Let’s talk about Hell.
During recent centuries, most Christian denominations, faith groups, and most Muslim traditions have taught the belief in the existence of a Hell where some — perhaps most — people are sent after death for eternal punishment.
Christians differ about who will be selected to be sent to Hell. Some teach that people are judged by God according to their deeds while on earth while others teach that God’s judgment is based on their beliefs about Jesus at the time that they died.
This belief raises an immediate concern over those individuals who have never heard of Jesus or of the other teachings of Christianity.
How are they to be judged? Would lack of knowledge be a defence?
Hell is generally perceived as a place of eternal punishment. That is, people who are sent there have no hope that they will ever be released or that the pain inflicted on them there will ever end.
However, some Christians feel that torturing people in Hell is incompatible with a loving God.
Others believe that an infinitely long punishment for a person’s behaviors and/or beliefs while on Earth for a relatively short time makes no sense. It would be fundamentally unjust, and thus would never have been implemented by God.
Finally, many feel that freedom of belief is a fundamental concept in democracy, and that the punishing a person for their sincere beliefs is also unjust, even if they are wrong.
Many Christian theologians and clergy are now de-emphasizing the violence in Hell. They now stress that Hell is merely a place where one is isolated from God.
About alternative teachings in the Bible and during the first centuries of Christianity:
There is evidence that Christians in the early Church interpreted the Bible passages about Hell differently. They taught:
Universalism or Universal Salvation: a temporary Hell in which some people after death will be punished for a while, and then released, or
Annihilation: That people who do not attain Heaven are not sent to Hell. Instead are destroyed. Both their body and soul are wiped out, leaving nothing of the person remaining.
Some Bible passages that point to an alternative concept of Hell
The following verses appear to teach total annihilation. That is, no portion of a person will exist in any form. All that will be left will be memories of the individual and good, bad, and neutral impacts that they have had on others while they were alive on Earth:
“And fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
1 Corinthians 3:17:
“If any man defiles the temple of God, him shall God destroy ….”
2 Peter 2:2 refers to heretics who:
“… bring upon themselves swift destruction.”
Revelation 20:13-14 refers to persons who were judged:
“…according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”
Of course, there are many passages in English translations of the Bible that talk very plainly about endless punishment in Hell. Ken R. Vincent, writing for the Christian Universalist Association, said that these passages involve mistranslations into English. In the original Greek, the verses use the word “aion” and “ailonion.” Vincent wrote that they mean:
“… an indefinite interval of time, usually of long duration. When it was translated into Latin Vulgate, ‘aion ‘became ‘aeternam’ which means ‘eternal.’ These translation errors were the basis for much of what was written about Eternal Hell.”
He commented that:
- Tertullian (circa 160 – circa 220 CE), who is often called the Father of the Latin Church, was the first to write about an endless punishment in Hell.
- St. Augustine (354-430 CE), the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, who had little knowledge of Greek, was “… the main person responsible for making Hell eternal in the Western Church.” St. Augustine wrote that everyone who was not a Christian during their life on Earth — even babies who died before baptism — would be sent to Hell for eternal punishment.
Resolution of the conflict:
The concept of endless punishment in Hell raises many problems, particularly if people are sent there based on their beliefs about Jesus, during their lifetime on earth. Some people have never been exposed to the Bible, Christianity, or teaching about Jesus. Consequently, they would never have had the opportunity to trust in Jesus as their “Lord and Savior” before their death.
Others die at a young age before they reached the age of accountability.
As mentioned above, a punishment of infinite duration for wrong beliefs or activities of a finite duration appears to many persons to be unjust.
One could attempt to resolve the matter by assessing the will of God through prayer. However, a pilot study by the religioustolerance.org web site seems to indicate that prayers to God generally result in the confirmation of one’s original beliefs. There may be no obvious resolution to the conflict.
Vincent K R. 2006. The Christian Universalist Association. The Salvation Conspiracy: How Hell Became Eternal.
The views presented on this blog are an extension of those presented on the Religious Tolerance website. The purpose of all articles is to compare the full range of beliefs and actions by people who are members of various faith groups within Christianity and other world religions, individuals who are NOT Affiliated with a faith group (NOTAs), and secularists.