Christianity and Hell
Let's understand our foundation before we reject it.
Tom Holland and Douglas Murray, both Atheist public intellectuals, have acknowledged that the Judeo-Christian tradition forms a great part of the foundation of the Western civilization that they value. Even champion Atheist Richard Dawkins has come to recognize this. These Atheists express concern that as faith fades, the civilization that was formed by faith is at risk. Christianity is on the wane in the West; polls show that belief and observance are steeply declining in the United States.
Not all Atheists agree with Holland, Murray, and Dawkins. Many radical Atheists insist that Christianity's fade is a good thing. They associate Christianity with ignorance, cruelty, irrationality, war, misogyny, bigotry, and presumably bad breath. The Christianity that these Christophobes rage against, though, exists only in their fevered imaginations.
Several of my social media contacts are Christophobes. My Christophobic social media contacts post, every day if not several times a day, attacks on Christianity that bear no relation to the actual faith.
For example, a Christophobe posted an attack on pro-life Catholics. He insisted that these pro-life Catholics are all men whose only goal is to control women. A Facebook friend responded that she is a woman, and that her colleagues in the pro-life movement are women. The Christophobe ignored this refutation of his assertion, as he ignores every refutation of the invariably false Christophobic assertions he makes. He moved on to another charge: pro-lifers don't care about babies once they are born. The pro-life Catholic responded that in spite of her duties as a wife and mother who also works outside the home and takes care of a special needs adult son, she also devotes hours of her time to volunteering to help mothers in crisis. She teaches classes, distributes free items like diapers, and guides mothers to counseling. The Christophobe ignored that statement and moved on to another false accusation against Christianity.
I have had this same experience hundreds of times. A Christophobe makes a false, derogatory statement about Christianity. I refute it, and support my refutation with facts. The Christophobe ignores the refutation and moves on to another false allegation. Christophobes, like all bigots, create and inhabit their own impenetrable silo of lies; they animate their own bigoted caricatures of those they hate; truth rarely reaches them. A gaggle of fellow Christophobes clicking the "like" button is enough of a Frankenstein simulacrum of "truth" to satisfy them.
I used to quiz twenty-something college students on their knowledge of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For example, I would recite the following lines and see if the students could identify their source. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep … And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good." My students would have no idea what I was talking about. These same students revealed that they had previously been brainwashed by Christophobic and anti-Western professors into believing numerous calumnies against their own heritage.
The lines, above, that I quoted to my students, are the opening lines of the King James Bible. Those lines used to be part of the common cultural heritage of the West. I never heard King James in church; I've never owned nor read a King James translation; yet I know this wording by heart. Those lines are in the same part of my brain as "Four score and seven years ago" and "Yesterday, December seventh, 1941." I never tried to memorize any of these; they are just there. I absorbed them through osmosis; they were part of the cultural baggage we all carried, they were the shared, background wallpaper of our lives.
There's a good reason for these lines' previous ubiquity. They inform much of what we take for granted. These lines contain key ideas. There is one God for all creation. Other creation stories feature a god who competes with other gods. This God has no beginning himself; other gods have their own creation stories. A lone God who calls forth all creation out of love is not a feature of other creation stories. God calls creation "good." This assessment of all creation as "good" is unique. God creates ex nihilo, from nothingness. Other gods create from some pre-existing something. The Biblical God's creation ex nihilo is reflected in the Big Bang Theory, developed by Father Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest. God's creation of just one man and one woman, Adam and Eve, as ancestors for all humanity, and made in the image and likeness of God, is reflected in the phrase "All men are created equal." The Talmud understood Adam and Eve as signaling the equality of all persons before God. Fiat Lux, "Let there be light," becomes the motto for schools around the world, and for Western thinkers.
In just the first few chapters of Genesis, one can find powerful influence over and inspiration for Western cosmology, intellectual inquiry and discipline, ethics, law, and human rights. My students knew none of this. Christophobes on social media know none of this. At the same time that education teaches students little to nothing about the cultural heritage that they have inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the West is awash in self-hating, suicidal falsehoods about that tradition.
Christophobes bash Christians for "inventing" Hell. Of course Christians did not "invent" Hell. Various traditions have held that forbidden acts committed in this life lead to negative consequences in a life beyond this one. Hinduism, which, its adherents like to boast, is at least twice as old as Christianity, has devised devious tortures for those who violate the caste system.
