I’ve mentioned before that it’s not on account of one single reason that I left my faith behind. However, if there were a doctrine of Christianity that could claim full responsibility, it’s Hell. How could it not be?
In short, humanity is unable to live up to the stringent standard of its creator – due to factors outside of their control, a thought for another time – and therefore those who do not make the leap onto the lifeboat of salvation are left to drown.
Such analogies, and this is only one among a plethora usually offered, seem to make it an obvious choice. After all, why would you not jump on the lifeboat? Well, it’s not clearly visible, for one. Or you may have spotted the holes in the side that are leading to its inevitable deflation. Perhaps you’re unnerved by the bread knife that the menacing captain is trying to conceal. The choice to jump is not quite so straight-forward after all.
And the consequences for not making this jump? Eternal damnation.
Hell isn’t a topic that you hear much about from the pulpit. It’s not hard to see why. In addition to the colossal moral questions it raises, it’s difficult to leave it in the abstract. People start to realise that the victims of this imposed afterlife aren’t just out there, but they’re close by; their neighbour, a friend, a loved one. Possibly even the person themselves if they’re not certain about their own salvation.
To call Hell a ‘hard teaching’ is like declaring genocide ‘impolite’. Anything short of ‘abhorrent’ fails to scratch the surface.
When it is brought up its most commonly as a gloss to spur on evangelism: yes, most of the population is headed somewhere unpleasant, but you could perhaps redirect a few. They don’t like to dwell too much on the actual destination, though. At the beginning of any sermon on the topic, you’re most likely to hear the preacher give a slight pause, a subtle sigh, and then admit that Hell is a hard teaching. To call Hell a ‘hard teaching’ is like declaring genocide ‘impolite’. Anything short of ‘abhorrent’ fails to scratch the surface.
The typical evangelical understanding of Hell is that of Eternal Conscious Torment. That is, torture that never ends. Not just a really long time, but literally, never ending. You could be in a state of agony for tens of thousands of years and still have just as many days left with brimstone for breakfast. No hope. No way out.
There has been a tendency to attempt softening Hell; shaving the edges off a little so it’s not all that bad. Stay away from the torture and brimstone language. Instead, think of Hell as simply, ‘separation from God’. God is after all the source of all goodness, and so if you reject him, you’re rejecting the presence of all that is nice and lovely.
Sadly, the Bible doesn’t allow that. Let’s dive in. We find out in Revelation 14.9-11 that:
If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand… they will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.
So, while Hell’s inhabitants are tormented day and night without rest or end, it seems that Jesus - i.e. ‘the Lamb’ for anyone unfamiliar with his apocalyptic designation - and his friends will be looking on.
In fact, not only is this done in God’s presence, which could in theory allow the Almighty to be looking on in dismay, a single teardrop running down his cheek; he rather appears to be the active agent of this torment. Take for example Matthew 10.28 which warns that we should ‘fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’
The idea that people ‘send themselves to hell’ appears both nonsensical, and even unbiblical. God is the judge, jury, and executioner.
Admittedly, we do find a reference in 2 Thessalonians to the eternal destruction that non-believers will experience ‘away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might’ (1.9). But not to worry, before this takes place, our loving lord will still be able to enact his killing spree, as the previous verse looks ahead to the time when ‘the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who did not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.’ (1.7-8).
You’d have thought they’d be pleased to get away from his presence after that.
This is in essence a further example of how when you attempt to look at what the Bible has to say on a topic, you’re unlikely to find a coherent answer. It’s pretty clear that it’s not a pleasant one at least. At best, God throws the unfortunate soul into his handmade torture chamber, but then takes a more hands-off approach from behind his two-way mirror.
A more considerable attempt at softening Hell has been to remove it entirely. Among evangelicals, this has been most famously proposed by Rob Bell is his book Love Wins. While a compelling read and a noble effort, it ultimately falls short on the simple grounds that the Bible doesn’t seem to allow it. It’s certainly a more pleasant idea, but God’s not going to go for it. This theory of Universalism is generally laughed off among the wider evangelical community, though some may claim to be ‘hopeful’ Universalists: it’s probably not the case, but it would be nice, right?
A middle ground is then found in Annihilationism. Despite the unpleasant name, it is in fact a more palatable alternative to Eternal Conscious Torment, as non-believers are simply annihilated at the grand judgement. There may be some repayment for their sins, but this will be swiftly followed by a permanent walk through the fire exit into oblivion.
Those who adhere to Annihilationism will claim biblical support, often by viewing the ‘everlasting fires’ as a picture of the eternal consequence of the judgement (i.e. you’re not coming back!) rather than the torture itself. It is also pointed out that the term ‘Gehenna’ used by Jesus to speak of Hell, refers to an infamous rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem in which things are simply destroyed and not tortured. Still others would take a more metaphysical approach and argue that if God is the source and sustainer of life, removal from his presence would result simply in non-existence. Annihilationism is finding increasing support, but it’s still far from an ideal theory, and for now remains a minority view.
Many will not even address the issue directly, but will defer it, claiming that as God is loving and knows best, the right decision will be made. Even the most staunch evangelical at the funeral of a non-believing friend is likely to offer the platitude that they’re in a ‘better place’.
When the issue becomes a bit too real, the actual teaching of the Bible and its loving author is all but ignored. Cognitive dissonance is at large once again.
Of course, Hell is not unique to Christianity. Its precursor in ancient Judaism was a place called Sheol. This was in essence a shadowy half-existence, and most people ended up there, good or bad. The best outcome was not a matter of aiming for the good place after death as much as postponing the inevitable for as long as you could. Islam is far bolder. It’s near impossible to find a page of the Qur’an which does not refer to the painful punishment inflicted on unbelievers in the fires of Hell. Hell even appears in the more peaceful Buddhist beliefs, though as a natural consequence of karmically unfruitful acts, it’s not a permanent fate, and the hope of rebirth in a higher realm is always offered.
Hell is present in most major religions, but that does not make the unique claims of Christianity any less objectionable.
Why have I written all of this? Surely the fact that Hell isn’t that great should go without saying? You’d have thought so. And yet for the average Christian, its fiery reality is largely avoided. Admittedly there are some who not only acknowledge it but actually seem to relish the idea, claiming that the doctrine of Hell ‘will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God.’ (Denny Burk, Four Views on Hell, p.20) but I feel as though some people are beyond reason.
It’s difficult to enjoy your ice cream sundae when you’re forced to eat around a large, steaming turd.
In practice, most Christians seem to enjoy the more noble elements of their faith while all but denying its least pleasant teachings. Yes, Hell is not written on every page of the Bible, but even a single cameo makes its reality undeniable, and when you approach it face to face, you cannot walk away unscarred. It’s difficult to enjoy your ice cream sundae when you’re forced to eat around a large, steaming turd.
On my journey, a decisive factor that led me to abandon the crumbling building of Christianity was the realization that although I could enjoy a pleasant rooftop garden, the screams from the basement were all too resonant.