly to hell.

That the loving atheist goes to hell.

That the Jewish philanthropist goes to hell.

Gandhi? Hell.

Buddha? Hell.

Ninety-five percent of the people who have ever lived? Now suffering in hell.

And suddenly Christians found themselves in possession of what can only be described as a profound public relations problem.

How can such a system appear to be grounded in anything but a moral travesty?

Put simply, it can’t. Right is right; wrong is wrong; unfair is unfair. It is a gross and manifest injustice for God to eternally punish a person for no offense greater than dying while not a Christian. That fact is inescapable.

And yet Christians must try to escape it, of course. No one wants to be playing for team Unjustly Cruel.

And just how do Christians attempt to defend a demonstrably indefensible God? By literally the only means available to them: by claiming that God’s sense of justice is simply beyond the human capacity for understanding.

“Sure, to us it seems cruel and unfair to send all non-Christians to hell,” is the standard Christian defense. “But we’re not God. God’s ways must remain a mystery to us. God’s sense of justice is not our own.”

What God means by the word justice, in other words, is unrelated—in fact seems completely opposite—of what we humans mean by that word. And if that is true, then shouldn’t we straight away empty all of our jails and prisons, and throw away all of our law books? Because isn’t it obvious that we comprehend virtually nothing of the true meaning of right and wrong?

And what about the whole idea of us being made in God’s image? How can we be, when we obviously don’t have anything like his mind or heart?

And when in the Bible God, as Jesus, speaks as he does of peace, honor, righteousness, compassion, loyalty, dignity, truth, and love, what are we to make of those words? On what grounds should we assume that God means by those words anything like what we do?

And then you stop the car, and you get out, and you realize you’re in Crazy Town.

I’m a Christian, and I want out of Crazy Town. I hate Crazy Town. The water tastes awful; the plumbing never works; everyone goes on red and stops on green. People cry at baby showers, and laugh at funerals.

I say let’s take the next exit out of Crazy Town, and get ourselves back on the main road.

Anybody with me on that?

If so, we’ll continue on this trip next time.


Follow up: The truth isn’t liberal or conservative

"That kinda potty mouth got you banned from twitter."

The fundamentally toxic Christianity
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The fundamentally toxic Christianity
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The fundamentally toxic Christianity
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The fundamentally toxic Christianity

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  • danielle

    John, I think this kind of crazy is very similar to the ACTUAL “crazy” (i.e. being profoundly mentally ill); if you can ask yourself this question, you aren’t in Crazy Town. You just left it.

  • Thank you, thank you for talking about this. I’ve found that my faith grows when I confront the things that don’t make sense instead of just pretending that they don’t exist. I look forward to reading part two!

  • What do you think about people who claim to actually have been to heaven or hell? I’m thinking here about books like “Heaven is for Real”, “90 Minutes in Heaven” or “23 Minutes In Hell”.

  • Ray Odiorne

    Okay, this might seem (a)irrelevant (b)trivializing (c)arcane, but with all of the attention given from the recent movie, it might be of interest. In the second book Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about John Cater of Mars, he sends this pulp hero into a region of Mars considered by the natives the location of their after-life. It is considered so awful that they do not tolerate the possibility of anyone coming back from Iss (their name for this place.) John Carter finds it a place of horror, with mobile carnivorous plants, an aged crone as dictator, and cannibalism of those considered lesser beings. Of course he escapes but he is not welcomed back to the Martian society he had been part of before.

    I don’t know where Burroughs fit into the faith spectrum, but remember this was written for a pulp magazine, the common fare of the common person of his day.

  • Connie

    It’s one of the biggest debates I have with Christians, the whole good-people-go-to-hell-but-repentant-murderers-get-Heaven thing. Add in the whole being good so you don’t burn in a fiery lake versus being good because it’s the right thing to do, and it all goes to, well, Hell in a handbasket.

    Which always reminds me of the joke about the dead pagan who gets to the Summerland, all confused bc there stands St. Peter at some pearly gates.

    “Um, am I in the right place?” the pagan asks.

    St. Peter takes her name, looks through the book (cos there’s always a book), and the gates open. “Let me show you around!” He takes her on a tour, and what she sees astounds her. There are all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and religions all enjoying the good life. Together.

    They stop before the giant archway that says, “Summerland”, and she can see her family that went before her waving her in, but then she hears crying to her left. She turns to see a group full of people standing outside the great fence, wailing and tearing at their clothes, as the point to the frolicking folk inside.

    “Who are they?” she asks.

    St. Peter shrugs. “They’re the Christians who spent their lives telling non-Christians they’d all burn in Hell.”

    “And why are they there?”

    “That’s their Hell,” he nudges her through the archway. “God doesn’t like to be told what to do.”

    Or something to that effect. 🙂 We don’t know. We’ll never know. And using it as leverage against people is contrary to the message of Love. 🙂 (Sorry if that was too long!)

  • Eva Neil via Facebook

    One word – reincarnation. The early church had no problem with it, and it makes more sense to me than any heaven/hell scenario.

