The majority of Christians believe that God sends good people to heaven and bad people to hell for eternity. Various interpretations exist as to what constitutes hell-worthy behavior, how long an individual stays in hell, whether hell is a distinct place apart from the earth or the earth itself undergoing destruction as described in The Book of Revelation.
The Origins of Hell
Prior to the Exile, the Hebrews had no concept of Hell. There was a concept of Sheol, which is translated variously in the Hebrew Scriptures as "hell," "grave," and "pit." It is clear from each context that it is not a place of eternal torment. Jacob would hardly say "No, ...in mourning will I go down to [an endless hell] to my son." Nor is it probable that Job would pray to God to "hide him in a place of endless torment," in order to be delivered from his troubles. The only clear thing about Sheol is that this was a well-known concept amongst the ancient Israelites. It was not until the Pharisees (c. 100 BCE) that the notion of a spiritual life after death developed in any meaningful way in Jewish thought. The Pharisees, who were the forerunners of the rabbis, taught that when the Torah spoke of reward for following God's ways, the reward would be forthcoming in an afterlife, Olam Ha-Ba (world to come), as they called it.
Differing Views of Hell
A Place of Eternal Torment
The traditional view of Hell is a place of infinite suffering and misery. This view is support by Bible verses such as these:
- Luke 16:24 : "And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame."
- Matthew 13:42 : "And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."
- Matthew 25:41 : "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:"
- Revelation 20:15 : "And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."
A literal origin
Gehenna (alternatively Gehinnom, or the Valley of Hinnom) described in various locations in the vicinity of Jerusalem is commonly translated as "Hell" (rightly or wrongly) within the context of the new testament (alternatively Tartarus, Hades and Sheol were used interchangeably when referring to synonymous post-death states). The valley (or ravine) has a long history as a site of burning apostates, corpses and as a valley of the damned giving a a literal and metaphorical relevance to those that would later hear Jesus speak of Gehenna in his sermons. Human sacrifice to the Ammonite God Moloch is recorded until 6BC.
- Joshua 15:8 "the ravine of the son of Hinnom"
- Nehemiah 11:30 "And they dwelt from Beersheba unto the valley of Hinnom"
- Chronicles 28:3 "Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel."
- Matthew 5:22 "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell (Gehenna) fire."
The accurate use of the word "Hell" as a translation of Gehenna is open to interpretation. The subjects about which Jesus speaks, when referring to Gehenna, have no less significance when referring to that literal valley of the damned (as opposed to the eternal concept of punishment and torture interpreted after the fact). There is no suggestion that Gehenna need to be translated to "Hell" any more than any other proper noun for a place or region. Similarly there is no reason to believe that Hell as a concept even occurred to the Jewish prophet or his followers:
- "The meaning of Gehenna must be established from facts furnished by the Scripture, not by falsehoods foisted by human tradition. To the reader of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, Gehenna can only mean a verdict which, besides condemning a man to death, also ordains that, after death, his body should be cast into the loathsome valley of Hinnom. This being the sense of Gehenna in the Hebrew Scriptures, we may be sure that this is the sense in which Christ used it." - James Coram, The Gehenna of Fire
Nor did Hell hold any particular reference to fire and brimstone:
- "Webster's Unabridged Dictionary says:
- Hell [ME, fr. OE; akin to OE helan to conceal, OHG hella, hell, to conceal, ON hel] heathen realm of the dead, Goth halja hell, L celare to hide, conceal, Gk kalyptein to cover, conceal, Skt sarana screening, protecting, basic meaning: concealing. (Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, editor Philip Babcock Gove, Ph.D. [Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1993], p. 1051.)
- "Webster agrees that the Old English origin of the word means “cover.” This word had nothing to do with a place of punishment or eternal torment. Those connotations came much later, just in time, we might say, to be corrupted by Roman Catholicism into its present form. To translate “Gehenna” (which didn't contain any meaning of eternal torment or punishment), with the word “hell” (which also didn't contain any meaning of eternal torment or punishment) isn't a translation at all, but a substitution of a man-made doctrine into a word convenient to be corrupted." - Samuel G. Dawson, Jesus' Teaching on Hell
The explanation for rendering Gehenna as Hell is weakened further still when considering the changing meaning of hell, both etymologically and in Catholic liturgy.
- "Hell: No such word was in their vocabulary, and they knew of no such place. No word with the meaning that the English word Hell has now was used, or known about unto long after the Bible. It is not in Greek literature in New Testaments times or before, first century writers did not use it, Josephus, or any other historian of that time did not use it, it is not in the Septuagint. A place where God will torment the lost forever after the Judgment Day was not known about. the concept of the place called hell, or the name hell is not in the bible, and does not occur in any writing of either the Hebrews or the Greeks until long after the Bible. The Old Testament Hebrew, or the New Testament Greek, has no word that is even close to today's English word "hell." How do we know about this place called hell? Where did hell come from? It is not in the Bible. Neither is the name "hell" in the Bible. Where did it come from? Not by faith that comes by hearing God's word. It is from the doctrines and precepts of men [Matthew 15:9]. It was not used in the first century because it was a word that was not in their vocabulary, and a place they know nothing about." - William Robert West, If the Soul or Spirit Is Immortal, There Can Be No Resurrection from the Dead, Third Edition
Separation From God
C.S. Lewis favored a softer view of hell in The Great Divorce. Lewis's hell is portrayed as an endless, desolate twilight city upon which night is imperceptibly sinking. The night is actually the Apocalypse, and it heralds the arrival of the demons after their judgement. Before the night comes, anyone can escape hell if they leave behind their former selves and accept heaven's offer, and a journey to heaven reveals that hell is infinitely small; it is nothing more or less than what happens to a soul that turns away from God and into itself.
It is odd to a secular way of thinking that any finite crime would warrant infinite punishment. Any human who proposed to torture other people eternally would be considered cruel and monstrous.
Some theists claim that there are no finite crimes relative to God; everything humanity does is infinitely worse than what God would do, so every crime is worthy of infinite punishment. But this means that morality is based on a relative standard rather than absolute scale, and it would mean that even supposedly "good" acts which humans perform (such as praying) would also be infinitely evil.
Yet atheists are not limited to arguing against forms of punishment that must necessarily go on forever. Even finite punishments are unjust because, according to its own doctrine, the theist's God is, himself, originally responsible for establishing sin and defining transgression to his likes or dislikes. Following the illogical view that God must punish human beings out to its natural conclusion, the atheist comes to recognize some formidable problems:
- God was unable to create or develop other systems of punishment/reward that were less harmful to human life and the high value he himself attached to it.
- God was bound to a higher standard of morality if he was unable to forgive sin without the blood sacrifice of animals or other divine beings.
- God cannot be omnipotent and "wish that none would perish" while declaring that some will perish.
- God is a liar if he wishes all to be saved yet devises an intricate sorting system that is the cause of those who will perish.
- God cannot be Omnibenevolent if he creates people when as an Omniscient being he foreknows that they will end up in Hell.
- Hell (Atheism Wiki Article)