My father died last year and it has raised a lot of questions for me. You know what I mean. The big ones. Heaven. Hell. Consciousness. Eternity. The nature of being. And to be honest, the thing I've struggled with the most is the concept of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment. To even think that the life force of universal love would slow roast the vast majority of the human population is abhorrent to me. It also seems completely incongruous with what I know of Jesus. Clearly, this is no small matter.
How am I supposed to reconcile the one who taught us to love our enemies with a maniacal caricature who wants to torture his? Actually, I can't even imagine Jesus having any enemies. Why would a God who encourages us to forgive others not be forgiving himself? And if God is love and love keeps no record of wrongs, why would I believe in an easily offended Santa Claus deity who is making a list and checking it twice? It just doesn't add up.
Personally, I've only ever experienced the divine as all inclusive love, but the long term impact of performance based religion that portrays God as both loving and just – with justice always being depicted as retributive rather than restorative – always left me with the uneasy feeling that maybe I wasn't good enough. That despite jumping through the correct hoops I might still be judged as unworthy. And it's a downward spiral from there. The more I reflected on the impact of this mixed message, both on myself and others, the more obvious it became that stress, fear, anxiety, panic and depression are the natural fruit of a good news/bad news gospel.
Who's your daddy?
Psychologists know that cognitive dissonance – the mental stress experienced when trying to simultaneously hold two conflicting sets of beliefs or values – can have a considerable negative effect on emotional well being. And the greater the degree of dissonance, the greater the stress. So believing in a dissociative God who is simultaneously a loving father and an angry disciplinarian can be a traumatic thing. Never really knowing which one you're going to get at any given moment can be like waiting for the time bomb to go off in an abusive relationship, leaving you in a constant state of fight or flight. And torturing your own kids? That's called domestic violence and is a very poor image of the true nature of God. If I met anyone in those circumstances I'd tell them to run for their lives.
But the trap has been set and like so many sufferers of domestic violence we continue to return to the false image of a violent deity. In Notes from (Over) the Edge: Unmasking the Truth to End Your Suffering, Jim Palmer asks whether institutionalised Christianity has become a form of Stockholm Syndrome – a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, even to the point of defending and identifying with them. Palmer says that “... in essence, you have an agent, God, who has set up a hostage situation (denial of blessing, and impending doom) and the conditions by which one can escape (upholding certain beliefs, obeying God, following the prescribed religious program).” He argues that people end up praising this false image of God and thanking him for providing a way out of the trap that he has set for them.
So what are the longer term effects of perceiving God as angry? While spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation provide a number of well documented physical and mental health benefits, what you meditate on is paramount. In his book, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist, Dr Andrew Newberg shows that contemplating God as loving rather than punitive reduces anxiety and depression and increases feelings of security, compassion and love. His research, based on MRI brain scan studies, however, demonstrates that the angry rhetoric and fearful proclamations of fundamentalism result in the release of stress-evoking neurochemicals that cause permanent damage to the brain and heart. Simply put, if you believe in an angry God who punishes people in hell and you regularly espouse that point of view, you are damaging the health of yourself and others.
Searching for the biblical hell
Since entertaining the notion of eternal punishment is bad for our health, why is hell so pervasive both in theology and popular culture?
Interestingly, there are four different words in the original texts that appear as the word “hell” in English translations of the Bible, and not one of them actually means a place of eternal punishment. The Hebrew word, Sheol, used in the Old Testament literally means the grave, as does the New Testament Greek word, Hades. Both of these words apply equally to all people who have died with no reference to any kind of judgment involving either reward or punishment. They simply refer to the state of being dead. Tartarus, a word taken from Greek mythology is used only once by the apostle Peter as a figure of speech to describe an apocryphal story involving rebelling angels.
That leaves us with Gehenna, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for the Valley of Hinnom, an actual geographical location outside the old city walls of Jerusalem. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that in Jesus' day Gehenna was either a sewer or a rubbish dump. It was also a place where the bodies of criminals or the poor found their final resting place, which makes Jesus' description of it as a place where worms never die, where fires never go out and where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, very apt.
Silence between the lines
But even if any of these words did mean hell as we understand it, shouldn't we expect this to be a major theme in the New Testament? Wouldn't the authors want to warn their readers of the perils of eternal damnation? Yet this is not the case. Paul, the great apostle to the gentiles who wrote more than half of the New Testament epistles, doesn't mention hell once. Neither does John, considered by many to be Jesus' closest earthly companion, in his gospel, three epistles or, surprisingly, the book of Revelation.
In fact Gehenna is only mentioned 13 times in the Bible; once by James in warning against the use of fiery speech and the other 12 times by Jesus. And because the various gospel accounts double up on certain stories, it is actually only on five different occasions that Jesus is recorded as having mentioned hell. Compare that to the more than 2000 times the poor are mentioned in the Bible and consider where God's priorities might lie.
So we really only have less than half a dozen occurrences where Jesus mentions “hell” and each time it is the word for the rubbish dump outside the city walls. Moreover, if the modern view of hell was correct it would be reasonable to expect Jesus to be warning the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners about hell. But in actuality, it is only the self-righteous religious leaders to whom Jesus speaks of hell; the very group who think the “others” should be sent there. And on each occasion the word Gehenna is used, suggesting that our lives in the here and now can end up on the proverbial rubbish dump if we choose to continue with distorted mindsets and associated behaviour patterns.
Furthermore, in all of the 19 sermons or sermon portions that are recorded as having been preached by the early church in the book of Acts, not once is Gehenna mentioned, or any other word for hell for that matter. In fact, apart from the rare exception, the church didn't espouse a doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment at all for the first five centuries. It was only after church melded with state in the Roman Empire that hell became a generally accepted doctrine of fear used as a means of controlling the masses.
The art of letting go
Given the overwhelming biblical and historical evidence regarding the true nature of hell and the psychological and neurological evidence for its negative health effects, why do we cling to this redundant belief? Perhaps it's because mindsets are notoriously hard to change. We humans have a tendency to search out those things that confirm our preexisting beliefs while ignoring those that challenge them. It's what psychologists refer to as confirmation bias. We all experience it and I was no exception. But thankfully, over time, love won the day.
So hell is now off the menu for me. The original biblical texts don't mention it, Jesus condemned nobody to it, the apostles in the early church didn't preach it and for 500 years nobody believed it. Frankly, it is middle ages, flat earth theology that has no place in genuine faith communities. And given that it causes untold physical, mental, emotional and psychological damage, the sooner we are rid of it the better.
So take a deep breath, let out a long sigh of relief, and know this one thing for sure. YOU ARE LOVED! Completely. Utterly. Irrevocably. Unconditionally. And if you are willing to let go of the things you think you know in order to embrace the joyful mystery of unknowing, you will discover that the good news is a whole lot better than you might have ever imagined.
Mark has a background in psychology and applied neuroscience. He is currently exploring the high country of grace and finding many delightful places of rest for the soul. Mark enjoys surfing, bush walking, making music, good food and laughter in the company of friends. He resides on Queensland's Sunshine Coast and has two grown children.
See all previous articles by Mark Darling