Kill a Brahmin, a member of the highest Hindu caste, and be reborn as an insect that consumes excrement. After suffering that fate, be reborn as a blind Untouchable for four times as many years as there are hairs on a cow. A high caste Brahmin, on the other hand, can expiate the guilt for the murder of a Shudra (another caste) by reciting a prayer. But if that Brahmin violates the strictures around his own behavior as a member of the highest caste, he will, in his afterlife, be plunged into boiling oil and bitten by venous snakes. For a thousand years, he will be a vulture; for a hundred years, he will be a dog.
Then there's this presentation, illustrating the Hindu Garuda Purana. It includes images of a man who mistreated animals being stomped by an elephant in Hell, men stewing in a fiery vat in Hell, a man eaten alive by a tiger in Hell, an eagle plucking out the eyes of bound captives in Hell, rats eating the genitals of bound captives in Hell … Maybe I should stop here.
Hinduism arguably has created the most detailed, sadistic images of Hell, and that Hell serves to intimidate believers into unquestioning submission to the caste system, rather than a blind justice that values all human life equally.
One day in the 1980s, I was walking in a remote village in Nepal. A terrestrial leech was on the footpath. Leeches attach themselves to people and suck their blood. As I stomped the leech, it squirted its most recent blood meal. Droplets of the blood landed on the hem of a high caste woman's sari. Onlookers were aghast, and visibly panicked. I was utterly confused. What had I done? Later, villagers explained to me. Contact with a menstruating woman's blood is highly polluting. Menstruating women are advised to sleep outside in a chhaupadi hut; this is an often deadly custom, as these women sometimes freeze to death, choke to death on smoke, or are bitten by venomous snakes. But, I said, the blood was a tiny amount, and it came from a leech. But you don't know, the villagers responded, where that leech sucked its last blood. It could have come from a menstruating woman. "Madame" (their title for this high caste woman) "now risks endless unpleasant rebirths." "Madame" had to pay large sums of money to Brahmin priests to perform pujas to remove the karma from the droplets. There are one hundred million Untouchables in the Indian subcontinent.
Buddhism has produced several Hells, or Narakas, and they are all graphic and horrific. In one, the sinner is naked in the cold and covered in blisters. In another, the body is covered in frozen blood and pus. In another, molten metal is dropped on the sinner. And on and on.
Hell is detailed in the Qur'an. As mentioned in a review of Robert Spencer's Critical Qur'an, "Allah promises sadistic tortures to scoffers. He will burn off their skins and replace those skins with new skins so that they can be burned off again 'so that they may taste the torment.' He will turn white faces black. Kufar in Hell will consume boiling water, pus, and a fruit made of devils' heads. This fruit will boil in their bellies. 'As for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them, boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, By which what is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted, And for them are hooked rods of iron.'" According to Don Richardson, In the Koran there is a threat of hell in every 7.9 verses. This is a much greater frequency than mentions of Hell in the Bible.
Clearly, Christophobes are factually incorrect. Christians didn't invent Hell; Christians don't detail a sadistic Hell in their scripture; Christians, compared to other faiths, are less likely to use Hell to uphold a political system based on power rather than an equitable morality. In Biblical ethics, killing a poor man is as bad as killing a rich one. See, for example, King David's weighty reprimand and punishment for killing Uriah the Hittite, a common soldier.
Atheists' false and misleading statements about Christianity and Hell include the following. Christopher Hitchens: "It's only with gentle Jesus, meek and mild, that the idea of eternal torture for minor transgression is introduced." Sam Harris: "Tell [a Christian] that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever." Richard Dawkins: "I can't think of many people who deserve to go to hell, but people who teach its existence to vulnerable children are prime candidates … Who will say with confidence that sexual abuse is more permanently damaging to children than threatening them with the eternal and unquenchable fires of hell?" And then there's this: "An Inuit asked a missionary, 'If I did not know about God, would I go to hell?' 'No,' said the missionary. 'Then why,' asked the Inuit, 'did you tell me?'"
I was raised to believe in Hell. Was that, as Dawkins alleges, traumatizing? I have heard accounts of Christian children frightened by Hell. I was not one of those children. From my childhood, I retain strong impressions of exactly two passages about Hell from the New Testament.
The first passage that impressed me begins, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores." You can imagine the rest. Both die. Lazarus is in Heaven. The rich man is in Hell. The nameless rich man begs for Lazarus' intercession. Abraham tells the rich man that nothing can be done. As per Biblical tradition, the rich man bargains. Okay, he says, you can't save me; have Lazarus go tell my brothers not to end up as I have. Abraham says that God has sent the brothers the Bible, and they should listen to that. I've got to say, I grew up poor, and I do love it that the poor character gets a name, here, and the greedy rich man remains nameless.
