I have recently received an email warning me of eternal damnation in hell. It comes with a link to a video full of graphic descriptions of what is in store.
Revelation 21 v 8 says: ‘All liars will have their part in the lake of fire”. The bible says: ‘No thief, adulterer or blasphemer will enter heaven’. You broke God’s laws and deserve eternal punishment...
And so on. Full text at the bottom. The video is here. It’s a bit more than four minutes long, but you get the idea quite quickly. The author, quite clearly, takes eternal damnation very seriously indeed.
A brief history of hell
Early Christianity inherited two theories. One was the age-old and widespread idea, rather a vague one, that after death we live on somehow, probably in a murky, boring way: Greek Hades, Hebrew Sheol. When King Saul raises the dead Samuel from it by means of a medium, Samuel complains about being disturbed. The other was the Zorastrian one, where after death everyone is judged according to whether they lived a good life. Bad ones will be punished for a limited time in a temporary place. Scholars don’t find much evidence for direct influence (just one relevant text in the Dead Sea Scrolls) but this is the direction in which Christianity moved. The New Testament refers to Hades, but also Gehenna which is literally the rubbish dump just outside Jerusalem. Rubbish would burn there; hence the references to fire.
Early Christians often got quite hostile to their opponents – persecution didn’t help calm their nerves – so Hades, Gehenna and the Zoroastrian place of punishment gradually merged into an eternal place of punishment for people who didn’t accept Christ. Throughout the Middle Ages western Europeans assigned Jews, Turks and heretics to it. They thought that everyone who wasn’t a Christian had deliberately repudiated Christ. Australia was yet to be discovered.
Hell was a greater worry from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Opposition to the papacy was increasing. With the rise of the Lollards and the wars against heretics one might wonder whether one’s Christianity was all that secure as an entrance ticket to heaven. The Black Death accentuated the matter: pretty well any fit and healthy person could be dead within a week. Brueghel and Bosch painted pictures of what hell would be like.
Then came the Reformation. Whether you were a Catholic or a Protestant, the people who disagreed with you were destined for eternal hell. Worse still, with their preaching they were encouraging others to head that way too. It was a serious matter. The Inquisition, with all its methods of torture, was trying to save people from worse.
At the end of the Wars of Religion things quietened down. People questioned how many would really end up in eternal torment. They learned to tolerate differences of belief, and attributed toleration to God too.
Hell perked up in the nineteenth century. However, so did atheism. The most common reason for rejecting Christianity was that people felt they could not believe a good God assigning anyone to eternal punishment. Of course such a God, far from being good, would be almost as evil as any being could possibly be. In those days, sadly, it was difficult to reject hell without rejecting Christianity altogether.
Why believe in hell?
In practice I think there are two main reasons for the popularity of the doctrine. One is that when we hate people we want them to be punished. Sometimes we feel so bitter that no amount of punishment seems too much. It is often enough said that some criminal or other should be locked up ‘and they should throw away the key’. For hell to be eternal is a similar idea.
The other reason is professional. In practice, terrifying people with the threat of hell encourages them to attend church services. For this to work, you don’t have to hate people. If you read the email below and watch the video, there is no hatred of anyone in particular. Instead we get general appeals to anyone who will listen. Threats of hell have become standard fare for some versions of Christianity.
Coping with hell
How do people who believe in hell cope with it?
At the height of medieval Christendom hell was only for a few people round the edges of the world. Most people could assume it was nothing to do with them or anyone else they knew. I think many Christians today take a similar view; they accept the existence of hell because that is what they have been taught, but they do not know much about it and they have never thought that anyone they know might end up there.
Some take pleasure in the prospect of criminals or unbelievers being punished in hell. In my experience these people tend to have a black-and-white view of humanity. This fits the belief that hell is something you either don’t get at all or get for eternity. They locate themselves among the people who will not go there – otherwise they would not have gained any pleasure from others going there.
Some allow for the possibility that they may be heading for hell themselves. In that tragic period between the 14th and 17th centuries many people spent their lives in terror of what was to come after death. Few do that today, but I suspect that many more would, if they were more consistent about their beliefs. The author of this video gives no direct indication that he may end up there himself, but the very fact that he invests so much in this preaching makes me wonder whether, deep down inside, he fears that what he says to other people may also apply to him.
There are some emotionless ones who are committed to believing in hell, but have never felt the significance of it. This must say something about their personalities. Perhaps it is more common among career preachers who have learned the skill of earning their bread and butter by threatening damnation while keeping their personal lives completely separate. Is the author of this video one of these? Possibly, though my guess is that he is a very frightened man.
If you honestly believe that you are going to be tortured for eternity, you will be afraid. You will long for any possibility of escape from your fate. Nothing will be remotely as important as this. Every this-worldly concern will be as nothing. If you believe it of other people but not of yourself, you are exaggerating the difference between yourself and others and imposing on them a burden you are not prepared to carry yourself.
I believe the doctrine of eternal hell is the worst theory ever invented by the human mind. No other theory has generated so much terror. No other theory has been so effective in persuading people that earthly conditions – their own and other people’s – are of no consequence. If you believe it, the life you have got now seems pretty worthless and irrelevant: the only thing that really matters about it is whether you can set yourself up for a favourable position after death. It kills off any prospect of valuing this life for its own sake, let alone enjoying it. Those who believe in it usually offset the disastrous implications, either by refusing to pay attention to them or by attributing them only to other people. Both are hypocrisies.
Be confident that it doesn’t exist.
The full text of the email
I was wondering….Are you a good person? I mean are you good enough to go to Heaven? Here is a quick way to see….Have you ever told a serious lie? Have you ever stolen anything ever? Have you ever looked at a woman with lust? Have you ever used God’s name in vain? If you have, then by your own admission that would make you a lying, thieving, blasphemous adulterer at heart and you must face God on judgment day. When you die, and God judges you, will you be innocent or guilty? Will you go to Heaven or to Hell?
Revelation 21v8 says; 'All liars will have their part in the lake of fire'… the bible says; 'No thief, adulterer or blasphemer will enter heaven'. You broke God’s laws and deserve eternal punishment, but Jesus Christ paid your fine! (if) you repent, turn from your sins, and trust alone in Jesus and obey the gospel, God can and will forgive every sin you have ever committed and grant you eternal life… (if) you refuse to turn from sin and follow after His righteousness then you must perish on the day of wrath because God is absolutely Holy and cannot overlook sin… Adam and Eve committed one sin and God banished them away from His presence… Jesus said; 'You must be born-again or you cannot see the kingdom of God'…..