Letting Go of Hell in Christianity

Letting Go of Hell in Christianity March 5, 2019
Image by quinntheislander on Pixabay

Life is better without hell. It is.

I used to live devoted to keeping hell alive and well in my spiritual paradigm.

I mean, how can we live without hell? Take away hell, and the entire universe would implode.

Removing hell would have cataclysmic metaphysical reverberations. It would rip all scientific progress in string theory to shreds.

Similarly, certain church teachings and religious norms suggest that believing in hell keeps us on the straight and narrow path of saintly living. Hell, supposedly, draws us in and keeps us devoted to a loving God.

On the contrary, I grew to understand that believing in hell imprisons the soul.

For at least a few years now, I have let go of my hellish ways. That is, I no longer believe in hell. Last week, during days 238-244 of my year of quitting my Biblical studies, I experienced much freedom in living a hell-less lifestyle.

In this post, I discuss religious hell power, why believing in hell is unnecessary to follow God or Jesus Christ, and letting go of hell in my beliefs.

Religious Hell Power

Religious institutions and their corresponding cultural communities can have a profound influence over masses. God or spirituality, in some form or fashion, occupies a place of importance to most of the entire world.

With 84% of the world’s population identifying with a religious group, more people are turning to religion. Hell and the afterlife, depending on one’s religion affiliation, then, can emerge as a critical issue in our beliefs.

A mass desire to follow God, live devout, escape life’s troubles, or maintain unequal societal power relations helps to create a communal spiritual vacuum. This void can give way for controlling and fear-driven religious cultures to fill it.

When it comes to matters of the body, soul, and spirit, numbers of us want to “get it right.” As a result, we can learn, teach, lead and serve in the church with little to no critical inquiry about our belief systems or institutional structures.

With organizational dynamics that incentives blind followers, indoctrinating people about hell and playing into our fears reinforce allegiance and acceptance within a religious community. Arguably, it does little for our spiritual growth or personal evolution.

Hell: So Unnecessary

Hell is so unnecessary.

It is so 404 CE.

We do not need hell to live or thrive. We do not need hell to live godly.

We do not need hell to love. It is unnecessary for a peaceful and just world.

We do not need hell to follow the path of Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, we need hell to control.

We need hell to keep seats filled in the church. We need hell to scare people into doing what we want them to do.

We need hell to fill deez offering plates. We need hell to use people’s spiritual yearnings for self-serving purposes.

We need hell because it satiates our repressed lust for revenge. We need hell because it feels safe to believe what we are told.

Otherwise, hell is so unnecessary.

I’m preaching mighty good right now. It’s awfully quiet in this church.

Throughout time, people have been able to do good, live in generosity, and follow love without a need for hell in their framework for living.

Hell is something we created and continue to energize. If you believe that you are going to hell for some misdeed, then you will. Go for it.

There is more to this world and universe than what we find in the Bible. Venturing beyond these pages and besides books about the Bible, might seem like frightening territory.

The Bible is a human sacred text filled with allegory and descriptions of phenomena according to the cultural lens of the writers. You get to decide if interpreting the locusts resembling horses in Revelation as a contemporary helicopter armed with weapons during apocalyptic calamity makes sense.

You get to decide if your eschatological views involve literally waiting to see a woman sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns, intoxicated from the blood of dead Christians.

Furthermore, you get to determine if God sends people to hell, then later retrieves them in order to send them to Megahell-hell-hell (said with an echo), commonly known as the lake of fire. I liken it to Divine overkill.

You have freedom.

If you think you need a concept like hell to live godly or spiritually, then the larger issue resides in what is truly happening in your soul and spirit.

If you think you need fear or coercion to do good in the world or to grow, what is really at the core of your spiritual and personal development?

Letting Go of Hell

I am not in agreement with hellish theology. I let it go. Sending me to a place I do not believe in, for whatever reason that falls in someone’s religious crosshairs, has no power over me.

If I shared the belief, then someone could possibly sway or manipulate me using the construct of hell. That is, I have to share this belief in hell in order for threats of an abysmal fiery grave to impact me.

Before I revised my beliefs about hell, I had already sent myself to hell countless times. I sent myself to hell for wanting to let go of hell.

I sat with my judgment of others and self. I allowed myself to wade through the muck of fear.

I faced “what if’s:” What if I am wrong and God sends me to hell?

I revisited rationalizations: If Jesus referred to it, then it must be real. What about the lake of fire?

I re-evaluated the spiritual insurance approach: I need to believe in hell because it is better safe than sorry.

When I stopped believing in hell, I experienced substantial stress reduction.

My joy, peace, love, generosity, and sense of justice grew. My perception of people and the universe expanded.