The second passage about Hell that impressed me goes like this, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
To another batch of souls, God says, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."
These two passages did not traumatize me. Rather, they inform me as to the inspiration for so much Christian charity over the millennia. "Religious affiliation really matters," said Dr. David King, a scholar who studies philanthropy. "Someone with a religious affiliation was more than two times more generous than someone without a religious affiliation. And among those with a religious affiliation, religious intensity really matters. Those who attend services were much more likely to give."
And these two passages about Hell do more than that. Yes, I donate, but I'm not rich, and cannot donate a lot. More often than not, I have been a recipient of others' charity. These two passages reassure me and billions of other poor people that we are as important to God as rich men in fine linen. That's a revolutionary concept.
A final anecdote about how being a Christian child did not traumatize me. My mother, a devout Catholic, had Jewish friends. I asked her about their salvation. She reassured me that Jews will go to Heaven, too. I left it at that. No trauma.
That's my experience of Hell. What about other Christians? There are at least three different Christian understandings of what happens when people die. Most Christian churches teach that the damned go to Hell and remain there for eternity. Jehovah's Witnesses reject the very idea of Hell; they say that Hell simply doesn't exist. They cite Biblical passages to support their opinion. The unsaved simply cease to exist at death. A minority of Christians are universalists. They believe that Hell is a temporary place where sins are purged, and that all souls, even after death, can and possibly will join the saved in Heaven.
One might think that universalism is a recent phenomenon. It is not. Some say that in the church's early centuries, most Christians were universalists. They cite early church figures like Origen, Saint Macrina, and her little brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Some count the fourteenth century saint Julian of Norwich as a universalist. In recent years, universalism has apparently increased. Of course there is no way of knowing how many quiet universalists there are. A recent poll suggests that there may be many Christian universalists attending congregations in which universalism would officially be considered be a heresy. In spite of its increasing appeal, universalism remains a heresy to many Christians. In 2019, Christianity Today condemned universalism as "the opiate of theologians."
In recent decades, the public has had access to accounts of near death experiences. People die, or appear to have died, and then are revived, and report an experience of the afterlife. These accounts have had an impact on how some Christians view Heaven and Hell.
In 1985, when he was 38 years old, Howard Storm, a tenured university professor, had a near death experience. In disturbing and vivid prose, Storm describes going to Hell. While in Hell, Storm heard a voice telling him to pray to God. Storm was an Atheist. The voice was persistent, so Storm prayed. Storm believes that Jesus, a deity in which he did not believe, saved him from Hell. Storm left his university position and became a Christian pastor.
Storm is not alone. There are other near death experiencers who believe that Jesus saved them from Hell. Indeed, one researcher has published an article arguing that near death experiences support Christian universalism.
I do not mention near death experiences to convince the reader to adopt any belief system. I mention them to demonstrate that in spite of official condemnation, many Christians, for a variety of reasons, have adopted a universalist worldview. In short, they do not see an eternal Hell as part of their faith. This has been true since Christianity's earliest days.
In 2019, Yale University Press published That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart. Hart is a faculty fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. Hart received his B.A. from the University of Maryland, his M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He was raised Anglican and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. His academic peers have called his work "magnificent." "brilliant," "demanding," and "ruthless." The Guardian called Hart's The Experience of God "The one theology book all atheists really should read."
In addition to its other rich gifts, Hart's book That All Shall Be Saved gives the lie to the Christophobic canard that Christians are intellectually deficient and dishonest. Hart's reasoning is deep, aggressive, uncompromising, and watertight. Again, in recommending this book to anyone curious about how Christians think about Hell, or what the New Testament teaches about Hell, I am not arguing for the reader to adopt any belief. Rather, I am simply stating that Hart is just one of a long line of brilliant thinkers and saints who have taken on the tough questions Christianity presents, including the question of Hell, gone to the mat, and arisen triumphant. Significant numbers of persons are walking away from what had been the West's faith foundation. Their loss of faith will have an impact on the world. Their loss of faith is fueled, in part, by falsehoods: that the Bible is incoherent, and that persons of faith believe stupid and hateful things, and that Christians and Christianity have nothing valuable to say about the human condition.