  • Karen Miller

    Five years ago, at the age of 47, I underwent a heart catheterization. I was in great shape, ideal body weight, competing in triathlons. And I had chest pain. And I flunked my stress test. So the cardiologist decided I needed the heart cath. It was a low-key affair. I was not their typical patient. No one really expected anything to happen. Just like I had done before any medical procedure, I prayed that I would recover from the procedure. Interestingly, I told my husband and the staff that I did not want a prolonged resuscitation in the event I went into cardiac arrest. Everyone thought I was being silly. Overreacting to a simple procedure.

    We went into the room and the doctor got started. I started having chest pain. I told the nurse and the doctor ordered nitroglycerin. I thought to myself, oh great, now I’ll have a headache (nitro always gives me a major headache). Then I started having trouble breathing. I told the nurse I couldn’t breathe. The doctor ordered atropine. I’m a nurse and I knew the atropine was for a low heart rate. Then the chest pain was excruciating. It literally feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest. My very last thought, I kid you not, was, “Well fuck! I’m going to die”. And I did. Just like that. I was dead but I had a consciousness. I knew I was dead. I knew I was lying on a table in a dark room. I was confused because I couldn’t figure out how I had come to be dead. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t elated. I was simply curious about what had happened to me. I started reconstructing my day and finally realized I had died during the heart cath. I was satisfied with that answer, it wasn’t a big deal, it was just, “oh, so that’s how I died”. Then I heard a voice calling my name. It was very difficult to arouse myself to open my eyes. I finally got my eyes open and I could see a nurse standing over me. The first thing I said was, “Am I still dead?” She said no. My chest hurt and I was kind of confused about things. I told her my chest hurt and she said it was from the chest compressions. It was at that point that I felt some panic. I immediately asked her how long I had been down. I was envisioning a prolonged resuscitation with the end result being brain damage. She told me I had been down, “less than a minute”. Then I asked her why I hadn’t seen a white light. I was very distressed about that. She told me, jokingly, that I had not been dead long enough. She then explained what had happened. When they inserted the dye, my right coronary artery went into a complete spasm. It clamped down and blood couldn’t get to my heart. My blood pressure dropped. The meds typically used to increase blood pressure cause vasoconstriction which only worsened my problem. They have a name for my condition. Prinz Metal Angina. It can only truly be diagnosed when a person has a coronary spasm while undergoing a heart cath. Whatever. Anyway, I really only had two worries. I wanted someone to tell my husband that I loved him and I wanted to know why I hadn’t seen that damn bright light!

    You know how sometimes on a cloudy day, you can look at the sky and see a patch of blue behind it? And then the clouds will slowly close around that bright spot. Well, every time I would close my eyes I would see that circle of blue in the sky. The nurse kept calling my name, telling me to keep my eyes open. Each time I would close them, I would see that blue sky surrounded by clouds. Only the blue area kept getting smaller and smaller. It was like a hole in the sky and it kept shrinking when I opened my eyes. I remember the very last time I had my eyes closed, the blue circle was almost gone. I remember thinking that if I opened my eyes, the blue sky would be gone and only clouds would remain. And that’s what happened. When I closed my eyes again, the blue was gone.

    I was admitted to the hospital. I called the pastor of the church I had been attending. We had met outside of church and the only time I thought about him as a preacher was when he had his collar on. He came to see me at the hospital as I was quite distressed about not seeing the white light. He told me he knew other people with near death experiences who hadn’t seen a white light. He told me that no one knows what happens when we die. We both thought my blue hole in the clouds might have been my white light.

    The only reason I share this is to say something happens when we die. My body was clinically dead. My mind wasn’t. I knew I was dead and it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. That gives me comfort. At least I know I won’t immediately fall into a fire pit. Because if you believe some of the extreme Christians, that’s exactly where I would end up.

  • Melody

    I don’t claim to speak for John, though I do struggle with this question as well. That said, I’m more inclined to give credit to Don Piper, because he was declared dead in an accident guaranteed to prove fatal, and he didn’t come back for 90 minutes. I can’t prove it, of course, but his story is more credible than Bill Wiese, who didn’t die or have a near-death experience, but claims to have had a vision in which he spent 23 minutes in hell. Based on what I read, it plays out as something anyone could have made up, as his description is similar to that of fire-and-brimstone sermons, and he quotes Jesus as directly quoting revelation: “Behold, I am coming soon.” My parents used to watch TBN a lot when I was growing up, and it sounds no different from the far-fetched stories some people would tell about hellish near-death experiences, just to get some attention and scare the shit out of any impressionable person who would listen. As long as people think scare tactics will change the minds of the sheeple, there will be stories like 23 Minutes in Hell from which charlatans like Wiese will profit.

  • patalone

    MATTHEW 5:22– But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.


    MATTHEW 5:29–If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.


    MARK 9:47-47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where

    “‘the worms that eat them do not die,

    and the fire is not quenched.’

    MATTHEW 10:28–Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.


    There are other verses as well. How can you say “no one knows” when Jesus himself spoke about it and in doing so confirmed it? He also describes it. Confirming its existence and what its like doesn’t mean you want others to go there.

  • Melody

    FYI, the original Greek doesn’t translate as hell. Second, the Hebrew scriptures (not the King James version of the Old Testament) do not speak of hell. Jesus wouldn’t just suddenly.bring it up as an actual place. He’s using it as metaphor. Taking Jesus literally on spiritual issues is.setting yourself up for failure.

