Thursday, January 15, 2015

Grappling With The Concept Of Hell

One of the first real difficulties to present itself to me when I was young Christian was the concept of Hell. In the fundamentalist Christianity I was reared in, this was a literal place brimming with fire and brimstone and which once entered - or perhaps I should say tossed into - was eternal. That is, that one wouldn't die or pass away into nonexistence, but remain conscious and sentient for all eternity.

Not a pretty picture. And very haunting for a child. Besides that, everything my inner voice seemed to tell me rejected such an idea as being part and parcel of the benevolent Creator I believed in.

As a teenager I started seriously studying the various Bible passages that spoke of Hell. It really struck me as odd that the Old Testament did not have a teaching about post mortem torment as I had been taught. A ray of light and hope flickered.

Then I learned from my Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias about a place outside the city of Jerusalem called Gehenna, a place which Jesus often referred to referencing the subject of divine punishment, which served as a garbage dump, fired continuously for incineration.

By around my twentieth year I was gifted by my then wife with a complete set of the writings of the early Church Fathers. I devoured these hungrily.

It wasn't long before I stumbled upon Arnobius, who seemed to teach a form of conditional immortality. In short order I also found other of the fathers who seemed to envision an eventual reconciliation for sinners.

Later still I checked out Augustine's massive City of God from the public library. I began a study of his thinking and was further pleased to find this pillar of orthodoxy admitted: "There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments."

"Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I'm free at last." Well, actually I don't remember saying or think that. But I do definitely remember that I felt fully justified in discarding the common understanding of Hell. And I did, without apology.

Throughout my twenties, as unbelief steadily took hold of me, I discarded the Bible as an authority altogether. Fairly soon my belief in an afterlife was just about completely overthrown, and with that the question of Heaven and Hell as literal places became moot.

Now, these many years later, I am finding my way back to a faith worldview. I am again grappling with and looking more favorable at life after death. (More about these things in future posts.)

I ask myself now if anyone who understands civilization's need to establish a penal system can really object to Hell. Ideally reformation should be the goal sought. I wonder now if, given the existence of God, Hell might seem reasonable after all?

If Hell was the first problem to catch my young attention, the way to avoid it was a close second. I reasoned then that a just God couldn't make "the way" to Heaven much less than crystal clear and then damn those who missed it to an eternity of torture.

In studying that matter as a young Christian I soon took note of the fact that every time the great Judgment Day at the end of time was mentioned, humans were to be judged "according to their works." If so, I reasoned, it wasn't what you know that made the difference but rather how well you lived your life.

Working my way back as a much older man now, I think was on the right track. I suppose that makes me something of a universalist and a religious pluralist.

I tend to believe we humans are hardwired to believe in God and follow a moral code written on our hearts, which to say, our conscience.

Now obviously for some folks something (or some things) go wrong and lead them astray. This "sensus divinitatis" can be drowned out and maybe even obliterated. But the widespread religious worldview seems to suggest this isn't easily done.

I hope the above will serve for those who are interested in knowing as a framework for understanding how I think about the subject.


  1. I could see it myself working in a purgatorial sense, with all coming into the kingdom as it were eventually.

    1. Eternal torment just doesn't make sense, does it? Not if God is thought of as benevolent.

  2. "Now obviously for some folks something (or some things) go wrong and lead them astray. This "sensus divinitatis" can be drowned out and maybe even obliterated. But the widespread religious worldview seems to suggest this isn't easily done."

    Care to tease this out a bit more at some point? What are the "something (or some things)?"

    1. In my own case it was a marriage breakdown, unanswered prayer and then resulting philosophical issues. In Ted Turner's case, as I mentioned in a previous post, a pivotal time came with the death of his sister, which he considered a non-answer to his prayers. In Ryan Bell's case, also the subject of previous post, there was marriage breakdown, unanswered prayers, and philosophical considerations (the problem of evil). Perhaps it's rare that a person's sensus divinitatis is suppressed because of a single factor.

      I also think a horrific childhood can short-circuit that spiritual hard-wiring. I had a good friend and college classmate of mine who lost her faith when her father started sexually abusing her when she was a child. She was very articulate in her belief that no benevolent God could possibly exist in light of that. And I must say, knowing her so well, seeing up close how psychologically damaged she was, and hearing her tell her story to me many, many times, it had an effect on me. In fact, her story was what really got me thinking hard about the problem of pain. It helped me along the road to unbelief.

      There is, however, an interesting postscript to my friend's story. She e-mailed me recently and let me know that she has gotten married and was actually able to work again (for many years she had been too emotionally unstable to hold a job for any length of time). Not only that, she has returned to her belief in God (albeit, not the fundamentalist Christian version of her youth). And I know that sometimes others in similar circumstances never return to belief in God nor find emotional healing (my friend tried to kill herself twice when I knew her). But I can't help but hope healing does exist for even the most broken hearts.

      As for atheists, do you suppose it is really true that most of them simply one day "out grow" their belief in God? Doesn't it usually seem to be the case that a catalyst sparks a move in that direction? I know I have been trying to study atheist conversion stories in an effort to understand better, and I'm repeatedly finding catalysts. I don't find believable at all what I have heard suggested, that babies are born atheists. Maybe agnostics, maybe non-theists ... but atheists? Really?

      Okay, I'm no expert. My mind is open. I'm trying to understand. But this represents my current thinking on this matter.

    2. Quickly, this is what comes to me as I think about some of your questions.

      I think maybe we have to ask ourselves, "What is a baby?" :)

      If a baby's soul derives from a heaven of sorts, one where say a God &/or a Creator exists, then I suppose that baby can be anything we want it to be.