Like a fog lifting, my eyes opened wider to a world God so loved. I explored more into the behaviors housed under my beliefs of good and evil.

My peace in the unknown and mystery charted more paths. By releasing the desire to be perfect in my faith, I uncovered another layer of surrender to God.

As a result, my curiosity stemmed from a loving longing—a richer, more purified hunger and thirst after righteousness.

Hell became one less thing to weigh a sista down. You hur me?

Taking Hell Off the Table

When we take hell off the table, more questions might surface, like:

  • What happens to people who do evil in the world?
  • What is the point of following Jesus?
  • What about the devil?
  • What happens when we die?
  • Most importantly, when I am having “one of those days,” where will I send people, who get on last my nerves, in my imagination?

I think the more dogmatic we are, the less comfortable can feel about the mysteries of the universe. I know from firsthand experience.

Taking hell off the table challenges us to explore beyond the Bible and the church. It pushes us beyond the dogma.

And this effort takes more exploration and a comfort with tension from unresolved inquiry. It can either get us feeling excited about the great unknown or even feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.

If we have a growth mindset instead of fixed mindset, we can find joy in the journey of discovery.  Instead of fixating on getting God right according to a passage of scripture, we can increase our capacity for new and expanded ways of thinking, seeing, feeling, and being.

Altar Call: Invitation Out of Hell

If you are committed to having hell as part of your spiritual paradigm, I do not judge you.

How can I?

*cue the organ music and choir in the background*

I have held onto this belief for years and battled with letting it go. I have felt hell’s scorching grip on my heart, mind, and soul.

Maybe, you have been pondering about letting go of hell and have been scared to take the first step.

You might be tired of your hellish ways. I am here to let you know there is rest for your weary soul.

The doors of the church are open.

I invite you to take hell off the table to live and explore. I invite you to try it for a day- or even a week.

If you are really bold, go for a month. I am not telling you to give up on hell. I am asking you to try God without it.

I invite you to use your imagination to live without hell in your framework.

For a day or even a week, I encourage you to notice what shows up about yourself and others.

What emotions do you experience? What is easy, difficult, or surprising? What questions emerge?

Allow yourself to be a child by wondering, searching, and discovering.

I invite you to go outside your theology and play.

You can still have Jesus in your heart while you are at it.

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  • soter phile

    No one in the Bible talks about Hell more than Jesus. No one.
    And – for Christians – no one is more loving than Jesus. No one.

    If one is not a Christian, it begs: what am I missing here? Is this just divine schadenfreude – or something more?
    If one is a Christian, how can I call ‘unnecessary’ something Jesus taught so pervasively?

  • Connie OI

    Yes amen!

    I read an article a few years ago on Patheos about hell as we “understand” it being a product of the 19th century. And I felt free. Free to love a merciful God rather than a puntitve one.

    I glad you let go of hell, too, Dr K.

  • @RaceandGrace

    Wonderful questions! I have believed in an after-life hell for most of my life. As indicated in the post, my biases have skewed toward the eternal damnation, so it took exploration and experiences to arrive at my perspective. When I first heard about universalism, for example, I thought it was blasphemous crazy-talk.

    So, did Jesus talk about hell?

    The word “hell” is not mentioned in the Bible.

    I invite individuals who are interested, to explore about the different perspectives on the after-life.

    What version of the Bible are you using? How was this translation constructed over time? How did social, cultural, and political influences affect the translation?

    In what ways did early church theological disputes influence the translation of Bible?

    Consider there are thousands of variants, arguably in the hundreds of thousands.

    What about context of the narrative? Who were the writers speaking to and when?

    This chart identifies the number of times hell is mentioned in various Bible translations.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/08793508eafd8f3e82d60a0b3215a85bd22025e383359a7db974606579164d55.png

    * The KJV and the NKJV are the only two translations in the list above to use “hell” in the Old Testament. Even the NKJV, which was only supposed to modernize the English words of the traditional “Authorized Version,” took many “hell” references out. The use of the word “hell” is decreasing. The NKJV, RSV, ASV, NRSV, and NASB are all technically revisions of the original KJV. From 54 times to 32 and then to 12 or 13 times–who knows–maybe the next revision will bring it in line with the many Bibles which have eliminated the pagan word Hell all together.

    ** A note about the Parallel Interlinears. I am referring to the word-for-word translations beneath the Greek in these works, NOT the English versions which are also in these reference works. Obviously, the versions in these books (NIV, NASB, and KJV) contain the word “hell” as many times as they normally would. Chart and notes from: http://www.ecclesia.org/truth/hell.html

    As we can see, the NASB and NIV, you have “hell” mentioned 13 and 14 times.