  • Julia Simmons via Facebook

    This is a great topic. I go round and round on it. I’ll be interested in the next installments as well.

  • Diana A.

    Amen, Brother John!

  • Thanks, Melody. Good job.

  • Ashley

    I agree! I have been dealing with this issue personally for a while, and I would love to hear you rationalize it, John! All I know is that even if Hell doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean we have to throw out our whole belief system or burn the Bible or something extreme…it just meaning we have gotten a little closer to the Truth. To me that is not anything to be afraid of. Let’s explore this topic!

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I know of no concrete evidence for the presence of such beliefs in the early church, and if by reincarnation you mean a transmigration of the soul, the early church certainly did have a problem with it. Perhaps the notion of the pre-existence of souls is a cause of confusion here.

  • That whole being made in the image of God thing?

    Well if I remember correctly Paul mentioned a glass darkly which could be a mirror. Seeing how the mirrors of the ancient world were vastly inferior to the ones we have today, we know they worked but not with the clarity we have today. Still people could get a reflection or image of themselves.

    Yeah, I’m going somewhere with this.

    Those ancients knew that it was a reflection, an image, of the real deal standing in front of that mirror. It could mimic actions, and look remarkably like the real deal, but that was about it. It couldn’t touch, taste, hear, feel, etc.

    It is quite possible, that we are like that when it comes to being “in the image of God”. We can mimic actions and look like the real deal but those actions are as limited in God’s spectrum as our own mirror images, and we apparently got a good rendering of what God looks like, but that to is about it. Everything else is limited to our mere three dimensional plane.

    Which always gives me pause when some claim to know God’s will so completely. I seriously doubt we are as well tuned in to the Godly brainwave pattern as we can assume. Therefore how can we have a clue what is going to happen to anyone else’s afterlife, when we are not really sure what are any details about ours? AND is it as important as what is happening today,to ourselves, or our neighbors? Likely not.

    (note to self… trying to do deductive reasoning after medicating a severe asthma attack, may result in rambling)

  • “good-people-go-to-hell”

    Remind me, who is a good person?

  • If no one knows what happens after we die, then on what basis do you say hell is not an option? Doesn’t this imply knowledge of the afterlife, hence, a self-contradiction? Mustn’t you plead agnosticism on the existence of hell instead?

  • Floyd Miller

    John, It IS Crazy Town when atheists and others are more Christian than those who style themselves as such. Some of the most Christian songs I have heard have been written by Leonard Cohen (a Buddhist Jew), Woody Guthrie (“Ballad of the Carpenter”), Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan (his first Grammy was for an album of Christian songs), all Jewish. In fact, I am formulating a theory that a Christian’s faith (or degree of real Christianity) can be measured by the reaction to it by people of other faiths or no faith. I find it to be Crazy Town when so-called “Christians” worship an atheist who based her philosophy on total anti-Christian unfettered greed (Ayn Rand), as well as the idols of currency and national flags. I also believe it is Crazy Town when so-called “Christians” whine about putting Christ back in Christmas, when they have removed Christ from their perversion of Christianity and replaced him with Mammon; put the Christ back in Christianity, never mind Christmas.

  • Connie

    In my world, a good person is noted by their good deeds, regardless of faith. Is a good person who gives of themselves, takes care of the poor and destitute without expecting something in return, who is kind to others, but at the end of the day, not a Christian, not a good person at all?

    I realize that Christian faith does not trade a pass into Heaven over good deeds. I realize that by most Christian-standards, it does not matter what you do in life, if you do not accept Jesus into your heart. I also realize that to do so genuinely means you should be doing good deeds, bc that’s what Jesus commanded of His people.

    I just personally don’t want to go to a heaven where a God who claimed we are all His children is so exclusive that not all of us are allowed to enter. Or our dogs. Perhaps that is my folly, but we can discuss this in further depth on the flip side, when we have a tangible answer. 🙂

  • There is a linguistic fallacy here. It’s like saying I know a guy named Michael, but this same person in Mexico is known as Miguel, therefore, Miguel is not the same person as Michael. It’s a simple application of the Law of Identity. Now, the words are Ghenna, Hades, and Sheol (Hades [being in the NT and not the OT] being corresponding to Ghenna).

    “He’s using it as metaphor” correct, he is using these geographical places to illustrate A LITERAL POINT! Isn’t that what metaphors are for? To illustrate something? In this case, what would that be? I have an idea. Hell. It’s the best explanation of the fact. So unless you can come up with a competing hypothesis, Hell remains the best explanation.

  • I did not say hell doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t a possibility.

  • Very well said, Floyd. Thanks for this.

  • From whence your confidence that it’s “A LITERAL POINT!”?

  • WOW! What a story! Thanks so much for taking the time to share this with us.

  • No, it certainly wasn’t too long. It was/is great.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    Both such views of the afterlife—that is, as a recompense of merit or as one of some “orthodox” faith—run into the same problem: Everyone recognizes that perfect Justice is perfectly consistent, but no one wants to believe in a God who, whether in the absence of good deeds or for not having accepted Jesus Christ, would condemn to the depths of hell the youngest of children who perish.