      Are we wired from birth for belief? Could very well be. It certainly fits. Is everyone wired from birth for belief? I doubt it. If the majority of us our wired from birth for belief, what of those who have no catalyst? What of their wiring?

      Thanks for sharing Doug.

    3. No catalyst? Is that possible? Surely forces drive us along in life, pushing us in this direction or that.

      I'm just curious as to why you doubt that we all have religious hardwiring.

      I actually borrowed that particular term from certain naturalistic philosophers and psychiatrists who feel evolution provides the explanation for religion as something that has survival value for humans. That hypothesis has been offered because religion has always been widespread.

      I borrowed John Calvin's phrase "sensus divinitatis," although in no way do I do so implying predestination. I've written posts referring to that intuition as the human religious impulse. And I suspect it is something we humans naturally possess. Thus I have no problem thinking of this in evolutionary terms ... just bear in mind that I have come to think of evolution as being guided by a superior mind.

      There is a quote I find meaningful taken from the 18th century Quaker clergyman John Woolman:

      "There is a principle that is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages has had different names. It is, however, pure, and it proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no form of religion, nor excluded from anywhere the heart stands in perfect sincerity."

      So again, I'm not suggesting this religious sense or intuition is something akin to being "chosen" or elected by God, a la Calvinism.

      No, but the human mind, so geared for understanding things because - as happens to be the case - things are understandable, of course is naturally inclined to think the cosmos and our place in it should hardly be the stuff of mere coincidence - until they are persuaded against that normal inclination.

      I hope this explains my thinking a little better. Thanks for helping me think my way through all this.

    4. You are saying yes, because it derives from a "superior mind." I understand that is the case.

      If so then it derives the "superior mind" gives it to all.

      I'm saying, what of those who don't have it?

      You are saying, there is a catalyst, something that happens along the way that takes it away.

      I'm saying, I doubt the catalyst explanation. It's too general. Catalyst for some? For all?

      If there are those who do not possess the religious impulse that the "superior mind" gave them, has there been a mutation along the way that they are born with?

      I think you are saying they are born with it, thus if it doesn't show then it is because something screwed it up, a catalyst.

      Any chance the "superior mind" screwed it up?

      Or perhaps they possess mutations that got screwed up in their natal development? Something far beyond their control.

    5. My friend, I don't want to try your patience. I just don't think you understand me. Maybe I'm not good at explaining myself.

      Influences and events shape our outlook. On this I think we can agree.

      I do believe the normal human psyche is predisposed to believe in the supernatural and immortality. Explain it as the way we evolved (as many do) and that won't bother me at all.

      But I don't believe that means that everyone must express it by adherence to one of the many traditional religious outlooks.

      Even the most hidebound atheist surely cannot ignore the feeling of awe that comes from thinking about the big picture. Einstein - who was no friend of religious theism - called it "a cosmic religious feeling." (I don't think he went quite far enough but I believe he was closer to the truth than the likes of Richard Dawkins.)

      The late Secular Humanist Paul Kurtz called it the "transcendental temptation." Today's skeptical movement spends the majority of its time combating what it calls "woo woo", that is, widespread "New Age" beliefs. And what is this "woo" but the human inclination to see more than just atoms and coincidence at work?

      This is just my personal opinion but I think that what really needs to be explained is hard atheism. That is, the theory that we are biological robots and meat machines - but yet, being that, we are sure this represents reality.

      I'm not trying to be rude or disrespectful to you in any way whatsoever, just explaining how I feel and think. And if you disagree, you are still my cherished friend and welcome to push back at me as much as you like.

    6. I understand Doug. :)

      I love the conversation and the thinking and the explanation. Appreciate your willingness to chat.

  3. Hi Doug, I agree with you that everlasting punishment doesn't make sense - it isn't what the Bible teaches (in the Greek, "eternal" doesn't = "everlasting, but "in the age to come") nor does it seem fair. I am a reasonably orthodox christian but I haven't believed in everlasting punishment for 30 years - since a book by Professor of NT Greek explained the meaning of eternal.

    Psychology researcher Justin Barrett says studies show that everyone is born with an ability to believe in God, which arises from evolution because we are prone to see agency in the natural world even if there isn't any (e.g. hear a rustle in the bushes or a sound in our house and night and infer an animal or a person). So children tend to see agency in the universe, extrapolate from their loving parents to a loving God, and also they tend to believe in life after death (I forget why now). So if they have any input about God, they are likely to believe it. That's not the same as a sensus divinatus, but it isn't far off.

    Of course some psychologists disagree, but I think his may be the majority view at present.

    As a christian, I would express all this more in terms of an innate openness to the idea of God which the Holy Spirit may use to awaken faith.

    1. Hi unkleE, as always I highly value your comments.

      When I was a young man I once heard an old preacher - a fundamentalist, no less! - bring a sermon on the subject of "The benefits of being a Christian." How much better an approach, I thought to myself afterward, than the usual fire-and-brimstone, turn-or-burn approach popularized by well-known evangelists.

      As for "innate openness," I agree with the evolutionary explanation of that. I personally feel it is a bit more than openness, though. I may be wrong of course, but I think of it as a natural sense we humans possess that would naturally lead to God if not interfered with. I wouldn't quibble about it, but I tend to agree with what Jewish religious thinker Will Herberg said: “Man is homo religiosus, by ‘nature’ religious: as much as he needs food to eat or air to breathe, he needs a faith for living.”

    2. I think that more positive approach to evangelism is coming back - e.g. in the writings of NT Wright. I certainly favour it. My line these days would be - "Come and join Jesus in God's plan to put the world to right."

      I wouldn't argue with you about our religious nature. I think the different views are nuances on the same theme.