    This finding offers up the debate about which translation is most accurate. Furthermore, it presents an opportunity to grow our understanding about the accidental and incidental changes in the construction of the Bible (particularly the theological biases) from up to 500,000 possible variants.

    How did we get to hell?

    Early Church

    Contrary to ways many are taught about hell, the early Christian church was not in agreement about hell or eternal punishment in hell in the afterlife.

    When reviewing early church writings, such as those from Ireneus of Lyons, Origen, St. Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Clement and St. Augustine, we find there was not a consensus about these constructs.

    However, the widely used hell-bound Bible was heavily influenced by the early church leaders, like Augustine, who not only promoted doctrine of hell, but also championed the persecution of Christians who disagreed with the those in power. Talk about Bible bias.

    Brad Jersak adds,

    “In modern street-English, we use ‘hell’ as a catchall term to describe the bad place (usually red hot) where sinful people are condemned to punishment and torment after they die. This simplistic, selective, and horrifying perception of hell is due in large part to nearly 400 years of the King James Version’s monopoly in English-speaking congregations (not to mention centuries of imaginative religious art). Rather than acknowledge the variety of terms, images, and concepts that the Bible uses for divine judgment, the KJV translators opted to combine them all under the single term “hell.” In truth, the array of biblical pictures and meanings that this one is expected to convey is so vast that they appear contradictory” (See Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem).

    Pagan Influences

    Hell is not mentioned in the Bible because it is a modern English word, derived from a range of sociolinguistic and sociocultural influences. “The modern English word ‘hell’ is derived from the Old English hel/helle (originated about AD 725 to refer to a netherworld of the dead) reading into the Anglo-Saxon pagan period, and ultimately from Proto-Germanic halja, meaning ‘one who covers up or hides something.’ The word has cognates in related Germanic languages such as

    Old Frisian helle, hille;

    Old Saxon hellja;

    Middle Dutch helle (modern Dutch hel);

    Old High German helle (Modern German Hölle);

    and

    Gothic halja.

    Subsequently, the word was used to transfer a pagan concept to Christian theology and its vocabulary. The English word ‘hell’ has been theorized as being derived from Old Norse Hel…” (R. Barnhart, Concise Dictionary of Etymology, p. 348)

    We can explore pagan beliefs to better understand the hell we commonly known in Christianity.

    “The English word may be in part from Old Norse mythological Hel (from Proto-Germanic *halija “one who covers up or hides something”), in Norse mythology the name of Loki’s daughter who rules over the evil dead in Niflheim, the lowest of all worlds (nifl “mist”). A pagan concept and word fitted to a Christian idiom. In Middle English, also of the Limbus Patrum, place where the Patriarchs, Prophets, etc. awaited the Atonement.” https://www.etymonline.com/word/hell

    If I am hell-bent on having hell in the Bible, any time I see Sheol, hades, or Gehenna, I can make the Augustinian leap and call all of these terms “hell.”

    Doing so strips away contextualizing the message and prevents clearer understanding about any metaphors and allegories within the text.

    Again, the word “hell” is not mentioned in the Bible.

    Below, let’s briefly review the dominant terms used in the Bible, Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades to consider how they became synonymous with “hell.”

    1. Sheol & Hades

    Sheol: hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranean retreat), inc. its accessories and inmates: grave, pit, unseen.

    Hades: hades, or the place (state) of departed souls—grave, pit, unseen (Also, see: Sheol)

    New World Encyclopedia:

    “The rabbinic tradition draws a distinction between Sheol and Gehenna or “Gehinnom.” Originally, Judaism described life after death as a bleak underworld named Sheol, which was known as the common pit or grave of humanity. However, with the influence of Persian thought and the passing of time, the notion of ‘hell’ crept into Jewish tradition and became associated with the biblical word Gehinnon or Gei Hinnon, the valley of Hinnom (Joshua 15:8, 18:16; II Kings 23:1; Jeremiah 7:31; Nehemiah 11:30). This view of hell was allegedly imported into Judaism from Zoroastrianism, and it appears to have supplanted the earlier concept of Sheol (mentioned in Isaiah 38:18, Psalms 6:5 and Job 7:7-10).

    Jews who embraced this view of hell included the group known as the Pharisees. The larger, dogmatically conservative Sadducees maintained their belief in Sheol.

    While it was the Sadducees that represented the Jewish religious majority, it was the Pharisees who best weathered the Roman occupation, and their belief in Zoroaster’s heaven and hell was passed on to both Christianity and Islam.

    In subsequent centuries, rabbinic literature expounded on Gehenna as a place (or state) where the wicked are temporarily punished after death. The godly, meanwhile, await Judgment Day in the bosom of Abraham. “Gehenna” is sometimes translated as “hell,” but the Christian view of hell differs from the Jewish view of Gehenna.”