  • I can’t tell you how timely this post is for me as I’m in the middle of a comical debate with my self-professed Christian sister about…you know? I don’t even know what. I just shared a post from the Dalai Lama I enjoyed and she took it as an invitation to tell me what’s what. ha!

    All that to say. Thank you.

  • SquirrelyGirl

    I always feel a little shy about sharing things with people who obviously know so much more about other religions and theology than I do, so I will just share with you how I was brought up and the struggles I have had dealing with a new way of thinking/feeling/believing.

    When you hear for most of your life that there is only “one way” –either you believe in John 3;16 or you don’t. That Jesus it the one way, the truth and the light and no man comes to the Father but by him. That the bible is the inerrant word of God and to question it is blasphemy, that either you are saved or you die and go to hell. And hell was mentioned A LOT! So when I walked down the aisle at a very young age I did so because …I didn’t want to burn in hell for eternity. But my heart really did accept a loving God, that (from what I could understand at that age) loved me enough that he would give his “everything” for me. I knew it was real, I felt it deep in my heart and though I have not always done what I should, I have never doubted God’s love for me.

    Years later when I met people from other countries that told me they had never actually even read a bible..I was like WOW..what do I do with that??? What if the world ends tomorrow and people in other places have never even heard of Jesus or God? Are they all going to go to hell? Of course, my church teaches that every ear will hear the gospel before the end of time. That seemed pretty improbable to me 20 years ago, now with the internet …not so much. I still can’t reconcile the teachings I have heard most of my life with what I feel and know in my heart. Like… how I should condemn the sin of homosexuality or abortion and vote Republican or I am definitely going to hell.

    I have people now saying I must not have “actually” been saved or I would not have all these questions. If I said I was a little doubtful about hell..they will certainly assure me I am going there. Maybe I am just a little coward too…it is hard to stand up against your loved ones, your family, and your community. It makes you doubt everything you have ever been taught. All I know is that God loves me and through him I love others with all my heart. I think I may just have to keep it that simple for awhile. Maybe that is why it is called faith, maybe we are not supposed to have all the answers. But I don’t really want to worship a God who will not allow me to ask the questions. I don’t think I do.

  • I think maybe I’m missing your point. Fascinating to learn this about Burroughs and the Carter/Mars story, for sure. But … were you thinking of Carter as maybe some sort … fictional metaphor for … someone/something?

  • Mindy

    Oh, yes. This. But the Biblical crazies with whom I have recently been arguing – er, discussing – fall back on the “inerrant word of God that has been agreed upon by the wise leaders of the Church,” and nothing anyone says matters one whit. But they will pray that your lost soul shall be saved, whether you want them to or not.

    As always, you hit the nail perfectly on its flat little head.

  • “It is a gross and manifest injustice for God to eternally punish a person for no offense greater than dying while not a Christian.”

    “And just how do Christians attempt to defend a demonstrably indefensible God?”

    Those are expressions of your repugnance to it. But if you are repugnant, why? I see your reasoning going like this:


    1. God is just (this is implicit in your quotes)

    2. Hell is not just (also implied)

    3. Therefore, God and Hell are incompatible (from 1&2)


    1. Either God exists or Hell exists (from 3B)

    2. God exists (assumed)

    3. Therefore, Hell does not exist

    You said Hell does not exist, but not in so many words.

  • You are right: God would not desire for you NOT to use, to its full capacity, the mind with which he endowed you. He WANTS you to ask every question you have–and to be unafraid of what you might find if you do. God has nothing to hide; God is not threatened by you, me, or anyone else inquiring as to his nature and processes.

    Anyone who tells you that you should condemn the sin of homosexuality, or abortion, or vote Republican, isn’t serious about being a Christian. They’re just angry bullies who above all want to belong to a dominant group. They’re just … contentedly mistaking their own fear and anger for the will of God.

    I’m a Christian, and I have no problem at all with John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”). But where does John 3:16 say that only those who are Christian can get into heaven. Saying that everyone who gets on this bus will be delivered to the airport is not the same thing as saying that no one who isn’t on this bus can get to the airport. Here’s a little something I made about this matter:

  • SquirrelyGirl

    Thank you John, and Thank you God…for bringing John and all those here into my life. It is kind of nice not feeling alone! 🙂

  • But he is not basing his assumption that Hell doesn’t exist on any special knowledge of the afterlife. He’s basing it on what he knows of God. Those are different starting points.

  • Brian W

    The Bible is quite clear, there is a hell however the exact nature of what hell is, is not entirely clear . There are 6 basic Bible based beliefs that most Christians hold to:

    1.) The Literalist – eternal hell fire, literal physical torture and torment for ever and ever

    2.) The Metaphorical view – words such as fire and lake of fire are “earthly” terms to describe what eternal separation from the love of God will be like for all eternity

    3.) Purgatory – Catholic view

    4.) Universalist – all people will make it to heaven, though some will live their hell here on earth and/or purged/cleansed/ temporarily “punished” through the fires of hell at Judgement Day and then be admitted to heaven.

    5.) Conditionalist – God alone grants eternal life and it is a gift of God, those not given God’s gift will one day be destroyed (not tortured forever) at the “second death” found in Revelation, though there is a temporary time of punishment in Gehenna (translated hell in English Bibles) before their final annihilation

    6.) John Shore’s view – we just don’t know for sure what hell is or if it even exists.