No one who reads That All Shall Be Saved could conclude that Christianity is a shallow, intellectually deficient, immoral, fantasy-based, or, indeed, a dispensable tradition. I've reviewed works by Atheist thinkers like Michael Shermer that attempt to escape from that observation from Dostoyevsky, often translated as, "If there is no God, anything is permitted." As well-meaning as Shermer is, he can't do what he wants to do. He can't make a godless universe a safe place for the powerless; he can't replace lost meaning. In fact, while struggling through the, for me, intellectually challenging text of That All Shall Be Saved, I could not avoid glimpses of the entire Western ethical and philosophical tradition. What we, for the past 2,000 years, have decided about the nature of reality, about basic questions of right and wrong, even about thought itself, are implied in this short book about the nature of Hell. Hart, in talking about Hell, reveals great psychological truths; what he says has application to law. We are who we are today, we can live the lives that we live, in no small part thanks to the kind of questions and answers in this book.
One can decline to believe in the God of the Bible and yet still recognize one's own ethical and intellectual heritage as it shines forth in Hart's pages. Someone who believes in eternal life will behave differently from someone who believes in extinction at death. Someone who believes in charity for the Lazaruses of this world will behave differently than someone who believes that hedonism is the only good and earthly cruelty offers no eternal consequences. Someone who believes that he or she is made in the image and likeness of God and that no matter how far down one has fallen, ultimate redemption is possible, is possessed of a hope that Atheists can't know. Whether one believes in the Judeo-Christian God or not, one benefits from understanding the impact of that belief on others. Hart's book on Hell is an excellent place to start. As Hart himself argues in his book, the ends of things reflect back on their beginnings, and their ultimate meaning. So it is with the Christian concept of Hell, and our human lives.
Hart opens with a quote from 1 Timothy 2:3-4, in which Paul says that God wants all people to be saved; thus the title of the book. Hart says that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus present the image of what most people think of when they think of Hell, in other words Satan's kingdom where devils torture sinners for all eternity. Rather, Jesus uses a series of metaphors that, if taken literally, would contradict each other. These metaphors suggest much but can't be taken as literal fact. Hart says that he doesn't believe that those who believe in the traditional concept of Hell actually believe what they think they believe. They have just not fully confronted their own beliefs. Hart argues that sinners are limited, and that if they had a sense of what union with a loving God offered them, they would not reject that God. Absolute, eternal culpability "lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being."
Hart acknowledges that he does believe in Hell. Hell, he writes, is "a profound and imprisoning misery that we impose upon ourselves by rejecting the love that alone can set us free." He cannot wave a magic wand and make Auschwitz disappear, he writes. Evil exists and evil entails consequences. Hitler might require "aeons of painful purification in Hell." Aeons yes; eternity, no. "A lesson that requires an eternity to impart is a lesson that can never be learned." The punishments described in the New Testament are meant to purify creatures God loves. The time of the afterlife is not time as we mortals understand it. Hart, who is multilingual and who published a translation of the New Testament, compares English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew terms for time.
Hart asks, "Who Is God?" He takes as a given that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all loving, and he argues that we cannot reconcile that God with the teaching of eternal damnation. Hart argues that the God of Genesis creating the world ex nihilo makes definite statements about the nature of God and about the illogic of eternal damnation. The chapter entitled, "A Reflection on Biblical Eschatology" offers pages of New Testament quotes, in the original and in translation, that support Hart's universalism.
Hart devotes a chapter to the question, "What Is a Person?" Hart sees human beings as not existing in isolation, but requiring community for full selfhood. This affects salvation. "The loss of even one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete, and God's purpose in creation unaccomplished." For this understanding of what constitutes a human person, Hart turns, as does the Talmud, to God's creation of Adam. "God's image" is not just Adam, but a "community that only as a whole can truly reflect the glory of its creator." Every life matters.
Hart asks, "What Is Freedom?" "The freedom of an oak seed is its uninterrupted growth into an oak tree. The freedom of a rational spirit is its consummation in union with God." Short of that, a human is never fully free to choose, including to choose separation from God.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is one of the major foundations of our civilization, including our law, our sense of right and wrong, and our aesthetics. Christophobes give voice through social media, mass media, institutions of higher learning, to a false image of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One piece of that larger false image is an image of Christianity as a hateful, vengeful religion built around control through threats of eternal punishment. Surely, in the past 2,000 years, there have been Hell-focused, power-obsessed Christian individuals and societies. But it's important to know about, and understand, Origen, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, the Bible's actual words, and David Bentley Hart. It's important to understand what these Christians have had to say because their words have formed the world we inhabit. To the reader who has given up on, or never cared for, the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially its teachings on Hell, please read David Bentley Hart.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.