    2. Gehenna

    Geena; valley of the son of Hinnom; Gehenna (or Ge Hinnom, Walley of Hinnom Jerusalem used (figuratively) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment.

    This was a valley local that he was referring to the people at the time. Jesus referenced the use of the valley and its disturbing past.

    According to Pixner in Biblical Archaeological Review May/June 1997, archaeologists believe this area was used as a sewer at the time of Christ.

    “But let’s return to the lowest level of the gate, which we have identified as the Gate of the Essenes. So far as we have been able to discover, this was the earliest gate in the wall at this point. To construct the gate, builders made a breach in the existing wall. Then they dug a sewage channel (discovered by Bliss) that ran along a street leading from the interior of the city and emptied into the Hinnom Valley, south of Mount Zion. Limestone slabs of fine workmanship cover the channel as it passes beneath the gateway. When the doyen of Israeli archaeologists, the late Benjamin Mazar, visited us, he remarked that only the workmen of Herod the Great were likely to have achieved such stonecutting perfection.”

    Jesus referred to particular place to convey a message to a particular audience at a particular time. Jesus was being particular. By the time of Christ and the New Testament, most contemporary scholars recognize that the Valley of Gehenna became “a garbage dump outside the city gates of Jerusalem, where fires were always burning to consume trash and dead bodies; where worms and maggots roamed freely throughout the refuse. Lepers and criminals were sent to live there in shame, away from the rest of society” (See: Ferwerda’s Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire).

    Likening one’s state or behavior to that of the sewer or of twisted past does not prove a literal after-life hell.

    Hell is now. Hell is what you make it.

    It is the sewage we invite in and swim in when we err or when we do things that do not lend to goodness, peace, joy, kindness, etc. When we err, we open the door for hell to reside in our lives.

    There is much to examine about the cultural, social, political, and even economic influences that informed the Bible translations, especially the word, “hell,” the meaning of passages, and a range of terms and narratives throughout the Bible that seems to confirm eternal damnation. Again, I encourage individuals to go play :).

  • @RaceandGrace

    There are amazing writers at Patheos, who challenge my perspective, and, like you experienced, write something that guides my freedom. The interwebs has goodness, doesn’t it? Thank you for your comment, Connie OI. I am happy to let go of hell, too!

  • Andrew

    Ownership. Someone else introduced the concept of hell to you, thus it was never part of one’s own existence… in the beginning.

  • @RaceandGrace

    –Ownership and, perhaps, a form of remembering who we truly are.

  • Andrew

    You are not a we. 🙂

  • soter phile

    I can read the Greek. Claims of later interpolations or cultural conditioning are utterly unfounded.
    Society didn’t add this concept – it’s all over the NT, especially the Gospels.

    You’ve also ignored all of Jesus’ incessant descriptions in the parables:
    (darkness, weeping & gnashing of teeth, outside the feast, etc.).
    He directly called it everlasting punishment in Mt.25.
    It’s the whole point of his incessant call out of the slavery of sin, crossing over from death to life.

    And then the most poignant example: the cry of dereliction – abandonment.
    That is what we deserve, but have not experienced fully yet.
    God made him who knew no sin to be sin, that we might become the righteousness of Christ.
    (2 Cor.5:21)

    You might choose to ignore the Scriptures, you might mock the authors as culturally conditioned (an ethnocentric claim, BTW), but it simply lacks scholarly integrity to claim this is not the authorial intent. Even historical-critical NT scholars who dismiss hell as a concept usually still acknowledge that the authors of the NT intend to describe Hell as an objective & future reality for unrepentant humanity.

    That’s far from “Hell is now… [or] what you make it.”

    At best, I can grant you what CS Lewis said:
    Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only 70 years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse—so gradually that the increase in 70 years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be.

  • ashpenaz

    Jesus talks about sending people to Gehenna and the Lake of Fire–and I believe that. Why does that punishment have to last forever? It seems that those places are for purification and remedial punishment. Isn’t it enough that people such as Hitler or Pol Pot burn in the Lake of Fire for maybe millions of years until they are cleansed of their sins and even their desire to sin? I would be happy to let Hitler through the gates of the New Jerusalem after he (and I) have been thoroughly cleansed. I don’t see what God gains by punishing Hitler, or anyone, with eternal conscious torment. In the Old Testament, God uses his infinite wrath to bring sinful Israel back to Him–His wrath leads to restoration, not everlasting punishment. Yes, Jesus says more about “Hell,” (again, not Hell, but Gehenna and the Lake of Fire) than anyone else, but all of His words are images of purification, and then “The Spirit and Bride say ‘Come’.”

  • bWeBaptist

    My new book “Beyond the Grave: A Christian Dilemma” begins with “I’ve fired the devil.”