  • Good points, Adrian. And Amaranth: you are right; thank you.

    Adrian: What Amaranth said.

  • Melody

    Sigh…I don’t think you get it. I’ll try again. Did it ever occur to you that the Gehenna is a metaphor for one’s spiritual state in THIS life, or what we bring to this world when we’re selfish and unforgiving? I don’t know if there’s a hell in the traditional sense, but there certainly is hell on earth (though not all necessarily brought on by bad choices)–depression, fear, tyranny, starvation, disease, war strife between sexes, races, or classes…the list goes on and on. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven, he was speaking of bringing heaven to earth–right now, in this life. Not just where you go when you die.

  • Melody

    Very well thought out and reasonable, Brian. That’s what so many traditionalists fail to recognize: that there are multiple interpretations, all of which are perfectly valid, and that we really don’t know exactly what happens. I really appreciate your comments here.

  • The “as in a mirror darkly” part is about our limited ability to KNOW certain things, to “see” specific things, have a particular knowledge. It isn’t a qualifier on being the image and likeness of God. It doesn’t mean that we’re just mimicing. You’re taking that entirely out of context.

  • Who says those people aren’t the real christians?

  • Jen Machajewski via Facebook

    The saddest thing to me is the number of young people of faith who contain such a strong sense of empathy. They simply cannot condemn their friends of different faiths and end up feeling they are bad Christians, hell-bound, and weak. They spend the difficult years of adolescence convinced that not only are they physical and emotionally awkward and incomplete, but their faith is also not good enough and the voice of their soul is a liar.

  • Natalie Jones

    Marsh mellows taste like broccoli in CrazyTown. I want OUT!

  • Alan McBride via Facebook

    John Shore … you knocked another one out of the park. You’re at grave risk of becoming a favorite author.

  • Diana A.

    “All I know is that even if Hell doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean we have to throw out our whole belief system or burn the Bible or something extreme…it just meaning we have gotten a little closer to the Truth.” See, this is how I feel. I don’t understand the viewpoint that we either have to believe everything in the Bible as being literally true, exactly as written or that we have to chuck the whole thing. We don’t do that with any other book (or more accurately, collection of books, since the Bible is actually more than one book.)

  • Michael wbl

    and THAT is why sola fide is the worst thing to happen to Christianity since the death of peter.

  • Tom

    To say that anyone is in their final state, whatever it is, after death is to put a time stamp on God’s love. I just don’t buy it.

  • “What God means by the word justice, in other words, is unrelated—in fact seems completely opposite—of what we humans mean by that word. And if that is true, then shouldn’t we straight away empty all of our jails and prisons, and throw away all of our law books? Because isn’t it obvious that we comprehend virtually nothing of the true meaning of right and wrong?”

    Love it!!!

  • Damon Gray via Facebook

    It gets crazier. Many Christian branches believe they are the only ones who are saved. Predestination says there are only a select few capable of being saved, most churches make Baptism a requirement, some it must be as early as possible, others want you to wait until some point where you supposedly can understand Baptism. Catholics believe you must follow particular traditions; Mormons, must be baptized as a Mormon and believe only followers of a self proclaimed prophet can be saved.
    Personally, I could not rest in peace if someone I knew and loved was not accepted to Heaven. No matter what joys were given I would always hurt for anyone that was lost. Therefore, without getting into much deeper theology, anyone who was loved by anyone else would have to go to heaven. Since we are directed to love everyone else, all must go to heaven. Since Heaven is a place with no sin, there is nothing to dislike about another soul.

  • Cara Pinto via Facebook

    good piece. i’ll be interested to see how he follows up. there’s really only one guy that does this topic justice in my opinion and he’s the best: c.s. lewis. i always direct people to his books with regard to these questions. i’m going to follow the posts of john shore and see what he has to offer.

  • My heart has been telling me this for a very long time; you’ve put it into words! Beautiful!!

  • Paula

    I think I’ll print a copy of this out and place it next to my copyof Rob Bell’s “LoveWins.”

    He makes all the same points — more scripture, less humor. For those who need, more scripture, and less humor. Ha!

  • Gail Sider Brandt via Facebook

    If a religion is exclusive in the sense of “I’ve got MINE because I believe in the right things….”, how can you honestly differentiate between self-serving “belief’ and honest reflection on one’s place in relationship with God? w/o the threat of hell, lots of Christians would have to figure out what Jesus was really about. Good post, John…thank you!

  • Lymis

    I’m not sure what your point is with this post, Brian, especially in response to this post of John’s.

    FIrst, possibly pedantically, you certainly misrepresent the Catholic view. Catholics don’t see hell as Purgatory. They see purgatory as an entirely different thing, where people who have achieved salvation but are not yet ready for heaven are purged of their inevitable imperfections. They see hell the way others do – with all the variations you describe, but as essentially permanent and eternal.

    But what’s the point of adding “John Shore’s view” there at the end? Comes across as “who the hell does he think he is to have a separate opinion from all these other groups.”

  • OF COURSE its is about out limited ability to know certain things. AS “being made in his image” we have a greatly limited perspective in a whole plethora of things that God sees, knows and understands quite easily.

    As for the mimicking part, why not? God loves, so can we..but obviously with limits, God creates, us to but with limits, God destroys. Ok we do that one pretty well, but still we can’t get it all and there is just so much we can do in that as well. ‘

    The point still remains. We ain’t God, We can’t do, see, hear, know, comprehend, to near the capacity that God does. We can to a point, and we can mimic the actions given to us by Jesus, but only that. Which is why I LOVE the glass darkly analogy.

  • Lymis

    Adrian, you have a nice tight set of syllogisms going there, but I think you’ve misrepresented what John has said in the past. The biggest issue is that you take things that John has said are not clear and simple, or as in this essay, clearly stated “We. Don’t. Know.” and used them as bold assertions for the express purpose of essentially disproving something he didn’t say in the first place. It’s particularly flawed to base your logic on 1A, since John went out of his way to say that in all this reasoning of hell, the “justice of God” that people speak of must mean something very different than human justice.

    John can speak for himself, but I’d express your points as being more accurately stated as:


    1. We as humans cannot have a complete understanding of all that is God; there will always be aspects of the interrelationship of God and God’s universe that we cannot experience or completely understand, and attempting to define God and God’s motivations in purely human terms will always be incomplete and shallow at best. At the same time, it’s not unreasonable to consider the highest, noblest and best of human standards as a minimum for God – it makes no sense to feel that humans are more loving, more just, more forgiving, more empathetic than God is. However God runs things, conscious and deliberate injustice is not going to be a part of it, or we have such a wrong picture of God that any further discussion is pointless.

    2. Hell, in the simplistic and basic form that most people who claim to believe in it, and as they claim to know that it “must” work, has at it’s core, some inescapable injustices that cannot be ignored by anyone who takes these questions seriously.

    3. Therefore, our understanding of God, both from our theology and traditions, and from our own lived experience, is incompatible with this common and simplistic version of hell as punishment for earthly sin, because hell as commonly understood is incompatible with what must be a minimum concept of God’s justice, and is nearly completely at odds with concepts of God’s love.


    1. Either God exists according to our limited understanding and experience of God and God’s universe or Hell exists according to our simplistic concept of hell that is neither supported nor refuted by any experience any human has ever had, or Something Else Is Going On That We Don’t Understand Completely.

    2. God exists. This is assumed from our interpretation of our direct personal and communal experiences of the world, and our shared understanding of some of our deepest realities. We recognize, however, that this understanding is necessarily and inherently incomplete. If God exists, There Is More Going On Than We Can Know.

    3. Therefore, either hell doesn’t exist or we don’t understand enough to make that determination.

    We. Don’t. Know.

  • Lymis

    Ummm. Using all caps doesn’t make something MORE TRUE.

    You can shout “Jesus is speaking here” all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that at best what you have is the translation of a translation of something someone wrote years to decades after Jesus’s death that some people said that the people who were there heard Jesus say.

    You can certainly use it to make a case that the people who wrote the gospels understood Jesus to be speaking of something that we, after two millennia of people massaging the concept, came down to us as the idea of hell.

    But even these quotes, taken literally, don’t say a darn thing about it being a permanent, eternal experience, just that it’s clearly pretty unpleasant. At this point, it’s nearly completely impossible for us to separate the ideas that got tacked onto it from what Jesus may have meant. And we also know that Jesus tailored his words to the understanding of those around him, and that he did use an awful lot of metaphors while doing so (You don’t think heaven is literally in a mustard tree, do you?)

  • Lymis

    “Remind me, who is a good person?”

    Uh, see the Good Samaritan story for a clue, and take a side trip to Sheep and Goats. See also “For love is of God, and anyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

  • Lymis

    For me, it all fits into the “We don’t know” category. All we can actually draw from them, even if all the stories were absolutely consistent, is that it’s something that happens to some people who die (as we currently understand death) and come back. We have know way of knowing if that experience is the same for the people who don’t come back, whether everyone experiences the same thing, or whether the memories retained in a human brain can accurately reflect Whatever Comes Next.

    The people I’ve met who have had something of that experience have certainly found it to be deeply profound.

  • DR

    You’ve got to love the healthy doses of sarcasm and hostility from Christians like Adrien as he’s trying to make sure you have the “real” version of Christianity.

  • Melody & Lymis, thanks for your responses…I’m basically in agreement with both of you. I’m extraordinarily dubious of such claims (especially claims like Wiese’s), but I can’t rule out their testimony completely. So while “we don’t know” is still generally true, it seems that there is at least the possibility that some individuals DO KNOW, despite my theological and intellectual reservations regarding their claimed experiences.

  • Lymis

    I won’t dispute that.

    One thing I can say is that, without exception, the people I have met in my life who most clearly and most unquestionably reflect the love of God and a deep personal relationship to God are far more focused on treating their neighbors with love and compassion than with scoring points to cash in for a condo in the nice part of heaven.

    On the rare occasions they feel compelled to talk about their own beliefs on the matter, it’s clear that they feel that they have such a firm trust in the nature of their relationship with Someone that it isn’t something they feel the need to worry about, beyond feeling it important that they don’t let that Someone down. That whatever comes next, it will be okay.

  • DR

    I’m in the same place, I actually do believe something akin to “hell” does exist. But I don’t know for sure and it doesn’t factor into my decisions too much.

  • Near-death experiences are as old as the human race. Their universal commonalities are remarkable: a sense of peace at the time of death; a sense of separation from the body; the sense of entering into darkness; seeing a bright light; a sense of entering the light. They tend to radically differ right where you’d expect them to: along cultural and religious lines. Buddhists see Buddhist stuff; Muslims see Allah or Mohammed; Christians see Christ, etc. It’s clear that what you bring with you going in highly influences what you see or experience once you get there. So the more a person’s near-death or “afterlife” experience mirrors (let alone is aggressively marketed to the adherents of) one particular religion, the less interesting I find it.

  • You hit the nail on the head. I am no longer a Mormon, but the reason I joined the Church many years ago was because of this very issue.

    Mormons are the only Christians who address that issue directly. Since baptism is a PHYSICAL sacrament, they do their own Genealogy, back four generations at least, and go to the Temple to do baptism-by-proxy for their deceased family members. Those family members, who may have learned a few things in the Spirit world, and might wish they were baptised, but who no longer have a physical body to be baptised, then have the option of accepting OR rejecting that baptism-by-proxy. The idea is that since there are less and less people the further back in time you go, eventually every person who ever lived on earth will have had the option to be baptised that they were unable or unwilling to have in their physical lives.

    Note – this baptism-by-proxy is TOTALLY up to the deceased person to accept OR reject. It forces nothing upon them.

  • Melissa Blatz via Facebook

    Beautiful response to Squirrlygirl. BEAUTIFUL!

  • I absolutely love it! It summarizes my 15 years of repressed, excruciating frustration with the convoluted nature of hell for those who are “nonbelievers.” What is belief? Why would God care so much more about the purity of our belief, without a lack of realistic doubt? How could anyone send someone without all the answers to hell? No one has all the answers.

    Its tragic that I was never allowed to ask questions, and that state of silence was hell itself. The hell doctrine has hurt me so much that I literally left the church to escape the endless nightmares posed by the punitive idea of God. I couldn’t live a religious life that was devoid of love and even peace. My mind was fraught with endless dread over the unconscionable notion that a vast majority of complex human beings are consigned to hell without any repeal.

    It drove me away from Christianity.This evil, abusive doctrine is even used at funerals. Some Christians might see the death of loved ones as an advantageous moment to remind the living relatives that they’re not believing enough. Implicitly, I was told if I doubted too much, I would be defaming my aunt’s legacy. The idea of hell and doubtless belief is so cemented in many corners of Christianity that I’ve never talked about this pain with anyone, but it has bothered me ever since. It is no wonder I fear going into churches now, frightened to death of having the image of a punitive God reinforced. Now, I am left wandering between the worlds of agnosticm/an inkling of belief in a truly transcendent/paradoxical God. No, I don’t really know what I “believe,” maybe, the problem with current religion is that its much too obsessed with belief, rather than ethics.

  • Justin Boyer via Facebook

    I think the root of all dissatisfaction with Christianity derives itself from the unquestionable stance that sadly many Christians take with this issue. I’ve been reading a lot of Karen Armstrong, and I think the main problem with this scheme of hell is also related to the obsession with the wrong idea of “belief.” Instead of compassionate, modern day Christianity has veered away from that and focused strongly on a faith that really just insures eternal life. It reflects our culture of finding “gratification” and earning the American dream without any shred of realistic psychological or physical hardship. Its Christianity designed for just getting into the eternal resort, and ignoring everyone else. If anything, this is just a very disturbing portrayal of the way that many members of the wealthy have always wanted to live. Who cares about people we kill in war or starvation, as long as “I’m” satisfied on Earth or in heaven, who cares about others burning and screaming eternally in hell?

  • DR


  • DR

    That is a fantastic perspective.

  • Diana A.

    Yes! This is how I’ve always felt!

  • Diana A.

    Perfect! Thank you Lymis!

  • Brian W


    My point was that within Christianity there is not just the strict literalist view of eternal consciense torture as the only belief of what hell is. There are other perfectly acceptible beliefs.

    As for purgatory, it is related to the doctrine of hell within Catholic doctrine, though they too believe in an eternal never ending torture and physical torment. They are generally the only Christians that believe in a “purgatory”

    As to the John Shore comment, it wasn’t meant at all as you say, if it came across that way, sorry it wasn’t meant as a jab in the manner you suggested. Perhaps I should have said, “John Shore’s view as posted here”. I say that not as a “who the heck does he think he is” but honestly he’s the only Chsritian that I know that believes you can’t know what hell really is. He’s the first one I have ever heard or read that from, though I’m sure there are more that believe exactly as he does and that’s ok.

    I believe the Bible does give us enough information about the nature of hell that it is NOT a place that people gather around sing koom-bye-ya and party. It is a place we should want to stay as far away from as possible, no matter what your belief is.

  • Christina Johnson


  • John, believe God’s purpose for you here on earth is to be the proverbial pea under the mattress. You make a very specific group of people very uncomfortable, but their discomfort serves a great purpose when it causes them to apply a more critical level of thought to the belief system they cling to. The hoped for result is that those people can have a deeper and more loving relationship with God and deeper, more loving and more compassionate relationships with other people.

    I know you probably get tired of me saying “Another fantastic post, Mr. Shore,” but that’s too bad. Its your own damned fault as you keep writing them.

  • TheMovieSlut

    Could you please explain a bit more about how the deceased opt in or out of this?

  • Allie

    Well, when the Jewish or Catholic or atheist ancestors stop spinning in their graves, they scream “NO! Leave me alone, I didn’t want anything to do with you while I was alive and it’s extremely rude to presume I changed my mind after I died,” on some purely metaphysical level, invisible to those of us still living.

  • Allie

    Damon, my in-laws used to belong to an independent Baptist church which believed that you could not be saved unless you were a member of their exact congregation, in their exact building, which was all of about 50 people total. The other 7 billion and all their ancestors were all screwed, with the exception of Jesus who got in on a technicality.

  • Because you doesn’t haz to be a Christian to be a good people…?

  • Eventually every person who ever lived on earth? Do you need a Mormon descendent? How many Mormons are there again…? Do you have to be able to trace back the geneology? How many generations have their been on earth…?

  • DR

    Brian, Purgatory is not related to hell. Purgatory is a specific place for those who will enter heaven. It’s not connected to hell.

  • Brian W


    I stand corrected, though Purgatory is not a “heavenly” place since it is a place one is “purged” of thier imperfections, presumably this is not a fun process. I suppose I added the “Purgatorial” view of hell in my list because of a book on my shelf that compares / contrasts and critiques the different views of hell and one of the views – written by a Catholic priest – was the Purgatorial view.

  • Granted they are different starting points, but if the conclusions are identical, I don’t see the relevance of starting points. 🙂 but I suppose its getting a bit off topic now, so…yeah.

  • Michelle M

    Thanks for sharing your story, Karen. I have been obsessed with Near Death Experience stories of late, and they have changed my view of the afterlife. They are also very comforting, in a strange way.

  • Robert

    You’re in good company, with plenty of other American heretics. Take this guy:

    The story about him on This American Life, “Heretics” is one of the best pieces of radio journalism ever.

  • It also puts a time stamp on free will. The notion of a final judgment wherein everyone will either be eternally united with God or eternally separated from him never made sense to me.

    If someone were to spend some time in Hell and then sincerely change their mind about God, if that Final Judgment has passed, is God really gonna say, “Nope, sorry, too late?” That would mean after a certain point, choosing God is no longer an option, and then there goes any meaningful notion of free will. And isn’t that rather a key ingredient of a truly loving relationship?

  • Lymis

    Well, on the one hand, I find the whole Baptism by proxy thing exceedingly odd. On the other hand, it’s not all that different a logic than used by the people who support infant baptism – that proxies can stand before God and make a spiritual commitment about someone else. Both ceremonies affirm that is isn’t the body that’s the important part of a person.

    I do firmly believe that the choice to accept or reject salvation (whatever that looks like and in whatever form it takes) is not limited to this lifetime, and that if such a choice is actually involved, people who have passed on have the ability to make it.

    I also believe that it isn’t pointless or absurd to pray for the dead, and if asking God to take care of our dear departed isn’t silly, then holding prayerful ceremonies for them isn’t silly either. And it sounds as though, properly understood, nobody is claiming that this forces anything on God or the deceased.

    Not my tradition, but I don’t see a problem with it.

  • Lymis

    I’ll agree it has a great deal to do with the Catholic view of the afterlife. And since I don’t particularly agree with the Catholic view of hell, I won’t go to any length to defend it, but I think DR has their view accurately.

  • Again..Fantastic! :)…You never cease to amaze and enlighten! Thank you!

  • n.

    i have obviously forgotten what i learned in church history, in a semi-calvinist college… basically, there was a time when christians didn’t pretend to know much about the afterlife??

  • n.

    thank you for that link.

  • n.

    where do you find the idea #5 in its natural state? i mean what church uses that one? it doesn’t sound nearly as familiar as the others.

  • n.

    (i think L Cohen is part catholic, in at least a literary/aesthetic sense. which for a buddhist is totally ok, if i understand correctly. i think they have the thing like the “all truth is God’s truth” for christians, except i’m not sure buddhists even bothered to make a phrase for it, because it just makes sense.)

    not meaning to contradict, just adding.

  • n.

    because it’s possible to know what God is like? i would think that’s kind of important.

  • 551912

    some verses dealing with hell from the only authoritative source, the Bible.

  • Edward Woelke

    I can think of lots of questions to which the answer is “Nobody knows.” How did the universe come into being? is a biggie…

  • PoweredByCoffee

    There are lots of wonderful people in my life who do not identify as Christian, and yet they’re good people. Heck, in some ways, they’re more Christian than some Christians I know…myself included! They give generously, they practice kindness, they sacrifice short-term pleasure for something better in the long run. I don’t believe for a minute that any of these awesometastic people in my life will be condemned to burn and rot in Hell. A loving, understanding, compassionate God would not do that to someone. And if I’m wrong on that count? Then I’d rather go to Hell with them than go to Heaven all by myself.